On the Mutual Exclusivity of My Favourite Comics Characters and Mass-Production (So to Speak)

I’ve just finished a re-read of Lucifer, the Mike Carey Sandman spin-off that was first recommended to me over a decade ago, that I picked up for a brief handful of single issues in its initial run on that recommendation, and then gathered in the earliest days of my lengthiest occupational foray, as purveyor of written entertainment (much though my instincts let me pretend I was moreso that of the auditory and visual).

As I read, as I saw the distant protagonist of the book–distant in the sense that in many issues he appeared as a background character, if even that–I realized that he shares a peculiar commonality with two of my favourite characters in a universe that doesn’t quite share the lofty critical heights of the Vertigo imprint from which Lucifer was derived (and, in that eponymous form, fully published). There’s a detachment, a brutal pragmatism in Carey’s Lucifer that is not meaningfully distinct, in and of itself, from the same qualities in both Starlin’s Thanos and his interpretation of Adam Warlock. There is a cold disinterest in the fates of others that reflects an arrogance and pride that is supreme in all of these characters, a pride and arrogance that also shares the quality of justification. They are as above those they care nothing for as they believe themselves to be.

This isn’t an admirable quality, per se, nor an enviable one. One hopes none want to be above nearly all else, by plan and scheme even when out-powered, at least. It’s not described with explanations of analogous ants, at least not as the personal justification, it’s just how they operate, above and outside the normal realms. There’s something fascinating about this: beings who treat others as playthings, less maliciously than simply as a matter of course.

Mind you, they have their unusual moments:

Thanos is first driven by an adolescent love, and tends toward raging dismissal, in those days, of those whom he sees as displaying errant disregard for him (none moreso than the mouthpieces of Death herself, who relay her responses to him and haven’t even the time to regret where their service leads). He holds a deeply denied affection for his adopted daughter, Gamora, but broken and splintered by the prism of his view of reality; he doesn’t think of her as a daughter so explicitly, nor as detachedly as a legal ward, but some mix of the two, tempered by a refusal to let others–other than, for a time, Mistress Death, of course–have a say in the course of his destiny. He’s also known to relish, on occasion, the simple-mindedness of those he manipulates, setting him, on occasion, to something pettier than his otherwise justified disdain for others might allow

Adam Warlock is tortured by a history of extremes and confusion: the utterly remorseless and unfortunate child-like Him, the almost-past-analogy-to-literal saviour of Counter-Earth, and the cold logic of his Supreme self, which notoriously includes his expulsion of “all good and evil”. He gathers fellows around himself, sometimes out of a Machiavellian interest in being owed favours…and sometimes because there’s something in him that still wants companionship, as most beings do.  He is driven by a need to right things, a moral compass that was his totality on Counter-Earth–but he often finds his will faltering when faced, yet again, with the need to act as the one being the rest of the universe can’t manage to be in the face of a threat which said being is necessary to thwart.

Lucifer is no exception either. While he might kill seven thousand to serve his purposes without even the slightest shudder, he acts on behalf of a select few with something like a shrugging whimsy–a moment of defiance and refusal to acquiesce even to his defiant, willful, self-interested nature itself. That willful defiance is even more central to him, though, as he will forego even segments of self-interest if it involves anything like capitulation to the will of another.

All of this adds up, as I say, to fascinating characters, but what it doesn’t leave is characters that can be readily dropped in, casually, to the stories of others, and, more generally, into the reams of mass-produced media like network television or big-budget movies–despite all efforts to do so anyway. This is what causes that eternal frustration: these are fascinating characters, unique even as they share that concrete and unyielding core of aloof and accurate movement through a universe composed primarily of entities beneath, if not their notice, then at least their deep concern.

To make Thanos a villain, or Lucifer a regular protagonist, they have to be stripped of the quality that defines those characters, as adaptations of both–or usages outside their most prominent creators or stories–makes plain. For all their villainy, it doesn’t boil with the heated malevolence of a Sandalphon or Basanos, of a Magus, or a Man-Beast. They aren’t motivated by an antipathy toward their opposers–they have no patience, time, or respect for the principles of Gabriel or the Silver Surfer, but nor do they lay out plans to explicitly dominate or crush that opposition, except as reaction to attempts to thwart their own designs.

A Thanos or Lucifer set out to cause evil for its own sake is not a Thanos or a Lucifer. Pausing to maliciously, if “playfully”, respond to a traffic stop is beneath Lucifer, as much as relying on Ronan to assist in acquisition of an Infinity “Stone” is anathema to Thanos¹. This isn’t who those characters are: Thanos would destroy the universe (or kill half of it) to make a show of his love for Death, to attempt to openly display that affection, and would do so on his own for these self-same reasons. Lucifer is too above humanity to slum about in “curiosity” over them, is essentially incapable of taking an interest in their day-to-day doings–he’s hardly got time to deal with his brothers, the Lilim, or any other significantly more powerful beings. Humans are utterly beneath even his contempt–in the sense that he is that realization of the true opposite of love: apathy.

These aren’t characters that one necessarily sympathizes with–beyond, perhaps, those fleeting moments of understandable affection or feeling–so there is no use for them to the public at large, certainly not, most especially, in the place of “protagonist” on a television show, nor does a role as villain–however spread between films–allow for any particular character to shine through. In both, their rougher and more complicated edges are sanded down until there’s nothing left but a husk: the executive producer of the “Lucifer” television show is quoted thusly:

“We take our cues from the comic book character, the one that Neil Gaiman created and Mike Cary [sic] developed, which is the devil is the son of god. He’s not evil, he’s just a rebellious son who decided that he wanted what his dad had and doesn’t understand why he didn’t get it,” said Henderson. “He’s mischievous, he’s playful, he’s honest, and he embraces his desires… Lucifer is all about exploring humanity and exploring desires. When he talks to people in Los Angeles there’s no pretense. He just wants to do whatever he sees in front of him.”

This is a fundamental misapprehension of the character. There are a few accurate statements: he’s not evil (depending on how one defines that), he’s a rebellious son, and he’s honest. He is not “mischievous”, “playful”, “all about exploring humanity and exploring desires”, and does not want “what his dad had”, “[not] understand why he didn’t get it”, nor want “to do whatever he sees in front of him”.

But that’s it, isn’t it?

The Gaiman/Carey Lucifer is a character fascinating for character study, not for popcorn, mind-off entertainment. He has to be stripped of planning, intelligence, power, and character to be something that fits into that paradigm. There can, by necessity, be nothing left of that Lucifer when turned to episodic, network television. And so: there isn’t.

By the same token, a being like Thanos that acts on a scale so far outside the Avengers–to say nothing of the already reduced scale of the MCU’s Avengers and Guardians–as to make them utterly irrelevant is, inherently, a poor choice as a villain for those characters, despite the asinine writings of folks like Brian Michael Bendis, who simply did the same thing as the movies, but in a comic book context–stripping the character of everything that makes him who he is so that he could be slotted in to a comic in which he doesn’t belong.

These are the inevitabilities of attempting to shoehorn complicated, other-worldly characters into a context in which they simply do not belong.

This is why it’s angering. Because, by necessity, these usages require the stripping of character from characters. And if you strip the essence from the form, it’s a lifeless husk, masquerading as something far more than it truly is, and blurring the definition of that greater thing to a larger audience. These characters are interesting because of how they operate–not simply because they are “super powerful” or “the devil”. Removing the former to leave only the latter is not just a disservice to those of us who like the characters and their stories, not just an insult to the work of those who wrote those stories (in the sense that it suggests that the only thing of value in their characters is “powerful purple guy” and “the devil”, dismissing all of the blood, sweat, and tears in developing them beyond those things), not just an insult to the audience (suggesting the only thing that they can manage to process of those original incarnations is “powerful purple guy” or “the devil”), but it manages to damage the previous works in its way.

While I thought once thought it only hypothetical, I’ve witnessed those who decided they may or may not read Lucifer depending on their opinion of the show. Already, the show is, for that person–who no doubt represents more, even if not in truly significant numbers–a lens that re-frames a work that it has nothing to do with, simply by dint of association. It says that this Lucifer is in some way like the one on the show–thus creating false expectations about what is to come from it, inserting itself between a possible reader and the work by positioning itself as a meaningful alternate truth for the concept. It creates a conflict, however periodic, by pointlessly setting the two “versions” against each other by pretense of their alleged singular origin. To deny this is to foolishly deny the decades of branding and advertising that so successfully managed to hold our interest in all these years. This is how the human mind operates: we’re told these two things are related and, in general, we take this as a statement of truth, unless evidence we’ve been exposed to exists to the contrary.

I’ve come to the conclusion recently that I would indeed simply rather they not bother adapting. I would like to see these characters come to life, but I won’t settle for these dead-eyed shells, skins and costumes painted over re-written, tired banalities. If no one wants to adapt the characters, then: don’t. Don’t try to trade on the majesty of a better work with a finger-painted facsimile on mass-produced plastic. If you wish to film Devil Cop, do it. But don’t pretend it’s something it isn’t. If you take issue with the way a character is written in a universe that is centered on continuity, don’t maliciously re-frame the character to take them down a peg: just acknowledge that they are clearly not a character appropriate for the stories that you are telling.

I write this knowing that my wishes are entirely futile; such is the nature of art married to a capitalist system. Such is the nature of those who have no interest in, taste for, appreciation for, or understanding of these kinds of characters, that they’ll be dressed down in the fashion of impertinence (Squirrel Girl), or ignorance (Infinity). Would that those who took no interest in something would leave it be–but there is nothing whatsoever to encourage that.

So it goes.

¹Thanos gathered the Infinity Gems twice. First, as relayed in brief by Warlock himself, through his communion with the soul of the then-passed Gamora (Avengers Annual #7), and then again in The Thanos Quest miniseries. In both instances, Thanos gathered the gems himself, never, ever indirectly, as there’s no way on Earth (or elsewhere!) such a schemer would risk the will of others on such acquisition. Indeed, this is made more plain by how he deals in the second instance, significantly less brief–it is, in fact, the totality of that miniseries to watch him acquire the six, one-by-one, for a second time–and his tendency to rely on the ignorance of most of the beings who currently hold them to assist in his gain.

Starter Kit

Aggressively personalized (but not saturated by my more eccentric tastes), this is my Comic Book Starter Kit.

The assumption is made that you are familiar with the “core works”¹, at least in name, and that almost anything anywhere will recommend them to you if you bring up comics.

Some other caveats:

This is Western-focused. That’s where most of my experience is, and it tends to be what’s at issue in discussions of “comic books”. This doesn’t degrade or dismiss the works of even slightly-less-west Westerners (like Hergé or Goscinny/Uderzo, and so on), nor is it intended to imply a superiority. It’s just that those are not typically considered “comic books” but other forms of what Scott McCloud so succinctly and clearly defined as “sequential art”.

Now, with all that said:

1) Lucifer

Legitimately one of my most recommended titles–even by proxy, as I recommend writer Mike Carey’s Felix “Fix” Castor books a lot, too–Lucifer is an elaboration upon the devil developed by Neil Gaiman in the Sandman (see, that’s how cornerstone that book is). The titular character is not always even the protagonist, nevermind being a hero. He’s cold and cruel but ultimately disinterested in that which does not serve him. He maintains a semblance of sympathy or identification anyway, though, as he seeks to blaze his own path in the universe, unencumbered by the identity and occupations God has set for him. What it has over on books like its “parent” is a pretty absolute focus: while it encompasses a 75-issue comic, a 3-issue miniseries, and a one-shot, it is a clearly defined overarching story–while things like The Sandman can have some problems with meandering off into side-stories and experiments Gaiman found interesting (albeit successfully!).

2) Swamp Thing (“Saga of”/Volume 2, ~20-64)

To my strange and peculiar tastes, this is the crowning achievement of Alan Moore. It sits next to Marvelman/Miracleman comfortably, in his 80s run of respectful reinvention. It, for all its horror, doesn’t have anything as unpleasant as Miracleman‘s climax (about which I will say no more, but it’s filled with graphically violent images–earned and ‘necessary’ to address the story and its point, it should be said, but nonetheless disturbing) and has a significantly larger amount of emotional investment, as well as the genesis of the great John Constantine (whose name can be ‘heard’ pronounced by the demon Etrigan: it’s Constan”tyne” not Constan”teen”)

3) The Maxx

Sam Kieth is a peculiar artist, and a peculiar storyteller. What was advertised at the time (I was about eight, myself) was “a violent new hero”. What was offered was a strange book about a large purple-and-yellow homeless guy who was friends with a social worker, the two of them harassed endlessly by a smugly knowledgeable sorcerer/serial rapist. The latter part isn’t involved overly graphically, nor as a means of conveying “edgy” material, so much as being part of overarching themes. It’s a difficult book to describe without simply giving it all away, but it’s filled with Sam’s unusually wonderful art, aesthetic and ideas.

4) Animal Man (volume 1) 1-26

Grant Morrison’s breakout work, it’s unusual in the extreme and does suffer from some of Morrison’s preachiness, but can be somewhat excused by its well-executed relevance to the main character. It’s definitely in the realms of “required reading”, in any case. It’s another where you’re best off just reading it without knowing too much.

5) Daredevil (Miller/Janson: v1 158-191, 227-233; Bendis/Maleev: v2 26-81)

The first (Miller/Janson) is classic, in all senses. The peak of Miller’s writing (sadly, at the early end of his career…), and perfectly matched with his own pencils or Janson’s, and definitely Janson’s inks. Matt Murdock is absolutely put through hell, and the depths of his dealings with Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk (who was originally a Spider-Man villain, but lost almost unequivocally to DD at this point). Bendis and Maleev’s is a thematic return to this, with perfect art for the story from Maleev.

6) Justice League ([America|International|Europe])? (1-6, 7-25, 1-36, 26-60; Formerly Known as the Justice League 1-6, JLA Classified 3-9 [“I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League”], now Justice League 3000 1-15, Justice League 3001 1-ongoing)

Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, one known most for comedy, one known most for pathos (though both are capable of either and both) take the Justice League denied its most famous elements (no Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Hal Jordan or John Stewart as Green Lantern, and even Batman only lasts a few odd issues) and turn them into a bumbling, inefficient group of also-rans filled with heart, will, desire, jokes, comedy, and actually a fair bit of oft-unremembered real drama.

7) Planet Hulk (Incredible Hulk v3 92-105, Giant-Size Hulk #1)

Requiring some of the most minimal of background, the Hulk is unwittingly exiled from Earth by its foremost minds and his foremost–seeming–friends (Tony Stark, Reed Richards, et al). Stuck on a hellish planet, Hulk is forced to find his way through the minimalist society that exists there, and is driven by a raging need to take revenge on those responsible.

8) Suicide Risk

Mike Carey has written superhero books for the Big Two, but this was his own creation. And yet…it turns out it just may be something entirely other than a super hero book as it goes on. Another self-contained and clean series by Carey.

9) The Question

Dennis O’Neill is responsible, somewhat more quietly than a lot of the Brits who followed him and were eventually his contemporaries (or writers under his editorship) for a lot of classic works. But his peculiar book with penciler Denys Cowan is an achievement outside the shadow of characters like Batman. Sure, Ditko invented the rather ridiculous Objectivist Question decades earlier, but O’Neill’s unusual take on Vic Sage is more philosophical and interested in the world as it actually functions, and is married to the signature pencils of Cowan.

10) Current ongoings:

Rick Remender’s anything (Black ScienceLowDeadly ClassTokyo Ghost)

DescenderBlack MagickCopperheadManifest DestinyRat QueensRumble

¹SandmanWatchmen especially. Other Moore can be an acquired taste, some moreso than others, but Watchmen is a medium-defining moment.