I remember watching a documentary on the history of comics in which the host interviewed Denny O’Neil about “A Death in the Family,” the Batman story arch in which Joker kills Robin. O’Neil talked about a time that he had been asked by someone what he did. To his surprise, after he happily told the man that he was the editor of Batman, instead of engaging in a pleasant conversation about his job the man started yelling, in a rather upset tone, to those around him that O’Neil was the man who had killed Robin. It was this event that caused O’Neil to realize that writing comics was not just a profession. What Denny O’Neil had failed to realize was that not only was he a comic writer (editor at the time) but that he was also the caretaker of these beloved characters.
Comics, and by extension the characters that inhabit them, are a key part of pop culture. Generation after generation of kids have read these books and become enamored with their heroes. Comics have become so engrained in cultural history that the Superman logo is one of the most recognizable symbols worldwide.
So what does it mean that those who work in comics are the caretakers? In Denny O’Neil’s story, the Robin in question was Jason Todd, the second character to take up the mantle. The man who was upset had assumed that the Robin in question was Dick Grayson, the Robin that he was familiar with. It didn’t matter to that man, or to most people that it was a different person. A beloved character was dead and O’Neil was responsible, at least in part. As O’Neil found out, there is much more to making a comic than coming up with an entertaining story. It is the responsibility of those involved to ensure that they preserve the integrity and dignity of these folk heroes.
This obviously creates quite the conundrum for writers. How does one write a story that moves the character forward, in a meaningful direction without changing the status quo so much that the fans begin to wail and gnash their teeth? In truth it’s not too terribly difficult. I mean, the fans will still lose their minds at the drop of a pin, but writers also have considerable freedom to create good stories. The key, as far as I have been able to figure out, is to move the characters, whether it be forward, backward, or some other direction, without losing the core of what makes that particular character who they are. If characters aren’t dynamic, then the fans would lose interest, but there is a reason they fell in love with the character in the first place, and writers need to respect those core characteristics.
A great analogy I heard recently is one comparing comic characters to action figures sitting on the shelf. New writers get to come along and play with the toys and do all kinds of fun things. They can try almost anything they can imagine, but at the end of the day, those aren’t the writer’s toys and they need to go back on the shelf so someone else can come after them and have their turn playing with the toys. Of course there are those writers who, much like kids in the same situation, come along and decide to smash and mangle the toys, leaving them shadows of their former glory. If fans are lucky, the next writer will come along and “fix” the toy, leaving them in better condition than they found things. In the worst case, they are abandoned and forgotten about because they are just too damaged to play with any more.
The most gifted writers love and honor the characters they write, even when they aren’t their own creations. They understand that they have something in their hands far more precious than mere intellectual property. These characters are people’s dreams and inspirations. There are countless examples of beloved characters helping people through difficult times, either through specific issues or stories, or by the ideals they represent. And like a good helicopter parent, if the fans feel their babies are endangered, they will swoop and rain hell upon those who would dare transgress.