From the beginning, superhero comics have bred characters that are tied to well-established core concepts. Superman is übermensch, the Fantastic Four are the four elements, the Hulk is Jekyll/Hyde and the list goes on. Generally speaking, these well-tested concepts bear a great deal of longevity; in fact, to a degree, the characters owe their iconography and resilience to these traits.
But when do those concepts cease to be helpful? At what point do they lose their steam, scope or ability to generate new stories? How many times can the Hulk lose control before we stop caring? It’s an interesting issue, and one that seems especially pertinent now, with the repositioning of many characters around such concepts with the tail-end of the Big Two’s Brightest Day and Heroic Age events.
This technique of boiling down characters to their root concepts, then rebuilding their respective worlds around them (the more novel part), is, to borrow a phrase from Comicsalliance blogger David Uzumeri, known as “Johnsian literalism” (coined from writer Geoff Johns’ early work on the ’90’s Flash series).
The method, to some degree, is (as Uzumeri indicates) what today’s Green Lantern, Flash, and Green Arrow franchises are all about. The Avengers teasers we saw some time ago attempted to do the same, granting each hero a specific mission or trait, an effort at imposed iconography. In many instances, though, such literalism does more harm than good.
The best example that springs to mind is the Orange Lantern, Larfleeze (sometimes called “Agent Orange”). Sole wielder of the orange light of avarice, the alien Larfleeze’s sole motivation seems to be just that: greed — something that seems well-suited to gags but doesn’t present much opportunity for complex characterization.
In contrast, though, there are characters in that same franchise that succeed, beyond their sales, with similar techniques of characterization. Sinestro, Hal Jordan’s primary nemesis, armed with the yellow light of fear (and also usually written by Johns), goes far beyond that first cornerstone. He maintains that all beings are governed primarily by fear, and, as such, they can and should be ruled by it. He is not fearful all the time, nor is he solely dedicated to spreading terror. Instead, he uses it in a dictatorial effort to establish order, because he believes it to be the only way possible.
And here we get some real depth. Yes, the core concept of fear is the guiding light in terms of defining the character. But he is also more than the sum of his parts, with that metaphor serving as a starting point, and other motivations flowing out from that, presenting a much more satisfying character.
Ultimately, I think two main factors separate Sinestro from Larfleeze, while also accounting for their differing levels of complexity. One is the inherent scope of their foundational metaphors. Fear has far more interesting implications, I think, than does avarice. As a motivator, it appears to be universal, and often in subtle and surreptitious ways. Avarice, on the other hand, affects everyone to some degree, but it’s hardly as controversial, and the reasons for it are wholly transparent.
The second factor is the degree to which the writer (in this case, Johns) departs from such concepts, both during and after initial characterization. Johnsian literalism, when used as a basis for a character can grant both focus and structure, yes. But oftentimes, it fails, instead coming across as both corny and constricting. (No one finds surprising the fact that the now-late Human Torch is “hotheaded,” for instance).
These techniques aren’t just limited to superhero comics, though — Asterios Polyp, one of the most thematically complex, engaging, and innovative graphic novels in recent memory, revolves around characters with their core concepts stated outright. Similarly, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman deals with the appropriately named seven Endless: Dream, Desire, Death, Destiny, and so on, with personalities to match.
And yet these techniques have been proven to work — but they only do so when their writers build the characters up beyond their initial foundations. It’s something Johns himself has proven capable of numerous times, but it also presents a dangerous narrative trap. When fully utilized, Johnsian literalism creates entire series and franchises that blossom in organic, unified, and comprehensible ways. At worst, the characters (and sometimes stories) that stem from it are monochromatic and boring, leaving many potential themes largely untapped. Ultimately, it’s a difficult to walk in both writing and reading, but an undoubtedly useful one. My recommendation, to both writers and readers? Approach with caution.