They have household names almost as well-known as the Superheroes in the comics they appear in. Lois Lane. Jimmy Olsen. Iris West. Alfred. Commissioner Gordon. Aunt May. Mary-Jane Watson. Betty Ross. Jim Rhodes. Who are these characters? The Supporting cast in your favorite comic books.
In order to make the hero stand out, a comic has to have a supporting cast. Those people going on and about their business allow the hero to have someone to save. Someone to give them a helping hand when they’re in trouble. Someone to be a love interest. And someone for their alter-ego to foil in their quest to figure out their secret identities.
However, these days there’s a disturbing trend when it comes to a Hero’s supporting cast. Everybody’s got powers. Everybody’s a super-hero.
Why are all the supporting characters becoming heroes? In the comic book business a franchise is considered bankable way to cross-market and license characters. And when supporting cast members have powers it means that the licensing department can sell twice as much merchandise than they would if there were just one hero. It’s a lot easier to sell War Machines than Jim Rhodes in the toy aisle. It’s a lot easier to sell Red She-Hulk than Betty Banner. And let’s face it, not that many people are gonna buy Lois Lane, Jim Rhodes, Commissioner Gordons, Alfreds, (Pre-52) Mary Jane Watsons and Aunt Mays outside of Shawn and diehard comic fans who love the characters.
(For the record, I’d have bought all these civilians as action figures if I had the chance Take note Hasbro and DC Comics Collectibles! Instead of producing that umpmillionth Batman or Spider-Man action figures in neon colors produce a civilian or two. You’d be surprised how well they’d sell at retail! )
Yeah, I’m guilty of the franchising of characters myself. E’steem went from supporting character in Isis and The Temptation of John Haynes to becoming the lead character in her own books. But the character had grown so much in both books she was telling her own stories, and there was no way to make her adventures fit in another John Haynes story or an Isis story. So I kind of understand when a creative team spins off a character and lets them take the lead instead of following the hero.
However, I kind of miss all the civilians in comics. They added a humanized element that balanced a comic out. Civilians added a depth and a texture to a hero’s world. They allowed us to see what went on in the everyday life of the hero’s alter ego and the social issues they had to deal with when they weren’t out on patrol.
The way I see it not everyone needs to be a hero. Not everyone needs to wear spandex. When everyone is a hero it kind of sucks the life out of a comic and throws it’s story paradigm out of whack. If everybody’s got powers then what makes the hero special?
Case in point the Incredible Hulk. When it was just Bruce Banner turning into a big strong green man it was cool. He was big green and angry ready to kick the asses of all the super-strong badass villains like Abomination and Absorbing Man. He’s even ready to kick the asses of the more powerful Marvel Heroes like The Thing, Thor, The Silver Surfer and Iron Man and show him why he is the strongest one there is.
Okay in 1980 we get She-Hulk. She’s big and green. In the beginning she’s almost like Bruce, brooding and sexually frustrated. But John Byrne comes along. And instead we get a fun vivacious character with a sense of humor. So she’s not like Bruce. She has her own adventures across the Marvel Universe without any problems.
Two Hulks male and female work well in a shared universe. Unfortunately, we fast forward to 20 years later. We get Red Hulk and Red She-Hulk. A Bomb. Skaar, son of Hulk. All of a sudden the Incredible Hulk’s world is getting a bit too crowded.
The Hulk can’t be the strongest one there is if four other people are just as strong as he is.
Sure all these characters are unique. But what makes the Incredible Hulk distinct is lost. The original character and his mission are lost as his supporting cast have all gone on to get powers and become super characters all their own. If everyone’s got powers then who’s going to be in the Incredible Hulk’s supporting cast? Who’s going to be his civilian rival? Who’s going to be his love interest? Why should the reader CARE about the Green Hulk if there’s a red, one doing the exact same thing he does in another comic?
And what about Batman? When he started out he was the lone Guardian of Gotham City.
Okay we get Robin the Boy wonder. And Batgirl. They’re sidekicks. Part-time heroes who work probably during the summers and holidays when they’re not in school. And when they work cases it’s usually small stuff with dudes like Crazy Quilt or Teen Titans adventures. They still leave the heavy lifting for the Dark Knight in Gotham.
Fast forward a few years. Dick Grayson becomes a Man. He becomes Nightwing, forms his own mission for crime fighting inspired by his mentor and Superman. A role better to fit his multi-faceted role as the leader of the Teen Titans and his growth into manhood. He’s unique distinct and becoming his own hero. Sadly Barbara Gordon winds up crippled by the Joker (one of the BIGGEST mistakes of ALL time at DC Comics) and Batman is still the guardian of Gotham City.
This allows Batman to get a New bitter Robin, Jason Todd. He doesn’t work out and gets crowbarred and blown up by the Joker. That sets up a new better Robin, everyone likes Tim Drake. Things are still working well, the story paradigm isn’t messed up. Even with Barbara Gordon as Oracle, and additions like Helena Bertinelli coming in as the Huntress and Jean Paul Valley coming in as Azrael Gotham isn’t getting too crowded. Even with Catwoman occasionally fighting crime in between her cat burglary capers, there’s still plenty of ass for people in spandex to kick. Birds of Prey and these other characters still follow the story model of taking care of the cleanup work with D-list Bat villains while he takes on the A-listers in his rogues’ gallery.
But later on we get Cassandra Cain. Stephanie Brown, A new Azrael. And Jason Todd is back from the dead and calling himself the Red Hood. Then his son Damien Wayne shows up. And we have a new Batwoman. All great characters (exception being Todd and Damian Wayne I fucking HATE both of them), but let’s face it Gotham is getting too crowded with crime fighters. WAY too crowded in my opinion. Now readers know Arkham Asylum is filled with lunatics for Batman to beat up on, but in between Nightwing, Robin the ladies of the Birds of Prey, Batwoman, Red Robin, Red hood and Azrael patrolling Gotham with Jim Gordon GCPD, the rogues gallery is getting spread pretty thin.
And what makes Batman special winds up getting LOST. He’s supposed to be a silent guardian. A Dark Knight. A detective unparalleled. Hard to do that when there’s a dozen other people with all the people following the same mission. The way I see it the Batcave is becoming like a GCPD precinct. That’s not what the character was meant to be.
In most comics with too many franchise characters the story often winds up muddled. When everyone has a costume, the core mission of the character winds up getting lost. And instead of readers seeing what makes them special, the stories become about seeing WHO will make an appearance along with the hero and help them take on the bad guy.
In some ways having all these franchise characters makes the main character look weak. If Superman needs Superboy and Supergirl, Krypto the superdog to beat up on Lex Luthor then what makes him Super? After all, he’s got powers far beyond a mortal man. He shouldn’t need a gang to beat a guy who he could take easily on his own.
For me, a solo book is NOT a team book. A Solo book is supposed to have a story paradigm where the reader sees the hero and what makes them and their alter ego special. The main character has to carry the book on their own. People buy Superman comics for Superman, and Hulk comics for the Hulk. They don’t want to see a bunch of guys who do the exact same thing they do crowding the main character out of their own book.
And the supporting cast has to be able to help carry the load. Civilians make a hero’s world richer. They move stories forward. They help us get to know the main character. They show us why they’re our friend and give us reasons to care about them and their alter egos. And sometimes they tell stories themselves.
When I write stories in the Isis series sometimes I find the coolest characters are the human ones in the supporting cast. The way I see it it’s these background characters that makes the worlds in my stories richer and fun to write in. They add that contrast and color that makes Isis’ stand out in the shared SJS DIRECT universe. And oftentimes readers connect and identify with the supporting cast the same way they would with a main character.
A strong supporting cast can add color and flavor to a Hero’s world and make them stand out. However, when everyone has powers just like the hero it dilutes what makes a character original and distinct. A good comic needs more people without powers to show why the hero’s mission is important and what makes them special. A Superman isn’t Super if five other people can do what he can; a writer has to add civilians without super-powers who are unique to show us why regular people are special too.