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Everyday players

by  in Comic News Comment
Everyday players

You know them like you know your own relatives. They are the administrative staff, the co-workers, the parents and siblings and in-laws. They add flavor and texture; and without them, superhero comics would inch that much closer to soulless exercises in widescreen action. Their perspective informs the headliners. They are the supporting casts, and once they were integral to DC’s comics. Today? Not so much.

To be sure, Alfred still plays off Batman, Lois Lane is still active in the Superman titles, and Etta Candy just got through a harrowing experience in Wonder Woman. However, for every Jim Gordon and Lana Lang, there is a Josh Coyle or Julia Kapatelis who used to get a lot more attention.

Probably the apex of this trend was represented by the “weekly” Superman titles of the ’80s and ’90s, which had enough room to develop a massive supporting cast. By itself the first issue of the retitled Adventures Of Superman introduced two new supporting characters, gossip reporter “Cat” Grant and would-be supervillain Emil Hamilton, and writer Marv Wolfman didn’t stop there. During his year-long tenure, Adventures went on to spotlight Perry White’s wayward son Jerry, activist-turned-crimefighter Jose “Gangbuster” Delgado, and dim barfly Bibbo Bibbowski.

Indeed, the Superman books had always boasted decent-sized supporting casts, pretty much from Lois’ and George Taylor’s introductions in Action #1. Eventually Perry White replaced Taylor, Jimmy Olsen came over from the radio show, and Lana Lang popped in now and then from Smallville. By the 1970s, Lois, Lana, Jimmy, Perry, Morgan Edge, and Steve Lombard had become the core of an extended ensemble which always reminded me of a workplace sitcom. (And, just as Bob Hartley had Howard, Clark had wacky neighbors back at 344 Clinton Street.) Still, when the line expanded in subsequent decades, the characters just kept coming: more new folks (Ron Troupe, Colin Thornton) and more room to examine the other Lanes, Whites, Olsens, et al. The Pete Ross of the Silver Age was a cardboard cutout compared to what he went through in the post-Crisis era: a United States Senator from Kansas who ended up marrying Lana and becoming Lex Luthor’s Vice-President; and from there a short-term President himself. Oh, and he was thought to be a supervillain for a while. Now he’s divorced and living in Smallville with his son, probably happy to be ignored.

By no means were big supporting casts exclusive to the Superman books. The Silver Age Flash featured not only Barry’s wife Iris and his sidekick Kid Flash, but also Flash-museum curator Dexter Myles, tailor Paul Gambi, college student Stacy Conwell, neighbor Barney Sands, and Barry’s boss Captain Frye. In New Teen Titans, Marv Wolfman surrounded most of the main characters with a small entourage, but tended to focus on Gar’s adoptive dad Steve Dayton, Vic’s quasi-girlfriend Sarah Simms, Raven’s mother Arella, Jericho’s mother Addie, and the infamous Terry Long. In fact, the extended Titans family got so big that when DC launched the anthology Teen Titans Spotlight, the house ad featured quite a few bit players. Blue Devil and the Captain Atom relaunch* came ready-made with intriguing supporting characters, including BD’s producer Marla and Cap’s estranged daughter.  Bill Messner-Loebs’ Flash and James Robinson’s Starman took time and care in building their own memorable supporting casts.

Even the Batman books got into the act in the 1980s when Batman and Detective combined for “biweekly” storylines. Writer Gerry Conway brought back detective Harvey Bullock and photojournalist Vicki Vale, added Alfred’s heretofore-unknown daughter Julia Pennyworth, and included generous amounts of Robin and Batgirl. (Conway also introduced the Flying Todds and their precocious child Jason, but you knew that.) Many years later, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle brought in Harold Allnut (imported from Denny O’Neil’s Question series), a hulking savant who became Batman’s technology guru. I suppose one could consider Gotham Central an outgrowth of the Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen characters who were highlighted in Greg Rucka’s run on Detective Comics. Although GC didn’t focus exclusively on Montoya and Allen, clearly they have graduated to superheroic-headliner status themselves.

However, these days DC’s superhero comics focus a lot more on their principals. With Superman and Supergirl spending so much time on New Krypton, the Super-books are reordering their supporting casts with folks like Ursa, Alura, Zatara, and Science Policeman Harper.  The Batman books have Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, and that’s about it. Green Lantern Corps essentially stars the people who would have been in the background of the regular GL title. Only the new titles like Power Girl and Doom Patrol and co-features like “Manhunter” and “Blue Beetle” seem to have room for decent-sized supporting casts.

(Contrapositive proves the rule: this week’s Action Comics shows Lois, Jimmy, Perry, and the rest of the Planet newsroom charging out to cover the latest super-fight, but it’s been a long time since we’ve seen them this way.)

Of course, there are valid, practical reasons for not featuring these characters. Superhero comics may be ongoing serials, but the collected-edition market has compartmentalized their stories into discrete chunks. As such, there might not be a need to fill pages with extraneous and/or soap-operatic subplots. If it doesn’t serve the larger story, why tell it?

In turn, that semi-rhetorical question sets up another question: what is the larger story? I am woefully unprepared to talk about “Blue Beetle’s” supporting cast, since I have yet to catch up with the collections of Jaime’s ongoing series. However, in its new life as Booster Gold‘s co-feature, “Blue Beetle” just wrapped up its first arc with a conclusion which apparently addressed a lingering subplot from the old series. The (ostensibly) main plot — Jaime fights inventors of killer robots — wraps up when, in a James-T.-Kirk-esque “this is what emotions mean” moment, one of Jaime’s friends confirms something of evident longstanding with regard to one of the other castmates. So what, then, was the point of the story? I, a casual fan of Jaime Reyes and company, was enjoying the killer robots and the newly-bloodthirsty Scarab — but then again, if I had been following the series for a longer period, I might have come away thinking the character moment was more important.

That said, I don’t mean to suggest that “character vs. action” is an either/or proposition. I am glad to find multiple levels in any feature. Still, as suggested above, there is something of that choice when a story is intended to draw in new readers. When I was trying to get into Manhunter (during its first post-cancellation relaunch), I was impressed by how efficiently it used its supporting cast, but a bit distracted by the attention they received. It makes sense only to check in with Perry when the story calls for a “Great Caesar’s Ghost!”, as opposed to giving him his own (potentially unrelated) storyline. If people wanted to read about an aging newspaperman and his constant battles with demanding reporters, crude sportscasters, and callow photographers, the market would have rewarded such a thing, no?

Well … regular readers of this column will know that that was one rhetorical question too many, because clearly there is a place for these characters beyond window dressing. Lois and Jimmy have had their own ongoing series (and miniseries afterwards). Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD have starred in their own miniseries, exclusive of Gotham Central. Sadly, many supporting characters (including Max Lord, Wade Eiling, and Vanessa Kapatelis) have become supervillains. In the context of the regular titles, though, Jimmy and Perry (for example) can represent two points on the continuum of Clark’s career in journalism. Lois and Ron Troupe are situated at other points along the way (and Lois, naturally, represents something entirely separate away from the office). Alfred is Batman’s confidant and conscience. Etta is Diana’s friend. Carol kept Hal tethered to the Earth, and Linda is Wally’s anchor. Everybody knows these relationships.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. Cat Grant is easier to change than Lois, Lana, or Perry, because the latter must remain as inviolate as Superman. Accordingly, when a new person is brought into an established setting (coughTommy Elliottcough), he or she runs the risk of sticking out like Ensign Ricky in the transporter room. Pros can’t really do anything radical with the longtime cast, and fans may well distrust those new arrivals. Those may be the extremes, but what’s left in the middle sounds kind of dull.

Regardless, it doesn’t have to be. The headliners operate under the same restrictions, and they do pretty well. Ultimately I think that’s what I’d like to see, in my Platonic ideal of superhero books: an awareness that the lesser roles can still enrich a story, even if their very existence threatens to make it too familiar.

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* [The common denominator among the Superman books, Flash, and Captain Atom was veteran DC writer Cary Bates, but I don’t think big supporting casts were necessarily his signature move.]

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