Comics, like a lot of other fields, are defined by a couple of perceptions that, regardless of whether they are true or not, have established how this medium is viewed by most people. And while there are many different perceptions about comics, there is one that has always grabbed my attention: “Characters never change in comics”.
Mind you, I’m referring to classic, established characters of the DC and Marvel universes. I’m talking about your Supermans, Batmans, Captain Americas and so on. Characters that have existed for decades and have become part of the public’s collective consciousness, gaining millions of fans in the process.
There’s this perception among a lot of comic book readers, comic book professionals and even people outside the medium, that characters don’t evolve, but rather stay the same in a perpetual status quo. Even Stan Lee, one of the most important figures in the history of comics, previously stated that you don’t have to give comic book fans change, but rather the feeling of change when things actually stay the same.
Now, this is a very interesting topic for me as both a writer and a reader. It’s true that there are many examples of characters that have remained the same throughout their entire existence. While we can point out key changes that have been significant, for all intents and purposes Spider-Man is still fighting crime while struggling with his personal life, Batman is still fighting a crime-riddled Gotham, and Superman is still a beacon of hope and protecting Metropolis. These are status quos that have remained throughout many different generations and have defined these characters. Add countless reboots and retcons, making death in comics essentially pointless, and it’s easy to see why people have this perception that characters remain the same, with no actual growth and development.
Stan Lee used to say that comics were not about change, but rather the illusion of change.
But this is where things get interesting for me: a radical change of the status quo doesn’t always mean that you’re stagnant and not growing. After all, we grow and evolve and learn as individuals without necessarily making a big change to our lives and character – it’s all about the decisions we make.
And this is something we see in comics many times. For example, Batman might be fighting crime in Gotham as a millionaire that dresses up as a bat, but the way he goes about it has changed throughout the years, often dependent on the times. In his early days, he was a gun user and had no qualms about killing bad guys, reminiscent of his creators’ biggest inspiration for the character, the Shadow. But in the 60s, he started to have more sci-fi and campy elements, mostly as a result of the Comics Code Authority and the popularity of the Batman TV show at the time, starring Adam West. Then Batman went back to his detective and noir roots, but with a more heroic nature and an established moral code with his no-killing and no guns rules. And in recent years he has become a more somber hero, with many writers creating character studies about him and turning him into basically BatGod (but that’s another discussion).
So the character’s core and status quo has remained essentially the same, but he has changed in many different key elements. We can see him with his cast of side characters and villains as well, with many of them showing up for the first time in many different stages of the character’s existence, and becoming essential elements in his series. Perhaps the biggest example of this is Batman’s first Robin, Dick Grayson.
Dick Grayson started as Bruce Wayne’s sidekick in the Batman series, but as the years and decades went on, he started to walk his own path. He became the leader of the Teen Titans, he moved to San Francisco with them, became Nightwing, moved to a city he dedicated himself to protecting, Blüdhaven, and eventually even became Batman for a while. Through that process, there was obvious character development, and Dick became a character that could command his own solo series and have his own fanbase. He hasn’t even returned to being Robin in any main DC continuity since he became Nightwing, with the other characters taking the mantle of Batman’s sidekick (another example of character development).
DC’s Dick Grayson is a great example of character development in comics.
There are, of course, financial and commercial reasons that can influence the way a character is handled. No one is going to make Superman a villain in the main continuity, for example, because it’s simply going to generate too much backlash. Villains don’t usually have a running series, so that is another commercial product they wouldn’t be able to use. There are examples of DC doing something similar in the 90s (Hal Jordan becoming Parallax in the Green Lantern series and Kyle Rayner becoming the new hero), but it eventually led to the character returning to his original way, due to demand from his fans.
Popular characters are a very different breed to unpopular ones, though. When it comes to the latter, there is always a bit of room for experimentation and to move them in a new direction. Perhaps one of the greatest examples is Marvel’s Daredevil, who, created by Stan Lee, was more of a happy-go-lucky character and was mostly viewed as somewhat of a Spider-Man clone. Then Frank Miller came along and revamped the character into the one we know and love today. This is a testament to how characters can change and even be altered in a somewhat radical manner if there is room to try new things, which is something that these unpopular characters can do.
Peter Parker getting married allowed for new stories to be written in the Spider-Man series.
Character development can always go in different ways and through different measures, not just in the way the character behaves. For example, and as I mentioned before, there is also the element of adding characters that can affect the protagonist’s motivations and perspectives, giving way for new potential stories and developments. Two of my personal favorite examples include when DC made Superman a father during the Rebirth era in 2016, and when Marvel had Peter Parker get married to Mary Jane Watson. Now these two superheroes had a new character in their lives, and that led to them having new responsibilities and challenges, thus expanding them as characters yet still remaining the same in their core values and attributes.
There are also cases of using certain situations to give characters a new lease of life. One example that I find to be quite clear of that was with Barbara Gordon, Batgirl at the time, ending up in a wheelchair because of the Joker’s deeds in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke storyline. Barbara had to overcome not being able to walk, but that obstacle was something that made her a more three-dimensional character and gave her a very interesting role as Oracle, which led to perhaps her best era in the DC universe in Chuck Dixon’s Birds of Prey comics.
This is not to say that comics are an endless well of great character development. There are many cases where characters have remained stagnant throughout the years and remain the same because of the demands of the audience or simply because of a lack of interest from writers and the editorial staff. But at the same time, comics are also a business, and when there’s interest for characters to be a certain way, it makes sense that they don’t go through radical changes. Is that bad or good? It depends on your opinion as a fan. I personally think that the very popular characters have to be respected in their core values, while the more unknown ones might be easier to experiment with and to try different things.
Barbara went through a lot of character development after The Killing Joke.
Overall, character development and change in comics are something that can be done and has been done but requires tact, care and dedication. It requires a fundamental understanding and respect for what these characters represent. Just because you make changes, it doesn’t mean they are good changes, and there are many cases in the industry, especially in recent years, that prove that. I’m sure that each of you could think of a specific example of a character change that’s gone wrong.
At the end of the day, it’s all about caring and understanding both the character and the fanbase.