Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Albatross

In Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge, a sailor who shot an albatross which had given the ship good fortune is forced to wear it around his neck as the boat sinks into a hell. The word albatross subsequently has become synonymous with a burden on someone, especially in the context of some sin or ill fortune that has fallen on them.

A rather literary start to a post on Supergirl Comic Box Commentary but bear with me.

Because today I thought I would comment on characters who have had an albatross placed in their continuity and how difficult it sometimes is to move past that burden, even in a genre where resurrections, retcons, and reboots are common. In comics, it is often a dark moment for a character where it is simply too hard to move on.

And I wonder if, when such a story element is being pitched, if the creative powers that be realize that such a plot point might be extremely damaging moving forward.

Let's start with the impetus for this post, Doomsday Clock #8 and poor Firestorm.

I have been sort of underwhelmed with Doomsday Clock as a whole. Time delays within each issue and a sort of plodding pace so far has made it difficult to embrace. While moments have been interesting (old green lanterns, Johnny Thunder, Rorscach II), I have read and bagged and haven't revisited. Even the back matter, which I am sure is filled with goodies has been skimmed and been mostly forgotten.

And then Doomsday Clock #8 happened and it just seemed to matter. Geoff Johns made the whole thing click. It didn't hurt that the issue basically revolved around Superman, something Clock was supposed to do from it's inception. It also helped that Superman was portrayed perfectly, from an implied beat down of an obstinate Black Adam to a friendly and inspirational voice to Firestorm and people in general. I was happy. But not everybody was.

For while it might have been a great issue for Superman, it wasn't for Firestorm. This is a classic Firestorm of Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein. While in Russia and in a moment of panic, he lashes out with his powers and turns the surrounding throng of civilians into glass, in essence murdering them. This labels him a threat, forces the Russian government to condemn American heroes, and forces Superman into an international incident.

Firestorm has never ever ever been able to effect organic life in this way. And even though he changes one of the statues back to the living, the incident happened. In fact, later some of these statues get smashed, ending any chance of revitalization.

Friend to this blog, co-founder of the excellent Fire and Water Podcast Network, and Firestorm aficionado The Irredeemable Shag wondered if this was Firestorm's albatross moment. This wasn't Firestorm's story. He was used to nudge a plot line along with powers he has never exhibited before. And if this sticks, it will be the albatross of continuity with the Nuclear Man forever. Remember him ... he killed a bunch of people. That will stick.
Now maybe this is shenanigans. Maybe this is Dr. Manhattan doing weird stuff. But if that isn't true, this will leave a stain on Ronnie moving forward.

And I have been around long enough to see this with other characters. It seems the only way to get out of these situations is with a major reboot or retcon. And sometimes, despite that, the stench of the albatross lingers.

In The Avengers #213, from way back in 1981, Hank Pym in the midst of a mental breakdown, slapped Janet, his wife and hero The Wasp.

Nearly 40 years later, that has been the albatross around Pym. Especially in the current environment, there is no escaping this. Despite his claim of love, despite his mental health needs, he still was physically abusive. And this is also semi-toxic to Janet. If she keeps him in her life, she isn't sending the right message.

Pym can't come back from this.

Armageddon 2001 ended with the forced fit switcheroo that Hawk becomes Monarch.

That ended the Hawk and Dove book that I loved so much at that time. But despite dying and coming back ... despite new universes ... despite new writers and new teams and new outlooks, Hawk and Dove (and especially Hank as Hawk) has been too poisonous a intellectual property to touch.

Everyone still says 'Hawk? Wasn't he Monarch??'

It's a shame. Because I love Hawk and Dove.

Fun-loving and silly Speedball became the self-flagellating Penance after The New Warriors pushed Nitro into blowing up a town in Marvel's Civil War.

There is no coming back from that. We won't see that Speedball ever again.

There are some examples where the albatross can be shed. But again, as mentioned, it usually takes a deep continuity scrub and a lot of time.

Back in 1977 in Adventure Comics #452, Aquaman's son Arthur Jr was killed at the hand of Black Manta.

This moment impacted and informed Aquaman as a character for decades, every new team wanting to touch on it. It took the New 52 to erase that timeline for it to be gone. That's almost 40 years.

Hal Jordan didn't get his character squared away after his dark turn in Emerald Twilight for 10 years. This evil turn wasn't so much an albatross as much as tossing him into the comic blender and hitting frappe. From madman to Parallax to hero to Specter back to Green Lantern is quite a turn.

And villains can their own albatross storylines as well. Toyman became a child murderer in Superman #94 back in 1994. Hard to be a silly villain with giant tops and enormous 'jack in the box' weapons when you go that dark. No more silly pin-striped suits and sonic yo-yos. It took 14 years before Geoff Johns wrote a story saying it was an out of control Toyman LMD that committed the hated crime.

And some thing that could be an albatross somehow becomes something better. I don't think of Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 as a burden on Supergirl any more. But for a while I thought it might be. The specter of death and erasure, the imagery of Superman holding her that way, the overwhelming feeling in that time period that Supergirl was completely expendable and no one really cared was like a pall over her character.  Heck, it was just alluded to last night on the CW Elseworlds crossover. Rather than an albatross, the enormity and importance of that moment has made it more of a shining example of her heroism than a testament to her lack of potency or harming..

I don't know if this has been interesting. I don't know if people have other examples. But I know that Firestorm deserves better than the fate of Penance. And I wonder if creators know the power they have over someone's favorite.


Stu said...

Comics is quite good at taking characters and saddling them with albatrosses. We're watching one be forced on the new Superboy, all for the sake of a wrestling-like shocking swerve. Scott & Barda will be unusable thanks to a mini that's turned them into 13 Reasons Why: PTSD Edition. The Vision is now saddled with a murderous ex-wife and a murdered son. Harley Quinn, who DC is still trying to sell as their Deadpool, just committed mass murder, including killing off a character who's been a long-time friend of hers (Ivy). I can only hope that, in a few years, we'll look back at this dour & miserable era with embarrassment & frustration at all of the good ideas and enjoyable characters that were buried under albatrosses.

Even sometimes, the albatrosses forced on a book come from outside of comics. Being one of five people who enjoyed Future Quest, it was very depressing to see how years & years of Adult Swim have made it so these characters can't be used normally without a bunch of people asking why it wasn't Venture Brothers, or even demanding that it lead into that. Because when you like these old characters, you'll definitely love a story that depicts them as mass murderers & drug addicts, right? It's now the only way any of them can be used in animation, but now they need to spread it to comics.

It's all so depressing.

Anonymous said...

"And I wonder if, when such a story element is being pitched, if the creative powers that be realize that such a plot point might be extremely damaging moving forward."

First thing I thought of while reading this and before reading further was Hank Pym slapping Janet. Io and behold...

The irony is that Jim Shooter never intended to have Hank slap Janet:

I fully agree with you. Oh, I SO agree. You can't do some stuff with a character because they will be tainted from that point on, maybe forever. People will never let it go, and often fans -specially haters- will distort facts and spread a skewed version of reality.

This is why I dropped Marvel. Most of characters have become utterly unlikable, irredeemable assholes for now. there's nobody I can root for.

I mean, who on EARTH asked for Nazi Captain America?

Or lunatic Scarlett Witch?

And often that crap will make their way to other media. Exhibit A: Evil Zor-El.

Sometimes it may bury a character for good. Power Boy made very few appearances before becoming an abusive stalker in Supergirl and getting killed off shortly after. Whatever potential and future he might have had died together with him. Nobody would want to or be interested in touching him afterwards.

Sometimes a character can be salvaged. I bow down to Geoff Johns for saving Hal Jordan, and Sterling Gates for bringing Kara Zor-El back. Joe Kelly had Kara gun her schoolmates down, but it was promptly forgotten, retconned out and never talked about again.

Sometimes it takes years to fix the damage. The H'el on Earth garbage is mostly forgotten by now, but for years I kept hearing the "Supergirl wanted to get Earth destroyed!" litany, even though that did NOT happen.

But often, fans and writers themselves will NOT allow it to die. Poor Matrix. Everyone keep bringing up her relationship with Lex Luthor.

Sometimes the characters aren't damaged by her own actions but they are defined by their fridging. Supergirl, Batgirl, Phoenix, Miss Marvel... have been around for decades, but it is like fans have only heard about that story where Kara got killed, Barbara got shot, Jean killed herself and Carol got raped.

However I'll admit that Supergirl's blatant fridging had a positive impact. DC wanted Supergirl gone and everyone to forget about her... but they failed. Although remaining gone for eighteen years didn't do Kara any favors, her heroic death was one of the central events of one of the most famours comic-book storylines. If DC had Kara merely move to Rokynn prior to the reboot they could have gotten her forgotten easily. Most of comics fans don't know about her battles against Satan Girl or Blackstarr or Mongul, or haven't read Sterling Gates' run, but nearly everybody knows about her heroic, dramatic last stand.

Sadly, the fact that Superman ("I'll remember you forever"), her friend Babs ("Kara was a hero. She will not be forgotten") and everybody forgot about her after 1986, and the nasty mindset behind her death and retconning, makes me unable to embrace that story fully.

Martin Gray said...

Fascinating piece, Anj!

I’m not convinced the Harley thing in HiC will stick, it seems to early for the big reveal. And isn’t there a moment in DC that has Batman yelling ‘It’s not Firestorm’ so maybe it’s an imposter, that would explain the powers working differently, and his hair being fire rather than an illusion. Or did he mean it wasn’t Firestorm who was causing the energy spike?

Whatever the case, I think Ronnie can survive this, he didn’t go dark, there was a moment of panic and he was going to turn people back to flesh and blood, but others started smashing up the bodies.

Post-Crisis, Superman’s killing of the Phantom Zoners was a real albatross for me.

Jude Deluca said...

Penance is a pretty good indicator of what DC's probably gonna do to Wally West to punish him for HIC.

All while Barry Allen's still treated as a "Nice guy" despite destroying the universe twice over and ruining the lives of literally everyone.

Anj said...

Thanks for all the comments.

Some other exciting examples sent my way on Twitter:

Jon Stewart and Xanshi

Identity Crisis and the main figures there: Tim Drake (his dad). the Dibny's, Jean Loring, Dr. Light.


Martin Gray said...

And Jason Todd and being beaten to death. Never mind what it means for a resurrected Boy Wonder, I’ve never been able to accept Batman letting the Joker run free after crippling Barbara and then killing, in short order, Sarah Essen and Jason.

Mark Baker-Wright said...

I'm surprised Shag hasn't mentioned (or maybe I'm just not seeing it) that there IS precedent for Firestorm transmuting organics, specifically in the "blank slate" era. This was the impetus for the "Eden" storyline (where the previous inability was explained in psychic terms) and a source of grief for Firestorm post-Invasion (he apparently transmuted some people and felt their deaths in the "psychic backlash"). He went Elemental shortly after this and stopped using transmutation altogether (which, in-fiction, was supposedly revealed to destabilize the matter which had been transmuted, but since this had NEVER been a problem before, I think can safely be retconned to mean that only *organic* matter than has been transmuted becomes unstable).

Of course, NONE of that is in continuity anymore, but it IS precedent nonetheless.

jrft1379 said...

Great thinking piece. A major character that you missed was Superman. How long did his death hang around his neck? Even in the real world, people thought he was dead for years afterwards.

I do speculate that it wasn't Firestorm at all that did the transforming, but rather an invisible Dr. Manhattan who was using Ronnie as his scapegoat. If that is the case, he will likely come through Doomsday Clock relatively unscathed.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that Matrix Supergirl's "Albatross Moment" was her prolonged and cringeworthy Affair with Lex Luthor. I say "prolonged" since the editors kept shipping the relationship long after even the dumbest gold digger would've figured out Lex was a Malevolent Jerk. This pretty much tarred Matrix as a credulous bimbo that no amount of subsequent heroics could erase. Peter David's solution was to turn her into a completely different heroine with a completely different and even more convoluted origin albeit with the same trademark & copyright. :)


Professor Feetlebaum said...

Even before Emerald Twilight turned Hal Jordan into a mass killer, there was that creepy business with Arisia "growing up" overnight and becoming Hal Jordan's girlfriend. It wasn't so much Arisia's aging that annoyed me (although it did ruin the character somewhat in my opinion) it was Hal's actions afterward. He should have told her "sorry, kid! You may look 25 now, but to me you're still 13! Now don't bother me with this anymore!"

Other possible albatross events:

* Wonder Woman snapping Maxwell Lord's neck.

* Katar Hol killing the islander for his wings in Hawkworld.

* Mary Marvel in Countdown.

Two characters today in need of redemption would be Zor-El and his brother Jor-El. Hopefully, what's been done to them in recent years can be undone some day.

A real life example of someone who's reputation is forever tainted would be Bill Cosby. Unless some new revelations clear him, I'll never be able to watch a Cosby TV show, or listen to a Cosby record album (I have them all) ever again.

Although Supergirl's death in Crisis has been something of an albatross moment for her, at least she died a hero, her reputation intact.

Anonymous said...

"All while Barry Allen's still treated as a "Nice guy" despite destroying the universe twice over and ruining the lives of literally everyone."

Barry Allen is still treated as a nice guy because he IS a nice guy OBJECTIVELY, and because he never did any of those crimes you're accusing him of. He never destroyed the universe -let alone twice-- and he didn't ruin the lives of "literally" everyone. And you KNOW this.

Please, take your 90's "It's perfectly okay to crap on the Pre-Crisis universe and characters but the Post-Crisis universe is my favorite continuity and their characters are my favorites, hence they are holy and untouchabled" fanboyism away.