Etta Candy, Jimmy Olsen,
Probably not as good as Agent Coulson
Iris West and Mary Jane,
From both of them there’s much to gain.
Triple J and Perry White,
Worked our heroes day and night.
Lian Harper, Quill and Uncle Ben
Why are these folks gone again?
… I’m going to stop now.
So yeah. I’ve been mentioning and alluding to this for a while, but it’s time now to talk about a topic pretty near to my writerly heart: supporting casts.
Back in the day, it was naturally expected for any given superhero that wasn’t specifically set up as part of a team to have a fairly robust supporting cast of—if not non-powered—non-heroic/main characters in their life. Iron Man (after originally being a world-wanderer due to being stuck in the suit) had his assistant Pepper and Driver Happy Hogan, Dr. Strange had his love interest/assistant Clea and manservant Wong, Batman, loner of loners, had Alfred, Commissioner Gordon and the ever-expanding ranks of the GCPD, etc.
It wasn’t even a trope; it was worldbuilding. Your heroes live in a world populated by people and—surprise—they make connections with some of them. Growing a supporting cast is one of the hallmarks of a series maturing if you follow it from their first stories in the 30’s and 40′ forward. Some started with them, others developed them as they went on, but it was a definite thing that reached it zenith in the Bronze Age, and continued strongly through the Dark Age.
And then something happened to change that. It was gradual at first, but came to a swift head when DC revealed Dan Didio’s relationship ban. Unlike a great many wrongs in comics, I can’t lay this at Didio’s feet, as the Spider-man and Wonder Woman casts in particular were already shrinking, as was Superman’s. Meanwhile superheroes started getting more insular. Instead of having friends of their own (and I must say, most superheroes already have depressingly small social circles—even mine!), they all started hanging out with each other. Which is cool and it was interesting when Green Lantern and Green arrow used to do it, but now it seems like being a superhero means you’re required to spend your off time with ‘your own kind’.
There’s a lot of speculation as to why this is, but the most plausible I’ve heard is that this coincided with a) superhero movies becoming highly profitable and b) the Big Two, Marvel and DC being purchased by the media titans Disney and Warner Brothers respectively. This led to a corporate view of these characters being marketable IP that can be mixed and matched and all by the absolute classic supporters being seen as hindrances to said mixing and matching.
Plus, comic writers have grown in ego in recent years and it’s become almost expected that the next couple of writers will tear down whatever the last guy built so they can introduce their awesome new characters, or bring back old ones. As I’ve lamented before, modern mainstream comics have no status quo worth mentioning and DC recently said ‘screw continuity’. Part of that is the slow death of the supporting cast.
And that’s a shame, because the supporting cast has an important part to play in not only the story structure, but the entire mythos of superheroes.
Let me put it this way: most stories need to answer the following questions to the audience’s satisfaction: Who, What, How and Why. Where is often pretty important too, but we’ll save that for when I talk worldbuilding.
The ‘Who’ is easy. That’s the main character and/or the main team. They are the ones who the story revolves around and whose ultimate fate were are concerned with.
‘What’ is the purview of conflicts and villains. They are the actual drive of the story, presenting the main characters with something to face or overcome. Without them, the main characters aren’t doing anything and the story is just boring. Even slice-of-life stories have comflicts even if they aren’t the powered dust-ups we’re used to in the genre.
When we talk about the ‘How’, we’re talking about powers, skills and equipment: the tools and resources the main characters use to overcome obstacles. Having a larger or deeper pool of ‘How’ is what makes the superhero exceptional and sets them apart, buuuut it means nothing without the character’s own drive and motivations, represented by….
The ‘Why’. This is, exactly what it says on the tin: the reason the main character is even bothering facing the obstacles they do. Often, you’ll see a very simplified ‘Why’ in the form of ‘Protecting the City’, ‘Saving the World’, ‘Fighting Crime’, or ‘Fighting for Truth, Justice and Apple Pie or Something’.
Yeah, those aren’t actual reasons. They’re mission statements. Why do you protect a city? Because you don’t want the people in the city to get hurt. Why do you fight for truth and justice? Because someone instilled those values in you. You do these things because you choose to and you don’t make those choices in a vacuum—both for the main characters and the audience.
When we see, say Iris West (I haven’t seen Flash yet, so is Iris in the picture at all yet?), we are seeing part of the reason Barry Allen wants to protect Central City. Yes, she wants to keep everyone safe, but empathy means understanding other people’s feelings and the effects of your actions on them. Barry Allen knows that everyone is someone else’s Iris. Peter Parker knows that everyone is someone else’s Aunt May. Warrick Kaine from my series knows that everyone has an attachment to someone like he does with his parents, his sister, his best friends and even his obnoxious roommate.
Yeah, not everyone actually does—and that’s very sad—but that’s how empathy works and by extension, everyone deserves saving (hey, ask me how I feel about that scene at the end of Batman Begins! You’ll actually be surprised!) at baseline.
Mark Millar famously (and stupidly) once made a comment about superheroes going out and doing their thing ‘because there’s nothing on TV’. That is, of course, utter bullshit and I can’t believe the guy wrote Superman: Red Son, but that’s pretty much what it comes off as with characters who lack a supporting cast like many early 90’s rejects did.
Where the hell is their empathy coming from? I’m not saying it’s bad to want to help just to help; I’m not Any Rand for god’s sake! (Incidentally, Ayn Rand is the BEST supervillain. She serves as an enabler for myriad other supervillains and literally spoke against self-sacrifice for the good of others. Plus, she had this weird thing with trains that would totally be her theme. The Merciless Money Train.) What I am questioning is where that came from. Man is an animal and survival instincts make you kind of selfish (not evil or even an asshole, but you’ve got to protect yo’ neck in the animal kingdom).
It’s really only the component of us that is a learning creature, that recognizes the value of working toward a common goal and the less tangible values of ‘community’ that inspires altruism and good will—something that needs to be nurtured by, say a farming couple from Kansas. These characters who are born of and continue to exist in void… shouldn’t be getting that. Many of them don’t (see YoungBlood), but a lot of them do and it just seems… hollow.
Let me try and explain. As I said up there, a character’s empathy is base don their own experiences. When character X is rescuing another person, it’s because they know how important that is because character Y is important to them and they’d want a strange with the power to save them to do so. Therefore, when old school Thor saved a random civvie, Jane Foster was somewhere on his mind. By contrast, I have no idea who is on—to use a character a actually like—Fantomex‘s mind when he saves someone. He was born in a lab and his best friend is a space ship that lives in his head… or something. He has no frame of reference, so it’s pretty dang weird when he instantly agrees, over and over again, to gear up and save the mutant or human race for reasons other than maybe his own amusement.
Yes, there are other motivations, but Protect is the motivation. It’s the motivation that, for me, forms the line between ‘superhero’ and vigilante or adventurer. Fantomex, at his best, is an adventurer. He does super-stuff that may or may not be beneficial for others because he enjoys it and that’s that. Deadpool, likewise, is an adventurer; nothing he does is for any better reason than he feels like it. Both those guys are awesome, but I’m not going to call them heroes.
Which brings us back to the supporting cast. Regardless of whether or not they’re ever in any direct danger, the implication we as the audience get is that they’re who the hero is fighting to protect literally or figuratively. Sometimes it’s just their memory that drives this, but the principle is still the same.
Of course, they would be rather bland if that was all they were there for. The other big, big reason you have a supporting cast is to add depth to the life of the main characters. They and the scenes the brign with them to the story allow us to see the main characters in a different light and context from just their hero mode and inner life.
When Our Hero is with their love interest, we get to see their romantic side. When they’re with their friends, we get to see them interacting in a casual setting. Their boss gives us a chance to see them not be the person in control of the situation. And if they manage to have kids without Star City exploding on them, it shows us a bond the likes of which is rarely seen in the genre.
My favorite superhero subgenre, Super School, is my favorite largely because of how neatly it assembles all these ingredients even if everyone is powered. While you always have ‘villain’ classmates, you also have regular old classmates who aren’t main characters, plus teachers, parents, and (my favorite) the boss of the characters’ first job. (Oh yes, fans of Liedecker Institute, that’s coming). The larger focus on cast antics, to me, allows for much closer characterization than stories (even my own) that almost require a steady diet of action setpieces.
Of course, like all tools in the creator’s toolbox, supporting casts can go… wrong. Mostly, this happens when the writer doesn’t actually have anything for the supporting cast to do and still tries to shoehorn them in. You’ll hae cutaways to them doing random, pointless stuff while the main character is off doing something else. It gives the illusion that the supporter is boring and superfluous when in reality, they’re just being treated that way.
The important thing to remember is that the supporters don’t have to be a constant presence, just a regularly recurring one. If they’re written correctly, the audience will remember them if they’ not around for a few issues. Trying to cram them in without thinking how to use them is just pointless fan service that doesn’t actually service fans.
Short blog this week (shoveling snow kicked my ass again). Next week, I’ll do a rundown of my favorite superhero supporting cast members.
Until then, have a great week… and I hope you aren’t getting snow where you are.