Okay, so before I start this week, I want to take a few moments to speak in memory of Leonard Nemoy. I’m sure everyone on the internet has been doing their own tributes and memorials over the last week, so if you’d rather not read mine, skip down a few paragraphs.
I’d like to say that my love of sci-fi started with the original Star Trek series, or at least that my first Star Trek was the original here, but that’s not true. I started seriously watching Star Trek with Deep Space 9 and then watched The Next Generation when it started showing on Saturday evenings on Fox. I never saw more than a handful of Star Trek episodes before college when I finally got to binge on Sci-Fi Channel.
That’s not to say I was ignorant of Leonard Nimoy. I first ‘saw’ him in his cameo on the Simpsons, and though he had some pretty insane and weird lines, some of the kind wisdom that both character and actor became known for shown through.
I actually ended up learning more about Leonard Nimoy than I did Spock thanks to reading various interviews and commentaries Mr. Nimoy has given over the years, and I think it’s fair to say that said kind wisdom was not the sole construct of the Star Trek writers. In fact, I urge you to go out and find those interviews because he talks a lot about the philosophy behind Star Trek and its exploration and introspection themes that are hugely interesting.
In the end though, his best known legacy is going to be Spock—whether he was happy about that or not. And that’s a bigger legacy than most people think. Regardless of if you’re preference of ‘star’ is ‘trek’, ‘wars’, ‘gate’ or ‘dancing with’, it’s undeniable that Star Trek had a profound effect on the world, up to and including two generations and counting of scientists who wouldn’t be in their vocations if not for that. Hell, we now have ion drives and actual working theories of warp drive (that… might annihilate the end point of your travels, but still) and a project to turn phones into working tricorders. Our world would be vastly different in ways beyond simple pop culture if not for Star Trek and by extension, Leonard Nimoy.
So for all that in addition to your wisdom and decades of entertainment, I thank you, Mr. Nimoy. You have lived long and prospered and I hope that wherever you are now, you are beign rewarded for what you’ve done for the world.
And no back to the blog at hand.
Last week, I talked about the importance of supporting casts in Superhero stories. This week, I’m listing off my favorite supporting cast members and explaining why they’re great.
As always with these lists, these are my opinions and I encourage all of your reading this to list your own either here or on the forums. Also, I’ve given myself a few restrictions for this list: 1) no love interests, 2) no sidekicks and 3) no villains no matter how minor, 4) only one entry per franchise. Additionally, I’m drawing from all works in the Superhero genre, even a couple that some of you might want to argue with. I’ll make my case when I get to them, but first, let’s start with one I think we can all agree on…
5 – Alfred Pennyworth (Batman)
Batman is blessed with a great supporting cast. I could have gone with Commissioner Gordon here, or Leslie Thompkins, or Lucius Fox. In fact, I am a huge fan of Lucius Fox in the comics, as it’s constantly implied that he knows who Batman is and manages to keep that information… from Batman. That is how awesome he is.
But in the end, when we talk about supporting cast for the Bat, it begins and ends with one name: Alfred.
For those of you who are presumably only here for Rune Breaker and aren’t into the superhero thing, Alfred is Bruce Wayne (Batman)’s butler and the man who was his caretaker following the death of his parents somewhere between the ages of 6 and 10. He is, for all intents and purposes, Batman’s father figure and he does not shy away from that duty. If there is anyone in the entire world who can stand up to Batman, tell him he’s wrong, or offer advice and expect to have it seriously considered, it’s Alfred.
What’s better is that Alfred doesn’t just pull single duty as ‘the advice guy’. He’s functional to the Bat-mythos as the man who performs the upkeep on the Bat Cave, maintains Bruce’s ‘Rich Idito With No Day Job’ cover, and in most stories keeps all the Bat-vehicles running and acts as field surgeon for Bruce (Leslie takes care of the big stuff). He’s also been known to assist in investigations, oversee Bruce’s training, and of course take care of the various and sundry Robins.
All-in-all Alfred is probably the most valuable supporting character in all of comics.
Now let’s look at the… not-quite-opposite end of the spectrum…
4 – Paco (Blue Beetle III)
Jaime Reyes, the third Blue Beetle had a fairly unique way of dealing when he discovered that he’d been missing for a year after gaining the power of a mystical blue scarab… He told everyone he cared about exactly what happened to him and what as far as he knew) was going on.
This included his best (male) friend, Paco.
And Paco is awesome.
The reason Paco is awesome is because he’s just a regular guy. He’s a slacker who plays video games. He goes to parties he proably shouldn’t. He’s had a few issues with gangs. He’s just… this guy, you know? Not a bad guy; in fact, he’s good and loyal as they come, but he’s pretty much an average teen. An average teen whose best friend turns out to be a superhero.
Unlike Alfred, Paco isn’t highly skilled, but he makes up for it with loyalty, enthusiasm and stepping up whenever it’s called for. There’s a scene in the original run where he beats up alien invaders with a baseball bat because he’s Paco, damnit and his friend’s family was in danger.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised if I said that Paco became a huge influence on how I developed JC Slate (who was created before I discovered Blue Beetle). He really made me appreciate the value of the normal guy, because while often Paco’s ‘normal guy’ knowledge wasn’t enough for a situation, the mundane solution was something others often overlooked.
It’s that kind of mundane common sense that also made me like…
3 – Chloe Sullivan (Smallville)
For all of it’s many, many flaws, Smallville, especially in the early seasons, was a pretty enjoyable show. Largely because of two things: 1) the Kents (especially John Snyder as Pa Kent) and 2) Chloe. I’ve said before that I am a fan of the Lois and Clark relationship, and honestly, Chloe brought all the best parts of Lois into a high school context.
She was witty. She was smart. She was fiercely loyal. And, while the script insisted that the teen cast constantly break and enter into every place that could possibly kill them, Chloe still managed to be the beacon of common sense most of the time.
The most important part here comes later, when she learns and begins keeping Clark’s secret. It’s at this point, Chloe separates herself from every single other person Clark knows and shows some goddamn curiosity. No, seriously: no one else questions what else Clark can do, what his limits are, or how they work. Chloe starts piecing it together, and is eventually able to teach Clark to use his powers again after he gets amnesia.
Time and time again, it falls to her to figure crap out while no one else seems concerned at all about how Clark can turn off the eye beams of burning death.
Sadly, like most of the characters on Smallville, Chloe’s intelligence degraded over the course of the series, especially as the writers worked to separate her from Clark in order to make room for the less interesting and very un-Lois-like Lois Lane. The ironic thing is, Chloe was more Lois than Lois in Smallville to the point that fans theorized that she would somehow become Lois. Seriously. Google ‘Clois Theory’.
And now we move on to the two choices on this list people will argue with. And don’t pretend you won’t because the first one is…
2 – Xander Harris (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
As I’ve said before, I feel that Buffy is the first major modern live-action superhero show. Aside from the costume (which I’ve also said) isn’t a prerequisite for superhero-dom, she has all the trappings and tropes of a superhero short of actually calling herself one. Therefore, I declare the Scooby Gang fair game for this list and Xander is my favorite.
And, while I have a special place in my heart for Willow (because, Alyson Hannigan), think Cordelia is the best character from the show, and think Giles is awesome, Xander is the best at being a supporting character in terms of what he actually does for the show.
Xander is unique among supporting cast for Superheroes in that he really does no like the universe he lives in. While Chloe, Paco and even Alfred have issues with specific situations, Xander has an almost Forth Wall breaking understanding that the world really is out to turn him into a butt monkey and to always step up with some worse evil for the gang to encounter.
Plus, he’s arguably the least useful character in the cast for much of the show. While Giles is Mr. Exposition and Willow gets magic, Xander remains just a guy with no real special powers or skills. Even Paco was pretty tough in a fight, but Xander doesn’t even have that.
…which is why I like him so much. Despite his earlier motivations being to impress Buffy, Xander grows into someone who faces his literal worst fears and things far more terrible with absolutely nothing and no expectation of survival just because he won’t abandon his friends and the fact that it’s been proven that one more body really does count in Buffy fights. The guy has faced off against horrors that kill the worst things you can imagine armed with sarcasm and the Power of Friendship.
Because he’s Xander, goddamnit.
And along that same vein…
1 – Bulk and Skull (Power Rangers (Seasons 1 -6)
Super Sentai, and by extension, the Power Rangers Franchise based on the genre, are an interesting sub-genre of superhero works with their own tropes and conventions above and beyond the super-genre. Just like Buffy, I’ve already made my case for this, so if you want to disagree with this choice, there’s my counter.
I’ve recently been watching Linkara’s History of Power Rangers and in a way, that’s what got me thinking about supporting cast in general. Namely, because the franchise hasn’t had supporting characters on par with Bulk and Skull sense the end of Power Rangers in Space when the original duo was broken up. Pretty much every half-way interesting character thereafter ended up as one of the Rangers eventually if they weren’t already a mentor.
And the thing is, Bulk and Skull, while being silly and having a great character arc are again fairly unique when it comes to supporting cast members. In this case, that comes in the form of their character arc being heavily influenced by the Power Rangers without them ever becoming truly close to those characters.
It’s an amazing bit of worldbuilding, and if you don’t see it, let me paint you a picture: last week, I talked about the supporting cast being the ‘why’ for the hero. But in accordance with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, being close to the hero changes the average supporting cast’s lives already. But what about people who aren’t friends or even acquaintances?
Bulk and Skull, for the vast majority of their tenure, are actively antagonistic toward the civilian forms of the Power Rangers, never getting to know them personally, and never becoming anything more important than ‘annoying classmate’ to the Rangers. However, the pair quickly start to idolize the Rangers and (especially in Bulk), it starts to shine through as they start trying to do good on their own, even becoming junior police officers.
It gets to the point that they end up standing up against monsters (who can easily annihilate a normal human) on several occasions, including protecting the rangers themselves (in both forms).
In this way, they serve as examples of the more important impact the Rangers (ie. Superheroes) have on normal people: inspiring them to do what’s right and putting themselves out there for others. They prove that the Rangers aren’t just plugging a leak by passively defending against monster attacks, and really are making the world a better place in general.
So no matter how bumbling and esoteric these two were, I’d say they’re MVPs of Superhero Supporting Characters and something anyone creating a superhero story should keep in mind when populating their world.
Next week’s blog is going to be a new feature: Ask Vaal, where I answer reader questions about my works. You can ask your questions here in the comments, on the forum or in email, and I’ll pick the best to answer as part of the blog.
Also, you might notice there’s a new theme on the site. Please let me know if you encounter any problems with it.
Interesting take. I definitely love Alfred from the DCAU as well; I think those shows had a number of good supporting characters, really. Lois Lane, Commissioner Gordon, Amanda Waller, and more. In some ways, my favorite of the DCAU shows is Batman Beyond, and Max was pretty cool in that show.
I definitely agree about Xander. He was a great friend/supporting character, and the fact that he never got magic or extra powers was always part of that. Beyond just the relationships, having a normal guy around helped to keep the show grounded, I suspect. For one thing, it might have discouraged the writers from wild threat level escalations, which can encourage people to create drama through good writing rather than just saying “Oh my god, this new threat is twice as explosiontastic as the last one! It is THE GREATEST THREAT we’ve ever faced!” That sort of thing is always a risk with superheroes and certain kinds of speculative fiction. Like the trick of setting a sequel IN SPACE to draw an audience without a good reason.