Out of Character is Serious Business
A long time ago, I witnessed a conversation between Paul Jenkins and a couple fans on the Hulk message board I moderate.
The fans were complaining about the Incredible Hulk Annual 2000, which is infamous for being the issue where the Hulk acts like an ape in heat and picks a fight with the Avengers for the purpose of banging his cousin.
That particular story is definitely one I’d like to forget, and I’m glad other writers have ignored it (well, except for Mark Millar, who for some reason is obsessed with the Hulk as an incestuous rapist, but he’s thankfully been kept away from the character). However, one exchange that really stands out for me is when the fans insisted that “the Hulk wouldn’t do that.”
Jenkins, using a smiley face emoticon to emphasize the tongue-in-cheek nature of his next comment, responded, “Of course the Hulk would do that – he just did, didn’t he?”
Despite the fact that I don’t really like the issue in question, I have to admit Jenkins gave a good answer.
The longer somebody remains a fan of a fictional character, the more likely they are to have an idea of what that character is like. Most comics fans fell in love with their favorite character as kids and have essentially grown up with these fictional constructs. As a result, they develop a sense of who the character is from their point of view. The problem is that many people don’t realize that a different point of view on who the character is isn’t necessarily wrong. These are, after all, fictional creations and open to a number of different interpretations.
Does Batman kill people? Of course not – unless you accept the multiple stories where he has indeed killed people, be it in the Golden Age tales or as recently as Batman Begins.
(Yeah, yeah, you can say, “He didn’t actually kill Ra’s al Ghul, he just didn’t save him” all you want, but the fact is that Batman was the guy who jammed the controls on the train, set it to crash, and then left Ra’s trapped inside. But I don’t buy any argument that boils down to, “Batman doesn’t kill people. Runaway trains damaged by a ninja fight carrying an implausible vaporizing weapon kill people.”)
Does the Hulk kill people in his rampages? The answer varies from story to story.
Is Tony Stark a guy who fell into alcoholism once during a particularly bad time in his life or a guy who has always had troubles with substance abuse? Recent stories tend to go with the latter, but the former is a valid interpretation as well.
The other thing fans tend to ignore when they complain about somebody acting out of character is that human beings often change radically and do things that nobody would expect. Nobody who knew me as a teenager thought I might attempt suicide, let alone do it twice. For most of my life I’ve railed against the idea of having kids, but now I happily have two. If I were a comic book character, people could call this either a ridiculous stretch based on my history or a solid example of character development. It would all boil down to how many people like the story.
I have had plenty of opportunities to see the 2013 film Man of Steel, but I have chosen not to. The reasoning has nothing to do with the quality of movie it might be, as all evidence points to the idea that it’s probably the one Superman movie ever made that doesn’t suck. It’s simply a matter of preference and the fact that I know a few key spoilers that are keeping me away. I don’t want to see a Superman film rife with Jesus metaphors. I don’t want to hear Pa Kent even entertain the idea that maybe some schoolkids should have died horribly. And I don’t want to see Superman kill somebody. None of these elements make Man of Steel a bad movie or a bad Superman movie – they just make it the type of Superman movie I don’t really want to watch.
When a fan says, “X would never do that,” he really means, “My preferred interpretation of X would never do that.” But it’s worth remembering that the writers of these stories tend to be fans themselves. Having a different take on a character doesn’t render their stories invalid.
That’s not to say that every version of a character is a good one. Superman: At Earth’s End, for example, is a terrible story and will always be a terrible story. But a single discrepancy in character interpretation doesn’t ruin an otherwise good story. In the case of the annual I mentioned at the start of this rant, Paul Jenkins’ story as a whole is actually pretty good – it explores the loneliness the Hulk feels, has some good action as he battles the Avengers, and ends on a tragic note in which the Hulk realizes once again that he is doomed to be forever alone. It doesn’t jive with my preferred interpretation of the Hulk, in which the Hulk is more childlike than bestial, but it’s still a decent story. I choose not to include it in my Hulk collection, but its existence ruins nothing.
No matter how much attachment we have to these characters, fans don’t own these superheroes. Luckily, comics make it very easy to arrange things to fit your own personal interpretation. Buy what you like, ignore the rest.