Discussing Characters and Change in Media/Tie-In

Marvel Thor

This is a post I stopped and started multiple times, because I found myself in that weird space between “I am a fan” and “I am a professional.” I am both, and I am very aware (and sometimes scared) what a critique of say, the Captain America-as-Hydra storyline would do for my career in the future (1). My experiences with media/tie-in have mostly been positive, but I’ve always gotten the sense that the bigger companies/IPs tend to err on the conservative side (2). As such, I feel I fared better because I recognized the business mechanisms in place early on, and learned to mitigate my feelings stemming from business decisions or changes made to a character, story, etc.

As time went on, I learned that working in media/tie-in isn’t the same for everyone. There are a lot of variables, and it’s unique depending upon the people and businesses involved. Occasionally, the sides of the box for a project were so well-defined I had a narrow band to work with; other times, I was given more freedom. Regardless, after a while I learned that my vision of a setting isn’t what’s needed or required at all times. You do have to have a certain amount of selflessness to understand that you’re not working on “your” property, regardless of how much you love, enjoy, or get paid to do the work. Sometimes, you are a talented storyteller or game designer who knows how to work within the confines of a project; at random moments you could be hired because that company wants to see your vision, your take on a beloved character.

That said? Change sucks. Change is hard. And yet, change is all but guaranteed–especially for properties that age or become so popular iterate works are constantly generated. Star Wars, for example, has been around for forty years, and in that time there’s been movies, comic books, novels, graphic novels, short stories, a live action TV show, Christmas special, etc. But, as a fan we all remember our “first” experience with Star Wars and, more importantly, how it made us feel. So, when we intersect with Star Wars again, and Anakin Skywalker’s maturation and eventual fall to the dark side doesn’t generate the same feelings as Darth Vader did in the past, we are upset or disappointed. Maybe we watch Episodes I, II, and III anyway. Maybe we wait until something new comes out (3). But, for a kid? Episodes I, II, and III were their first experience with Star Wars, and for them the feelings those movies generates is just as powerful as ours were back in the day.

I am hugely sympathetic to the challenges companies and creators face with respect to new storylines for this and many other reasons. It is very hard to work on a property that has such devoted fans who expect to engage with a specific kind of story or version of a character. Only, flagship properties often sell because of their iconic nature’s visibility and prominence, and to a certain extent there will be a portion of the fanbase who will always buy those works no matter what. I personally feel there’s more room for change to expand, rather than subtract, audiences because there’s so much to explore to modernize characters, stories, settings and reach hungry readers.

That said, I personally believe that changes can only happen up to a point. That line, that point where it’s no longer welcome… Well, that’s the boundary between “this is a re-imagining of Thor” versus “this is a new character who wields Mjolnir but is no longer Thor”. What we’re talking about here isn’t the difference between iconic (static or unchanging) vs. dynamic characters, but changing an existing character or a setting beyond recognition. Sometimes, those experiments can and do work, and I’m of the mind that Emerald City and Tin Man are both fantastic examples of that. Other times, however, changes don’t work because there’s a decided lack of connecting threads between the reimagining of that character and their former self–other than their name or artistic depiction. That, for me, is when the creative change fails, and that becomes more nuanced and complicated with each passing iteration (4).

My feelings tend to worsen when the character is turned inside out, and the hero is flatly depicted as the villain–the very thing they were fighting tooth and nail against. Switching heroes into villains, and vice versa, affects the story irrevocably. By doing so, the theme and message of that narrative arc is now in conflict with previous iterations as well; that change wouldn’t be something I’d expect to resonate well with fans–especially with respect to iconic characters like Captain American who are rooted in American pride and history. Yes, we’ve had our complicated villains (Magneto) and I’m a big fan of writing in those morally gray spaces for both protagonists and antagonists, but how far can/should you change the essence of an iconic character? The answer, to me, is that sometimes big changes aren’t necessary to tell a powerful story. Sometimes, you don’t need to change much to make a story new. Sometimes, it’s more important to recognize the responsibility that comes from writing a character like Captain America.

Before I get back to writing, I wanted to close by addressing the poor reception of Captain America-as-Hydra storyline. If you are a creator, please know that once your work is published you have no control over its reception. None. I tell that to every writer I hire, and even I need that reminder sometimes. It sucks, but that’s the nature of the beast. And second, I would hope that it’s obvious there are other ways to generate new story arcs that are fresh and new and relevant without changing the character’s essence. I came up with several for Cap, because that was my way of dealing with my frustration, and currently am trying not to spend time writing fanfic. (Twist my arm… Maybe later…) Okay, hear me out. My reimagining is about Loki tricking Cap to leave the Avengers by shunting him into an alternate, seemingly-peaceful universe where he had settled down with Sharon Carter and his three kids–only to find out the peace he enjoys was engineered by Hydra. Unfortunately for Cap, in this reality Hydra is a yet-to-be-discovered force of great evil, and he’s the only one to see them for who they really are. When his kids recite rhetoric reminiscent of Hydra’s b.s., how does he respond? How will Cap deal with the knowledge that he can stop Hydra by going on the offensive? Will he be able to shock an apathetic society into action, and at what cost?

Anyway, given the many many conversations about comics I’ve seen in the past few days, I thought I’d offer some thoughts about changing beloved characters from my creative perspective. ‘Til next time!

(1) Write for Marvel? Of course, I would. Are you kidding me? That said, no I am not a fan of this storyline at all.

(2) Often, I’ve been fed the line that companies want to hire folks who are a fan of their characters/settings, and over time I’ve found that this isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes, that’s shorthand for: “We don’t want to hire outside of the people we already know.”

(3) The reason why new stories are told within the same universes over and over again is often financially (and sometimes contractually) driven. This is why we have many, many Batman and Spiderman movies.

(4) I think Batman is an exception here because DC has embraced many different iterations of the character, while retaining his essence and complexities.

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Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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