Sunday, May 26, 2013

The importance of a supporting cast

 Most great works of fiction include a vibrant and memorable cast of characters who play a supporting role to the protagonist or the antagonist.  If you think back to the greatest novels and movies of all time, you will almost certainly find yourself thinking about some characters who were not the stars -- not the main characters -- but who nevertheless had an important role to play in the story.  In fact, some of the supporting characters end up being quite memorable.  Here are a few examples:

  • In the Star Wars movies, the two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, play an endearing and important supporting role in all six films.
  • The Harry Potter series includes a vast array of popular and lovable supporting characters, including the Weasley children (Fred, George, and Ginny), Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Professor McGonagall, Dobby, and perhaps most memorable of all, Professor Snape.
  • Supporting characters play pivotal roles in the Lord of the Rings, including Treebeard, who causes the destruction of Isengard and the downfall of Saruman, and Eowyn, who slays the Witch King of Angmar.

Supporting characters serve a number of roles in any story, but one of the most important is to hold a mirror, or perhaps I should say a magnifying glass, up to the main character.  By this, I mean that we learn a great deal about our main character through the interactions he or she has with the supporting cast. Often, we learn far more from these interactions than we do from the protagonist's conflict with the villain of the piece.  For example, we see Harry Potter's kindness exhibited in his treatment of Dobby (in contrast to how most other wizards treat house-elves).  Clearly, the supporting cast is of critical importance to most fictional stories, and good writers know this and make sure to provide good supporting characters.  

Historically, comic-book writers have known this and have taken great pains to flesh out and develop the supporting cast for each super-hero.  Indeed, many of these supporting characters have become as integral to the heroes as their powers are.  What would a Superman story be, for instance, without Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen?  And can anyone really imagine Batman without also thinking of his butler, Alfred?  And what Iron Man story would be complete without Pepper Potts?

That's why I've been so surprised, since returning to the comics world last December, at how many comic-book series have few, if any, supporting characters, and at how under-developed the supporting cast is, if it even exists at all.  For example, as good as Thor, God of Thunder is, we have seen eight issues now, and there are only three real characters in the story -- all of them Thor.  Captain America has been trapped in a dimension where he and his adoptive "son" are basically alone (for 12 years and 6 issues) against the entire world, leaving him with just the child as a supporting character.  And in 21 issues of Supergirl, there has not yet been one recurring supporting character.

The lack of a good supporting cast is, in my view, a critical flaw in these series.  Supporting characters add so much to a super-hero story that I can't believe writers would make the monumental error of leaving them out.  These characters add depth and soul to a story, and give extra dramatic weight to the decisions the hero has to make.  Supporting characters give the hero someone concrete, someone we know and love, to defend. We care about Lois Lane; we like her; and we want Superman to save her.  Superman's actions thus carry more weight than they would if he is just battling to save an abstraction ("the earth" or "Metropolis" or "innocent people").

Nowhere is the harm that can be done by lack of a good supporting cast more evident than in the current Supergirl series.  As I said above, it has been 21 issues (1-20 plus #0), or almost two years, and in all that time, the writers have not seen fit to include a single supporting character.  Oh, there have been guest stars, including the entire Justice League, Superboy, and the future Silver Banshee. But none of these characters can be considered part of Supergirl's supporting cast.  Instead, the Supergirl series has been all-Kara, all the time.

And as much as I love Kara, having the series be just about her has harmed it in a very serious way.  We have gotten far less insight into the character of Kara Zor-El than we would have if there were some supporting characters with whom she could interact.  We only see what Kara is like under pressure, in combat, trying to just stay alive against powerful enemies.  And although that can reveal some elements of character, the finer revelations of personality and disposition come in the quieter scenes. And the really important choices happen when people both the reader and the heroine care about are involved. So far, we have none of that in this new Supergirl series.

Contrast this dearth of supporting characters in the New 52 Supergirl with the supporting cast of the third Supergirl series, penned by Peter David in the 1990s.  

Peter David's Supergirl had an extremely strong supporting cast that included Linda/Supergirl's best friend, medical resident Maddie Hayes, Leesburg reporter Cutter Sharpe, Linda's boyfriend Dick Malverne, Linda's parents Fred and Sylvia Danvers, Wally the "God-boy," and horse-like hero Comet.  Except for Comet, all these characters appear in the very first few issues of David's Supergirl run, and they are seen frequently.  They interact with Supergirl and with each other, and serve multiple purposes in the story. 

First, the supporting cast adds some comic relief.  In particular, Cutter and Maddie engage in a frequently hilarious relationship that will leave the reader smiling. Second, they help Peter David raise the level of suspense, because they give him side stories to which he can cut, interrupting the main action of the book. Thus, he can get Supergirl into a suspenseful mini-cliffhanger within an issue, and then cut to Cutter and Maddie having a lovers' quarrel, making you want to turn the pages and see what happens back in the Supergirl storyline.  Third, they add weight to the choices Supergirl has to make.  It's not just "the people of Leesburg" who are endangered, but Linda/Supergirl's mother and father who are threatened.

Because David makes good use of supporting characters, he can also tell emotionally and intellectually deep stories.  For example, issue 23 tells the story of a white supremacist who is scheduled to speak at Leesburg University.  The minority students protest this speech, and try to get the university to shut it down.  Maddie Hayes, who is African American, is part of this group. On the other side are those who believe in freedom of speech no matter how hateful the words may be, and this side includes Maddie's boyfriend, Cutter, who as a reporter holds the First Amendment sacred.  Linda/Supergirl is friends with both of these characters, and ends up caught in the middle. The inclusion of supporting characters in the debate transforms Supergirl's choice from an academic question of free speech, into an emotionally charged dilemma where she has to choose between two of her best friends.  This story is compelling and powerful because of the involvement of the supporting characters. Without them, it would have had no teeth. 

This is one example of why supporting characters are critically important to any story, but there are many others that could be invoked from the comic-book series of the past.  Supporting characters make the story better; they make it more impactful; and they raise the emotional ante.  Without them, all those things are lost, and we end up with a comic-book that is just about super-fights.  And without the emotional jolt provided by including supporting characters, even the super-fights become rather empty.

I've been back to reading comics for six months now, and I've read a fair few since my return (I'd estimate over 200).  Throughout this time, I've felt that something is missing from today's comics.  I've been struggling to figure out exactly what.  I suspect a lot of things are to blame, but probably the biggest one is the lack of a solid supporting cast for many of the series on the market today.  They can still have good stories and can still be interesting, but the emotional impact will always be lower without a supporting cast.  And it also becomes harder to relate to a super-hero, if there aren't any normal people around him or her with whom we can identify.

Supergirl, in particular, has been struggling to find her way in this New 52.  Her character still has not really been established yet (except that we know she has a very hot temper and can fly into super-powered rages at pretty much the drop of a hat).  We know so little about her as a person -- as a human being.  We know far less about her in 21 issues than we knew about the Linda Danvers character in the first nine-issue story arc of Peter David's run.  And why?  I submit the main reason is that the New 52 Supergirl hasn't had any supporting characters with whom she can interact. So we only see her temper, because we only see the "action" -- the fight scenes.

This over-dependence on action is not making comic-books better. It's making them worse -- because it's hamstringing the writer's ability to provide depth and complexity to the stories, and it's removing the traditional primary source of emotion and humanity -- the supporting cast.  If DC and Marvel know what's good for them, they'll bring back supporting characters in a big way -- and ASAP.

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