Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Psycho-Changer, Qu'est Que C'est


One of the greatest advantages of long form, episodic storytelling is that characters develop over time as a natural reaction to their experiences. Rather than the sudden epiphany required in a two hour movie, a comic book character can, issue by issue, over years, progress through stages of growth.

Catwoman, for example, moved from thief with little conscience to someone who robs only from the rich to Robin Hood in black leather to out-and-out vigilante superhero—not over the course of one story but over two series running over 15 years! Such a well mapped progression gives a sense of character growth earned, an arc rewarded and a hero in the place she ought to be!

Which is why I really hate "psycho-changers," those plot devices that explain personality change as the sudden result of some external influence. Instead of personality changing as a natural reaction to personal experience, characters are bonked on the head with a coconut or exposed to "evil radiation" and suddenly they're jerks, murderous and wearing stupid emo haircuts. (Why yes, I did see Spider-Man 3 this weekend. Why do you ask?)

One of the many reasons I stopped watching Smallville was that the only times the characters changed at all was when they were hit with Kryptonite-infused pollen (or Kryptonite-infused bugs, or red Kryptonite, or black Kryptonite, or...) and suddenly they were adrenaline-seeking bad girls who dressed skankily or wanted to kill Clark. Why should the writers take the time to come up with a good, compelling reason teenagers would want to have sex or Lex Luthor would want to be evil, when there's Plotdevise-inite just lying around everywhere?

I mean, "psycho-changers" are okay for one-shot stories where they set-up otherwise impossible situations ("Oh no, Superman thinks he's Darkseid's son!") or are used as metaphors for internal struggles (one of fantasy's great strengths is that internal demons become external, where they are easier to punch in the nose). But when they are over-used or are used in place of real development, where the metaphor is dropped entirely, they become a major problem.

Particularly when the "psycho-changer" actually REPLACES real development (that some other writer took the time to create) with arbitrary excuses for new behavior. God forbid the loss of his entire city and almost everyone he knows drove Hal Jordan to try change history, no matter what the cost. That would, you know, make sense. Nope, he had to be infected with an alien parasite no one knew about before. (Also, all the people he killed are not actually dead.)

Or Cassandra Cain. Daughter of assassins. Trained from birth to be an assassin. Used by Batman more as a weapon than as a person. Never discovered her human side, no matter how hard she tried. Forced to fight her mother, over and over again, until she finally kills her. Disappears for a year. But what explains her trying to kill Robin?


Evil Serum!

But more annoying to me than the "psycho-changers" explaining why good characters went bad are the "psycho-changers" that explain why villains reformed. I watched Catwoman grow a conscience over a very long period of time. To say that her growth was not her own, but imposed on her by a meddling Zatanna, is to say that Catwoman couldn't have changed on her own.

The problem is that "psycho-changers" define personality as something constant and inert unless arbitrarily acted upon by fantastic forces. That rehabilitation is just as impossible as falls from grace. That some people are just born evil, and some are born good, and nothing short of alien intervention can change that.

In fact, personality is something that's constantly in flux. Are you the same person you were five years ago? Have you grown in anyway? Are you better? Are you worse? And is any of this change a result of brainwashing?

6 comments:

universalperson said...

Ah, but the Hal Jordan and Cass Cain fans would argue that their out-of-characterness was a psycho-changer in and of itself. (Her first appearence in Robin OYL was inconsitent with her ENTIRE SERIES). For Hal, I liked the way it was done, cause he deserved better-he turned evil from editorial fiat.

As for Cass, I think we need something even more redeeming. Right now I'm saying evil clones, and the real Cass is waiting somewhere is suspended animation...

Slade is also nothing like his previous appearences.

Anonymous said...

That's not how you spell "Qu'est-ce que c'est."

Steven said...

Oh universalperson, I should have guessed you would be the voice of Fanboy Entitlement.

Again, you claim to speak for all Cassandra Cain fans, but I am a Cassandra Cain fan and I know you don't speak for me.

I know her entire series because I own her entire series and quite frankly, her first appearance in Robin is ENTIRELY consistent with her last appearance in Batgirl (except for maybe taking a year to learn how to talk good English).

See, she changes over the course of her series.

'Course, since you see personality as an inert constant, you call ALL life experiences "psycho changers", since whatever deviates a character from your personal definition of how they should act must be an unnatural, artificial, and arbitrary event.

Because having everyone you know killed then being told you can't use your magical wishing ring to change history wouldn't be a good reason to get angry, but being possessed by yellow space worm makes perfect sense.

Yeesh.

Anon: It was how the Talking Heads spelled it. Blame them.

universalperson said...

steven, I am most definitly the voice of fanboy entitlement. I will not deny that.

But when I speak of Cass Cain fans, I speak of her friends in superdickery, the ones who write the Casstoons.

At the end of her series, Cass was set up to be a character more like Manhunter: She would kill people so that lives would be saved. But she would be compassionate about it.

However, her first appearence in Robin contradicts that completly. She becomes a stereotypical villain, with an attraction to Robin that was never there. And even then, Cass would never force Robin to kill someone, like she did in that issue. And her given motivation was weak. Her father? Not Bludhaven, or Stephanie, or anything else?

This isn't just a matter of personality, it was a complete betrayal of entire moral code. Maybe you don't agree with me, that's fine, but part of the reason I love these characters is because they have such well defined personalities. From a writing standpoint, you can set up a situation and immediatly know how a character should react. That's why I like Cass so much-she has a well defined personality.

Here, I feel Beechen is just putting words in her mouth, and making her dance to his strings, rather than let the character speak for herself. The whole "WTF juice" thing by Slade was just an attempt to retcon bad writing, and I think it was a bad idea done badly. Not that my idea is much better, mind you. I just feel it allows me to cut most of the bad writing away without implicating Cass somehow.

Now, I have an off topic question: What do you think I should do for a second blog post? SHould I just start posting whatever, or is there some sort of blog second post tradition, or what?

Matt said...

1. I agree and disagree with you about Hal Jordan. I've always thought that the Hal-as-Parallax stuff was a little on the "WTF" side, but at the same time, I think "Rebirth" would have resonated more with me, as a reader, had his actions as Parallax been something he had to redeem himself for (not something he FEELS he has to redeem himself for) as opposed to "Hey, look, it wasn't his fault! Aren't all you rabid Hal fans happy now?"

2. 110% agreement on Smallville. It feels like the characters haven't aged or matured a bit since Season 2. The only thing they've really gotten right is Lex's turn to evil - and a lot of the time I feel like even THAT comes off hollow.

3. I haven't followed Catwoman much (although I recognize that I should) - don't tell me they tried to impose all of that Identity Crisis nonsense on her, or are you just using her as an example?

-M

Adam Barnett said...

I can handle the notion of Cassandra going back to her ultraviolent ways without the evil serum, thanks. And the alien possessing of Hal is an insult to everyone's intelligence. I don't mind people's personalities changing, but it should be based on events in their lives, not because someone slipped them a mickey.