Superheroes, typically, are not protagonists. By protagonist I mean the character who, over the course of the narrative, changes. The character journey, character arc, all that good stuff (For a useful primer on heroes, main characters and protagonists, check out this article by the awesome John August).
In most movies, it’s easy to pick out the protagonist. Conventional screenwritng dictates that there HAS to be one, and there’s usually a big ol’ lantern illuminating how they’ve changed. Page 15: Han Solo is a reluctant, money-driven mercenary. Page 110: Han shows up even though he already got paid. Lantern.
But superhero comics don’t have that. The origin story often starts out with a character arc, but the rest of the series just rides that wave. Peter Parker is irresponsible and doesn’t stop that robber, Uncle Ben dies — now he’s a good guy. So yes, Amazing Fantasy #15 does have a character arc, and Peter Parker is certainly the protagonist. For the subsequent 50 years, Peter Parker’s protagonism is in question
But is it a problem? I’ll go with my typical answer: yes and no. No, not every comic needs to have a character arc. It’s unnatural rules like that which have sapped the creativity of screenwriters.
On the flipside, the advice has root in reality. People like growth. It’s satisfying on a human level. When all the smoke has cleared, growth is what all human beings can relate to. The recent success of independent comics, dating back to early Vertigo, is fueled by the growth seen in these characters. Same goes for most of the “best” superhero runs.
So why don’t more superhero comics have character arcs? Part of the constraint is the medium. When you have a series that runs for 200 or more issues, it’s hard to keep developing a character without going in circles. I think this explains the success of a lot of modern reboots: when Amazing Spider-Man had stopped developing as a character, Ultimate Spider-Man was growing and changing. Audiences reacted.
So what’s the solution? Creators need to rise to the occasion. Audiences will respond. Yes, it’s easier to craft a character arc in a 90 minute movie than in a 600 issue comic, but there are 3 proven ways that episodic media uses character arcs:
The TV Method – Incremental, small changes: this is what we see in most episodic TV shows. From the begining to the end of each story the character changes. In sitcoms, these changes are often so minor that they have no impact on the next episode. Modern Family is a great example. In dramas, these changes can build on each other, gradually altering the character over time. See: Breaking Bad.
Extended Arcs – If the TV method is a quickie, then this guy is the 12-hour Tantric affair. The character changes slowly, incrementally, over a long run. When executed properly, it’s awesome and moving, watching a gradual shift in the character. Too often, these attempts end up stalling in the middle to tread water, or go on beyond the end of the arc without steam. Most of the catalogue of Vertigo successfully demonstrates these arcs.
Supporting Characters – Just because it’s a superhero comic doesn’t mean the hero needs to be the protagonist. Frank Miller’s Daredevil is a great example of this – Elektra, Foggy, the Kingpin and Bullseye all have their own character arcs – in addition to a gradual change to Daredevil himself. No surprise it’s considered one of the best superhero runs of all time.
With all the reboot fever going on right now, I’m hoping to see more writers using the opportunity to write genuine, growing characters. But two of the best superhero books on the stands right now, Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery and Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics, are showing that it doesn’t take a reboot to write great character arcs. Both turn the focus on the former supporting cast as they grow and come into their own, and both comics are hundreds of issues into their run. Writers like this are showing what’s possible, and audiences are responding. It’s time for other creators to take note, and for audiences to expect the best.