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Does Redemption Make Characters Boring?

This happens all of the time in the comic medium. A character does something drastic or goes in an extreme direction, and writers then naturally put the character on a path of redemption. The result is usually that there’s a spike in the popularity or at least interest level of that character with readers. Finally, the character becomes redeemed and is back to how he or she was when the whole process started. Strangely -- or not so strangely -- the character’s popularity proceeds to wane as many readers stop paying attention. Why? Well, the answer is probably right there.

You made the character interesting, and then you got rid of what made the character interesting.

What did you think was going to happen?

A good hypothetical example of this is a personal favorite character of mine. Jason Todd. This character found popularity he had never known when he returned as the Red Hood. He became the murderous black sheep of the Batman family, and a certain question almost immediately began popping up in the fandom. Can Jason be redeemed? Can he become a heroic member of the Batman family again? To me, all this was asking was if we could get rid of what make Jason a fun character to read about. What would be unique about a redeemed Jason Todd? We have Nightwing for all of our graduated Robin purposes. Jason fulfills the role of the fallen Robin. Why take that away from him? Why take it away from any character?

Jason Todd, Red Hood
Often, it’s the flaws that make characters interesting. We already have big names like Superman, Spider-Man and Captain America. We have our superheroic paragons of virtue pretty well established, and we go to them when we want to read about that type of character. As such, we tend not to pay a whole lot of attention to other characters who are also straight-laced do-gooders. We pay attention when they somehow take a turn for the worse, which is just a way of saying they do something more unique to pay attention to. So in these cases, redemption becomes just a way of saying you’re going to revert the character to a less unique and interesting state.

I was all about Avengers: Children’s Crusade when it first began. Not only was it bringing the Young Avengers back to the forefront, but the Scarlet Witch was finally returning to face all she had caused. But after a few issues, it became apparent that all the series was really doing was redeeming her of every interesting little thing that had happened, ridiculously all the way down to having a fling with Hawkeye. This was the hurried redemption of the Scarlet Witch. Now as far as I’m concerned, the character is back to being fairly irrelevant. She’s mostly redeemed and mostly off my radar.

Redemption, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily bad or boring. Sometimes, a measure of redemption is necessary to get a character into a position where stories can be told exploring them. The problem comes when that measure of redemption is too great and leaves so little left to be explored. There is a difference between trying to turn over a new leaf and actually turning that new leaf over. There is a difference in finding ways of coping with emotional instability and actually being cured of it. Often, that difference is one is interesting and one is not.

Hank Pym as the WaspHank Pym is a character who always struggles between fault and redemption. Some writers enjoy playing up his flaws while others feel he needs to be redeemed of them. Pym is one of the smartest characters in the Marvel Universe. What do we get when he’s played straight with his flaws toned down? We get probably one of the least remarkable smart guys in the Marvel Universe. There’s some pretty stiff competition with the likes of Mr. Fantasic, Iron Man, Beast and Bruce Banner around. Hank Pym as Giant-Man makes me sleepy. Hank Pym as the Wasp, his dead ex-wife’s identity? I’m wide awake for that. Keep that man out of therapy and off his pills.

Popular fiction is filled with main characters who are far from perfect and tend to be the source of their own problems. I somehow doubt House would have lasted on television as long as it did if Dr. Gregory House overcame all his faults in the first season. I don’t own every season of the Shield on DVD because it’s filled with a cast of straight-laced cops who do things by the book. It seems that mainstream comics have trouble in this area, though. Oh, they manage it in the short term, but the compulsion toward redemption so often seems to come along.

There’s some middle ground here, though. Take the Thunderbolts, for example. For a while, they were all about redemption. But it was that journey toward redemption that made things interesting. Did you really want to see the Thunderbolts achieve it? Once these supervillains get their redemption, they become just some other superheroes. Fans have long argued that the book is supposed to be about redemption. But the truth is probably that, behind the scenes, it has long been about fighting against redemption. It’s no coincidence that the book took a strong swerve toward more severe and compromised villains with Warren Ellis’ run after we had gotten to the point where we were dealing with a redeemed Baron Zemo of all people.

It’s just a matter of writers remembering that the journey tends to be more interesting than the actual destination. If you insist on putting a character on the path toward redemption, ask yourself what will happen once the character gets there. Are they better for it? Are they still unique and interesting? Are you replacing those interesting flawed qualities with things as or more interesting? If the answer to these questions is always no, what you’re doing isn’t redeeming a character. You’re running that character into the ground.


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