What Defines a Character?

Publishers are trying to capture your attention (and dollars) by introducing quirks to the makeup of their cast. This most often occurs in the form of a ‘Brand New Status Quo’ on the heels of a “Things Will Never be the Same Again” event. These adjustments can showcase Iron Man as the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, Wonder Woman being the daughter of Zeus or other shifts in the character. The Internet never truly breaks in half, despite the claims of creators, but there are pockets of outrage as fan favorites are adjusted improperly.

What traits of a fictional character are acceptable to alter and what aren’t? As we grow through our natural lives, our personalities change, jobs, friends, setting and everything around us in constant flux. No one is the same person at 15, 25, or 35; but there is an expectation that Batman will always be Batman as he was when fans first encountered him.

Publishers bring the fan outrage on themselves by retconning characters back to their origin stories whenever the gimmick runs its course. They will gladly showcase Dr. Octopus in Peter Parker’s brain as a brand new way to tell stories, but change the character Peter Horizon Labsback to classic-Peter in time for a movie release. If everything about a character can be updated in an instance, typically during a creator change, and then everything reverts back to the old standard, do fans have a right to be upset during the months of oddity? Can publishers go too far and change a character to the point where they are unrecognizable?


Peter Parker is a down on his luck photographer, ironically selling photos to the Daily Bugle who hates Spider-Man. Oh wait, sorry he’s a high school science teacher that is giving back to Midtown High where he graduated. Scratch that, he is a photographer again. Nope, sorry he is actually part of a brain trust of scientists that are changing the world.

The action of an issue is mostly centered on Peters’ escapades as Spider-Man, but the framework of the story is structured around his supporting cast. That cast is determined by what profession he currently holds. That job will most often land on photographer, because the expected. If you were to ask a random civilian, they will indicate that Peter works the beat for J. Jonah Jameson more often than not. By changing this facet of his character, are writers altering Spider-Man?

Spidey is a working class hero who does the best he can despite his Parker-luck. This creates a sense of relatability between the reader and the character. People know that it’s sometimes difficult to make rent, or be late for an important date or have a boss that you despise. Spidey, as a photographer, has these same problems. Taking Peter out of the Daily Bugle and making him a high powered scientist distances himself from readers and his archetype status.


Superman could leap over a tall building in a single bound, not because he could fly but his power was super strong legs. When the television show was introduced, it was easier to depict flying than leaping so his power set was changed. This was early enough in the character’s introduction that is considered a staple ability. Since then he is gained, heat vision, ice breath, x-ray and weirder electric bluepowers such as midewiping kisses, time travel or the ability to alter his face.

One storyline DC published changed Superman’s entire powerset and costume, to electric blue. He did still posses strength, flight and super speed but everything else was retooled. He shot lighting instead of heat vision, kryptonite had no impact, he could turn his powers ‘off’ and become human but was forced to wear a containment suit to keep his power in check. If it sounds over the top, it was published in 1998.

Clark Kent was still his civilian identity and he stood for truth, justice and the American way, he just accomplished that way differently. Casual observers of the character would only be able recognize that he was Superman because of the trademark “S” shield on his chest…though quite a few character sport the same logo. When Superman’s costume and powers were altered in this situation, in some ways he stopped being the iconic hero that fans know.


Wolverine is a gruff loner who plays by his own rules. He can’t be expected to get along with others or follow anyone’s laws except for the law of the jungle. Unless he’s the Headmaster of Jean Grey’s School for the Gifted, or a prominent member of The Avengers, or being a father to his illegitimate son and cloned teenage daughter. Then he is reliable upstanding bastion of mutant goodness that everyone should aspire towards.

As his on-screen popularity grew, comics needed to shift Wolverine from being a loner to a team player (this would help justify his appearance in 36 books each month). Around the same time, Cyclops was made to be a villain of the mutant cause, instead of an Headmaster Wolverineidealist boy scout. This helped create a Xavier/Magento relationship where surprisingly Logan was the respectable one. The Wolverine established during the Claremont written era was no more, this was a sophisticated hipster-Wolverine.

Wolverine gained popularity by not being a team player. In a time of comics where everyone was Super Friends and getting along, Logan carved out his own path. He made a name for himself by being rude to his allies and not afraid to kill when necessary. By altering Logan to be, Charles Xavier, publishers create a character that is a resemblance of who he used to be.


Characters are constantly updating with the shifting status quo of the publishers. Dick Grayson grew up from Robin, to Nightwing and will soon be a gun-toting spy. These are very drastic shifts from the pixie short wearing sidekick that used to protect Gotham.

Steve Rogers is famously known as Captain America, but he surrendered that mantle to become Nomad at one point (and again when he felt Bucky Barnes should be Captain). Barnes wore the flag costume, carried the shield but every event found a reason to put Rogers back in the stars and stripes. Who was truly Captain America during this time?

With a rotating door of creative talent on issues, plus multiple series being published in tandem, what truly defines a character for fans? Is there any aspect of a hero, that if adjusted, they will become unrecognizable? Or should fans accept the change? Because no matter who dies, gets trapped in space, loses their powers, becomes a villain, changes costumes or whatever wacky Wednesday adventure befalls them, in a year or so, they’ll revert back to the status quo.

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