Comics' Own Groundhog Day: Things We See Over and Over

Happy Groundhog Day!

Regular Newsarama readers know that lately we’ve been delving into topics like the “20 year pop cycle” and the recurring replacement of iconic heroes. In honor of the “holiday” that spawned the terrific time-loop movie of the same name, we’ve decided to take a look at some (notice that I said some) of the most reused plot devices in comics (and frankly, pop entertainment in general) that we wouldn’t mind seeing go away - or at least used with such creativity that we don't mind reading about them for the 800th time and being told how cool it is.

Yes, they've been used well in the past, virtually but to a trope, have been ground down to a cliche by overuse and abuse to the point readers can see them coming a mile away.

Please enjoy our list, and then kick with some of your favorites in the comments that follow.

Let’s get rolling with . . .

New Team Member Turns Traitor!: This one also has a dandy converse pair in “New Team Member Suspected to Be Traitor” and “New Team Member Traitor Turns Good”. Nevertheless, this is one happenin’ set of recurrent motifs. The probable apex of “New Member Traitor” is likely Terra; though we knew early on that she was reporting to Deathstroke the Terminator, the entire arc leading up to “The Judas Contract” still managed to shock. On the “Suspicion” side, that rears its head most frequently in the X-books, where Rogue, Gambit, Bishop, Marrow, and more have all had to do the “possible traitor” dance. In the category of “New Team Member Traitor Turns Good”, there’s a sizeable subcategory there for androids: Red Tornado II, The Vision, and Jocasta were all created to help destroy hero teams, and all eventually turned on their creators and joined their enemies. An inverse of that is Indigo from The Outsiders; revealed to be Brainiac 8, she joined the team, pretended to be a hero, betrayed the team, went full-on evil, had her good personality pop through and beg for death, then died.

New Writer, New Direction!: No so much a plot trope as a marketing cliché. Has there ever been a longtime fan of a book that saw that copy and didn’t think, “Hey, I liked it, now they’re gonna f--- it up.”

Dead Relatives, Partners, and Sidekicks: This runs through every kind of fiction. How do you motivate your hero or heroine? Kill someone close to them! The grand champion in comics might be John Constantine; I think everyone that he’s ever looked at in a friendly manner has been killed. If you’re a citizen of Vertigo’s England, pray that you didn’t go to school with this guy. Of course, Batman’s another triple-crown winner here, nicely sewing up dead relatives, dead partners (both working and romantic) and dead sidekicks. Captain America hit the hat trick by default: after losing Bucky (yeah, he’s back, but bear with me), he lost most of his family while frozen solid. Cap’s also lost his share of teammates and associates in the intervening years, though his do seem to have the habit of getting over death (see: Sharon Carter). That leads to, of course...

Death, in General: A major character dies? In this world of savvy readers who are hip to the idea of corporations who see Intellectual Properties and "potential mass media franchises" instead of characters, does anyone think said major character will stay dead? Heck, in Final Crisis, delivering the eulogy for the Martian Manhunter, Superman himself seemed to be aware of the revolving door, saying that while the heroes will miss him, they will also pray for a resurrection. And of course, there is the sidenote with death - a new character suddenly shows up, and is trying too hard to connect with the other characters and readers? Heck, that's like wearing a red shirt in Star Trek.

EVIL Relatives, Partners, and Sidekicks: Want to mess with a hero’s head on a grander scale? Make one of the above EVIL! This is a cousin to “Previously Unrevealed Relative Turns out to be Evil”, territory mined by Barry Allen’s twin brother, Cobalt Blue. Going back to Batman, Frank Miller went to this well in The Dark Knight Strikes Again by revealing that the big antagonist was a crazy Dick Grayson. That’s part of another pair of trope subcategories, “Fan Outrage” and “What the Hell Is Frank Miller doing to Batman NOW?”

The Belabored Catchphrase: Now, I’m not talking about the pithy bits that we love and (admit it) love to repeat. “Hulk Smash!” and “It’s Clobberin’ Time!” are classics. “I’m the Goddamn Batman!” is like a TNT New Classic. I’m talking about catchphrases that are either too long or are stretched out for exposition. The queen of this is Psylocke, who delivered, via thought balloon, this bit on a monthly basis in the early ‘90s: “My psychic knife, the focused totality of my telepathic powers . . .”. In the time that it took her to think that, someone could have already kicked her ass. That’s like me sitting down to write and thinking, “My Masters Degree, the sum total of a s#!+oad of time spent reading books that I’ll never read again . . .” every time my fingers touch the keys. It just doesn’t need to happen.

Trendjumping Characters: This is not when a character undergoes a slight modification to take advantage of a larger social trend (for example, Peter Parker suddenly has a cell phone). Nay, these are characters that are specifically created to take advantage of a particular cultural moment. Most egregious offender: Gen-13’s GRUNGE. Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Picture this possible dialogue:

“Who can save us now? I know! GRUNGE!”

“Grunge? The media-adopted buzzword taken from the verbal coinage that Mudhoney used to describe their fusion of locally-produced punk aesthetic with arena-rock riffage?”

“Uh, no. The guy from Gen-13 that can become metal and stuff.”

“If he becomes metal, why isn’t he like Heavy Metal or Sabbath or Dickinson?”

“Um . . . because he wears flannel?”

Other offenders include Night Thrasher (skateboard!), The Mad Mod, Hypno-Hustler, and approximately four-dozen guys from the early ‘90s sporting pouches, buckles, claws and guns the size of a Volkswagen.

Alliteration!: Lois Lane. Lex Luthor. Lana Lang. Lori Lemaris. Peter Parker. Reed Richards. Matt Murdoch. Scott Summers. Warren Worthington. Bruce Banner. Wally West. J’onn J’onnz. Guy Gardner. Zatanna Zatara. Otto Octavius. Cletus Cassidy. Ronnie Raymond. Richard Rider. Jessica Jones. Got it?

Meet, Fight, Team-Up!: When two super-heroes meet one another for the first time, do they say, “Hey, I’ve heard of you! First round’s on me!” No! A brawl must ensue (that’s in the Super-Hero Handbook). My favorite example of this is probably from the JLA/Avengers crossover. Granted, Captain America and Superman were being pushed by forces beyond their control to be more aggressive, but I really enjoy the fact that these heroes that have never met before start to instinctively grapple with their analogue on each team. It’s not like Green Lantern went, “Hmm, guy with a bow”, and then dropped a power-ringed castle on Hawkeye’s head. Nope. Everybody paired off in their closest approximation (which apparently is a sub-rule in the Super-Hero Handbook), and threw down .

Foreign Oaths: In you have ancestry from a country other than the United States of America, then you must make oaths and bad-swears in the language native to your country of familial origin. Examples include any Nazi (Mein Gott!), Colossus (By the White Wolf!, among others), Wonder Woman (Great Hera!), Captain Boomerang (Strewth!), and Crimson Fox (Mon Dieu!). This notion is taken to an expanded and absurd extreme in the “Super Friends” cartoon, in which each character has a thematic oath that they use, including Green Lantern Hal Jordan (Rings of Saturn!).

Aliens look just like us!: In no particular order, aliens look just like humans on Krypton, Winath, Braal, Imsk, Orando, Bgztl, Cargg, Titan, Xanthu, Daxam, Rimbor, Bismoll, Naltor, Zoon, Phlon, Tharr, Xandar, Kree-Lar and Hala (not the blue ones, but still), Euphorix, Rann, Thanagar, and many, many more.

Damn, These People are Hot!: You rarely meet an unattractive super-hero or super-heroine. The funniest flashpoint for this was probably when Jim Lee was drawing the X-Men. Every man became ripped to near Schwarzaneggarian levels, and the women became Victoria’s Secret valkyries.

Autobiographies: Young (insert gender identifier) suffers (nature of malady, family problem or social injustice) due to (cause of malady, family problem or social injustice) and undergoes (choose one to three) several challenges before discovering the liberating power of (insert form of art or media) and is able to express their (what’s another word for unique?) view on (theme) through the prism of their own special story.

That’s a few of our favorites; what say you, gentle readers?

Related:

9 to Watch in 2009: Comic Book Creators

9 to Watch in 2009: Comic Book Characters

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