Spider-man and the Curse of Adulthood

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.  It’s an obvious statement to make, but it’s the bane of most creators working on popular characters today.  With exceptions like Harry Potter, most iconic characters in western culture, from Homer Simpson, to James Bond, and Superman, have stories that never end.  If they ended, really ended, that would mean the end of some very lucrative franchises.  As a result, those characters stay stuck on the part of their story Joseph Campbell referred to as the “Road of Trials,” where the hero faces a long series of confrontations from a variety of enemies.  When that gets old, they reboot and start over from the beginning.

This continuous publication has been particularly tough on Spider-man.  Marvel has been struggling for years to keep his story engaging, from magically erasing his marriage to having Dr. Octopus take over his body.  Movies and animated TV shows keep rebooting him to a teenager, but the comics’ story is part of the larger Marvel continuity.  You can’t take Peter Parker back to a kid without dragging the whole universe with him.

Every character goes through ruts, but Spider-man’s ruts outnumber his peaks by a large margin.  A truly great Spider-man story is rare.  Think about it: what is Spidey’s equivalent to The Dark Knight Returns or All Star Superman or even The Winter Soldier?  I’d argue the 616 Spider-man hasn’t had much in the way of truly great stories since maybe the Gerry Conway era.

Spider-man is, without a doubt, one of the great fictional characters of the last one-hundred years.  Some would argue he’s the greatest comic book character of all time.  So what is it that keeps him from knocking it out of the park?

The key to understanding any superhero is understanding what their story is about.  Superman’s story is about the ideals of Twentieth Century America.  Batman is about a man of privilege getting a cold dose of reality, and then using his privilege to help his city, no matter what the cost to himself.

Spider-man has a shorter shelf life because his story is about growing up.  In his teenage years, he gets a surprise dose of power (puberty), pays the price for wielding it recklessly (which of us didn’t hurt someone in our teen years?), and then tries to find a balance between being responsible and happy.  Once he becomes a successful adult, the story is over.  So, Spider-man’s problem isn’t that he’s stuck on the Road of Trials.  His story ended and the books just kept going.

So when does he become a successful adult?  When he gets the girl.  The girl in this case being Mary Jane Watson.  Yes, he’ll continue to have problems, because becoming an adult isn’t about not having problems.  It’s about finding a balance between what he must do and what he wants to do.  Mary Jane is an independently successful, smart, and assertive woman who will be his rock when he’s at his weakest.  It’s the ultimate happiness for Peter.  The end.

This puts the character’s writers in a pickle.  In order to keep the story going, it has to become about something else.  If it becomes about something else, it’s not the classic dynamic Spidey fans are looking for.  As a result, the stories tip too heavily towards soap-opera style plots, where superficial threats drive the action.  Only a handful (maybe Kraven’s Last Hunt or The Death of Jean DeWolff) have any emotional punch.

Yes, the McFarlane/Larsen era proved a sales boom, but that had more to do with the book’s visuals and EXTREME (!!!) villains.  Superior Spider-man was also popular, but that was Otto’s story, not Peter’s.  The most highly regarded book about Peter from the last twenty years seems to be Ultimate Spider-man, because it could set the clock back.

I’d even argue that Spider-man 3’s Achilles heel wasn’t too many villains or the part where he turned “evil,” but that Spider-man 2 brought the story to its natural conclusion.  There was nothing left to say.

So what is Marvel to do?  Sure, they can undo Peter and MJ’s marriage, but that’s a temporary, and gimmicky, Band-Aid.  In order to continue Peter’s story, you have to change the theme, and that means moving the character in a direction a lot of fans aren’t comfortable with.

J. Michael Straczynski came the closest to doing this.  He was broadening the scope of what it meant to be Spider-man and challenging the character’s assumptions.  I love when he tells the story of how he learned “With great power comes great responsibility,” the response he gets is, “And then what?”  I’m frustrated to this day that his run crashed and burned before reaching its potential.  It could’ve opened the character up to new worlds of possibility.

As it is, I feel sorry for any writer taking on the book now.  Spidey fans are still asking for Marvel to do something brand new with the character, as long as they don’t change anything.  That is a heavy cross for any creator to bear.

POST NOTE:  I have ideas if anyone from Marvel is interested.  Just saying.

The Art and the Artist (or Roman Polanski: International Fugitive)

Many years ago, I went to one of my first comic book conventions and met a writer/artist who I’d practically worshipped since I started collecting in the mid-eighties.  It was my first time meeting someone I considered a legend.  It couldn’t have been more of a let-down.  The guy acted like I was wasting his time, shrugged off my compliments, and chided me for not bringing books from his latest series to sign.

I was nineteen and the experience was demoralizing.  How could this guy, who created stories I loved, turn out to be such a tool?  Today, getting very close to forty, I’m grateful for the experience.  It was my first, and best, lesson in separating the work from its creator. 

It’s an idea that makes sense on paper, but can be tough in real life.  If you read a novel that touches you deeply, how can you not want the author to be a great person?  After all, their art is a product of their self-expression.  How can they touch so many people with a book, movie, etc., if they’re shallow in the day-to-day?

Well, it happens.  It’s not unlike the psychologist who guides people to a better state of mind, all while their own life falls apart.  People often don’t make sense on paper, so I worked very hard at keeping my hopes in check going forward.

But does it hit a point where you can’t separate the two?  Take Roman Polanski.  He’s one of the all-time great directors and probably still has the talent to make great movies.  The problem is the whole “him raping a thirteen year-old and fleeing the country after the trial didn’t go his way” thing.  I know he has his defenders, but if some guy down the street did the same thing, no one would feel sorry for him.  I understand the guy was screwed up, but if he’d just done his time this whole thing wouldn’t be as big of a deal. 

There’s a part of me that says it’s still okay to see his movies.  They’re not about raping thirteen year-olds, after all.  Isn’t what goes on in his life a separate issue from the content of his films?  What about Orson Scott Card?  Or even Woody Allen?  Every time I read someone talking about boycotting their work, I see a reply about how their personal opinions or issues have nothing to do with the work itself.

But do certain creators take it to a point where it’s no longer about that separation, but instead about supporting a career of someone you don’t think deserves it? 

I think it does.  I don’t shell out any more money for Roman Polanski films.  I can separate the artist from the art once he’s either turned himself in or shuffled off his mortal coil.  I’ve also decided the same thing for Woody Allen, though that one hurts a lot more.  While his good-to-bad ratio has tilted more towards bad in recent years, he’s still important to me as a creator.  Twenty years ago, his movies opened my brain up about film making as a craft. 

Of course, he could also be innocent, but when the victim herself steps forward to say he did it, I’ll fall on the side of not giving him any more of my money.

It’s not a perfect stance to take.  I buy products all the time that are probably made in conditions I don’t agree with or the money goes to causes I don’t support.  There comes a point, though, where it’s thrown in your face and you can’t ignore it.  It may not be perfect, but you could go insane trying to be right all the time.  If you take a realistic look at life, you know you have to choose your battles.

So I’ve chosen to not support certain artists in the present.  I’ll make the effort to separate them from their work when they can no longer directly benefit from it.  I think that’s as good as I can do for now.

 

By the way, I (and some friends) had dinner with Bruce Campbell about a year after that comic con incident.  The guy was as cool as I’d hoped he’d be.  It was good to know sometimes it can work out that way.  

The Force Is With Us?

You’ve probably heard something like this before:  Star Wars was the first movie I saw in a theater and it blew my little mind.  I saw each of the original three films multiple times in the theater and probably around a hundred times since then.  Though it kicked off the blockbuster culture in Hollywood I’d argue that until Batman in 1989, there were no other movies on its level for my friends and I.  The Indiana Jones movies were close but they didn’t create a whole other world for adventure to take place in.

Things are much different today.  Star Wars is still really popular but  it’s not the same experience for kids now as it was for us.  Instead of three movies coming out three years apart, they have novels, a TV show, the prequel films, comics, etc.  For us, the events before that first battle over Tatooine were a mystery.  What was it like when there was still a Jedi order?  How exactly did Darth Vader turn to the dark side?  Who is Luke and Leia’s mother? 

I spent several years after Return of the Jedi finding out if any of these questions had answers.  There wasn’t much to go on.  Even finding interviews with George Lucas was tough because back in the olden days we didn’t have this fancy interweb.  Was I the only one who heard rumors of books existing that told the story of Episodes I-III?  It turns out the idea that books existed before the movies came from the fact that the Star Wars novelization came out a year before the film.  If I’d known that I would’ve been able to give up the search a lot earlier.

By the way, that novelization had a short summary of what happened before the original movie that gave the only answers I was ever able to find.  In just over a page it laid out how the Republic had fallen as Palpatine took over as Emperor.  It was the most exciting page I had ever read.  The novelization of Return of the Jedi also revealed that Darth Vader’s injuries were a result of being knocked into a “molten pit” by Obi Wan Kenobi.

I’ve formed the opinion that Star Wars has lost much of its magic as Lucas and others have filled in every blank space.  I used to get excited imagining a squad of Jedis going into battle together.  We’ve now seen that a hundred times.  No need to wonder how Yoda handled a lightsaber fight.  He has one every other week.  We now know what Anakin was like and who the twins’ mother was and it was, um, uninspiring.  Plus the books and comics have charted out a history of the galaxy stretching thousands of years before the films and hundreds of years following.  I haven’t read many of them because the one’s I did depressed me by turning my favorite space opera into a soap opera.

So am I being a grumpy old man thinking what was once magic is now routine?  Is my whole point of view because I experienced the original films as a child?  Let’s face it, you can’t love any movie as much as an adult as you could then.  Or am I right in thinking that Lucas has dimmed Star Wars‘ luster by turning it into just another franchise?

Batman: The Top Fifteen

After doing a Top Ten list for Superman, I thought I’d do the same for Batman.  This turned out to be a more difficult task.  For Superman, I came up with ten stories right away.  For Batman, I could think of over twenty.  The character hit his prime in the seventies through the eighties, at exactly the same time creators were pushing boundaries in super hero comics.  I don’t think there’s any other popular hero character with as long of a list of top-shelf people who have worked on them, whether it’s movies (Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan), TV (Bruce Timm), or comics (Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Neal Adams, etc).

That’s a long way of saying, I couldn’t get it down to ten so here’s my favorite fifteen Batman stories:

15. There’s No Hope in Crime Alley
Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano are behind this tale of the woman who comforted Bruce Wayne the night his parents were killed and has done the same for many since in Gotham’s worst neighborhood: Crime Alley. 

 14.  Arkham Asylum
Grant Morrison’s script for this graphic novel is solid but it’s the art of Dave McKean that makes it special.  It’s like watching Batman’s fever dream as he works his way out of the bowels of the old asylum.  The parallel story of Amadeus Arkham really haunted me when I first read this as a kid.

 13.  The Killing Joke
I’ve heard people say this isn’t the great book everyone once thought it was but even if it’s not perfect, it’s still great.  Alan Moore gave us the modern age Joker in this story and god do I love Brian Bolland’s art.  A must read for fans of the Heath Ledger Joker.

12.  Batman and the Monster Men
Matt Wagner’s update of a tale from Batman’s first year of publication is everything I love in a Batman story.  My favorite moment is when Batman puts the first Batmobile together and Alfred makes a joke about putting bat fins on the back of it.  Batman says nothing, leading Alfred to say “Oh good lord!  You’re actually considering it.”

11.  Batman Versus the Vampire
Like all Golden Age comics, this one lacks in sophistication but as the first epic Batman story, I think it holds up very well.  Bill Finger and Bob Kane were still writing him as the “weird figure of the night” and set the stage for many Batman adventures going forward.

10.  Heart of Ice
This is my favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series.  In it, they do something no one had been able to do before: turn Mr. Freeze into a compelling character.  It’s a high-water mark for a top shelf series.

9.  Batman and Robin
I’ve not been a fan of every part of Grant Morrison’s current run on Batman books.  I still contend RIP is a mess.  That said, it was all worth it for his run on Batman and Robin.  While Bruce Wayne is missing, the former Robin and Nightwing, Dick Grayson, takes over as Batman with Bruce’s son Damian as Robin.  Damian, who was raised to be a killer by Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Assassins, is rebellious and bull-headed but works in a way Jason Todd never did.  Art by Frank Quitely, Phillip Tan, Andy Clarke, Cameron Stewart, and Frazer Irving.

8.  Ten Nights of the Beast
Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s run on Batman in the mid-eighties is golden to me.  Yes, Frank Miller’s blew me away but this was the Batman comic I waited for every month.  I’ve read this four-part story, about him going up against a renegade KGB agent, over and over again since it was first published in ’87. 

7.  Batman Begins
Christopher Nolan’s “exaggerated reality” movie finally brought the Batman I love to the movie screen.  I think the last exchange between him and Gordon (“I never said thank you.” “And you’ll never have to.”), sums up everything I love about the character.

6.  The Joker’s Five Way Revenge
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were THE creative team of the seventies and this story, where they return the Joker to his homicidal roots, is my favorite they did.  You can also thank these guys for taking Batman back to his dark persona.

5.  Gotham by Gaslight
Gotham by Gaslight is both the first “Elseworlds” story and the best one ever done.  It transplants Batman into the Victorian era and puts him on the trail of Jack the Ripper.  Brian Augustyn wrote a great mystery and the art is some of the best in Mike Mignola’s career, years before he went on to create Hellboy.

4.  The Long Halloween
Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s story of Batman hunting down the Holiday Killer early in his career was one of those rare stories you knew was an all-time classic as you were reading it.  It’s the best series by a team with a lot of great stories to their credit.  Nolan’s Batman films are heavily influenced by this and another story below.

3.  The Dark Knight
I love the middle chapter of a story.  It’s when the easy wins are taken away and the forces of evil get the upper hand.  Nolan’s second Batman film is one of the great middle chapters of all time.  Everyone gives credit to Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker, and they should, but this is one of those rare films where everyone is working in top form.

2.  The Dark Knight Returns
It’s been almost thirty years since this graphic novel/series changed superhero stories for all time.  It’s still a powerful book and Frank Miller’s art hasn’t aged a day.  While many people read it as taking place in the future, it’s set in what was the present day as the Silver Age Batman returns for his final battles with Two Face, The Joker, and even Superman.  That description gives short shrift to a dense, vivid piece of work.  So why isn’t it number one?

1.  Batman: Year One
This is number one because I think it’s the book that defines the modern Batman.  It’s the basis for how we understand the character now and every Batman story since has been based off its ideas (Batman Begins, The Long Halloween, etc) or a reaction to it (Batman: The Brave and the Bold).  Frank Miller created a corrupt Gotham that validated the need for Batman and David Mazzucchelli’s art gave it the right mood and grit.  I love how Jim Gordon is a lead character along with Batman.  This is a story as much about their relationship as it is about Batman’s origins.

Some runners up:  Death Strikes at Midnight and Three, Dark Victory, The Batman Nobody Knows, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Batman (Tim Burton film), Gothic, and To Kill a Legend

Vintage Man of Steel

I’ve written about Superman on this blog many times in the past.  I think he’s the prime example of a great fictional character that few people know how to do well.  Just look at Superman Returns or the current Grounded storyline.   Talented writer/directors, who had been very successful doing other superhero stories, made both.  When it came to The Man of Steel, they botched it up.

 So what are the good Superman stories?  Well, here’s a list of my favorites.  They’ll be what I go back to if the Zack Snyder film is as bad as I’m scared it will be.

10. Superman and the Legion of Super Heroes
Here’s a recent story by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.  In it, Superman travels to the future with his old friends, the Legion, and finds the Earth of the future has turned Xenophobic against races from other planets.  Worst of all, they use him as their symbol, claiming he was born on Earth, not Krypton.  Further complicating matters is the now red sun, which renders him powerless.  This is a prime example of a fun Superman story laying out plain what the character stands for.

9.  Superman II:  The Richard Donner Cut
I’ve never loved the original Richard Lester cut of this movie.  The original script, along with the Donner-directed bits, gave it some dramatic weight but Lester’s need to make it silly almost torpedoed the whole thing.  Thank heavens enough of Donner’s original footage survived to put this together.  It’s not a complete film or it would be higher up the list but what we got is good enough to make it.

8. Superman (Original Series) #1
This is the complete first Superman story Siegel and Shuster had to cut apart to make the page count for Action Comics #1.  While it’s by no means sophisticated, every panel is bursting with energy.  Superman never stops moving in it, foiling one evil doer after another.  You can see why kids were so blown away when it came out.

7.  All Star Superman
There are a lot of people who would make this number one.  While I don’t put it that high, I understand why they do.  Grant Morrison’s stories can sometimes go off the rails, trading narrative for ideas, but he centered this one with a strong emotional center.  He and Frank Quitely show a true love for the character.  It’s also bursting with joy, making Superman’s death at the end all the more glorious and heart breaking.

6.  The Mechanical Monsters
I love the Fleischer Studios’ Superman shorts and this is my favorite one.  It follows the same plot as all the other Fleischer films (villain hatches plot, Clark and Lois investigate, Lois gets in trouble, Superman rescues her, catches the villain, and they wrap it up with a twenty-second scene at the paper) but stands above the others in terms of its action and scope.  I can only imagine how exciting it was for kids who had never seen Superman outside of comics to witness him bursting through steel doors and trashing giant robots.

5.  Legacy
This is the finale to Superman: The Animated Series.  In it, a brainwashed Superman invades Earth on the command of his “father”, Darkseid.  By the time he’s come to his senses, he’s an enemy of the state and no one trusts him anymore.  In a rage, he goes to Apokolips, rips through Darkseid’s minions, and goes toe to toe with the big villain himself.  He barely survives the experience.  Superman learns he can’t beat Darkseid with his own methods and returns to Earth to pick up the pieces.

4.  For the Man Who Has Everything
Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman head to the Fortress of Solitude for Superman’s birthday, only to find him in the grip of a black lotus plant, courtesy of Mongul.  The plant puts victims in a catatonic state while creating a convincing dream of their fondest wish.  For Superman, the dream is he’s a regular man on a never-destroyed Krypton.  While Batman and Robin try to snap him out of it, Wonder Woman tries to survive battling Mongul.  Once freed, Superman’s rage is downright frightening.  One of my favorite elements is the end, where an unlikely hero takes Mongul down.  The creative team behind this, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is the same one behind Watchmen and it was adapted very well for an episode of Justice League Unlimited.

3.  Superman: The Motion Picture
Since this is the one almost everyone is familiar with, I won’t say much.  Only that Christopher Reeve casts a long shadow over Superman for a reason.  There is no one else who has ever embodied the role like him.

2.  The Man of Steel
I’ve read a lot of people dogging on John Byrne’s Superman and I think it’s unwarranted.  In 1986, Byrne was given license to update Superman for a new generation and in this mini-series, he started with Superman’s origin.  I think a lot of die-hard fans still resent him for changing up the “real” Superman.  At the end of the day, he created the mold for the modern version of the character.  He’s not as powerful as a god, is fighting the status quo (more specifically, the corrupt Lex Luthor), was never Superboy, and most important, thought of himself as a human first and a Kryptonian second.  He was the first version of Superman I could relate to. 

1.  Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow
Did I say every Superman story has to be fun?  Well, this one has great elements of fun but I have to admit most of it is sad.  I just wrote about The Man of Steel which redefined Superman for a new generation.  Before they did that, Alan Moore and Superman-stalwart Curt Swan set down the end of the Superman who’d been around since 1938.  This is the classic Superman’s last stand against all of his foes and it’s heartbreaking.  It does, however, end on a happy note which gives hope that our hero’s greatest desire might finally have come true.

Runners Up:  Birthright, Superman For All Seasons, Red Son, Secret Origin, and Mxyzpixilated (from Superman: The Animated Series)

My 20 Favorite Characters of the Last 20 Years

Entertainment Weekly recently had an issue with their top characters of the last 20 years, so I’ve been compiling my own list.  As I mentioned before, I love making lists because while they’re not definitive, I take any opportunity to look back on my favorite things.

My list is slightly different.  For one thing, I’m only including characters that have debuted since 1990, knocking out folks like Homer Simpson.  Also, this isn’t a list of most important or influential characters.  These are simply my favorites. 

1.  Harry Potter (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone – book)
Created by J.K. Rowling
Yes it’s a predictable choice for number one, but sometimes the public is right.  Star Wars is that great of a movie.  The Beatles are that great of a band.  Harry Potter is that great of a book character.  The thing that most makes Harry great is no matter how fantastic or scary the world outside him gets, his thoughts and actions are very true to a real kid his age. 

 2.  Easy Rawlins (Devil in a Blue Dress – Book)
Created by Walter Mosley
I can’t remember all the details of the mysteries in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.  That’s fine, because what I really cared about was Easy himself and what was happening in his life.  One of the most fascinating aspects of the character is the difference between how we view him as the reader versus the other characters in his world.  We see him as a guy doing the best his times and situations allow.  They mostly see him as a troublemaker who runs with lowlifes.

3.  Omar Little (The Wire – TV Series)
Created by David Simon and Michael K. Williams
Out of all the characters from The Wire, none haunt me like Omar.  His less-than-typical moral code (he was a thief who only stole from other criminals) made him interesting from the beginning.  The episode in court where he gets the best of the series’ slick criminal lawyer is what really put him over the top.

4.  Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan – Comic Book Series)
Created by Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson
Spider is a gonzo journalist in the future who Hunter S. Thompson would’ve told to slow down.  What makes Spider a great character and not just a cartoon is he wears his humanity on his sleeve.  Sure he shoots the President of the United States with a Bowel Disruptor, but it’s only because he cares.

5.  David Brent (The Office – TV Series)
Created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
There is no character in the history of entertainment that makes me cringe like David Brent.  There is no character that will ever match him in terms of his complete absence of self awareness.  His U.S. counterpart, Michael Scott, pales in comparison.

6.  Cosmo Kramer (Seinfeld – TV Series)
Created by Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Michael Richards
Speaking of lacking self-awareness, we now come to Kramer.  He’s my favorite sitcom character of all time because I start laughing the second I see him appear on camera.

7.  Tony Soprano (The Sopranos – TV Series)
Created by David Chase and James Gandolfini
Before Tony had his first panic attack in the first scene in the first episode of The Sopranos, I would’ve told you there was nothing left to explore with the “mob boss” character.  I’m glad these guys felt otherwise.  I especially loved that whenever we started to sympathize with Tony, he’d do something awful to remind us who he really is.

8.  Benjamin Linus/Hugo “Hurley” Reyes (Lost – TV Series)
Created by Damon Lindelof, J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, Carlton Cuse, Michael Emerson, and Jorge Garcia
I’m not going to write much here, because I’m about done writing about Lost.  I’ll just say these two characters are the ones I will miss the most now that the show is wrapped.  I think it’s only fitting they wound up working together in the end.

9.  Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (The Big Lebowski – Movie)
Created by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, and Jeff Bridges
If you don’t know about The Dude, then I don’t know what to tell you about The Dude.  I can tell you he abides.

10.  Raylan Givens (Pronto – Book)
Created by Elmore Leonard
I love Raylan because he’s an old-school lawman trapped in the modern world.  He’s a straight line in a world of squiggles.  Being out of step with the times may keep him from having much in the way of healthy relationships, but it does allow him to cut through the crap and surprise the hell out of the killers and other assorted criminals he goes up against.  The show Justified has taken what was a great character to begin with and added more.  You should check it out if you haven’t already.

11.  Ron Burgundy (Anchorman – Movie)
Created by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay
If nothing else, he’s the most quotable character of the last twenty years.  My favorite for this week: “San Diego, which is German for a whale’s vagina.”

12.  Hellboy  (Hellboy – Comic Book Series)
Created by Mike Mignola
The story of a demon protecting the world he was born to destroy could be overbearing and melodramatic (see X-Men).  What makes Hellboy great is the character’s blue collar attitude.  Though I prefer the comic’s “haunted house” feel to the movies’ approach, this attitude keeps them both interesting.

13.  Jay and Silent Bob  (Clerks – Movie)
Created by Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes
They may have gotten cartoony by the end of Smith’s New Jersey series of movies, but Jay and Silent Bob still kept me entertained.  They were my favorite part of Clerks and gave me my only laughs in Clerks 2 (with the exception of the porch monkeys scene).

14.  Lucius Vorenus & Titus Pullo (Rome – TV Series)
Created by Bruno Heller, John Milius, William J. MacDonald, Kevin McKidd, and Ray Stevenson
In Julius Caesar’s book about the Gaul Wars, he makes a brief mention of Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, officers who started off hating each other before becoming good friends.  The creators of Rome took that nugget and ran with it to create characters who gave us a unique, trench-level view of Ancient Rome from the military to the streets of the Aventine Hill.  Also, they kicked all kinds of ass along the way.

15.  Phoncible P. “Phoney” Bone (Bone – Comic Book Series)
Created by Jeff Smith
Phoney is the everyman character in Bone.  He’s the one who always wants to do the right thing for his cousins, Rose, Grandma Ben, and The Valley.  He’s the heart and soul of a great comic book series.

16.  Yorick Brown (Y: The Last Man – Comic Book Series)
Created by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra
Yorick is the last man on earth.  If that conjures up images of Will Smith in I Am Legend, then let me correct you.  He’s the last man on an earth where a mystery plague has killed every male of every species with the exception of Yorick and his monkey Ampersand.  In most stories like this, guys like Yorick start out a weenie and gradually turn into an action hero.  Yorick doesn’t.  Instead, he matures and develops along a more believable path, making the tragedy at the end all the more heartbreaking.

 17.  Liz Lemon (30 Rock – TV Series)
Created by Tina Fey
I used to watch 30 Rock for Alec Baldwin.  Then I watched it for Tracy Morgan and Jack McBrayer.  These days, I’ve come to realize that without Liz, the show would fly of its axle.  It takes a lot of spark to be the straight man and still make people laugh.  Also, without her we wouldn’t have “Whuck?”.

18.  Harley Quinn (Batman: The Animated Series – TV Series)
Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend, is the greatest Batman character from the past 20 years and if you get a chance to read the comic “Mad Love” or see the episode that adapted it, you get a real appreciation for the character.

19.  Rob Gordon (High Fidelity – Book)
Created by Nick Hornby
I really like Rob in Hornby’s original novel and I love him as interpreted by John Cusack.  Rob is a selfish, undeveloped guy who becomes an adult (emotionally, not chronologically) while sifting through the wreckage of his last relationship.  He’s also a collector, purveyor, and snobbish fan of popular music.  He reminds me of myself and several other guys I’ve known, though it’s sometimes painful to admit it.

20.  Mulder and Scully (The X-Files – TV Series)
Created by Chris Carter, David Duchovny, and Gillian Anderson
The great faith versus science team up of Mulder and Scully would’ve been higher on this list had the last third of the series not been a train wreck.  Before this happened, they were a consistently entertaining duo. 

Dang that took a long time to write.  Is there anyone you’d add or even knock off?

UPDATE
After sleeping a night, I realized that though I own all seasons of Entourage on DVD, I somehow neglected to put Ari Gold on this list.  He should be, though I’m not sure where.  Also, though he’s technically an adaption of Gareth Keenan from the UK series, Dwight Shrute from The Office should probably be here too.

The Lost Finale (Which I Love With Reservations)

So now I get to be the 1,234,987th person to write about the Lost finale.  I’m still putting my thoughts together but I feel if I don’t write this now, I never will.

I tend to go easy on finales.  While most I speak to are usually looking for reasons to hate the final chapter of their long-building show/film series/book cycle, I sit back and let it happen to me.  I enjoy Return of the Jedi, even with the Ewoks.  I think the end of The Dark Tower fit in well with the rest of the series.  I didn’t mind when The Return of the King hit ending number seventeen.  I’ve even come around on The Sopranos.  The most important thing to me is the characters end their arcs in a place that both makes sense and gives payoff to what they’ve been building up to.

In that sense, the Lost finale may be the most satisfying ending I’ve experienced.  I was expecting to be screwed with and what they gave me was one emotional catharsis after another.   I wasn’t ready for Sawyer and Juliet’s moment at the concession machine.  I mean, I was expecting it from a plot point of view, given the “love connection” device had been set up several episodes ago.  What I wasn’t ready for was how damn moving it was.  It was then I realized how invested I was in these characters.  It didn’t matter if I saw it coming or not.  The moment was an honest payoff to a realistic, powerful relationship.  The episode was filled with these.

The one moment that choked me up, but not anyone else I’ve heard from was when Jack handed over the guardianship of the island to Hurley.  I was really shaken up by this moment and now I know why.

For this entire season, my worst fear was in the end it would come down to people being on Team Jacob or Team Smokey.  After all, this was the show that thrived on setting up assumptions about the characters and turning them on their heads.  At any moment, someone’s heroic impulses could turn selfish or an “evil” character could find a moment of grace.  People talk about Ben Linus’ movement between light and dark but all the characters lived in the same moral grey area as any person with a real awareness of how the world works.  Goodness is not a state you live in.  It’s something you drive for, screw up along the way, and struggle to keep in your sights.  The greatest, most noble people in history lived with accute memories of the times they failed to do the right thing.

It’s this element that made the show for me.  Yes, the mystery of it all was fascinating but it was a backdrop.  My fear was that the backdrop would become the story and we’d lose the power of the characters’ arcs as they plunged into a war pre-programmed for them.  What bothered me the most was I didn’t see Jacob as being all that good anyway.  He operated as if every person were a piece on a chessboard.  For all of his talk about free will and people being good, he had very little regard for individual human lives.  I not only wanted to keep him in the background, I wanted his version of what was necessary and good to be repudated by Jack and his crew.  Up until the very end they all seemed to be willing to play along in the war of the brothers when all I wanted them to do was chuck the whole thing and find a new way.  That’s the type of ending that would give payoff to their stories and it lined up with where I wanted the show to land on a thematic level.  I was really scared we weren’t going there.

Not only did they go there, they made the point bigger and better than I would’ve guessed.  They did have to save the island and kill Smokey, just like Jacob wanted them to.  But when Jack handed the guardian role to Hurley, they set up a future that would create the third way I was hoping for.  Jack might’ve followed the old rules, but Hurley understands people and what they need in ways Jacob never could.  After all, he was raised by a zealot mother and in all fairness he was probably an improvement on her.  Hurley spent all of his story trying to give people what they needed on an emotional level.  If he has the powers of Jacob, I expect him to use them in a way that doesn’t, say, lead to gassing over a hundred people he doesn’t like.  Sure to protect something you have to sometimes be a bastard, but last time I checked Ben Linus has no problems in that category.  It’s probably good he was along.

The other key was that Jacob and Smokey were not embodiments of good and evil.  They had godlike powers but were not Satan and Jesus.  They were flawed people who wound up with incredible power to accomplish their goals, both selfless and selfish.  And in true Lost fashion, selfless goals were screwed up by selfish emotional needs (“I’ll get back at you, Brother.  Oops.  You’re now super-powerful”).

The end of Lost worked for me because like with any fantasy or science fiction story it has to both work as a story about people and as a metaphor for human life.  In this case, it’s all about doing the right thing under the worst circumstances.  You do what you have to do, even if you don’t understand everything and you were given the mission by someone who has done you wrong.  The Smoke Monster has to be stopped and the light has to be saved.  If you can find a way to survive and stay true to who you really are, despite grave screw ups, you may find yourself able to forge a new way going forward.  You’ll have a chance to make things better for those who come afterwards and move the human race another step forward.

This was more important to me than the mysteries of the island.  I wanted to see the characters find a way to do what they had to do, but not be pawns in the Jacob versus Smokey war.  Because they did just that, I left the show happy.

So what are my reservations?  I only have one.  I will forever be disappointed that the Sideways World storyline turned out to be so conventional.  Did I choke up with certain reunions?  Yes.  Did I love Ben’s final scenes with Hurley and Locke?  Yes.  My issue is we spent an entire season building to a Ghost Whisperer ending.  It was better done than that show, with richer characters, dialogue, etc.  In the end, though, “we had to find each other to work out our issues to move on” was not worth an entire season.  If you’re going to build slowly towards a resolution, I expect it to be a better one.  It didn’t kill things for me and like I said, it had enough good things in it to keep it from being a waste, but it wasn’t up to the standards of the show.  Especially since all the memorable moments from that storyline were from the second half of the season.  Like Across the Sea, it’s something that may have needed to be told but could’ve been told better.

In the end, it’s one of several missteps the show took.  The strength of the show is that it’s foundation was strong and when it did something right, it knocked it out of the park.  Only great shows can walk the tightrope like this and come out ahead.