by Dennis O’Neil
Time was when superheroes operated pretty much alone, or with a sidekick, who could be anyone from the original Green Lantern’s cab driving Doiby Dickles to Batman’s intrepid though preadolescent Robin. Oh, there were other continuing characters in your basic superhero saga – think Jimmy Olsen and Commissioner Gordon – but when it came to doing the daring deeds the folk in the costumes usually flew solo.
Then things evolved and –
Almost certainly, a lot more people will see Supergirl on television this week than ever read one of the Maid of Might’s comic books. She’s plenty super – give her that – and as bonuses, attractive and charmiing, but she doesn’t fight evil by herself. No, she’s allied with a brainy group of colleagues who hang their doctorates in a secret lab. And if we scan the videoscape, we see that Supergirl has peers. The other two television title characters most like their comic book inspirations, Arrow and the Flash, also have lab-dwelling cohorts who can always be depended on to have the information the good guy/girl needs.
Structurally, the three shows – Supergirl, Arrow, and Flash – are virtually identical. And, again structurally, they’re pretty close to Archie Andrews, that teenage scamp, and the gang at Riverdale High. The biggest difference is that the Riversiders have no laboratory, but nobody’s perfect.
There’s a lot to be said for adding pals to the superheroic landscape. They give the hero someone to talk with, thus allowing readers/audience to eavesdrop on vital exposition (though sidekicks can do this, too, and if you don’t believe me, ask Dr. Watson.) Supporting players can also provide story opportunities. And they can add texture and variety to scenes. And the occasional comic relief. And, by their interactions with the chief evil-queller, they can add depth to that individual’s psyche. But mostly they can serve the same function as those stool pigeons and confidential informants served in the old private eye and cop shows, the scruffies who always knew what the word on the street was: they can quickly and efficiently supply data that enables the hero to get to the exciting part, usually a confrontation.
Finally, the pals and gals give the hero what seems to be absolutely necessary: a family. It’s usually a surrogate family, to be sure, and it may not be much likeyour family, but it has a familial dynamic and it allows the audience to experience, by proxy, what might be missing from their real lives: a secure knowledge that there are people who can counted on, who will always forgive you and have your back. And such nearests and dearests have to hang out somewhere, so why not a secret laboratory?
And while they’re there, they can supply the location of that master fiend, the one with the purple death ray and the really atrocious table manners.
Dennis O’Neil is one of the top writer-editors in comics, having guided the careers of just about every superhero the world has ever heard of. He’s also a damn fine writer of TV. LB still remembers that time he and Denny collaborated, without ever knowing they were doing so. Or knowing each other either. Ah, the magic of TV! This column was first published in Denny’s column at ComicMix.