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Comic Dictionary – False Epiphany Characters

This one is by T.

False Epiphany Characters are characters that writers have become obsessed with writing the ultimate end-all/ be-all story for. Writers are so attracted with writing breakthrough stories for these characters that they regularly negate the previous writer’s breakthrough for the same character and simply hit the reset button. After seeing how Miller was able to make a legend out of himself by writing the breakthrough maturation of a B-level character like Daredevil or how Morrison made his mark with Animal Man and Doom Patrol, a lot of writers want to do breakthrough stories of their own with well-known, B-level characters in hopes of making legends of themselves also. It’s harder to do a breakthrough with Batman and Spider-Man because they have had so many classic runs, but lower-tier characters give a better chance at this. For some reason, certain characters attract this phenomenon more than others:

Iceman – many writers over the years, writers keep fixating on showing that Bobby is an insecure slacker who has not been using his powers for their full potential for the longest time…until now. He will now be more mature AND realize the full extent of his powers. Lobdell, Nicieza, Austen and whoever was writing him during Zero Tolerance and more that I probably missed have all had Bobby become more mature and realize his powers’ full extent…until the next writer comes along and starts it all over again.

Nightwing – I have lost count of the amount of times a storyline has promised to take Nightwing “out of the shadow of the bat.” Seriously, just retire that phrase already. Wolfman defined the template of post-80s Dick Grayson for all time: Can never win fights unless against henchmen, wallows in his inadequacies and daddy issues, cries a lot especially when mind control villains make him hallucinate about his daddy Batman hating him. Then we have Judas Contract, where he supposedly becomes his own man. He does this by getting tossed around and running away from Deathstroke and putting on a new costume and making grand speeches about getting out of the shadow of the bat. Right after he gets out of the shadow of the bat, he’s right back to losing fights and crying over how Batman didn’t love him during the Trigon storyline. Since then, we’ve seen him step out of Batman’s shadow and “come into his own” over and over again, and a recent Devin Grayson/Phil Hester issue even had the term “out of the shadow of the bat” appear on the cover…face it, HE’S NEVER GOING TO BREAK THAT ROLE! Astonishing are the New Teen Titans apologists that keep citing that book as the one that made Nightwing into a confident independent solo hero all his own. Have they read the past 27 years of Dick Grayson appearances?

Roy Harper – Meltzer once again has shown how Roy has put the shadows of his past behind him and has graduated to the big leagues and has confidence to show for it. After Devin’s miniseries did the same before that. As well as his stint as Titans leader under Wolfman’s final issues did before that. Yet we see Karate Kid mocking him as a loser again in Countdown. Nothing will change.

Anyone have any others?


The Silver Surfer’s been through some of this kind of thing, I believe. The “trapped on Earth” situation gets negated, setting him free to fulfill his spacefaring potential, then that short-lived series of a couple of years back that had him at the heart of a stellar renaissance of sorts, and finally his being dragged back into the welcoming arms of Galactus during “Annihilation”.

It does seem to be a common thing for Marvel’s “cosmic characters”. Adam Warlock is another.

The Penguin!

How many times have we read– “This is the story that finally makes the Penguin dangerous!” But it never sticks.

Lobdell *was* the one writing Iceman during Zero Tolerance.

Colossus 2000

July 17, 2007 at 7:02 pm

What about Captain America, with every new writer wanting to ‘explore how a man out of time relates to the present’, along with ‘how a man that symbolises America relates to America’….

I think Nightwing’s been out of the shadow of the bat for awhile, the problem being that writers drag him back into it whenever they wanted to do a Bat-event (No Man’s Land, “BATMAN DIES!” (What were those about, anyway?), War Games, Last Laugh, etc. Wolfman had the right idea originally with Dick as a member of the Titans – if he isn’t under the editorial control of the Batman editors, then he’s his own man.

I do think Cap is a false epiphany character, but the epiphany that I think gets recycled with him even more than the “out of time” thing is the one where he discovers that America is not a perfect Norman Rockwell painting.

Human Torch is another one in the same vein as Iceman. Not powerise, cause the Torch has only ever gotten stronger, but in personality. Johnny always reverts to the brash, hotheaded goofball, no matter how many times he’s matured and wised up over the years.

Green Arrow gets that a lot, from Batman wannabe to social activist to vigilante archer to wisened father to dead guy, etc.

Good Lord, what about Hawkman? He gets a new origin about ever two years or big DC Crossover, whichever comes first.

Flush it all away

July 17, 2007 at 10:35 pm

I dunno, who’s Bendis writing this week?

Other examples might include…

Dr. Fate (now he’s a guy and a girl. Now he’s a dude TO THE EXTREME. Etc.)

Captain Atom. Sometimes misspelled “B-R-E-A-C-H” or “M-O-N-A-R-C-H”

and of course, the Legion of Super-Heroes (now THIS is the real version, no, wait, let’s start over. Okay THIS is the real version. Don’t like that one…how about we go back to the old one…THAT was the real version…no, wait…)

I was just about to mention Johnny Storm as well, Sean. I think, to my mind, only the runs of Byrne, Simonson, Lobdell and Claremont have actually come in knowing that he is mature and using the character as such. Most everyone else has immediately rebooted him to the dumb hothead Torch.

McDuffie seems to be doing okay so far, that said.

Cannonball – In issues of X-Force he was built up as the second coming of Cyclops and then he joined the X-men and was the inexperienced hayseed. Then he fought Gladiator and was all confident, but still the hayseed under Lobdell. Then Joe Kelly took over X-Men, and started building Cannonball up again. And so on…

Other examples might include…

Dr. Fate (now he’s a guy and a girl. Now he’s a dude TO THE EXTREME. Etc.)

Captain Atom. Sometimes misspelled “B-R-E-A-C-H” or “M-O-N-A-R-C-H”

and of course, the Legion of Super-Heroes (now THIS is the real version, no, wait, let’s start over. Okay THIS is the real version. Don’t like that one…how about we go back to the old one…THAT was the real version…no, wait…)

Okay, these things are just constant reinventions/reboots, which probably deserves an entry all its own. Hawkman fell under this category too for a while. What I was talking about is when a character is submitted to the same single breakthrough over and over again, but each time its treated like some novel, lasting development. Hank and Jan Pym are another good example, they make the exact same breakthrough over and over again, where they make peace over the one time he hit her and get a fresh start…until the break up again over the fact that he once hit her.

Also, it seems women and minorities don’t seem to have this problem. Wasp and Invisible Woman matured gradually and never had the reset button hit to turn them back into ditzes. Cage, Falcon and John Stewart went from “angry, black street guy” characterizations to their present, more mature incarnations, and were never really reverted back. Maybe since most writers are white and male, they are afraid of being viewed as misogynist and racist and therefore avoid reverting those types of characters.

Oh, and Johnny Storm had a particularly bad reversion under Waid’s run. To me, Mark Waid not only made him immature again, he really overdid it and had him acting borderline retarded. Even under early Lee/Kirby adventures, he was impetuous, hotheaded and a little shallow, but never actually a stupid moron like Waid depicted.

I think you could really break your original definition into two concepts:

1. The False Epiphany Character – character who constantly makes the same breakthrough. This doesn’t just apply to B level characters, I mean hell, how many times has Peter Parker decided that he’s “Spider-Man no more” before he wisens up and realizes that with great power comes great responsibility?

2. The Definitive Run Character – character who writers are determined to make their name on by having a groundbreaking run on the book like Morrison had on Animal Man, etc. A good example of this is the horrifically bad current Moon Knight book with Khonshu suddenly becoming “zombie Bushman the evil split personality”

Both Iceman and Human Torch are the jokers of the group. The immature, impetuous, ‘fun’ characters. What story is there to tell about them other than them ‘growing up’? Once you do that though, then they aren’t the same character.

Once they’re grown up, then you get Johnny trying to be an actor (Ugh) or Iceman just sort of being there. Interestingly enough, both Iceman and Cannonball who others mentioned, are just sort of in the background because they don’t really have internal arcs to be told.

You can’t have a Moon Knight run without Spector giving up his alter ego. Sometimes he’ll even give up his true identity, or some of his fake ones. I think every time though, he rediscovers what it is to be Moon Knight. Man, after that amazing Isabella/Nowlan issue, it’s just painful.

This does seem to be something that infects young male characters in particular. I think it is because the writers can’t have them stay the youthful innocents forever, but they don’t really have a role for them as adults, so they keep repeating the same old coming of age stories over and over.

I’d nominate Hal Jordan as someone who used to be a false epiphany character from Green Arrow/Green Lantern until Geoff Johns wrote for him. The character kept going through personal crisis after crisis (the Parallax thing was only the worst of it) and would reassert himself only to fall into the same funk again. At least Johns finally has him moving forward. I wish Johns could do something for Nightwing.

It’s only happened twice, I suppose, but I’m surprised no one mentioned the Flash. Mark Waid had Wally West realize that he can move out of Barry’s shadow when William Messner-Loebs had done exactlty the same thing 30 or so issues earlier.

These comic book terms seem to be awfully negative. Someone needs to think of a positive term.

Must agree with Tim – the Legion pretty much defines the term these days. Can we expect a “Crisis In Infinite Legions” any time soon…?

Actually I’d say that Hal Jordan and Black Adam are both “false epiphany” characters – Johns has gone out of his way to make both guys depressingly one note. It’s not like he took Hal Jordan from being a boring ass ramrod straight man to being this complex character, all he did was tack on “badass” to this description. The appeal to me of Broome’s GL stories from way back when is the whole John Broome sci fi weirdness of it, not necessarily the appeal of Hal friggin’ Jordan. For all I am concerned, he’s a white guy with a neat haircut. Insisting he’s a badass does less than nothing for me.

Black Adam is a hilariously charicatured guy now, and I don’t get Johns’ hardon for seriously regressing him. How is this the same guy that wrote him in his first JSA run? How does the guy who wrote a damn decent Wally West (kind of bogged down with lame ass XXTREME ROUGES GALLERY) end up writing these Hal Jordan fellatio fan fiction stories?

These comic book terms seem to be awfully negative. Someone needs to think of a positive term.

I can’t soeak for T., but I tried hard in defining Grace Notes to emphasize that the term itself was neutral, and gave a couple of positive examples of their use.

I should add to my prior comment that I can understand the perception that my negative examples outweighed my positive examples, despite my efforts.

I agree with Chris Heide in that there are two issues here:

1. re-used “epiphany” where the character experiences a personality change that he has experienced before.

I think that every lasting character, in every lasting company, is guilty of this. I believe that the problem is that sometimes a writer comes on board with a character who he and/or the editer really doesn’t know. So, he decides to “breathe life” into the character, by doing something that was done years before.

While I do think that sometimes this is done intentionally (“Yes, Byrne did it, but that was 15 years ago, and I think I can do it better.”) I think that this is usually done out of ignorance. Writer X doesn’t know that Stan Lee had Spider-Man lose to Doc Oc and instantly re-examine whether or not he has what it takes to continue as a super hero, so Writer X has Spider-Man lose to Electro and instantly re-examine whether or not he has what it takes to continue as a super hero (for example).

Another example: how many times have we seen Johnny Storm give up his powers because someone was horribly and/or fatally burned, only to re-discover his ability to continue to use such a destructive power for good?

2. intentionally taking a B-rated hero and create a story that will catapult the character, and by extension the writer, to A status.

I’ve seen this a number of times with Dick Greyson, both as Robin and Nightwing. There were several attempts to do this with Wolverine before he finally caught on as an A character through no real fault of the actual stories.

I would also add Thing, Hawkeye, Deathstroke, Guy Gardner, Booster Gold, Rick Jones, Supergirl, Nova, Rogue, Huntress, Plastic Man, and most of the supporting cast of Avengers or JLA since 1994.

I’d also add a third category:
3. suddenlly re-booting a character to whatever the status quo was before the character’s most recent appearance and evolution in a different title or under a different creative team.

I’m talking about how Aquaman and Hulk re-booted without changing continuity after Peter David left their books. Or, how the first Power Pack one shot returned the team to the status of the first year of their title.

In the 80s and early 90s, I got the impression that creative teams actually read the history of the books and characters they used. When Spider-Man and Captain America interacted in the pages of Avengers, they had the same dynamic they shared when either of them guest starred in each other’s titles.

Since around 1994-96, I haven’t gotten that impression. I’m not confident that the current writer on Teen Titans read the old Young Justice series. I’m not confident that the current writer on Iron Man read Armor Wars. I’m not confident that the current writer on Heroes For Hire read Black Cat’s partnership with Spider-Man (I get the impression he read old issues of Catwoman and figured that was close enough.)

When I look for continuity in a comic book company, I’m not asking for Robin to appear in Batman and the Outsiders and remember how to put down Psimon based on battling him two years ago in the pages of Teen Titans (although that was cool at the time.) I’m asking for Robin to act like Robin in the pages of Batman, Detective, Robin, Teen Titans, and whereever else he appears; and for “significant events” with “lasting changes” to actually be significant and actually affect the character even after the creative team changes. Sometimes I wonder if I’m asking too much.


Wow, Theno. I had a big-ass post all ready for the typing, but now I don’t need to. Agreement = 95%.

The 5% disagreement? Dick Grayson. Actually, more of a diverging subagreement (or something). I’m a Dixon fanboy, so I’m probably way too biased, but I think he had a TRUE Epiphany with his NIGHTWING run. Rather than trying to get Dick out from the shadow of the Bat, Dixon basically said to us, “Look, he’ll NEVER escape, not completely, and we all know it. So I’m not going to try. But DICK can try, and we can read along as he charts his own path through the Bat-Maze.” Dick wasn’t emo about it, and he had surprising success at carving a non-Bruce life in Bludhaven, but he still got pissed every time Bats looked over his shoulder. NOT getting out from the shadow was the whole point of the series. And then Devin Grayson comes along, methodically destroys everything non-Bat about the title and then has Dick complain that Batman is controlling his life–of course he was, Dick didn’t have his OWN life anymore!

In that vein, I’d add another category: LOST EPIPHANY characters. Characters that at one point actually had a solid, sustainable epiphany, but had it taken away, not because the next writer was looking for an epiphany but because the next writer didn’t know there was one. Other examples: post-Claremont Wolverine (writers just saw the berserker and not the nuance), post-Giffen/DeMatteis JLA (not the property but the characters, who all subsequently lost their heart and became all-joke), and post-Impulse Bart Allen (writers apparently thought Bart’s fun was immaturity and not his personality).

T.: Iceman’s false epiphanies actually go back all the way to the 1970s, when he was a member of the Champions feeling guilty about Ravage and insecure about his role as a superhero. He had a considerable epiphany in that book and in his Spectacular Spider-Man appearances shortly later, even making a new (and sorely missed) costume for himself. Too bad Claremont basically ignored Mantlo’s stories.

Also, I don’t know that Cage, Falcon and John Stewart were all that well treated. Englehart did such a fine job with Falcon in the mid-1970s that it would be hard NOT to regress him, actually; in my book only Jim Owsley (now known as Christopher Priest) ever came close to write as good a Falcon as Englehart did. Cage had a lot of growth, but seems to have regressed on occasion (what was his MAX series like?) and John Stewart was shown in a fairly bad light in Action Comics Weekly (by Priest IIRC, which I guess helps in explaining it).

Black Adam was quite a charicature to start with (frankly, so were pretty much all of Fawcett’s characters). He may not be up to his JSA days now, but it seems unfair to complain that he is not complex enough.

Wolverine never had all that much nuance, even under Claremont; he character is very simply overrated, has always been.

Cove West: I wonder what epiphany you saw in any of the Giffen/DeMatteis JL characters. They actually destroyed a couple, treating Booster Gold as the complete oposite of what the character was in his own solo series (a failed man fighting his own greed and other character weaknesses).

Who Is Donna Troy / Troia / Wonder Girl?

Also, after Nicieza left, the New Warriors faced hard, life-changing choices every single issue.

This article is just too good, glad it was resurrected.

And yeah, people in the comments have mixed authentic false epiphany characters with contantly rebooted characters and characters people constantly try to change in different ways, and it’s not quite the same thing, I’m afraid.

Another big example of false epiphany character is Magneto. Magneto is always realizing his old ways are wrong and trying to become good, or at least less evil. The problem is, Magneto is also a constantly rebooted character, since the next writer may prefer him as a villain.

Gambit is also always finding new ways of betraying the X-Men, followed by another period of proving to the X-Men that he is a hero at heart, despite his shadiness.

And I think every character Brian Michael Bendis writes at Marvel has shades of a false epiphany character, because Bendis is clearly contemptuos of continuity and is always having bright ideas that other writers already had, like making Wanda crazy.

It’s funny that a false epiphany character, even though it is caused usually by a writer being unaware that others have already told that same story, is not completely unrealistic. Real people do fall into those kinds of patterns. “No, this time I’m quitting. No, this year I’m going to be more assertive. No, this time I’m really going to write that novel, etc.”

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