Thursday, November 29, 2012

2003 “Triumph: The Hero You Love To Hate” article by Christopher James Priest

Christopher J. Priest, born James Christopher Owsley, was a Marvel Comics writer and editor in the 1980s before moving to DC in the '90s and finally to Valiant/Acclaim before quitting comics altogether. While there are some Priest comics, to paraphrase Irwin Schwab, that I'd like to take with me to a white sand beach on a sunny day and leisurely feed copies into a shredder, others prove that he was one of the finest writers the medium ever produced. Coverage of his Justice League Task Force work has been woefully deficient on this blog. Since I'm offering some degree of extended coverage of Triumph this week, I thought I'd take advantage of Lamercie Park, the author's latest official web home. I'd hesitated previously because his old digital PRIEST site had nudity on its main page, so be careful of backlinks while clicking around there.

“This was, perhaps the most poorly thought-out launch of a new hero ever. I think most everyone associated with Triumph (who was created by DC Comics Group Editor Brian Augustyn, Mark Waid and Howard Porter) was taken a bit by surprise by the near-instant backlash the character received from the fans. Triumph's basic premise— that he was one of the charter members of the Justice League from way back in The Brave & The Bold #52— was deemed an apocryphal revision of beloved DC history, especially considering Triumph himself looked so bland and Silver Agey. Which, for those of us who worked on the premise, seemed to be the point: Triumph was specifically designed to look bland and Silver Agey because he was a guy who was there at the formation (actually the pre-formation) of the Justice League, but got swallowed up by some Big Thing and spent the next decade or so in stasis. This was DC's version of the Captain America bit, only with some real consequences to the character, Will MacIntire, who hardly had Steve Rogers' strength of character.”

“Fans took an instant dislike to the character, and vented a great deal of that dislike at me. Despite numerous attempts on my part to explain that Triumph's origins was a creative decision made by the company long before I had anything to do with him, Triumph was savaged in the fan boards and I was burned in effigy. Playing to that energy, I talked to editor Augustyn and suggested we play to that resentment and suspicion by having the characters— the JLA and others— regard Triumph with resentment and suspicion. When Triumph vanished from our time line, all knowledge of him vanished with him: no DC character recalls ever having met him. So Triumph ends up being a whiner who bellyaches repeatedly about how he was there, in the beginning, and how he is due the same respect as Martian Manhunter, Black Canary and Flash— claims absolutely no one takes seriously. Triumph is relegated to the Justice League's training team, their youthful Task Force, mentored by The Martian Manhunter, whom Triumph views as a peer. Triumph's aggressive impatience causes friction between him and The Manhunter, who beats the crap out of Triumph, to the utter delight of most fans, and then fires him.

One thing I wasn't prepared for was how deeply the Triumph resentment pervaded the office environs of DC Comics. Triumph was hated, deeply loathed, by a great many DC staffers, some of whom would go postal at the mere mention of the character's name. I'd kind of patiently look these folks in the eye and, with some trepidation, remind them that Triumph is a comic book character. That Triumph doesn't actually exist. I mean, I'd hear things like, That guy (Triumph) is such an asshole. and I'd kind of shrug and go, "Yes. Yes, he is. That's the idea."”

“The truth is, Triumph had two strikes going in: (1) he disturbed the sacred ground of the JLA's origins and, (2) he was a little unlikable. His shtick was: Triumph was always right. He was. It was that simple, and it was what made him so annoying to his fellow heroes (and DC staffers). Triumph was The Man With The Plan, a gentle tuckerization of DC's Director of Creative Services, the late Neal Pozner. Neal was, likely, the sharpest tool in the shed. He dressed better and had better hair than anybody on the floor, veeps included. He was aggressive, passionate about his convictions, willing to stick his neck out for his ideals and for the people he was charged with defending. Neal swung a (political) bat at the major-major Powers That Be at DC on my behalf once, a political move I didn't expect Neal to survive. I marveled at his courage and his dignity, even as some braced against him for being very direct and headstrong and for always being right. Neal, write this down someplace, was always right. He was. At the end of the day, Neal would be proven right. That fact, more than anything else, annoyed many staffers beyond reason. Not that Neal would rub your nose in it— you'd rub your own nose. That's how right he was.

I told Neal I was basing some of Triumph's energy on him, and warned him that people wouldn't necessarily like Triumph. This seemed to amuse Neal, though he tragically passed away before we could make much of it. Triumph was gay, something probably only Brian and I knew since we didn't have an appropriate storyline to deal sensitively with that issue, but that was my subtext for his emotional center: how out of place and out of sync Triumph was with the DC Universe.

That the fans didn't like him, I felt, was a function of my writing: I deliberately made him less than heroic, a bit self-absorbed and headstrong. I got permission, in a sense, to make Triumph unlikable, to make him a kind of pushy spoiler character, like Dr, Smith on the classic TV show Lost In Space. When I'd get hate mail saying how much of an a-hole Triumph was, and how the fans couldn't wait to see what shady thing he'd be up to next— I actually took that as a compliment. Sure, Triumph was an a-hole, but an a-hole that brought readers back to the pages of Task Force to see what sneaky crap he'd be up to next month.

I was more than taken aback, though, by many staffers' absolute loathing of the character, which, honestly, shouldn't have surprised me. DC, in those days at least, trended towards being The Nice Guy Company. The Jay Leno of comics. All their heroes pretty much knew each other's secret ID's, and all liked each other (I presume DC has evolved a bit out of this). DC's stationery had the characters, smiling and waving, standing on one another's shoulders as Wonder Woman, at the very top, held up the DC Comics logo. And that was the harmonious, Comics R For Kids family-friendly environment most of us worked in at DC. Marvel, meanwhile, was a more competitive environment where the heroes were handled a bit more realistically, where the heroes routinely kept secrets from and mistrusted the motives of one another. My edge on Triumph— I called him The Hero You Love To Hate— would have worked much better at Marvel, a place where cynicism was the hallmark and where Stan Lee set the tone 40 years ago with his irreverent take on super-heroing and his grounding of the same in the people politics of The World Outside Your Window.

DC staffers simply loathed Triumph and actively plotted his death (they got rid of him in some Persian Bazaar manner after Brian left the company). And, for me, that was DC's greatest failure: its inability to get out of its own way creatively. Killing off or retro-retconning Triumph or whatever they did just because they found the character annoying, jut because they didn't like the shadow Triumph cast over The Grail, seemed completely sophomoric and unprofessional. My eternal struggle over this character was in reminding staffers that they were staff, not fans, and that Triumph was a comic book character and not an actual person. But, at DC, in those days anyway, if you wore Spandex and looked like a hero, then, dammit, we expect you to act like one. That Triumph's main concern was, well, Triumph, was a violation of the Happy Pants code, wherein all DC characters must, by law, join hands and sing— something Triumph would never do unless there was something in it for him.

These folks missed the point of Triumph completely, and, I am told, couldn't wait for their earliest opportunity to remove the character from the DCU in the least dignified manner possible. Alas, poor MacIntire, we hardly knew ye.

In 1994, DC published Triumph, a four-issue miniseries intended to flesh out the character's origins and status quo. My vision for the Triumph book was a kind of ersatz Mission: Impossible (Tom cruise version), where Triumph is the pushy, headstrong leader of a freelance covert ops team. As usual, I went for layers of complexity— too many, in hindsight. We assembled a great creative team for the book that simply did not work well together. I mean, individually, everybody on the book was quite good at what they do. But, collectively, I dunno, something just didn't work. I didn't like the overall look of the book, and I didn't think the script's ambitions were well-served. In the summer of 1998, Acclaim Comics sent me on a cross-country signing tour for Quantum & Woody, and, in every city I went to, I bought back copies of Triumph from fans who'd bring them to signings, "Sorry, kid, here's your buck back."”
In 2000, Priest had also said of the character, "Putting Triumph, the brash, immature know-it-all thrown into limbo around the time of the JLA's formation, in the TF was a lot like sending John Rocker to the minor leagues. Triumph's abrasiveness frequently elevated J'Onn's disciplinarian side, which to me was a logical reaction for the Martian to have." I liked that bit. Anyway, there's a lot more to read if you visit the Triumph page @ Lamercie Park, including a breakdown of the Triumph mini-series with character details, not to mention the full script from the first issue.


mathematicscore said...

Priest has creeped in as one of my favorite writers. I just bought several issdues of Quantum and Woody at a Black Friday Sale, and am pretty excited for them...

Diabolu Frank said...

I've read a few odd Q&W's, but they were in-joke/vibe oriented, so I'd rather read a brick Omnibus collection rather than floppies/trades. I've always been meh toward Doc Bright's art, which doesn't motivate me.

Priest & Cowan's Steel is one of the best comic books runs ever, and I also loved the first year-to-year and a half of Black Panther. After Bart Sears stopped ruining Captain America and the Falcon, it became the better of the two Cap books then available. JLTF was a blast, with scripts sharp enough to overcome sometimes dodgy artwork.