Ask Chris #243: Underused Characters
Q: What are some concepts in comics you feel were woefully underused? - @daveexmachina
A: Considering that there's no pastime superhero comics love more than digging up pieces of old continuity that you can polish off, change up and repurpose for a new story, there aren't a whole lot of concepts that really stay underused forever. If there's some forgotten concept that you find in a back issue that you want to see again, all you really need to do is hang around long enough for someone to decide that the Justice League should spend four issues fighting Quisp, the magical water sprite that used to hang out with Aquaman. I mean, that actually happened, and once that's on the table, the cure for being underused is really just a matter of waiting it out.
But at the same time, there are definitely things out there that never quite got the attention that it seems like they deserve. There are cool concepts that hit at the wrong time and tweaks to the status quo that were swept away in favor of going back to basics, and there's one that I can think of pretty easily that seems like it should've been the next big thing and got dropped like a hot potato instead. And believe it or not, I'm not talking about Wild Dog.
I mean, don't get me wrong: If I was President of Comics, the two biggest books in the industry would be Wild Dog and Damage Control, but those are also books where I can see perfectly logical reasons why they're not around all the time. In some cases, that's actually part of the their charm. As much as I love Wild Dog, part of the reason that I love it so much is that it's this weird thing that only ever existed for a brief window in the '80s, with DC taking a stab at creating their own version of the Punisher and ending up with something that was a whole lot weirder than I think anyone expected: A dude running around in a football jersey with a cartoon dog on it, blowing away terrorists with an uzi, enticing readers to figure out which of four characters he really was, and fighting against ultra-violent fundamentalist Christians who were burning down porn shops.
And for the record, some of that stuff happened in Action Comics. You know, the one with Superman in it? It happened there.
Now obviously, I'd be perfectly happy to read about that dude for 300 issues, but I also can't deny that there's part of the appeal that comes from the fact that there are only about a dozen comics where he makes an appearance. He's not around to wear out his welcome, and that makes him feel like something that's not so much "underused" as, well, experimental, I guess. Then again, it's also been a solid 25 years since he's had a starring role, so maybe it's time to give it another shot.
In other cases, there are characters that were only around for a short time, but still feel like there's no real way to do a whole lot more with them. It seems completely bizarre to me that there was once a comic co-written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar that spun out of JLA and somehow managed to get canceled within a year, but at least Aztek got an ending, you know?
If you base a series on the idea that someone's ultimate destiny is to die fighting Tezcatlipoca, and then that person dies fighting Tezcatlipoca, well, that's pretty much that. There could've been more that they could've done than the 11 issues we got of the solo series, sure, but they also delivered on exactly what they promised, in one way or another
But sometimes, you get a character or a concept that really is underused, one that's introduced, set up to be something big, given an interesting hook that could change a dynamic in an interesting new way, and then is promptly dropped out of sight without ever realizing any of its potential. And there is nothing that I can think of that fits that description more than Nyssa Raatko, the second Ra's al-Ghul.
Batman: Death and the Maidens was a pretty great comic for a lot of reasons. For one thing, in a mythos that's always been preoccupied with Bruce Wayne's relationship with his father - a chain that starts in 1956 with "The First Batman" and goes all the way to Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel and Dr. Hurt --- Greg Rucka and Klaus Janson did one of the only stories about Batman and his mother. This is a story where Martha Wayne is literally brought to life --- after a fashion --- to have a conversation with him about what he's done since her death, and it's great.
But the major contribution that Death and the Maidens set up was Nyssa, a character who made so much sense that it's amazing that it hadn't been tried before. See, the thing about Ra's al-Ghul and Talia is that he's a 400 year-old immortal who uses Lazarus Pits to stay alive, but she isn't. It's a function of the story, really: If the Lazarus Pits are rendered inert when Ra's uses them to keep himself young, then it makes sense that he'd hoard them for himself, leaving Talia as someone who was, for now at least, aging naturally.
But that raises the question of why, with a lifetime that spans centuries, Ra's would wait until now --- or, you know, 28 years before whenever it is that you're reading these comics --- to have children, and that's the question Death and the Maidens answers: He didn't. He has another daughter, Nyssa, who rejected him and his League of Assassins because he's a terrible father who literally left her trapped in a Nazi concentration camp. She has been around for a while, and she uses the Lazarus pits, and as is often the case with upgraded villains, she figured out a trick he never did: She can keep using the same one over and over.
And that's the technique that she uses to brainwash Talia, killing her over and over again until she's so broken by the experience that she becomes completely loyal to Nyssa, to the point of helping her kill Ra's.
Ra's al-Ghul's death is something that had been building in the comics for a while - there's only so many times you can talk about how people are destroying all the available Lazarus Pits without finally getting down to the last one, after all --- but Nyssa's arrival made that particular foregone conclusion interesting and personal. She was a contrast to him, doing things that he never would've, for reasons that were very understandable.
Ra's might have been a genocidal maniac, but he was always portrayed as having a certain kind of skewed idea of honor and lines that he wouldn't cross. He'd kill millions, but justified it as a grand-scale plan for saving the planet, speaking in honorifics and, most telling of all, tryingto recruit Batman himself as his heir, because he knows that if he can just get over his weird thing about not wanting to murder billions of people, he'd dedicate himself to what Ra's truly believes is The Right Thing To Do.
Nyssa, on the other hand, shows up, tortures her sister, kills her father, and takes the title of Ra's al-Ghul for herself, and you kind of can't blame her for doing it.
Point being, all the connections are there, but she's a character built differently. She's deceptive and ruthless in a completely different way than Ra's was deceptive and ruthless, and her character in that initial appearance lends itself to doing things that his character never would. Just the relationship with Talia is different, a false, conditioned loyalty in place of a genuine one, and that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for how she deals with Batman.
And then nothing happened.
In a way, Nyssa felt doomed from the start. Death and the Maidens, which prominently featured a Ra's al-Ghul who was on the verge of death from being denied his Lazarus pits, was happening at exactly the same time as Hush, in which Ra's was healthy enough to have a shirtless swordfight with Batman in an homage to the climax of his first story in Batman #244. Hush overshadowed pretty much everything else that was going on in Batman at the time, and by the time Morrison and Andy Kubert showed up to bring Talia back for "Batman & Son," another story that did a whole lot of overshadowing, Nyssa was out of the picture and Talia was running the show herself.
By my count, Nyssa made one appearance after her introduction, in a Batgirl story where she's functionally identical to Ra's, but in an outfit that makes her look like a space pirate. The next time she showed up, she got killed with a car bomb in Robin, and then Ra's made his eventual return in a story called "The Resurrection of Ra's al-Ghul."
That in itself isn't really all that surprising --- coming back from the dead is pretty much Ra's al-Ghul's deal, to the point where it was even more inevitable than it usually is in comics --- but the way that Nyssa was taken off the board was downright unbelievable. Reading that Robin story and seeing the car explode, I was convinced that she was going to come back at the end of the arc. No one in their right mind would kill off a character that had, two years before, been positioned as a major Batman villain in a book that didn't even have the word "Batman" on the cover, right? And a car bomb? You don't even see a body! Of course she's going to come back! But she never did.
I actually like that run on Robin a lot, and I'm convinced that Nyssa's death was played that way so that it'd be as easy as possible to bring her back later, but it never happened. That was that, and that's how it remains to this day.
But like I said, with most of these things, it's just a matter of waiting it out. As you might already know if you watch Arrow --- or read our recaps here at CA --- Nyssa has shown up there as a recurring character, the daughter of Ra's al-Ghul with ties to the League of Assassins. And if she can make it to TV, then making a comeback in comics shouldn't be that much of a stretch. Coming back from the dead is pretty much their whole deal.