Should Your Writing Be Controversial?


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Image and characters and © DC Comics.



Over on the Legion World message board, few things stir up controversy as much as TMK.

The “TMK Legion” occupied the first 38 issues and three annuals of Legion of Super-Heroes volume 4 from 1989-92. The initials stand for the series' principal creators, writers Tom and Mary Bierbaum and writer/artist Keith Giffen.

Giffen, the principal of the principals, has been pilloried and praised by Legion fans ever since. His Legion pretty much defined the word “controversial.” Among the many changes Giffen wrought: the deaths of long-time favorite Legionnaires, the mutilation of another, the destruction of earth’s moon, and, finally, the destruction of earth.

Some developments worked better than others. Giffen straddled a fine line between storytelling with profound significance and shock value, a trait TMK shares with the legendary Watchmen, from which Giffen appears to have derived more than a little inspiration.

In fact, Giffen seemed to go out of his way to alienate long-time Legion fans, which invites certain question: How far can a writer go in challenging and provoking readers?  Should you seek controversy in your own stories?  And how do you manage the inevitable fallout?

We can probably learn a lot from one of the most controversial revelations during the TMK run, a backup story which set many fans on edge. Ironically, Giffen had little if anything to do with this story. Only the Bierbaums are credited as writers, with Brandon Peterson as penciller and Scott Hanna as inker.

Spoiler Warning: The following discusses details of the unnamed backup story from Legion of Super-Heroes (volume 4) Annual # 3, 1992. Proceed at your own risk.

Garth = Proty

One of the most hated developments of TMK was the revelation that retired Legionnaire Garth Ranzz (Lightning Lad) was really Proty I, an amorphous, shape-changing blob who once sacrificed his life for Garth.

Okay, the story’s a bit more complicated than that. It involves Proty’s life essence/soul/mind/whatever metaphysical term you prefer being transferred into the otherwise dead body of Lightning Lad back in Adventure Comics # 312 (September 1963). Proty lived as Garth for the next twenty years, serving the Legion with distinction and eventually marrying the love of Garth’s life, Saturn Girl, and fathering four children with her. 

The story hints that Saturn Girl may have known about the switch all along and turned a blind eye.

Many fans object to this revelation because it seemed so unnecessary. Garth was not a central player in the TMK Legion—why reveal that he isn’t, in fact, Garth now?  Others resent the implication that a beloved hero wasn’t who they thought he was. Some can’t accept the notion of Garth and Imra (Saturn Girl) choosing to live their lives based on a lie.

Those are all good objections, and raising such a discussion was surely the Bierbaums’ intent.  After all, the same story portrays the now adult Legionnaires as flawed in other ways. Two long-time members apparently have an affair.  A jealous son comes dangerously close to perpetuating the sibling hatred which dominated some of the Legionnaires’ lives. One Legionnaire abandons his wife to run off on a mission.

So, why did Giffen and the Bierbaums do all this? Were they trying to destroy the characters fans loved so much?

Hardly.

Why Proty/Garth may have been a good idea

Some fans praise the Bierbaums’ story because, in the end, the revelation made little difference except to explain away certain personality inconsistencies. The hero they read about for maybe 95 percent of Lightning Lad’s career was a considerate, somewhat idealistic hero, not the hot-headed, immature jerk of Garth’s early appearances (and a personality to which the character has returned in successive reboots). 

My own take on the story falls along these lines. From a science fictional point of view, the revelation is pure genius.  It casts our understanding of a long-time character in a new light (which, incidentally, is what fiction ought to do: illuminate some aspect of the human condition).  It offers a literal interpretation of the struggle we all face: coming to terms with our humanity.

Still, adverse reactions are understandable.  Many fans (including me) grew up identifying with certain characters or seeing them as fictional friends.  To learn they are not who we thought they were is disconcerting.  Such a revelation destroys our image of the character (and, I daresay, of ourselves). It thrusts us into new territory, and we don’t know how to respond.

In the end, however, the revelation of Proty/Garth could be taken as one of the most positive changes to come from TMK. No one died or was mutilated. No planets were destroyed. Garth may have been living a lie, but he and his family were relatively happy.  In a nice reversal, Garth (unlike the previously mentioned Legionnaire) refuses to go on a mission so he can stay home and take care of his family.

What does a hero look like?

The story also challenges our images of heroes. I think it’s telling that Lightning Lad—one of the most conventionally handsome Legionnaires, who had one of the most dashing costumes and dynamic powers—turns out to possess the spirit of a faceless blob with a far less dynamic power.  And yet it was Proty I, back in Adventure # 312, who sacrificed himself to save Saturn Girl.

Proty may not have been sexy, but he was every inch a hero.

And, in making that sacrifice, Proty winds up spending the rest of his life with the woman he loves—making this a rare TMK offering with a sense of optimism.

Controversy: should you or shouldn’t you?

So, should you court controversy in your own writing?

As with everything else in writing, it depends.

If you want to create a story which people will talk about and analyze for years or even decades to come, go ahead.

Just be sure to duck when the brickbats come.

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