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November 13, 2014

D.O.X. is Dead #6: Humans and Monsters

Hey, does anybody remember that anime D. Gray Man

To be honest, I’m kind of surprised I do.  I mean, I used to watch it, but it ended up slipping off my radar for one reason or another.  It probably had something to do with its creator taking ill, which led to the manga going on hiatus, which of course led to the anime getting stalled into oblivion well before the story’s conclusion.  It’s kind of a shame, because thinking back, I enjoyed the show.  I suspect that I have a secret appreciation for stories with a twinge of the macabre – at least if my enjoyment of that show, Bleach, and Soul Eater are anything to go by.  (Though it’s my understanding that Bleach fell apart a while ago, so who knows if I’m still a “true” fan.)

The reason I bring up D. Gray Man is because I recently realized that I started getting into it right around the time I started my story.  I wouldn’t exactly call it an influence by any means, but having looked at some old files, I realized that one of my characters was – or used to be – heavily based on one of that series’ characters.  Not in terms of skill sets, of course.  In terms of appearance?  No doubt.  You know me – striking visual design is something I value.  It can be (emphasis on “can”) the first step toward making a good character.

And “striking” is probably the exact word I’d use for one of these characters.  Or, alternatively, “absurd”.

So a while back, I tossed out a post asking why a creator would ever bother creating an everyman.  You know the type – a simple, straightforward, and safe character surrounded by a much more colorful cast and a much more interesting world.  I’m taking that to extremes, I know, but you get the idea.  In any case, one of the responses I got was that an everyman helps accent the absurdity around him.  A fair point, of course.  And beyond that, some stories need an everyman so there’s an anchor between the audience and the story – something to bind them together, and keep them both under control.

So the everyman isn’t the death knell I’ve made it out to be in the past.  Like any tool, it has its uses; it’s just that when it comes to storytelling, it’s all about balance.  Being an everyman (or an audience surrogate, by extension) shouldn’t be an excuse to not have a character, purpose, or merit.  With any luck, I’ve managed to pull that off with Dead on Prime -- which is to say, I hope I’ve gotten at least slightly better.

So let’s bring out the old challenger: Johnny Anderson.

(inb4 an Agent Smith says “Mr. Anderson” compilation video)

If I had to sum up Ye Olde Johnny in a few words, it would be “the normal one”.  At the start of V1/V2, he’s the owner of a failing bookstore, and struggling to make ends meet.  He takes it all in stride, of course, acting like a major ham half the time and a Total Cool Guy the other half.  (Thinking back, the “failing bookstore” thing was more for laughs than anything else.)  Still, he had a level of sensibility to him; he was no fool, and snapped into serious mode when the time called for it.  That didn’t stop him from being wary of a fight, or complaining about his ill fortune vis a vis the plot.

Speaking of which, he gets dragged kicking and screaming into the story.  It’s revealed fairly early that Johnny’s actually part of a sacred bloodline -- a lineage of mages tasked with protecting sacred texts from evil.  Wouldn’t you know it, one of them ends up being exactly what the big baddie wants and needs to not only make his plans come to fruition, but to unlock every last bit of his sealed-away power.  So basically, Olde Johnny was on MacGuffin Patrol…and in one of the first chapters, he sells it off. 

Would it be inappropriate for me to say he’s one of the heroes?  I kind of feel like it is.

The MacGuffin ended up losing its importance thanks to a couple of reveals down the road, but Olde Johnny still had a role to play.  He pretty much had to stick with the other characters, for fear of getting slaughtered outright by the big bad world.  Beyond that, he had something of a personal stake in the fight; he escaped from trouble at one point, but it ended up leading to a lot of people dying.  Couple that with more people dying all around him, and he realized that he can’t just run away (as much as he wants to).  He decided to be a hero, for their sakes.  And someone else’s, but I’ll get to that.

It’s worth noting that for the majority of the story, Olde Johnny was one of the weakest members of the Core 8.  Maybe the sixth-strongest, but that’s debatable because one of them went in with a massive handicap, and the other didn’t get powers until way late in the game.  He was the dedicated spellcaster, but other than that?  He didn’t have much else.  He got something in his final fight, but other than that?  There’s a reason why he was more or less “a coward”.  It goes beyond him effectively being the only sane one; it’s because he was the only one who really understood that his life was on the line.

The interesting to note is that out of the Core 8, Olde Johnny was the only one who didn’t do anything to “cross the line”.  He ended up hearing voices way later in the story, but beyond that?  No corruption.  No going berserk.  No doing anything that would have him breach a moral boundary.  He was the weakest guy, but paradoxically held out as the strongest.  I’d like to think that that stands for something.

So I guess Olde Johnny wasn’t exactly broken.  He had his flair, and his issues.  He offered up an anchor to keep the story and the cast from getting too absurd, but that didn’t come at the cost of his individuality.  Even so, he still strikes me as someone set to keep things “safe”.  He did stuff, but he could have done more.  He could have been more.  It just would have been impossible to make that happen without completely starting the story over.

Oh wait.  I totally did that, bros.  And now he’s Japanese.

That’s the beauty of killing your darlings, I suppose.  Once you realize you don’t have to stick to some divine design, you can change whatever you want.  So one day I just thought to myself, “Hey, what if Johnny was Japanese?”  If nothing else, it injects a little diversity into the Core 8 (though to be fair, V3’s cast at large is a lot more colorful).  Time will tell if changing his race was a good idea or not, but I don’t think I’ve screwed up here.  Yet.

So now he’s Joichi “Johnny” Kakutani.  (I’m tempted to make his first name Josuke, but we’ll see how it goes…though Johnny has its advantages.)  The blueprint for the character is pretty much the same; he’s got that class clown streak, even with a dying bookstore chained to his ankle.  If anything, though, his status as “the only normal one” has been played up. 

Well, normal-ish.

He’s usually the first to point out that something is crazy, or something could go wrong.  As the second-oldest member of the Core 8, he’s one of the more responsible and level-headed members -- which isn’t to say that leading man Arc isn’t level-headed, but Johnny’s using his head to keep himself and others alive.  Arc, not so much -- at least not in the same, i.e. practical, way.

The biggest change for Johnny is that he’s not exactly the average Joe that V1/V2 set him up to be.  Like the majority of the cast, he’s become a much sadder person; part of that comes from a newly-minted backstory, but the majority of it comes from his opinions on his city’s poor situation, and his reaction to all of it.  His first -- and rightful -- instinct when there’s even a hint of trouble is to skip town.  He ends up getting pulled into the fold regardless, and while he does his part (however begrudgingly) it weighs down on him a lot more than it would his past incarnation.  He’s convinced it’s only a matter of time before he’ll break -- and he’s probably right.  Last time, he was arguably the weakest; this time, he IS the weakest.

Johnny’s story arc -- a distinct one that runs through the entire story -- doesn’t have anything to do with him getting corrupted.  He goes through something much, much worse.

But I’ll get to that.  So let’s switch from the weakest to the strongest.

In the earliest stages of V1, she started out as Madison Hunter, a cool cop roped into a mystery beyond the mortal world.  That didn’t pan out, for one reason or another -- so she went from being a cop to being a college student, and on her way toward not only being some sort of “agent of justice” or whatever, but following in her father’s footsteps.  He was (and still is) a well-known and respected officer, so she wanted to protect and serve as much as he did.  And then the bad stuff happened, i.e. the plot.

What I find weird about “Madison” is her appearance, and how it’s changed from then to now.  When I started out, her defining feature was her height -- a staggering 6’5”, and a point of dismay for her.  Despite that, she was still a confident, level-headed, and maybe even cool customer.  But as time passed, her name went from Madison to “Maddy” (maybe because one- and two-syllable names flow better, at least when I’m behind a story).  But that name didn’t suit her cool persona…and one thing led to another, and suddenly I realized things would work better if she wasn’t a cop, but a simple student.  And that led to her becoming less cool and more awkward -- and all of that centered on her height.

Basically, the bigger she got -- up to seven feet, because reasons -- the dorkier she became.

I’m a little wary about the implications of turning a self-confident woman into a giant nerd -- and a stuttering, skittish, easily-flustered one, at that -- but the weird thing about Maddy was that even if she was awkward with a capital A, she was a far cry from a coward. She wanted to do the right thing, no matter what.  And she made strides to try and resolve the story’s conflict before there could be too much disaster.  As soon as there were even hints of something gone awry, she tried to solve the mystery, gathering clues, going on searches, and consulting dear old Officer Dad.  Even before she got her powers, she took action.

After she got her powers?  Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

Up until the end of V2’s (heavily-edited) life, Maddy never even met the main baddie.  That’s more than a little unusual, given that once her powers manifested -- by the end of the first third of V2, IIRC -- she established herself as a powerful ally…albeit one with an emphasis on defense, but as time passed she only grew more and more powerful.  I don’t know; I guess I couldn’t find a good place to give her “a time to shine”.  She had little moments, but given what most of the boys got to do, it’s a real misstep.

Whatever the case, Maddy pretty much went through negative character development.  Instead of becoming a better or stronger person, she ended up getting corrupted -- in more ways than one.  She was the light-elemental, which put her in direct opposition to the darkness-laden disasters around her (and Arc, by extension).  She believed in justice and sweetness and virtue and God, and all of that good stuff -- but as time passed, and when she finds the ghostly remains of her dad, who she couldn’t save even with her new powers, she broke triumphantly. 

So here’s the thing about Maddy’s powers.  Her right hand gave her access to a big whompin’ shield of light, and could protect her from pretty much anything.  Her left hand, meanwhile, transmuted other items.  Paper planes turned into missiles; batteries turned into grenades; shotguns turned into…super-duper shotguns.  She had a gimmicky style, but she made it work.  But once she snapped -- once she made her slide toward being a Knight Templar -- she didn’t need to use items anymore, or her shield.  Her offense and defense alike got a big boost.  She could summon guns of light.  And on top of all that, she got bigger.  Much bigger.

Basically, she ended up becoming a monster -- the exact thing she used to be.

Arc dragged Maddy’s backstory out of her at one point, and found out she wasn’t exactly the sweet, innocent nerd everyone expected of her.  As it turned out, she actually used to be a cold-hearted street brawler -- and a good one at that.  Frustrated over her monstrous size, she ended up lashing out; she happened to like it so much that she kept going on the attack and dying the streets red. 

She ended up stopping at one point when someone she knew (and attack) called her a monster flat-out -- and thanks to Johnny’s emotional support she went back onto the straight and narrow.  It did mean that she repressed that side of herself, and tried to hyper-compensate for even starting it in the first place, but it did change her in a lot of ways.

At least it would have, if that had been what actually happened.

The truth about V2 is…too stupid complicated to explain here, so I’ll give an abridged version.  Basically, there were two timelines -- the true one, and the one the story jumped onto as a result of some cataclysmic event in the past.  Said event was caused by Maddy -- or to be more precise, the TRUE villain hiding out inside of her, giving her power in the first place.  The new, fake timeline ended up distorting memories, people, and entire events.

Even if she was responsible, Maddy was the only one who remembered things as they were…and even then, only partially.  (Blame the true villain for that.)  It set the stage for things to come, but in hindsight?  Yeah.  It was kind of dumb.  The focus of the plot was on “The Ghost Emperor Rebellion”.  And throwing in space-time shenanigans really wouldn’t have helped matters.  They haven’t helped elsewhere, that’s for sure.

In any case, Maddy did eventually make it back to a good place…even if it left her, much like the majority of the Core 8 by story’s end, MIA.  She learned to accept the darkness in her, and reconciled with it along with all the things around her that didn’t suit her.  She came to terms with being a monster, and realized that she could have gone about it in a much better way than what she did (like shooting Arc multiple times and very nearly breaking his neck).  She got her redemption, albeit at the last minute.

But even if her character did have its set trajectory, I don’t feel like it was enough. Like the other female cast members, she could have had a more active role.  She could have said more, been more, done more.  Maybe she could have gotten by, but I can’t shake this sense of shallowness to her.  Take away the men in her life -- Johnny, her dad, and Arc acting as her antagonist -- and who is she?  An improbably-tall young woman who is…what, exactly?  I’m hard-pressed to find the answer, and I’m the one who made her.

So I remade her.  And the first step toward doing that was making her even bigger.

I like how that’s my answer to the problem.  It’s like I’ve learned nothing from mad scientists.

Keeping the theme of V3’s revamped cast, everyone is on some level a much sadder person than when I first created them.  Maddy’s no exception -- even if, for arguably arbitrary reasons, I renamed her as Madeline “Maddie” Lovelace.  But whereas Madison was a cop and Maddy a student, Maddie is pretty much nothing.  Out of work, running low on funds, and holed up in her apartment for untold weeks, she’s a woman who’s pretty much hit rock bottom.  Her life is a mess, so it’s only natural that she’s not only questioning her faith in God, but completely lost faith in herself -- ergo, the reason why she’s a wilting wallflower at the story’s outset.

But just like before, Maddie willingly gets entangled with the plot because she wants to do the right thing -- to protect and serve, just like her dad.  The thing is -- oh, wait.  I’ve gotta go into POTENTIAL FUTURE SPOILER mode for a bit.  So read at your discretion.

Okay.  For starters, it's revealed that Maddie is -- for one reason or another, i.e. stuff related to the plot I'll hide for now -- standing at more than eight feet tall, and still growing by the day.  Further, the thing is that Maddie awakening to her (inevitable) powers isn’t quite the godsend it was in V1/V2.  In contrast to the earlier versions, she’s the FIRST to unleash her powers, as opposed to the fourth.  And in contrast to said earlier versions, instead of a triumphant moment, it’s treated as it should: a grim reminder of what happens when those with great power don’t use it responsibly.

It’s just a good thing that she gets progressively more powerful as the story advances…and also, bigger still.  Because sometimes I have a hard time telling good ideas apart from bad ones.

Obviously, Maddie starts off in a bad place -- and after her story arc’s inciting incident (a complete disaster of her own creation), she very nearly shuts down.  But the thing about her progression is that it moves in a trajectory that’s almost the opposite of Johnny’s.  The two of them have a special relationship, but they’re not even close to the same wavelength -- even if their plotlines are weaved together.  So in a nutshell?  As Johnny’s esteem falls, Maddie’s rises.  Arguably, you can’t have both of them happy at the same time.

I’m wary of saying too much here, but I suspect that if you’re reading this, you’ve already figured out how this is going to go.  Johnny’s top priority from the outset is staying safe, and only being a hero if it means helping the people right next to him.  The only exception is Maddie, AKA the one person he wants to save most -- because, as you’d expect, he’s in love with her.  (The fact that he made a promise to her dad doesn’t help.) 

So basically, being around her means getting in deeper and deeper with the danger -- and while he’s a more competent combatant in V3, he’s not exactly top-tier material.  It’s little wonder, then, that his nerves not only unravel into dust, but he’s legitimately worried about each fight -- because even in his debut battle with powers in tow…well, bad things happen to him.

Cripes, how is it so easy for me to find the perfect DBZ scene to make my point?

Paradoxically, once Maddie realizes that it’s time to stop holing up and crying, she takes massive strides toward being the kind of person she wants to be.  The origins of her power are unclear (at least to everyone who isn’t me, hohohohoho), but she uses them to great effect anyway -- becoming a guardian the likes of which the city so desperately needs.  And because of that, she finds her place in a world that’s shrinking before her eyes. 

As a result, it’s made fairly clear that she doesn’t really need a team to give her backup.  They help, sure, but based on raw power alone she’s in a tier of her own.  So she doesn’t need anyone to protect her, and before long she doesn’t need any emotional support.  (Tough break, Johnny.)

Time will tell if she’ll control that power, or if that power will control her.  Then again, you can already guess how it’ll all turn out, right?

It’s pretty freaking likely that I’ve said too much already, so I think I’ll call it quits for now.  Still, I want to say one last thing: I’m incredibly excited about Maddie and Johnny in their current states.  In the past, they had their purpose, but they felt more like side characters who got inordinate amounts of screen time than genuine main characters.  This time?  They may not have the one-to-one presence of Arc and Kaylee, but they get plenty of time to shine.  They’re unreal, but they feel more real.  More potent.  More powerful.  Their story is just as important as the main plot -- maybe more.

 Rolling out some new art, by the way.  It's the only way to prevent hyper-spoilers.

So that’ll do it for now.  What’ll I talk about next time?  Who knows?  Well, I’ve got some ideas, but I think I’ll hold off for now.  Wouldn’t want to shoot myself in the foot.  Again.

Okay, I’ve never literally shot myself in the foot.  But I did bust open one of my toes at my grandma’s house when I was six.  My mom warned me not to go outside without shoes…

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