Bit Players

by William F. Wu

            When I think back to reading comic books when I was a kid and a teen, sometimes I recall supporting characters whose roles started rather small and later were expanded. I don’t mean significant sidekicks and love interests such as Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane, who had their own comic books for a time back then. I’m thinking more of Pete Ross and Snapper Carr, or Peter Parker’s Aunt May and Dr. Strange’s valet named Wong. They have roles that are significant and yet, in those days, they remained limited. In later years, all of them had much more important roles to play but not in the beginning. As a writer, I found myself looking back at what these characters brought to the stories in the nineteen-fifties and ’sixties and considering similar minor characters in my own work.

         Memory can play lots of tricks and be surprising in details that remain and bigger matters that don’t. For instance, I remember the panel in which Pete Ross sees young Clark Kent changing into his Superboy uniform. I guess for me, as a kid, that was a major event. A little contemporary homework tells me that Pete first appeared in Superboy #86, January 1961.

I have no memory of that. Pete discovers that Clark is Superboy four issues later and keeps the secret to himself. Looking back as a writer, I can see how this would add plotlines to the stories about Superboy. The Legion of  Super-Heroes learns about times when Peter helps Clark without revealing his secret. Pete becomes an honorary member of the Legion as a teen. I have no memory of other specific stories that include Pete Ross, but I recall that he continued to appear at times. He had ongoing appearances and storylines in several media. Later developments in his life went in different directions. For me as a kid, in the years I was first reading, he was a character I liked. The fact that he used his discovery of Clark’s alter-ego to help meant he was a good guy and in particular a good friend.

         I never liked Snapper Carr, whose nickname was based on snapping his fingers a lot. Even as a kid, I saw that he was based on the character of “Kookie” on the TV show 77 Sunset Strip, which I was watching. Snapper first appeared in The Brave and the Bold #28 (February–March 1960. Some adult, I realized even then, thought that kids like me would “relate” to this character. I felt it was condescending. Besides, I was buying comics for superheroes, not for a “nat,” to use the Wild Cards term. He has been called a mascot for the Justice League of America and that term seemed right to me even then. The Legion members made him an honorary member because of the help he had given, in a parallel to Pete Ross becoming an honorary member of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Comic books had other characters who played mascot roles, including Chop-Chop of the Blackhawks, and I didn’t have much interest in most of them. Writers of course found ways for Snapper to help the Justice League in the storylines. Maybe other kids liked him in the beginning. His ’fifties hipster image, like that of Kookie, was outdated in just a few years but Snapper lasted much longer than his predecessor.

         Like Pete Ross, Snapper went on to a varied history and larger roles, including a period when he had superpowers and a time when he lost them. Because I never liked him, his evolutions were of no interest to me. As a writer, I can see that he provided plot elements. As a kid, I didn’t care.

         Peter Parker’s Aunt May really caught my attention. She was a different sort of relative to a superhero. We had seen Supergirl, Superman’s cousin, but of course she’s a superhero, too, and stories about Superman’s father, Jor-El, took us farther into the science-fiction realm of Superman’s story. In the beginning, Aunt May was a nat whose poor health weighed on Spider-Man’s mind and that got my attention. Her condition and his worry gave them a type of humanity that I had not seen in comics before. She and her late husband Ben had taken in Peter after his parents died, so the relationship is close. The fact that she is unaware of Peter’s alter-ego and fears Spider-Man adds another angle to the stories.

I recall being surprised by this character and impressed by how her role was so new to me. As a writer, I can see how simple creating her might have been, as someone decided this new Peter Parker character needs to worry about a sick relative. As a kid, I didn’t view Aunt May that way. I just enjoyed Spider-Man’s comic books.

         Aunt May, like Pete Ross and Snapper Carr,  went on to much more active roles over time. She has different storylines in the various Marvel universes and  TV shows. Her earliest rendition is the one that made an impression on me in my young years. 

         During the same time in my life, I really liked Dr. Strange. The mysticism and air of mystery appealed to me, and Steve Ditko’s artwork, which I liked in general, seemed to fit the stories perfectly. Dr. Strange was originally an arrogant, egotistical neurosurgeon. That caught my eye because my father was a successful neurosurgeon without the arrogance and egotism. I didn’t really see much in common between them but I noticed the career parallel. 

         Dr. Strange’s story starts with a car accident that injures his hands. His search for alternate ways of healing take him to the Ancient One in the Himalyas, and he acquires a valet named Wong. I was twelve years old when Dr. Strange first appeared, in Strange Tales #110 (July 1963). The Himalayas, of course, imply Tibet. The anglicized “Wong” can originate from several Asian countries and languages, but I took it as being Chinese at the time. In any case, the Ancient One and Wong were drawn to look like East Asians in a general way. Dr. Strange’s magic, which he learns from the Ancient One, has no particular origin with any Asian culture. I liked the magic and Steve Ditko’s surrealistic artwork in depicting the effects of magic and fantasy realms. 

         Like the other characters mentioned above, Wong would eventually go on to more involved storylines. When he first appeared, I wished to see him doing more, but those developments took time and I was not following comics closely by then. He now has, again like many Marvel characters, multiple storylines in various Marvel alternate worlds. I’m glad he became much more of a character. 

         So far, none of my minor characters has become important enough to have an expanded role. They were created, of course, to play a specific role in each story where they appear, so larger roles weren’t part of my thinking.

         My first Wild Cards story is “Snow Dragon,” about Lazy Dragon, who shares one body with his twin sister, Tienyu. Lazy Dragon is an ace who can create an animal with soap or paper, for instance, and make it come to life when he moves his mind into it. Their names are Ben and Vivian Choy. A minor character is Sally Swenson, a young white woman with whom Ben is having sex at the start of the story. Sadly for her, Ben is a hostile, misogynistic jerk. I created her in order to dramatize these traits in Ben by the way he treats her. She’s a nat with a rather brief appearance in the beginning and an even shorter role at the end, when Vivian is also hostile to her. In a contemporary story, these characters would be middle-aged. I don’t see a future role for her. 

         My second Wild Cards story is titled, “’Til I Kissed You,” referencing an Everly Brothers song. Set in the nineteen-fifties, the story includes a minor character named Cheetah. He’s a joker with chimpanzee features above the waist and human features below the waist. I took the name Cheetah from a chimp in the old Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, figuring that either he or someone else would have given this character the nickname in that time. Cheetah and Troll have been committing petty thefts and break-ins of nat-owned businesses when the protagonist, a joker named Chop-Chop after the character in the Blackhawks, asks for their help. They help him break into a warehouse that is set to burn.

          Cheetah has an outgoing personality and the abilities of a chimp in his upper body. That gives him some additional strength and agility along with unusually long arms. Being a low-level crook with a devotion to the welfare of jokers can make him interesting. He has some possibilities for other adventures, though I haven’t used him again.

         My third Wild Cards story, “Jade Blossom’s Brew,” has several characters who are important to this story but are not intended for ongoing storylines. One is a high-school student named Cesar Chao. From Texas, he’s a nat who plays jazz on a piano. He doesn’t like jokers. He’s attending a jazz festival for high school students, where supermodel and actress Jade Blossom, an ace with the ability to change the density of her body, has been pressured by a movie studio to appear. She resents being there and Cesar turns out to have won a contest making him her date. Jade Blossom has a sharp tongue and diva attitude that often puts her into conflict with others. 

         I wanted Cesar to bring out her personality, so he’s a contrast, being an out-of-shape, nerdy guy with an overprotective mother. He has a special resentment of a joker, Marissa Simpson, who also plays jazz piano:

“Her hands are all rectangular. She’s hard and white, like piano keys. Her whole body looks like a robot made out of ivory, hard edges and angles and hinges on her joints.”

“An exoskeleton,” said Jade Blossom.

“And her face! Like a robot, all white and stiff, too.”

         Marissa has an even smaller role, yet she is crucial to the story. When she sits down at the piano where Cesar is playing during a crowded party, they begin to communicate through their music. Later, Jade Blossom sees them walking together, talking. Cesar’s character arc, regarding his attitude toward jokers, concludes in this way.

I don’t see Cesar, as a nat, having an ongoing storyline. Marissa, being a joker who plays jazz piano, might have future possibilities, but I didn’t plan for any. 

The most minor character who interacts in a meaningful way with Jade Blossom is named Natalie. She’s first described this way: “Off to one side, a solemn girl in a green T-shirt with a faded logo and worn black jeans watched Jade Blossom without speaking or holding a cellphone.”

         Natalie, a high-school senior, has an interest in modeling but is cautious about approaching Jade Blossom throughout the evening. After Jade Blossom notices her a few times during an evening event, Natalie finally gets Jade Blossom’s attention as Jade Blossom is departing. In her usual diva-style speech, Jade Blossom seems to be hard on her, yet arranges for the girl to have her private number and tells her to call after she graduates at the end of this school year.

         Just as Jade Blossom ultimately brought Cesar and Marissa together, she gives Natalie some hope even though Jade Blossom’s style is abrasive. I used all three characters as foils to bring out the mostly hidden side of Jade Blossom’s personality, a compassion and kindness she does not want to reveal.

         When I started writing this piece, I was just thinking about comparing the minor characters from comic books I grew up reading to some I had created. I hadn’t considered how much difference I would see between the characters in monthly and bi-monthly comic books compared to minor characters in novelettes I wrote. The ongoing comics, like Wild Cards overall, provide plenty of space to have characters evolve. Minor characters in a single story don’t generally offer a lot to work with in later stories.

         Then again, who knows? Sometimes characters surprise their creators.