Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Friday, April 11, 2008

My Ten Favorite Fictional Characters

I started writing this weeks ago, after the "Top Ten Albums" post. It seemed like a fun idea. I had no idea it would be so labor-intensive. Mainly, it's just an excuse for me to talk about Iron Man anyway...

I have omitted characters from dramatic literature for some reason. Maybe that's another list, of favorite characters from theatre: Rakitin from A Month in the Country, Prince Hal, Cherdyakhov from The Good Doctor, The Inspector General, Freddy Trumper from Chess, etc.

In no particular order:

Tony Stark, A.K.A. Iron Man (Marvel Comics): Genius inventor. Billionaire industrialist. Dashing playboy. Despicable control freak. Rampaging alcoholic. No character in all of comics mixes the admirable with the detestable as equally as Tony Stark, my favorite superhero of all time. You always get the sense that Iron Man is much closer to being Doctor Doom than Captain America.

He's been a captain of industry, a founding member of the Avengers (twice), clinically dead, a criminal on the run, a drunk literally in the gutter, U.S. Secretary of Defense, paralyzed from the waist down, and now Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., in charge of all the world's registered superheroes. All the while he's arrogant and addictive, brilliant and blind, and the best and worst friend you could have in the world. You can tell just how brilliantly-created this character is by how many comic geeks post-Civil War hate him as if he's a real person. And he's easy to dislike, just like a real person; more like a real person than almost any other character in comics. If I was brilliant enough to design that armor, I'd probably be an insufferable ass, too.

Check out the great runs by Bob Layton from the 70s and 80s for golden-age Stark. I hear a rumor that there just may be an Iron Man movie coming out some time soon.

Clint Barton, A.K.A. Hawkeye, Goliath, and Ronin (Marvel Comics): On the other end of the spectrum from Stark is Clint Barton, a second-generation Avenger armed only with a bow, a set of trick arrows, and balls the size of cantaloupes. Hey, if you were frequently on the same team as Captain freaking America and the actual god of thunder, you'd overcompensate, too.

He's romanced an ex-KGB agent (the Black Widow), an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (Mockingbird, whom he married, left, and reconciled with just in time for her to be killed), and an ex-Master of Evil (Moonstone). He started as a loudmouth a-hole and grew into the loudmouth a-hole chosen to lead the West Coast Avengers. When the former Masters of Evil decided they wanted to try their hands at being heroes, the Thunderbolts, Clint left the Avengers to go on the lam with them and lead them. The best of brash Barton is in his early Avengers days (post-issue #16), but my favorite stuff is the first few arcs of West Coast Avengers and the Busiek and Nicienza runs of the first Thunderbolts series.

Brian Michael Bendis wrote a fantastic monologue from Clint in this month's New Avengers: "When I first joined the Avengers as Hawkeye, I thought: Okay, it's me and my little arrows right next to the real life god of thunder. And I'm going: What the @#$% is my exploding arrow going to do that lightning boy with the hair can't do? But then... There's this moment. Something happens. You could be on your own, or part of the team, when all of a sudden... you are the exact right person for the exact right moment... and you take your best shot. And all of a sudden you know. You're an Avenger."

Clint Barton makes me believe anyone can use the talents they've been given to save the world.

Thomas Covenant (Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant): Yes, my favorite character from contemporary fantasy fiction is a rapist leper who spends most of his time refusing to use his limitless power to help people for whom he is their only hope. (At least I didn't pick Donaldson's other brilliant creation, Angus Thermopyle, a rapist cyborg who refuses to use his limitless power to help people for whom he is their only hope.)

The facts of Thomas Covenant's survival techniques, the rules by which he must live or die, are so brilliantly drawn that I find myself rooting for him even when I know his desires are at their most selfish and impure. Even as he flails, stumbles, and disappoints the people of the Land over and over and over again, there are always people who are willing to trust him, to believe in this self-styled Unbeliever. Donaldson draws a complex and terrible picture of just how impossible the act of having mercy on each other actually is, and Covenant pays the price of receiving grace with every breath he takes. He (and Thermopyle) were often in my thoughts during Measure for Measure. It's a terrible, beautiful story, and it's like nothing else you'll ever read.

Samwise Gamgee (J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings): As much as I thrill to the magic of Gandalf, the friendship of Gimli and Legolas, and the regal heroism of Aragorn, it is the Hobbits who are the center of The Lord of the Rings.

Frodo's sacrifice is the crux of the story, but Sam is the character who captivates me; Sam, the most faithful friend in all of literature (except possibly The Iliad's Patroclus), who chooses to follow his friend and master into the very mouth of hell for no reason other than because he loves him and can't bear to see him do it alone. In a way, Sam's burden is heavier than Frodo's, because he must watch his friend suffer more with every step. When Sam says "I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you," I am simply destroyed.

I've got news for you, dear reader: the real hero of The Lord of the Rings is Samwise, and what gives him his power is the purity of his love, not for home or duty but for his friend. Do I have friends like that? Am I a friend who would make that kind of sacrifice? God, I hope so.

Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (M*A*S*H): Here's where having the entire run of a TV show on DVD becomes real magic: For all the wacky antics, for all the self-righteous preachiness of later seasons, a devotee of M*A*S*H develops an entirely new perspective on Hawkeye Pierce after watching the finale, wherein our hero is literally put in a sanitarium. All the jokes of early seasons are cast in a different light once you know just how close he always was to the edge of actual madness.

Hawkeye is a mass of contradictions too big and passionate for sanity to contain; a hard-drinking womanizer by night (he really does treat women abominably for such an otherwise progressive-minded man), a brilliant artist of a surgeon by day, surrounded by the hell of a pointless war, staving off the demons of reality with jokes, gags, and fantasy. He's an officer in an army he despises, cleaning up dirty work he objects to with religious intensity. His eyes too open, his mouth too wide, Hawkeye is too small to hold it all in his mere mortal flesh. He may be the fictional character in whom I most see myself reflected.

Camber MacRorie (Katherine Kurtz's Legends of Camber of Culdi): Father and friend, scholar and mage, king-maker and priest, Camber MacRorie is the central figure of Katherine Kurtz's fictional world of Gwynedd. Born to power and influence both secular and magical as a Deryni lord, Camber serves the human Haldane kings until they are deposed by the tyrannical Deryni Festils, then attempts to serve the people by working with the usurpers. Eventually Camber and his family engineer the coup that returns the rightful human king to the throne, but at great cost to a society which then turns on his people.

Politician and poet, soldier and saint, Camber seems to sell pieces of his soul away bit by bit, assuming another man's identity when his influence wanes and finally making an arcane sacrifice to be transformed into something between life and death, all for the love of his king and his people. One of the most complex characters I've ever read, Camber still manages to make perfect human sense at all times despite his many contradictions. Kurtz's writing has dropped off severely in quality in recent years, but the three-volume Legends of Camber of Culdi is a wonderful, harrowing read.

Hellboy (Dark Horse Comics): Born of a demonic father and a human mother, summoned by Rastputin and Nazi magicks, and raised by a man devoted to fighting the forces of darkness, Hellboy is, like most of the characters on this list, a study in opposites. The single greatest thing about writer/artist Mike Mignola's greatest creation is the contrast between his appearance and manner: a hulking red demon with cloven hooves chomping on a cigar and beating the hell out of vampires, werewolves, and demigods with the attitude and language of a plumber trying to unclog a particularly obstinate toilet.

Ron Perlman is perfect in the first movie, and the second looks just as promising, but it's the original Mignola paper version that you owe it to yourself to read. Hellboy is probably the greatest new creation in comics in decades.

Josh Lyman (The West Wing): Okay, we all love Jed Bartlett, and Alison Janney is the coolest tallest woman in the world, and the ladies certainly love some Rob Lowe, but let's get real here. The West Wing was Josh's show, start to finish, from the pilot's speculation about his imminent firing through his inauguration as President Santos' Chief of Staff.

Bradley Whitford was just there in the perfect moment: the marriage of writer, character, producer, actor, and project, like television hasn't seen since Hawkeye Pierce. Josh is so smart and passionate and righteous that he doesn't believe he's capable of failure; this of course makes him irresistible and unlikeable all at once. He's clearly brilliant, and is a brilliantly-drawn portrait of how brilliance can make you insufferable and flawed as the flipside to its benefits.

Optimus Prime (Transformers): "Freedom is the right of all sentient beings," says Optimus Prime, the most awesome robot-that-transforms-into-a-truck in the known universe. On my MySpace page, Optimus is the only person listed that I'd like to meet; not because I wouldn't like to meet Gandhi or Jesus or Pete Townshend, but because meeting Optimus Prime would be so awesome!

Seriously, there's something about this character that captures the imaginations of boys from my generation. He's a warrior-king, but he's also incredibly gentle; he's an unwilling (but extremely skilled) soldier in a war he didn't choose, marooned on a world that isn't his home, and he puts his life on the line over and over again for people (humans) who are just as likely to shoot at him as his enemies. Optimus Prime's death in the 1986 Transformers: the Movie (Whoops, did I spoil a plot point of a 22-year-old movie for you?) made me cry at age 14, and moves me even now. It's hard to qualify why Optimus is such a huge part of my childhood. All I can figure is that he fills the space that early Spider-Man did for the generation previous: an icon of the honorable, responsible use of power for right regardless of what the world at large thinks of you.

Also, he's a robot that transforms into a truck.

The Doctor (Doctor Who): There are Doctor Who fans with much more depth of knowledge than I; David White, for example, can speak intelligently about the work of all ten actors who have played the regenerating Time Lord, whereas I have only seen half of them. I don't care. Doctor Who is the freaking greatest sci-fi show ever, and despite being over four decades old it is the best it has ever been right now.

I want to be David Tennant when I grow up. I want to fit in that suit. I want that hair; frankly, I'd settle for Chris Eccleston's hair, or even Tom Baker's. I want a sonic screwdriver. I want K-9 to follow me around at one-quarter my speed but somehow to magically show up right at my heels after the camera cuts. I want a TARDIS, and I want it to be bigger on the inside than on the outside. I want to hail from the planet Gallifrey, and I want to be equal parts irrepressible humor and inestimable sadness. I want to be an excited little boy and a wise old man all at the same time. I want Daleks to tremble at the sound of my name. I want to not have a proper name. I want an endless stream of interesting, beautiful women to follow me around for my mind and my adventures. I want to risk my life for people I just met twelve minutes ago. I want a theme song. I want to invent new science, making up new kinds of physics as I go along. I want to be saved by totally implausible deus ex machina over and over again. I want to be nine hundred years old.

Doctor Who does something that no other science fiction manages, and it does it on a regular basis: Doctor Who delights me. Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, all these are great thrilling shows, but they don't make me smile like this. It makes me grin and laugh and cheer at the sheer audacity of the writing, the silliness of the ideas, the total commitment of the show's creators. But it only works with an actor committing himself completely to the show's absurdity; it works best with a Tom Baker, a Christopher Eccleston, and by God with Tennant, who is absolutely the best of an excellent bunch.

Honorable Mentions:

George Bailey (It's a Wonderful Life): Happy New Year to you! In JAIL!

Severus Snape (JK Rowlings' Harry Potter series): Because I always knew he would end up a hero.

Odysseus (Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey): Because he's Captain Kirk.

Senator Barack Obama (Democratic presidential candidate): Equal parts JFK, MLK, and Jesus. Why do I feel like I'm the only one who sees that the image is just totally implausible?

Spock (Star Trek): A logical choice.

Spider Jerusalem (Vertigo Comics' Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson): Pure filth, ultra-violence, and compassion in equal measures. Makes me miss living in New York City.

Rorschach (DC Comics' Watchmen): Ronch ronch ronch.

Arthur Putey (Monty Python's Flying Circus): Deirdre... That's my wife...

Belgarion, King of Riva (The Belgariad, the Malloreon): I grew up with Garion.

Javan Haldane (Katherine Kurtz's Legends of Camber of Culdi and Heirs of Saint Camber series): The clubfooted younger twin to sickly Alroy, all heart and courage in the face of odds he can't possibly surmount. Making his story more tragic is the fact that Kurtz publishes genealogies in the backs of her books; before you even meet Javan you know he's going to die very young, a king for only one year.

Captain Mal Reynolds (Firefly, Serenity): How did he not make the top ten??! Call him 10A. Truly, I could have picked any character from this show, my favorite in television history. Hey, that's another top ten list!


  • At 4/12/2008 12:35 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Hm. It's somewhat surprising to me, as I look at this list, that it's all men. Dana Whittaker from SportsNight, Kaylee Frye from Firefly, Melissa Gold A.K.A. Songbird and Karla Sofen A.K.A. Moonstone from Thunderbolts, Ainslie Hayes from The West Wing, Evaine MacRorie from The Legends of Camber of Culdi and The Heirs of Saint Camber; all of these could easily have been on this list. I guess I was just feeling testosteroney.

  • At 4/12/2008 12:55 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    I'd be all day trying to do my own list, so I can only comment on a few of these: Several I admire greatly (Ironman, Hawkeye Pierce, Samwise Gamjee), several I've never heard of, and at least one I don't like at all. I watched exactly five minutes of The West Wing during it's entire run. A series wholly devoted to deifying Bill Clinton interested me not one whit.

    Bradley Whitford is, to me, the biggest pussy of an actor I've seen since David Caruso got his DOR in An Officer and a Gentleman. For me, the prototypical Whitford role was the classless nephew of Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (in perfect fashion, Whitford gets his ass kicked by a much older blind man in that film). If we had cast Whitford in our upcoming production of The Seagull, he'd be Medvedenko: Whining, complaining, wishing for the love a woman but clearly never deserving of it. What a massive, worthless pussy. That's Bradley Whitford. Just my opinion, and probably not the majority one, but calling it like I see it - something a puss like Whitford would never do.

  • At 4/13/2008 1:36 AM , Blogger Diana said...

    Loved your list but yeah... you certainly were full of the testosterone there. Here's my yin to your yang:

  • At 4/13/2008 8:44 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Tell us how you really feel, Frank. ;) Dude, you know my politics better than most. Trust me, The West Wing is far more than a seven-year love letter to Bill Clinton (though that is a factor).

    Diana, I have utterly blown it. The more I think about favorite female characters, the more I need to write my own fabulous females piece. Mainly, I can't believe I forgot Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, not to mention Amelie or Mathilda from Leon (the Professional). I promise, my penance article will be up in a few days.

  • At 4/14/2008 4:24 PM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    Dude. I got an "Optimus Prime" keychain but instead of saying "We must protect the Energon Cube" it says, imploring, "Bumblebee! Come in, Bumblebee!". I can't do the "We must protec-we must protec" groove.

    Yeah. I'm great.

  • At 4/14/2008 4:26 PM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    Oh, and Newman is fascinated by Optimus' voice. I think he is under the impression that the keychain is a dog toy.

    Yeah. yeah.

  • At 4/16/2008 6:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Barack Obama is a fictional character eh? :D

    lol.... yeah... I suppose anyone who is being portrayed in the manner he is has to be a little 'fictional' to survive :D

  • At 4/17/2008 8:53 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Yeah, I just can't bring myself to believe in the myth of Barackstar Obamessiah, especially in the context of just how stupid and inconsistent his public statements have become recently. Seriously, I've kind of sworn off politics on this blog recently, but Obama is just SO easy to write about these days that I can barely resist...

  • At 4/17/2008 9:03 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I'm sorry, dammit, but I can't resist.

    Somebody needs to tell Barackstar that there was a time in American history when lots of people got bitter and clung to guns, religion and anti-trade sentiment. It was called the American Revolution.


  • At 6/09/2008 9:56 PM , Anonymous Brennan said...

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought fiction meant fake. It is a cruel sentiment to refer to someone in the political spotlight right now as a fictional character just because they are being a bit over-hyped.

    I know that ever since Optimus Prime threw his hat into the presidential arena it has been nothing but hype, hype, hype from the media, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have a human side. Being a robot means he doesn't have a human side.

    But can you really blame the media for getting so into "Optimania"? It is admittedly hard to not get caught up in the fever of the prospect of having America's first robotic president that's also from space. (Second, if you count Rutherford B Hayes, who was more of darth vader-type character with the fleshy remnants of his original human body, but the all perks of a brand new robotic one.)

    In the end, when you cut through all the hype and BS, Optimus is just an American like the rest of us. It is simply ridiculous to compare him to the likes of Hellboy, Hawkeye, or Hawkeye when he wakes up in the morning, drives to work, and fires giant rockets from him wrists at Predicons before turning into a firetruck. Just like every other hard working blue-collar American. But with lasers.

    I hope I cleared up the definition of "fictional" for everyone. And, maybe convinced at least a few of you to vote OP in '08. Let's face it: McCain may be a Vietnam war vet, and Hillary may have a radical new plan for universal health care, but can either of them transform into a vehicle? OK, but can either of them complement Shia Leboeuf as the silver screen's greatest duo? Ever. I thought not.

  • At 1/21/2010 4:24 PM , Anonymous Cynthia Kimbrel-Jarrell said...

    I randomly ended up here weaving on the web looking for something...usually I don't post comments but your top 10 have some not so sung characters! I would have added most too! I must be the female version of you!!!!


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