Poochie-Writing

Posted: June 16, 2009 in Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

PoochieLet’s talk about Poochie-writing.

The short version of Poochie-writing: to create or amp up a character to the point of unrealistic awesomeness, without establishing their credentials first. It’s a bad writing habit that I want to illuminate for any aspiring writers out there.

Which means, of course, “The Simpsons” explained it far better than I could ever hope to. But still, let’s give it a shot.

For the sake of clarity: Poochie was a hip-hop-surfer dog-character invented to inject new life (and viewership) into the “Itchy & Scratchy Show.” He was a mercenary concoction of network buzz-words like “proactive” and “edgy,” but mostly proved to be a massive distraction that audiences immediately rejected, because he didn’t FIT with the established “Mouse beats the shit out of Cat” premise.

Even despite voice-actor Homer’s well-meaning suggestion that when he’s not on-screen, Itchy and Scratchy should sit around asking, “Hey…where’s Poochie?”

Eventually, Poochie met his demise at the hands of the network suits who created him (“I must return to my home planet”). The whole plot was a send-up of a somewhat common practice some TV shows have of introducing new characters (cousin Oliver on “The Brady Bunch,” Leonardo Dicaprio on “Growing Pains”), or trying to boost reputations of old characters, without any concerns over whether it makes any sense from a narrative standpoint.

In spite of this episode, Poochie-writing remains.

“House” started the year with the introduction of a very Poochie character in Lucas Douglas, a private detective hired to check up on House - LucasHouse’s friend. Before the character was even introduced, word came down that Fox was expecting to spin Lucas off onto his own series. As a result, all the “House” regulars interacted with him, admiring his observational skills and even flirting with him (well done, Cuddy) – despite the fact that none of these people had a logical reason to give him the time of day.

In genre fiction, Poochie-writing has its own subset – the “Mary Sue.”  This is a pejorative term for a character a writer introduces from whole cloth who is so totally capable and charismatic that the established characters immediately love him and want him to take an active role in their adventures – without any previous street cred.

You can spot these Mary Sue/Poochie characters because they completely disappear with their creators. Comics offer a few textbook examples:

As a relative rookie on “JLA” (following acclaimed runs by go-to DC guys Grant Morrison and Mark Waid), new writer Joe Kelly decided to make his stamp by adding to the Justice League lineup during his run, Faith - JLAintroducing a mysterious woman named Faith.

Faith seemed to be to have whatever power was needed to save the day, including a pheromone that made people like and trust her. Apparently Batman had discovered her during some never-published case, and the two grew so close in such a short time that he even admitted to her how proud he was of his surrogate son, Nightwing (formerly Robin).

Apparently one stake-out with Faith is fun enough for the emotionally-reticent Batman to want to slap a “My sidekick turned out to be super-awesome and I love him” bumper sticker on the Batmobile.

When Ed Brubaker started his X-Men run, he added a homemade newbie called Darwin to the team – immediately the team’s MVP. Add to this the fact that the main villain of Brubaker’s run was another brand-new character who effortlessly became dictator of a galactic empire. Not too shabby for a six-month-old creation.

Did you ever play superheroes as a child, and one of the neighborhood kids was so insistent that his superhero character always had a heretofore unmentioned power that could block whatever you threw at him? You hated that kid, right? Now imagine he’s writing your favorite comic.

The reason for this post is Geoff Johns – current architect of the DC Comics Universe, and writer of several of their books, including “Green Lantern.”

A while back, DC decided to undo a decade of character assassination Green Lanternon Hal Jordan, the “main” Green Lantern (the guy you all remember from “Super Friends”). See, in a bid for sales in the mid-90’s, they made him go crazy, kill a bunch of people, and become a time-destroying villain. Then some other stuff happened. None of it was terribly good storytelling, but the point is, eventually DC editorial wanted him back as a viable lead. They gaveJohns, a lifelong GL fan, the job.

So now we reach the second level of Poochie-writing. The two previous examples displayed part one: Introducing a new character who’s awesome for no apparent reason. Level two is the Homer Simpson writing patch: “Hey…where’s Poochie?”

The first part of Hal Jordan’s comeback story features people talking about How Fucking Awesome Hal Jordan was. He was fearless. Sans fear. In his dictionary, there was a blank spot where “fear” should be. Characters who don’t actually LIKE the guy spout off in this way.

Even frickin’ Batman gets lectured on why he and Jordan didn’t get along – because Batman operates on fear, see, and Jordan didn’t have fear. Batman, for the first time ever, has no decent retort.

When things are at their worst, and only the power of a Green Lantern can make things right, Batman takes this moment to try to halt Hal Jordan. And Jordan clocks Batman right across the jaw.

Green Lantern - Punches BatmanNevermind that Batman’s a master of psychology and physical intuition who would’ve seen the punch coming a mile away. Jordan punches him because Johns want it to be perfectly clear that That’s How Fucking Cool Hal Jordan Is – he can even punch out Batman.

What’s disturbing is Geoff Johns’ way of writing – to tell people how cool a character is, and have him pull unreasonable stunts of badassery to prove it – is the kind of writing they try to drum out of you early and often in writin’ school (okay, Freshman Comp). And Johns is currently the grandmaster of an entire line of comics.

We here at Threat Quality, being master writey-type folks, like to pass along lessons whenever we can, so hopefully this has sent a message. Pass it along to any would-be writers who just KNOW they have the greatest “[Insert Favorite Character Name Here]” story never before told.

Because we don’t want “Poochie-writing” to become a standard phrase.*

(*This is a lie – we would really like it if “Poochie-writing” became a standard phrase.)

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Comments
  1. braak says:

    Man, what is that shit? Batman should have knocked the crap out of Green Lantern.

    God damn it.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    After reading the first trade of the regular Johns-written Green Lantern, I can now see why Fearless Hal Jordan thought it was a good idea to punch Batman:

    Apparently part of being fearless is a chronic inability to THINK THINGS THROUGH. Hal Jordan has virtually no impulse control, and is kind of a dim bulb overall.

    Coincidentally, stupid, reckless people are pretty much the only people who think it’s a good idea to take a swing at Batman.

  3. Never mind that in (I think) the debut issue of Justice League International, Batman clocks Green Lantern Guy Gardner into tomorrow. With one punch. So fast that nobody sees it. Granted, Gardner was no patch on the Silver Age Jordan, but here’s a fine example of Batman’s physical skill overcoming a dude with world-destroying power perched on his middle finger.

    I am loving the comics philosophy lately, fellas.

  4. Amanda says:

    I don’t know the first thing about comix, and yet I was captivated by this article. Well done. Nicely written.

    I know your life is complete now that you’ve gotten MY approval stamp….

  5. braak says:

    @Jefferson: Yeah, the JLI sequence (which I kind of want to put up here just to spite Geoff Johns) is actually an example of really good character writing. Because Guy Gardner was always a hot-tempered jerk, intent on proving that he was better than everyone at everything, so when he picks a fight with Batman he takes his ring off. Just to show how awesome he is.

    And Batman knocks him out, and everyone on the Watchtower thinks it’s hilarious.

  6. braak says:

    @Holland: Oh, you know what? I was trying to think of the “fearless” metaphor you were using the other day, the one I really liked. It was:

    “If Hal Jordan was at a restaurant, and a waiter offered him a plate of fear, he’d just say, ‘No, thanks.’ Because that’s how fearless he is.”

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    @Amanda: Captivation is the goal of each of our posts. But if we can hit “minor distraction,” we’re pretty happy, too.

    @braak: What amazes me most is that the “One punch. One punch!” scene is so famous and well-respected today AND is also a great bit of character development. AND funny. Ah, for the days when there was humor in DC comics.

    Two other things to note: When Guy hands his ring to Blue Beetle, Beetle immediately chucks it over his shoulder; and Martian Manhunter walking in the room, “Hello, everyone, how are – …is Guy dead?”

  8. V.I.P. Referee says:

    This sucked because it’s important to teach kids/teens/people that having too much “self-esteem”—being totally confident in all situations—is dangerous. An “Where there’s a will, there’s a way!” attitude, doesn’t always cut it; who could’ve delivered the necessary humilty better, than Mr. Unstable himself, “Batman”? Why am I now feeling that “Oscar the Grouch” is more badass than the lot of ’em?

    Okay, a “Green Lantern” film is greenlighted (HEE!) to be released by 2011.

  9. Jeff Holland says:

    I will not be convinced the Green Lantern movie actually happens until the day I see a trailer. After all, a (fairly abysmal-sounding) “Justice League” movie was prepped, cast (including Common as the John Stewart Lantern and Adam Brody as the Flash – but NOT including Christian Bale or Brandon Routh), and the director was even scouting out locations in Australia, but it pretty much fell apart around the time of the writers’ strike.

    Add that to the possible rebooting of the Superman franchise two years after blowing like $300 million on Superman Returns, and its inability to get its act together on Wonder Woman, and you can understand my sceptisim when it comes to DC movies.

    I’m not saying I wouldn’t LIKE to see a GL movie. I’m just saying…might be a while.

  10. braak says:

    Not only were they scouting locations, they were holding auditions for extras for that movie–AUDITIONS THAT I ACTUALLY ATTENDED!

  11. Jeff Holland says:

    So there you have it. Things were going just great – UNTIL CHRIS BRAAK AUDITIONED FOR THEM.

    Thanks a LOT, Chris.

  12. Erin says:

    Whoa, hold the phone. You’re taking Rebirth so far out of context, it’s a little ridiculous. First up, the story you’re citing is from SEVERAL years back. Why does this matter? Because, at the time, Batman was in the midst of his paranoid jerk phase. For about a decade, he’d been written as an asshole who distrusted anyone with superhuman powers (they’ve since cleaned that up with some Identity Crisis retconning: no sense on going into it here). So his reluctance to trust Jordan was in character and logical.

    As for the punch, you’ve implied (correctly) that it referenced the JLI comic where Batman dropped Gardner (a classic, to be sure). But you also seem to be saying that Batman has been established as being so exceptionally skilled that Jordan couldn’t have caught him off-guard.

    While I agree that Batman is well established as a total bad ass, you’re ignoring one important point: so is Jordan. Yes, the first issue or so of Rebirth had characters going on about how tough Hal Jordan was. So did three decades of Green Lantern comics. Remember those?

    Abin Sur’s ring had a planet of potential replacements to choose between – include Wayne – and it went for Jordan. Not only was he given membership in the most selective military organization in the universe; he went on to become the greatest of them all. Because he’s quick, he’s tough, and – with or without a power ring – he gets the job done.

    Batman, it’s been said, can take down just about anyone… given time to plan. Here, he didn’t have that time.

    I certainly don’t think it qualifies as “Poochie writing”.

  13. braak says:

    @Erin: Now wait a minute…there are any number of reasons why Abin Sur’s ring avoided Batman. Certainly, it’s wildly inaccurate to suggest that the ring chose the most baddest-asssed character on the planet. It is moreover wildly inaccurate to suggest that there is any reason to think that the ring would choose people based on their capacity for fisticuffs–after all, the point of the ring is that it obviates the need for physical combat. This is precisely why Guy Gardner’s desire to beat up Batman on Batman’s terms is so absurd–but it’s moreover why the idea that Hal Jordan could beat Batman on Batman’s terms is absurd.

    Yes, Batman can beat anyone with time to plan–but when we say, “He can take down anyone” we’re assuming the use of the supernormal powers that he’d have to plan around. Hal Jordan just punched him. He’s not a kung fu expert–he’s not even an especially handy army guy. He’s a test pilot. Batman needs time to plan how to get around megapowerful magic wish rings; Batman doesn’t need time to plan to beat someone at PUNCHING.

  14. Erin says:

    @Braak: How was that on Batman’s terms: Jordan turned around and sucker punched him. There was no judo contest, no big battle, none of that. They were talking when Jordan knocked him down, not fighting. Batman gets knocked around by gangsters and punks all the time: Hal Jordan is career military and, thanks to that “no fear” thing, has been in plenty of fights. I haven’t read a huge number of old Lantern books, but I’m pretty sure he regularly got stuck in bad situations with a depleted power ring and had to fight his way out. If the Riddler can occasionally catch Batman unprepared, so can Jordan.

  15. threatqualitypress says:

    Well, now there’s a problem. If we’re dealing with Batman in context with the Justice League and the Green Lantern, we’re not talking about the Batman that occasionally gets bashed on the head with a wrench by the Joker. We’re talking about the guy that is the master of the human physical condition–the Justice League heroes are, necessarily, exemplars of their own particular areas of ability, and Batman’s is physical combat and intuition. The Justice League Batman could never operate at the level of the other JLA heroes if a guy can just sucker-punch him.

    In short: it’s reasonable that Batman could knock out Guy Gardner; in that storyline, we’ve delineated what Guy Gardner is good at (having a magic ring, being a dick) and what Batman is good at (punching guys in the face).

    But your and Geoff Johns’ interpretation of Hal Jordan is that he’s good at BOTH having a magic power ring AND punching guys in the face. Loading up your favorite heroes with all the powers is something that ten year olds and bad Dungeon Masters do. Also Laurell Hamilton.

  16. Erin says:

    Ah, you’re referring to the “Galactic Batman” phenomenon, used by Grant Morrison to elevate Bruce to a level where he’d make sense as not just as a core member of the League, but arguably the single most effective. Before this, Batman was just a guy; afterward, he came across as a Greek god in a batsuit.

    You know, a cynic might call that the single most blatant example of “Poochie-Writing” in the history of comics.

    But I am no cynic. I happen to love Galactic Batman. But then, like you and Mr. Holland, I’m something of a Batman fanboy. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I was kind of miffed when I first read the page of Rebirth in question. But then I remembered something: that Green Lantern had decades of development, too. He had fanboys as dedicated to him as we are to Batman. And, just like I love it when Batman gets his hands on a power ring and uses it to great effect, they like it when Hal is portrayed as an effective unarmed fighter.

    At the top of this article, Holland defines “Poochie-Writing” as the attempt “to create or amp up a character to the point of unrealistic awesomeness, without establishing their credentials first.” You’re both angry, because you’ve read dozens of Batman stories where Batman’s abilities are established. But there are PLENTY of other stories where Batman isn’t the center of the DC Universe. My response boils down to this: Green Lantern’s credentials have been well established.

    If your point is that Rebirth is a bad story, because you don’t like Batman taking a fall: you’re welcome to your opinion. But it’s a little absurd to suggest that Johns is loading up his favorite characters on the grounds one gets a single punch off on Batman; you know, the guy who is now THE BEST IN THE WORLD AT EVERYTHING.

  17. Erin says:

    Wait: there’s more:

    “the Justice League heroes are, necessarily, exemplars of their own particular areas of ability, and Batman’s is physical combat and intuition.”

    Right idea, wrong team: you’re thinking of the X-Men. Superman has the combined power set of almost every other member of the Justice League; hell, he might be faster than the Flash. Also, Batman’s specialty on the League is “World’s Greatest Detective.” Wonder Woman is physical combat/intuition.

  18. braak says:

    All right, let me approach this from a different direction. Assuming that all choices made as a writer are made on purpose, and that the author is therefore responsible for all events that occur within the story, why does Hal Jordan punch Batman? Why doesn’t he hit him with a giant green boxing glove? Or trap him in a giant green safe? Why does he bother doing anything, instead of just covering himself in green samurai armor and fly off into space?

  19. Jeff Holland says:

    Actually I think Kyle’s the one more prone to green samurai armor.

    Sorry, I just thought I’d break up the braak/erin pattern.

  20. Erin says:

    @Braak: “Assuming that all choices made as a writer are made on purpose, and that the author is therefore responsible for all events that occur within the story, why does Hal Jordan punch Batman?”

    I assume to reference the classic scene where Batman slugged Guy. Geoff Johns probably also found it funny. I don’t really have an opinion on whether those are good reasons or not. My argument is with the claim that Jordan landing the punch is out of character (or, in Holland’s words, “Poochie-Writing”).

  21. Jeff Holland says:

    Okay, I know I’m now venturing into dangerous territory by trying to defend my position, but let me try anyway.

    I never said it was out of character for Jordan to take a swing at Batman. I do believe Johns has a pretty firm grasp of what he thinks makes Jordan an interesting character. My problem is that the punch lands, foregoing Batman’s characterization for the sake of building Jordan’s.

    Jordan clocking out Batman doesn’t read as a story-point, so much as it plays as a way of Selling Hal Jordan just a little more. It’s a message to new readers that THIS is why they should be impressed with him, and a wink to old fans who always assumed Jordan could deliver such a punch.

    But it never feels organic to the story itself. If you removed Batman’s complaining (and yes, I do agree that this was during a particularly high Batman-as-total-dick era, propagated mainly by Johns and Greg Rucka as a precursor to the Infinite Crisis stories), and the resulting punch, the story doesn’t change. It’s just a symbol of Hal Jordan’s coolness.

    Now, had Johns built up to this moment – and given the first-issue conversation between Guy and John about how neat Jordan was, and being that neither one is a huge fan of Batman, there was a window – maybe a few lines of foreshadowing dialogue would’ve been enough to sell it a little better:

    John: You remember when Batman KO’d you with one punch?
    Guy: That whole thing got taken out of context, man…
    John: Hal coulda done that. With his ring off? I’d have put money down on Hal winning that fight. Not you, so much. But Hal…yeah, he definitely coulda knocked out Batman.
    Guy: I could knock YOU out with one punch…
    John: Don’t ever change, Guy.

    This is all I’m saying.

  22. Jeff Holland says:

    AND! So that it doesn’t seem like I’m just trashing the whole Rebirth story out of hand, it does feature a pretty cool moment that I think DOES sell the Green Lantern property. That’s when Green Arrow has to use the ring to defend himself, and realizes just how damn hard it is to control.

    That feels “real.” And it’s a plot-important way to show that ALL the Lanterns are impressive – particularly Kyle, since this really was a guy chosen at random, who stepped up to the exhausting task – but also Hal, since we’ve been told how he was the best of them.

    Seeing Green Arrow – an everyman kinda guy – struggling to do something Hal always did with seeming ease is a very good way of driving home just what kind of skills Hal always had, and showing that he was more than just a guy with a magic ring.

    After that, Hal punching Batman seems like gilding the lily.

  23. Erin says:

    @Holland: “I never said it was out of character for Jordan to take a swing at Batman.”
    I hadn’t meant to imply otherwise: my “out of character” remark was meant to reference the success of the hit. But I certainly should have worded that better. Sorry about that!

    As for building up to the moment, I feel like Johns did that by spending time talking up Jordan as a guy who’d power through anything and never let anyone tell him what to do.

    But lets pretend for a moment that Johns hadn’t bothered: Rebirth still wouldn’t qualify as “Poochie-Writing,” because the character of Hal Jordan has previously been established as tough by other writers. If we’re considering the story out of context, then Johns’s job becomes easier: he would only have had to justify the Rebirth version of Hal being able to land a punch on the Rebirth version of Batman. In other words, if Batman’s prior credentials as a badass apply, so do Jordan’s.

    But as to the Green Arrow scene… yeah. That was all kinds of awesome.

  24. Jeff Holland says:

    @Erin: Maybe our difference of opinion stems from what we think “Rebirth” was supposed to accomplish. Yeah, it was meant to reestablish Hal as the One True Green Lantern, but I also read it as a means to clarify why a new reader unfamiliar with Hal should be attracted to him.

    My experience with Hal Jordan has always been post-“Emerald Dawn.” Meaning he’s always had gray temples* and no direction – not exactly a selling point for a kid (at this time, “Green Arrow” was a mature readers book, just to date myself further).

    Weird as it is, considering I kinda know my shit when it comes to Marvel/DC history…KYLE has always been “my” GL (and one other thing I do give Johns props for was the way he set up Kyle as being respected by the rebuilt corps as the “torch-bearer” during its dark times).

    To me, “Rebirth” wasn’t meant to sell GL fans older than me – they’ve always been pro-Hal – it was meant to sell guys like me or younger (HA! I know, I’m kidding, there are no DC readers under the age of 30). Who were all raised on a steady diet of “Batman is best there is!”

    So the idea of Hal knocking out Batman felt like – not pandering, but there was a clear, “See kids? Hal Jordan’s just as cool as that Batman fella you all seem to like!”

    How did you view “Rebirth”? And I’m curious, what’s your take on the ongoing GL book that followed? My usual Johns problems persisted (and yes, there’s probably another post about that in me somewhere, tied to recently reading the first year of his Flash run), but I like hearing other takes.

    *I’ll admit, I thought the story-patch on why Hal’s temples went gray early was pretty clever (and a bit hilarious, to toss an explanation in just so he can return to life gray-hair-free). Though really, I’d love to have heard the argument for adding the gray in the first place.

  25. Erin says:

    I have to admit, I was only lukewarm on Rebirth when I first read it. Since then, I like it more, because I can see what Johns was setting up with Sinestro.

    Mainly, I don’t think he was that focused on fan reaction (he’s smart enough to know he’d have won over FAR more young readers with a Batman team-up). What he set out to do was tell a compelling story while finding a way to retcon away Hal going evil and murdering all those people.

    Honestly, I think he did a better job retconning than he did storytelling: Rebirth feels forced. In Johns’s defense, I don’t think there was a way around that without shitting on the stories that came before. Plus, he gave Batman the job of advocating the readers’ skepticism at the “revelation” Jordan was being controlled – I don’t think Rebirth would have worked without that.

    My other observation ties to the real reason I felt the need to object to the designation of “Poochie-Writing”: I found Rebirth to be deeply respectful of other characters and stories. When it came out, the default assumption was that Kyle Rayner was a goner. Since I wasn’t a Rayner fan, I was kind of looking forward to seeing him get taken down.

    Instead, Rebirth made me like him. Same with Guy Garner, in fact. John Stewart and Kilowog, who I’ve always liked, also got solid roles. Batman was used as a dark reflection of the Lanterns; I kind of like that. Punch aside, he had that great scene at the end where he was re-established as the intellectual and moral authority of the DCU.

    Mainly, I greatly respect what Johns was able to accomplish for the DCU. He wasn’t just returning Hal to life; he was restructuring the entire Corps to include elements from its Silver Age roots, along with the modern aspects.

    Since Rebirth, I’ve been following GL only sporadically. I collected the first 3 issues, but they were moving too slowly for me, so I gave that up. I only saw a few until the Sinestro Corps War, which I loved. I’m deeply impressed with how well Johns is able to incorporate new elements with Silver Age one. I have a friend who’s new to DC who had no idea which were old and which were new: everything fits together seamlessly.

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