Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Viola

The viola. Every team has one.

The mid-range character who never truly establishes himself or herself as a major player, but without whom, the team feels wrong somehow; off-balance. Violas generally fill in harmonies, occupying the gap between the violin and the cello. They play vital roles in chamber music. But few solo concerti or sonatas have been written for them.

Violas are not “second fiddles,” backup characters who labor in the shadow of a superior version of themselves. No, violas provide something unique, yet something ill-suited to stand alone.

The Martian Manhunter, Wonder Man, the Vision, all are classic violas. They provide texture and depth to their teams, but seem ill-suited for solos. The Black Knight. Maybe Cyborg? I don’t know.

I ask you, o comic fans: What makes a character a viola? Is there a surefire technique to spot a viola-in-the-making? Can a character overcome that status? I can’t think of any off the top of my head, though I’m sure it’s happened at least once. Is Cyclops the viola of the X-Men? Who are some key violas? Who is your favorite?

This is the kind of stuff I think about during my commute.


  • I think a better question is, what makes a superhero character more than a viola?

    Some suggestions:

    - a vivid personality
    - a strong supporting cast
    - not being originally conceived as a member of a superteam
    - being white, male and human seems to be an advantage

    There's more to it than that, though. I'm having a hard time drawing a distinction between 'longtime secondary character in a superteam' and 'viola'. Is there a difference? Or is a viola just a good longtime secondary character in a superteam?

    I would suggest, to start off with, that the Legion is composed primarily of violas. Lots of well-loved characters, but not one among them I'd be willing to trust with his or her own title.

    Others? Red Tornado. Black Canary. The Freedom Fighters.

    By Blogger Matthew E, at 3:42 PM  

  • Rogue, a VERY popular character unable to hold down a solo title.

    By Blogger The Fortress Keeper, at 4:14 PM  

  • "being white, male and human seems to be an advantage"

    Ding Ding Ding. Especially the human part. No coincidence that Martian Manhunter and the Vision are two of the top violas - they are very cool for fleshing out a super-team, because they are so weird and alien. But that very same alienness means that they can never be the hook that I, as the reader, relate to. That falls on someone else on the team - Green Lantern or Iron Man, perhaps. In a solo title, you end up with no hook at all.

    By Anonymous Dale, at 4:27 PM  

  • I think of violas as characters who are popular enough to merit the odd miniseries but not sustain an ongoing. The sort of character that a lot of fans have quiet fondnesses for. Kind of a fuzzy category, I admit.

    Maybe a question to ask is "how does a character graduate from being a viola?" Evolving a distinct hook? Who's done it?

    By Blogger Harvey Jerkwater, at 5:47 PM  

  • Do we want characters to graduate from being a viola? I think the idea of a viola is that it is an essential part of the team, just not good on it's own.

    I think the emotionless characters (like Data in Star Trek) or in general "mysterious past" characters (like Domino in X-Force) tend to be violas because in the team they basically serve to give interesting reactions, or to be reacted to, but not necessarily to push the plot forward.

    By Blogger Richard, at 10:23 AM  

  • - Powers: most characters with one-dimensional powers (e.g. energy blasts, flying)end up as violas. The X-Men is littered with them: Havok, Polaris, Kitty Pryde, Angel, Iceman, Cannnonball, Psylocke, et al.

    - Specialties: if most readers associate you with your team role, you are a viola. While Barry Allen is a scientist, his primary function in the Justice League is not "scientist." Hank Pym, Brainiac 5, Dr. Mid-Nite & Mr. Teriffic are all team scientists.
    Likewise, Colossus, Sasquatch, Rage, Colossal Boy, et al are "strong guys;" Night Thrasher, Cyclops, Cosmic Boy, & Spartan are "leaders."

    - Be a current or former teen sidekick (with someone other than Batman).

    By Anonymous Mike Loughlin, at 4:33 PM  

  • Sometimes violas do rise above their place in life, but it is always temporary.


    Hawkeye-two limited series, one ongoing that got cancelled, was also the led feature in "Solo Avengers". When Marvel held a contest for readers to pick their favorite Avenger who didn't have their own comic, Hawkeye won. He's a popular character, but no one seems to realize that the guy works best in a group, so they keep trying and trying to drum up interest in solo adventures starring him.

    Wonder Man-had an ongoing series that actually seemed poised to propel him beyond viola status. He had a unique setting (Los Angeles-quite a novelty, a comic book not set in New York), a unique agenda (he was working as a stuntman and trying to make it as a serious actor), a cool supporting cast, a couple of love interests, and the backdrop of Hollywood. Unfortunately, he got caught up in Infinity War, Gerard Jones starting making the character and his world wayyyyyyyy too dark, serious, and angsty, and lo and behold, his series got cancelled, he joined Force Works, got blown up, got better, and hasn't been the same since. Now he's going to be in a new Avengers comic written by Brian Bendis and he's wearing his 1970s red safari jacket. Alas, poor Wonder Man...he had his shot, now it seems he will forever be a viola.

    So Hawkeye and Wonder Man tried to rise above their "viola" status, and it didn't work.

    Then you have another breed of character, the kind that can't seem to consistently headline their own series, don't work in groups well, but work as guest stars. What musical instrument would that be? I'm thinking characters like Cloak and Dagger, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, Silver Sable, Hellstorm, and Ghost Rider.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:37 AM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:22 AM  

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