Today, I’ll be talking about a special type of story: The Tribute Special.
As you can probably tell, these are specials which are almost like clip shows, special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or anniversaries. They provide an occasion for the vast majority of the character(s) or team in question’s social circles to get together and share their thoughts about the subject. Funerals may have an air of finality, anniversaries may mark a legacy’s end or continuation, and weddings are about the bride and groom.
But whatever the occasion, one thing is certain: It builds a plot around the event, and draws in a supporting cast to reflect on what makes it special. Stripped down to nuts and bolts, the event is set up, there are probably more than a few official or unofficial interviews talking about what those characters mean to others, and then it all leads up to the actual event itself.
So WHAT they are can be pretty diverse, but easy to understand. But WHY are they special? Gotta have something if I’m taking the time to talk about them, right? Well, in the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson…
Well, I’ll be honest. You can certainly argue that a sentimental context is a cheap tool to bring up some schmaltzy, saccharine terms of endearment. That’s an important thing to keep in mind for ANYTHING: If you’re just using it as a marketing ploy, it’s going to ring false and people WILL call you out on it.
Done RIGHT, however, it can lead to some of the most moving, human moments in a title. And I’ll start with the most obvious ones: The friends, allies and loved ones of the characters.
How Do You Like Me Now?
If there’s ever an occasion to bring everyone together and ask for their opinion, it’s a good way to pay tribute to what makes them who they are. Whether through a televised interview or a simple focus group, special occasions are a great way to bring about warm, sincere, flattering montages.
This is the most obvious benefit present in a Tribute Special. Whatever the occasion, it offers writers plenty of excuses for the characters to be EXTRA honest, whether it’s at death’s door or the happiest day of their lives.
This honesty serves a purpose, of course. Each opinion, each tribute, each conflict says as much about the person giving it as it does about the subject.
So when there’s a mass of interviews with the Fantastic Four’s associates, you’ll get:
Doctor Doom, of course, claiming that they are dangerous, unstable maniacs getting in the way of his regime.
The Black Panther saying their enemies won’t ever beat them because they don’t understand: They’re not a team, they’re a family.
And Namor, yes, I-want-to-bone-your-wife-you-loser-nerd Namor, admitting that Reed is a man of honour and Doom is probably jealous of his brains.
Done poorly, it can just be a simple matter of brightly-coloured sock puppets reading praise from prompt cards. But done right, with their own voices and with the weight of their history, you get a wonderful variety of views of all these relationships.
Reflecting on Reflections
But another thing Tribute Specials do is this: Present characters at their most vulnerable and introspective.
The issue, of course, depends on the character and situation. Some characters reflect on their rocky history as a couple, or about all their team has gone through.
And some, like Captain Marvel, deal with cancer.
Joking caption aside, this is something I adore. In all the mayhem of action, plots, and social justice pandering, it’s hard to justify finding a time to just sit down and think real thoughts about personal things.
After all, fiction is about entertainment, right? And things like comics, animation, and the like are usually supposed to be paced with action so they’ll sell or simply have some pacing.
But in a world full of noise and fury, whether it’s from atomic punches or author agendas, some forget the most vital lesson about writing characters: Treating them with real dignity and reflection.
And while The Death of Captain Marvel has a few fight scenes, the book is predominantly about reflection, coping with mortality, and those we leave behind. In being comfortable enough to just sit and talk like you would with someone on their sickbed, neither preaching nor raging, it offers the simple truth of life that sometimes you just need to think even when there aren’t any answers.
My Best Enemy
Now that I mentioned The Death of Captain Marvel, one of the best standards for Tribute Specials, I’ll wrap up with what might be my favourite perk of tribute specials. It’s the one that shows up unexpectedly, despite the fact that the concept is not unknown to us. We’ve seen it in regular stories, we’re familiar with the character or event type. But Tribute Specials offer one of the best times to show something special.
Seeing enemies at their best.
Like I said, we’re used to the idea of a worthy or even friendly adversary. And sure, we’re also used to seeing villains privately mourn, fixate on, or adore heroes, like the Joker with Batman.
But a public showing tends to be more benign, sincere, and sane. Some of it could be putting on a good image, but most times there’s an element of truth. And the reason it stands out more is this: They care enough to behave with everyone.
Though we’re used to enemies being honourable, those tend to be isolated between them and the hero. It’s a personal relationship, and one that doesn’t come to light as often with anyone else. Writing-wise, that relationship is only relevant when they are clashing, and never gets a chance to show up elsewhere.
Tribute Specials are that chance. It brings these enemies to light, and it surprises the supporting allies when this person they view as a megalomaniac comes and wishes his condolences or congratulations with class and sincerity. And though the circumstances can differ, some villains being more stable or sincere than others, this is one of my favourite things to see in a Tribute Special.
So even the Skrulls can wish Captain Marvel a swift passing and a great afterlife reward, keeping their tribute honest and to the point. Even Thanos can acknowledge he’s always respected Mar-Vell as his arch foe, talking him through his mortality. And even Lex Luthor (depending on the writer) can show up to Superman’s funeral, comfort a grieving Lois Lane, and admit he’ll miss Superman, too.
This Is Not The Greatest Story In The World; This Is Just A Tribute
So there you have it. A crash course into some of the things that make Tribute Specials, well, special. You could say they’re just clip shows, or designed to draw out emotions like a Christmas special, and that’s fair enough.
But Tribute Specials only come around when something has been around long enough. And while different stories can be about different things, a Tribute Special focuses on one overarching theme: The ties that bind the lives in these stories.
And in discovering these connections, we see what makes these characters special, as well as what they share with everyone.