Sunday, May 18, 2014

Dissecting Toads - Toads of Future Past


Since the Empire Magazine covers were released, I’ve been seeing a backlash about Toad appearing in “Days of Future Past,” so I think it’s high time I spread some Toad awareness. It’s easy to forget that characters like Toad are important to stories since we’re naturally inclined to prefer that more prominent/popular characters to fill the cast. After all, we all want to see our favorite characters get their own flashy action scene on the big screen. However, a roster full of Hulks, Juggernauts, and Colossuses does not a good movie make. A cast is made diverse both to give the audience variety and to emphasize the characters’ differences by them playing off each other. So let me make my case for why this slimy Toad deserves his place in the X-Men world.
THE ARCHETYPE: Here, I analyze what Toad is made of and why he can be an asset to stories.
TOADS OF FUTURE PAST: Based on the archetype, I analyze his past and speculate on what’s to come, including the movie.

Of the 50 years Toad, (a.k.a. Mortimer Toynbee) has been in the Marvel universe, he’s been drawn/written drastically differently in half of them. Understandably, he’s one of the last priorities for comic titles to focus on, so fixing his characterization is rarely on the agenda. He’s been stuck in a limbo where his design is constantly experimented with and never settled on. Let me guide you through his mess of a timeline to better understand how this true toad might be saved.


We all know him as Magneto’s toady back in 1964  (Uncanny X-Men #4), but his real story begins four years later when he finally grew independent of Magneto and betrayed him. Toad detonated his master’s ship and supposedly killed him (back then, Magneto’s death might’ve been more believable), and he saved the lives of all the Avengers and X-Men. (Avengers, vol.1 #53) His moment of glory was a twist ending to the big battle between the Avengers, the X-Men, and Magneto, and it provided Toad much needed character development. Despite growing into a unique and compelling individual in this issue, Toad would have scarcely any weight in comics for the next 32 years!

Toad was at his strongest from 1968 to 1985, as we can see in the great names he defeated, proving that he is no normal peon:
-Magneto (Avengers, vol.1 #53)
-Thor (Avengers, vol.1 #137)
-Iron Man (Avengers, vol. 1 #137)
-Wasp (Avengers, vol.1 #137)
-Spider Man (The Vision and the Scarlet Witch #11)
-The Vision (The Vision and the Scarlet Witch #11)
His existence was heavily reliant on his goal to win over the Scarlet Witch until after the events in The Vision and the Scarlet Witch in 1985. Toad had fallen out of love with her then and had no other preestablished objectives to keep him going. Even upon founding his own Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (X-Force vol.1), he was given no discernable objective and was a mere accessory to the stories that he appeared in. Writers focused more on making him quirky and comedic, which is a good intention and a trait that Toad mysteriously lacked in the past, but they neglected the rest of his character, and so it fell apart. He gradually degenerated into babbling cannon fodder (Uncanny X-Men #364) until his renaissance following the first X-Men movie.

Just when Toad looked like he might have been killed off for the last time, the first X-Men movie arrived in 2000, where Ray Park played him as an attractive, green-skinned punk flaunting a fantastic prehensile tongue. The success of the movie and new fanbase for Ray Park’s Toad instantly inspired Marvel to reinvent the character with X-Men Forever, debatably Mortimer’s most noteworthy appearance to date. Artists Kevin Maguire and Andrew Pepoy revived Toad’s facial construct from the first Jack Kirby days and created an expressive, colorful, and strikingly realistic depiction of him, while writer Fabian Nicieza breathed new life into a character who was becoming dangerously trite. Nicieza provided an origin story for Toad and engaged our sympathy for this strange man throughout his life experiences. It was explained that Toad’s fluctuation in personality and physicality over the years was due to the instability of his mutation and that he now takes a drug Ridilin to subside the affects, which both excuses his inconsistent portrayals in comics history and complements Mortimer’s need of psychological help. The omniscient Prosh speaks to Toad in regards to these diverse aspects of his personality: “Happily, I am dealing with… the best one. The caring one,” acknowledging that Mortimer is a good person under his tragic psychological mess, and he is on the road to recovery. (Iss. 1) Nicieza even made Toad blossom into a main character and a full-fledged “good guy” for the first time, and he gave Toad an extraordinarily plot-relevant role, the likes of which had only occurred once before in 1968. “Morty might be the most important player in this whole game,” Iceman realizes, voicing the team’s surprise that this unassuming flunky had proven to be their wildcard. “My survival depends on his survival,” Mystique monologues in disbelief. (Iss. 6) And what an unbelievable comeback for Toad this was! The story recognized Toad’s mechanical ingenuity that had been too often forgotten, established him as the sympathetic and compelling character he is, expanded upon his past, opened a gateway for further character development, and gave him the iconic superpower that had been introduced in the X-Men film: the prehensile tongue. There may have been a few jokes pointed at Mortimer’s misery, but one thing the story did not do is make him particularly quirky or comedic until after he transformed into a handsome man at the end, as if a lack of self-confidence and humor don’t go together.

Toad’s renaissance involved a trend to reinvent him as a slim, grungy, punk baddie of sorts with all the attitude and humor you could ask for. Plus, the subsequent storytellers almost instantly ignored the fact that Mortimer had become handsome, which was for the best; Toad’s ugliness is a core attribute of his character, so to remove it would destroy his very identity and betray his archetype. The punk concept worked well for the other Toads but was out of character for Mortimer. He dabbled in various villainous scenarios with no clear motivation to return to villainy at all, much less to rejoin the Brotherhood (X-Men, vol.2, #106) or to enter a blood sport tournament (Wolverine, vol.2, #167). Considering how “caring” he was established to be before, I guess Mortimer quit taking his Ridilin! While Ray Park’s Toad may have opened storytellers’ minds to allow the character to change and grow, the transformation it inspired in the main comics universe was unfounded and seemed to be an attempt at imposing certain marketable, quirky, comedic qualities onto a character that just don’t belong. The fact of the matter is that Marvel has an obligation to sell Mortimer because he’s from their main universe franchise, but frankly, Mortimer was never fit to be a punk.
Left to right: Ray Park as Toad ("X-Men" film, 2000), Todd Tolansky (X-Men: Evolution TV series, 2000), Toad (Ultimate X-Men comics series, 2001), Mortimer Toynbee (Marvel’s main comics universe, 2000)

In Wolverine and the X-Men, Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s bold redesign of Mortimer—a softhearted, portly, older man with now green skin— occasionally succeeded in combining his humorous side with his age and depression in a believable way (mostly by exploiting his misery) and was an educated step toward making him a marketable character in his own right. Aaron has done Toad a huge favor by giving him a full character arc complementing his struggle of becoming a better person complete with romance and genuine plot involvement. How rare! Artist Pepe Larraz helped to create a gorgeous contrast between the harmless, well-intentioned, love-struck janitor Toad has become and the monster he’s been suppressing when Toad discovers himself a true villain once again. (Iss. 41) I’ve even begun to notice a fanbase for Mortimer surface (not Ray Park, not Todd Tolansky, not the Ultimate Universe Toad—Mortimer) thanks to his role in this series, and I hope Marvel recognizes this attention as well. Many people don’t see potential in Mortimer to be a great character, but considering how sparingly and haphazardly he’s been used in the past, it should be hard not to see how much uncharted territory there is. Wolverine and the X-Men could likely be the beginning of Mortimer’s best run yet. That being said, I’m doubtful that he’ll stay consistent for long, because the jokes Aaron wrote for Mortimer are based on his depression and sadness, and there’s only so much comedy to be found there before his situation becomes just pitiful. On the other hand, if future creators portray him as a completely serious, tragic villain, I’m afraid that won’t last long either—he’s Toad, not Magneto.

Before moving on to the Toads of the future, there’re some things you gotta understand about Todd Tolansky, voiced exceptionally by Noel Fisher in the 2000 TV show X-Men: Evolution. I’d be remiss not to address the relevance of this Toad that was so well-received and lingers in the minds of fans today. Unlike his punk counterparts of the time, he was made sympathetic, which is a mark of a Toad portrayed at his very best. X-Men: Evolution director Frank Paurr commented on Todd’s depiction: “…I would say we do all our villains fairly sympathetically. They were people who life didn't treat kindly and then made a lot of wrong decisions. There's no real heavy black and white here.” Todd is a foil that brings out the best in other characters like Nightcrawler, has a character arc, has dramatic tension, has compelling romance, and is a very believable and compelling character; nonetheless, his primary role in the show is comedic relief. His well-roundedness makes Todd one of the truest and best representations of Toad. Todd revealed a new side of this archetype with his youth, vivaciousness, and endearing personal quirks, making him a very fun, amusing, and marketable character—qualities that have been imposed on Mortimer time and time again but failed to produce positive results.


Considering how often Mortimer is forced into comedic roles, Marvel must still be experimenting with how to sell this character as fun, quirky, and amusing. As sympathetic and compelling as Mortimer can be, his archetype is largely responsible for providing stories with flavor and colorfulness and memorability, so he seems incomplete without that fun, amusing quality that made Todd Tolansky so comedic and successful. Among other things, Todd’s youth allows for him to be concerned with his social status and with receiving attention from his attitude and bad behavior, but Mortimer is older and jaded and should be treated as such. He’s shown in his most honest moments to only want to live a good life and get revenge on those who ruin it for him. He tends to be a somber, depressed person, and I hope that Marvel can find an in-character way to lift Mortimer’s spirits so that we’re more often inclined to have fun reading about him than pity him. I have a recommendation: There is another character of the same archetype who exhibits confidence, playfulness, and vivaciousness like Todd does and age and experience like Mortimer does, and most importantly, he is legendarily successful. He is none other than Eli Wallach’s Tuco from the 1966 film “The Good the Bad and the Ugly.” I think that Marvel creators will find a more fun, amusing, in-character, and more marketable portrayal of Mortimer if they take careful inspiration from this fellow vengeful outlaw.

At last, the movie! Toad didn’t appear in the original “Days of Future Past” comic, so to see him in the cast is no less than a pleasant surprise. In the first X-Men film, Ray Park played a somewhat prevalent role and had only four lines, yet we’ve already seen that Evan Jonigkeit is given at least one line in this movie that juggles over a dozen more characters and has no obligation to Toad, so that’s a nice nod to the character. The thoughtful design of Toad in the upcoming X-Men film is a testament to the higher standards for movie makeup in the last decade, and it gives me hope that he may leave another lasting impression on the audience. It’s no less than impressive that the designers achieved a believably warty, sickly look for him despite how beautiful Evan Jonigkeit’s face is underneath. His design shows off his moral ambiguity by being neither completely handsome nor completely ugly, which is an old dichotomy of Hollywood. He clearly has some punk influence in there, rightfully preceding Ray Park’s presentation, and I think he looks fun. I say it’s never a problem that Toad is given a smaller than ideal role so long as it’s done well. Toad is a very underappreciated X-Men character, and I hope he is a favorite of Evan Jonigkeit as he is mine. This may be a very small role, but it should be a very sweet one.

It’s clear that Toad has been developing a greater presence in comics over the years, largely influenced for the better by his occasional screen appearance. I hope this movie gives him the spotlight needed to remind people of the potential hidden behind his warty exterior. I can see Toad easily having his own spinoff comic or becoming a main X-Men character in the future with the right amount of dedication, and if I’m the only one who believes in him, I’ll offer to make it happen myself. Marvel has a dynamite character in their arsenal that can bring out an extra layer perspective and color and fun in their stories, and I hope they recognize it.

Dissecting Toads - The Archetype


Since the Empire Magazine covers were released, I’ve been seeing a backlash about Toad appearing in “Days of Future Past,” so I think it’s high time I spread some Toad awareness. It’s easy to forget that characters like Toad are important to stories since we’re naturally inclined to prefer that more prominent/popular characters to fill the cast. After all, we all want to see our favorite characters get their own flashy action scene on the big screen. However, a roster full of Hulks, Juggernauts, and Colossuses does not a good movie make. A cast is made diverse both to give the audience variety and to emphasize the characters’ differences by them playing off each other. So let me make my case for why this slimy Toad deserves his place in the X-Men world.
THE ARCHETYPE: Here, I analyze what Toad is made of and why he can be an asset to stories.
TOADS OF FUTURE PAST: Based on the archetype, I analyze his past and speculate on what’s to come, including the movie.

Toad represents a very useful archetype for a diverse and complex cast, but he was not always this way. His name is derives from his original archetype: a toady; Avengers, vol.1 #138 summed up Toad in his first years rather well when calling him an “obsequious sycophant”, along the lines of your Igors and Renfields. In the beginning, Toad’s thoughts and actions reflected those of his master, Magneto. He didn’t merit any character development and was possibly even designed to be mentally deficient to excuse that. I agree that this breed of underdeveloped character can be unimpressive and even annoying in some comic reliefs, but being an Igor stereotype is not inherently a problem. Toad was designed to act more like a tool than an individual at the time, and he served his purpose very well. Of course, the Promethean fire ignited within him when he betrayed Magneto (Avengers vol.1, #53), and he emerged a character capable independent thoughts and actions and goals. He's grown to illustrate, in his best moments, a unique archetype that I’ll affectionately refer to here as a “true toad.” A true toad has a specific structure involving his position in a cast of characters, his character arc, and his relevance to the story.

1.         He is the foil to other characters in the cast, specifically for the purpose of making them appear more appealing and important by being utterly repulsive in comparison. He’s not visually attractive and is often rather ugly to match his ugliness inside. Some of his repulsiveness might not be his fault, but at least some of it is, making him difficult to sympathize with upon first impression. His chances of finding any sort of affection in other characters are unlikely at best, but there’s great beauty in character flaws. Our flaws are part of what make us human, and exploring what makes us human is what X-Men is all about! In this sense, a true toad may be a truer representation of humanity than the characters that we are led to relate to (super heroes). The true toad also helps with world building, since his existence acknowledges that more colorful people may exist outside of the main cast of flying Adonises in spandex. It is very rare to find a true toad playing the role of a main character since his function necessitates being downplayed.
From X-Men Forever, we are introduced to our unlikely team of heroes here. Talk about variety!

2.         A true toad’s physical objective is to amend the repercussions of his repulsiveness, and he ironically pursues that in counterproductive (even villainous) ways. Thus, he is stubborn, arrogant, and slow to learn of his mistakes. He usually blames others for making his life so difficult; however, the Toad from X-Men: Evolution has a moment of clarity when he states, “I’m my own worst enemy.” (S3, E7) Reaching this level of character development, where it’s addressed that Toad is responsible for the way the world treats him badly, elevates him to a position where the audience can universally connect with him. Whether he’s aware of it or not, part of a true toad’s character arc entails that he’s a degenerate person struggling to improve in spite of himself. Sure, it’s unrespectable of him to be self-defeating, but his persistence to find the right path in life is something we can all respect. This struggle makes the true toad a testament to a very honest and humbling part of our human nature, so his perseverance despite his shortcomings can be seen as endearing and charming, and it makes him a sympathetic and compelling character.

3.         A true toad has one or two unique factors (skills, traits, tools, etc.) that compensate for his repulsiveness and grant him a legitimate reason to be involved in the story. This may give his character (and consequently, the story) flavor, intrigue, and memorability. These unique factors may even define him, as Toad has his toad-themed superpowers (i.e. his prehensile tongue) and his mechanical ingenuity. Other characters might begrudgingly accept his alliance to use him. We are led to think less of characters like Toad, which makes him an excellent wildcard since readers will never expect him to make a big move. Also, since he is often a minor character, he is expendable, so the risks he takes are more of a threat to him than they would seem to main characters. This is an especially great asset in the world of comic book superheroes where lead characters never stay dead for long.

Therefore, the true toad makes the story more wholly enjoyable, colorful, and memorable, and he is also the character in a cast whom I tend to care about most of all. Unfortunately, this peculiar archetype is becoming increasingly harder to find as time goes by. A couple decades ago, ugly characters like Toad more often filled the role of the foil in super hero/super villain teams; however, the modern trend is to make the character serve as a foil exclusively through his morality and attitude, as it allows for a more marketable, attractive character to fill the role. Wolverine became a taller anti-hero, and any Superman now has a Batman for a sidekick. It saddens me to see unattractive characters discarded or transformed into handsome people because the majority of readers don’t like to look at them. I guess I’m part of the minority. I even made my artist logo a frog because of the archetype associated with it. You could say the true toad is my muse, and I have hope for his future.