Sunday, April 11, 2010

Origins: made of clay

Or, "Sure, you've read Superman's origin before...but this time it's by Geoff Johns!"

Kat Howard remarked:

"I was reading Michael Chabon's essay, "Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory," the other day, and was completely flummoxed by his assertion that it was the origin stories of costumed superheros that most fascinated people. The fact that there was a supporting footnote, citing the disproportionately large prices paid for Issue #1s among collectors to back up this assertion did nothing to unflummox me. Because for me, origin stories are the least interesting part."

Kat, speaking as someone who has spent most of his life reading comic books (and now writing for them), I can tell you I'm equally flummoxed.

I can understand readers wanting to know the "whys" behind their favorite heroes. When reading super hero comics, it's rare for the reader to be introduced to a character with their origin story. This is why for decades comics have repeatedly revised and retold the origin stories: to bring the audience up to speed.

What I don't understand is why some origin stories are retold in such a short span of time, particularly when major details are altered. To avoid picking on Marvel, allow me to pick on DC: Superman's origin was given a major retelling in 1986 when the character's backstory was rebooted into a new continuity. 1986's Man of Steel made sense insofar as every DC character's history was in the process of revision. Man of Steel was a jumping-on point for new readers, the ground level for the Superman relaunch of '86. In 2003, Superman's origin was retold again in Birthright. This time, the motivation seemed to be rendering the comic book version nearer to the television counterpart seen on Smallville; it also seemed to exist because writer Mark Waid simply wanted to put his stamp on the Superman origin. Most recently, in 2009 Superman's origin was retold yet again in Secret Origin which seems to exist because Geoff Johns wanted to put his stamp on the origin.

The thing of it is, we all know Superman's origin. He may not be the most popular hero in the comics world (seriously, Green Lantern sells more comics than Superman. Green. Lantern.) but between the movies and television programs anyone with an interest in the comics should have a pretty good grounding in who he is, where he came from, what his powers are and even who most of his supporting cast are.

Chabon's "fact" regarding the value of back issues ignores that Batman's first appearance - one of the most valuable comics on the market - does not contain Batman's origin. And yet, so much of the Batman mythos are evident in Detective Comics#27: the costume, the double life as millionaire Bruce Wayne. Batman's origin story which explains his motivation is iconic, but even before his origin Batman was still Batman. Chabon's making a facile argument by pointing to the prices of "first issues" as evidence of our love for origins; Wolverine's most valuable appearance is his first appearance, not his origin. I think the Fantastic Four's first appearance would be their most valuable even if their origins had appeared later on.

It seems some times as though the origin is the story writers are most interested in tackling, especially if they aren't looking for a long-term commitment to the character in question. When Frank Miller retold Daredevil's origin in Man With No Fear and Batman in Year One, they were each something of a coda to work he had done previously with the characters, not the beginning of a new take on said heroes. John Ostrander didn't go back to write Oracle's origin until many years after he had introduced her in Suicide Squad.

That brings me to characters who didn't start out with an origin. The best example has to be Wolverine, who debuted in 1974 but famously went without an origin until 2001. The thing of it is, Wolverine didn't need an origin. By the time Origin was finally published in 2001, we already knew how he had received his Admantium claws and taken his codename/costume. Origin simply gave us his birth place and real name, it had nothing to do with how he became a super hero. At the time Origin was published, there was concern that revealing Wolverine's secrets would rob him of his sense of mystery; frankly, 1991's Weapon X, the story of how Wolverine got his claws had already proven he could sustain interest even after the cat was out of the bag.

But some characters who are introduced with a mysterious aura and no origin eventually develop their origin...and then we all wish we'd never heard it. I give you Gambit; read Wikipedia's summary of his origin and bear in mind that everything up to the paragraph titled "X-Men" was revealed years after his first appearance. Nowadays, writers try to play down his early life as much as possible.

Comic book writer/editor Mark Gruenwald was not a great fan of updating origins:

"...What do I think of the idea of playing with the backstory for the sake of updating it? To tell you the truth, I'm of two minds. I believe heroes' origin stories are often the weakest, most preposterous aspects of their mythos and are best gotten through with as best as you can and then brought up as little as possible. In this frame of mind, updating an origin is as desirable as giving a public exhibition of one's underwear. The other half of my brain tells me that characters are intimately defined by the forces surrounding their origins, and for truly great characters the origins should be considered clay to be molded by gifted storytellers rather than a brittle, rigid stone tablet."

I'm reminded of a review on Fabian Nicieza & Steve Rude's mini-series Spider-Man: Lifeline. The critic enjoyed Rude's artwork but wished that instead of Lifeline - a story about Spider-Man battling super villains over a mystical clay tablet (huh!) - Rude had drawn a retelling of Spider-Man's origin instead. Then and now it strikes me as a ridiculous declaration. Are we readers so comfortable with the familiar and hostile to the unknown that we don't want new stories, just the same old ones in a new package? Spider-Man's origin is a good one, but it hardly needs to be retold for the sake of every artist with a flare for dynamic figures. It should be enough that Rude is an excellent artist who draws an interesting Spider-Man. Heck, it should be enough that Rude draws comics, be it Spider-Man, Nexus or the Moth.

I think our "fascination" with origin stories has something to do with the tale's familiarity. This was the success of the film Batman Begins, taking advantage of our already knowing the beats of the story so that we get excited at the mere suggestion of Batman's costume. The anticipation of seeing Bruce Wayne dress up as Batman for the first time is more exhilarating than actually seeing Batman in action. Beyond the origin story, you find uncharted territory. There are supporting characters and villains who have relationships to be established with the hero, but there is a perception - real or imagined - that the audience is less interested with each installment. Thus, before the audience's interest has completely depleted, you must go back to the beginning and regain their attention with something familiar, yet different.

This happens a lot, not only in the film adaptations, but the comics themselves. There's the constant effort to regain waning readers by either upping the ante (see Wildstorm's 2007 World's End event), starting from scratch (see Wildstorm's 2006 Worldstorm reboot) or upping the ante again (see Wildstorm's 2008 Armageddon event). I think the principle has something to do with the audience's love for the comics. When creators promote a "shocking new direction," they hope you'll feel the property is threatened and needs your love and support; when the creators promote "back to basics," they hope you'll believe they share your love.

I've read some rebooted origins that I really liked; I've read many more that left me cold. But ultimately, I enjoy stories in media res. That's how it was for me as a child reading comics, never knowing a hero's backstory. It didn't matter that I read Spider-Man comics for years before learning his origin in his television show, knowing his origin was not necessary in the month-to-month adventures he embarked on. I appreciate knowing a hero's origin in the long view, but as guy who buys a lot of comics every week, I most enjoy a gripping adventure yarn that takes the hero somewhere new, takes some risks and keeps me yearning for the next installment. Comic books have infinite possibilities; the finite world of origin stories need not dominate.


Nitz the Bloody said...

This is a great essay. I should also note that there are several series, fondly remembered by pop culture, that hold off on the origin story until later. For example, Buffy didn't actually show any of the the protagonist's pre-Sunnydale life until Season Two ( leaving only the basics from the infamous film to explain ), Preacher didn't explain Jesse's horrible childhood until its tenth issue, and Final Fantasy VII didn't get to Cloud's backstory with Sephiroth until after the first few hours ( and later explained that Cloud's memories of his origin were fake ).

Kat Howard said...

Fabulous essay. And I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who was flummoxed. I was feeling a bit like "Comics: You're doing it wrong."

Jannalou said...

I don't think it's possible to do comics "wrong," if that's any consolation. :)