August 25th, 2011

Two-Face... FOREVER!!!

thinking about the importance of origins and backstory

Over at Comics Alliance, one of the main writers began his positive review for the new digital comic version of Batgirl: Year One with the following words:

"I'm skeptical of origin stories, particularly ones for characters that are decades old. I mean, honestly -- who cares? Are the specifics that important? Superman is going to be the same character whether he was found as a baby or a toddler. Batman is going to be Batman whether or not he captured Joe Chill. I'd much rather that everyone involved skip all the rigamarole and just get on with the story, you know?"

Something about that stuck in my craw. And not just because I've spent the last five or so years writing an extensive retelling of Harvey's origin as I see fit.

No, it's bugged me for other reasons, such as when people HATED the Billy Quizboy origin episode of Venture Bros. Personally, that episode became one of my all-time favorites because it added an unexpected new level of tragedy and poignancy to Billy and Pete White, who up to that point were little more than two-dimensional minor characters. Others, however, saw "The Invisible Hand of Fate" as a tedious waste of time that detracted from the forward momentum of the main storyline. Who cares about Billy Fucking Quizboy, they asked, when there's a whole other main storyline to follow?

Look, I know that origin stories are INCREDIBLY played-out, especially in movies. I mean, shit, why the hell are we getting yet ANOTHER FUCKING SUPERMAN ORIGIN STORY, when everyone already knows his whole deal and can instantly accept just being thrust into an actual, ready-to-go SUPERMAN movie? I'm tired of everyone trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to origins. There's a reason why X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Superman 2 (the original Donner cut, at least up until the last ten minutes fucking ruin EVERYTHING) are all vastly superior to their respective first films.

And yet, I feel compelled to challenge Mr. Brothers' hypothetical question about origins, mainly because of the examples he gave to back up his point. First off, a good origin story that change our perceptions of that character, making us view all the stories we've already read in different lights. To start with a loaded example, take Batman: The Killing Joke, which gave us the possibility that the Joker was never actually a criminal mastermind, but was just a poor lonely schlub. If you choose to believe that origin (or even if you consider that it's even one of several possible origins he might have), it casts a whole new aspect--one that is simultaneously tragic and chilling--on everything the Joker was, is, and does.

For fans like me who really love thinking about what makes these characters tick, specifics ARE important. Consider what it actually means to have a Batman who captured Joe Chill versus a Batman who never did. Either version means something very different for why Batman does what he does, whether it's out of his personal vendetta against crime or because he's a good person who wants to see justice done. Both are Batman, but they're different KINDS of Batmen. The specifics have far-reaching implications for the personalities and motives of these characters. In Batman's case, it could mean the difference between a Batman who's an inspiring hero and a Batman who's a vengeful dick.

It's not just limited to comics, either. Take John Gardner's wonderful novel, Grendel, a literary prequel which has forever changed how I'll view the monsters from Beowulf. A good backstory, skillfully told, can add a whole new dimension even to characters who are CENTURIES old, partially because a new telling can better reflect a contemporary viewpoint. So the idea that characters who are "decades old" are somehow LESS in need of new/revised origins is just bizarre to me. As these characters have evolved over the years, so too do their origins need to reflect that development. For a perfect example of how a classic chatacter can be improved by a new origin and subsequent writers building upon that origin, look no further than Post-Crisis Catwoman.

I think I've gone into those ideas several times here, especially every time I beat the dead horse of how much I love Andrew Helfer's "Eye of the Beholder," so I don't need to rehash all those reasons to explain how Harvey Dent has benefited from revised origins over the years, even as some great details have been lost in the shuffle (such as the fact that he originally would donate to charity between crimes).

All that said, not everyone cares about character first and foremost. I suspect some don't give character a second thought, focusing expressly on plot and action above all else. Nowhere was the division of audience preference more clearly divided to me than during the years that Lost was on the air, with seemingly half the audience hooked on the characters' subplots and arcs, with the other half increasingly more interested in the two dozen mostly-bullshit mysteries the show made up on the fly with no real intention of ever actually resolving. Me, I didn't give a shit about what the numbers actually meant, but god damn did I want to know what would happen to Locke, Hurley, Ben, Eko, Lapidus, and pretty much everyone who wasn't Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. The origins and backstories for each character were far more meaningful and interesting than anything we eventually learned about the island itself.

So when I read superhero comics, I don't give a shit about any of the big events. By and large, they're just empty posturing as characters are forced through the motions of some editor's mapped-out plot line, hitting each beat for maximum shock value. Many fans love that. To them, it means progress. It means stories that "matter." But not to me. I'm in it for the characters, both the ones I already know and love and new ones who might work their ways into my hearts. Anything that can flesh those characters out, make them deeper, make them even more interesting and explores their motivations and how they develop, that is what makes their actions MATTER.

Origins and backstory aren't the only ways to accomplish this, but they are an extremely effective one when used well. So to answer Mr. Brothers' hypothetical question: it's me. I care. Specifics are that important, at least for those of us who put character above contrived plots.