Jul 17, 2013

Pop Medicine: Real People Don't Have Origins

 Pop Medicine is a column by Travis Hedge Coke for the Comics Cube! Click here for the archive!
Real People Don’t Have Origins
Pop Medicine
Travis Hedge Coke

Superhero fans are obsessed with origin stories. Maybe contemporary English-language culture is, overall, in this prequel-happy environment, but superhero fans take it to an extreme. Everyone has to have not just a life and a past, but a single grandly-motivating event that can be easily reduced to a capsule summary and repeated to nausea. In the superhero fan community, and in the broader contemporary culture, there is a conflation of motivation, motive, and this nodal “origin.” But what is an origin?

I think you have to gauge origins as you gauge porn or politics. You know it, for yourself (and for others), when you see it. That’s the only way I can make sense of the phenomenon, because when I see most supposed origins, what it looks like to me is either “story from when they were younger” or “this interesting thing that happened to them, this one time, that motivated a decision.” Occasionally it’s as simple as “when they started to wear those kinds of clothes.” These don’t seem that definitive to me, in terms of shaping a whole person. We don’t want an origin story, a series of experiences, we want, in this case, an origin moment, a single event from which all springs forth.

We all know Spider-Man’s origin story. Every movie has redone it, in scene or in dialogue, most comics find a way to summarize it in a preface or work it into dialogue or homage. Peter Parker was bitten by an experiment-altered spider, got super powers, and his uncle was murdered by a robber he could have stopped earlier. The bite is the origin of his super powers, but it cannot be the origin of his superhero identity or day to day actions; it doesn’t make him who he is today. What gets him superheroing, ostensibly, is the death of Uncle Ben.

As much as the death of his uncle affected Peter Parker, I can’t see that it shaped his existence more than the death of his parents, the happy home provided by said uncle and his wife, the time his best friend’s dad threw his girlfriend off a bridge, or when he got beat up real bad by an overweight, over the hill scientist who had just wandered out of an intensive Care ward. Being a middle class white boy from New York undoubtedly shaped Parker in considerable ways, and that goes straight back to his birth, but that’s no more or less an origin, is it?

There are many Spider-Man stories, in many media, that do not inform us of this origin, that do not pretend this event motivates all his actions and decisions. I don’t think half the episodes of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends mention Uncle Ben at all. It’s insignificant to his daily superhero or freelance photographer slash college student actions. His relationships with his friends and living relatives are given a lot of play on that show, because they do both motivate plots and affect his decisions and inclinations. Aunt May being alive is as significant, if not more so, to the average Spider-Man story than Uncle Ben being dead.

Outside of the movies, Uncle Ben did not impart those words of wisdom, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” This is more desperate tying everything together reductionism, that obsessive drive towards a singular motivating node. This is endemic in contemporary screenwriting, but that’s primarily because movies have a very strict time limit, to cycle them during their initial theatrical run. Plot elements are rewritten to condense the number of people involved, or to keep the number of motivating factors simpler, while simultaneously, information is repeated a minimum of three times, because while the movie is running, we cannot go back (in the theater) and reconfirm. This is not, in any way, because these are requirements of storytelling or even optimal in all forms and media.

Backstory, like character growth, is not necessarily the gauge for character quality or character depth. Hell, 90% of character backstory, if it appears late in the game, in sequels or prequels, is stapled-on guff. Character growth, over the course of a series of stories, can frequently be seen as simply diluting what made the character interesting in the beginning. What happened to the character fifteen years ago is rarely as enthralling or significant as what they are doing right now, in the moment. The majority of our concerns, as real human beings, are about our immediate circumstances: our need for food and shelter, what the person at dinner thinks of us, when is the person using the toilet in the restaurant going to get out so we can get in? This is the difference between motivating the plot and human motive. The past does affect us, it tempers our perspective and responses, but it does not motivate us as much as our contemporary existence.

“Batman fights crime as Batman because his parents were murdered.” How am I going to argue that, right? But if that were true, everyone whose parents were murdered would be Batman. Bruce Wayne’s childhood traumas contribute to his approach and perspective, and the tools he gains through his exceptional training and education aid his agenda, but these “origin” elements are not the same as motive, and even the Nolan movies could keep it that simple, adapting in the idea that Batman is modeled on bats because he was frightened, once, by bats. He dresses childishly scary because it’s mimicking something he was scared of as a child. Why not just be a cop with a bat tattoo? Well, for one thing, he’s a white billionaire American. He’s entitled. But, when it comes down to it, that childhood trauma origin does not even come into play until there had been a year or more of Batman stories. Initially, Batman is Batman because he wants to be.

When I was a kid, what I understood of Batman was that he was Batman because he wanted to be. I did not question it further than that. It was just an idiosyncratic thing he did. An auntie bought me Year One and I read it, and while James Gordon walking up a flight of cold stairs with a runny nose to talk to a schizophrenic holding hostages is now permanently seared into my brain, it did not change, at all, my conviction that
Batman is Batman because he chooses to be. I don’t see any “and everything is motivated by this singular event” element to that comic. What I do see, is a series of events that shape him and motivate him to alter his methods and perspective. And I think it’s all the origin I’ll ever need for that character.

But, if you ask a bunch of Batman fans, chances are many of them will say that the origin part only takes up the first issue of Year One’s four issue length. That the origin is getting him into costume. For me, a more important and formative series of moments, is Bruce learning that beating up kids boosting television sets off balconies or hassling hookers isn’t going to “defeat crime.” That is a “series of moments,” however, and so becomes unsatisfactory to anyone who wants a definitive moment that shapes and guides all things, like why Batman does not kill.

The new Superman movie apparently hinges on why Superman doesn’t kill, and the best they could come up with isn’t “because he doesn’t want to,” it’s because he tried it once, and it didn’t sit with him. Very broadminded of Superman, I suppose, to take that whole “how can you say you don’t like it, if you’ve never tried it” thing to heart. Is that really a decision we needed to see shaped by him actually killing someone? Is that seriously so rare a thing, just not being willing to kill, that we need a huge exploration of why he won’t? It can’t just be a given or readily accepted as a casual life choice? Does he not rape because he tried that once and it wasn’t all he’d heard it could be? Did he try smacking puppies around before he decided it just wasn’t for him?

I understand the story part, like stories that have these “origin” earmarks, but the origin moment that seems to be the holy grail, that I simply do not understand. My examples here probably read egregiously facetious, and they pretty much are, but they are as close to serious and fair as I can be with the material, with the concern. There is an origin comic for the lead character of the Die Hard movies. There is not an origin in any one of the movies, because he does not need an origin, he is not becoming anything, he’s just a guy with a life and things happen to him and he does stuff. But, there is an origin comic, that will sell to considerably less people than even the Die Hard movie that made the least bank, because people who crave an origin, presumably, are comics readers. It’s our fault.

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