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Note: I originally wrote this expressly for [ profile] about_faces, but I think that it's since become something of slightly more general interest, and I wanted to post something new here that wasn't baby-related before I begin the deluge of adorable, adorable photos.

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.

Date: 2011-08-26 03:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
"Just get on with the story" doesn't make any sense in comics, because there is no story, in the traditional sense.

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A continuing series doesn't. It just keeps on going. You can't "just get on" with it, because there's no place for it to get to.

Obviously, that's not true of all comics. The ending of Sandman was built into it from the beginning. Dave Sim had Cerebus' end in his head for the last 200 issues. But no comics company is going to let the story of SuperSpiderBatMan finish. That big wheel is going to keep on turning.

Which isn't to say you can't tell stories about superheroes. Telling a story about a character isn't the same as telling that character's story. Forex, your expressed exasperation about the failure of John Hefner's life to fall into any real narrative hasn't stopped you from amassing a lot of stories about John Hefner. Bit & pieces of your life, anyone's life, can be stories, even if the life as a whole lacks narrative structure.

Date: 2011-08-26 05:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I first thought about this stuff in the context of David Gerrold's book about the making of Star Trek. He pointed out that the thing with movies is that they're supposed to narrate the most important events in the characters' lives. Continuing stories NEVER tell the most important events in the characters' lives. It certainly makes the Star Trek movies feel very different from the episodes.

What I like about origin stories is that they narrate crucial events. In many ways it feels like the most important event, even more important than repeatedly saving the world, because it only happens once.

At least they finally got out of the old episodic style, where every episode ended right where it began. I find stories more interesting when they've got longer arcs.

Date: 2011-08-27 07:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Beautifully put!

Date: 2011-08-26 03:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
BTW, what is the current state of Batman vs. Joe Chill?

Last I remember, Batman found out Chill was still alive, and went on a rampage through Gotham that was excessive even for a man wearing a leather-&-kevlar bat suit. Eventually, some terrified fink told him where Chill was. Batman found Chill chained to the bed, bleeding to death. The local thugs had gone over him with knives, and left him for Batman as a peace offering.

That's probably been retconned out of existence, but it was a darn good story.

Date: 2011-08-26 05:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh man, I only vaguely recall that one, but I can't for the life of me say where it's from! Do you have any idea?

I haven't read the actual issue from four or so years ago, but current writer Grant Morrison pretty much did an altered version of the original Golden Age Chill story, having Batman stalk and terrorize Chill for weeks on end, making Chill crazed with paranoia. He was finally driven to suicide, and Batman grinned with satisfaction.

I kind of hate that. Batman is someone who takes no delight in anyone's death, ever. Not even Chill's. I far prefer the original version, where Bruce THREATENS to stalk Chill until Chill messes up and can be legally booked, but Chill ends up instead getting killed by his own men after they learn that their boss created Batman. That story actually got a surprisingly faithful adaptation in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which is my favorite episode so far.

Date: 2011-08-26 08:52 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Do you have any idea?

None whatsoever.

I kind of hate that.

That's because it's a misstep. It's like seeing Superman sniffing powdered red kyptonite, staring into the mirror as he changes into a giant gorilla, and then giggling hysterically. It just doesn't fit the character.

Date: 2011-08-26 03:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Man, only two replies on either blogs? :(

Date: 2011-08-26 05:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, you noticed that too? Yeah, it's pretty damn discouraging, NGL. Probably wouldn't be if I weren't so sleep-deprived and worn out, but damn, the mere fact that I'm able to write any posts at all feels like a minor triumph each time, so the general lack of response lately has been discouraging. Maybe when I post more actual comic scans/reviews, the comments will come back in on about_faces.

Date: 2011-08-26 05:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Well, on the bright side, it also took a while for the blog to gain a steady readership and every now and then you see a new guy or two pop in to comment on the posts (that shows you are getting some attention on the inter webs)and I've seen a steady increase of discussions in the blog. Maybe, stuff that are different from the norm are taking a while to sink in? I can imagine you getting more comments on the text-only posts if more gets steadily posted over a period of time.

Date: 2011-08-27 06:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I completely agree with you. The backstories and motivations of my favourite characters are precisely what I want to see - I want to know how they became who they are.

On another subject entirely, I saw "Batman Live" in London this week and I thought you might be interested in a review for About Faces. I thought I'd do an actual review that was mainly spoiler free, and also a far more self indulgent piece of fannish meta about the portrayal of each of the rogues, particularly Harvey. The show is largely a Robin origin, but don't let that put you off.

Incidentally this weekend I took to using a quote of yours in daily life to answer those frustrated rhetorical questions you find yourself asking when you're in London in August. "Why is it raining this hard in the middle of summer? Because fuck the Robins, that's why." "Why is the Underground so damn busy? Because fuck the Robins." Try it, I guarantee it's more therapeutic than unfocused sweary rage.

Date: 2011-08-27 06:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
!!! Yes, please, do a review! If you'd like, I'll happily host it! Please do, and be generous with the details for Harvey, as well as anything else interesting you noticed, particularly with the rogues! If you want to do spoilers, I'll keep 'em behind a cut! Let's face it, the vast majority of these people won't be able to see the show unless it goes on tour and/or gets filmed!

HA! Y'know, back in college, I used to do the same thing with cursing Reed Richards' name, Dr. Doom style! Very therapeutic indeed! I'm gonna gave to give that one a try now!

Date: 2011-08-28 08:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I sent you the general review last night as an LJ message - I look forwards to hearing your thoughts! I really hope you get a chance to go and see the show during its US tour.

My Self Indulgent Fannish Theatrical Wittering about Harvey and his fellow Rogues is still to come! Give me a couple of days for that one. :-)

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