Call For Comments: Superhero Origins (and ours!)

From Mav: One of my most favorite things to do as an academic is presenting at conferences. Part of this is just because being an academic means presenting your research. That’s a big part of the job. But for me, conferences are the most fun because it means linking up with other people with similar interests and talking about how your ideas mesh, getting questions you might not have thought of and hopefully coming up with  new ideas that no one would have come up with on their own. If you’ve ever been to a comic book convention panel, it basically works like that… except everyone there is working with some deep technical academic theory that we’ve studied for years in order to get some cool looking letters after their name.  But as one of the guys who does that… well, I can’t 100% honestly say that it’s harder to understand Foucault or Barthes than memorizing and evaluating the complexities of the DC Comics multiverse (with Derrida, it’s a push…), and as far as I am concerned Reed Richard’s theories on time travel are way more important than actual quantum theory.

Mav & Wayne at MAC Charity Con
Mav & Wayne at MAC Charity Con (photo credit: Stephanie Siler)

Over the last couple of years, Wayne and I have been on several panels like this together at both academic conferences and comic book conventions. Most of the time, after they’re over, someone says to one or both of us “wow, you guys are really good at this. I love how you riff off of each other. You should have a regular show.” (Or, as my wife, Stephanie puts it, “being super-smart and making topics I’m not necessarily innately attracted to interesting and entertaining”) And then we have to point out that we do have a regular show. It happens almost weekly at Phantom of the Attic, the comic book shop Wayne works at. It’s just that no one gets to hear it unless they happen to come in and be shopping whenever I happen to be there talking to him. So then that begs the question… why don’t we do it where people can see it?

Welcome to Vox Populorum. The idea here is that academic conference, the comic book convention, and random pop culture geekery that happens in comic book shops or bars are basically all the exact same thing. It’s just that academics and geeks don’t normally share in the same conversations. Well, it’s time to fix that. We will be posting regular topics of discussion here on the Vox Pop blog. It might be about comics. It might be about TV shows. Maybe video games. Maybe music. Maybe sports. Maybe even classic literature. Basically, any kind of pop culture is fair game, so long as there’s the potential to deconstruct and analyze something about it. We’re looking for feedback on that topic. We will post some thoughts here, and then we want you (yes, YOU!) to give us your thoughts. Then we will do a podcast (the VoxPopcast) where we expand on our thoughts, and respond to the ideas from the comments on the blog. But it won’t be as much fun if it’s just the two of us talking. So we’re hoping to have rotating panels of “experts” to join in the discussion. What’s an expert? Anyone who likes that thing and has some interesting thoughts. You may be an academic. You may be an industry professional. You may have domain knowledge. You may just be a fan. Maybe you’re a mix of all of those. Everyone is on equal footing here. The entire point is to have interesting discussion from people with different points of view. So think of these blogs as both an opportunity to get some thoughts out about whatever the topic is, and… if you have some really good thoughts, then maybe it’d be great to have you on the panel for that show.

Oh, and the first show? Origins! (see, cuz it’s the first show… get it)

<i>Action Comics</i> #1
Action Comics #1

From Wayne: One of the most obvious tropes of the superhero genre is the origin story. The first page of Action Comics #1 in 1938 gives a quick overview of Superman and the reasons he had all of his fabulous powers. The has been elaborated on and updated for the last 80 years. We have seen Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered time and time again in many different iterations of the same tale. It has become rote for the first issue that introduces a new character, with a few notable exceptions, to tell us how that character came to be. What are their motivations? Why do they do what they do? How did they get their powers?

On this introductory episode of Vox Populorum we talk about the Origin Story. Is it necessary? Is it specific to superheroes, or comics in general? Does it speak to larger storytelling tropes? Does it indicate deeper yearnings to know where we came from?

From Mav:  The interesting thing to me about the “origin story” is that it is so synonymous with the idea of superheroes that it extends beyond the comic book becomes as much of an indicator of the genre as the cape or the mask. It’s part of every superhero movie and every superhero TV show. But even more so, the “origin moment” is almost as indicative of the character as his symbol. Sure, a bat on the chest means Batman. But I feel like I don’t really know who a new Batman is unless I see his parents get gunned down in Crime Alley (oh the Golden Age… I love you so). The image of Martha’s pearls falling onto the pavement is as much a part of that character to me as anything else. I’m not the only one. One of my favorite youtube videos ever is a supercut of the cinematic deaths of the Waynes by a user named Vulture:

But even without a “story”, we recognize these characters through their origins. We connect the visuals to the event. Khoa Ho is an artist who has done a series of silhouettes of superheroes set against silhouettes of their iconic origins. No futher text is needed. We don’t need a symbol or theme song. We can simply look at this stripped down visual and we feel the essence of Batman or Hulk or Superman or Magneto. The origin is just that much a part of the the character. I loved the movie Spider-man: Homecoming, but somehow… because I never got to see Uncle Ben get shot… it just feels a little incomplete

Superheroes Past & Present by Khoa Ho
Superheroes Past & Present by Khoa Ho

But as Wayne said, it doesn’t work for other stuff… even other action oriented heroes that feel kinda like superheroes. I don’t really care what Indiana Jones’s origin is. Or James Bond. Or Lara Croft. Or John McClain. Or Han Solo. Or Samas Aran. I can probably read up and find out any of their extended backstories, but I just don’t feel like I need it in order to jump in and really enjoy their narrative from the jump. But I can’t understand the Flash without understanding the lightning bolt that hit him.

Why is that?

Or are we wrong? I know one of the big complaints people have about superhero movies is “ugh… do we need to see ANOTHER origin story? Do something else!!!” At least that’s what they say… and then they go out and spend a billion dollars on Black Panther. So… there’s that.  Anyway…

From Wayne: If you think of superheroes as modern mythology, which we both do (and I’m sure we’ll be talking about what that means to us at length over the course of several epidsodes), the idea of an Origin Story fits well. One of the defining  purposes of mythology is to answer the questions, “Where did we come from?” and “Why are we here?” The superhero origin attempts to do both.

Join us as we theorize and ramble, and I’m sure we’ll talk a little about the origins of this podcast.

12 Replies and 2 Webmentions for “Call For Comments: Superhero Origins (and ours!)”

  1. Hopefully this is along the lines of what you’re looking for: It feels like, for the non-superheroes you’ve listed (James Bond, Samus Aran, etc.), that they just ARE “heroic.” It’s a part of their identity, personality, lifestyle, what-have-you. Superheroes, on the other hand, BECOME. There is the alter-ego versus the superhero. For example, say, Bruce Wayne, citizen of Gotham — who is one with and apart from Batman, defender of Gotham. But how do we get Batman from Bruce? The Origin Story. The Origin Story creates the superhero. The Origin Story is the superhero’s reason for being, and it is our reason to believe that the superhero IS just that — super. Larger than life. Powerful. Intriguing! James Bond has cool gadgets and does cool stuff. Samus Aran has a giant gun and shoots aliens. It’s as simple as that for understanding heroes. But for superheroes, we need that little bridge between the humble alter-ego… the person maybe somehow like us… and the hero who rises to fight impossible evils and to experience wild adventures. It makes them that much more awe-inspiring a figure.

  2. So, my initial thoughts were “Well, it’s because they have a goofy costume. Batman could just run around in a year one winter face mask and we probably wouldn’t question it.”

    But, then I think about The Punisher, whose costume is basically a hot topic t shirt with a skull on it, and I kind of feel like his origin story IS important. That context of his dead family, ex-cop, gives his war on organized crime a lot more emotional impact. But, if we were talking some other similar vigilante made for film, maybe not?

    So, maybe it’s not just the costume that makes the origin important, but the universe or medium that they exist in? We expect it from comic books or even an ordinary guy with a skull t shirt that inhabits the same New York Spider-Man and Daredevil do.

    1. This is interesting because you’re tying the origin in with the sort of magic of the costume that makes the hero “super”. The point about Batman being in a ski mask is the key. It’s as though we can accept “guy takes to the street and punches bad guys” with little explanation. As though “sure happens all the time. This checks out!” But, the idea of “wearing a batsuit” is just too weird to accept without explanation.

  3. Random thoughts: I think, historically in comics, the origin story solves two problems efficiently. It gives the hero a re-usable motivation that we don’t have to rehash every month, and it does world-building to explain mechanically how the hero works and what the rules are. The dumb template is: monster shows up every month and threatens Metroplex City, Heroman punches monster. You’ve got 22 pages: go! You don’t want to spend valuable real-estate re-explaining why Heroman is strong, or why he spends his time punching monsters instead of something else. That would get awfully repetitive. Instead, you can spend that time on explaining this week’s cool monster or villain or scheme. For a more modern or sophisticated audience, this efficiency is also a weakness. I think we’d prefer to have the world-building unfold, and we’d like to see the protagonist develop and change and struggle. There’s lots of ways to do this: the origin can be overtly mysterious (like Wolverine or Jessica Jones) where the hero doesn’t really know why they are who/what they are, and the story is a process of self-discovery. Or the hero’s origin can be intertwined with the villain, so that everything that happens subsequently is a callback to that primal, formative moment. Of course, if you go with mystery, you have to be careful: too much “mystery” just becomes randomness (see X-Files, Lost) and too much complexity loses punch after a while (does anyone care about pre-Weapon X Wolverine backstory?). The resolution of the mystery had better be satisfying; if it’s dumb or obvious or too crazy a lot of fans will wish you had just left it to their imaginations. I think you are also right that some characters really don’t need much of an “origin”. I watched Lady Bird last night: we understand her motivations through her interactions; we don’t need a complete history. And since we understand the concept of “high school” and “Catholic school” and “struggling middle class family” there’s not much world-building to do. Han Solo is an interesting case. I think different people would have very different opinions on how much history they want. He started out as very much a “type”; if you care a lot about the Star Wars world and characters, though, I could see wanting to know more. (Frankly, I could take it or leave it.) James Bond is a cartoon. Then again, James Bond (at least in the older films) is just sort of campy fun and it’s hard to imagine any origin that doesn’t undercut that fun. Anyway, I’ve got a work deadline, so I don’t think I can do the call-in today (how does that work anyway?) But feel free to tear apart any of my ramblings if it’s helpful 😉

    1. Good points. The mystery of Wolverine’s past was one of the things I most loved about him when I was reading his story as it came out. Getting all of the little reveals spread out over time maintained my interest… up to a point where it was just, Oh come on already. You couldn’t maintain the mystery for 40 years. Anyone reading this for the first time now, knowing the backstory, will just never understand how cool and exciting it was to discover that his claws actually popped out of his hands instead of just being part of his gloves.

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