The Anchor Panel: Origins
Welcome to the first ever Reader's Choice Anchor Panel! Or as I like to call it: the Anchor Panel where I stop Anth from making too many poll jokes. As some of you may know, our loyal 22 Pages readers voted on what our next topic should be and the winner was 'best/worst origin story' (just edging out Teen Pregnancy, thanks Al).
Editor's Note: Don't mention it.
Teen pregnancy is a mounting issue in society today. Pop culture is promiscuity incarnate, and causes impressionable young girls to idolize the sleaziest female role models humanity has yet cooked up. Virginity has been stigmatized, resulting in --
I said teen pregnancy was edged out! Get with the program!
Just giving the people what they want.
Let's get back on track here. To help minimize confusion [/glare at Anth] we decided to tackle what makes a good or bad origin by outlining a few criteria that each story can be judged against.
So Dan and I came up with what we feel are 4 must-have dimensions crucial to a character's back story: emotional impact, uniqueness, clarity of purpose and relate-ability.
Make sense? No? Wait, where are you going? Ok, ok a simple example: Batman. His story has a huge emotional impact what with all the childhood trauma. It is unique in its way (though that could just be because he has been around for 70 years).
Original when it first hit shelves, sure, but how many times has it been rehashed? I guess we are only going to consider the story as a one-off, and not its multiple incarnations…
Let me finish.
The story has to show some clarity. In Batman's case, you've got a clear motive, some bad blood (and a convenient mountain of resources to get the job done).
Well the Bat comes up short on relate-ability. Most readers do not know what it's like to have their parents taken from them by a criminal psychopath, and fewer still have access to the funds and lifestyle that enables Mr. Wayne to run his double life.
So, 3 out of 4 ain't bad.
Well... 2/4 but who's counting -- anyways you get the idea.
My point is: all of the best characters have most of these traits in some fashion. Or at the very least, we are going to try to convince you (and each other) that this is the case.
So who do we think are the best/worst examples of these indicators? Let's start with emotional impact; in my opinion it's Peter Parker who has a highly impactful story. He was given power, but chose apathy. His family pays the ultimate price - instant karma! Spidey's split-second self serving decision is one he regrets the rest of his life, and the reader feels the weight on him (as the first person narration alludes to repeatedly).
Well sure, Spidey is an obvious choice, but how about a villain like Magneto. Here is a character with an origin deeply affected by humanity at its worst. And this is before he even becomes a mutant super villain!
Yeah the more you learn about Magneto the more his story speaks to you. A great villain! As opposed to let's say Catwoman, whose motivation is strikingly unclear and the only emotional impact she has is in adolescent boys' pants. But let's nip that in the bud before we tangent off to teen pregnancy again. Next key facet? Uniqueness.
Nice course correction. My favourite for this has to be Hellboy. I remember as a kid reading Wizard magazine (remember that?) and seeing pictures of this bizarre devil character with sawed off horns. No other character was like him in appearance, and then when I finally read the books, I realized there is no other character story with his unique pastiche of golden age occult horror, innocent upbringing and um, Nazis.
Nazis sure pack a wallop when it comes to creating an impactful origin story, but unique? Now, a great example of uniqueness is displayed with John Constantine's tale. A modern day warlock caught up in the dirty dealings between Christianity's deities? So fresh! Being raised Catholic, I bought in to the universe and its players much easier than other fantastical comics where I need to 'learn from scratch.'
Hey, hey, hey, in defence of Hellboy I'll say that both he AND Constantine are cool because they offer distinct takes on familiar character tropes and themes. Sure, they've got recognizable pieces, but both characters have enough intrigue surrounding their unique histories to generate comics for years. Meanwhile, you've got loser characters like Marrow or Azrael. Both were introduced, felt very familiar, grew boring, and gradually disappeared. The comic's game is a tough racket.
When a story can't stay afloat, it should be flushed. Adding characters willy-nilly without real thought going in to who they are and why I should care makes me want to flip pages or psychically will some tedious movie dialogue to end ASAP. But this is not what we were talking about! Let's get back on track here Reynolds, give me some clarity!
Heh, OK, despite our muddled struggle here, let's talk about clarity. What do I mean? Think of the first two pages of All-Star Superman: 4 panels, a handful of words and one big splash page. Origin story accomplished. Not every story has to be told in such a sparse way, but I personally like when I don't have to justify my explanation with an 'it's a comic book thing, so it's complicated.'
The worst example of clarity to me is Wolverine. Who is he? Where did he come from? Why has he made the choices that got him here? A certain level of mystique is acceptable, but to keep going back to the 'unknown pain' well becomes tiresome and makes it difficult to
Wolverine's story is unclear? I thought that was the point! His mind has been toyed with for decades. Come on man, show a little sympathy. His origin doesn't need to be clear!
You're doing that comic book justification thing, man! In terms of clarity, his story stinks. He has other elements that make him a good character, but we are talking specifically about clarity here!
Perhaps that is why he has endured (well that, and those bad-ass claws). Readers want to identify with his struggle of self-identity. Which gets us to our relate-ability portion of the discussion. I just finished reading the latest Fables trade paperback so I wanted to mention the character or Rose Red.
Editor's Note: It is the 15th Fables TPB. The 16th collection was released this month.
A master wordsmith, this guy managed to twist my analysis in to a mean segue. Not bad.
Just hear me out. Rose Red gets seen in a lot of different lights over the course of the series (both good and bad), but then the reader learns about her upbringing and her relationship with her sister, Snow White. It really grants us a greater understanding of her past actions, making her a far more sympathetic character, one that we want to empathize with. Clearly, this trait can really make the difference between characters that resonant and ones that fall flat.
Relate-ability is clutch in making us root for a 'bad' guy. Look at Mal Reynolds (Firefly/Serenity) who fought in a war for independence, but was forced to give up due to armistice and his side conceding the fight. There is nothing like watching a man spit in the face of adversity when he's dying of thirst. We understand why he's a criminal, and relish the chance to root for a Robin Hood or Aladdin (yeah I went there!) - it's for a good cause!
And Joss Whedon managed to wrangle a movie, a comic and a whole continuing universe out of that one character from a cancelled TV show (RIP). But to go back to the beginning, then how do we make sense of Batman? Has he stood the test of time because we wish we could be like him? Does he speak to some deep-seeded archetype found in society? Are we drawn to the wild fantasy of his life?
He is a modern day Sherlock Holmes, with billions in budget at his disposal, invents shit in the nick of time, is a ninja and has a dryly sarcastic butler to boot. Origin is gravy, man.
Which brings us to the secret fifth criteria: make the character really awesome.