Comics Ate My Brain

February 15, 2010

Biographies and origins

Filed under: batman, dissertations, star trek, superman — Tags: , , , — Tom Bondurant @ 8:23 pm

Whenever the Best Wife Ever watches something adapted from a comic book or reworked for the kids today, inevitably she will ask me “is that how it really happened?”

Accordingly, I was watching the Midwest’s most gifted repeat offender get the snot beaten out of him yes, another viewing of Star Trek ’09 — and thinking, no, that’s not how it happened.  It is now, of course; but it wasn’t then; and that is not an insignificant distinction.

See, then it wasn’t necessary to come at James T. Kirk from Year One, let alone Day One.  Back on September 8, 1966, it was enough to see Kirk fully formed as Captain of the Enterprise.  For that matter, it was enough to introduce “the Bat-Man” as a mysterious urban vigilante; with the shocking! twist at the end of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” being that he was really bored playboy Bruce Wayne.  Batman’s origin was told a few issues later, in a two-page vignette which had nothing to do with the main story’s Dirigible of Doom.

Now, these may be exceptions.  Superman’s origin was sketched very quickly in Action #1.  The Golden Age Flash’s origin took up a good bit of his first appearance in Flash Comics #1.  The Silver Age Flash’s origin got its own story in Showcase #4, same as the Silver Age Green Lantern in Showcase #22.  The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Thor all pretty much started off with origin stories.

For the most part, though, I think those origins stood on their own pretty well.  Apart from things like Spider-Man:  Chapter One and that Captain America miniseries that Kevin Maguire pencilled, those origins haven’t been changed or augmented too terribly much.

And by “too terribly much” I mean like Superman.  We all know the basics:  brilliant scientists, doomed planet, kindly couple, Midwestern values.  However, by the mid-1970s, the origin had been expanded to include things like Jor-El and Lara’s respective backgrounds, Kal-El’s brief Kryptonian childhood (complete with pet dog), the Superbaby years, the Superboy career, and the Kents’ death.  The Superman:  The Secret Years miniseries of the mid-1980s filled in the last gap (mainly Clark’s college career), but not having read it (well, just an Internet synopsis) I can’t tell you the bright line between “Superboy” and “Superman.”

Of course, that was the Earth-1 Superman, a character who most likely lives only in memory, even with recent attempts to restore some of his traits.  I have a good bit of affection for Earth-1 Supes, but I think he’s a bit of an odd duck precisely because he started his superheroic career as an adolescent somewhere in the Midwest.  He’s basically the Ron Howard of superheroes:  a former child star who grew up to be quite influential in his chosen field.  For whatever reason, though, Superman’s Silver and Bronze Age writers never really made that connection.  There always seemed to be a disconnect between “Superboy” and “Superman,” and The Secret Years came out right before Crisis On Infinite Earths, too late to inspire anything along those lines.

Not that the connection really cried out to be made, mind you.  There were Superman stories which looked back at Smallville, there were Superboy stories which looked ahead, and there was the occasional Superman/Legion story which touched on the issue; but it’s not necessary to understanding the character.  The Earth-1 Superman was haunted by the Kents’ death, same as his Earth-2 predecessor, and if the details were different, the texts weren’t going to dwell on them.  Every character’s origin ends at some point, and generally speaking both Superman shared that point.

Even so, I find myself wondering about such extended origins in more biographical contexts.  With today’s superhero comics striving for “accessibility,” perhaps it appears too intimidating to make a story out of all the Superman background details.  (Consider Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s current Superman:  Secret Origin, which incorporates such details as Easter eggs but is more concerned with its new plot.)  DC has done just that previously, in projects like the Untold Legend Of The Batman miniseries and “Iris Allen’s” Life Story Of The Flash. Indeed, I don’t think it’s a matter of accessibility as much as it is restriction.  Put another way, DC probably doesn’t want its writers and editors locked into the kind of very specific set of details such a project would produce.  It would rather be free to change those details, as it’s done with Superman at least twice in the past few years (not counting Secret Origin, either).

And I hate to sound like a continuity hound here, but I think that’s a weak argument.  Superman is still Superman, regardless of biography.  Batman is still Batman — and before I forget, the current Batman biography would probably require some serious research.  I need to see how Bob Greenberger’s 1988 Batman Encyclopedia treated the Dark Knight’s pre-costume years, and I’m writing this without checking Chris Miller’s chronology; but I don’t know that anyone has tried to put all of his training-oriented travels into a coherent timeline.  This is another set of details which wouldn’t necessarily make a huge difference, in terms of which martial-arts master he visited when; but it would at least acknowledge the stories from which those details arose.

That, I think, is the larger point of all this:  a biography is the product of those details viewed through the eyes of history.  It lets a biographer juxtapose an especially effective Bruce-in-training story by (let’s say) Chuck Dixon with an Ed Brubaker Bruce-as-a-teen story, and make something meaningful from the juxtaposition.  The value of a biography is in its conclusions, not its suspense.  Still, as discussed above, I doubt seriously that we’ll see anything like Untold Legend (or even an Untold Legend collection) anytime soon.  Biographies have that air of definition which is apparently death to creativity.

Too bad.

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