A Comic Book Entry – It was a Dark and Mysterious Past

I warned you – my Muse is pushing me on snarky comic books rants.  The Muse pushes, I post.  There’s a few more of these in the pipeline, so I hope you all are on as much of a comic book kick as I seem to be.  Damn you, fickle Muse!

This is spawned by thoughts on soft retcons, the origin of the species, and the Darkening and Edgy-ing of all superhero backstories.

At first, I had this theory that it is becoming narrative convention in a comic book that a hero must have some incentive to become hero, usually in the form of a dark and/or mysterious past.  Then I did some digging and it turns out it seems to have always been the case that superheroes have a dark and mysterious past.  So, I think this is still narrative convention but it’s not so new.  Dark and mysterious pasts are not quite the hard and fast rule of romantic narrative convention, but they are pretty prevalent.  Consider your favorite superhero – Batman (I’m assuming he’s your favorite because Batman!).  His origin was his parents were killed by a criminal thus he donned the mask to fight crime.  The person Batman was largely based on, Zorro, also had an origin story in which his parents were murdered.  Peter Parker’s uncle was killed through his inaction thus giving him incentive to fight crime, whine, and make bad puns.

One might start thinking this is the norm for heroic figures.  There is, of course, the counter to this which is the “everyman action hero.”  The “everyman” is just a guy/gal thrown into a situation that is way over their head and has to figure out a solution (think of most Bruce Willis characters).  However, I think that exception proves the theory.  I’m having trouble thinking of any comic book character who does have that “everyman” origin.  Why must heroic figures have a past full of struggles and pain when the story the audience is about to witness (or read) is also full of struggles and pain?  Do the creators of these stories think that the main struggle carries more emotional resonance if the hero has already suffered greatly?

Well, the answer is kind of complicated (assuming I really even have it).  First, let me start with a question – which famous DC hero is an orphan?

Go on, take your time.

So, who did you come up with?  Probably Batman, and you’d be correct.  But there’s also:
Nightwing/Robin (Dick Grayson)
Captain Marvel (Billy Batson)
Mary Marvel (Mary Batson)
Robin/Red Robin (Tim Drake)
Superman – actually, his whole race, more or less
Speedy/Arsenal (Roy Harper) – actually, he’s also got a dead adoptive father (Brave Bow)
Huntress (Helena Bertinelli, from Earth-2)

No, I’m not surprised so many orphans are in the Bat-family.  However, all these DC heroes have no living parents, and while they aren’t what is traditionally thought of as orphans, they are awfully young to have already lost their parents:
Martian Manhunter – actually, his whole race, more or less
Black Canary II
Green Arrow
Green Lantern (Hal Jordan)
Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner)
Beast Boy/Changling

I got all that from DC’s wiki, which may or may not be up to date with the New 52 stuff.  Still, that’s pretty depressing, no?  Then I realized that many of these characters’ dark and mysterious pasts are far, far old than the Dark Age of Comics.  Batman and Superman are of course from way back in Action Comics.  But Captain Marvel is also from Action Comics.  Speedy/Arsenal dates back from the 1940s.  But maybe this is just DC, right?  Here’s some famous Marvel heroes’ and their backstories.

Spider-man (Peter Parker) – parents dead, uncle dead
Cyclops – mother dead, effectively orphaned (at a place run by this guy!) and separated from his younger brother; later used by a criminal to break open bank vaults
Phoenix (Jean Grey) – came into her powers when her best friend was killed
Archangel/Angel – he had to hide his wings and his father spent years trying to cure him
Rogue – put the first boy she kissed into a coma
Strong Guy – his powers were triggered when he was hit by a bus and left him deformed
Storm – orphaned in Cairo and forced into a life as a child thief
Nightcrawler – raised by gypsies after his mother abandoned him
Wolverine – well, you know…
Ant-man (Henry Pym) – first wife was already dead when the Avengers started; also he’s Ant-man
Captain America – man out of time, also dealing with the guilt of losing his sidekick

It’s strange to me that this is so normal.  In the real world, does every firefighter become so because they lost their entire families to a mysterious fire years before?  Does every police officer become so because they lost a loved one to an unsolved murder and have vowed that it will never happen again?  Real people don’t choose to be firefighters, cops, or soldiers because terrible things have happened in their past.  Well, not most of them, and certainly not with the regularity of heroes as portrayed in comic books.

My theory is that the writers thought their characters just needed that something extraordinary in their pasts to make them heroes.  Sometimes the circumstances of getting their powers is sufficient (the Fantastic Four were literally just irradiated) but more often than not, those circumstances are traumatic, or there’s a dark past that pushes the heroes to develop powers.  Of course, there’s also the angle that a sane man driven to fight injustice probably wouldn’t dress up like a nocturnal mammal and troll for muggers.  He’d probably grow up to be a lawyer.  Perhaps extraordinary circumstances are needed to justify what is probably insanity (or at the very least unsound judgment).  Still, from a meta-perspective, the dark and mysterious pasts start to run into a problem (to paraphrase from The Incredibles) – when everyone’s dark and edgy, no one is.  And this may be part of the continuing Darkening and Edgening of comic books (which I will rant on later).

Also, a little shameless self-promotion.  “Necromancy” had one of the best weeks for downloads so far, so if you lovely readers are part of that uptick, thank you!  If you downloaded it a long time ago, thanks again!


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

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