On Origin Stories

Writing is an interesting task. You have to read things (anything) first, otherwise you’re probably going to turn out some of the most boring crap you or anyone else has ever looked at. The idea seems farfetched, but trust me, I know enough people that haven’t picked up a single book in their lives. By reading, you can pick up on how to ‘do’ style, how to structure your sentences in creative ways, and all manner of other things. It’s like saying that you know karate having not taken a single lesson in your life. No one can prove that you suck just by saying so, but the second you try to prove yourself, you fall flat on your face.

Writing fiction is an even more interesting task. Once again, you really can’t write in a vacuum, and this time, it counts for more than style. With fiction, you have to be aware of pretty much everyone else who ever wrote for your genre. A good writer knows these authors’ works front and back. He knows what tricks they use, what their favorite sayings are (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this” was really no one’s catchphrase but that of Lucas, for example), and can even objectively tell you if they’re good or not.

Sometimes, you’ll get the same answer from both an objective and subjective standpoint.

But that’s not everything. The art of writing fiction is an evolving one, to put it simply, and there are things that once flew with readers that don’t fly now. I’m not just talking about stuff that was amazingly groundbreaking back then but racist today (I’ll be the first to say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin sounds like an ASPCA Public Service Announcement these days), but even just techniques that, though once innovative and edgy, now seem tired and clichéd.

As you’ve no-doubt guessed, I’m a comic book fan. I like the DCU in particular but you won’t catch me saying that I don’t absolutely love the Cap or Spidey. So I’ll use comics and the trends therein as an example, specifically superhero comics and superhero origins.

Think of a superhero. Even if you don’t read comics, just think about Superman or Batman; everyone knows their stories. Now think about their origin. Chances are that a whole lot of dead parents just passed through your head. This is probably because most of the famous Golden and Silver Age heroes got their start when a parent or guardian got knocked off. I could list dozens: Green Lantern, Spider-Man, and Black Canary, to name a few. Comic readers got sick of this, eventually. Most never really think to question why, though. Now, you could say it’s because comic fans hate what’s popular. After every Reality TV-addicted idiot with ten bucks to go see a movie started listing The Dark Knight as their favorite movie of all time on Facebook, you can be sure that there were a number of diehard Batman fans that turned away from the movie. This is pretty simple psychology: it wasn’t theirs anymore. They could no longer assign it to their identity and be unique. But while that explains why a bunch of Trekkies didn’t like the 2009 Star Trek reboot (which I personally think is ridiculous; there’s absolutely nothing about that movie that wasn’t great), it doesn’t quite explain why the “dead parents” backstory went out of style.

Though a quick Google image search might.

One thing is for sure: it was due, at least in part, to some smart writers. They may have recognized how overplayed the “My Parents are Dead” card was. It could be that they knew that the fans would wise up to them eventually. Maybe they aspired to something better than just “Bang, whine, powers, cape.” Most likely, though, they just got bored of writing the same shit over and over. That’s why superhero backstories and the conflicts that they face when they take off the mask are always evolving: no one wants a cliché to develop. It’s the same way that you don’t stay out in the sun without sun block your whole life: you don’t want to get melanoma. Or, at least I hope you don’t. So, when a writer feels like a certain plot device has become a little tired, he’ll move on. After dead parents, drug abuse was the new thing. Tony Stark and Speedy rocked that boat pretty hard. This was during the 1980s, mind you: cocaine and heroin were everywhere, so you could chalk some of it up to current events influencing the writing. After that ship sailed, child abuse and rape became pretty popular for awhile. Then the 90s happened, and it was a dark and stupid time for comics everywhere.

Not even Doctor Fate was safe.

Nowadays, gay and bisexual superheroes seem to be the flavor of the month, though I’ve yet to see it handled with any semblance of grace outside of The Authority. Whenever anyone else tries to include a LGBT character in their comic, they either end up being offensive, looking like a token, or just become straight-up annoying. Sometimes, it’s not even the writer’s fault when fuck-ups happen.

Gail Simone meant for Black Canary to be saying “75% hetero.” Gotta love dumb copy editors.

But I digress. Soon, hopefully very soon, if I get my way, token LGBT characters will phase out (or they’ll at least stop being token), and the next hardship will phase in. My prediction: internet addiction. Maybe they’ll have an arc about the Question being unable to drag herself off of World of Warcraft.

The idea here is that it’s all an example of culture and counterculture, the intricacies of which would take a whole ‘nother article to describe. I’ll be brief: trends rise and fall with dizzying speed in the comics industry (and the publishing industry on large). The longer a trend has been around, the older it gets in the eyes of fans and some other writers, so they create the next big thing. Then that gets old, and the process repeats. The good news is that whichever writer wins and whichever writer loses, us readers always win: the process ensures that material stays fresh.

There is still a whole host of other things that could lead to the comic sucking, though.

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