Thursday, January 20, 2005

Origin Stories

Origin stories are boring.

Okay, that's not entirely true. The Secret Origin story is a staple of comics, and as a kid I remember learning the origin stories of super-heroes that I liked and being totally stoked. The difference is that these were origins for characters I already knew. But starting off with a long, involved origin for a previously unknown character is a sure way to boring the readers.

A perfect example of this is in the first Araña collection from Marvel, which I just read a couple of days ago. It tells the origin of the titular hero, and takes an entire six issues in which to do it. She doesn't even appear in her super-heroine outfit until the final page of the collection.

This is the kiss of death for a monthly serial. The origin is not the interesting story; it's background information. If the information in the origin is important to the story you're telling, then you can go back later and fill in for the reader. But don't start with an issues-long origin.

The original appearance of Superman disposed of the origin story in a couple of panels. It was only later, after Superman became an icon, that his origin was fleshed out (and out and out, ad absurdum).

Or take for example the modern-day classic, Watchmen. Alan Moore created a rich background mythology for the characters, but he starts out the story with the investigation of a murder; in other words, he starts the story at the begining of the actual story; all the background was filled in later, as needed.

But you don't have to be Alan Moore to do this right. Brian K. Vaughan understood this with his recent series Ex Machina (now in an inexpensive trade collection--go buy...) It's the story of a former super-hero who becomes mayor of New York, so the first issue starts with Mayor Hundred in his job. We are slowly being given the origin (both how he became a super-hero and how he became mayor) through flashbacks. Same with Vaughan's Runaways--by the end of the first issue, the kids have learned that their parents are evil super-villains and are on the run.

Super-hero movies are just as guilty as comics. I love the first Superman movie to death, but it takes well over an hour of Krypton and Smallville and the Fortress of Solitude before Chris Reeve dons the familiar red-and-blue tights and takes to flight. The first Spider-Man movie was good, but the second was even better, because the producers didn't have the need to show us the origin again. It took too long for the Green Goliath to appear in the Hulk movie, when let's face it, most people were there to see a big green CGI guy throw tanks around.

The super-hero movie that got it just right was Tim Burton's first Batman. We quickly learn that there's a guy who dresses up like a Bat and roams the city at night, beating up on criminals, and that in the daytime he's Billionare Bruce Wayne. Sure, later on we learn that he became Batman to avenge the deaths of his parents, but even then the movie doesn't dwell on it.

In contrast, the upcoming Batman Begins looks as though it's going to dwell on the Batman origin, which doesn't look too promising. Same with the Fantastic Four movie.

Think of all the good genre movies you've ever seen. How many begin with a long origin sequence? Did Raiders of the Lost Ark start with 45 minutes of young Indiana Jones getting his PhD in archaeology? Did Star Wars begin with the origin of Darth Vader?

Origin stories are not the point; they're background and should be treated as such. It should not take six issues to give us the origin of a character. An interested reader wants to read stories about a teenage girl with spider-powers, not a long drawn-out story about how said girl gets her spider-powers.

Because origin stories are boring.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't disagree more.

Dave LArtigue

Ian said...

I think you're right on. I remember watching The Shield DVD (season 1) and in the commentaries they mention it's good to start off a show with what would be episode 10, hopefully one of the most exciting episodes, and then get to the background later.

Creators need to a "hook" to get the audience in. Starting with the origin story, as opposed to a big superhero fight where afterwards you can work your way back, is not the way to do it.

Anonymous said...

Total agreement. Give me an exciting, engaging story right off the bat, so I'll *want* to know more about the backstory. Force me to sit through 6 to 12 months of prologue and I'll be long gone by the time the good bits start.
J. Kevin Carrier

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Agreed w/r/t to comics, I'd much rather just jump into things and have the backstory unfold over time, especially in these days of expanded story arcs. That said, I did like (like, not love) how they told AraƱa's story, fully developing her character while dropping hints about the larger story surrounding her. Certainly could have been done in three issues, though, as opposed to the TPB-friendly six.

Movies, I think, can benefit from that same kind of character development process, as exhibited in the first Superman and Spider-Man movies. While Burton's Batman is on my Top 5 Movie list, I think it was the exception to the rule, able to take for granted the fact that Batman was pretty well-known and jump right into the story. One of the major criticisms of the movie, however, was that the Joker stole the show as the more fully-developed character, something I agree with.

Interestingly, I've been intrigued by the Batman Begins previews I've seen, whereas the Fantastic Four trailer left me flat, all special effects w/o any sense of the characters behind them.

Lyle said...

Hm, see I think Runaways #1 is an origin story because it tells us how the cast ended up as a team. I think you can start with an origin story if that's a strong starting point. Too many times, however, it isn't.

Anonymous said...

Also (this is Dave again), Star Wars IS an origin story. It's the origins of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight. Don't fall into Lucas' retconning no way is Star Wars or even most of Empire the story of Darth Vader. It's the story of Luke Skywalker. And we see him rise from dopey farmboy to dopey Jedi. Hell, it's practically Batman's origin story: after his guardianss are killed, he uses his father's legacy to avenge their deaths, and trains with a bunch of masters to become the best he can. Whatever.

Dave Carter said...

Star Wars is Luke Skywalker's story, and it begins with his 'call to adventure,' but it isn't his Secret Origin. We don't learn until later about his true parentage, and then only when it becomes dramatically necessary.

Michael said...

Although I think you bring up some good points, I think it is unwise to compare movies to comics. And there are notable exceptions. I think the problem is that more often than not the origin is done poorly.

Spider-man (the movie) was a clear success at the box office and in using the origin as its starting point because at its heart, it's a romance movie with superhero trappings. I agree that Spidey 2 was stronger, but not even mostly because it didn't have to revisit the origin. I think among the non-comic movie mainstream, they (although a segment certainly are)aren't looking as much for the costumes and villians and the hero-come-alive.

In comics, I think you are right more than not. However, the most notable current exception I can think of is the Ultimate re-telling of Spider-man. That works tremendously well as an origin, because the characters are well-developed. Although most people were already familiar with the Spider-origin, at the time the Ultimate universe was an unknown and open to any possible variation; yet despite familiarity, it holds up as an origin story told well. I would also suggest this holds true for the original origins of many Marvel heroes and teams, in which an entire issue was typically dedicated to the origin.

I'm sure there are others I can't recall off-hand, but I believe background information can be interesting, if you develop the characters worth caring about.

Mr. Rice said...

I think you're right on, here. REALLY right on. I hadn't thought about it so much, but a lot of the Arana problems would have been avoided if it weren't SIX ISSUES OF ORIGIN. It's what first turned me off Ultimate Spider-man . . .decompressed storytelling is easily boring, and origins are easily boring. Combine them and you're smack dab in the middle of a boring pizza.