Against the Hegemony of Backstories

Batman_origin_1940_02
From Detective Comics #33

The twin stars of superhero comics and Freudianism have left a terrible pock mark on our culture: a fixation with backstories and origin stories. Superhero comics have, from the beginning, given not only their protagonist but the villains origin stories that establishes all of their crucial characteristics. And Freudianism has always had a larger presence in Hollywood writers’ rooms than in practiced psychiatry, and this influence has far outlived the discrediting of Freudian psychotherapy as a science.

Whatever one may say about Freud and the practitioners and theorists who followed him, in storytelling it has created a cage in which many writers ensnare themselves. In this cage, every little aspect of a character that is salient to the plot (and many that are not but might stir the audience in other ways) can be traced back to crucial events in their childhood. The way the characters construed those events comes to define who they are in adulthood.

In superhero comics, origin stories come to define heroes in villains to an extreme and essentialist degree. This is parodied, to great effect, in One Punch Man. One villain ate too much crab and thus becomes a crab monster. Another hero launches into a dramatic telling of his origin story unprompted.

There was one show I watched, which I will not bother to name, which had a particularly egregious example of this. The story was going along just fine, when the writers clearly decided it was time to add emotional depth (or something) by giving the main character a backstory. We learn that he was found, abandoned, by some family, who raised him. We then watch this family die off one by one, in a way that provides him the motivation for doing what he is doing in the present arc of the show.

Essentially, this poor family was created and killed all in the span of an episode, just to show that the main character takes his task really seriously….or something.

We have lost the distinction between being and becoming, and it has created a lot of confusion. We don’t even need to get into an argument about nature vs nurture, or whether people can choose to react to or construe the same events differently, in order to see that backstories are often superfluous at best.

Let us say you have a character who is a mob boss. He runs a human trafficking operation. He has innocent people killed in order to keep anyone from testifying against him or the people who work for him. Perhaps he also loves his wife, and is devoted to his children. Does seeing the path he took to get to that point change any of that?

The point is that you can see what kind of person someone is without tracing how he became that way. And in fact it is not always clear that learning about the latter will shed much light on the former.

What of Spiderman’s dead uncle Ben, or Batman’s dead parents? These are the classics, of course. Perhaps we must concede that these characters would not be who they are without these origin stories—but this, of course, is by construction. And it’s not clear that that’s the case at any rate.

Spiderman is characterized mostly by his powers, the fact that he’s a costumed vigilante, and his constant in-fight wise-cracking. Batman is a rich man who has learned martial arts and decided to use his resources to fund his vigilante activities. He’s dour and intimidating where Spiderman is lighthearted and friendly. Their struggles are much better characterized by who they are and the internal dynamics of their various story arcs than through reference to an all-encompassing origin event.

So repeat after me: who someone is must be distinguished from how they came to be. That doesn’t mean we ought to discard the latter; we simply ought not to confuse the two.

This is true of people, animals, objects; anything. Art and science can both be much improved if we keep this simple distinction in mind.

Batman_origin_1940_02 - Copy
From Detective Comics #33

4 thoughts on “Against the Hegemony of Backstories

  1. What better guide to a person’s instantaneous being than the loyalties they have kept, the people they have loved or hated, the words they have written–all the choices they have made–and against all that, the stories they tell: the hopes, regrets, victories, and failures a person chooses to remember?

    Even if, leaving aside a person’s whole past, the concept of instantaneous being has purchase–and I would submit that there is not much surplus value to be had–we’re faced with an epistemic hurdle. Knowledge of a person’s being is necessarily known through their past. We have no other choice.

    1. A very good point. I didn’t mean to give being a static sense; it’s certainly always in motion. There’s a certain sense of “call no man happy until he is dead” in what you say, in that you can’t say who someone is completely until his story is done and you can say who he was.

      But in the here and now, or in a story still unfolding, we might so that who someone is now is in large part what they *will* do, what choices they *will* make. And you can give enough hints of that within a story without resorting to heavy handed origin tales.

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