Against the Hegemony of Backstories

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

Why Batman Will Never Vote Tory

I read AB’s post on America’s Revolutionary past as follows:

Origin stories have power, as stories—not necessarily as factual accounts.

If Batman’s parents had been shot by Benjamin Disraeli, he would never vote Tory.

To be serious for a moment, AB points out that the ethos of America is fundamentally grounded in its Revolution, and revolutions are by definition not a conservative affair.

But could ours have been?

Let me submit to you that the Revolution was a revolution in name only, that it was really a war of independence. Wars of independence are very different from revolutions as we have come to understand the word after Paris in 1789. Countries of a fairly conservative character have fought each other over territorial disputes and to break out of the hold of a particular empire for as long as mankind has had military organization.

The American Revolution involved cutting ties with the mother country whose people had populated the colony. It did involve creating a new, federal government, but in that it was no more revolutionary than the German Unification, for instance. And no one thinks that the resulting country was particularly liberal in that case. And beyond the creation of the federal government, the American Revolution was remarkably conservative—it left most of the institutions it had inherited from the British, in the form they had come to take since colonization, intact.

The reason the Revolution seems radical to us in retrospect is because of the mythology that has grown up around it, a mythology we impart to our children from an early age. But never forget that Edmund Burke himself favored the Americans.

American Burkeans face several challenges. The first is the founding myth, as mentioned in the previous paragraph. The second is that America as a country, even including the period of the thirteen colonies, is very young. Burke and Michael Oakeshott and Benjamin Disraeli could point to institutions that had been around for thousands of years. Their roots were deep, ours are still quite shallow.

And to the extent that our institutions claim common roots with the British, our people largely do not. I may present my sacrificial offerings at the altar of Burke and Oakeshott, but my father is Cuban, and my mother’s grandparents came to this country from Russia at the turn of the 20th century.

We’ll never have a true Tory party, but I don’t see a problem. We’re not Britain, so our traditionalists are going to be of a different character from the British ones. I’ve been inculcated into largely the same institutions and traditions as all Americans; I have no trouble seeing the Burkean strand that connects me with the founders and the British settlers who first came to this land.  I can see that the founding myth, as all myths, is one part fact and five parts fiction, catalyzed with aspiration. Its character has changed over time and will continue to change; to the extent that Burkeans can participate in that process things are not quite so dire for them as AB suggests.