Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The end is where we start from

I think maybe I'm not very good at understanding superhero comics.

I was reading Michael Chabon's essay, "Secret Skin: An Essay in Unitard Theory," the other day, and was completely flummoxed by his assertion that it was the origin stories of costumed superheros that most fascinated people. The fact that there was a supporting footnote, citing the disproportionately large prices paid for Issue #1s among collectors to back up this assertion did nothing to unflummox me. Because for me, origin stories are the least interesting part.

Maybe this failing of mine comes about because the first comic I read wasn't a superhero comic, it was Sandman. And I like "Sleep of the Just." I'd even pick up a single issue copy of it, not because it's one of my favorite issues of the run, but because I enjoy the fact that the day that Dream breaks free from his prison happens to be my birthday, September 14. But I didn't really begin to love Sandman until after the origin story has been told: after Dream is free, after he's completed his plot coupon adventure, and successfully reclaimed the instruments of his power. No, my love for Sandman - the reason that the collected run would be my desert island book, the reason this is the text that I'll be writing my first post-dissertation academic book on - begins in "The Sound of Her Wings," when Dream, suffering from post-adventure ennui, is given a serious set to by his older sister. I love Sandman because of what Dream becomes after he has his power back, because of the heartbreak and grace of his story's unfolding, and its end. In fact, the one single issue that I have bought is the final issue, #75, "The Tempest."

Even in superhero storylines, the part I care about isn't the beginning. Anyone can be bitten by a radioactive spider. Anyone can be born with amazing genetic gifts. (And don't even get me started on the heroes whose origin story involves a refrigeratored girlfriend.) What makes the story interesting - to me, anyway - is the what happens next. What happens after you discover you have superpowers? What kind of person do you decide to become?


  1. "What makes the story interesting - to me, anyway - is the what happens next. What happens after you discover you have superpowers? What kind of person do you decide to become?"

    ...but that's exactly what an origin story is! Once they decide who they are, and it's all a matter of finding another interesting villain to fight, all the enjoyment is gone.

  2. So, like I said, maybe I'm just not very good at understanding superhero comics. But I see the origin story just as the explanation for the origin of the superpowers. Whereas, when the hero decides when to stand and fight, and what to fight for, and when to maybe cooperate with the villain in the hopes of defeating someone even worse, I see that as the process of their evolution into a specific kind of hero. I agree that I don't want to see the same battle with a different villain every issue, but - for me - the interesting part is the evolution of the character.

  3. Well, I don't profess to understand comic books either, but whenever I've expounded the view that you just did, to people who are into comic books, they say, "Ah, yes, you like the origin story."

  4. Kat,

    I shared this post with my brother Michael, who writes the Handbooks for Marvel Comics, and he wrote a response at his own blog: http://section244.blogspot.com/2010/04/origins-made-of-clay.html

    Happy reading! :)

  5. Jannalou - thanks! I just read your brother's essay, and absolutely loved it.