The Back of Beyond, or, What’s a Hero Without a Past?

The beginning-middle-end structure has often been disregarded in fiction to explore events in a more unfettered and unpredictable manner. Like life, fiction has developed 20-20 hindsight, where events can be understood clearly only once they have occurred.

I’m not making myself clear am I? Let’s go to the beginning (note the point I just made).

I was watching a movie recently that showed the origin of one of the most famous comic book heroes of all time. This got me thinking about the crucial comic book trope of the back-story, or the story of how it all began, how our man became how he is today, what drives him, what makes him so different? It may sound like it is driven by an irrestible curiosity, but in my experience as a long-time reader of comic books I feel it is more about familiarity, an emotional bond between the reader and the character that makes us want to know more and more about him/her (more on this bond in a later post).

Few of us have taken to comic books at a late stage in our lives, and most of us have grown up with our comic book heroes. As children we have read the slim, periodical magazines with rapt attention, devouring with our eyes all the stories about Batman, Donald Duck, Superman and Archie. This bond is almost sacred, though we may not realize it as such, and such must have been the reaction in audiences even half a century ago when the ‘golden era’ of comic books introduced audiences to crimefighters whose entire identity was wrapped in mystery. There was an eagerness to get closer to the hero they worshipped, meaning that writers had to take readers back to the very origins of the men behind the masks like a peepshow.

Oh, and did we love it when they did.

It was lapped hungrily. The back story brought us closer to our heroes than ever before. We became like childhood friends and nothing beats that feeling. These origins became crucial to the point that they have been rehashed many times over, ad infinitum, often ad nauseum. Yet it is those characters that managed a strong back-story, thanks to some unabashedly genius writer, that have sustained themselves in public memory more than others. In a sense they have grown into a life of their own and writers-illustrators just feed the growing ego of the character.

So you have Spiderman, whose quandary of wanting a normal teenage life versus fighting his holy crusade against crime keeps taking us back to the story of Uncle Ben and his dictum that “With great power must come great responsibility”.
Superman is the last son of Krypton, both the unshakable force and immovable power and he too is a man compelled by his childhood as the last remaining survivor of one race who will always fight to defend the other that adopted him.
Wolverine too has his origin, something that is slightly different in the latest movie, as compared the version that I knew. In the world of mutants, Wolverine was actually not a mutant by birth, but a scientific military experiment. A soldier he was, not a mutant and cannot also find himself at ease with the mutants whom he has to now familiarize himself with. This conflict brands him as the unknown soldier, mysterious at the best of times and always haunted by nightmares even he cannot understand.

A task well begun is half done they say, and one can add that it is never too late to be ‘well begun’. The origins of Wolverine, Spiderman, Superman and scores of others are like the first day of the rest of their lives as one keeps revisiting those to understand motivations better, and allows for endless combinations of dilemmas and conflicts.

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