Friday, May 16, 2008

The Absence of Origin

Another problem with continuity in the shared universe is the passage of time. In Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis decides six months have passed between issues, so every single comic book to connect with all subsequent storylines must have also lost half a year somewhere, right? Not likely. History is so much easier to chart when it's subjective and limited in scope, with neither being an option in a shared universe without being highly subjective in application. Still, that's just a suspension of disbelief that comes with the territory if you're a fan.

No, the real problem is with lifetimes catching up. Dick Grayson being a Boy Wonder for over thirty years can be managed, until you decide to make him a Teen Wonder. Robin is inextricably tied to the Batman, so if one ages from 8 to 16, so too must the other. Now you just know Bruce Wayne's best years are behind him, so it may be time to start grooming Nightwing as his successor. This leads to a new problem: what about the origin? Sure, both Grayson and Wayne were exceptional boys who's parents were slain by criminals before their very eyes. However, this senseless act drove Wayne to create the identity of the Batman, while the Grayson slaying drove Wayne to create the identity of Robin for Dick to inhabit. It isn't that Grayson's origin isn't good, nor that it can't sustain a super-heroic identity, but it just isn't Batman's origin, is it?

Alternately, you can write Robin off to college or into a team book for a few years, have him "become his own man," and scoop up Jason Todd to succeed Robin instead. Now Batman's back to being a vital young man with a boy sidekick named Jason Todd, and let us never speak of Dick Grayson again. Except everyone knows Robin is Dick Grayson, and that Grayson is now Nightwing, and Jason Todd is just a pale imitation. So we still have the problem of Dick needing to succeed a now even more aged Bruce Wayne, or else continue on his own and allow Jason Todd to do it... but how are we supposed to allow for a kid who doesn't even measure up to Grayson becoming the Batman? Jason Todd's first origin was a carbon copy of Grayson's, and the second in no way can stand on its own without Batman, nor stand up to the superiority of Grayson's. This leaves us with a third Robin, somehow possessed of an even worse origin entirely dependent on the reputations of both Batman, Robin, and even Jason Todd, with all the accumulated time wearing on the lot. Tim Drake doesn't have an origin, but Bruce Wayne sure has an albatross, all because he didn't just pack Dick Grayson off for summer camp for a decade-long summer vacation when he decided to become a Dark Knight again.

Speaking of Dick Grayson, much of the fault for this whole Robin mess falls on Marv Wolfman, for clearly having the character embrace adulthood and a new identity, not to mention helping to create Tim Drake. Wolfman's sin didn't end there, as he also wrote the death of Barry Allen into his Crisis on Infinite Earths, and the passing of his mantle to the former Kid Flash, Wally West. For a long time, this was proclaimed a triumph that redeemed the concept of the kid sidekick and congratulated the progress of continuity. One problem though: Wally West didn't have an origin. Sure, the original Flash's origin, in which Jay Garrick inhaled "hard water" that inexplicably gave him super powers, was pretty weak sauce. However, Jay was a charming sort with a distinct look, and was among the first super-speed heroes in comics. Barry Allen not only ushered in the Silver Age, but also improved heavily on his predecessor in his role as a slow moving police scientist who's lab was struck by lighting. The mix of energy and chemicals imbued Allen with super-speed, though his distraction of routinely saving Central City from fantastic threats still meant he was late as always for Barry Allen's doings. Further, Allen had one of the most impressive rogue's galleries in super-herodom.

Wally West? He was the nephew of Barry Allen, who somehow had the same origin as the Flash while visiting his lab. Wally manages to have an origin that is not only entirely derivative of Barry's, but remains entirely dependent upon him in context. Also, while West inherited the villains, his creators set about ridiculing them to impotence while failing to replace them. Instead of carrying on for Barry Allen, Wally West served as both a retread and a creative void. At least in the early going, Wally was an emotionally difficult, irresponsible adulterer with a personal fortune and a conservative streak to set him apart. By the time Mark Waid was done with him, West had become a true hero, meaning he lost everything that made him a unique character and accepted a "family" of like heroes that made him seem more like Superman's natural successor than Flash's. Shouldn't it be a little troubling that the center of that family had no origin or strong motivation of his own to ground him in the absence of Barry Allen?

Returning to Wolfman, both Kid Flash and the real Robin proved their commercial viability as New Teen Titans against fearsome foes like Deathstroke the Terminator. Slade Wilson was a mercenary who turned down an assignment against the young heroes. However, he was also a lousy father who's son took both the gig and a treatment that awarded him super-powers at the cost of his life. In a fit of misplaced duty, Wilson took up the unfinished contract of his dead son against the Titans, and as an added bonus took up with a fourteen-year-old girl who eventually infiltrated the team. Together, the pair defeated the Titans and fulfilled the contract, only to have the girl go mad and die in a fit of sociopathic fury. In order to let the now very popular villain Deathstroke off the hook for his statutory rape, it was revealed that he had been manipulated by the evil girl, as if that weren't about the most pathetic and self-serving excuse possible. Still, it allowed Wolfman to turn a once great villain he had co-created into a rather sordid and compromised anti-hero, eventually allowed his own title. Where once Deathstroke was a certified bad ass who single-handedly fought whole super-teams, racked Green Lantern in the balls, and traded blows with Aquaman & Hawkman, he was now routinely felled by the most random and unimpressive of adversaries. Worse, Wolfman would do things like have Deathstroke defeat Batman in combat, which would be refreshing, if not for his ephebophila turning their very contact into something distasteful for general audiences.

Years later, other hands would reveal this heroic turn was in fact from the influence of a spirit that possessed him, and even went so far as to reveal he had drugged his teen aged girlfriend to turn her into a villainess, redirecting all the blame back to where it always belonged, the adult evildoer. Here was an instance of an outside creator correcting the adulteration of a character by his very creator. Proof positive of the important of retaining the integrity of the original concept of a character by all parties, including its implied guardian.

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