Monday, June 2, 2008

Secret Origins Matter (or How Hawkman Got His Wings!)

In Zimbabwe, there are young boys who can tell you, in detail, the secret origins of Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman. Those tales have been repeated so often, in so many places and through so many means as to become something akin to world mythology. I personally am bored to death with all three characters and the mild variations of their stories, but the corporations that own them are smart enough to realize repetition ingrains their wares into the consciousness of mankind. Quoting from the Book of Krypton chapter and verse is how religions begin.

Earlier this year, I saw the movie "Iron Man," and I'm convinced that among the many reasons it continues to earn at the box office is that the character has a solid secret origin that the general public was not familiar with. I think the last Superman movie did middling business because it tried to dip into familiarity amongst a crowd that was ready for something new out of the guy. A bald guy fixated on real estate will only carry you so far. Marvel Comics have a lot of characters that they've been developing over decades as stand alone features, allowing them to cross over into outside media with just the right mix of pre-sell and revelation. They've accomplished this through toys, cartoons and more-- always with an eye toward selling consumers on a universe of properties. DC seems content to sell Superman and Batman until the public outright rejects them as bankable, once again, like figures out of mythology they feel the world "owns," and possesses no inherent market cache.

I learned the secret origin of Aquaman from an action figure carrying case. I was a child in a toy store, already yawning at the too-familiar Man of Steel and Dynamic Duo, when I spied an infant boy sitting on the ocean floor. The text explained that one day, the kid wandered from his lighthouse home out into the sea, much to his parents' chagrin, until they realized he could breath underwater. As origins go, it's not the best, but the fact remains that's how I remembered the origin of Aquaman until many years later, when I read the first in a series of other Aquaman origins, none of which ever having quite managed to become classic.

I bought a Martian Manhunter action figure when I was a child, which came with a mini-comic. Even though the name "Martian Manhunter" was right there on the cover, he shared much of his book with two other heroes, a few of his powers were only alluded to, and no mention was made of his origin, history, or relevance. I took more away from the file cards on the backs of G.I. Joe packaging than I did an entire mini-comic. I don't think I learned the Martian Manhunter's origin until years later, in the 1988 mini-series, which was really not where a kid should try to pick that sort of thing up. Now, the Martian Manhunter has a swell origin ready made for cross-platform marketability, but if you keep it so secret the public never learns it, then muddy it with constant revision, who's to know?

I just reread "The Secret Origin of Hawkman #1," a mini-comic that came with Leaf candy in 1980. I missed out on the comic when they were being produced, and forgotten I'd owned the thing until I dug through my mini-comics the other day. I read "Hawkworld" years back, and I've read plenty of stories about Carter Hall to know where he came from, but I realized I'd completely blanked on the origin of the Silver Age Hawkman while reading. I never knew it growing up, and Hawkman was another one of those characters DC kept playing with until he broke. The gist of it is those creepy Manhawks, giant hawks that wore Michael Myers masks that fired laser beams out the eyes, were performing raids across the planet Thanagar. Young Katar Hol used his father's experimental flying harness to track the fowl fiends, and retrieved one of their masks. His father studied it, and determined that they required a thin filament of coal to fire their energy beams. Paran Kater created a weapon that would render the coal ineffectual, handed it off to his boy, who effectively shut the Manhawks down. However, in the aftermath, the once-peaceful Thanagarians had been introduced to the concept of crime, and started their own sprees. A police force was created around Paran Katar's flight harness, while Katar Hol stood as the first "Hawkman" to patrol his homeworld. Later, he married a woman named Shayera, who became Hawkgirl, and the pair travelled to Earth to learn our police methods by helping us fight crime.

Not the strongest origin in the world, but definitely something to work with, and something a young comic book fan in the 80's should have known. DC Comics are again pushing their properties out into the world, and more often than not, they don't remember where they came from. Where are these mini-comics, combining words and pictures to impress upon the young minds that will wield the nostalgia dollars in years to come? It's such a simple, largely inexpensive option-- but quite frankly, DC should have guys like Jim Lee knocking out 14 page origin tales like these, applying the hook that brings back the bank. This is marketing, people, but also storytelling that reaches the hearts and minds of generations. It absolutely should be a priority, but it clearly hasn't been, and the industry suffers for it.

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