The Devil In The Details: Why We Don’t Necessarily Need An Origin Story For A Character’s Pants
When I was writing a 1200-word attempt to define the proper length of Batman's ears earlier this week, I mentioned that comic book readers love details. It's true of every fandom, I suppose, whether it's memorizing sports statistics or listening for the differences between the demo and album versions of your favorite song, but with superhero comics, it tends to be a little different. These are, after all, stories that are meant to go on forever, where every story is meant to feel important to the ongoing narrative. Exploring and examining the details is one of the best ways to add significance, giving a deep and complicated history to every single element that makes up a character. Every now and then, though, I think we can all agree that it goes a little overboard.
I mean, it's been a few years since it happened, but I'm still not sure that we ever needed an origin story for Barry Allen's bowtie.
Don't get me wrong --- I think it's pretty clear by now that I love obsessing over the details of superhero comics. I love seeing how the small stuff can remain consistent and weave through the different books of a universe, and how that consistency makes everything feel just a little more complete. I don't even really have a problem with seemingly insignificant details being revealed to have a greater importance. The problem comes in when every detail has a long and complicated history that hints at some Greater Truth, and where every single aspect of a character has to have its own individual origin story.
And to be fair, this isn't something that's limited to comics. Look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for instance. I love that movie, and I think the idea of opening it with a flashback to Indy's teen years is a pretty great idea, especially since the rest of the movie's going to be built around seeing him interact with his father. It works, too, but by the time you realize that you're getting an origin story for his hat, his whip, the scar on his chin, his name and his fear of snakes --- and that all of that happened on the same day --- it starts to distract you from the story.
Seriously, you do not need to explain why someone is afraid of snakes. Snakes can be kind of scary.
That's actually one of the things that turned me off of Star Wars fandom in the years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. With the seemingly endless stream of Expanded Universe stories that came in novels and comics, every single piece of the movies was elaborated on to a truly hilarious extreme. I'm willing to give you Darth Vader's glove being a Mandalorian Crushgaunt with a long and complicated in-universe history because he's a weird half-robot half-Frankenstein super-wizard, but when you're trying to tell me that Han Solo's pants have an origin story, I think we can all agree that things have gone a little too far.
Superhero comics, though, have it built into their structure, and while Barry Allen wearing a bowtie for deep and moving personal reasons (rather than just being a guy who, you know, likes wearing bowties) is usually my go-to example, it's far from being the only one. There are, for example, the multiple real meanings behind Superman's "S," all of which are somehow based on the premise that it doesn't just stand for "Superman."
It's worth noting that by the time they collaborated here, Finger and Moldoff had both been working on Batman stories for almost 20 years, and in that time, I'm sure they'd become well acquainted with the idea that fans are almost always interested in seeing stories that justify the weirdness of their favorite comics.
The thing is, Batman's costume already had an origin story --- and a pretty good one, at that. The idea that Bruce Wayne doesn't just decide to become Batman because of a bat flying through his window as a strange omen that inspired him to prey on the fears and superstitions of criminals, but that it was actually because of a formative memory of seeing his father dressed as a "Bat-Man?" That's exactly the kind of excessive justification that we're talking about.
Then again, it's also the kind of thing that I tend to love in Silver Age comics, although I suspect that's because that "First Batman" costume showed up in a comic that I loved when I was six. For me, it's quirky but acceptable, while Superman's emblem standing for anything other than "Superman" seems completely ridiculous.
Well. Unless it's this one.
That, I'm completely fine with.
As for just how far you can go without crossing that line for a reader or viewer, I suspect it has a lot to do with context. CA's own Andrew Wheeler, for instance, finds that scene in Batman Begins where they attempt to justify Batman's ears by showing that he can hide a radio in there --- another example of trying to explain something that you've already explained --- to be absolutely unforgivable. I, on the other hand, think that it's goofy, but I don't really mind it, largely because I like the rest of the movie around it a lot. That scene a couple of weeks ago on Flash, however, where you find out that Jay Garrick wears his helmet not because it looks like Mercury, the God of Speed (a Perfectly Acceptable Explanation if ever there was one), but because it's the actual army helmet that his father gave him right before he did a murder? That got an "oh, come on!" out of me so loud that I almost tapped out of the entire series.
With that in mind, as tempting as it is to recommend that creators think about taking Occam's Razor to their stories and stick with the simplest explanation --- even if that explanation is as simple as "it looks cool" --- you can't deny that occasionally adding those overwrought details can make for a more interesting story.
So we put it to you, dear reader: When you're diving into the details of the character and finding out the reasons behind their quirks, their possessions, and yes, even their pants, how far is too far?
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