Every day, we tell ourselves stories. We maintain who we are because of them, insisting to ourselves that our stories, our lives, have meaning and substance. That we are going somewhere and the terrible things that happened this afternoon are not the end of the story. That we love and are loved in return. That the life we are living is worthwhile. In a very real sense, these stories sustain us. When we lose track of them, when the story changes suddenly or we lose the plot, we become lost in our own life – depressed, melancholy, confused, agitated and easily frustrated. We no longer have that constant anchor of knowing who we are, why we are here, and where we are headed. We no longer have an origin story.
Origin stories have a way of stabilizing us, and yes, they may constantly be changing – setback after setback – but they grow thicker and more sure as time passes. The beauty of a strong origin story is that it keeps changing, revealing new angles of personality. Think of your friends. There is usually someone in our circle continually reinventing themselves. They have had more midlife crises than we thought possible. Their roots, small and brittle as they may be, are spindling and winding but they have dug in through a dozen different ways. Think of another friend, the one who has known their life since birth. Their roots are firm and think, sure and stable.
My friend Syd tells me she is thinking of becoming a real estate agent this year. Last year, she became a yoga instructor. The year before that, she became a phlebotomist. The year before that, she finished graduate school. And before that, she was an actress and model, a rapper, a poet, a teacher. She has worn many hats and, surveying her life, it may appear that she doesn’t know what she is doing or where she is going. I’ve lived a similar life myself. I sometimes say, half joking, that I “have had more wardrobe changes than Madonna.” When I tell my writing students that I was once a pastor, they laugh. When I tell them I obtained a GED when I was 16 years old, they are not sure what to make of that or how to reconcile where I come from with the man they see before them. They are not sure whether the tales of childhood neglect and abuse are true either. I have had to reset and reorient myself in many ways. My resume, my studies of interest, even the women I have dated, all seem scattered and misdirected. Compare this to the lawyer, the doctor, the accountant you know. They may have walked out of the womb at a steady pace, knowing full well what their destiny was and moving towards it. Their origin, unlike Syd and I, was stable and assured. When asked when they knew they wanted to get into law or medicine, they will confidently say, “I knew when I was in preschool.” Or, if pressed for the truth, they might admit, “I knew after I took a general biology class in college, so I changed my major and haven’t looked back since.”
Let’s step aside from the people we know, though. Instead, let’s discuss superheroes. Charles Hatfield in The Superhero Reader writes,
Almost all superheroes have an origin story: a bedrock account of the transformative events that set the protagonist apart from ordinary humanity. If not a prerequisite for the superhero genre, the origin… is certainly a prominent and popular trope that recurs so frequently as to offer clues to the nature of this narrative tradition. To read stories about destroyed worlds, murdered parents, genetic mutations, and mysterious power-giving wizards is to realize the degree to which the superhero genre is about transformation, about identity, about difference, and about the tension between psychological rigidity and a flexible and fluid sense of human nature. … When surveying the superhero genre, preliminary questions often turn to the problem of roots.
What makes Batman, well, Batman? Yes, the mask. Yes, the cape. The inventions. The simple symbol of a bat on his chest. But what else? What are the staples of the Batman story that everyone knows and can agree on? The shooting. When the Wayne family is shot in the streets of Gotham, Batman is born. When Krypton is destroyed, Superman finds a home on Earth. The death of Gwen Stacy “kills” the young and directionless Peter Parker who, until now, has been dabbling in the superhero gig. It is here, in these corners of tragedy, that our heroes find the strength to “begin again” and, at least in broad strokes, paint over the life they have lived thus far and design something new for themselves. Perhaps this is why so few heroines were depicted during the Fifties and Sixties. Perhaps this is why comic books had such a difficult time with heroes of color until the Nineties. Discussions of gender or race in America must address challenges, setbacks, violence, and oppression that is too complex and winding to publicly open up. Their origins demand too much from the collective attempt at dialogue, too much ownership of oppression, and so we scramble for things we can agree on – points in the narrative, the branches instead of the root.
Recently, I shared Maya Angelou’s poem Human Family with my writing classes. For two of the classes, I knew the topics of race and identity were going to appear regularly in our readings and I wanted to assure everyone from the outset that, no matter how difficult our conversations might get in the coming weeks, we were going to remain family. I wanted us to have that as an anchor. Some students have, as I expected, tried to evade race and identity in their carefully and cautiously phrased opinions in class. Some have wanted to start each conversation with a discussion of the Civil Rights Era. And some, feeling that Angelou had it wrong, have come to recognize, if not even directly state, that they have no interest in sharing a story with someone of a different race or background. There is, they feel, no shared experience. No thread of plot that unites across race, or gender, or identity. And these students, I observe, still make articulate writers even if their personal essays indicate feelings of loneliness, isolation, and disconnected malaise. I remind myself, this is a snapshot of humanity. We may aspire to a common origin, say the well-intentioned pledge that we are One Nation, Under God, or make the more practical appeal to evolution, but in the end there will be many who reject these threads. Their origin, they insist, is self-made. Like the rare gods and goddesses of mythology, they insist that they have sprung forth with divine uniqueness. They have nothing in common with colleagues or classmates. Their pains are too great, their experiences too sharp, to be able to relate to another. They shrug off the narrative of a common origin, a common experience, which could potentially unite them to another. At a loss for explanation, they insist, “I’m just different. I don’t know how or why. I just am.”
Hannah Tinti, author of The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley that we very often do not know the true origins of our heroes and heroines. Her titular character, Samuel Hawley, is a rugged, gun-toting single father with 12 bullet scars, inspired by the 12 labors that Hercules performed as penance for murdering his family. Still, “There are dark stories behind heroes, terrible things they have to do to accomplish their goals.” The novel shuttles across time, giving glimpses of Hawley and his daughter, Loo, dropping familiar objects (a pair of lace gloves, a bearskin rug, a troubled friend) into both father and daughter’s stories, reminding us that we inherit a great deal from the past. “Our lives can repeat,” Tinti says. And the question is, when we connect those experiences and points of time, “What pushes people in one direction or another, to give in to that animalistic side? There’s a teetering on the edge.”
Not all heroes have a clearly defined origin story. Villains either. Their stories take leaps, sporadically lurching forward. To have an “origin” insists a sequence of time. A cause and effect. An explanation. Some experiences are too transcendent to define and explain. They just are. And some, as I am sure many of us know too well, are so painful that they reside only in memory and never shared. While it adds a cloud of mystery, the truth and reality of that origin is too painful to bring to light. Some roots are buried deep.
Dr. Robin Rosenburg, author of several books on the psychology of superheroes, breaks origin stories into three primary categories: trauma, destiny, and chance. “Part of what I focus on is people rewriting their origin story,” Rosenburg says, recognizing that there are multiple “reboots” as we enter different stages of the life cycle and as we come to understand ourselves in new ways. She notes a difference between the origin of power and the origin of mission, or vision. “The super is the power and the hero is the mission.” Think of the Incredible Hulk or Spiderman – both heroes are in the wrong place at the wrong time and, to their surprise, find themselves with unanticipated powers. Their powers come through chance. Like a Freudian retelling of the Frankenstein story, Banner/Hulk must overcome the frustration of chance to do what is right and good. “Starting from scratch with your origin story is first, figuring out your power. Once you have a sense of what your powers and talents are, you can then decide how you want to use them. It gives people an opportunity to reboot, if you will.” But as Dr. Rosenburg points out, the retelling of Spiderman’s origins from chance (as told in the comics and the original Spiderman trilogy) to destiny in the Amazing Spiderman makes him a decidedly different character.
The idea of retelling an origin became personalized earlier this year. I was in a relationship with someone who I loved and trusted very much when the holidays began to cause a great deal of friction between us. Searching for understanding, I began to read up again on Attachment Theory, which proposes that individuals seek out romantic partners based on how relationships were modeled to them in infancy, or how the brain was wired in infancy to understand love. Without digging too deep into specifics, I’m sure you can already see a difference of opinion on the horizon. While I felt that there was some gravity to this theory, my partner was dismissive of it at the time. Was what happened in the past simply that – the past? Or were we living out the consequences, even in tiny ways, of triggers we had been holding onto since infancy? Put another way, could we simply “change” our origin story by selective memory? If Bruce Wayne chose to grow up and “get over” the murder of his parents, would he still have become Batman? If Bruce Banner had not been a scientist but instead, say – and let’s not go too far off the mark here – a graduate student instead, on the right trajectory but without the wisdom and experience, would he have been able to hold the incredible power of the Hulk? A well defined origin story, one refined through decades of retelling, ensures consistency even amidst later transformative experiences. Professor Ben Saunders of Oregon University says, “It’s a sign of relative psychological health that you can produce a narrative of how you got from A to B. But it also means that we are very good at rewriting history and telling our stories in self-aggrandizing ways and having heroes and villains in our own origin stories. That’s the temptation of narrative, to write things that suit our sense of outcome better.”
Some characters defy expectation and suffer no wrongdoing before they take up their mantle. Tellingly, these characters are not as interesting. It was always their destiny to be heroic. Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, for instance, are already heroes when we discover their origin. Hal Jordan is a test pilot who has served his country. Wonder Woman is a demigoddess before she leaves Themyscira. Without an origin that thrusts them forward, this underdevelopment makes these characters inaccessible and may explain why tellings of the Superman story that focus on his Kryptonian heritage without the trauma of loss fall flat with audience. Though a well known character, Superman languishes in the pantheon while Batman, who remains focused on the traumatic death of his parents, remains popular. But we can’t cast those destined for greatness aside as though their story is fruitless. Instead, we must look not for the origin of power, but the origin of purpose. With Batman, we know that “Batman” is born when the Wayne family dies. This, I offer, is not the origin of power. It will take years for Bruce, having survived his parent’s death, to use a vast fortune to better his mind and body and eventually develop the technology to fight crime, developing his origin of power. What is born that fateful night in Gotham is not power, but purpose. “Little boy Bruce” dies with his parents and, like a phoenix, Batman emerges with purpose and vision to fight crime and set Gotham right.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell refers to this difference between origin of power and origin of purpose as the Call to Adventure in his narrative framework, the Hero(ine)’s Journey. The journey is neatly divided into the following: separation, initiation, and return. Without rehashing what Campbell himself explained so wonderfully in his Hero With a Thousand Faces, we know heroes and heroines are born. Their existence presupposes birth. Kal-El (who will become Clark Kent and, later, Superman) has a couple of origins – the destruction of Krypton, the jettison of a bassinet ship from the dying planet to Earth, the moment when he decides to stop hiding his abilities and use them for good, the moment he dons the costume, his arrival in Metropolis under his now “secret identity” of Clark Kent, and so on. What defines him, more than his Kryptonian origins, is the acceptance of the call to adventure, or we might say the definition of purpose. What Campbell insinuates is that power often arrives without effort – some are born gifted, some inherit it, some are given power by gods and goddesses for living their life in such a way as to capture the attention of a deity. Whatever the case, power comes but purpose is elusive. And there’s a reason why. Drs. Alex Romagnoli and Gian S. Pagnucci, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, discuss in their book Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature “the nature of superhero origin stories and how the writing of these origin stories helps make superhero narratives a unique literary genre.” They write, “Superheroes get very complicated when it comes to their histories, but one part of their stories remains forever constant and important. Even more than ‘death’ stories, crossovers, event stories, and attire changes, origin stories are the core of superheroes’ existences. Origins not only reflect the sociohistorical contexts in which heroes were created, but they also reflect a culture’s understanding of what makes superheroes storytelling unique vehicles.”
Coming back to that discussion with my partner: We can never move too far away from the experiences that shaped us. Yes, we might forgive or, by recognizing where patterns of behavior originate, we can loosen some knots and do better going forward. But we remain shaped by those experiences. Not everyone feels the same. Or, perhaps more accurately, many individuals resist that claim, preferring to think that they can overcome, outgrow, and get past trauma until the very residue no longer touches them. They are, they claim, self-made, the embodiment of Modern Americana. They want their origins to be clean and precise – to have always been the way they are, to have always been the hero of the story. But with each generation, the mores and values of society change. Corporate raiding, once unthinkable, became an exercise in power during the Eighties with antiheroes like Gordon Gecko, even the quiet and lovable Edward Lewis in Pretty Woman. This culture also galvanized the “rebirth” of hard-right villains like Lex Luthor. The might of power is an old trick, the purposes may change. When Batman first appeared in comics, he was a colorful, comedic hero with youthful sidekicks. Again, by the Eighties, he had become a masked vigilante with dead and disillusioned sidekicks. The experienced, battle-weary, emotionally stunted individual who actually stood up for something (legality be damned!) was what was considered heroic. Perhaps this exposes the fragility of our origins – that, were it not for one or two nasty bits, we might have been different.
In 1990, I was introduced to comicbooks. I was in fourth grade and, if I recall correctly, my neighbor Samuel Macaluso brought his collection of hero cards to the playground. I was hooked. As they say of addiction, “you don’t find your addiction. It finds you.” For the next decade, I read everything I could get my hands on that involved the X-men. I collected the cards, the action figures, religiously watched the Saturday cartoon, begged and bargained with my parents to attend conventions while I read, re-read, then read again my growing collection of comic books. While a younger generation would grow up praying for their letter to Hogwarts, I went to bed each night years before Rowling put pen to paper, begging God and the universe that my latent superpowers would emerge and set me apart. But that prayer was never answered. Instead, with the gift of hindsight, I am grateful to Jim Lee and Chris Claremont as well as the other writers and artists who helped me navigate my parents divorce, the abuse of the man who would become my stepfather, and my little brother’s diagnosis of Autism. Each step of the journey further tempered me, creating a muddled “origin” that I refer to as “All That Happened.” It was from these events that my identity was forged, though, if I am honest, it would take time for me to apply that identity to anything – to have a vision or purpose. Like the mutants in the comic series, I may have been destined for something but their appearance was entirely up to chance and trauma. How I grew into it, the base of origin and personality, gave guidance to those events so that, while chaotic, my life was not consumed by that chaos.
Tinti is right when she notes that some people are “nudged” toward their animalistic side. Might we suppose that the alternative, the “ideal” that society might agree on, is less primal? Softer? Copacetically “safe” and “tame”? As I tell my students, such characters are not as interesting. The familiar quotidian, the “safe” character prescribed by society, makes all the right decisions with respect to all relevant second-tier characters like family members and coworkers. They are altruistic and, if not happy, taking the necessary steps to remedy their distress. They are the characters to whom nothing interesting happens and for whom all knots untangle gently. Their ropes are never cut. Their children, if they suffer violence at all, experience suffering because of “unsafe” choices they have made.
Our origins, then, must come from something other than the safe and mundane. Our origins must be animalistic. We must endure suffering and decide for ourselves who we are to become . We must find that sense of purpose so that, whatever may come, we know who and what we are. Between the close of World War I and the close of World War II, there were an estimated 700 characters who appeared in the pages of Marvel, DC Comics, and smaller comic companies. Those characters who survived this overabundance all endured suffering. Even “safe” and comedic characters like Archie, Betty, and Veronica have traces of the tragic on them. Sabrina the Teenage Witch goes to live with her aunts after an accident takes place. Are we not to assume that her parents died? Where are the parents of these funny, affable cartoons? Or what of the Disney properties – there is always a gap, isn’t there? A missing parent, a loss, a traumatic event? These tragedies serve as an origin story.
I knew how deeply, madly in love I was when my partner left me and their absence drove me to despair. The loss of them tore me down, even after I thought I could never access that place. In fact, whenever I close my eyes, I see this one shot from the film RKO 281 where the director takes an ax and jackhammer to the floor just so he can get the proper angle. That is how I knew how deeply in love I was – I had to take a jackhammer to the floor of my mind and heart just so I could express how low the loss of that love really affected me. That lowered space was, in a sense, an origin story for something new. I imagine the same must be true of you also. Think of your own stories. You knew what you needed to do only after you had lost everything. You hit rock bottom and sought treatment. It was when your parent died that you recognized you needed to be a better parent yourself. This is, it seems, the only sure way for purpose to become clarified – the testing of our ideals against our limits. Very much like the moment our love of a partner is tested, we can only recognize our purpose when there is a transformation, something that finally and irrevocably sets us apart.
That is not a small thing, recognizing our purpose. Like the titular Rick of Rick and Morty, knowing one’s purpose may bring about manic depression or productivity – we won’t know until we are there. For others (or at least this is how the superhero stories are meant to encourage us) knowing our purpose may allow us to endure life with a focused narrative. As Dr. Rosenburg highlights, we return to those origins every time we encounter a challenging part of life. It is not the events that compel us towards altruism or animalism, but the narratives we tell ourselves about them.