What We Talk About When We Talk About Batman

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Here’s a story, one I often tell: when I left my boyfriend Paul, I was strong, telling him I deserved better. I was the Girl Who Took No Shit. Not long after, I met my current boyfriend Mike, who is good and loyal and true, all of the things Paul wasn’t, and I found him because, as Toni Morrison says, I finally gave up the shit that weighed me down. This is my origin story, the trauma before the triumph; once I was lost, but now, I am found.

How did any of us get where we are? It’s the beating heart inside every question we ask each other. Where are you from? What brought you here? Were you close with your family growing up? It’s why “Never Have I Ever” is everyone’s favorite card to pull during the drinking game “Kings”: put your hands up, everyone, and tell us what you’ve done. Tell us who you are. We crave origin stories because we are driven to understand each other—because that is the work we must do in order to understand ourselves.

In comic book origin stories, there are three types of life-altering experiences: trauma, destiny, and chance.

So, the first: trauma.

Bruce Wayne became Batman the night he witnessed his parents’ murders, even though he didn’t adopt the name or discover the Bat Cave or don his disguise until much later. That night, the seed of injustice was planted in him, and through his grappling with that trauma, he took up his cause.

The second experience: destiny.

Being born to greatness is a double-edged sword; we all crave that kind of ordained meaning, to some degree, but rarely do we agree to sign on for the consequences that come with it. Buffy Summers didn’t want her life to revolve around the undead. Other, more pressing matters were at hand: she was trying to survive high school, to get laid. But, as we know, destiny doesn’t care about your crush, or your after-prom plans. Destiny simply demands of you what must be done.

And finally, the third: chance.

There’s no reason why that radioactive spider bit Peter Parker. The spider didn’t have motive, just instinct. It bit the first hand it saw, and a superhero was born. It wasn’t Peter Parker’s choice, or his destiny, but it was still his fate.

In her Smithsonian Magazine article, clinical psychologist Dr. Robin Rosenberg states “at their best, superhero origin stories inspire us and provide models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for good purpose.” They are the blueprints by which we become our own heroes: how to conquer a debilitating depression, how to live side-by-side with our grief, how to help someone else. We ask origin stories to tell us we can be better, stronger people. Through their own struggles and triumphs, our heroes answer us, again and again—yes, it’s true.

One detail about origin stories is we often see them—the whole truth of them—only after we meet our hero. Batman first appeared in DC Comics’ Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), but his origin wasn’t introduced until Detective Comics #33 (November 1939). Years after the original comics, there were films, then remakes of the films, and then remakes of the remakes. In September 2014, FOX premiered its so-far successful TV origin series Gotham, about Bruce Wayne and crew’s beginnings. This backtracking isn’t unusual with comics and origin stories, according to Rosenberg; in fact, it even mirrors our own experiences. “We, in real life, often don’t find out people’s origin stories right when we first meet them. It’s not a linear process. You get to know someone at work, as they are, and then as you get closer to them you get to find out their origin story.”

It’s this layering, I think, that makes origin stories and prequels so appealing. It’s why VH1 is still airing Behind the Music episodes, eighteen years later. It’s why we read autobiographies of politicians and celebrities, why Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, an imagined history of Norma Jeane Mortenson transformed into Marilyn Monroe, is a bestselling novel, a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist. It turns the people we put on pedestals back into people. Only once we have discovered the language others use to explain their origins can we tell the stories about ourselves.

So here’s my real origin story, the version you might get several issues in, or maybe after a few drinks during a “Kings” game once the “Never Have I Ever” card was drawn: I screamed and cried when I found out Paul had cheated on me, but I didn’t leave him for another year and a half. He wasn’t really my boyfriend, per se; we danced around that title, him staunchly opposing it, me hoping I’d convince him to love me by being the “cool girl,” the one who didn’t really care. When he cheated on me, I turned around and slept with the first guy I could find, then rubbed it in his face. I waited until we were back together, his body on top of mine, before I whispered in his ear who I’d been with not long before. It has been almost seven years since that day but my regret over how I treated another human being, over how I treated myself, runs fresh through me. We wounded each other, and it took me a long time to treat myself with value and respect, and longer still to demand that of others. The day I told him I was done, I cried again, because I knew I had to do it but I didn’t feel like I could.

Trauma, destiny, chance. I don’t know which of those categories my origin story falls under, but it doesn’t really matter. Here’s the story: I got hurt, I got brave, I did what had to be done even though I didn’t want to do it. I was the Girl Who Took No Shit, but only after being the Girl Who Took A Whole Lot of Shit first. Things were hard, and then they got better. Things continue to be hard, but they always get better. That’s what origin stories do: they remind us that before the man in the cape, there was a boy comforted by a young detective, facing an uncertain, seemingly insurmountable future. Before the young woman with the wooden stake, there was a girl nervous for her first day at a new school. Before the full-body suit was just an orphaned boy fighting schoolyard bullies. It’s not so far beneath each hero’s façade that we’ll find the exposed, vulnerable flesh of their story, the reasons why, and though our own may not be so neatly arraigned between gridded, illustrated squares, theirs is enough of a reminder that we, too, can discover our own extraordinary lives.

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