That Fateful Day That Would Change His Life Forever!

Blame Bob Kane.

It’s the cornerstone of the Batman mythos–young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parent’s death at the hands of a criminal and that one events shapes his entire life.  It’s an event that virtually every retelling of the Batman story has to include, with varying degrees of success.  (Interestingly enough, both Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan found it necessary to tie the original killing into the main storyline of their films.)

Perhaps the most insightful story written on the thesis is Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which posits a similar origin for the enigmatic Joker, and asks some disturbing questions  about how we choose to respond to life changing events.

I know that I am blaspheming against one of the most revered canons of American popular culture when I say this, but the Batman origin story is sloppy, lazy writing.

Bob Kane and the rest of the writing staff at DC comics can, perhaps, be forgiven for cutting some corners with their characterization–after all, they were producing a product designed to be heavy on action and light on introspection.  As a comic book character pitch, “man becomes crimefighter to avenge the deaths of his parents” works.

Unfortunately, the popularity of Batman as a cultural icon inspires writers to take the same shortcut, and in a book intended for an adult audience, it doesn’t work.

I’m sorry, but people’s lives aren’t really formed by a single incident, traumatic as it may be.  Yes, traumatic incidents do leave marks on a person, physically and psychologically, and I don’t mean to in any way minimize the experiences of those who have endured violence in their lives.

What I do mean to say is that I see too many writers taking the easy way out when writing motivations for their characters.  Instead of taking the time to get inside their character’s heads and see the world from another perspective, they just invent a tragic backstory and use it to explain everything.  (In the recent film Wreck-It Ralph that trope is lampooned brilliantly in the character of Sargent Calhoun.)

It’s a cheat, and it’s not realistic.  People’s personalities are formed over time, by repeated events.  Post-traumatic stress is a reaction to long term immersion in an environment that causes unbearable anxiety–not just one incident.  Characters, to be real, are the product of all the things that have happened to them, the good and the bad.  Some incidents leave more of an impression than others, but it’s the sum of our lives that shapes who we are.

Films, I’ll admit, are the worst.  We are introduced to a character who is driven and obsessed, and then we see The Fateful Day That Changed His Life Forever in a flashback, and then at the finale he must overcome the memory of his trauma in order to save the day.

Novelists, however, sometimes do it, too.  There is no excuse for it in a novel.  We have the space to explore a character in detail, we can use internal monologue, multiple flashbacks, present the character’s life as a whole, not just a series of plot points.

Something to consider.

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to That Fateful Day That Would Change His Life Forever!

  1. I agree. Although, I can see a type of character that such a ‘one event’ life change can work for. I can see a character driven by simple revenge as one of self-destruction and falling into the abyss. A trick that comic book writers use is a reboot of the series or having someone else take up the mantel.

  2. I do think that it’s actually a series of events that change Bruce to Batman now. It just depends on what stories you’re looking at. The first incident is the death of his parents. The adoption of the bat persona is another event as he wasn’t always Batman. I think the most telling factor is that he continues to be Batman, because he feels he has to do it. By some measure, he helped create the monsters that he faces every day and that spirals him down deeper into not getting away from the persona. This is something that is discussed in “The Dark Knight Returns” by Frank Miller, who I feel writes some of the best dark comicbook material. He becomes Batman again, years after retirement, because there’s no one that can fight the crime of Gotham as well as he can, so he seems to believe. When he resurfaces, the Joker resurfaces as well. It’s an endless cycle and it’s one of my favorites really.

    Batman: No more! All the people I’ve murdered… by letting you live.
    Joker: I never kept count.
    Batman: I did!
    Joker: I know. And I love you for it.

    They’re both monsters in their own way. It’s just one plays the hero and the other the villain. While his origins are generic and bland, his evolution from detective to superhero have been a great thing to watch.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      I agree, many writers–Miller chief among them, particularly in “Year One”–have worked to bring depth to the characters. I think that rather underlines the point that I am making, they recognize that Kane’s original origin doesn’t fully satisfy.

      • Year One was a wonderful retelling of his evolution into Batman. It also is the “second event” I referenced that creates the Batman persona: the bat crashing through his window. It helps flesh out the reasons behind his descent into paranoia and madness.

        Other authors digging into the story and adding to the Batman mythos have helped shaped a really cheesy story into something that people will follow for years to come. Of all the superheroes we see now, Batman is probably the most recognizable to anyone with even a sliver of interest. That has got to be a telling sign of how he connects with everyone, even with his lazy history.

      • …And I realize that I’ve completely opened my geekiness to the world with all the information I’ve thrown around on Batman alone. I have only, in the last ten years or so, really gotten deep into comics and comic book lore. I love it.

  3. peggyplee says:

    Reblogged this on SmileyFaces and commented:
    Would love to hear your thoughts on this one…

  4. l0rdraven says:

    I totally agree, there might be an event that pushes them “over the edge” but it is not that event alone. It is sloppy writing to ignore those straws that build to the breaking point where the character is plunged into the torment they attempt to defeat.

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