Dead Parents and Super-Hero Origins

One last WonderCon post!

At the Comic Arts Conference panel on super-hero origins, James Robinson and Steve Englehart agreed that one of the key elements to a good origin is that it includes the hero’s motivation and a hook that readers can relate to. Robinson cited the Silver-Age Flash as missing that compelling motivation: Okay, he put on a costume to fight crime, but why? Why keep going?

Robinson also talked about why so many heroes have dead parents in their past: the fear of losing a parent is something that any reader can relate to. In fact, when someone asked later in the panel how one could create a good origin, Englehart flippantly replied, “Kill their parents?”

Later in the discussion, the moderator asked about retelling origins. Robinson said he was always wary of destroying what was already there, and preferred to try to add new detail around what already works. He cited Geoff Johns’ revised origin for Barry Allen, in which his mother is killed and his father framed for it, as a successful example.

Personally I disagree. It drastically alters the character’s history, and raises questions of why his history hasn’t changed in other ways, but most importantly, it introduces a cliche that wasn’t present in the original version of the story. If you’re going to revise a story, it seems better to remove overused elements than add them.

The same weekend, the New York Times published an article on the role of parents in young-adult fiction: traditionally, the role of a hero’s parents in classic literature was to die, or at least get out of the way, forcing the protagonist into his journey of self-discovery: the orphan’s “triumphant rise.” (via Neil Gaiman)

Yeah, writers have been using this trope for a long time.


25 thoughts on “Dead Parents and Super-Hero Origins

  1. Wally East

    Sometimes, people fight crime because it’s the right thing to do. Doing the right thing for no other reason than it being the right thing is heroic.

    1. I.Strange

      No offense, but I really hate that meme. “Doing the right thing for no other reason than it being the right thing” is an overgeneralizing tautology–logically equivalent to “just because.” Moreover, you can’t define a character by what DIDN’T happen to him, by what DIDN’T motivate. People are treating “for no other reason” like it’s an essential character beat, but it’s meaningless. I don’t get it.

      1. Xian

        That’s entirely wrong. You CAN define a character by what DIDN’T happen to him. ESPECIALLY in contrast to the Big 7. The thing that made Barry stand out and act as our voice as chairman of the JLA was his normalcy. A regular guy who DIDN’T have his parents die, wasn’t an orphan, an alien, a billionaire, a princess, etc. was ordering Superman and Batman around. Being motivated by an ordinary up-bringing and one’s own initiative both distinguishes Barry from the JLA and relates him better to the audience who often do good not out of some unresolved mental/emotional defect but the same rich and subtle stuff that makes for good modern stories.

        It’s not a vacuum. It’s shorthand for all the rich characterization that goes into making a “regular” guy which has been completely up-ended by relying on a cheap tragic-past shortcut.

        1. I.Strange

          This is my point. You can’t define Barry Allen as NOT-Batman, NOT-Superman, NOT-Martian Manhunter, NOT-Wonder Woman. That’s NOT a characterization.

          And the “normalcy” idea falls apart when you consider the extraordinary life he’s lived. He died. He resurrected. He sired a super-family in the 30th century with his orphaned 30th century wife. People are drawing an imaginary line across his backstory saying “No, no, Barry Allen has to be normal.” Why? In every other respect, he’s lived fantastically.

          1. Xian

            That’s not a point that’s a tautology. Every “not” you prattle off is a whole body of characterization. He’s not paranoid. He’s not alien. He’s not magical. That IS characterization, especially when enforced by writing that takes it seriously and enriches that. You pretend the idea of “foils” is not a literary staple when it’s exactly what makes the World’s Finest so dynamic and each of the DCU’s families- potentially- rich in characterization.

            And again you’re equivocating origins with motivations which undermines the rest of your point. You can have a “normal” upbringing, preserve the traditional origin, and a fantastic life. That’s unique to Barry, realistic, and in no way “falls apart”… in fact, you’ve completely failed to show how it is in any way impossible or implausible, the only thing you’ve suggested is that it allows for the hackneyed addition of cliche elements which would’ve worked just as well under the traditional origin.

            Frankly, you’ve yet to make the case contrasted against the traditional origin when sustained more than 30 years worth of stories just fine.

  2. Kyer

    I don’t need motivation to do the right thing. Does this mean that I can never become a superhero…because I can’t relate to the mass of humanity? pshh.

    Now that I think of it…no wonder Wally West’s dad was so put out when Barry turned his kid into a speedster—it was self preservation.

  3. yranigami

    I agree that a change in the characters origin this late into the series can only raise unanswerable questions. Or rather, questions that will either never be adressed directly by the writer or be avoided by editors.
    However, as Kyer stated erroniuosly in the previous panel, Wally was not turned into the Flash by Barry. Wally had a latent metahuman gene that, when sturck by lightning and mixed with the chemicals in Barry’s laboratory, awakened and developed into his powers. Despite the myriad of theories regarding the lightningbolt, IT remains a mystery.
    …And, about Wally’s A-hole Dad; he was a troubled man who married a troubled woman. Wally’s powers only magnified the details of the extent of his (their)personal issues.

  4. West

    Considering what I’ve heard and read about Robinson, I didn’t expect him to cite such an absolutely awful example of his point – regardless of my opinion of the Barry-retcon.

    I still can’t believe that so few seem bothered by the lack of direct consequences to Barry having, effectively, lost both parents.
    .-= West’s latest blog post: Ridin’ Out =-.

      1. I.Strange

        Some of us actually prefer the new backstory. Instead of hokey, watered-down Superman, we get crime drama, time travel, and colorful super-villainy, which are much more appropriate to Barry Allen as a character.

        1. Kelson Post author

          Barry Allen’s origin bears absolutely no resemblance to Superman’s…unless you’re looking at the new origin, in which their lives were both shaped primarily by losing their parents. (Or in Superman’s case, his entire planet…)

          1. I.Strange

            Wholesome rural upbringing, but without the exploded planet. Naturally moral in character, but without the larger-than-life symbolism (Man’s moral potential and whatnot). That’s watered-down Superman.

        2. Xian

          You’re confusing motivations with origins. Superman’s origins begin at infancy and a complete telling encompasses another planet, a biological component, along with a genuine (your use of “hokey” betrays an anti-hero ethic which is complete misunderstanding of Flash) on the farm with the Kents aspect which is barely analogous to Barry’s traditional origin beginning well into the professional life of nearly married adult.

          Only a shallow view of characterization would imagine the two the same much less one watered-down version of another. There would have been tons of storytelling potential in exploring how someone with a life, a job, a fiancee, and a personality reacts to getting life-changing superpowers (contrasted against the gaining of powers during one’s formative years).

          With respect to motivations, Superman, properly written has a much more paternalistic slant to his motivations (needing to hold back) whereas Barry can go all out uninhibited and optimistically. To the extent that there’s any overlap is just fine for a team character… it would be inane to suggest that the whole of the X-Men or Avengers should have completely disparate views on justice. A spectrum, sure, but no one would credible call that “watered down”.

          1. papa zero

            While I don’t share I.Strange’s preference for the murder origin of the hero – his comparison to Superman is relevant insofar as behavioral patterns originate from adapted schemas in our early socialization. This is why Soviet Superman is significant. It’s doubtful Superman lives EVERY moment thinking about the loss of his home planet despite the fact that he has a chance to make a difference here.

            Flash and Superman might have a thing or two to teach us about the golden rule.
            .-= papa zero’s latest blog post: DEAD P.A. added a new photo to the 2010-04-17PompanoBeachFL album. =-.

        3. papa zero

          I can appreciate the notion that you would feel that socialization is inadequate as a gripping character engine for a superhero but Barry Allen was a forensic scientist before the murder – and silver age Flash comics had no shortage of time travel or colorful supervilliany.

          Even with the murder in place – the story arc was brought to a “place of peace” where Barry put the case to rest. Functionally it no longer serves as Barry’s reason for being – and for that matter I don’t know that it was any more convincing than a rubber stamp in justifying why he would become The Flash rather than pursue justice as a police officer hiding his newfound powers… or use them to dole out vengeful justice. This is why that background socialization is necessary to color Barry’s current choices and why he didn’t become something other than what we see.

          Personally, I’m not partial to Flash being the product of victimization as it infers a fatalistic journey.

          Perhaps this part of his history will ultimately unwind in a larger plot wherein he will “fix” the timeline. Or not.
          .-= papa zero’s latest blog post: DEAD P.A. added a new photo to the 2010-04-17PompanoBeachFL album. =-.

  5. papa zero

    Once again we’re talking about character engine. It is my feeling that adding a murdered parent to the equation doesn’t reveal why a character does what he does other than some 2 dimensional causality excuse for story writing (that sounds a bit harsher than I’d like it to). Just because an alien crashlands on earth and asks you to take his job as a spacecop with his dying breath – does that necessitate you take the job… or even feel remotely obligated? Absolutely not.

    If you reduce the singular compelling motivation for Barry Allen to seeking justice for his mother and father – that doesn’t really flesh out his need to be the Flash after he resolves the case in his mind. Once it’s diffused, you are essentially left with a character that has a vocation as a foresnic scientist, red jammies, and a girlfriend. DC has to convince me why he wouldn’t pursue personal gain once stripped of the compelling need for personal justice.

    Ironically, if Barry followed causality to it’s logical conclusion – had he never been struck by lightning, Reverse Flash would never have come to exist and would never had killed his mother. Wouldn’t that motivate him to NOT want to be or ever have been Flash? You are left with a story of fatalism that makes any choice the hero has feel like an illusion. This is precisely the antithesis of the wish fulfillment that a character like Flash provides.

    The truth is that Flash’s “character origin” is (like all of us) the composite of his experiences and decisions long before he was ever struck by lightning. The real challenge to a writer is to address that rather than throwing in something “sexy” like a murdered parent.
    .-= papa zero’s latest blog post: DEAD P.A. added a new photo to the 2010-04-17PompanoBeachFL album. =-.

    1. Jess

      I agree. If Barry now knows that it was the Reverse-Flash that killed his mother, and he did that because he wanted to hurt the Flash, then why wouldn’t he think ‘Well, if I don’t become the flash, all this wont happen’.

      Personally, I havn’t read rebirth yet, as I have yet to read blackest night (live in Australia, and havn’t found it online for a cheap enough price), but I always liked the idea that Barry did what he did because it was the right thing to do. If I got superpowers, I would help the world ‘because I can’. My parents are alive, and thats what they taught me (not that they thought I will ever get superpowers).

      Barry being the only one without some kind of tortured past (as far as I know), to me, made him a necessity. We already have someone whos parents died, a couple of aliens, a princess, etc.

      When Wally West became Kid Flash, Barry guided him and taught him. But why? Before this new past, it was because he saw his potential, and wanted to pass on his beliefs and values. Wally had a hard upbringing, but no dead parents.
      most (if not all) superheroes take on a sidekick because they have had similar experiences. Batman took Robin in simply because he saw himself in Dick when his parents died.

      I’m not saying that this completely changes who Barry is, in terms of morals. But motivation is a big thing. It affects every aspect of a superheroes fight-style, their attitudes towards criminals, towards innocents, and towards their fellow superheroes. With Barry’s past changed, he has had it worse than Batman. Batman had money, a butler, and he knew his parents were good people before they died. Barry was told that his father murdered his mother – so why didn’t he become dark and gritty like Batman?
      Why fix what was never broken?

      1. Hyperion

        Personally, I havn’t read rebirth yet, as I have yet to read blackest night (live in Australia, and havn’t found it online for a cheap enough price)

        There’s no comic shop near your home? Where in Australia do you live? The capital cities have several, and comics usually start selling on Thursday (ie. the date immediately following a listed shipping date) as long as there isn’t a delay in shipping. I got Rebirth #1, 4, 5 and 6 within a few days of release.

        1. Jess

          I live on the Central Coast (NSW). I’ve actually been thinking about driving to Sydney one weekend to go to a comic store. I just can’t justify driving 1.5hrs to my fiance (he doesn’t understand my live for comics). I’m thinking of sending him to a mates one day so I can ‘go shopping’ in Sydney! haha.

  6. EJ

    Except that it’s been made clear that Barry’s parents aren’t supposed to be dead, his origin wasn’t changed on a wim it’s a story point that will be addressed. We know it, he knows it and that is what makes it interesting the fact try and ignore or simply don’t understand that is pretty annoying.

    1. Andrew

      Agreed. And I am hoping that Flashpoint specifically and other upcoming stories that involve corrections/alterations to the time-line will resolve this plot point.

  7. Mbish

    So is he basically saying that he killed Barry’s mother to give him a good origin story?

    If so I would rather have a better reason to do something so drastic to a characters history.
    I am rather glad they did not take the root of ‘doing it for vengeance’. It seems very Barry to do it to understand why, and to become a police scientist to help other and so on.

    But for me Barry was only really dead for a few weeks, months at best. I read infinite crisis and then once I really GOT into comics I wiki’ed stuff to no end and I hear that Barry is alive.
    My not having LIVED Barry dying has made it so that it does not really bother me. I just love the Flash.

    On a totally unrelated subject Super-speed is the best superpower EVER!


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