Frontloading origins

Reading The Devil You Know reminds me of the old comics complaint that origin stories are rarely satisfactory
The London-centered novel by Mike Carey (better known for comics work including Lucifer and Unwritten) is set in a familiar urban-fantasy milieu: The dead rise, hauntings are common and exorcism is a steady business. The protagonist is a retired freelance exorcist who reluctantly takes a job to pay the bills only to discover (surprise!) there’s more going on than he was told.
Overall, it struck me as one of those books that would have been a great read back in the days when fantasy novels usually ran about 60,000 words and a story the length of Lord of the Rings was mindbogglingly humongous. The story isn’t bad but there just isn’t enough of it; we spend far too much time on the London setting and the exorcist world and none of it seemed fresh or pertinent enough (the book isn’t really about the setting, it’s about Felix’s returning to the job he knows).
But another thing that annoyed me was that it felt like Carey was trying very consciously to put all the pieces in place for the series to follow: One enemy, one dangerous ally, his friends, etc. It didn’t feel as forced as Sandman Slim, where the last 30 pages served no purpose other than set-up, but it still annoyed me.
But of course, that’s part of the problem of origins. The opening of any series has to introduce the protagonist, establish that he’s the sort of person who might have more adventures, establish the setting and (for a fantasy) establish the premise. And on top of that tell a story too. And on top of that make the whole mix interesting enough people come back for more.
Even so, I don’t think you have to frontload everything into the first story: All your concepts, key players, romantic interests, etc. If the story’s good enough, you can get by with less and introduce more stuff later. Maybe sometimes, the story works better that way.
I think the same tendency comes into play in comic books——not so much in the original origins, but whenever they’re retold or adapted.
In Spider-Man, for example, the Green Goblin didn’t show up until #14. Nevertheless, the retold origin in the last movie series, the Ultimate Spider-Man series and John Byrne’s origin mini-series all bring the Goblin in from the start, now that he’s recognized as Spidey’s archfoe.
Tim Burton’s Batman story likewise incorporates the Joker into Batman’s origin. Geoff Johns’ retelling of Green Lantern’s origin brings in Sinestro and the Guardians from the start, as did the recent movie.
This makes a certain amount of sense … but sometimes it sucks. I can understand bringing in Sinestro, but working Hector Hammond and Black Hand into Hal’s origin is just too much (even given Black Hand was a set-up for his role in the Blackest Night event).
Sometimes it may be better not to show all the cards at once. In the original GL stories, it was three or four issues before we learned about the Guardians, and another half-dozen before Hal Jordan learned about them. Having them recruit him for training as soon as he gets the ring makes more sense, but I still think the original is more entertaining.
Of course, if you don’t show enough cards, there may not be anyone interested in seeing what else is in your hands.
But even so, I think there’s something to be said for holding a few aces back.


Filed under Reading, Writing

2 responses to “Frontloading origins

  1. Pingback: So why don’t I do more series? « Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Do we need origins? « Fraser Sherman's Blog

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