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Friday, September 23, 2016

What Makes Comic Characters With Mysterious Pasts Fun

In comics some things need to be left a mystery. Such as:

The Phantom Stranger’s origins,

The Joker’s Past,

And Wolverine’s past. 

These days many comic book writers think it’s a good thing to fill in all the details in a character’s backstory. However, sometimes the best story is left to the imagination of the reader. Sometimes a writer leaving things blank allows the reader to tell a better story than anything a writer ever could.

When it comes to certain characters, it’s the mystery behind their backstory that makes them fan favorites. The fact that the reader doesn’t have all the answers is what makes readers keep coming back to read more stories featuring them.

In Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman The Joker is given a name: Jack Napier. However, the comic book character has never been given a name. And that’s really one of the most compelling elements of the character. Since he’s psychotic, there’s no way of ever finding out who the Clown Prince of Crime ever was before he became the Clown Prince of Crime.

Yes, we got snippets of the failed comedian could have been in the canon/noncannon Batman: The Killing Joke. And Batman: Mask of the Phantasm showed us a mobster who killed Andrea Beaumont’s father, but none of those stories don’t give anyone a definitive picture of who The Joker ever was before he became the Joker. Again, since The Joker is psychotic, no one really knows about his past but him. And since he’s crazy, we’ll never know if he’s ever going to tell the truth about that past. That’s what keeps readers coming back for more stories Batman stories featuring him.

One of the things that is planned for DC’s Rebirth is telling us that three men were the Joker. I’d rather have it where The Joker is just a crazy guy who no name and no past. Part of what makes the character great is no one knowing who the man really was before he became the clown prince of crime.

Another character that readers really don’t need to know everything about is DC Comics’ The Phantom Stranger. Part of his character premise is being a literal Stranger.  The Phantom Stranger is supposed to be mysterious individual who observes events in the DC Universe and only comes in to intervene when absolutely necessary. Since he’s a literal stranger on the outskirts of the DC Universe, he doesn’t need an origin. He doesn’t need a past. He just needs to be what he is: A Stranger.

However, that didn’t stop DC Comics from giving The Stranger four different origins back in the late 2000s. And in one of them he’s supposed to be Judas Iscariot. Attempting to answeri that question just sucked the life out of what made the character a compelling one. 

What makes The Phantom Stranger a great character is us NOT knowing who he is or what his mission is regarding the DC Universe. The way I see him, he’s kind of like DC’s answer to Rod Serling, an outside observer watching what transpires in the DC Universe and sees it kind of the way Serling saw things in The Twilight Zone. Before the Neal Adams redsign with the mod turtleneck, chain, and the cloak, The Stranger reminded me of Rod Serling with his black suit, tie, and trenchcoat and I always believed that early issues of the Phantom Stranger were inspired by The Twilight Zone. On the earliest issues of Phantom Stranger Readers are supposed to wonder if he’s a man or if he’s a ghost. We’re not supposed to know who he is, or what his mission is. That’s a question that no writer was ever supposed to answer. And that’s what made the character great.  

Once writers start answering the unanswered questions oftentimes a mysterious character starts to lose their luster. For example, when Wolverine was given an official origin in the early 2000s it sucked the fun out of the character for me. I liked the idea that we didn’t know where the man called Logan came from. When he first made his appearances in the X-men back in the 1970s, we all knew he was over 80 years old, but we didn’t know anything about who he really was. His mind had been tampered with and his memories a jumble. Which led readers to ask: In the past was he a samurai? A government agent? A drifter the government picked up and experimented on? And if he was experimented on by the Weapon X program were his memories even real?

Unfortunately, in the early 2000s We found out his name was James Logan Howlett, and he was around since the 1800s. A story that didn’t really need to be told, but somebody told it anyway. And when they told that story it took a lot out of the Wolverine mythos. What made Wolverine intriguing was the fact that he was a man with a mysterious past filled with unanswered questions. Once writers started filling in the blanks it became a total letdown for many readers.

I’ve written quite a few characters with long backstories filled with unanswered questions. For example Isis is over 2,000 years old. And I haven’t told all the stories related to her past. Yes, she’s mentioned living in Egypt during the Roman Empire. She’s also mentioned living in Japan during the feudal period, along with traveling across Asia to learn different martial arts. And she’s mentioned fighting pirates.

When it comes to E’steem she’s over 4,000 years old. And readers only have learned snippets about her past in Ancient Egypt and in Europe. She’s mentioned past relationships and marriages, and even having children in Isis, The Temptation of John Haynes and E’steem series stories like Faerie Tale, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of the characters’ backstory as a human and a demon.

And when it comes to John Haynes there’s an unanswered question to whether or not he has supernatural powers. I never answered the question to why Lucifer hated him and from his ability to take on the principalities of darkness like demons, vampires and Dracula, there could be more to him than meets the eye.

I could fill in the blanks in these characters’ backstories with in a series of stories, But I’m not gonna tell those tales. Why?

Because I believe that some stories are best left to the readers imagination. I believe if I start filling in the blanks the reader is going to taken away from what they believe to be great about a character. And instead of them forming a connection with the internal traits that make a character great, they’re going to get sucked out of the story and caught up in the minutiae of continuity.

Sometimes the best stories aren’t the ones that a writer tells. They’re the ones we tell ourselves as we fill in the blanks writers left in between their stories. Part of the fun in comics is not knowing every little detail about a character’s life. As we ponder the answers to the questions writers have left unresolved regarding a characters’ past, we’re supposed to imagine what could be coming in the next story where we may or may not get an answer to those questions in the next adventure.


  1. I'd say the Doctor also fits on this list. We really don't need who the Doctor is, except that he is here to help. For a while, it looked like Stephen Moffit was bound and determined to give us a Doctor Who origin (particularly during the last year of Matt Smith and the first year of Capaldi), but I hope they'll start shying away from that with this new season.

  2. That secret origin issue of the Phantom Stranger is one of my favorite comics. Although, in the Phantom Stranger origin you're referring too, I think he was actually suppose to be the Wandering Jew not the Judas, which would make more sense (though I might be mixing the first and second origin up). And, despite him having four origins, generally writers defer to Alan Moore, and make the Stranger a fallen angel who neither fought for heaven or hell. Though, I do like that the Stranger's origin is multiple choice.

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  4. They leave less of the future up to imagination. One example is Kandor, thanks to the current regime at DC, the bottled city is doomed to absolute and total bloody annihilation over and over again. Thanks to the reboot process, it will happen again.


  5. Goes to show where the creativity has gone.