by Matthew Jent
Google started in a garage, with a remote control door, before becoming a billion-dollar company that invented a new verb. Just Google it!
Nike began as Blue Ribbon Sports, with co-founder Bill Bowerman ripping apart running shoes to find out how to make them lighter, faster and better.
The Upton Machine Company began with an order of 100 electric ringer-washers, all of which broke down—and all of which Lou Upton replaced at no cost to the customer. One hundred years later, the Upton Machine Company is called Whirlpool Corporation, the largest manufacturer of home appliances in the world.
Origin stories! Beginnings are built to grab our attention, and whether it’s a corporate history or the adventures of Superman, they tend to include portents of the future, moments of mythological significance and unforgettable characters. But a lot of “About Us” websites will stop there, or jump from the beginning to the present day, whether that founding story was five years ago, five decades ago or at the turn of the last century. And that misses a big opportunity to tell a compelling story, to clients, customers and employees.
DC Comics, the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern, have been in the news lately with a publishing initiative called “The New 52,” which restarts all of their titles at new #1 issues and retells origin stories for their characters, some of whom have histories stretching back more than 70 years. This reboot is proving successful, at least in the short term. Orders for DC’s flagship title, Justice League #1, topped more than 200,000 issues in August, while July pre-reboot issue barely broke 43,000. And while the stated goal of co-publishers Geoff Johns and Jim Lee (who are also the creative team behind Justice League) is to bring in new readers, this isn’t a new approach for DC. Once or twice a decade they restart their characters and go back to the beginning. In 1986, Superman was relaunched with a new #1 in the wake of the everything-is-different Crisis on Infinite Earths series, and in 2004 they gave all of their titles “zero” issues, rebooting their origins. Just five years ago they published a weekly series called 52—this was the old 52, now replaced, I suppose—in which their major characters were given updated origins. It’s tempting to revisit those stories that we know so well—Superman sent from Krypton as a baby, Batman wrestling with the ghosts of his parents—but in doing so, and in doing so over and over again, DC Comics is leaving unanswered the most compelling storytelling question:
What happens next?
Characters like Superman and Batman were successful for decades because their audiences were clamoring for the next adventure, not waiting to relive the last one over and over again. Retelling a story isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not a new fad—the Odyssey is the Aeneid is O Brother, Where Art Thou? after all—but the trick lies in finding new things to illuminate in a story twice told, and after you’ve done that, to make your story’s second act even more exciting than the first. It can be fun to hear a friend tell a well-loved anecdote for the twentieth time, but nothing beats the thrill of learning the answer to
The reason DC Comics restarts their stories every few years is because the sales figures habitually drift back down in the wake of the reboot. In the past, comic books solved this problem by making stories that were All-New, All-Different, moving their stories and characters into unknown territory.
Stories aren’t meant to stand still. Google moved out of that garage and revolutionized keyword advertising. Nike’s logo became an icon, spread by word of foot. And Whirlpool struggled to find its place in the mid-20th century before teaming up with NASA’s Gemini program—and then becoming a staple in nearly every home in the country. But if all you know about your company is how it got started—if that’s the only story you tell—you’re failing to move forward and failing to answer that most compelling question:
What happens next?
(Photo: Then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama posing next to a statue of Superman in Metropolis, IL, in 2006. From the United States Senate office of Sen. Barack Obama)