Super hero origins are the stories designed to explain to the reader and fan of a given comic book
how the guy in the cape and mask gets to do all these neato things. Usually a comic book writer
would start out by coming up with a neat idea for a character. The origin is figured out later, and can also be referred to as the back story
. After imagining a guy who can fly and shoot lasers out of his butt, or whatever, the writer asks himself "okay now how did this guy get these powers?"
and that becomes the super hero's origin.
You would think there were as many distinct forms of origin as there are super heroes, and there are many variations, but (with few exceptions) they all work based on simple, general ideas. Some origins are a combination of these ideas, but there's always one that is dominant. The dominant question is where did the hero come from? And the recessive question is where did his powers come from?
- mythology - A character who comes from mythology is rarely ever a god, even though he may exhibit god-like powers. He's from some godlike or celestial place. Though he appears human and other characters may assume him human, at birth this character was uniquely different from you and me. Characters who come from any place which isn't known in the real world will fall in this category. By the way this includes modern myths like life on other planets. Though we may believe that to be a possibility, there's no conclusive evidence yet.
- external - A character who is just a normal joe like you or me, but his abilities come from some object or event which was extraordinary. His powers may come from his suit, or a mask, or some kind of jewelery like a bracelet or a ring, and he is just a regular guy without that object. Or his powers may have come from radiation that affected his genetic structure and changed him forever. Still, the origin of his powers came from external forces.
- mutant - A character who is a human being born with a genetic mutation or other endowment naturally internal to themselves falls in this category. Some mutations are obvious at birth, but others don't manifest themselves until the character reaches puberty, or experiences a traumatic experience that brings out the character's powers prematurely. Some characters in comic books were mutated by external means, and are a combination of these two ideas. However, the dominating idea behind their origin would be listed as external in nature.
Here's a partial listing of fictional super heroes
and how they acquired their powers.
- Superman : Kal-El came from another planet which had a heavier gravity and a red sun. Though Clark Kent happens to look like a human being, his genetic structure is different and works like a solar battery under Earth's yellow sun. Since we still don't have conclusive evidence that there's alien life on other planets which looks like Christopher Reeve, old Supes falls into the mythology category.
- Batman : Bruce Wayne was born into a wealthy family who died when he was young so to avenge their deaths he used all his money to create gimmicks and gadgets and also honed his body into a muscular and dextrous fighting machine. He's theoretically the height of human perfection, and what any human being could successfully aspire to be if they were totally insane about it. In real life, they call guys like this Mister Universe or something, only without the gadgets. Bats origin is perhaps the most realistic and believable of all superheroes, and fits in the external category.
- Robin : As Batman's sidekick, Dick Grayson has a similar story to his mentor and guardian Bruce. His parents were circus performers who were murdered by bad guys, and Dick sought vengeance. So he trained under the Batman's wing, until he could kick about as much ass. He later left Batman and became Nightwing. Robin's powers are originated through external means with gadgets and expensive exercise equiptment.
- Spider-man : Peter Parker got bitten by a radioactive spider, which mutated his human DNA, combining it with the now dead arachnid. The theory is if a spider were the size of a human being it'd be pretty strong and adroit. The fact it would also have eight limbs and be fuzzy and gross-looking rarely ever bothered comic book artists. He's a mutant in a way, but he wasn't born with the mutation, so his powers are also external in origin.
- Wonder Woman : Diana Prince was actually Princess Diana from Amazon Island which was a secret place inspired by the legends of Olympus. It's hidden somewhere on Earth and never touched by Man. So naturally all the women there are incredible babes who could kick your ass. Her origins are enmeshed in greek mythology, with a touch of The Little Mermaid tossed in there for good measure.
- Green Lantern : There were\are a lot of these guys but my personal favorite was Hal Jordan. He happened across a space alien who conveniently crash landed in front of him, and gave him a green ring which was recharged with a green power source that looked like a lantern. The ring had this force energy which could turn into anything he could imagine but because it was flawed it couldn't affect anything yellow. Silly, that. The ring came from outer space which falls under mythology, but beyond the ring he's just a normal guy, so his powers are external in origin.
- The Flash : Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, and Wally West originally got their powers in a similar way. Due to an accident conveniently placed in a laboratory near a lot of dangerous chemicals, they each passed out and woke up conveniently with the same powers of super speed. So their super powers are derived from something external.
- Swamp Thing : Alec Holland was also caught in a laboratory filled with dangerous chemicals, and was attacked by some bad guys who wrecked his place and set it on fire, leaving him for dead and hoping to make it look like an accident. Holland crawled out of the inferno covered with chemicals and dived into the convenient swamp that was nearby. The rest is history, but his powers too are external.
- Aquaman : This guy came from Atlantis, which according to his story never really fell into the sea cuz it was always down there. He's naturally amphibian with gills in his neck, webbed toes and feet, and since marine life are next-door neighbors, he's learned how to telepathically talk to them. Wish I could do that with my neighbors, but they all speak spanish. Being from the equivalent of another world, Aquaman's origins are mythological in nature.
- Captain Marvel : Billy Baxton was just a snot-nosed kid until the wizard Shazam showed up and bestowed upon little Billy the powers of great greek gods and heroes. The powers come from mythology but Billy himself is just a kid, so his powers are external in origin.
- Fantastic Four : In the original origin, Reed Richards was this real smart guy who invented a spaceship but neglected to take into account cosmic rays. He and his friends Ben Grimm, Sue Storm and her brother Johnny Storm were exposed to weird radiation which mutated their genetic structure. Of course decades later we know cosmic rays don't do this. The FF are mutants but aquired their mutation via external means.
- The X-Men : Though each individual member of this group came from different places and lives, they share one thing in common. They were all born with an abberation in their genetic makeup. Like some people have blue eyes and some people have brown, with mutants some people are born with the ability to kick ass, and some people are not. Wolverine was born with the genetic ability to heal very quickly. Later on, scientists took out his normal bones and replaced them with adamantium, which means some of his abilities are also external in origin. Cyclops was born with a genetic mutation which caused his eyes to turn into laser beam weapons. His genetic mutation manifested itself in adolescence. His visor allows him to see without blowing up what he's looking at.
- The Incredible Hulk : Dr. Bruce Banner, belted by gamma rays, turned into The Hulk. Similar to the FF, but instead of outer space, Banner was subjected to an atomic blast during a nuclear bomb test while trying to save someone who was in the military's blast zone by accident. Banner's story falls into external territory, even though the event turned him into a mutant. Decades after the original origin was told, we now know that nuclear radiation causes cancer and not green skin or brainless brawn.
What Comes After...
I have gotten some comments about this piece. Areas where I have summarized too much. There was admittedly a lot of material to cover, and I apologize to anyone who feels their favorite superhero was slighted. I intended to only give an overview of a handful of superheroes for examples of my original point: that all super hero origins can be broken down to three basic ideas of mutant, external, and mythology. Surprisingly, I've yet to get any responses which tell me I'm wrong about that. I'd like someone to find an example that corrects my hypothesis. I wouldn't mind adding a fourth or fifth example. It's actually rather humbling to me, as a fan of comic books, to discover how simplistic all super hero origins actually are.
I'd like to make an important point about how origins work. They can change. The older a super hero character is, and the more writers there have been under his banner, the more an origin can change. If a hero is popular or just very interesting, every writer that comes along may opt to give his own take of how that hero got his powers. However, in most cases the basic original idea still exists. The original backstory is considered canon, and later on many writers may come along to change the original origin, but when that happens it often causes the stories prior to that one to become obsolete.
A perfect example of this is in the many incarnations of The Flash. Jay Garrick was the original Flash in the early 1940s. He got his super speed power by way of being exposed to what the original author called "hard water." That term has since been used to refer to any water with high mineral content, but it's widely known such water doesn't cause someone to become a super speedster. When the idea of The Flash was revisted in 1956, they could no longer use the phrase "hard water." The audience wouldn't believe it. So the writer opted to retire Jay Garrick by just referring to him as a character in a comic book, and a new character was brought in. His name was Barry Allen, and he was a fan of Jay Garrick but never expected it to happen to him. His origin involved a shelf of chemicals kept too close to a window. Allen was standing in front of the shelf during a thunderstorm, lightning struck through the open window, hit the shelf of chemicals, and Barry Allen was caught in the ensuing explosion. The writer solved the problem of the "hard water" by not naming the chemicals in question. In fact Barry Allen himself never fully understood exactly what combination of chemicals caused his abilities, and by proxy we never knew either. Several years later Barry Allen successfully recreated the experiment in order to give his nephew super speed. He did this by putting all the chemicals in the same order on the shelf and placed it near the window, and not being a particulary good uncle, he instructed his nephew to go over to the window at a particular moment and WHAMMO! Wally West became Kid Flash. In 1985, the Crisis on Infinite Earths changed a lot of aspects about the different superheroes, and other writers have come along since to add their own take of how super speed works. They now speak of something called Speed Force which totally changes the dynamics of what makes a super speedster work, but the original origins are still there for posterity, even if hard water is kinda silly.
Other superheroes have similar issues with their origins which make them out of date, and other writers come along to either rewrite the origin completely, or try to add elements to a super hero in order to make them more believable to new, more scientifically savvy readers. Superman's origin remains largely intact. Stowed away in an experimental rocketship on Krypton, his family blasted him off just before his planet exploded. When Superman came to Earth, our planet is smaller than his home planet, so his natural body structure was designed to handle stronger gravity. This only explained how he could jump higher though. Later on other writers added his ability to actually fly, by riding air currents and gliding indefinitely from a jump. However, readers didn't completely buy that in future generations. Anyone who is into aerodynamics would tell you that the human body is not designed to fly like a bird. Superman would need wings. So over the years they have gone into more technical explanations for Superman's abilities, going so far as to talk about his genetic structure and molecular density. To be honest, he's still a largely unbelievable character from a scientific standpoint, but there's also a certain point where we suspend disbelief to enjoy these larger-than-life characters.
The Incredible Hulk from the Marvel Universe is yet another example of how future events of a character can echo back to their backstory. So far as I know, the original origin of Doctor Bruce Banner's transformation into the Hulk because of an atomic blast. However, originally it was explained that the radiation from the blast altered Banner's genetic makeup, causing his DNA to be in a state of flux that was triggered by intense emotional instability and trauma. This concept alone didn't work in later years, when it became common knowledge that all gamma radiation does to the human body is cause cancer. They had to explain how Banner was different from the average human: that were it anyone else they would have died, but Banner had a different destiny in store for him. In recent years they have added that during that atomic blast, some interdimensional portal was opened, and it is still opened in some strange way through Banner's body. They try to keep it as vague as they can, and explain bits and pieces of the character's existence during the course of telling stories about him. We learn as readers about the truth behind Banner's existence as Banner learns about it himself. Incidently, similar new revelations have affected many other superheroes and groups. The Fantastic Four were affected by cosmic rays but we now know cosmic rays wouldn't make someone turn into a Human Torch or an Invisible Girl. So other writers have come along to expand upon the idea and suggest additional elements which may have caused the initial origin to occur the way it did.
Perhaps one of the most interesting recent relevations about superheroes is something which affected three different characters in the DC Comics universe. Firestorm, Swamp Thing and the Red Tornado were each decidedly different characters with elaborately different back stories. Their origins had nothing to do with one another. However, over time it was learned that Firestorm had somehow become a fire elemental, Red Tornado became an air elemental, and Swamp Thing was really an earth elemental. The explanations have not been detailed, but supposedly at the time of their origins, unseen by the naked eye, elemental entities were somehow forged into these three characters. This relevation didn't appear until much later. It doesn't change the initial origin itself, but it does add an interesting dynamic to the original stories.
Swamp Thing was still originally Alec Holland, a normal guy in a laboratory whose powers stemmed initially by external forces which could be explained through the technobabble of speculative fiction, leaving him part plantlife and part man. However, the new revelation that he's somehow become an earth elemental on top of that has added a very mythological element to his existence. Similarly, Red Tornado learned he was an air elemental and Firestorm found out he was to be a fire elemental, but these developments occurred long after the original events which caused their existence in the first place.
So a super hero's origin is not necessarily ever written in stone. A lot of things that happen long after can alter the character's perception of what happened, but it's rare that those who write and publish comic books will completely trash a super hero origin and start from scratch. Such attempts rarely work well on a financial level. Writers know that if they don't hold true to the origin or other adventures of a given super hero, they could lose readers. Losing readers means losing money. So they try to keep to the original impetus of the character as best they can. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail. Still, they rarely cease to amaze me. =)