[reprinted from the Vex Mosaic e-zine]
There are many tropes that comprise the narratives of comic book superheroes, but aside from the costumes, sidekicks, weird science, and secret identities, it is the concept of “The Origin Story” that is the most persistent and fundamental to the genre.
While all good stories require characters to have clearly defined motivations, the genesis of the comic book superhero is unique in its reverence and detail. A single superhero story may not feature the hero’s origin, but it will be referenced often throughout the series and somewhere in that continuity will be a detailed account of how the character was transformed into something more than an ordinary person.
Examining the structure and function of the Origin Story – and our fixation with it – will not only reveal its importance to the genre but also its relevance to a culture that has embraced the superhero as its new mythology.
The New Mythology
Another narrative framework that features origin stories prominently is that of cultural myths and legends. From the Hopi myths of the Five Worlds to the Japanese legends of Izanami and Izanagi giving birth to the land, one of the primary functions of mythology is to tell us the origin of our world and explain its mysteries. Often these myths feature a cast of beings of phenomenal power whose passions change the face of the world, fighting evil or wresting power from the gods on our behalf.
According to Stan Lee, “A superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t.” The qualification of abnormality is critical to the superhero narrative. The existence of fantastical powers or extraordinary devices distinguishes the superhero from other heroic figures.
Among the definitions of the word “hero” at Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, you’ll find a similar sentiment: “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.” While this definition is in reference to mythological heroes like Hercules or Cúchulainn, it illustrates the link between the ancient and the modern mythic hero.
That link is reinforced by the fact that both narrative frameworks are deeply informed by the cultures they serve. The elegant ritual of Japanese mythology or the martial physicality of Norse myths affirms the cultures that created them, reflecting the themes and moral issues relevant to them.
Similarly, as Chris Gladis observes in his review of Grant Morrison’s Supergods, “[comic books] are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be.” Like ancient myths, modern comic book narratives have been informed by the prominent issues confronting our culture.
The character of Magneto, for example, the mutant anti-hero of the X-Men series, was created during the height of the civil rights movement. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby modeled Magneto and his nemesis, Charles Xavier, after Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. respectively, creating a narrative that mirrored the nation’s struggle with issues of racism and discrimination. Other examples include the Green Arrow/Green Lantern storyline “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” featuring Green Arrow’s ward admitting to a heroin addiction or DC’s 1996 “Kingdom Come”, released shortly after the end of the Cold War and addressing issues of power, authority, and holocaust.
The Structure of the Origin Story
In both mythology and comic books, the origin story is executed in two phases: Empowerment and Activation.
First, the hero – often unwittingly or unwillingly – receives some power or distinction that separates them from the rest of humanity. Some examples of the Empowerment Cycle include:
- In one version of the Achilles myth, his mother dips her infant son into the river Styx making him invulnerable (except at the heel where she held him).
- Wonder Woman (in DC Comics New 52 reboot) is revealed as the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta.
- Marvel’s Iron Man origin has Tony Stark being forced to create his powered armor.
However, even though the character is now endowed with extraordinary powers, they have not yet made the choice that will mark them as a hero. In fact, their initial choices are often ignorant or selfish, reflecting a weakness that still marks them as “only human” in spite of their powers.
- Fearing for his life, Achilles’s mother takes him to the court of Lycomedes and disguises him as a girl to protect him.
- Wonder Woman trains with Ares.
- Tony Stark leverages his armor’s technology to advance his company.
Achieving power is only the first part of the Origin Story. The hero must be activated, choosing to apply those powers in the defense of some ideal.
- When Odysseus sees through his disguise, Achilles accepts his offer to fight for Greece against Troy.
- Wonder Woman refuses to follow Ares command to kill the Minotaur, affirming the value of compassion and becoming worthy of the hero’s mantle.
- In the 2008 Iron Man movie, having discovered the danger of his technology, Tony Stark accepts responsibility for both the armor and the persona it embodies by declaring he is Iron Man at a press conference.
Once Empowered and Activated, the Origin Story is complete and, if told well, we are eager to discover the outcome of the hero’s choice. But why does knowing a hero’s origins make us hungry for what comes next?
Context: The Consequences of Choice
Our own personal histories define who we are and what we value. For the comic book superhero, the origin story defines the scope and nature of stories that will be explored. The activation of a superhero involves a sacrifice, a difficult choice that transforms their lives more than the powers that brought about the choice in the first place. The mythology that follows is the consequence of that choice.
One reason the superhero narrative is so compelling is the ability to examine the consequences of a choice. We make choices every day, but it is the choices where the price of virtue or integrity is high that truly define us. The continuity of the superhero’s story is an exploration of the price of virtue, the trials of the high road, and the price paid for doing the right thing.
The nature of the hero’s choice defines the story that unfolds from it. Batman’s origin of loss leads to stories that attempt to fill the void, finding purpose and meaning amid tragedy. This is what makes The Killing Joke such a compelling story as the origins of the Joker – Batman’s arch nemesis – reveal the horrifying parallels between their beginnings.
Knowledge: Privilege of the Inner Circle
The canon of a single superhero can contain thousands of stories. Considering ongoing series, limited runs, graphic novels, and cross-overs, this intimidating body of work is an epic mythology shared by tens of thousands of readers. In the culture of the comic fan, knowledge becomes the means by which passion and commitment to their chosen heroes is measured. The nuances of the hero’s pivotal moments, crises, and life-altering events are the coin of the realm for the initiated, and knowledge of the hero’s origin story is often the first installment.
But even for the casual reader, it is empowering to know how a hero came to be. It informs our understanding of the stories that unfold and creates an intimate bond between hero and reader. More importantly, there are often few (if any) characters in the story who actually know the hero’s origins. By virtue of that knowledge, the reader is elevated above the cast and on equal footing with the hero. It is a shared experience that is utterly unique and allows us to nod sagely at the hero’s actions because we possess the secret knowledge of why they do what they do.
Wisdom: Unmasking of the Gods
To be invulnerable, to fly, to become invisible or possess inhuman strength… these are the powers of the gods. As Prachi Gupta observes in her article Why are we so obsessed with superhero origin stories?, “When you give someone an origin story it makes them human”.
As much as we thrill to the epic battles and the heroic scope of the superhero narrative, there is something about us that cannot abide innocent wonder. As adults, we are compelled to analyze and explain the mysteries with which we are confronted, shining the light of reason on the inexplicable in an effort to understand, predict, and control.
Ironically, it doesn’t matter if a hero can fly as long as we understand WHY that hero can fly. In an issue of Wonder Woman (during the New 52 transformations), Hermes impales the hero with a feather plucked from his winged feet. Thereafter, Wonder Woman can fly. As tenuous as that line of reasoning may appear, it is enough to satisfy the rational voice in the chorus of our imagination.
One of the first pieces of information exchanged between two people getting to know one another is details of where they are from or their childhood. The mystery of a person fades away as knowledge of their origin is revealed. The same is true of superheroes.
What’s truly remarkable is, while knowing their origins dethrones the god and dispels the mystery of their powers, that same knowledge makes their acts of heroism even more heroic and more relevant to us. We don’t have to be a son of Krypton to cherish our planet or the daughter of a god to chafe at familial association and duty. Unmasking the gods makes them one of us… and makes their trials intimate and relevant to our own lives.
As Robin Rosenberg observes in her article The Psychology Behind Superhero Origin Stories”, “…origin stories show us not how to become super but how to be heroes”.
Your Origin Story
I host a podcast called The Roundtable Podcast where we interview authors and then brainstorm a story idea with them. Early in the evolution of the podcast, I wanted to get past the whole “how did you get started” line of questions and focus on questions relevant to writing. So I began to do in-depth research into the backgrounds of our guests and including it in their introductions.
As I pieced together bits of information from various interviews and biographies, I discovered the remarkable choices these individuals had made that brought them to their current success. Being a storyteller at heart, I began assembling a narrative that would frame the author’s life experiences in a meaningful and (hopefully) entertaining way.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was crafting origin stories. Not for superheroes, but for people who had achieved something that appeared so remarkable as to be unattainable (which is pretty much the same thing).
If you listen to these introductions you’ll notice the author’s first comment is often something along the lines of “Wow, that sounds like a really interesting person. I’d like to meet them” or “You made it sound like I knew what I was doing”.
It was then I discovered origin stories aren’t just for superheroes.
The process of becoming the people we hope to be is messy. It’s chaotic, random, and sometimes completely without direction or purpose. Life is like that. But as we live our lives, pursuing interests, developing skills, and acquiring a level of mastery at something, we start to develop a direction. As we make choices and deal with the consequences, we ultimately find a purpose. That purpose WILL change – perceptions and convictions change as life works upon us – but at most points in our adult lives, we will have something that passes for a purpose.
Your origin story is the narrative describing the events and choices that gave you that purpose. By assembling the relevant details of your life that made you the person you are at this moment in the context of whatever it is that’s most important to you, you have crafted your own origin story.
In doing so, you uncover the nature of your own life’s story… and know that you are the hero.