Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Origin Story

Karen: What elements make for a successful origin story? While no two characters share exactly the same background, are there certain aspects that resonate with readers?

Karen: I've thought about it and it seems like there is some element of tragedy in many origins. It may not be the major element, but to some degree it is there. It may motivate them for their entire career, or it may simply serve to get them on the path to their eventual career, but it's there. Batman and Spider-Man are obvious examples, with the death of loved ones motivating them to become heroes. Superman's entire planet is destroyed, leaving him the last of his kind (well, sometimes). The early Iron Man wore his chest plate to keep the shrapnel in his chest from reaching his heart-he was always on the edge of dying. Steve Rogers is reborn as Captain America just as his creator/father figure, Dr. Erskine, is killed by a Nazi agent. Norrin Radd sacrifices his humanity and becomes the Silver Surfer to save his world. And so on.

Karen: Now combing through old books, I realize the tragedy angle works mainly with Marvel characters. Looking back at DC heroes, their origins seem far less tragic -although it's hard to know just what those origins are any more,but  I'm sticking with Bronze Age and prior. DC's classic pantheon of characters like Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman for example, all seem to be worthy people who deserve to receive their powers. Maybe their common element is just that -they are already heroes in a sense, and their powers just makes them super-heroes. That was really the big difference between Marvel and DC though, at least until the 80s -Marvel characters were normal, Everyman types usually who became heroes mostly by accident. DC characters were guys (and gals) who were already better than your average Joe -they were essentially destined for greatness.

Karen: As far as favorites go, I think Spider-Man and Batman have two of the best, most compelling -I like that they are so similar, and yet the two characters are so different. You could spend hours discussing how the loss of their loved ones affected them. I also have always really liked the Superman origin and comparing the many variations that have sprung up over the years. The same goes for Captain America's origin, which has changed in the details over time. 

Karen: I'd like to hear your thoughts on super-hero origin stories, which ones are your favorites, and what in your opinion makes them successful.


Anonymous said...

I'd say my favourite was Dr. Strange - Stephen Strange starts off as selfish and arrogant but in becoming Dr. Strange his whole attitude to his fellow man is transformed, I like that whole idea of redemption as with Scrooge in A Christmas carol. Also I loved the whole mystical vibe with the Ancient One and the monastery in the Himalayas etc. I like his cool house too. It's true that Marvel's characters were often "everyman " types but in the case of the tiny handful of British superheroes created by Marvel this wasn't so as they were always aristocratic and lived in castles which is rather irksome but of course these characters are peripheral to the Marvel Universe anyway.

Edo Bosnar said...

I was going to mention Dr. Strange's origin as well. And while not strictly tied to his origin, I just love the Ancient One as a character and the interesting mentor-pupil dynamic going on between him and Stephen.

By the way, Colin, while I think you're mainly right about the British superheroes, the third Union Jack (Joey Chapman, introduced in Captain America v. Baron Blood story) was definitely working class.

Another origin story that I really like just because it's so unique is Spiderwoman's; in particular, I think it's really interesting that for the longest time she thought she was actually mutated from a spider by the High Evolutionary.

Anonymous said...

Oh, thanks Edo - I didn't know that.

Murray said...

In my personal vocabulary, I've differentiated between "origin" and "explanation".

In DC, most of their heroes have Explanations. Superman explains that he is a Kryptonian in Earth's environment. Wonder Woman is a mythological Amazon. Batman trained and studied his entire life. Etc, etc.

The Flash and Green Lantern are the two notable Origins. Working on the job, maybe starting to think about lunch and POW, a staggering event that leaves them with superpowers.

Marvel, on the other side, is a little heavier on Origins. Iron Man, Dr. Strange and the Pyms are the distinct Explanations. Most of the rest had their lives take a sudden "left turn at Albuquerque". Thor started as an Origin for Don Blake, but it evolved into an Explanation by the Bronze Age.

david_b said...

I'd go with Colin and Edo on Strange. Of all the cool depictions I'd imagine on the big screen, Stephen's would be most spectacular and breath-taking.

I still love Ditko's austere yet spooky/mystic visual style to Strange the best, from the early Strange Tales issues.

William said...

Daredevil has always had one of my favorite origin stories.

And when you're talking tragedy, it qualifies in spades. It starts with Matt Murdock, a boy who is constantly bullied by other kids and not permitted to fight back. Then in a twist of irony (the kind that Stan Lee loved to do) Matt is hit by a truck and blinded while saving a blind man. A tragedy with the beneficial side-effect of giving him super heightened senses and radar. Then, to hammer home the tragedy angle, his father (his only living parent) is brutally murdered by gangsters.

That last event pushes Matt over the edge to become a costumed crime-fighter. Even though it was previously established that he already had selfless and heroic tendencies. Stan just could resist killing off old Battlin' Jack, just to give Matt that extra incentive to put on a yellow and dark red devil costume and punch bad guys.

There was a time when DD was my favorite character, and I first read his origin in the "Son of Origins" TPB, and it became an instant favorite of mine. I loved the art by the great Bill Everett as well. It gave the whole story a unique noir look that made it really stand out from other Marvel comics of the time.

William said...

That line in my previous should read "Stan just COULDN'T resist killing off old Battlin' Jack…"

Humanbelly said...

Murray, could you more quantifiably define your "Explanation" vs "Origin" distinction? I think I'm liking it, but I'm not sure I'm solid on what specifically separates them. Is it the element of self-determination? Or is that just part of it?

Spidey's origin is the one that I unfailingly still surrender too. With every dagone revamp or reboot, I completely forget that poor Uncle Ben's lifespan is going to be very short. Ultimate Spiderman, both film franchises-- as unbelievable as it may seem, I am consistently caught flat-footed and emotionally unprepared when he gets killed. It's embarrassing, truly.


Martinex1 said...

Great topic. I find that there are handful of origin structures, and in my opinion some have better entertainment value than others. DC in the early days seemed to rely on the “Noble” character. These characters were true-blue and were blessed with powers; Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman. I think this type is relatively boring and inadequate. For me it leads to a Super Friends type feel to DC’s characters; (in the early days) they always made the right decisions at the right time. Superman is the epitome of this and sometimes strikes me as less than genuine when he acts like he is an outsider; he is the perfect man who does not seem alien at all and has all of the benefits of strength, good looks, love of his family, strong friendships, in addition to his clear moral standards. The powers almost seem granted to an already perfect being.
Another type, as Karen indicated is the “Tragic”. But where I see a distinct difference between DC and Marvel in that category is that Marvel’s characters have a role in the tragedy. Bruce Wayne was essentially an innocent whose parents were killed; his role became the righteous avenger. Spider-Man on the other hand screwed up, let the burglar go, and therefore had a part in his Uncle’s death. Spider-Man was not about vengeance but about guilt, responsibility, and atonement.
And that leads me to a third type that I call “Virtuous Villain”. I believe many of Marvel’s heroes actually have what could be a villainous start. They just go the other way. Take the Fantastic Four for instance. If you really look at their origin it can easily be transposed to villains. Reed Richards is arrogant and myopic. They have a goal and intend to reach it at any cost. They actually sneak into a secure area, steal a rocket, and ultimately wreck it. They in many ways become monsters but in the end the twist is that their inclination is to be heroes. Compare this to how many super villains who want to complete some scientific discovery, follow means they should not, have tragic outcomes and decide instead, “Hey, now I can rob a bank!” Even as a kid when reading the FF origin, I wondered why they did not have more of a Hulk-like status in the early going. Why was some Army General not screaming, “Stop those freaks who destroyed our ship!”? Instead they were welcomed immediately as heroes. In my “What If” day dreaming, I contend that if the Thing could change at will to Ben Grimm, that Reed would have gone a totally different direction with the team. In my opinion, it is Reed’s knowledge of his role in creating Ben’s condition that leads him toward atonement and good deeds. Some part of him is trying to balance the scale. On his own, would Reed be less aware of the consequences of his actions; would he care? Likewise, could Dr. Strange’s avarice and arrogance have turned him more like Mordo? Other Marvel heroes that have an even more clear and specific “villainous” origin are Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Vision, Nighthawk, and the list goes on.
A fourth type is the “Afflicted or Persecuted”. These are heroes like the Inhumans and X-Men whose powers are just part of their genetics (like Superman) but those genes are not really a blessing. They are outsiders, outcasts, and downtrodden. I like to think how different Superman would be if he had an alien rather than human appearance. I think bronze-age Marvel played with that idea a lot.
Ultimately I think redemption and proof of worth is much more a part of Marvel characterization and their associated origins.

Murray said...

I should have answered the actual topic- I'll go with David with Daredevil, for sure. It may be unique in the pacing. A personal tragedy, then years of growing up with a quirky super power but no ambition of becoming a costumed crime fighter. Lots of room for dramatic, heart-warming, fun pre-Daredevil stories and developments. Batman is similar, years of pre-costume stories to tap, but Bruce Wayne was always hyper-obsessed with The Mission.

I also like Luke Cage's origin. The character's life before and after the Freak Scientific Accident felt very plausible. Watching a hero blossom out of a confused and bitter street thug.

HB - I don't know. There may be too much subjective whimsy in my Origin-Explanation Theorem to go into hard analysis.

Generally, the way I see it, Explanations are theoretically reproducible. Anyone from the planet Krypton gets super powers on Earth. Hank Pym could give anyone his growth-shrink formula. Any peacekeeper from Thanagar is given the anti-gravity belt and hawk wings. Basically, an Explanation means No Surprises Involved and, possibly, You too Can Have Powers if You Follow These Instructions. Tony Stark could hand you the blueprints to his armour. Stephen Strange could give you a map to the Ancient One's sanctum. Ray Palmer could offer the procedure to incorporate dwarf star matter into a suit.

An Origin is a smack in the head. The hero had no expectation he or she would finish the day with powers beyond those of mortal men. A one-in-a-billion fluke (that writers good and bad duplicate sometimes too frequently in subsequent years).

Marvel mutants are pretty much both. For the individual, it's a shocking Origin when their powers manifest. But then someone does a blood test and it's "Oh, you're a mutant" Explanation.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Spidey's origin is a classic; Captain America's was interesting too, with him being patriotic and wanting to contribute so badly to the war effort that he took a chance with a bunch of strangers on an untested formula. His origin may be a product of its time though.

@Edo: I like Jessica Drew too, but I was disappointed with Spider Woman: was supposed to clarify the discrepancies in her background, but Bendis just muddled things up even more.

Mike W.

Edo Bosnar said...

Mike W., I was talking about her Bronze Age origin, as originally written by Archie Goodwin and then further developed by Marv Wolfman in the regular series. I've never read any of the newer stuff.

Karen said...

Murray's classification of origins as either "Explanation" or "Origin" has intrigued me. It's a completely different way of looking at it than I would have considered. But I can see what he's getting at. Now I have to look at each character and think, "Explanation or origin?"

Martinex has also posited some interesting questions. One character I had considered mentioning in the post was Martian Manhunter. He seems somewhat tragic - beamed to Earth against his will and stuck here -but due to his powers, he is able to disguise himself as an Earthman, so it's not so tough on him after all. But he is sort of the "Afflicted" type Martinex discusses. In many ways, I've always thought of him as a more "Marvel" version of Superman - the alien from another world who becomes a hero. If Marvel had done the concept first, I could see them creating Martian Manhunter.

Anonymous said...

One that stuck in my head when I was growing up was the original Moon Knight. A mercenary with a special costume that ends up turning on those who created him. Wait, is that one? Is that an origin story?? Much like Simon Williams, a being created for evil turns on his makers thereby becoming a good guy. LIKE THE VISION!!!! This was not what I was going to post about. Cool.

With Werewolf by Night, he was the latest in a line of people suffering under a curse. Did this make him a "tragic"?

The origin that always irked me was the "prophesied one" who easily masters some secret power or art. Did this start before Dune? That's the first one I remember.

The Prowler (once had his eyelids smoked and his last cigarette punched).

Dr. Oyola said...

The origin event vs. explanation dichotomy is really useful (I am adding the word "event" because we all have "origins," but in the cases we are discussing there is an event - or series of events - that lead to a transformation of body and/or attitude).

I will have to say that Spider-Man is my all-time favorite origin story because of the use of two unrelated events to push him into the heroic direction.

I think the original Human Torch has the strangest origin story,

For DC, I like Wonder Woman, sure, hers is an "explanation" but there is also an "event" (the arrival of Steve Trevor) and a trial to prove her worthiness. I love Golden Age Wonder Woman. Sure, lots of it is problematic, but I can't disagree that the world of man needs some serious correcting (it is for this reason I am not a fan of the Wonder Woman as Xena Warrior Princess version).

The kinds of origins I don't like are the revenge ones, like Batman or the Punisher.

Horace said...

My favorite origin is Spider-Man's. Just an 11 page story by Lee and Ditko. Yet so profound.

Runner up is the Vision's from Avengers 58. There's no tragedy here, but the conclusion is moving nonetheless. John Buscema's beautiful artwork elevates the story.

Humanbelly said...

Wow, Horace and I are on the same page-- Vision's my #2 as well. Isn't it funny how that basic Pinocchio scenario has been able to pull on the strings (so to speak) of our collective hearts for centuries? The fabricated-yet-living creature whose most burning desire is just to achieve simple humanity? Vizh's conscious choice to take the moral high-road and become a hero is perhaps a lesser-known, quieter moment of personal inspiration that can be taken from those pages-- but boy, it comes across as so much more sincere and invested and "real" than a hero proclaiming themselves champion of Truth, Justice, and the American Etc.


Anonymous said...

Nothing original to say here - both Spidey and Batman are two of my all time favourites when it comes to having a real origin story. The tragedy which struck both of them at the outset helped define their characters and careers. While neither is out for cold blooded revenge ala the Punisher, the violent loss of their loved ones resonates throughout their lives and actions.

- Mike 'original doodler' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Fred W. Hill said...

Spider-Man's origin is my favorite -- not just how he got his powers but the tragedy afterwards that led him to use it for good rather than selfish ends.

Martinex brought up a great point about the FF's origin and brings up the question as to how Reed & the gang got out of trouble for their criminal activity that resulted in the destruction of what would have been a very expensive rocket. Either Reed had some very deep pockets or he had some very powerful friends in high places (or both, of course). It is curious that Lee had them steal the rocket rather than having them take the trip as part of a legitimate mission, but then what are the chances Sue & Johnny would have been approved for such a mission in 1961, other than nil and none?
Dr. Strange also has a great origin, and like Spidey's compact at 12 pages. I'm not sure how it could be effectively translated into a good feature-length film and remain true to the source material. Perhaps in a series of flashbacks. I just wouldn't want to see an origin in which Dr. Strange becomes an apprentice and is shown beating Baron Mordo and Dormammu all on the very same day.

WardHillTerry said...

Some of DC Golden Age origin stories had a touch of the tragic about them. Alan Scott survived a fatal train wreck; Ted (Wildcat) Grant's mentor/best friend was murdered; Jim Corrigan was killed, then became The Spectre; Hawkman had already died 3,000 years before his first story! The Silver Age origin stories were about men who were already heroic before gaining their abilities.Katar Hol and Barry Allen were police officers. Hal Jordan was a test pilot, and Ray Palmer was prepared to sacrifice his own life to save a group of school kids. This is the kind of thing that Stan Lee upended. The FF and Spidey have already been discussed, but he flipped it for the Hulk. Bruce Banner gains his powers while performing a heroic act, but his new abilities make him more villainous than heroic. (although there are echoes of Wildcats origin in Daredevil's.) Murray and Dr. Edo make some excellent points on the nature of origin stories. I want to add one thing about Superman's origin. Yes, being a Kryptonian on Earth gives a person superpowers. Being raised by Ma and Pa Kent makes a person Superman. This is one of the crucial elements of the Superman story that was jettisoned with the retirement of Julius Schwartz. The post-1985 Superman didn't learn those lessons. (or pal around with a peer group from the future, but that's for Monday this month.)

fantastic four fan forever said...

Wow! These two hardcovers were a big part of my youth. Comics were to me what video games are to kids today. I was always reading them. The first one, "Origins of Marvel Comics", I special ordered at my local book store in my city. The clerk chastised me about my love of comics and that I'd never learn to read. How wrong she was in that because of this book I started reading other authors in other genres.

Other than Jules Fiffer's book on Golden Age comics, I haven't seen (in the early 70's) any other hardcover publication dedicated to Marvel comics. I purchased it in 1974. Years before comics and or graphic novels had a regular presence in chain book stores like Borders. It was after this book I kept watching out for the sequels, "Son of Origins", "Bring on the Bad Guys" and the "Super-Hero Women of Marvel Comics".

The DC Origins hard cover was released a year later in 1975. It was a good over view of the then current origins of the heroes contrasted with the golden age versions.

Both of these "Origins" books...I must of read them fifty times...they were a part of my youth I'll never forget. The comics so much influenced my cartooning and illustration..that I still look back on those days as a good time to be a fan when comics weren't vehicles to advertise the next Marvel or DC movie. They just had good wholesome stories where justice and goodness prevailed.

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