Origin of a superhero: from gods to mutants

We dive into the many different backstories of your favourite comic book heroes...

Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man.
Photo: Sony Pictures

So, you fancy becoming a superhero do you? There are a few things you’re going to need before you stand on a rooftop and declare yourself the defender of your neighbourhood: a stylish costume, a catchy codename, an evil antagonist.

But before all that, you’re going to need to get your superhero origin in order. Every hero needs a weird and wonderful story of how they got their powers or an inciting incident that made them decide to don a cape and fight crime by moonlight.

With Audible launching a modern take on the superhero myth with Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light, we’ll be looking back at the various ways superbeings have gained their powers over the last 80 years.

Born different

Prime examples: X-Men, Hellboy, Inhumans

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When it comes to the archetypal tortured hero who always dreamed of being normal, often normality was never on the cards. These are the mutants (quite literally in the case of the X-Men) who were born with their amazing abilities baked into their DNA. Take Blade, whose pregnant mother was attacked by a vampire, leaving him a half-vampire from birth, or Hellboy, the son of a witch and the demon Azzael. Their powers are an inheritance, but not always a welcome one.

The particularly unlucky heroes in this category might be born with (or develop at puberty or whenever their powers activate) extreme physical mutations like green or blue skin, horns, tails, fangs or any other conspicuous attributes you might care to mention. They tend to operate under the unofficial X-Men tagline, “Feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect,” which understandably leads to a certain amount of angst.

The Inhumans are an interesting variant on this origin – an offshoot of humanity who have engaged in wild self-mutation using a substance called the Terrigen Mists. But from their isolated, secret city on the moon, mankind’s fear and hatred don’t tend to bother them so much.

The accident

Prime examples: Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel

Perhaps the most famous category of origin stories are the ones in which our hero gains amazing powers through an (occasionally terrible) accident. We all know them well: the radioactive spider bite; the gamma bomb; the lightning strike and strange chemicals combo.

The early Marvel comics of the ’60s had a particularly strong line in accidental origins, starting with the comic that began it all, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Desperate to beat the Soviets into space, four human astronauts purloined an insufficiently shielded ship and were bombarded by cosmic rays. Fortunately, they were granted amazing powers rather than radiation sickness. The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and Daredevil soon followed with their own accidents.

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Many of these stories seem to have come out of the Atomic Age, where advances in technology were viewed with a mixture of optimism at the amazing new changes that would revolutionise our world, and Cold War-tinged pessimism over our chances of escaping mutually assured destruction. An example of this tension is Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, who gained his powers in a scientific accident and was named after the nuclear bomb-developing Manhattan Project. He gained the ability to change the world forever, but became increasingly alienated from and disinterested in humanity.

Chosen

Prime examples: Green Lantern, Captain America, Shazam!

Sometimes it’s noble, admirable but very human qualities that can lead to a person’s transformation into a superperson. A person who is brave, wise or kind enough can be selected by the powers that be to receive the gift of flight, magic or super-strength.

Billy Batson was an intrepid orphan boy whose personal qualities made him worthy of receiving the powers of Shazam! (which represent the Wisdom of Solomon, the Strength of Hercules, the Power of Zeus, the Courage of Achilles and the Speed of Mercury). In an origin influenced by Arthurian legend, English aristocrat Brian Braddock was selected by Merlyn and his daughter Roma to become the mystical defender Captain Britain.

Quite often, these chosen characters find themselves as part of a larger organisation. Hal Jordan inherited a power ring from a dying alien that allowed him to fly and create solid projections. With that, he became a member of the Green Lantern Corps, an army of intergalactic peacekeepers who each possess “the ability to overcome great fear”. The Nova Corps form a similar function in the Marvel Universe (albeit without the power rings or ‘overcoming fear’ specification), with teenager Richard Rider receiving the alien inheritance in this instance. Even Captain Britain was later revealed to be a member of a larger, multiverse-protecting ‘corps’. It’s corps all the way down.

A god among men

Prime examples: Thor, Wonder Woman, Namor

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A variant on the ‘born different’ superheroes, these characters also came into this world with amazing abilities. But in this case their powers don’t set them apart from the rest of humanity, but above them. They are basically – sometimes literally – gods.

Many comics creators have a fascination with mythology that they have incorporated into their stories (arguably, superhero comics are a kind of modern mythmaking). Thor is an obvious example, with his origin and adventures drawing heavily on Norse myths. Wonder Woman was given life and her powers by the pantheon of Ancient Greek goddesses and sent from her paradise home to educate the rest of the world. And Jack Kirby built a new mythos from the ground up for DC based around the New Gods, beings of incredible power waging a war between opposing planets.

Not all of these heroes are literal gods. Aquaman and Namor are the hereditary rulers of Atlantis for DC and Marvel respectively, empowered by their genetic and royal legacies. Others, like the Fantastic Four’s kid Franklin Richards, are humans who have the power to completely reshape reality.

As for the uber-superhero, Superman, he combines this with aspects of ‘born different’. In his life as Clark Kent he is forced to adopt a shy, nervous persona to hide his true strength. At school, he couldn’t play sports, as he would risk causing physical harm to his opponents. His god-like powers make him an outsider.

The experiment

Prime examples: Wolverine, Deadpool, Red Tornado

We’ve already discussed the impact of developing sciences on superhero origins. The other side of the ‘accident’ coin are the experiments, deliberate (and sometimes shady) attempts to create a superhuman.

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Although he’s a mutant, Wolverine’s origin is closely wrapped up in the medical procedures he was subjected to by the sinister Weapon X programme, bonding the indestructible metal adamantium to his bones and messing with his memories. Likewise, Deadpool – who was a human mercenary suffering from cancer – was given healing powers thanks to the same organisation’s experiments. Various clones and relatives of Wolverine, including X-23, have also been created or manipulated by Weapon X.

Connor Kent – a version of Superboy introduced in the ’90s – was a clone of Superman incorporating his nemesis Lex Luthor’s DNA, and the X-Men-related character Nate Grey was created from the DNA of alternate reality versions of Jean Grey and Cyclops. In both cases, these genetic experiments were intended to produce living weapons.

Not all experiments are done on unwilling subjects. Steve Rogers was a scrawny kid who volunteered for the Super Soldier Project that transformed him into Captain America (although the programme would later be revealed to have links to Weapon X).

Other experiments skip the living test subjects in favour of starting from scratch. Red Tornado and Vision are both androids who were built for evil but overcame their programming and became heroes, while on a lighter note, the comedic Metal Men were created by Dr Will Magnus to do good.

The self-made hero

Examples: Iron Man, Batman, Green Arrow

Not everyone is lucky enough to be born with special abilities or given a magical ring by a dying alien. Comics are full of ordinary people who drive themselves to extraordinary lengths in the fight against evil.

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Incredible wealth and genius-level intellect certainly helps in these situations – just ask Batman and Iron Man, who have designed all sorts of amazing, crimefighting tech, as well as intermittently bankrolling their respective superhero teams. There is usually some inciting incident to set them on this path, like the infamous murder of Martha and Thomas Wayne.

But sometimes they don’t even have superintellect, or even much money to throw around. Spare a thought for Hawkeye, Green Arrow and their related buddies, who run into battle armed only with a bow and a prayer. Watchmen’s Rorschach only had his psychosis to keep him warm. Sometimes it all comes down to hard graft and a lot of target practice.

The reformed villain

Examples: Black Widow, Rogue, Hawkeye

Not everyone gets it right first time, and that goes for many a hero, too. Plenty of superfolks started out on the wrong side – whether due to coercion, trickery or just a bad attitude – before seeing the error of their ways.

The Avengers has a fine tradition of inducting its one-time enemies, including former Soviet spy Black Widow and her ally/lover Hawkeye – a would-be hero she manipulated into a life of crime. The Vision was created by the evil artificial intelligence Ultron to destroy the Avengers, and Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were put-upon members of Magneto’s Brotherhood before throwing their lot in with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. X-Men favourite Rogue too started out working with her evil adopted mother, Mystique.

These origins are an effective way of giving characters an insight into crime and a motivation for fighting against it. As the saying almost goes, there’s nothing more pious than a reformed supervillain.

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The legacy hero

Examples: Batgirl, Black Panther, Robin

Some superheroic identities are bigger than one person, in which the mantle might be handed down to another character or even generation after generation. DC is known for its legacy heroes, including various generations of Flashes and Robins, as well as characters inspired by the example of more senior crimefighters like Batgirl, Batwoman and Supergirl. Marvel has had various Captains America and Thors, and a couple of Hawkeyes, too.

T’Challa, the king of Wakanda, is the latest in a long line of Black Panthers, literally inheriting the superhero mantle along with the crown. In other cases, like Iron Fist, later retcons of their origins have revealed that they weren’t the first hero of their kind but part of a legacy that stretches back into the past.

Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light is available on Audible now.