(“Origins”: music & vocals by Meri Amber, lyrics by the Pop Mythologist)
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that Your Superhero Origin is a class or course in school. We’ll do this just for fun because I don’t really take this metaphor seriously.
Now, what does every course need? Why, a syllabus or list of required texts, of course. And this class is no different. While not mandatory by any means, the list of fictional works that will be recommended here will, if read, enhance your enjoyment of the sections of Your Superhero Origin in which I break down the mythical structure and template that I call The Superhero Origin.
I’m calling this reading list the Superhero Origin Canon partly out of genuine reverence for the works mentioned herein, and partly out of tongue-in-cheek irreverence towards conservative academia’s dictation of what “educated” people are supposed to read. While the word “canon” as it’s commonly used nowadays refers to the official version of fictional timelines, in a scholastic context it means the body of texts considered to be the most sacred and definitive in a given field. Hence, in English literature, the “Western canon” is considered to be the body of written works most worth reading and is typically required reading for those who study literature at the undergraduate or graduate level. (For people who don’t fall into the classification of white male, the Western canon can feel somewhat limited, to say the least, and hence my slightly irreverent attitude towards it.)
Ever since I decided to write Your Superhero Origin, I have spent a ridiculous amount of time—years, actually—reading or rereading as many different versions of origin stories for as many different characters as I could get my hands on. And given that I knew I would need to refer to specific examples in fiction to better explain my ideas, I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time agonizing over which works I should include for illustrative purposes throughout Your Superhero Origin. Initially, in the interests of diversity and inclusion, I wanted to use as many different characters throughout this book as possible. But as I played around with that idea it soon became apparent that this approach would become unwieldy and chaotic. So I eventually decided that simplicity was the way to go.
There were some additional decisions I then made for the sake of simplicity.
First, since part of the goal of this project is to be able to fun and accessible to as many people as possible, I decided to stick with characters from the Big Two publishers, Marvel and DC. There are many compelling superhero characters that belong in other universes like that of Image Comics and Valiant Comics, but to include them too would have made the reading list (and this book) far too long.
The next decision involved which Marvel and DC characters to use as my primary examples. In the end, I chose the characters who seem to currently enjoy the most recognition among the general public, largely thanks to movie and TV adaptations. This was an important decision because, once again, part of my goal is always to be able to reach even the most casual of superhero fans. At the same time, I’ve tried to make it at least a little bit diverse (though not nearly as diverse as I would have liked).
As we know, superhero characters, especially the more popular ones, have multiple versions of their origin stories. This is why I have chosen to select more than one version, a primary source and a secondary source, to be included in the list for each character (though I’ve limited it to just two versions for each character). In most cases, unless noted, I will use the primary sources as my discussion examples. These primary and secondary versions of these characters’ origins were selected using a personal, subjective criteria that partly involved story quality but mostly involved how well it reflected the themes of The Superhero Origin that I wanted to discuss in this book.
A word on my rationale for including two versions of each character’s origin in this list. My attitude towards specific origin stories created by writers and artists is the same attitude with I approach all myths and their many varying versions across time and place. That is, I view the “true” origin story of each character as a kind of Platonic Form: a perfect, ideal, and definitive version of a character’s origin story could be said to exist, in a way, as pure potentiality within the human collective imagination. Periodically, specific living writers and artists will attempt to tell a version of that character’s origin story and it becomes a specific, tangible work. But no matter how good it is, it is still an imperfect representation. The only “true” and pure form of that character’s origin exists only as potential, and any attempt to manifest it in tangible form will invariably be imperfect. (Incidentally, this is my same attitude towards pop culture canon in general, and it’s why I view efforts like Star Wars fans’ petitions to remake The Last Jedi as being misguided and doomed to fail, even if it actually happened, for any attempt to bring the perfect ideal into tangible form will result in imperfections).
For this reason, I will sometimes draw from the secondary sources of the Superhero Origin Canon, to supplement the ways in which the primary sources may sometimes be lacking. For instance, The Legend of Wonder Woman, a 2015 comic miniseries by Renae de Liz and Ray Dillon, is in my mind a near-perfect retelling of the eponymous character’s origin story. But it is still not completely perfect—no work ever could be. Also, in certain situations, there are important pieces of a character’s origin that are not covered in the primary source but are explored in the secondary work. Black Panther fits this description, and the 2006 Storm miniseries—despite the fact that it’s mostly an origin story for Storm and not Black Panther—is used as my secondary source for the sole reason that it goes into detail about an important part of T’Challa’s origin: his walkabout, which, as I will explain later, is the Searching Stage portion of Black Panther’s origin story.
In picking primary and secondary sources, I have picked freely from all media and treated them equally. For instance, despite the plethora of retellings of Superman’s origin, for me Richard Donnor’s 1978 film is the greatest of them all. So there will be some characters for whom the film or animated versions will serve as the primary source.
Just a few more quick points and then we’ll get to the actual list.
For the purposes I’m trying to achieve in this book, I’ve left out characters who occupy morally gray areas such as the Hulk, Deadpool, the Punisher, and John Constantine, as much as I am personally a fan of all of them. It is not that they do not have heroic aspects to them—they do, some more than others—but to include them in this book and then to have to explain in what ways they do and do not fit the superhero archetype would make this book much longer, wordier, and more complex than necessary.
Next, I have avoided characters whose origins are too convoluted or contested, Wolverine being the prime example of this. Actually, Wolverine’s full origin, as long and messy as it is, does conform to the standard Superhero Origin template as I outline it. But there is no single collected volume that contains his complete origin story, each containing only a small part of it at most. So, again, for the sake of simplicity I’ve skipped characters like that altogether.
If I seem to have a bias here for the more modern tellings of characters’ origins that’s because I admittedly do—for two reasons. The first is that unlike with earlier renditions, the modern ones were written with a broader age group in mind and therefore tend to probe the themes of their respective characters with greater depth and sophistication, in a way that’s palatable to modern sensibilities. The second is that the more modern books tend to be easier to find, and I would like readers, if they are interested, to be able to read these works as they progress through this book.
To avoid repetition, I have not included origin stories of legacy characters, or characters who take up the mantle of previous characters with the same name, with the sole exception of Scott Lang as Ant-Man. This is notwithstanding the fact that some of the iconic characters here, such as the Flash and Green Lantern, are themselves actually legacy characters of Golden Age characters. And I’ve also tried to avoid treading too much within a single family franchise. So, for instance, I’ve only include two members from DC’s Bat and Super family and haven’t included any Spider clone characters or other Green Lanterns besides Hal Jordan.
There will also be no superhero team origins such as the Fantastic Four. Superhero teams in themselves raise an entirely new set of important themes that I am interested in but that I can’t explore within the scope of this book.
The respective universes of both Marvel and DC are vast to say the least, so needless to say, there are many amazing and wonderful characters that I have not included in the Superhero Origin Canon. Depending on the response and feedback I get for Your Superhero Origin, I have, somewhere in a Microsoft Word document, a long list of other characters and their respective origin stories that I’d love to analyze and discuss, as supplementary blog posts, under the rubric of the Superhero Origin paradigm that will be laid out in this book.
Lastly, as a reminder, the point of this list isn’t abstract literary analysis or critique. It’s to break down a mythic template that is actually wisdom for living that can be directly applied in our daily lives, particularly in these troubled times. I’m not that interested in analysis for its own sake. I’m interested in it only to the degree that it can yield insights that we can apply.
The Superhero Origin Canon
(C) = Comics
(F) = Film
(TV) = TV
(AF) = Animated film
The Marvel Characters
Spider-Man / Peter Parker
- Primary work: Ultimate Spider-Man #1-7 (2000), collected in Ultimate Spider-Man, Vol. 1: Power and Responsibility (2011) – C
- Secondary work: Spider-Man (2002) – F
Iron Man / Tony Stark
- Primary work: Iron Man (2008) – F
- Secondary work: Iron Man: Season One (2013) – C
Captain America / Steve Rogers
- Primary work: Captain America #255 (1968), collected in Captain America Epic Collection: Dawn’s Early Light (2014) – C
- Secondary work: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – F
- Primary work: Thor #158-159 (1966), collected in Thor Epic Collection: To Wake the Mangog (2015) – C
- Secondary work: Thor (2011) – F
Black Panther / T’Challa
- Primary work: Avengers #87 (1963), collected in Marvel Masterworks: Avengers, Vol. 9 (2009) – C
- Secondary work: Storm #1-6 (2006) – C
Doctor Strange / Stephen Strange
- Primary work: Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Supreme (2007) – AF
- Secondary work: Strange #1-6 (2004), collected in Strange: Beginnings and Endings (2014) – C
Daredevil / Matt Murdock
- Primary work: Daredevil: The Man Without Fear #1-5 (1993), collected in Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (2010) – C
- Secondary work: Daredevil (Season 1, 2015) – TV
- Primary work: Alias #22-28 (2001), collected in Alias, Vol. 4: The Secret Origin of Jessica Jones (2008) – C
- Secondary work: Jessica Jones, (Season 1, 2015) – TV
- Primary work: Avengers Origins: Luke Cage #1 (2012), collected in Avengers: Mythos (2013) – C
- Secondary work: Luke Cage (Season 1, 2016) – TV
Ant Man / Scott Lang
- Primary work: Marvel Premiere #48-28 (1972), collected in Ant-Man: Scott Lang (2015) – C
- Secondary work: Ant-Man (2015) – F
Ms. Marvel / Captain Marvel / Binary / Carol Danvers
- Primary work: Ms. Marvel #1-3 (1977), collected in Essential Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1 – C
- Secondary work: The Uncanny X-Men #164 (1982) – C
The DC Characters
Superman / Clark Kent
- Primary work: Superman: The Movie (1978) – F
- Secondary work: Superman: Birthright (2013) – C
Wonder Woman / Diana Prince
- Primary work: The Legend of Wonder Woman #1-27 (2015), collected in The Legend of Wonder Woman, Vol. 1: Origin (2016) – C
- Secondary work: Wonder Woman (2017) – F
Batman / Bruce Wayne
- Primary work: “The Man Who Falls” (1989), collected in Secret Origins of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes (1989), Batman: Secrets of the Batcave (2007), and Batman Begins: The Movie and Other Tales of the Dark Knight (2012) – C
- Secondary work: Batman Begins (2005) – F
Green Arrow / Oliver Queen
- Primary work: Green Arrow: Year One #1-6 (2007), collected in Green Arrow: Year One – C
- Secondary work: Arrow (Seasons 1-5 flashbacks, 2012) – TV
The Flash / Barry Allen
- Primary work: Secret Origins #7 (2014), collected in Secret Origins, Vol. 2 (2015) – C
- Secondary work: The Flash (Season 1, 2014) – TV
Supergirl / Kara Zor-El
- Primary work: Supergirl #1-7 (2011), collected in Supergirl, Vol. 1: Last Daughter of Krypton (2012) – C
- Secondary work: Supergirl (Season 1, 2015) – TV
Cyborg / Victor Stone
- Primary work: Tales of the New Teen Titans #1 (1982) – C
- Secondary work: Secret Origins #5, collected in Secret Origins, Vol. 2 (2015) – C
Oracle / Batgirl / Barbara Gordon
Green Lantern / Hal Jordan
- Primary work: Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #1-6 (1989) and Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn II #1-6 (1991), collected in Green Lantern: Hal Jordan, Vol. 1 (2017) – C
- Secondary work: Green Lantern #29-35 (2008), collected in Green Lantern: Secret Origin (2011) – C
Shazam / Billy Batson
- Primary work: Justice League #0, 7-21 (2011), collected in Shazam! Vol. 1 (2013) – C
- Secondary work: The Power of Shazam (1994) – C
Aquaman / Arthur Curry
- Primary work: The Legend of Aquaman (1989) – C
- Secondary work: Secret Origins #2 (2014) – collected in Secret Origins, Vol. 1 (2015) – C
(To be continued in the next post: “The cyclical rise and fall (and rise again) of the superhero archetype in America”)