In comic book terminology, an origin story is an account or back-story revealing how a character or team gained their superpowers and/or the circumstances under which they became superheroes or supervillains.
In order to keep their characters current, comic book companies, as well as cartoon companies, game companies, children's show companies, and toy companies, frequently rewrite the origins of their oldest characters. This goes from adding details that do not contradict earlier facts to a totally new origin which make it seem that it is an altogether different character.
"Origin story" or pourquoi story is also a term used in the study of myths. It can refer to narratives of how the world began, how creatures and plants came into existence, and why certain things in the cosmos have certain qualities.
Critical explorations of the origin story
In The Superhero Reader (nominated for a 2014 Eisner Award for Best Scholarly/Academic Work), edited by Charles Hatfield (Professor at University of Connecticut), Jeet Heer (Toronto-based journalist), and Dr. Kent Worcester (Professor of Political Science at Marymount Manhattan College), the editors write in "Section One: Historical Considerations": "Almost all superheroes have an origin story: a bedrock account of the transformative events that set the protagonist apart from ordinary humanity. If not a prerequisite for the superhero genre, the origin... is certainly a prominent and popular trope that recurs so frequently as to offer clues to the nature of this narrative tradition. To read stories about destroyed worlds, murdered parents, genetic mutations, and mysterious power-giving wizards is to realize the degree to which the superhero genre is about transformation, about identity, about difference, and about the tension between psychological rigidity and a flexible and fluid sense of human nature. ... When surveying the superhero genre, preliminary questions often turn to the problem of roots." The book has a wealth of pertinent bibliographies.
English professors Dr. Alex Romagnoli and Dr. Gian S. Pagnucci, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, discuss in their book Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature "the nature of superhero origin stories and how the writing of these origin stories helps make superhero narratives a unique literary genre." For example, they write, "Superheroes get very complicated when it comes to their histories, but one part of their stories remains forever constant and important. Even more than 'death' stories, crossovers, event stories, and attire changes, origin stories are the core of superheroes' existences. Origins not only reflect the sociohistorical contexts in which heroes were created, but they also reflect a culture's understanding of what makes superheroes storytelling unique vehicles." Thereafter, Romagnoli and Pagnucci go on to explain why the origin story is as important to the audience as to the generations of writers who continue heroic tales.
Dr. Randy Duncan (Comics Scholar and Professor of Communication, Henderson State University, Arkadelphia, Arkansas) and Dr. Matthew J. Smith (Department of Communication, Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio) use the origin story of Spider-Man as an example of how a character can be created by the persistence of a writer who has definite preferences in creating a character's personality, even if the publisher resists. "It is difficult to discern which is more often told: Spider-Man's origin or the tales told around that origin. All reveal fascinating aspects of a teenage loner fatefully 'bitten by a radioactive spider' to find himself with 'the proportionate strength and agility of an arachnid'." Duncan and Smith explain how Stan Lee butted heads with publisher Martin Goodman, who worried about an "ick factor," but Lee prevailed. "The entire Spider-Man concept resonates with the primary attributes of many genres and traditions," the authors say. "Like a heady puree of [Mary] Shelley's Frankenstein, Bob Kane's Batman, and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, Spider-Man's origin invokes gothic and crime fiction motifs like the ostracized genius, doomed loved ones, the misuse or misfiring of science, the gritty noir city, the driven vigilante, and the fateful 'return of the repressed'." The authors proceed to investigate these various issues of the origin story.
- Batman - His parents murdered by a mugger, Bruce Wayne used his vast family fortune to become Batman and wage a one-man war on crime.
- Spider-Man - Bitten by a radioactive spider granting him spider-based superpowers, Peter Parker was motivated to fight crime by his uncle's death, which he blames on himself.
A 2012 comic book specifically addresses the origin of Peter's transformation: The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story (authors given as Marvel Staff, Scott Peterson, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko; 64 pp.; ISBN 978-1-74283-234-0); as well as its identically named revision The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story (2013; ISBN 1742837271).
Works both scholarly and entertaining discuss Peter's origin story and its variations.
- Superman - Born on the planet Krypton, infant Kal-El was sent to Earth before an explosion destroyed his home planet. His strong moral code motivated him to fight for justice.
- Wonder Woman - Diana, the princess and appointed champion of the Amazon warrior women, who left her homeland to battle injustice.
- Iron Man - American industrialist Tony Stark was captured by Communist Vietnamese military and forced to build weapons for them. Instead, he built powered armor to escape. He then uses his armor to fight crime.
- Fantastic Four - Four astronauts (Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm) who were exposed to cosmic rays, which gave them superpowers.
- The Flash - Barry Allen, a forensic scientist, was struck by lightning and bathed in electrically-charged chemicals, connecting him to the Speed Force and giving him super-speed.
- Incredible Hulk - Doc Bruce Banner, belted by gamma rays, now turns into the super-strong Hulk whenever he gets angry.
- Green Lantern - Test pilot Hal Jordan receives a power ring from the dying alien police officer, Abin Sur, and becomes a member of the Green Lantern Corps.
- James T. Kirk - Inspired by both the adventures of Captain Jonathan Archer, and his own father, Kirk joined starfleet in order to explore the stars and defend the united federation of planets. In the 2009 film, Kirk was inspired by his father's sacrifice and chose to bring back the honour that his name once held.
- Sabrina Spellman - In a 1970s cartoon show, Hilda and Zelda Spellman mixes magic potions and ingredients to create an evil, wicked witch. Unfortunately when Hilda got bumped by Zelda, an accidental spill of girls' stuff into the mixture results as an extra ingredients and then Sabrina Spellman is born.
- Judge Dredd - Awoken from his sleep with his clone Rico, Joseph Dredd witnesses nuclear war going on. They then split up. Rico becomes an evil-doer, Joseph becomes the toughest judge yet—Judge Dredd.
- Gigantor - Built as the 28th creation of a kind professor.
- Astro Boy - Having being killed by a car in the anime and by a robot in the film, Astro Boy was resurrected as a robot.
- Turbo Teen - Brett and his car were driving through a stormy mountain, and then—a tree swerved them off the road into the path of Dr. Chase's experiment. He and his car are now one—Turbo Teen.
- The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - When a boy was walking with his four turtles in a bowl of water, a toxic slime truck stood in his way. All four turtles and the slime fell into the sewers, where Splinter raised the turtles. They then came to fight an evil that invaded New York in the form of the Shredder.
- SuperTed - He was a discarded toy given life by Spotty and powers by Mother Nature.
- Optimus Prime - In the cartoon, Optimus Prime, his Autobots, and the Decepticons, led by Megatron, are at war with each other until they crash landed here on earth in a 4-million-year-old sleep. That is until they scanned vehicles, weapons, and animals in order to become the Transformers we know. Optimus Prime scanned the truck he is now.
- The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers - They were five ordinary teenagers chosen by Zordon to become the world's colorful superpowered heroes, the Power Rangers.
- Masked Rider - Dex was given powers by his grandfather, the king of Edenoi, and is sent to our world to protect it from the advancing evil of Count Dregon. Dex was raised by a family, and learns to live as a human. With his companion Ferbus by his side, Dex is ever vigilant, ready to call on his powers in order to become Masked Rider.
- RoboCop - Officer Alex Murphy was killed in the line of duty and resurrected by a team of scientists as a crime-fighting cyborg called RoboCop.
- Captain America - While taking on the Red Skull, Captain America fell into the sea where he was frozen until the present day.
- Thor - Thor was banished from his home world and ended up on Earth.
- He-Man and She-Ra - They were brother and sister twins. They were separated due to their enemies Hordak and Skeletor. He-Man lived in Eternia, She-Ra lived in Etheria.
- Xena - Xena was the chosen one to fight all that is evil, although she was separated from her parents during war.
- Conan the Barbarian - Conan's family was killed in the films or turned to stone in the cartoon. He swears to destroy all evil within his land.
- Daredevil - He was blinded by chemicals, and he devotes to fight crime as Daredevil, but he's normally Matt Murdock.
- The Punisher - His family was killed by mobsters, and Frank Castle devotes to fight crime as the Punisher.
- Harry Potter - He is a wizard and his parents were killed by Voldemort, who left him with a scar.
- Wolverine - After he got bone claws, his claws fused with adamantium, and he escapes the pool he was in, the very same pool which made his bones become adamantium.
- Ghost Rider - He is a motorcycle stuntman. Possessed by a demon to take on crime.
- Machete - Machete was a man with an injured leg befriended by his priest brother.
- The Biker Mice From Mars - They came from Mars, their world that was enslaved by Plutarkians (1993) and Catatonians (2006), to our world. They consist of Modo, Vinnie, and their leader Throttle.
- Captain Marvel (Shazam) - A boy named Billy shouts "Shazam!" to become Captain Marvel.
- Strider Hiryu - A brave assassin sent by the Striders to kill Grandmaster Meio.
- Mega Man - Mega Man was the second creation of Dr. Light/Dr. Wright after the failed Proto Man. Dr. Wily, a world dominator-to-be, wanted Mega Man dead or alive by turning Dr. Light's creations against the good doctor.
- King Arthur - According to legend, when he was a boy, he pulled out a sword from a stone, thus becoming king.
- Puss in Boots - He was an orphaned talking cat, who befriended Humpty Alexander Dumpty at an orphanage. They both stole different types of beans in the search of the magic beans. After some time, Puss gave up stealing things. But, Humpty, unable to steal without the cat's help, tricked him into a bank robbery. From then on, Puss became a fugitive from law, searching a way to clear his name.
- Arrow - Oliver Queen was a billionaire playboy who was shipwrecked on an island in the middle of the Pacific. Five years later he returns home on a quest to save his city.
- The Joker - Famous for not having a definitive origin story - sometimes, he remembers it one way and sometimes another way, but the generally accepted (though not definitive) origin is described as follows : An unnamed criminal using the persona of the Red Hood fell in a vat of chemicals that turned his hair green, his skin pale, and his lips red. Driven insane by this trauma, he then makes various gag-themed weapons and a toxin that kills people and leaves them with hideous grins frozen on their cadavers' faces. During his criminal career, he becomes Batman's arch-foe.
- Two-Face - District Attorney Harvey Dent had the left side of his face horribly scarred after criminal Salvatore Maroni threw acid in his face on trial. Harvey took a two-headed silver dollar and carved one side to make a coin he'd use to decide if he would do an act of good or evil. Since that moment, Harvey Dent became the criminal Two-Face.
- Green Goblin - Norman Osborn became the insane and malevolent Green Goblin after a side effect to his experimental super serum. He then invented weapons to use to combat Spider-Man.
- Doctor Octopus - Otto Octavius became one of Spider-Man's greatest enemies after an accident fused four mechanical tentacles to his body.
- Bizarro - An imperfect and evil duplicate of Superman formed from an attempt to clone the Man of Steel.
Comic book depictions
- Batman: Year One (1987)
- Wonder Woman: Gods and Mortals (1987)
- Judge Dredd: Origins
- Secret Origins
- The origin of Superman
- Rise of Apocalypse (1997)
- Origin - Wolverine
- Hatfield, Charles et al. (2013). The Superhero Reader. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi. p. 3. ISBN 9781617038068.
- Romagnoli, Alex S.; Pagnucci, Gian S. (2013). "Introduction". Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Books. p. 3. ISBN 0-810-89171-9.
- Romagnoli, Alex S.; Pagnucci, Gian S. (2013). "6. Superhero Storytelling". Enter the Superheroes: American Values, Culture, and the Canon of Superhero Literature. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Books. p. 109. ISBN 0-810-89171-9.
- Duncan, Randy; Smith, Matthew J. (2013). Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. (Series: Greenwood icons). Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press. p. 684. ISBN 9780313399237.
- O'Neil, Dennis (2012). "Introduction". In Travis Langley. Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 2. ISBN 978-1-118-16765-6.
He evolved. The essence of what his creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, brought to the party in 1939 hadn't changed much: the nocturnal vigilante endlessly and symbolically avenging his parents' murders; an origin tale stark and simple and primal and, I submit, perfect. But virtually everything else did change over the decades: costumes and supporting cast and crime-fighting gadgetry and the kinds of crimes fought and the kinds of villains... The range of stories appearing under the Batman logo went from farcical to macabre, while always being a Batman. Not the Batman - there is no the Batman - but a Batman, one appropriate to whatever was contemporary.
- Langley, Travis (2012). "1. Beneath the Cowl: Who is Batman?". Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-118-16765-6.
His origin is tragic and brutally believable. It taps the most primal of our childhood fears: A family outing twists into tragedy when a mugger guns his parents down before his eyes.
- Uslan, Michael (2012). "3. The Trauma". In Travis Langley. Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 35. ISBN 978-1-118-16765-6.
This is such a primal origin story. A kid watches his parents murdered in front of his eyes on a concrete altar of blood and at that moment sacrifices his childhood and makes a commitment, a commitment that he intends to honor even if he has to walk through hell for the rest of his life to get the guy who did this, to get all the bad guys... it all starts with the origin.
- Porter, Alan J. (2013). "The Dubious Origins of the Batman: Who Did What - And Does it Really Matter?". In Dennis O'Neil. Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City. (Smart Pop series). Dallas, Texas: BenBella Books, Inc. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-933-77130-4.
The origin story of the Batman is an essential part of his mythos. The small details may vary with each interpretation, but the underlying theme of loss and vengeance is as integral to the legend as the cape and the cowl. From comics to books, radio, television, and the movies, almost every time the Batman story is told[,] this single event is referenced.
- Tallon, Philip (2012). "6. With Great Power Comes Great Culpability: How Blameworthy is Spider-Man for Uncle Ben's Death?". In Jonathan J. Sanford. Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry. (Blackwell philosophy and pop culture series). Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. pp. 86, 99. ISBN 978-0-470-57560-4.
Ben's death is not only an important event in the life of Peter Parker, it may also be the most famous fatality in all of comics - not to mention one of the only final fatalities. ... [T]he death of Peter Parker's uncle powerfully shapes his hero ethos and his desire to fight crime. ... [Footnote 1] There are three notable differences between the film and the comic versions of the Spider-Man origin. The first is that in the comic, Peter Parker was not provoked in any way to allow the thief to escape (as he was in the film by the rude behavior of the promoter). The second is that in Amazing Fantasy #15, Uncle Ben never utters the line "With great power comes great responsibility." Rather, this line is stated in the final narration. The third is that in the film, Uncle Ben is killed while waiting for Peter in the car, but in the comic, he's killed in a home invasion. Notably, in more recent issues of the comic, Uncle Ben's murder and the origin of the "great responsibility" line have been retroactively changed ("retconned") to fit with the movie version.
- Duncan, Randy; Smith, Matthew J. (2013). Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman. (Series: Greenwood icons) 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press. p. 684. ISBN 9780313399237.
In the final panel of his origin story, a devastated Spider-Man turns away from readers: 'a lean and silent figure' fades 'into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power must also come - great responsibility!' (Amazing Fantasy #15, 1962).