Superheroes have an odd history with origin stories. That’s a weird sentence, right? “A history with origin stories?” What does that even mean? Origins are supposed to just be, well, origins, the point from which the rest of the narrative originates. So, if origins are supposed to be simple, why is it that superheroes can’t seem to get past them? Why is it that the ignition behind the stories we tell often become the vehicle itself? Well, I think there’s an interesting answer behind all of this and it stems from the most basic underpinning of the American comic book: these stories are meant to last forever. When stories are told for as long as the four-color variety, origins aren’t necessarily set in stone.
See, when crafting a story, origins are often treated as sacrosanct. Take, oh, let’s say, Harry Potter, for instance. In 1980, Harry was born to Lily and James Potter. A year later, Lord Voldemort tries to kill Harry over a prophesized future trashing. Voldemort kills Harry’s parents and almost kills Harry but his spell backfires and he vanishes. Harry is taken to live with his aunt and uncle, a mysterious lightning bolt-shaped scar upon his forehead from the attack. This origin sets in motion and influences every piece of the narrative from this point on. Nothing changes about this story, but everything is changed by it.
Now, let’s take a look at, oh, Tony Stark. As I’m sure you’re aware, Stark is Iron Man, quite possibly the most popular hero in America at the moment (well, maybe it’s Batman, but we’ll get to him). In 1963, Tony is an arms dealer during the Vietnam War, selling weapons to the American military to help them fight the communists. While overseas, Tony sets off a Viet-Cong booby trap and ends up a captive. A piece of shrapnel lodged in his heart, Tony crafts an armored suit to save his life and escape his captors to return home. Oh, wait, no, that’s not right. See, Tony was actually field testing ordinance in Afghanistan in the 1990’s. Oh, and he was adopted, because, well, okay, there’s this alien robot who wants to advance human civilization so it approaches Tony’s dad (his adoptive dad, not his real dad, who’s a Hydra agent) and tells him that he’ll help him conceive a baby if he allows it to experiment on it so that it can lead the earth to a technological utopia but the baby gets sick and the Starks don’t want the robot to kill their baby so they adopt Tony to cover their tracks and Tony grew up never knowing he was adopted or that he had a brother who was the techno-messiah of the planet which lead Tony’s father to push him to be everything his brother couldn’t which, in turn, lead Tony to having the worst daddy complex in the universe and become the alcoholic arms dealer we know and love.
Traditional narratives have set story points. They have beginnings, middles, ends. The origins surrounding these events are, more often than not, set in stone from the beginning and don’t change. Sure, there are facets of origins that are revealed later that can change how we view the main characters and every previous event, but the fundamental origin story remains the same. John McClain is John McClain, a cop who just wants to be with his estranged wife again. Indiana Jones is a man raised by a traveling professor who has a penchant for adventure. Harry Potter is the Boy Who Lived.
Again, these are stories and characters with fixed points in their lives. You can chart it all out on a timeline and begin to see how they have changed and how world events have changed them.
This isn’t always true for characters within the comic book medium, specifically superheroes.
When the superhero was created in the 1930’s it was simply a vehicle for escapism. There weren’t elaborate origin stories or grounded events. Superman came from Krypton and landed on earth to be raised by the Kents. Batman’s parents were murdered before his eyes and he swore vengeance on all criminals. The Flash inhaled hard water vapors and didn’t need the train anymore. There wasn’t anything we could measure in these stories. There was simply Krypton, Smallville, and then Metropolis. Three locations defined by Superman growing up. We don’t know how long he was in Smallville before he went to Metropolis. We don’t know how long he’s been parading around Metropolis in his underwear. He just is. And these origins, simple though they may be, have never drastically changed because they have never been defined by a strict timeline. Superman can come to earth in 1930 or 2030, it doesn’t matter because it never mattered. Superheroes were viewed as a fad then. They were never meant to last forever.
Except that they did.
Now, the Superman model is how origins worked in comics up until the 1960’s. They were simple, they were vague, they were springboards. But then everything changed with Marvel Comics.
Marvel launched the latest superhero craze with the Fantastic Four, a group of explorers who were desperate to reach space before the communists. They didn’t account for cosmic rays and fell back to earth with strange, new superpowers. People loved it. These were heroes grounded in the today. They went to space in 1961, the same year that first fantastic issue was published. They made pop culture references of the day. Their adventures happened in real time. The characters aged. This started a trend for Marvel as they began to introduce more and more heroes into their nascent pantheon. Bruce Banner was exposed to gamma radiation due to Soviet spy interference. Tony Stark helped to root out commies in Vietnam. Spider-Man, Thor, Ant-Man, everyone was swept up in the 1960’s. Gone were the days of Krypton. Now we had Spider-Man, the great character find of 1963! In New York City, no less! These characters had fixed points of origin in stark contrast to their Distinguished Competition. Where DC characters operated on a timeless quality that could be placed on any sort of amorphous timeline, Marvel’s were incredibly timely.
Well, at least until they weren’t.
In 1968, everything changed. Franklin Richards was born to Reed and Sue of Fantastic Four fame. Up until this point, the characters had all aged in real time, had true life experiences marked by calendar events. But now things started to get a little wibbly-wobbly. Marvel never expected things to go as well as they had. They saw this as simply another superhero fad that would fade into obscurity with the turn of the decade. But that’s not what happened. The characters became too popular to die and to this day, Franklin Richards hasn’t reached the age of ten. Next year, he should be fifty. But Marvel decided to slow their stories down and adopt the now-infamous “Marvel Time.” See, they can’t have their characters age and change too drastically. They had just sold out to a large conglomerate and if these properties age and die like people, they won’t have brands they can sell. So, they began setting every subsequent Marvel story in the eternal “NOW.” Which means, sure, a Fantastic Four story can happen in 2014 but that means that they couldn’t have gone to space in 1961. No, now the FF went to space in the mystical “ten years ago” timeframe that allows them to be eternally young but robs the characters of their initial motivations. Communists reaching space in 1961? Who cares? We’re going to cross dimensional barriers to discover new life because it’s 2002.
Marvel lost its timeliness to become timeless. And, I can’t really say that was a bad idea, but it certainly loses something unique to the universe.
But, it brings up an interesting facet of superhero comics and origin stories, something that is inherent to a medium that is supposed to live ad infinitum. See, where traditional narrative origin tales are fixed at the beginning of the “Beginning/Middle/End” stories, superhero origin tales exist in this weird beginning of sorts in the “Beginning/Middle” stories. Their stories aren’t supposed to end. Which means they can’t age or change in the same way standard characters are supposed to. They are constantly changing character’s origins to fit the needs of the now, rather than the now continuously being influenced by the origin. They change origin stories so often that Marvel crafted an event around it in 2014’s “Original Sin.” Everyone had their origin reexamined, to the point that Tony Stark was at fault for creating the Hulk, not Soviet spies.
Origins are constantly shifting in superhero comics to fit the times they are published in. They’re malleable to such an extent that where Indiana Jones is always going to be 37 during Raiders, Peter Parker is always going to be five years from thirty. It’s interesting that superheroes have taken this integral part of story structure and completely made it their own. They’ve co-opted the narrative device so well that eyes begin to roll when they hear the phrase “origin story” attached to any new superhero material.
But I don’t think that the ever-changing origin is something to be completely dismissed as negative. It can breathe new life into older franchises that have been in constant publication for almost a century. It can add a sense of mystery and compel new legions of fans to become enraptured by these iconic characters.
Or we can get “The Secret Origin of Tony Stark,” techno-messiahs and all.
It’s a fine line.