The rant on soft retcons got me thinking more about the origins of superheroes and supervillains and other ways that is often changed.
Is there anything more important for a superhero or supervillain than their origin story? This story is what gives them motivation, gives them cause, makes them who they are. Would Superman be Superman if he had not crash-landed on the Kent farm? Would Lex Luthor be Lex Luthor if Superman had not caused him to go bald? Oh, right, that’s not his origin story anymore. Yes, even this most important and definitive story is often tweaked and sometimes outright retconned, although it is usually a soft retcon so readers won’t send in reams of angry hate mail.
Super-origins generally fall into one of five categories, which I am borrowing from the much lamented, late, great City of Heroes/Villains MMORPG:
1) Natural – the hero/villain gained their powers through hard work and training, or has some kind of powers inherent to their species.
2) Magic – the hero/villain gained their powers though some encounter with magical forces or is a wielder of magical forces.
3) Mutant – the hero/villain is not a member of a species with known powers and was born with them anyway. Legend has it Stan Lee came up with this one because he was tired of thinking up new origin stories.
4) Science – the hero/villain was involved in some sort of scientific experiment and/or accident and gained powers from the fall-out. A LOT of heroes/villains have this origin.
5) Technology – the hero/villain has some sort of gadgetry or other technology device that provides powers.
These can overlap (science and technology very often do) and some heroes/villains can fall into two categories. For instance, Batman is both natural (he trained himself to peak physical condition amongst other skills) and technology (bat-gadgetry galore). Sometimes the overlapping origins don’t make an awful lot of sense. Cloak and Dagger had a science origin (don’t do drugs, kids) but it connected them to quasi-magical dimensions of Darkforce and Lightforce. I don’t mind overlapping origins too much, at least as long as it makes sense (oh, and Cloak and Dagger are now mutants; argh!).
Some heroes/villains acquire other origins over time. Technically, anyone not a mutant starts out natural, it’s just that most natural doesn’t involve powers (unless the character is an alien that gets a funky high on a yellow sun). Wolverine started out a mutant, but it was science that gave him the adamantium skeleton that he’s just as famous for. This kind of change to an origin story doesn’t bother me too much. However, Nick Fury started out as natural, but it was a scientific super-soldier serum (but not Captain America’s serum) that allows him to somehow still be alive and kicking despite getting his start way back in WWII. That kind of change does bother me because to me, that’s just lazy writing. It doesn’t really enhance his character; it’s simply an excuse for him not being a decrepit old man.
A brief tangent (please bear with me). There is a wonderful game by Steve Jackson called “Munchkin.” The tagline is, “Kill the Monsters. Steal the Treasure. Stab your Buddy.” The original Munchkin has a distinct Dungeons and Dragons flair and makes fun of the type of player who would cheat and actually stab other players in the back for the loot and experience points and be totally baffled when all the other players beat the hell out of them for that. Munchkin has eleven versions including Super Munchkin, which has a distinct superhero flair. Naturally enough, it includes origins, although this being a silly game, the origins are things like, “Bitten by a Radioactive Chihuahua” and “Stubbed Toe on Block of Radioactive Stuff.” Origins give you powers which allow to kill monsters (the highest level monster is “Big Ol’ Planet Eater Guy“). The best part as far as the game goes is that you can have as many origins as you draw from the deck, no matter how ridiculous it makes your overall origin. But when this starts to happen in the comics, that upsets me.
Here are some of the most egregious examples (to me), from Marvel, which is the universe I know better. Please note, these are examples of characters jumping origin categories in ways that really don’t make sense. Sometimes characters can change origin stories and still be in the same category (and it still doesn’t makes sense [i.e., Power Girl‘s natural origin changing from Kryptonian to Atlantean]):
1) Spider-man – He has a science origin as he was bitten by a radioactive spider. In fact, this was not changed. What was changed was the nature of the spider that bit him. In that story arc, Spider-man learns that the spider was actually magical, and that’s why he got super-powers instead of dying from radiation poisoning. The story followed Spider-man learning all about the magical nature of his origin (so he switched from science to magic) and eventually people decided they didn’t like that, even though in some ways it made more sense, and preferred the original origin. Thus, it was undone.
2) Angel/Archangel – Warren Worthington should have been easy. He was born with wings and therefore a mutant. Unfortunately for Warren, Apocalypse thought he’d make a swell harbinger of death and used both technology to transform him, giving him the mutant/tech origin. After a while, he got better less deathy although still stuck with the tech. But now the story is that he’s actually a descendant of an ancient species of winged humanoids, in which case he loses his mutant original and is now tech/natural. I may just be confused on this one, but it seems like the writers are trying to make him more angel (divine resurrection and all that) instead of just a winged mutant and he may in time even acquire the magic origin.
3) Namor – [Edited because I initially did not do the research] This one should have been easy too. I assumed Namor was a natural origin, but in fact was advertised as Marvel’s “first mutant,” so there was my mistake for not checking. I guess that makes sense since why would Atlanteans have wings? Namor was originally a natural origin, being an Atlantean. For a while he was being called a “hybrid” but has actually been a mutant for some time. Except now he is somehow both a hybrid (of human and Atlantean) despite having characteristics of neither species, which I guess makes him natural, but still a mutant on top of that. Someone drew the 1/3 Breed card from the Munchkin deck.
4) Ms. Marvel/Warbird/Captain Marvel – Carol Danvers has almost as many origins as she does codenames. She started off a natural hero (no powers, just Air Force training) but an explosion of an alien device switches her origin to science. Except that the explosion turned her into a human/Kree hybrid, so we’re back to natural? But then Rogue drains Ms. Marvel of all her powers so she’s definitely back to natural but with no powers at all. A stint with the X-men in space results in alien experimentation and Carol’s science origin and powers are restored. I think she’s still science origin right now.
5) Jubilee – I feel sorry for Jubilee. I liked her, but somehow she ended up getting shafted in the comics. Obviously she started out as a mutant, but after the House of M she lost her powers. Then she got a suit of power armor which made her a tech origin hero. Then it got stupid, and part of this is because Marvel mixed up their origins long before Jubilee made the scene. In Marvel, vampires are magical but somehow also science because their curse is actually a virus. Kind of. Anyway, Jubilee got splashed with vampire blood that infected her with the curse so now her origin is magic/science.
6) Psylocke – Poor, poor Betsy Braddock. Her original origin was that she was a mutant with telepathic powers. Then through a literal deus ex machina, she had her soul switched with a ninja, which changed her original to natural. Except that despite the ninja body not actually having the X-gene, she still had her powers, making her a mutant/natural. Oh, and because the transference of souls was done through magical means, that makes her a mutant/natural/magic origin. Any Munchkin would be proud.
Ultimately, I think such multiple origins generally weaken the characters and stories. Yes, the origin story is somewhat limiting to the character’s scope of powers, but that’s not a bad thing (power creep also weakens stories). When so much happens to a character’s origin story, especially one like Psylocke, I can’t help but wonder why the creative team didn’t just bring in a new character instead of so fundamentally altering an existing one. Origin stories are important and I don’t think they should be changed so lightly, and especially not in ways that make me think of a parody card game like Munchkin.