A Comic Book Entry – The Origin of the Hero

When DC rebooted/retconned/screwed up their universe a couple of years ago, Wonder Woman’s origin was changed to something distinctly different than the ’80s change.  It bothers the hell out of me, but as I’ve stated before when I criticize something, I want to make sure I know the difference between having good reasons for disliking a medium/event/whatnot and disliking a medium/event/whatnot because of matters of taste and personal preference.  I’ve already discussed the origin of heroes in the sense of the mechanism by which they get their power.  However, that got me to thinking that an origin story is the combination of two distinct events:
1) The mechanism by which the hero gets their power
2) The catalyst for becoming a hero
These two are actually not usually the same thing and to me the catalyst for becoming a hero is much more important than the mechanism itself.  So, I will explain using the origins of iconic heroes (forgive me if I get some details wrong; so many years of retcons and reboots will result in different amalgams of the origin stories and thus different interpretations).

Of course I’m starting with Spider-man.  His origin hasn’t been changed to much since Amazing Fantasy #15.  He’s a high school loser, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider, he initially uses his powers for selfish reasons, Uncle Ben is killed by a criminal Peter could have stopped, and this tragedy convinces him to use his powers for the greater good.  Here’s the breakdown:
1) A radioactive spider bite (science origin).
2) Peter’s sense of responsibility for failing to prevent Uncle Ben’s death.
These two items are clearly not the same.  I think that’s why in the Raimi movie trilogy, and even in the unnecessary Sony reboot, changing the spider from having been irradiated to being genetically engineered doesn’t actually make a big difference to the origin story.  To me, the mechanism by which Peter gets his powers is much less important than the catalyst.  That’s why in pretty much every adaptation and retcon, the death of Uncle Ben is always preserved.  Taking responsibility for himself is the core of Peter’s character.  How he got his powers (whether the spider was irradiated or genetic engineered or even magic [which I know a lot of people didn’t like]) doesn’t really matter.

Captain America:
Wimpy Steven Rogers volunteers for the U.S. Army during WWII but is rejected for service because he’s unfit.  He volunteers instead for a secret program to create super soldiers, and it works.
1) Super-soldier serum (science origin).
2) A innate sense of duty.
Perhaps the catalyst to be a hero seems somewhat lame.  Steve Rogers is really just that good of a guy.  But that’s the heart of the character.  If Steve had actually been fit for service, the way the character is portrayed leaves no doubt he would have been a great soldier.  And frankly I don’t mind that Captain America doesn’t actually have a catalyst to become a hero.  The real world has lots of people who step up and choose to put their lives in danger for the sake of others (soldiers, firefighters, cops).  I couldn’t do it and I admire those who can.

Everyone knows this.  This origin hasn’t changed since Detective Comics.  Little Bruce Wayne sees his parents murdered in front of him and vows to fight crime.
1) Technology and money (natural and tech origins).
2) A deep sense of injustice brought upon by witnessing his parents killed in front of him.
Batman is an interesting case as far as the origin of the hero.  He vowed to fight crime as a child.  The catalyst came before the powers.  He had to develop the powers after he had already made the choice.  With great responsibility came great power.  Again, this catalyst is updated with perhaps a different take on who the shooter actually was, but no matter how many times the story is told, Bruce Wayne ends up an orphan.

The last survivor of a dead world who has fantastic powers based on his alien physiology.
1) Alien physiology (natural origin).
2) Idealized Midwestern upbringing.
There was no single incident as far as I know that caused Superman to decide to be a hero.  He had powers beyond that of humans and was encouraged to use them for good.  This to me is one instance where the mechanism by which Clark got his power and the catalyst to become a hero are kind of the same thing.  Clark grew up with his powers and influenced how the Kents raised him.  In this case, the power and the catalyst are inseparable (and is part and parcel of why I really disliked Man of Steel [among other factors]).

Wonder Woman:
Originally, created from clay to grow up as a princess on the island of Amazons.  The Amazons were warriors and either of their origins (original or 1980s) left them on an island paradise (hence called Paradise Island) cut off from the main world (Man’s World).
1) Amazonian warrior and the gods (magic origin).
2) Amazonian warrior charged to bring peace to Man’s World.
Wonder Woman is another character I could argue that the mechanism by which she received her powers and catalyst to be a hero were much the same.  In her WWII origin, there was a more distinct catalyst in the form of Steve Trevor crashing on the island and needing to be returned, but Diana entered a contest to prove she was worthy of doing so despite her mother’s wishes.  That indicates she already wanted to be something great.  In the 1980s, she had more direct superpowers and it seems was always meant to be the Amazonian representative in Man’s World.

The Fantastic Four:
Reed Richards wants to test a theory and asks his best friend and pilot Ben Grimm to help him hijack a shuttle and for some reason brings along his girlfriend Sue Storm and her younger brother Johnny.  They are bombarded with “cosmic radiation” and upon returning to Earth find they have fantastic powers.
1) Cosmic radiation (science origin).
2) They have powers.
I’m serious.  I put the FF in here because there isn’t a particular catalyst that causes them to become heroes.  They’re all standing around with their new powers and discussing what to do when Ben looks at Reed and says something to the effect of, “You’re going to say we have to use our powers for good, right?”  And that’s it.  This isn’t the result of some terrible tragedy like Spider-man or Batman.  This isn’t some innate sense of duty like Captain America.  This isn’t an upbringing that encouraged them to be something great (like Superman and Wonder Woman).  They just decide they have to be heroes.

The origin of the FF demonstrates (at least to me) that the catalyst for becoming a hero is probably more important than the mechanism for gaining powers.  I like the FF and their characters have certainly been more developed since that first issue.  But characters like Spider-man and Batman and Captain America all had their reasons for deciding to be a hero much more clearly illustrated.  As a slight tangent, I think an origin story in which there is a clear catalyst for the hero becoming a hero is easier to translate to film.  This makes Spider-man and Batman’s stories pretty easy to put on the big screen, but it’s harder for Superman and Captain America (although it certainly can be done).

I also think, although this may be blasphemy, that the mechanism for gaining a power can be changed much more easily than the catalyst.  I don’t always agree with how that is done or the reasons why.  At this point, the heroes and their powers are entrenched, but in that very first published origin story, would it have mattered if Peter Parker had been bitten by any other kind of irradiated critter?  Sure, his powers would change but the catalyst to be a hero and his character aren’t dependent on his power.

So if this is the case, why does Wonder Woman’s new 52 origin bother me?  In case you don’t know, the “made from clay” origin is a lie Hippolyta told the Amazons and Diana to protect her because Diana is really (dun dun DUN) a daughter of Zeus.  I find this terribly generic and unnecessary.  However, by the criteria above does this really matter?  Well, unfortunately, Paradise Island seems much less so and Wonder Woman is coming across as more of a distaff counterpart to Hercules and less of the Spirit of Truth and compassionate warrior she was in the previous incarnations.  In fact, the Spirit of Truth has been re-imagined as the product of lies, betrayal, and adultery.  Nice.  This, to me, very much alters the catalyst for being a hero and I don’t think this is a good direction for Wonder Woman.

But for the sake of argument let’s assume the only aspect of her origin that was changed was the mechanism by which she got her powers.  She’s still a magic origin who knows her origin, but instead of being made from clay, she’s a daughter of Zeus.  From Greek mythology, it’s well-known Zeus got around, and that many of his male offspring went on to be heroes (like Hercules and Perseus).  The female offspring were highly attractive (Helen of Troy) but not heroes (her twin sister Clymnestra).  The idea of Zeus getting it on with Hippolyta isn’t outside the realm of possibility. It’s not as though the origin doesn’t have precedence.  But I still don’t like it.

a) Part of my problem with this revised origin is that it seems unnecessary and I’m not sure it creates more story possibilities than it eliminates (I’m actually working out my thoughts on when a retcon is necessary).  The story possibilities I see that this creates?  Daddy issues and Hera trying to kill her, which I’m pretty sure I’ve already seen done on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.  Possibilities this eliminates?  Oh, pretty much anything that’s been done in her 70 odd years of continuity.  I’m not saying the writers have to rehash the old stuff (although they are), but that’s a good source of inspiration.  Heck, Circe once defeated Wonder Woman by returning her to the clay from which she came.  That’s a creative way to defeat a hero I approve of.  Now?  Circe can stab her, I guess?

b) This leads me to the other part of my problem with this revised origin: it’s generic and it has been done before.  Wonder Woman’s character is now Hercules’ distaff counterpart and has the same origin as pre-new 52 Wonder Girl.  I said that I thought the popularity of Xena: Warrior Princess was a good gauge to show that a Wonder Woman movie could also be popular, but I certainly didn’t want Wonder Woman to be Xena.  Being created from clay is a unique origin in sea of generic origins.  How many heroes have been randomly irradiated?  How many were just born that way?  How many vowed to seek justice for wrongs?  It is really hard to think of a creative mechanism to give a hero powers (that’s why Marvel has mutants in the first place).  But creation and blessing by the gods is different and it helps set Wonder Woman apart from other characters.  Why get rid of that origin for something less interesting?

I guess that’s something I’ll explore another time.  For now, I think I’ve made my case that in general the mechanism by which a hero gets power is different from the catalyst that makes a hero, and in many cases, it’s the catalyst that’s more important.


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S. J. Drew is an aspiring writer who finally entered the blogosphere to shamelessly promote that writing (as evidenced by the title of the blog). Whether or not this works remains to be seen, but S. J. hopes you are at least entertained. And if you're actually reading this, that's probably a good sign.

2 thoughts on “A Comic Book Entry – The Origin of the Hero”

  1. There’s also the fact that Wonder Woman’s new origin is now essentially a ripoff of the second Wonder Girl’s origin…or at least what the latter’s origin was in the pre-New 52 DC universe. Another problem is the fact that the gynocentric/feminist slant to Wonder Woman’s origin has now been completely eliminated, which detracts from the character somewhat. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I’m going to give it the old college try.

    From what I can recall – and please don’t quote me on this as I’m a bit fuzzy on details – in her pre-Crisis origin story, Wonder Woman was molded from clay and later bequeathed with powers by various gods, demigods, and goddesses. George Perez’s post-Crisis origin kept most of this intact, but added the fact that her soul was that of a baby that Hippolyta had been pregnant with in her previous life before being murdered by her mate/husband.

    Common to both the pre and post-Crisis origins is that Wonder Woman’s conception occurred completely without male involvement. She was molded from clay by a woman and brought to life by a trio of female goddesses. Aside from perhaps one or two of her abilities (and possibly the creation of her soul, depending on your school of though on that matter), she was all “girl power”. Now she’s the illegitimate daughter of Zeus, which not only makes her incredibly generic considering that about half the Olympian pantheon was made up of his illegitimate children, but also means that her superhuman powers come entirely from a man. I consider that a pretty big step down. -_-;

    1. I agree with you. I think since Wonder Woman was initially created to be a role model for girls, her creator, who surely knew about Greek mythology, deliberately set her origin as something both apart from mere mortals and also apart from the influence of a man. She was meant to be about “girl power” from the beginning. I also think if her creator had wanted her to just be a daughter of Zeus (since it’s evident to me he was familiar with Greek mythology), that would have been her story to begin with.

      Of course, this gets into a debate about does it matter what the creator intended since that was 70 years ago? Normally for a character with such a long history I would minimize the impact of the creator’s intention on the character but I don’t think that’s appropriate in this case. Wonder Woman wasn’t meant to just be another superhero; she was created with a purpose and the new origin undermines that purpose. To me, this is just further evidence that the inmates running the asylum don’t understand the characters very well.

      I’ll probably discuss Wonder Woman’s origin change again once I’ve really collected my thoughts on it. For the pro-new 52 side, they’d probably say since she’s supposed to be all new and introduced to new readers, “daughter of Zeus” is an easier origin to understand than “made from clay and blessed by gods.” Of course, once upon a time I was a new reader and I had no trouble understanding “made from clay and blessed by gods.” But I was a strange kid and had read a translation of “The Iliad” and Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” by the time I was ten. Honestly, I think I would have found “daughter of Zeus” to be boring and uninteresting because I’d already read all about that.

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