The secret origin is a standard part of every superhero and supervillain’s story. It is designed to establish what the character wants and why they do what they do, and to set the tone for all future stories in which they are the focus. As such, it’s important to make sure you craft an origin that really reflects your character and that will stick in the reader’s mind, like having them be born a warrior princess on a secret island or get sent to Earth just as their home planet is dying. But if you can’t think of anything unique, you can always steal another character’s secret origin, paste in your own character’s face and name, and hope no one notices.
That latter option was the one chosen by the creators whose work is represented in this list. And while we can’t entirely blame them for cutting corners — being creative is hard work and speed was paramount, particularly in the early days of the comic book industry — we can certainly point and giggle at the obvious plagiarism. So now let’s sit back, relax and pour one out for all the characters who weren’t lucky enough to start their careers by watching their parents get murdered over a necklace.
15. MARTIAN MANHUNTER FROM THE VISION
Before the red-skinned synthezoid took the name of the Vision, Golden Age comic book readers got to know a very different hero by that name. Aarkus was minding his own business in his own dimension when scientist Dr. Mason figured out how to travel through dimensions using smoke. Aarkus comes to Earth just in time to stop gangsters from destroying Mason’s life’s work and is shortly thereafter dubbed the Vision.
But Aarkus was not the last green-skinned alien to be summoned to Earth by an unwitting scientist. In his own lab, Dr. Erdel was working on a way to teleport between planets, which accidentally brought J’onn J’onzz from his home planet of Mars to Erdel’s laboratory. The main difference between these two stories is that, while Mason accepts Vision’s existence fairly easily, Erdel is so shocked by Martian Manhunter’s sudden appearance that he has a heart attack.
14. THE JOKER FROM PLASTIC MAN
While rushing through Crawford Chemical Works to escape the police, Eel O’Brian is shot and splashed with chemicals that, as he later discovers, give him the ability to stretch and shape his body at will. With the guidance of an order of monks, O’Brian gives up crime and becomes Plastic Man, a true hero determined to make up for his shameful past.
Ten years later, in 1951, it was revealed that The Joker also started out as a petty criminal, the Red Hood. He might have remained obscure forever had Batman not caught up with him at the Monarch Playing Card Company. Red Hood escapes by swimming out through the plant’s chemical-laced sewer. By the time he reaches dry land, his skin and hair have permanently changed color. Without any friendly monks to show him the error of his ways, Red Hood becomes The Joker, Gotham’s most notorious criminal.
13. BLACK WIDOW FROM BIG BARDA
The Black Widow’s background is a bit murky, and several theories have been floated about her origins over the years. One more recent story suggests she was raised in the Red Room, a Moscow-based program designed to take Russia’s most promising girls and turn them into world-class assassins. Does that sound familiar? It should, because that’s basically what happened to Big Barda, former resident of the aptly-named planet Apokalips.
Barda spent her entire life training to be one of Granny Goodness’ Female Furies. As the name would imply, the Furies are an all-female group of warriors raised from birth to serve only Darkseid, leader of Apokalips. It was only after Widow and Barda grew up that they began to realize their upbringing/brainwashing had maybe steered them wrong.
12. AQUAMAN FROM SUB-MARINER
When Aquaman made his debut in More Fun Comics #73, he took a few minutes to exposit about how he was a regular human who acquired his superhuman abilities from his father, a scientist who taught him how to breathe underwater. This is obviously quite silly, but it was noticeably different from the origin of that other water-themed, green scale-clad hero the Sub-Mariner, who was the product of a union between a human explorer and the princess of Atlantis.
It was only later, well after Sub-Mariner’s origin as the half-human, half-Atlantean ruler of Atlantis was established, that Aquaman’s origin changed; he revealed that he, too, was a half-human, half-Atlantean ruler of Atlantis, his mother being an exiled Atlantean princess. Wonder how Namor felt about that?
11. STORM FROM MODESTY BLAISE
Storm was orphaned at a young age and spent her childhood pickpocketing to survive. She was extremely good at it, but she eventually succumbed to the urge to go to Kenya, where she met an old woman who taught her how to use her mutant weather-controlling powers. Young Storm remained there until Professor Xavier offered her a place in the X-Men.
When Storm’s origins were revealed, it all must have sounded awfully familiar to fans of British adventurer Modesty Blaise. Blaise was a World War II refugee with no memory of her past life who wandered throughout Europe and Africa until she was found and taken in by another, older refugee. After making her fortune as a criminal, she retired to England and began running missions for the British Secret Service.
10. PANTHA FROM TIGRA
Greer Grant already had superpowers, courtesy of a stolen catsuit, by the time she was injured in a battle with Hydra in 1974. The only way to save her life was to take her to the Cat People, a race of humanoids evolved from, well, cats. The Cat People were able to transform Grant into one of them, thus saving her life. Afterwards, she renamed herself Tigra and continued her crimefighting career.
By contrast, in 1991, Rosabelle Mendez was just an ordinary student when she was kidnapped by another animal-themed group, this one called the Wildebeest Society, who turned her into a cat/human hybrid and erased her memories of her past life. She would go on to join the Teen Titans as Pantha before getting her head punched off — a fate that Tigra happily has not yet shared with her.
9. SPIDER-WOMAN FROM BEAST BOY
Jessica Drew and Gar Logan may not look anything alike, but they do have an origin story in common. When they were very young, each caught a fatal illness. Fortunately, each had a scientist father who just so happened to have some untested animal-based serum on hand that proved to be the one thing that could save their respective children from certain death.
But while both Gar and Jessica survived their ordeals, the experimental cures had some long-lasting effects — namely, animal-themed powers that each would later use to their advantage when they decided to be superheroes. Gar became Beast Boy, able to transform himself into any animal he could think of, while Jessica acquired a multitude of powers, including strength, speed, wall-crawling and pheromone-based emotional manipulation.
8. BLACK KNIGHT FROM SHINING KNIGHT
Aside from the obvious similarities in their names, the Shining Knight (aka Sir Justin) and the first Black Knight (aka Sir Percy) also share suspiciously similar origin stories. Sir Justin was a knight in King Arthur’s Court. So was Sir Percy. Sir Justin received his weapons from Merlin, a close ally of his. So did Sir Percy.
At this point, we’re pretty sure the only thing different about these characters is the fact that Shining Knight’s horse can fly, whereas it would take several generations of Black Knights before Percy’s descendant, Nathan Garrett, acquired a winged steed. As an added bonus, Sir Justin also provided inspiration to Captain America, who would find himself in the 20th century in exactly the same way Shining Knight did: by being frozen in ice and drifting along ocean currents until he arrived in the United States.
7. THOR FROM HAWKMAN
Odin has never been in danger of being named Father of the Year. When his son Thor annoys him one day, Odin erases his memory, takes his powers and abandons him on Earth to live as the human Dr. Don Blake. One day, when Blake is vacationing in Norway, he comes across a seemingly ordinary walking stick that transforms into Thor’s hammer Mjolnir and turns Blake into the Norse thunder god and prince of Asgard.
But as it turns out, Thor was not the first ancient being to find himself in the mortal body of an ordinary modern man. In Flash Comics #1, Carter Hall, who apparently has an unhealthy love of old weaponry, receives an Egyptian dagger as a present. Touching the dagger causes Hall to remember his past life as Khufu, prince of Egypt, who possessed several metal-based weapons that granted him superhuman abilities of his own.
6. SUPER-ADAPTOID FROM AMAZO
As the name would imply, the Super-Adaptoid is really super at adapting. Specifically, it — he? — is an android specially designed by Advanced Idea Mechanics to destroy any superhero he encounters. The Super-Adaptoid does this by copying the superpowers of his opponent(s) and using those powers against them. He went up against Captain America and lost before branching out to fight the likes of the Avengers and the X-Men, among others.
A power-absorbing android is actually a great idea, which is probably why A.I.M. was not the first to think of it: over at DC Comics, Professor Ivo had already designed such an android, named Amazo, with the ability to absorb and mimic the superpower of any hero he encountered, specifically the heroes of the Justice League. Is there any mechanism by which mad scientists can sue each other for stealing their world domination schemes?
5. RED STAR FROM ANIMAL MAN
One of the lesser-known Titans, Red Star (aka Leonid Kovar) gained his powers from a spaceship that his father Konstantin was studying. Like a responsible adult, Konstantin Kovar brought his teenage son along to the crash site, where Leonid mucked about with the ship’s controls and got a face full of radiation, as well as increased strength and speed.
Something similar happened earlier to Buddy Baker, not yet known as Animal Man, who had the spectacular good timing to be standing close by when an alien spaceship crashed where Baker was hunting with a friend. This spaceship, too, was in a generous mood and bestowed upon Baker the ability to adopt the characteristics of any animal he encountered. We guess the similarity in these men’s origins is not all that surprising; with all the extraterrestrial races running in the DC Universe, crash landings must be a weekly occurrence.
4. JASON TODD FROM DICK GRAYSON
Dick Grayson was the first of many orphans that the quote/unquote “loner” Batman took under his wing. After Dick’s parents, circus aerialists who performed under the name the Flying Graysons, were murdered by a gangster trying to extort money from the circus owner, Batman effectively adopted Dick. He trained the boy in the ways of the crimefighter so that Dick would be able to ensure his parents’ killer was brought to justice.
Dick finally grew up and left the Bat-nest to become Nightwing, but Batman was not alone for long. Soon enough, he encountered the recently orphaned Jason Todd. How was Jason orphaned? His parents, circus aerialists who performed under the name the Flying Todds, were murdered by a gangster trying to extort money from the circus owner. Fortunately, after “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” Jason’s origin got a much-needed revision.
3. RICHARD DRAGON FROM DOCTOR STRANGE
When ex-surgeon Stephen Strange goes to Tibet seeking magical counsel from a famous sorcerer known only as the Ancient One, Strange’s obvious self-absorption and sense of entitlement earn him a firm rebuff. But the Ancient One senses there is more to Strange than snobbery, and he ultimately agrees to teach him the dark arts. After years of training, Strange returns to New York and begins to use his abilities to help others rather than himself.
It’s a pretty solid origin story, so far as White Savior tales go. So it’s no surprise that it was recycled some years later as the origin of future kung-fu master Richard Dragon, another white American ne’er-do-well who is trained by a wise old Asian man, this one named O-Sensei, to become the best there is at what he does.
2. METAMORPHO FROM BLUE BEETLE
The Blue Beetle has gone through quite a few changes in abilities, costumes and secret identities since his first appearance in 1939. When the original Blue Beetle, Dan Garrett, received a reboot in 1964, we learned that he gained superhuman strength, flight and other powers from an ancient blue scarab he unearthed while in Egypt.
In 1965, Rex Mason also went to Egypt and stumbled upon a fragment of meteorite secreted inside a pyramid. Exposure to the meteorite transformed Mason into Metamorpho, the Element Man. That makes Beetle and Metamorpho the second and third heroes on this list to get their powers from an Egyptian artifact. With all these mystical power-giving objects people keep finding in Egypt, it’s a wonder the locals aren’t all flying around and shooting x-rays beams from their eyes.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA FROM THE SHIELD
It’s the early ’40s. Nazism is sweeping Europe. The innocent peoples of the world are crying out for a hero, and American-based scientists answer that call by developing a process by which ordinary men can gain fantastic powers. German saboteurs target the project with tragic results, but the scientists are not deterred. A willing test subject steps forward, putting his own life on the line in the hopes of becoming the hero the world so desperately needs.
The experiment is a roaring success, granting the test subject superhuman strength. Donning a red-white-and-blue costume, he vows to devote his life and his powers to defending freedom and justice all over the world. Who are we describing: the Shield, a semi-obscure hero originally published by MLJ Comics, or Marvel’s world-famous Captain America, who made his comic book debut less than a year later? The answer is yes.
Which of these origin story thieves is the most guilty? Let us know in the comments!
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