It is important to never underestimate the importance of a superhero origin. There’s no coincidence that the majority of superhero films are, in effect, film adaptations of the character’s origins. Heck, in a lot of cases, you will see the character’s origin told all over again every time the franchise has been rebooted, no matter how familiar said origin story is to the world. The origin often shows just why readers should care about your character and what motivates your character (plus, of course, if your character has powers, how they got them).
Some origins are revealed as soon as a character is introduced, while others saw their origin filled in after the fact. It is interesting to note that there doesn’t really seem to be much of a difference in quality between the two approaches, so there’s clearly no “right” time to introduce a superhero’s origin.
Here, then, are the 15 greatest superhero origins of all-time.
Dave Stevens’ origin for Cliff Secord, the man known as the Rocketeer, was a striking example of just how simple but effective an origin can be. Debuting as a back-up in 1982’s “Starslayer” #2, Cliff Secord was a stunt pilot in 1938 who came to see his plane when he saw a police disturbance. As it turned out, some bad guys had stolen an experimental rocket pack and hidden it in his hangar when they were arrested by the police. Discovering the hidden rocket, Secord began to put together an outfit he could wear while testing the pack out. While he was planning how to do so, he blew off his next flying gig and a drunk pilot filled in.
When Secord realized that the drunk was going to die, he had to make an instant choice: risk his life by trying to use the rocket pack to save the drunk or play it safe and do nothing? It is in moments like these that a hero is truly born. Again, it’s a simple origin, but it is so universally appealing that it really works well (the above image is a recap of the origin from “Starslayer” #3).
14. Ghost Rider (Robbie Reyes)
The origin for Robbie Reyes, the new Ghost Rider, in 2014’s “All-New Ghost Rider” #1 (by Felipe Smith, Tradd Moore and Val Staples) was a stunningly modern take on a classic Silver Age style origin. Robbie Reyes is a young man who works as a mechanic and takes care of his younger brother, who is in a wheelchair. Robbie doesn’t make a lot of money, so he makes extra cash by drag racing in a 1969 Dodge Charger that he borrows from the auto shop. Like in all great Silver Age heroes, Robbie made a selfish mistake (for a good reason) that came back to haunt him, but also like in all great Silver Age heroes, Robbie pulled out of it and became a hero.
There’s an epic moment where Robbie thinks he is being pulled over by the cops that his whole life flashes before his eyes and the disappointment that this good kid sees is striking. However, they’re not the cops and they open fire and seemingly kill Robbie, as there’s something that they wanted in the trunk of the Charger. Instead of dying, though, Robbie is transformed into the new Ghost Rider and the car is transformed into his Hell Charger!
13. Luke Cage
In the first issue of “Luke Cage: Hero for Hire” in 1972, Roy Thomas, Arhie Goodwin, George Tuska and Billy Graham gave us such a cinematic origin for Luke Cage that it is not surprising that the “Luke Cage” TV series practically adapted it scene by scene. The concept is that Luke Cage is in prison for a crime he did not commit. Constantly tortured by a corrupt prison guard, Cage eventually agrees to become a test subject for a medical process designed by a kindly scientist.
With a new warden breathing down his neck and fearful of what Cage (then using his real name of “Carl Lucas”) would say about him, the guard sabotages the experiment. But in the resulting explosion, instead of dying, Lucas gains impenetrable skin and super-strength. He soon uses his new powers to escape, fearing that he will be blamed for the explosion. After a name change and a costume purchase (designed by John Romita), Cage becomes a hero for hire. It’s a powerful origin story.
12. Fantastic Four
As mentioned before, one of the trademarks of a great Marvel Silver Age origin is that the protagonists do something selfish and/or stupid before they learn from their experience and become heroes. It’s a wonderful hook that resulted in multi-faceted superheroes. In 1961’s “Fantastic Four” #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Reed Richards is so angry with the government for scrubbing his mission to space that he decides to prove the utility of the rocket by stealing it, along with his pilot best friend, Ben Grimm. Reed even allows his fiancee and her teenaged brother to come along for the extremely illegal mission.
When it turns out that the rocket wasn’t safe and they are all bombarded with cosmic rays, transforming them and giving them strange new powers, they still are inspired to make lemonade out of their cosmic lemons and use their new powers to become superheroes. The first comic of the “Marvel Age” laid out a blueprint that many Marvel characters would follow in the years since.
In 1962’s “Incredible Hulk” #1, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman took a slight deviation from the “hero’s flaws cause problem” approach, as here, the hero’s flaws were the end result of the character! Dr. Bruce Banner is working on a powerful new gamma bomb. However, right before testing was set to begin, a teenager drove onto the test site to prove to his friends that he wasn’t a chicken. Banner told his assistant to stop the detonation while he saved the teen. Unluckily for Banner, this was 1962, so every third person in a comic book was a Communist spy. As a result, the evil Igor let the bomb go off.
Instead of killing Banner (how amazing is the sequence where he gets caught in the explosion?) it instead unlocked the rage within Banner and at night, it came out in the form of the Hulk, as Banner transformed into the monster. The teenager who Banner saved, Rick Jones, tried to help the Hulk out as a way to make it up to Banner, while the father of Banner’s girlfriend, General Thunderbolt Ross, vows to take the Hulk down. In one simple story, Kirby and Lee came up with an awesome character and a great set-up that would continue for a number of years (Hulk being hunted down by the father of his girlfriend in his human form).
Thor is one of the few Marvel Silver Age heroes whose origin was not really revealed in the first issue of his ongoing feature. 1962’s “Journey Into Mystery” #83 by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Jack Kirby, and Joe Sinnott, tells a good chunk of Thor’s origin, but not the heart of it. In the story, Dr. Donald Blake is on vacation in Norway when he stumbles upon an alien invasion (don’t you just hate how that always happens when you’re on vacation?). He hides in a cave and tries to find a weapon. He discovers a walking stick. When he picks it up, he is transformed into the Mighty Thor, God of Thunder. The hammer reveals that whoever holds the hammer, if they are worthy, will gain the powers of Thor.
The trick is that, in the first story, all we know is that Blake got the powers of Thor. It wasn’t until later that we got the full origin, which is that Odin banished the real Thor into the form of Don Blake to teach him to learn some humility, so when he found the hammer, he simply regained the ability to become himself again. That’s a great hook, especially for a Silver Age comic considering a guy finding a magical artifact by accident is pretty much every other Golden Age hero’s origin (not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, just not as interesting as this origin).
1964’s “Daredevil” #1 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett (with a lot of help from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) introduced us to the world of Matt Murdock. A quiet boy, he grew up with a boxer for a father. One day, Matt was walking home from school when he saw a blind man about to be hit by a truck. Matt knew his father’s wishes, but his inner hero couldn’t let a person get killed when he could stop it. Matt saved the man, but in the process, was doused with radioactive chemicals which blinded him.
However, because radiation is your friend when you’re a superhero, the chemicals gave the now-blind Matt extraordinary senses. He could now do acrobatics that regular people could not pull off, but Matt knew his father’s wishes, so he kept his talents to himself and just continued to study. Jack Murdock, though, was killed after betraying a mobster who fixed fights (Jack won a fight he wasn’t supposed to). With his father now dead, Matt decided to embrace the “Daredevil” nickname and use his abilities to bring the Fixer to justice. Once that finished, he decided to continue to fight crime while also pursuing a law practice with his law school roommate, Foggy Nelson. What a great set-up for a series (Wallace Wood would add the last touch a few issues later by giving Daredevil his classic all-red costume).
8. Wonder Woman
In her debut appearance in 1941’s “All-Star Comics” #8 (by William Marston and H.G. Peter), we were quickly caught up on the background of the Amazons who lived apart from “Man’s World” on Paradise Island. We also saw how things changed forever when a wounded man, Steve Trevor, washed up on the island. It was decided that someone should go back to Man’s World with Trevor and represent the Amazons to the rest of the world.
The only fair way was to do a tournament among all the Amazons. All but Princess Diana, that is, who was forbidden from entering by her mother. One by one, Amazons were eliminated until it came down to two finalists, one who wore a mysterious mask. They played the ultimate Amazon game – “Bullets and Bracelets” – where they would take turns shooting a gun at each other, each trying to block the bullets with her bracelet when on the receiving end of the gunfire. The masked warrior was the winner and the Queen was shocked to learn that it was Princess Diana in disguise! Sadly (while still also with a sense of pride, of course), the Queen gave Diana her new costume as Wonder Woman, Amazon Representative to the world!
7. Captain Marvel/Shazam
In 1941’s “Whiz Comics” #2, Bill Parker and C.C. Beck introduced the world to the stunningly bizarre world of Shazam. The opening of the story is this fantastic set piece where a young homeless newsboy, Billy Batson, finds himself following a stranger through a magical subway station. The graphics that Beck used for this journey were psychodelic decades before psychodelic was even a thing! Finally, Billy meets the wizard Shazam, who explains the meaning of the acronym S.H.A.Z.A.M. and why it is such a powerful magic word – the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury!
Billy agrees to become Shazam’s champion and says the magical word and is transformed into Captain Marvel (decades later, his name would be retconned to Shazam), Earth’s Mightiest Mortal! This was all done in literally five pages, by the way. Captain Marvel then stops a bad guy and in the end, Billy gets a job as a junior radio news reporter. The off-kilter style of Parker and Beck made Captain Marvel really stand out at the time, which is why he soon became one of the most popular characters in all of comics.
6. Captain America
1940’s “Captain America Comics” #1 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby gave us an iconic heroic journey. Young Steve Rogers is far too scrawny to be accepted into the military, but he wants to serve mankind because he is such a great guy. He is given the opportunity to do just that when he is approached to be part of a government experiment where a Super Soldier Serum will be used on him. He goes through with it, even though it’s a risk to his life, and in the end, he is transformed into a perfect mental and physical specimen. Tragically, the secrets of the Super Soldier Serum died with its inventor, as a German spy kills the scientist after Steve’s experiment finishes. There will only be one Super Soldier.
However, that doesn’t keep Steve from becoming the spy-smashing hero known as Captain America. At the end of his origin, while in his secret identity as a hapless Army soldier, he is discovered changing into his costume by a teenager who hung out at the camp. Young Bucky Barnes soon became Captain America’s partner-in-crime, Bucky! This was all in just the first story in the first issue and all this was also a year before the United States even actually entered World War II! Simon and Kirby were ahead of their time in many ways, including coming up with awesome origin stories.
5. Iron Man
In 1963’s “Tales of Suspense” #39 (by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber and Don Heck, with additional work by Jack Kirby), Marvel debuted another one of their flawed heroes. Tony Stark is the world’s most famous weapons maker. However, while touring overseas to see how his weapons were doing, he was caught in an explosion and captured by an enemy army (this being the early 1960s, the Asian bad guys are all drawn as pretty racist-looking caricatures). As it turned out, he had shrapnel in his heart and the only thing keeping him alive was a metal contraption that another captured scientist had developed.
They decided to trick their captor by promising to deliver him a weapon he could use, but instead secretly came up with a suit of armor that Tony could wear in order to break them out of the prison (while also powering his heart). Sadly, the armor was not ready when the villains returned, so the other scientist sacrificed himself to buy Tony enough time to finish the armor. Now fixed, Tony wiped the floor with the bad guys and returned to the United States, now a hero but a hero who needs a machine to keep his heart ticking. An Iron Man in name and in spirit.
The origin of Superman was first briefly revealed on the first page of 1938’s “Action Comics” #1 before being expanded upon in 1939’s “Superman” #1 (both by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) and it is instantly the stuff that modern myths are based upon. On a distant planet known as Krypton, a husband and wife decided that they were going to make sure that their son lived, so they rocketed him away just before their planet was destroyed. The baby landed on Earth where it gained superpowers due to Earth’s sun.
A kindly couple adopted the young baby and hid its abilities, but as the baby grew older, it realized that it needed to use its powers for good, so the young baby became Superman, defender of Truth, Justice and the American Way! It really is like the type of story that you would read in a myth. It is such a great hook that it basically launched the era of superheroes in comic books. And originally the origin was literally just a single page (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely later paid homage to this by telling Superman’s origin in a single page in “All-Star Superman”).
3. Doctor Strange
Steve Ditko was really the master of coming up with superheroes who you would kind of not want to be friends with if you met them before they became heroes. The perfect example of that “jerk who reformed and became a hero” was Doctor Strange, whose origin appeared in “Strange Tales” #115 in 1963 (by Ditko and Stan Lee). Doctor Stephen Strange was a brilliant surgeon who only cared about fame and fortune. After a car accident badly damaged his hands, he devoted his life to finding a way to cure his ailment. He eventually ended up in a mystical city where a mystic known as the Ancient One agreed to help him. Strange didn’t believe in magic, but he would do anything to fix his hands, so he began working for the Ancient One doing odd jobs.
During one of those jobs, he learns that the Ancient One’s top apprentice, Baron Mordo, is trying to kill the Ancient One! Mordo uses magic to shut Strange up to keep him from warning the Ancient One. Thus, the only way to stop Mordo was for Strange to learn magic, so he put aside his own desires to learn magic in order to save the Ancient One. He did so and thus became the Ancient One’s new prized pupil and soon a master of the mystic arts! That’s such a tight origin, it is great that the “Doctor Strange” film followed it closely.
The story of Spider-Man is similar to Doctor Strange, but it has an even better hook. 1962’s “Amazing Fantasy” #15 (by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) sees young Peter Parker living a boring, nerdy life with his uncle and his aunt, who adore him. Things change when a radioactive spider bites him and gives him superpowers. He decides to use these powers not for the good of the world, but for the good of his wallet, and becomes an entertainer (one of the ways that this origin is a step-up from Strange is that Spider-Man continued to screw up even when he had the power to do otherwise). One day, he doesn’t try to stop a burglar who is running from the cops. “Not my problem,” he thinks.
Well, it turned out to be his problem after all, as the burglar went to Queens and ended up murdering Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben! Peter uses his wrestling costume to take down the crook, but is shocked when he discovers that it is the man he let get away (note that the original panels had Spider-Man’s eyes visible, reprints changed that – we figured that we should show you the original one here, on top of the reprint image for the article’s banner). This teaches Spider-Man a lesson that will drive his superhero career for years to come: with great power comes great responsibility. Brilliant work.
When Batman debuted in 1939’s “Detective Comics” #27, it was unclear what drove him to becoming a hero. During the Golden Age, no one really cared about the motivation behind heroes, which is why you’ll see a ton of half-hearted origin stories during the 1940s (or heroes without any origins at all). In “Detective Comics” #33, however, (by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, Sheldon Moldoff and either Bill Finger or Gardner Fox – we lean towards Finger for the writing of the origin), a two-page origin was revealed before the main story began (the main story was by Fox, which is why people think he wrote the origin, as well. Finger was Batman’s co-creator, which is the main reason people think he likely also came up with Batman’s origin).
In it, young Bruce Wayne watched his mother and father get murdered in front of him. And at that moment, this little boy decided that he was going to declare war on crime by becoming a perfect crimefighter, so he did just that. He didn’t get bitten by a spider or learn magic from an Ancient One, he just made a goal for himself and achieved it. When you throw in the excellent sequence where a bat crashing through his window inspires him to dress as Batman to scare cowardly and superstitious criminals, the origin of Batman has it all and is our #1 pick!
What do you think is the best superhero origin of all-time? Let us know in the comments section!
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