On The Increasing Complexity of Origin Stories

In thinking of the origins of superheroes, it seems there are a few trends one could notice. For me this week, it has been an increase in complexity as we move through the eras. Time was, the origin, while defining the basics of the character, was also just that, and the majority of the narrative were adventures beyond their creation. However, as superheroes stories have progressed, and the same characters still exist decades later, the origins have increased in complexity. I think this is due to a number of different factors, and I’m keen to parse out the specifics.

The first word is "accident," not "destiny." Just saying.

The first word is “accident,” not “destiny.” Just saying.

I think the most obvious answer is that back in the day comics were written for younger audiences, so a simple story was enough. Alan Scott finds a meteor that he decides would be perfect for a crime fighting tool, Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider and now he can do spider-type things, and so forth and so on. These were clearly sufficient because comics were targeting an audience who cared less about nuance, treated the objects ultimately as disposable, and likely weren’t reading the first issue for any given character anyways so as long as who they were and what they could do was obvious enough, what did it really matter?

Part and parcel with an increasingly mature audience, were increasingly mature creators, who could build upon the tools of their predecessors to use the form to tell more and more advanced stories. There was also a shift away from the single issue story (or even single issues containing multiple stories) towards a longer narrative style split between issues, aka the “dreaded” decompression style of storytelling. This allowed longer and more complex stories to be told, because you might have 120 pages to get to a conclusion, rather than 8. So it makes logical sense that as storytelling and stories themselves became more complex, so too would the origins of iconic characters.

The other thing about the earlier, more basic origins, is that they leave more room to expand upon. As someone who writes some of the recaps for Marvel’s AR app, I can definitely attest to it being more difficult to make a very complex story simple, relative to making a simple story more complex. The conversion is not equivocal. What’s more, when you add in a new piece of the story, you’re actually at times creating more gaps for more complexity down the line. In the evolution vs. creation “debate” it’s often said that we lack important “missing link” taxa that represent big shifts in evolutionary forms, like going from fish to land animals. But if you think about it, every time you fill in one gap, you’re actually left with two new gaps on either side of the new animal you just found. I think this also works for comics. Every time a creator adds a new bit of story to an origin, they’re creating new, albeit tinier, gaps for future creators to come and futz with as well. And I think creators are drawn to tweaking the origins of characters because it gives them a chance to leave their mark on the mythos.

Leaving a mark on the mythos is why I think my idea applies more to origins than to other types of stories in comics. Every creator theoretically does something new with a character or team, but regardless of how amazing a storyline may be, we tend to gravitate back to telling an origin tale. It’s part of the iterative nature of comic storytelling, after a certain amount of time has passed it’s tempting to circle back around and say how it all began. This also allows the writer to retcon something into the story, which is a big part of that increasing complexity. It’s the “everything you knew about Batman was wrong, so here comes… YEAR ZERO!” I’m not saying that’s what Scott Snyder is doing, but I’m also sure we’ll learn some new facet of the Dark Knight’s early days through the story, otherwise why tell it in the first place?

When suddenly... ORIGIN!

When suddenly… ORIGIN!

The retcon can also add a deeper sense of meaning to an origin that may have seemed random at the time. Many early origins stories involve finding an artifact, or getting doused in radioactive chemicals, but I’ve noticed that a lot of origin retellings involve the idea that the random event was meant to happen, or was the consequence of some plan or destiny. Like how we thought Barry Allen was just fast because of a lightning bolt and a shelf of all chemicals known to man, but later we’re told that he was chosen by something called the Speed Force, and later still that Barry is the genesis and keeper of the Speed Force. See? Complexity increased. This trend of increased meaning alongside with increased complexity definitely seems to couple well with telling stories for adults rather than kids. There isn’t a lot of depth to Axe Cop, kids don’t necessarily care about that stuff, but adults want to know that stuff matters, or at least happened for a reason a little better than the randomness of the universe.

And I think that’s ok. I think if we want to keep following these same characters for decades we do need to come back around to remember the origin, and there’s no point coming back around for a pure rehash. But you also can’t change the basics too much, so these stories are just going to get more complex and we’re just going to need to be ok with it.

Which leads me to the end of my column where I ask: which character’s increasingly complex origin do you enjoy or dislike the most? Let’s talk about it in the comments!


Ryan Haupt really hated when JMS made Spider-Man a mystic animal totem, because he likes the scientific origin better as you may have guessed by the name of his podcast Science… sort of.


  1. Obviously when Alan Moore flipped Swamp Thing’s origin on it’s head is a great one. Just a slight tweak made for years of awesome stories…

  2. Good article, Ryan!

    I wonder how much of this plays on the subconscious way that we react to fantasies.

    As a kid, you think “How cool would it be to get struck by lightning and chemicals and be the Flash!” There is a sense of possibility, that you could become the superhero.

    As an adult, we think “Well clearly being struck by lightning would be very painful, and the chemical burns would be a nightmare to recover from. So how is Barry Allen not dead?” And we crave the explanation because we need to understand why this hasn’t happened to us.

    Some origins I don’t mind revisiting, Hal Jordan’s for example. There’s a lot of mystery around Abin Sur, and John’s ‘Secret Origin’ was a fun way to revisit that.

    More “modern created” superheroes have less to fill in. I love Booster Gold, but I would hate to read a 9 issue arc about his college career and time as a janitor before traveling back in time.

  3. I like how Morrison handled Superman’s origin in All Star Superman. I mean he gives us everything in the most succinct way possible. I like how its abstract enough to raise unanswered questions, but gives just enough to get who the character is. I kinda wish more origins were handled that way. In reality, do we ever know everything about people? I like that there are question marks and blank spots. Knowing all the details becomes a bit boring for me.

    I think origins can become a point of obsession. We complain about them, but need to know the complete timeline. Personally I’m interested in the now more than where they came from.

  4. Origin stories are pointless because characters don’t age. Comic creators have fully embraced this – only Hollywood is hung up on giving 45 minutes to set the stage for the character.

    Proof that origin stories don’t matter? All New X-Men. It’s a great book – but no matter how you slice it, these characters have been around for 50 – 60 years, and the younger versions of themselves are still seeing 30 year old virile versions of themselves in the future.

    I’ve accepted that this is what comic storytelling has resorted to. But it makes me appreciate stories and characters that are allowed to age just that much more. For example, check out the Star Wars novels that have been written in the past 20-30 years. Luke Skywalker is old now in that timeline. And because of that, we see a more developed character – and we don’t have to retcon every damn thing….yet (movie shenanigans pending).

    Jupiter’s Legacy was a great #1 book in part because we see aging heroes, and it shows how absurd ‘continuity’ is with the Big Two. There can’t be continuity if heroes just simply don’t age. And if you buy into that premise, origin stories should just be left alone to allow for great writing that doesn’t want to be hampered by burdensome tethers to origins.

    • ochsavidare ochsavidare (@ochsavidare) says:

      Totally agree! A lot of time is wasted in movies on retelling the same stories, at least for the most well known super heroes. Everybody knows who Batman or superman is, you don’t need to tell the origin in every movie.

    • For characters like Superman and Batman I think most people probably have a general idea of how they became super heros. Spider-Man is probably on the same level at this point. But those are the absolute top of the super hero film world, Batman and Spider-Man have had multiple origin stories told on screen and Superman is perhaps the best known origin story of any superhero.

      However, I think origin stories are needed sometimes. For example, most non-comics readers probably had no idea how Tony Stark became Iron Man or how Hal Jordan became Green Lantern. In most cases I think at least a cursory retelling of a character’s origin is necessary for people who don’t already have a connection to that character. That said, many superhero films could learn a lot from the opening credits sequence of the last Hulk film.

    • ochsavidare ochsavidare (@ochsavidare) says:

      Completely agree on the hulk movie. I think most of the time (if they not are doing something extraordinary) a rough idea of the origin is sufficient, and not the quarter of the movie we often get.

    • @ochsavidare: Agreed. Unless its going to be Batman Begins just cover the origin in 15 minutes and move on. The Watchmen credits are another great example. Maybe even better than the Hulk.

    • for those movies you could EASILY show a condensed origin story during the opening credits…montage style. No need to spend half the movie showing what pop culture knows.

  5. I have to agree that Moore’s tweek to Swamp Thing’s origin is my favorite.

    The New 52 Animal Man flashback that reveals his original origin was a “believable” farce was cool although it was just a fun little aside…

    As for tweeks I had high hopes for but should’ve known better, Straczynski’s Spider-Man totem thing seemed cool for the introductory “Coming Home” arc but well, we all know the atrocity that run was after the first arc…

  6. I thought Spider-Man’s origin was just fine the first time around, and we don’t need any Madam Web/Clone/Parents meant for it to happen bullshit AT ALL. Made me skip out on about ten years of Peter Parker stories.

    It seems writers are fascinated with making Lex and Clark childhood buddies to add weight to their conflict, (See Also Lincoln Marsh) but I find that it usually results in my rolling my eyes. I’m reminded of the scene in Spaceballs…

  7. Morrison’s All-Star Superman is probably my favorite retelling of an origin.

    But I’m also a big fan of Batman Year One and X-Men Deadly Genesis.

  8. I think we can all agree that Wolverines origin story was better left untold.

  9. i get bugged when they “move the timeline” of an origin to explain why a character hasn’t aged. Case in point: The Punisher. Being a Vietnam Veteran is an extremely important part of what makes that character. That veteran experience of that war was so much different than any others after it…especially all the current middle east ones where they placed him. I think that timeline move really changed where the character came from and as a result made his journey to becoming who he is a less legit.

    • ochsavidare ochsavidare (@ochsavidare) says:

      I liked how Don Rosa did it in his Donald Duck stories, present day is in the fifties. For me it doesn’t matter if its 2013 in the comic if it is released in 2013.
      But overall I guess you just have to roll with it, and ignore it.

    • That was kind of the point I was trying to get at. Origin stories are continually invalidating themselves with characters not aging at all. So many of our favorite characters were developed and became popular in response to wars and political backdrops.

      If DC had been smart, they would’ve stuck to their guns with the relaunch into a new timeline and crafted a true blank slate. But it’s the fanboys of the world who scream for continuity in the face of the eternally 28-35 year-old heroes we read about.

    • So how do you “fix” a character with regard to the passage of time? Do you let them age out and die? Do you employ magical means to de-age them like the JSA?

      Case in point: The Punisher. The most precise info I could find has Frank Castle serving four tours in Viet Nam, from 1968-1971 (http://marvel.wikia.com/Frank_Castle_%28Earth-616%29). If we assume Castle was at least 18 in 1968, that would make him 63 now! That’s old to be doing what he does. He certainly isn’t depicted as being 63. So when does he become too old to punish, so to speak?

    • @kennyg Punisher Max did explore that idea in Jason Aaron’s run and it was pretty fantastic.

  10. A few retconned origins got under my skin; Barry Allen being “chosen” by the Speed Force to become the Flash and the current Green Arrow where he was never meant to leave the island and had a destiny, the whole “Green Lantern Secret Origin” story, or even there’s been hundreds of Ghost Riders throughout history. Some of that just reads as stupid to me, turning 1 hero into the latest of legacy characters that is now like 4-5 other legacy characters…See where I’m going here? Now some stuff works well; Barry Allen became the Flash because when he went into the Speed Force he went back in time and struck his past self with lightening to give himself powers (Flash Rebirth), Oliver Queen got stranded on an island due to a failed assassination attempt (Arrow), or Iron Fist is actually a title given to different warriors throughout history and Danny Rand is the current one (the Immortal Iron Fist). Some of it works, some doesn’t. My main problem with origins is when they suck, not rather that doing a new telling at all. It would be nice if he could just shorten the ones we know too well (Spider-Man, Batman, Superman) and give more focus to ones we don’t (Guardians of the Galaxy, the Atom, assorted other heroes). And when I see “We”, I mean the general movie audience. I can just google this stuff or look thru my encyclopedias on comics.

  11. “so here comes… YEAR ZERO!”

    I don’t mean to pick nits but the name is “Zero Year”. Either way, it was a very good article; I enjoyed reading it.

    Ssource: http://www.dccomics.com/comics/batman-2011/batman-21

    • The real question is did they steal the name Zero Year from NIN’s Year Zero or it a happy coincidence? Is it supposed to be a play on Cambodia and Pol Pot and if so will there be parallels in the story? (probably not but here’s hoping)

  12. Its funny how other characters have to be updated or have their timeline fixed to make them work but Captain America makes more sense the farther we get from WWII.

  13. Great article! I like that someone finally pointed out how the retelling or retcon of an origin can add depth and levels of complexity to the character & that characters further stories as time goes on. It does need to be done every now and again to refresh or add an angle not yet seen or stone unturned.

    A few of my favorite and 1st to come to mind have already been mentioned like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing & Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. I loved Frank Millers Batman Year One & Andy Diggle n’ Jock’s Green Arrow Year One. Oliver Queens retcon is far better than his humdrum Batman/Bruce Wayne into Robin Hood origin but wait that’s still all in there but with added depth to how he got there & what his motives are driven by, so that’s a perfect example of what Ryan is getting at and I love it. Geoff Johns Superman Secret Origin was good as it gave us insight as to how Clark learned about himself & the consequences of his actions as a hero and a man, and while that’s probably in all our heads for Superman now it wasn’t told in his original stories like that. JMS & Shane Davis Superman Earth One gives us a fresh take on a young Superman engadging his 1st real threat and act as a hero, also good. Lets talk about Earth-2 and Flashpoint, DC One Billion and 52 retcons. 😉

  14. I’m not keen on writers bringing in big noodles years after the fact, such as the Spider-Totems, or Barry Allen creating the Speed-Force/being his own lightning bolt – it’s not much better than Heavenly Helpmate Mopee.

    My favourite origin tweak is also Swamp Thing, very clever that one.

  15. All-Star Superman page is just superb. There’s also a similar spread in the upcoming B/S #1 with both origins.

    Also, the GL: Secret Origin is a simple idea, but so well executed. Johns explains some of the plot-holes of his origin, tying in at his larger story.