KC COLUMN: SECRET ORIGIN OF ORIGIN STORIES: PART ONE

KC Carlson. Art by Keith Wilson.

KC Carlson. Art by Keith Wilson.


by KC Carlson

I have to admit, “origin” was one of the first words I ever had to look up in the dictionary, way back when I was a young comic book reader. If you don’t know, the main definition is “the point or place where something begins or is created” but a secondary definition is of some importance to superhero fans: “the source or cause of something.”

Secret Origins #1

Secret Origins #1


The book that inspired this early research on my part was DC Comics’ legendary Secret Origins 80-Page Giant, first published in 1961. The cover promised the origin stories of the Superman and Batman (and Robin) team, the Challengers of the Unknown, Adam Strange, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Green Arrow and Speedy. I first discovered this comic after seeing a house ad for it one of DC’s other books, and I was tortured by not finding a copy until at least 15 years later. (It was my first “holy grail” collectible.) And then I was frustrated to discover that the GL story was actually the origin of the GL Corps (with a short Hal Jordan flashback) and the Green Arrow and Speedy origin was only a text feature.

Later on, there was more disappointment in discovering that the Superman and Batman Team and Wonder Woman origins were not the original Golden Age origin stories but completely rewritten and redrawn origin tales first published in the Silver Age. The original Golden Age stories couldn’t have been reprinted at that time, because the technology did not exist then to duplicate them properly.

Also, I intriguingly discovered that origin stories would eventually develop into comic book’s primary trope — they would be constantly and frequently redone from scratch, adding and subtracting material as comic book storytelling became more sophisticated over the years, with characters and concepts becoming more psychologically complex, as well as being affected by technology steadily developing or becoming obsolete. The latter particularly affected Batman, with his cars, gadgets, and later, computers. The stories would have to evolve.

LOOK, UP IN THE SKY!

Action Comics #1

Action Comics #1


The earliest major origin stories (Superman and Batman) were incredibly short! In Action Comics #1 (June 1938), the initial Superman story includes a one-page prologue featuring rudimentary details of the character’s origin — a baby (not named) from another, dying planet (not named) is sent to Earth in a tiny rocket by his scientist father (not named or shown). After landing on Earth, the infant is discovered by a passing motorist (not named or shown) where he is brought to an orphanage (town not named), where the staff discovers that the baby has tremendous strength (later written out).

To today’s readers, the only similar story, of a family being willing to send their child into the unknown, likely never to be seen again, is that of Moses, a parallel frequently made. But to the wartime culture of the late 1930s, the idea of finding your son a better, safer place had much more resonance. In Britain, for example, there were evacuation plans in place even before war began in fall 1939.

Superman's first origin story from Action Comics #1.

Superman’s first origin story from Action Comics #1.


But back to our story. Three tiny panels describe his superpowers: “Leap 1/8 of a mile, hurdle a twenty-story building, raise tremendous weights, run faster than an express train, and that nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.” All of these would be greatly expanded over the years, often to ridiculous heights. Then there’s an explanation of how “Clark” (name not explained) came up for his reasons to wear a caped costume “to devote his existence to helping those in need.” Plus, his superpowers are bizarrely compared to ants and grasshoppers. Later in the main part of the story, reporter Lois Lane, Daily Star editor George Taylor (not named here), and Clark Kent’s “cowardly act” are all introduced.

As many of you probably know, Superman was originally conceived as a newspaper strip by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and had to be cut and pasted from its original daily strip format into standard comic book format — eight panels per page, as suggested and executed by the editor, Vin Sullivan. It’s possible that at least part of this first origin page may have been produced as an afterthought, based on suggestions by Sullivan for more background on the character. The lack of detail and the unusual layout of this page may also be attributed to the haste in producing it.

Superman #1

Superman #1


In Superman #1 (Summer 1939), a new two-page origin sequence appears which tightens up the story a bit, naming the doomed planet (Krypton), introducing the Kent parents (only the mother is named — Mary — later changed to the now-familiar Martha), and reveals their tragic deaths for the first time (later changed when Superboy is developed as a series), as well as reiterating the extent of Superman’s superpowers.

Mort Weisinger took over as the editor and occasional writer of Superman stories in 1941, and he would be instrumental in directing his creators to add to the Superman mythos beginning in 1946, with increased efforts beginning in the mid-1950s. These creative folks (including Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel) focused especially on the background of Krypton and the Bottle City of Kandor, developed and defined Superboy and Smallville, and introduced Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes, Imaginary Stories, and seemingly dozens of other Superman-related characters (and pets). It’s very possible that Weisinger (and longtime assistant E. Nelson Bridwell) may have edited the most superhero origins ever, based on the sheer number of original characters they introduced during their tenure.

THE DARK KNIGHT BEGINS

Detective Comics #27

Detective Comics #27


Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) features almost no origin material at all, other than the introductions of Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, and, of course, Batman. It’s implied that this is not Batman’s first case, as Wayne and Gordon are discussing a Batman sighting in the first panel. Over the course of 75-some years, there have been plenty of “first case” stories, most notably Batman: Year One in Batman #404-407 (1987). The “surprise” ending of the 1939 story is the revelation that Bruce Wayne is (gasp!) The Batman.

The first page of Batman's origin story from Batman #1.

The first page of Batman’s origin story from Batman #1.


Detective #33 (November 1939) is when the first real Batman origin material appears — all of two pages’ worth. Bruce’s parents (his mother unnamed) are gunned down by a stick-up robber, young Bruce vows to avenge them, he trains to become both a master scientist and a physical specimen, comes up with the now-famous “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot” bit, and then, finally, the legendary bat (although it never gets an origin) crashes through the window. It ends with the iconic “first” costumed Batman on a rooftop shot. These two pages (with some art and lettering corrections) were quickly reprinted in Batman #1 (Spring 1940). This sequence has also been re-presented and expanded upon what seems like hundreds of times over the years, making Batman a likely candidate for the best-known superhero origin story ever, despite the fact that it is never mentioned at all in the 1966 Batman TV series.

Detective Comics #38

Detective Comics #38


In Detective #38 (April 1940), Robin first appears, quickly upstaging Batman with a three-page origin sequence. This story also features a frighteningly smiling, wisecracking Batman. Robin’s origin has been redone several times, as he is probably the most difficult major DC character to fit into a universal DC timeline. His character obviously ages while the characters around him (except for his much later Teen Titans teammates) do not — something that Bob Greenberger and I realized when preparing the first public detailed DC Timeline (with the assistance of much of the DC staff) for Zero Hour #0 (September 1994).

IN YOUR SATIN TIGHTS, FIGHTING FOR YOUR RIGHTS

Sensation Comics #1

Sensation Comics #1


Wonder Woman’s origin story was unusual in several ways, not the least of which is her status as the first widely recognizable female superhero. Her first appearance (and origin story) oddly appeared in All-Star Comics #8 (December 1941) one month before her regular series began in Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942), which was six months before the launch of her own title, Wonder Woman #1 (Summer 1942). She continued in All-Star Comics as the Justice Society’s first female member, but despite being one of the most powerful heroes, she was usually portrayed as a non-active secretary.

Page one of the Wonder Woman origin from All-Star Comics #8. Note that the large image of Wonder Woman is also used on the cover of Sensation Comics #1, her next appearance.

Page one of the Wonder Woman origin from All-Star Comics #8. Note that the large image of Wonder Woman is also used on the cover of Sensation Comics #1, her next appearance.


Other interesting things about that origin story include having two of its nine pages told as illustrated text. The entire story was mechanically lettered (and poorly, probably because there was too much text in each panel), which gave it an unusual look. Not as unusual as the artwork itself, though, which loosely resembled crude woodcuts. Elderly artist Harry G. Peter also signed the final page of the story, unusual at the time.

Writer Dr. William Moulton Marston (under the pseudonym Charles Moulton, made up of the middle names of both Marston and editor M. C. (Max Charles) Gaines) was credited as the sole creator of Wonder Woman (because he negotiated it), but many fans also include Peter when talking about the character. Marston’s wife Elizabeth was the one who actually suggested a female superhero. Marston was working on an idea for a new kind of superhero, one who would triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love. “Fine,” said Elizabeth. “But make her a woman.” (according to the Fall 2001 issue of the Boston University alumni magazine). Reportedly, the visual of the character was based on Elizabeth, as well as Olive Byrne (who lived with the Marstons), as the model of an unconventional, liberated, powerful modern woman. Byrne frequently wore bracelets similar to Wonder Woman’s silver metal bracelets.

Wonder Woman #178: Mike Sekowsky's attempt to make Wonder Woman "mod". Instead, it made some fans (like Gloria Steinem) "mad".

Wonder Woman #178: Mike Sekowsky’s attempt to make Wonder Woman “mod”. Instead, it made some fans (like Gloria Steinem) “mad”.


In contrast to the early origins of Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman’s first origin story was massively detailed, and most of its major elements were retained through many retellings. In the late 1950s, writer/editor Robert Kanigher radically changed the focus of the title to appeal more to younger readers by adding many whimsical characters and more mythological touchstones. This wouldn’t be the last time a male creator didn’t know what to do with the character. In the late 60s, Mike Sekowsky de-powered Wonder Woman and redesigned her to look (and fight) like Emma Peel from the British TV show The Avengers. Although her origin has been perhaps the most consistent of the “big three” over the years, most fans know her best from the TV show, not the comics.

Wonder Woman #1, the first issue of George Pérez's re-launch

Wonder Woman #1, the first issue of George Pérez’s re-launch


The most significant reworking of Wonder Woman’s origin came about following the events of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. That event left one Wonder Woman returned to clay (evoking part of her origin), and the other, older Earth-2 version married to Steve Trevor and “retired”. George Pérez became the point man on re-launching the new Wonder Woman, making many radical, but popular, changes to modernize her backstory, including portraying her as a relatively young woman new to 1980s America.

SOON: DC’s Secret Origins gets its own series of series, and I look at Marvel’s origin stories. Which popular Marvel character effectively has two independent origin stories? Plus, origin collections over the decades.

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KC CARLSON SAYS: Origin definition thanks to Mr. Webster. Everyone in town knew him.

WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you.

Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.

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