Just Like Starting Over – GGG Pondering on the Retelling of Superhero Origins

I saw the new movie Chronicle this weekend with my husband and a couple of friends. I liked it quite a bit. On the way home, we discussed what we liked and disliked about it. All of us agreed that it was, essentially the origin story for a Superhero/Supervillain pairing. That got me thinking about Superhero origin stories, the most commonly told and retold stories in any comic book’s continuity.

Why is it (I pondered) that origin stories are so lovingly told, over and over again? Can they be told so differently each time and still retain their validity? Is there a point at which they stretch past the breaking point and become irrelevant?

Since this is somewhat germaine to the various fandoms of which we all lovingly partake, I thought I’d share my thoughts with you, Gentle Readers, and maybe spark off more discussion on the subject.

Do Origin Stories Really Get Retold That Much?

As I noted above, origins are probably the most retold stories any character can have. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at just one character – Superman.

When Superman was first introduced in 1938’s Action Comics #1, it is revealed that he was sent to Earth from a dying planet, found by a passing motorist, and dropped off at an orphanage. He was able to lift huge weights even as a baby, but he didn’t adopt his Superman guise until maturity.

An orphanage? Then where did the Kents come from? Well, it wasn’t until Superman #1, released in 1939, that the passing motorists are revealed to be the Kents, who return later to the orphanage and adopt baby Clark. They tell him he must keep his powers secret from the rest of humanity, so he doesn’t become Superman until after their deaths.

Wait…the Kents dead? And what about Superboy? Well, in 1945, More Fun Comics #101 introduced the concept of Clark beginning to have adventures as a boy. And then of course came Krypto the Superdog, Kal-El’s cousin Kara aka Supergirl, and so on. The origin was retold in 1948 in Superman 53. Now, we learned that the Kents were farmers. Mr. Kent dies only after telling Clark that he’s a “Super-Man”, this inspiring his adopted son to use that name. But now there was no mention of Superboy again. We didn’t get a full retelling of the origin including Superboy until Action Comics #151. And then it was retold in Superman #146, with even more elements expanded on and incorporated.

Then came Crisis on Infinite Earths and DC’s decision to revamp everything. This came through John Byrne’s series Man of Steel in 1986. This didn’t change anything too dramatically, but it left Clark’s parents alive. It did contain a major philosophical shift, however. In the introduction to the old radio and TV shows, the narrator indicated that Superman was “disguised as Clark Kent.” In Man of Steel, Byrne made it clear that Clark Kent was the real person, and Superman was the identity he created in order to distract the world.

Superman’s origin was again retold in Superman: Birthright in 2002 in order to bring it up to date with the 21st century. And in 2007, after Infinite Crisis, the *new* continuity origin was reveal through Superman: Secret Origin in the pages of Action Comics. And now, with the New 52, the new *new* continuity Superman’s origin is being explored once more.

And this list only covers comics. Don’t forget the movie serials, radio shows, TV shows (including Smallville and Superman: the Animated Series), and Superman: the Movie. And now, with the movie Man of Steel coming in 2013, we’ll be getting another look at the character’s early career, likely with an origin story.

Whew. That’s quite a list. Don’t even get me started with Batman!

Why Retell the Tale?

So why is that comics and movie producers feel the need to retell this story, over and over again? Well, there are several reasons.

Whenever significant changes to comics continuity are made (a la Crisis, or the New 52), people want to know how this new continuity’s character differs from the old one. The most critical question is, is there anything really significantly different about the origin story? After all, the Superman of “Red Son” is still Kal-El of Krypton, but he’s a Superman who grew up in Communist Russia, which leads to the question of how his origin affects his later life, which is the whole point of the story.

Another reason to retell the tale is to introduce the character to a new audience. Whenever a new medium is breached, or a new audience is anticipated, you run the risk of finding people that don’t know the character’s story. Creators of, for example, the 1978 Richard Donner film, or the TV series Smallville, couldn’t take for granted that everyone knew Superman’s origin story. They had to outline why Clark was special, so that audiences could then care about his relationship with Lois Lane and what Lex Luthor was up to.

The Perils of Retelling the Tale

Creators do have to be very careful when retelling these stories, as fans can be quite protective and even nit-picky about their favorite characters, myself included. I felt quite insulted when Superman: Birthright indicated that Clark was a vegetarian, and I wasn’t the only one. This concept made little sense, given that Clark grew up as a farmer’s son, and it downright flew in the face of Clark and Lois’ secret passphrase to each other – “Beef Bourguignon with Ketchup” – which had been Clark’s favorite food. It looks like this odd little retcon has been retconned away yet again, as Clark seems to be back to loving beef in more recent titles.

An interesting side-effect of this retelling phenomenon is that different people have different opinions of the “true” story. If I ask a group of people who Peter Parker’s first serious girlfriend was, they may tell me Mary Jane Watson, if they were first introduced to Spiderman through the Tobey Maguire movie. But most long-time fans of the Spiderman comics will tell you that it was Gwen Stacy. (Of course, it was really Betty Brandt, but that’s a fight for another day.)

In the end, when someone sets out to make a movie, or a TV series, or to retell a character’s origins, one hopes that they’re ultimately trying to tell a great story. Yes, okay, they’re really trying to make money, but one hopes that a great story is high up in those priorities, too.

I love Superman stories, including the origin story. If directors want to keep telling Superman stories in their movies, then I’m thrilled to death to go see them, to see what’s different, and what’s the same. The real risk, however, is that people will simply lose interest. I love Lex Luthor, for example, but I’m glad that he’s not the major villain of the Man of Steel movie. I also love General Zod, and I’m intrigued to see how Zach Snyder will work in “Kneel before Zod!” because he kind of has to. But I would be pleased if neither Lex nor Zod show up in Man of Steel 2. What about Brainiac? What about Darkseid? What about Mongul? These are all Superman villains, and really good ones, that have been sadly ignored in favor of retreading Lex Luthor, over and over.

What it boils down to is, the origin story for Superman is great, and I love to hear it. But I personally want to get the origin over with so we can go on to what’s next. And I suspect others feel the same.

Your Turn

Do you think I’m right or wrong about why origin stories are told and retold? Is there an origin story you want to see retold in some new medium? I hope you’ll weigh in on the subject.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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