Heroes and Villains: Know Your Origins... It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's ...
This is a re-post from my now-closed Word Press blog and part of a Heroes and Villains series, exploring the history, pop culture, viewing, reading, and writing of heroes and villains. Enjoy!
Can you finish the phrase?
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s ...*
One of the oldest comic book heroes has an introduction we all recognize.
But did you know, Superman didn’t always fly?
Upon his creation, Superman was only super-strong and his super-strength made him able to run fast (faster than a speeding bullet) and jump high (leap tall building with a single bound) because he came from a planet with heavier gravity than earth’s gravity. (And, actually the first time he was inked, he wasn’t a hero at all, but a villain instead … but then, the comic creators changed their minds.)
Every superhero has an origin story, not just the origin story of his or her powers and weaknesses, but also his or her origins in written history. Superman’s story has been with us since the late 1930s and it has been told and retold like Cinderella’s story has been told and retold. We like to retell stories that resonate with us and by retelling them, we make them our own.
Superman’s powers have shifted and morphed, his character has developed differently in certain settings, and even his backstory has evolved over time. Personally, I like one of the newer renditions of his parents in which his mom has become a self-made expert on astronomy and life in the universe as she has spent years researching the origins of her adopted son. It makes sense to me as a mom and as a mom of today.
We retell our favorite stories not to ruin them, but to expand on them and share our love of them with others. Those favorite stories often inform our shiny new stories which have been built on the foundations of our favorites.
One thing that remains the same in every Superman rendition: he is a baby sent away by his parents to live on a faraway planet. They do this to save his life. There have been studies done to show how this actually reflects an even older story from the Bible, in which Moses is sent by his family to live with Pharoah's family. In the Superman/Moses parallel, both of these heroes rise to save their people (Superman saves Earth, Moses saves his people from slavery).
TAKE-AWAYS FOR WRITERS:
1. Every hero/villain has an origin story, both in their own fictional world, and in how they came to the page.
2. It's okay if your villain becomes a hero, or vice versa, in multiple drafts of your story writing. You are in charge of the outcome of your story. You don't know where your ideas will take you sometimes and it's okay to explore before you have it all nailed down in a final draft.
3. If you don't have every detail figured out right away, it's okay. I know this sounds a little free-wheeling and that might make plotters nervous, but I have seen a few writers who have expanded back story and world-building details as their series of work has expanded. I've seen this in Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, in John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series, Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series, and more. It's possible to know just what you need to tell the story of one novel or one section of a series, knowing you can expand in the next book.
4. Many heroes have roots in faith, myth, and legend. We don't create in a vacuum. We create based on experience, knowledge, stories we've seen and heard, and more. Superman has some similarities to Moses. Who does your hero/protagonist emulate? What favorite story foundations are you working with?
For more information about Superman and other superheroes, I recommend taking the free online Edx course: The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture. I don’t get any kickback from this. It’s a course I took and one that was recommended to me by another author. The course is through the Smithsonian and features guests like the late Stan Lee. If you want, you can pay money to get a certificate that proves you took the course, but you can also sign up for free and take it for free.
Do you like superheroes? If you do, do you know their origin story of how they came to the page or screen? Do you have an origin story for how your hero/protagonist came to the page?