A View from Atlas Park: A Straight of Origins
During some downtime that was incurred during Synapse’s task force (stupid, stupid Clockwork!) the team I was on got around to talking about their heroes’ origins. Once we had gone through them, it occurred to me that most origins fell into some pretty simple categories. Sure, the details may differ, but the overall situation within a category really didn’t change. Having thought about it, I came up with five origin categories that I feel capture 80% of origins that heroes have, both within CoH and in comics themselves.
I’m not naive enough to think that this idea – that most heroes share very similar origins – is a new one. Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces explores this issue in depth. However, I thought I’d bring this back towards comics / CoH rather than considering all mythology. Inspired by the poker I saw on television last night (PartyPoker European Series, I think) I have placed them in order by how they’d appear in an Ace-high straight. They are:
In this case, the hero was once a villain (or at least a low-order criminal) who at one point decided to help other people rather than to prey on them. In most cases this reformation sees the hero become even more determined in their fight for justice – they’ve been responsible for some terrible things and seek to make amends for their actions.
In recent years the flow of anti-heroes into comics has seen this particular origin begin to fall away. Since anti-heroes toe the line between hero and villain anyway, there is no need for them to actually pick a side or reform. Then there is also the point that many writers are more than happy to kill villains in modern comics rather than just arrest / reform them. In more classic (and less lethal) comic ages however, villains sometimes became forces for good (and then sometimes became evil again … then good … then evil … etc).
Character Examples: Namor (Is he good? Is he evil? Which ever way the wind blows…), The Shade (a Silver Age villain reformed in the modern age), Hulk (depending on his colour at the time), Hellboy (brought to the side of good by pancakes), Statesman (once a thug, now top of the CoH hero heap)
Jack: Overcoming Personal Weakness
The hero with this origin starts out with a huge character flaw that their heroism helps to overcome (or at least hide from for a while). This flaw can be physical – for example, they are deformed in some way or injured – or psychological eg they are addicted to something or have emotional / mental issues.
It is the character’s battle with that weakness that drives them forward. Some characters will be victorious and repair that weakness forever, while some characters will have their weakness break them. Most characters that have this origin will fall somewhere between these extremes, sometimes winning and sometimes losing this internal struggle.
Character Examples: Iron Man (shrapnel around heart and alcoholism), Obsidian (schizophrenia), Spiderman (indirectly responsible for his uncle’s death), Batman (if only Bruce had been able to save his parents…)
The accident is a classic way to give someone super powers. Due to some confluence of events, a character just happens to be in the right place at the right time (or wrong time) that sees them given powers greater than they ever imagined. Many characters end up seeing this accident as some kind of blessing (even if it is mixed) since it lets them help people more than they ever could if they were “normal”.
This accident serves as an origin in that it forces the hero into situations they would never otherwise be in. Their overall character motivation may not change due to the accident, but their capabilities certainly do. Having an accident (when it happens to heroes, anyway) can be a lazy way for a writer to give a hero their powers, but it is an absolute staple in superhero comics.
Character Examples: The Flash (accident with chemicals and / or lightning that gave him superspeed), Holden Carver (touched an alien artifact he probably should have left along; now absorbs all damage he takes and redirects it when he touches someone), Doctor Strange (a car accident left this world-class surgeon unable to work, so he takes up magic to fill in the time)
For some reason, this hero can’t remember who (or what) they were before a certain point in time. They have strange powers and often people after them, but they don’t know why. All that is left to amnesiacs is to group up with other heroes and to use their powers for good (well, most of the time). Their true origin may be filled in at a later point as they recover their memory (or are told their history by a cackling supervillain) or it may never be known.
Making a character an amnesiac is not something writers do too often since it is so stereotypical that it is a bit of a joke. It does free a character from any sort of binding backstory until the writer gets around to it, but it also tends to leave them personality-less. Even more annoying than the amnesiac is the amnesiac-who-is-given-an-origin-that-is-revealed-as-a-lie – this just wastes everyone’s time. However, having an amnesiac hero does seem to be a bit popular in CoH.
Amnesia has also been known to lead to villainry as the now memory-less hero goes on a bit of a crime-spree, but these cases often see their memory return before too long.
Character Examples: Wolverine (his “true” origin seems to change all the time, but he just can’t remember), Dragon (comma Savage – woke up in a burning field with no memory; ends up on the police force), Madman (doesn’t remember who he was, but still fights crime in a special suit and with a yo-yo)
Being an orphan in comics is like being an amnesiac times infinity. Orphans tend to have destiny just lining up to give them a gifted life – they can be the Chosen One, or the latest in a long line of royalty, or any of a number of variations that leads to a life of super-heroism. Because they don’t know their parents, they often have led a fairly sheltered life until one day when their true fate starts to unveil itself. Alternatively it is the loss of their parents that leads them to the life of a hero.
This is probably the most mythological of the origins in terms of its history – lots of folklore revolves around orphans being the only survivor of their village / royal line and growing up into a force of revenge against their parent’s killers or the greatest champion of their time.
Character Examples: Luke Skywalker (sure, his father isn’t exactly dead, but didn’t have a big hand in raising him, either), Batman (parents killed in front of him), Spiderman (parents are dead and it is sometimes alluded to that they did special things too), Superman (his real parents sent him away, remember?)
So that’s the list. It isn’t exhaustive by any stretch and some characters have mixed origins (eg Orphans who experience Accidents, Reformed villains who are Amnesiacs) but in my opinion it covers the vast majority of characters. Feel free to disagree with my choices!
[p]My apologies to anyone who got used to me delivering a column a week. Work recently has seen all my time taken up and left me pretty tired – by the time I get home, the last thing I want to do is sit down and type out a column! I’ve also got a few Spandex Cinema reviews to type up which also eats into my time, plus all those games to finish that I mentioned a while ago. And I’ve started up the Paragon Beholder again. [p]But I promise to try harder and get those columns coming in more frequently! 🙂
[p]In my last column I took issue with the fact that non-North American / European players couldn’t download CoH from the official NCSoft site. One reader (another Australian, as it turned out) wrote in to say that if you want to download CoH from the PlayNC site, just sign up with your correct information, change your address to one in a “valid” country, purchase CoH and grab it off their servers, then just update your address information back to the real set. I haven’t tried this, but it sounds pretty plausible. [p] – UnSub [email protected] 28/2/05