They say that people are defined not by what they are born into, but what they become. It’s a lovely sentiment that many people would do well to keep in mind. After all, origin stories don’t always begin when someone is born. More often than not, a person or character’s origin can be traced back to a series of moments which forced them to come to terms with who they are and who they will be. To a degree, comic book character origin stories are compelling for the same reason anyone else’s story is. They’re the moments that define us.
In the case of comic books, though, origin stories hold a special place in fans' hearts because they are often the greatest chapter in a character’s arc. While we’re all a bit tired of screenwriters relying on the origin story when adapting a popular comic book character, superhero and supervillain origins are fascinating because they are typically the stories that turned ordinary folks into mythological figures. The best origin stories make you accept the impossible, because you want to believe such incredible things can be true.
These are the 15 Greatest Comic Book Origin Stories Of All Time.
Do superheroes ever just sit together at a diner over a cup of coffee and ask, “So, how did you get your powers?” If so, then Spawn’s story surely steals the majority of such casual conversations. Before he became Spawn, Al Simmons was just a simple Marine Lieutenant Colonel who later joined the Secret Service and CIA. Despite being one of the elite special operatives in the world, Simmons lost his life during a mission in Botswana. While he was sent to Hell for his mortal sins, Simmons was able to strike a deal with Malebolgia and return to Earth as a Hellspawn.
What makes Spawn’s origin so brilliant is that it could just as easily be the origin story for a great supervillain. The same can be said of characters like the Punisher, but there is a real selfishness to Simmons’ story which casts an eternal shadow of doubt over his intentions. Spawn sold his soul for the chance to be with his wife and daughter again. That fascinating moral quandary makes for a compelling first chapter.
14 The Runaways
The Runaways are the only superhero group to make this list. While it’s admittedly a bit of a cheat to group together multiple heroes, the history of these characters is forever tied together by certain events. Alex, Chase, Molly, Nico, Karolina, and Gert were six somewhat normal children who one day witness their parents performing a ritual that involved the sacrifice of a young girl. They soon come to realize that their parents are all members of a supervillain group called The Pride. Shocked by this revelation, the kids escape their homes and form a “heroic” group known as The Runaways.
“Heroic” is put in quotations because the brilliantly complex nature of The Runaway’s origin story doesn’t outright portray them as forces of good. Instead, they are confused teenagers with certain abilities who have just been forced into adulthood via unusual circumstances. The parallels between their situation and the situation of many normal teenagers are obvious, but they’re utilized in a way that never feels overbearing. The initial struggles of The Runaways easily rank among the greatest origin arcs in comic book history.
13 Doctor Strange
If you want the quick version of Doctor Strange’s origin story, it’s probably best to start with the car crash that forever changed his life. That accident left Strange, a brilliant and well-respected surgeon, with permanent nerve damage, unable to properly use his hands. Devastated, Strange fell into a drunken stupor that eventually led to him seeking out a being known as the Ancient One. Initially believing that the Ancient One can mend his injuries, circumstances inspire Strange to instead become a disciple of the Ancient One in order to learn mystical abilities that might help save the world.
Of course, that’s just the short version. The full sequence of events that led to the “birth” of the hero known as Doctor Strange is an utterly fascinating combination of mythical and human elements. Strange sought a quick solution for the problem he believed ruined his life. In the process, he was able to fill a greater void in his existence that had been haunting him ever since the death of some close relations.
12 Doctor Doom
When it comes to recounting the origins of Doctor Doom, there is plenty of room for doubt. What we know for sure is that Doctor Doom was born Victor Von Doom in a fictional country known as Latveria. Young Victor’s considerable scientific and medical skills earned him a scholarship to Empire State University. There, Doom became jealous of the abilities of his roommate, Reed Richards. Following an accident that left him scarred, Doom forged a suit of armor, learned the ancient ways of a group of Tibetian monks, and swore revenge on Richards for his supposed role in the accident.
What makes Doom’s origin so compelling, however, are the intangibles. Over the years, Marvel writers have expanded upon Doom’s origin story by suggesting things like Ben Grimm actually being responsible for Doom’s disfiguration, as well as the possibility that the initial disfiguration itself wasn’t that severe. What it all amounts to, though, is a fantastic baseline story involving an incredibly talented young man whose deep-seeded resentment towards humanity robbed the world of a potential savior, birthing a masterclass supervillain instead.
Like many mutants, Rogue discovered her powers in a rather unfortunate way. After kissing a young boy named a Cody Robbins, Rogue’s mind became polluted by Robbins’ memories. Soon thereafter, the boy fell into a coma. Realizing that she was a potential threat, Rogue fell under the leadership/protection of her foster mother, Mystique, and eventually joined the Brotherhood of Mutants. On her very first mission, however, Rogue absorbed the powers of Ms. Marvel and became even more worried about the damage she could do. Eventually, she turned to the X-Men for guidance. Since then, Rogue has often lived up to her name by proving to be an invaluable, if sometimes dangerous, member of the group.
Similar to how Doctor Doom’s fate was dictated by the person he really was more than the circumstances that befell him, Rogue earned her status as a hero in an unusual way. Actually, the fact that Rogue got to experience the life of a supervillain and opted to join the forces of good instead really speaks to the strength of her character as a true, yet complex, hero.
You usually don’t earn a nickname like “Devourer of Worlds” unless you went through a pretty incredible series of events. Galactus was born as a humanoid named Galan, who became aware that all of his people were about to die as a result of the impending Big Bang. During an attempt at preventing this catastrophe, Galan encountered an incredible energy that sealed him in a Cosmic Egg. Galan eventually broke free and began to suffer from an indescribable hunger that could only be satiated by consuming entire planets. At first, Galan focused on uninhabited planets. Soon, though, he was forced to consume inhabited worlds as well.
It was at that moment that Galan truly became the villain known as Galactus. Everything up until that point saw Galan nobly attempt to deal with a series of unfortunate circumstances. It wasn’t until he began sacrificing lives en masse in order to ease his own pain that he really became one of the great baddies in the Marvel universe. Galactus is undeniably a tragic figure and unmistakably a villain.
9 Iron Man
At a time when the average superhero origin story involved a noble young individual selfishly taking on a great pursuit with the help of recently acquired powers, Iron Man came along and presented a different take on how someone could become a superhero. Tony Stark was just your average millionaire playboy who loved parties, ladies, and drinking way too much. While Stark was tormented by demons both past and present, he used his life of excess as a suit of armor that disguised his pain. The suit of armor became quite literal when Stark was kidnapped and forced to build weapons for a warlord. Instead, he built the first version of the Iron Man suit.
To this day, it’s difficult to look at Iron Man’s origin story and pinpoint the moment Tony Stark became a true hero. Even the creation of his armor was done in response to circumstances that befell him. Despite clearly being influenced by the origins of other comic characters, Iron Man’s origin story still helped to break the mold by offering a slightly twisted take on a man who became super and then had to learn to become a hero.
So one night, a sorcerer named Grigori Rasputin decided to summon a creature that would trigger the apocalypse. Far from an action undergone on a whim, this event was part of a prolonged plan Rasputin has concocted years ago and was able to accomplish with help from Nazi investors. Surprisingly, Rasputin is able to complete his elaborate mission and actually summon a demonic presence. Unfortunately for him, Allied forces chose to appear at that exact moment and capture the creature for themselves. The collective that found the creature that night elected to bring the creature back to the United States and turn him into an operative. The creature, as you’ve no doubt deduced, is the character we lovingly refer to as Hellboy.
That’s...well, that’s just a great introduction, now isn’t it? The old “occult nazi” plotline has been revisited many times in comics over the years, but this is a rare instance of the Nazi’s fabled mythical occult ambitions being used to frame the origins of a hero. This event not only gave birth to the Hellboy character, it established the roots of every personality trait that makes him such an incredible hero.
7 Swamp Thing
Upon first glance, Swamp Thing must seem like a darkhorse candidate for this list. This is because the original origin tale for Swamp Thing isn't exactly that incredible. The earliest version of Swamp Thing suggested that the character used to be a human scientist named Alex Olsen. After a colleague tries to kill Olsen, the chemicals in his lab transform Olsen into the creature known as Swamp Thing.
It was Alan Moore, however, who penned a shocking twist to this simple tale. In Moore’s version, Olsen died during the lab accident. Instead, Swamp Thing was born from plant life that absorbed the lab’s chemicals as well as the pain of Olsen’s memory. The plant life struggled to accept that it wasn’t actually Olsen, even though it possessed his desire to be human again. While many superhero origins deal with a hero coming to terms with who they are, few are as tragic as the tale of Swamp Thing.
Wolverine’s origin story unfolded slowly over the years following his 1974 debut. Eventually, however, it was revealed that Logan was actually born James Howlett; the illegitimate son of a prominent farming family. The Howlett’s groundskeeper, Thomas Logan, is actually James’ real father. Following an incident which sees Thomas Logan murder John Howlett in a fit of rage, James uses his protruding bone claws to murder Logan. This kicks off the version of Wolverine’s story that many fans are familiar with. He went on to grow up in the wild, join the circus, and become an unwilling participant in the Weapon X program which gave him his adamantium skeleton.
The great thing about Wolverine’s backstory is that you only really need to hear it once to perfectly understand the motivations of his character. Wolverine has always been portrayed as the ultimate survivor and a natural loner, which makes sense when you understand that his life has been a series of tragedies that forced him to mistrust everyone that isn’t him. Yet, the act that changed his life -- the murder of his real father -- was performed out of a sense of love. There is goodness to Wolverine. It’s just buried under layers of pain.
The greatness of Spider-Man’s origin story depends on which part of the character’s early days you choose to look at. To be perfectly honest, there’s nothing especially compelling about a nerdy young man who is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains spider-like powers. That’s typical comic book fare. It’s what happens next, though, that really establishes the Spider-Man character as know and love him today. Peter Parker decides to use his incredible abilities to make some quick cash, which in turn leads to him failing to prevent a crime, as he’s too busy looking out for himself. When that criminal kills his Uncle Ben, Peter Parker learns the relationship between great power and great responsibility.
Spider-Man’s origin includes a fair share of campy comic book elements, but it’s really one of the most heartbreaking looks at the burden of being a hero and the constant sacrifice that goes along with that responsibility. Besides, even the campy elements lend a certain classic charm to the character’s earliest days.
4 John Constantine
It’s admittedly somewhat frustrating to recap John Constantine’s origin story, simply because writers have spent years building upon Constantine’s early days. The tale is complicated, but the popular version involves the troubled birth of John Constantine, which saw him kill his twin in the womb and his subsequent wayward youth. Along the way, he got mixed up with a girl named Astra, who summoned a demon to kill some people that abused her. Constantine, an amateur occultist at the time, tried to summon another demon to get rid of Astra’s, but the process led to the damnation of Astra. John later encounters the demon he summoned and strikes a deal with him which increases Constantine’s powers.
Of course, that’s just one version of the story. Multiple writers have presented multiple versions of Constantine’s origin story over the years. He’s kind of like the Joker, in the sense that the full details of his true origin are meant to be a little mysterious. This twisting narrative only serves to enhance the intrigue of the character, as every version of the story paints the same picture, but utilizes slightly different brush strokes to get there.
There are few comic book origin stories as infamous as Superman’s. We all know that seemingly mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton. Sensing the destruction of his planet was near, Kal-El’s father sent his only son into space in order to save his life. Kal-El landed in Kansas and was raised as the adopted son of a farmer and his wife. Eventually, Kal-El became Clark, and Clark became Earth’s mightiest hero.
Even though that story evolved over the years, it’s absolutely incredible to consider that the groundwork for the origin tale was established all the way back in 1938. Even though a legion of superheroes would follow in Superman’s wake, few of their origin stories would ever match the simple brilliance of the Man of Steel’s. It’s a simple enough premise that even the youngest readers can understand and feel inspired by, but it's the years of compelling mythology built upon that simple premise that solidify it as one of the all-time greats.
Pretend you’ve never heard of the character known as Magneto. We appreciate how difficult that is, but play along for a moment. If it helps, just picture a child named Max Eisenhardt who was born into a German-Jewish family before the rise of the Nazi party. Once the Nazis took power, Max and his family attempted to flee. Unfortunately, they were caught and set to be executed. Perhaps due to his emerging special abilities, Max was able to escape the execution. Unfortunately, he still ends up a concentration camp prisoner. Even after the war, Max’s attempt at a peaceful life is thwarted by an incident that ends with him murdering a mob that was trying to kill his wife and child.
More often than not, such a character would eventually become a comic book hero. What makes Magneto such a compelling villain is how he chose to view the circumstances of his life. When he saw how humans treated his mutant brethren, he immediately thought of how the Nazis treated the Jews. Unwilling to watch history repeat itself, he immediately classified humans as the enemy and mutants as the good guys. Given his life up until that point, it’s hard to argue with his outlook.
Like many early superheroes, Batman’s creation can be traced back to the comic book industry’s obsession with creating the next Superman. Bob Kane and Bill Finger used Superman as a template for Batman’s early design, but altered the world’s most famous superhero in several key ways. Along with the obvious visual design differences, Kane and Finger also looked towards characters like Zorro, The Phantom, and a series of pulp detectives when establishing the character’s personality traits. It all led to a simple origin story about a boy named Bruce Wayne whose parents are brutally murdered by street thugs. Because of this incident, he decides to become a crimefighter.
That story was serviceable for a time, but it wasn’t until Frank Miller’s Year One that it became arguably the definitive comic book origin tale. It was that series that really tied together the details of Batman’s earliest days and established him as a psychologically damaged hero whose darkness mirrored the evil he fought. Bruce Wayne was born the son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but it was their murder that gave birth to Batman.
What's your favorite comic book origin tale? Let us know in the comments.