Action Comics #1 gets Superman’s origin story and “a scientific explanation of Clark Kent’s amazing strength” out of the way on the very first page, and the rest of the issue is devoted to his activities as a grown-up “champion of the the oppressed.” Though obviously his childhood with the Kents, and his infancy on Krypton were expanded drastically after Superman became famous, they weren’t necessary to start telling his story. In fact, origin stories are not required to launch a superhero–or even a franchise of one.
But gosh, America loves an origin story. The plot of becoming a superhero maps so tidily onto ideas of the Hero’s Journey plot structure, that origin stories have become the default first installment for introductions of new superheroes. Readers (and viewers, because lots of superhero introductions are conducted via film and television, after all) like to see the whole arc of a protagonist Doing the Protagonist Thing: being precarious in an otherwise comfortable world, setting out to change stuff, acquiring enemies and friends along the way, having little struggles that lead up to a climactic one, and emerging victorious from that battle, having learned a valuable lesson about friendship, power, trust, or whatever else.
In a superhero origin story, that “setting out” phase is likely to be the onset of powers, and the enemies and friends and little battles are likely to fall into predictable categories that allow the hero to discover the extent and limits of their powers. The climactic battle is likely to leave the villain in some returnable form for later issues, and after that climax in which the villain is defeated but still resurrectable, the hero is ready to take on the world, in a series of ongoing issues, sequels, and transmedia marketing ventures. It is thus, we think, that a hero is born.
And, well, maybe. But do we need to see it? And if so, do we need to see it before we can see the hero do anything else? There are certainly superhero stories that require the premise that superheroes are an established part of the landscape already–Watchmen and Who Killed Retro Girl? come to mind as examples of books in which the already-there-ness of superheroes is absolutely integral to the story being told. Those ones, both ensemble stories, don’t worry about starting with one hero’s origin. Action Comics #1, arguably the first superhero story of all, had good reason for explaining its premise to start out with, and still gets it out the way quickly so that Siegel and Shuster can concentrate on the mature actions of someone who has “sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need.”
Spider-Man makes an interesting case study. In his first appearance, his entire origin story is crammed extremely economically into the first eleven pages of Amazing Fantasy #15, and after that, he gets his own solo comic book, Amazing Spider-Man, for his ongoing adventures the following year. Compare that to The Incredible Hulk #1, which had been published mere months before Amazing Fantasy #15 and was the very first appearance of the Hulk. In that one issue, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby establish Bruce Banner’s personality, tell the story of him becoming the Hulk and struggling to come to terms with it, introduce his sidekick and his love interest, and tell a full story arc in which Banner defeats some Communist foes through his combined mercy and scientific brilliance.
In contrast, Spider-Man’s introduction to the world is like a restaurant soft-opening before the grand opening. He didn’t even get a single issue all to himself to launch. Rather, Peter Parker had to establish his genius loner status, get bitten by a radioactive spider, make poor decisions, have those decisions result in his beloved Uncle Ben’s death and realize that “with great power there must also come — great responsibility!” (Lee 11) in pages that were then followed by other random comics short stories. Iron Man had a similar situation, appearing in Tales of Suspense #39 in 1963 and then a one-shot comic called Iron Man and Sub-Mariner in 1968 before Iron Man #1 debuted later that same year.
I see a parallel between the Spider-Man roll out in the comics of the early sixties and in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the MCU, Spider-Man first appears as a beloved and welcome cameo in an ensemble piece, and then gets his own solo feature film the very next year. Interestingly, neither of these appearances tell his superhero origin story. In Captain America: Civil War: Avengers Upset, Tony Stark recruits Spider-Man to join his side of a superhero vs. superhero fight. It is the first we see of Spider-Man in the MCU, though our memories of screen Spidey are fresh from Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s trilogy, and even more recently, Andrew Garfield in Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man reboot. And even if someone in the audience has somehow escaped any cultural knowledge of Spider-Man (how???), this is the third Captain America movie in the sprawling MCU. The movie assumes you already know what superheroes are, and how they function in the world.
Thus, in the MCU, when Stark comes calling on the Parker household, viewers don’t need to hear this teenager’s reasons for assuming the mantle of a hero. When Stark asks him why he fights for what’s right, he fumbles out an answer that doesn’t use the phrases “great power,” “great responsibility,” or “Uncle Ben.” But we understand. We know the story already. And in Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter Does the Right Thing, released the very next year, Tom Holland as Peter can get right into his heroism without needing to realize anything first. He already did that, off screen, years ago, and we believe it. Audiences do have the cultural literacy to understand that a superhero will be heroic without needing to see their motivation firsthand.
Similarly and recently, one of my favorite newish comics, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl starts out with our hero, Doreen Green, off to college, secure in her powers (the proportional speed and strength of a squirrel! A fondness for nuts! The ability to communicate with–you guessed it–squirrels!). Writer Ryan North dispenses with the need for an origin story by having Doreen sing her own theme song while beating up some muggers in the very first pages of the comic. Her theme song scans nicely (“She’s got partially squirrel blood!”) to the theme song of the 1967 Spider-Man animated show. All we really need to know for the first story Ryan North tells about Doreen are her personality and her powers. We don’t need a coming of age narrative in which Doreen comes to terms with her powers to get there.
The character Squirrel Girl had actually been introduced as a ridiculous bit part in a 1990s Marvel Super-Heroes comic and after a decade on hiatus, reemerged to appear in a variety of ensemble series before getting her own solo title. She wasn’t saddled with an origin story arc in any of that stuff, either.
By evoking the Spider-Man theme at the beginning of the first issue, North gives readers all the information they need about Doreen’s powers – here’s a superhero whose powers are thematically linked to an animal that one would not normally consider heroic! Proceed. And by having Doreen sing it aloud to herself (and her beribboned squirrel friend Tippy Toe) we learn a lot about her personality and the lighthearted, self-aware tone of the story to come. It’s almost as though knowing Spider-Man’s origin story is enough: we don’t need it from anyone else again. That theme song that cheerfully details powers is plenty. Go ahead and skip the origin story.