Posted : 2014Author : Mark Allen
Those sticky, icky moments from characters' pasts that deserve to be buried deep in a forest somewhere. Most comic book origin stories are silly beyond belief: an alien sent from a dying world to another with foster parents that look exactly like him? Toxic waste granting blindness and super-senses in one go (not to mention turning pet shop escapees into fearsome martial artists)? And if they’re not terrifically dumb, then they’re relentlessly bleak: there are more orphans in the DC and Marvel Universes than in every production of Annie combined.
Silliness and morbidity are one thing, but it’s the origin stories that make uncomfortable statements about sex, race and the characters themselves that really take things to an awkward place. Because many of the most famous characters in comics history have origins dating back to the mid-20th century, there can be a lot of wacky and politically dodgy subtexts (and sometimes just straight up texts) that were born from a less tolerant and more exploitative age.
Another problem seems to be the consistently inconsistent universes these characters inhabit – the creators need to keep telling stories about them, but they can only pile so high before the contradictions start caving in on themselves. They’re easy fixes for an editor with an eagle eye and a tactful way with words, which is why it’s so strange that some origins have managed to persist for so long. The following is a list of 7 characters who have pasts they (and most fans who know about them) wish could be swept under the rug – or simply just retconned – as soon as superhumanly possible…
7. Luke Cage
The first black superhero to get his own major live-action series, Luke Cage will be hitting Netflix some time in 2015 or 2016, and that’s quite a milestone for Marvel. A relatively low-profile, street-level character in the Marvel U until recently, Cage started out running Heroes For Hire with Iron Fist before breaking out on his own and later fathering a child with Jessica Jones and leading the Avengers for a spell. Not bad for a guy whose only real power is having unbreakable skin, right? But how did he get that skin? By being subjected to prison experiments that were trying to rip off Captain America’s super soldier serum, that’s how. Cage was created in 1972, a time when blaxploitation movies were all the rage and Marvel wanted to jump on the bandwagon. So they created a black former criminal hero with thick skin and a streetwise attitude, which is just a little too on the nose. Cage is actually pretty lucky: he’s an interesting enough character (pragmatic but also heroic, a family man but also a badass) that his somewhat cynical origin story doesn’t harm him too much.
6. Iron Fist
When you think of movie actors who use martial arts, who springs to mind? Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, all of those guys, right? How about when you think of comic characters? Shang-Chi aside, it’s pretty slim pickings for Asians in the Marvel U and you’re left with the likes of Colleen Wing, White Tiger and Danny Rand, The Immortal Iron Fist. Rand’s acquisition of the Iron Fist mantle goes a little something like this: his father, Wendell, discovered the mystical city of K’un L’un when he was a young man, and took Danny and his mother with him on an expedition back to the city so he could show them. Unfortunately both of his parents were killed en route and Danny remained in the city to study martial arts under the tutelage of Lei Kung. Danny quickly outshines the rest of the native students and attains the power of the Iron Fist by defeating the dragon Shou-Lao, shortly thereafter returning to New York City to fight crime and be a billionaire. It’s not an uncool story, but it stinks of White Messiah Syndrome, with Rand being able to swiftly rise above the native inhabitants of K’un L’un in addition to possessing the wealth and privilege his colour and heritage have afforded him. Many people have questioned whether Marvel’s Iron Fist Netflix series should star a white, blond-haired actor as Rand is represented in the comics or make their universe more diverse by changing Rand to an Asian-American character. The petition started by 18 Million Rising has had great support from fans all over.
5. Black Cat
Kevin Smith has a love/hate relationship with the comics he writes. He loves making them, but the fans hate reading them. Well, that might be a little bit of an exaggeration (unless you’re going by the response to The Widening Gyre), but Smith is a pretty divisive figure in most everything he does, and his take on Spider-Man and the Black Cat is no different. In her original origin story, Felicia Hardy is raised by her father who claims to be a travelling salesman but is actually a jewel thief. He encourages her to follow her dreams and is a pretty great role model (except the whole cat burglar thing), but he’s soon locked away for his nighttime activities. So Felicia decides to follow in his footsteps and aims to break her dad out of prison, but he dies before she gets a chance. And then she meets Spidey, who up until then is the only man she trusts (except her recently deceased pa). All that’s fine. Pretty great, in fact, because Felicia gets to tell her own story and choose who she wants to be. But in Smith’s retcon of her origin he makes her a victim of rape at college who doesn’t get to have her revenge on her attacker, stealing her agency away from her and redirecting her motivations away from her desires. In the comic Smith tries to assert that she’s taking control of her destiny, but all he’s done is shackled Felicia to her past in a very, very icky way.
4. Madelyne Pryor
So here’s the thing: Jean Grey has committed suicide after becoming Dark Phoenix and killing five billion people and Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) is pretty torn up about it all. Naturally. Taking a break from superheroics, he visits his grandparents in Alaska and meets a cargo pilot named Madelyne Pryor who bears a strange resemblance to Jean and who also survived a plane crash on the day that the Phoenix died on the moon. The two start a romance and are quickly married and pregnant, with Scott eventually leaving the X-Men to live with her and their son Nathan (aka Cable – more on him later) in Alaska. Unfortunately for Maddy, Jean Grey is soon resurrected and Scott leaves his wife and infant son without a word to be reunited with his dead girlfriend. It later turns out that Madelyne was a clone of Jean created by Mr Sinister so that he could obtain a child of selective breeding between the Phoenix and Scott. Wow. Madelyne’s origin is incredibly convoluted and muddles not only her own story but also Jean’s and Scott’s (he’s really not much of a hero by the point he abandons her and Nathan) and was the result of an editorial mandate that brought Jean back to life. Longtime Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont envisioned it all differently, letting Madelyne be her own person without a secret history that Scott could have a child and retire from supreheroics with, which sounds far, far better for a comic as rotational and progressive as X-Men used to be.
Poor Cable. From his messed-up conception by Scott Summers and the clone of his dead girlfriend Jean Grey to his time-travelling, alternate-history-brother killing adventures, Nathan Christopher Charles Summers never had much of a chance, did he? As mentioned in the last point, Nathan Summers was never meant to be a superhero, but a part of Scott Summers’ life in retirement. That all changed when Jean Grey came back into the fold and he and his mother were forced to have crazy storylines in order justify their existence. As a result, Madelyne became the Goblin Queen and Nathan fell victim to a virus for which the only cure was being sent to the future to live with a tribe called the Askani. When Nathan Summers returned to the present as the telepathic and telekinetic mutant Cable, he was older than both of his parents and was tasked with halting the rise of Apocalypse so that the future he came from wouldn’t be quite so bleak. As cool as time travel is, it seems rather uncomfortable for Cable to be hanging around the present with his father who’s younger than him and once abandoned he and his mother. By this point in his life Nathan must have more complexes than a Freud textbook, so it’s hardly any wonder he likes blowing things up so damn much.
2. Wonder Woman
It’s not like Princess Diana of Themyscira has a particularly strange origin compared to that of other superheroes. It’s just that…well, you’ll see. After growing up in a tribe of women called the Amazons on Paradise Island, Diana comes across downed pilot Steve Trevor and fights for the right to take him back to ‘Man’s World’. She is quickly enthralled by the place and wishes to stay in it to fight crime and be with Steve, who she’s in love with because of course she is. We’ve all heard stranger stories than that, and it sounds like it would be fine for a one-off story in which a woman who’s never met a man falls for the first one she sees only to find out he’s a cad when she brings him back home in the context of all the other men in the world, but Trevor never turns out be a bad guy and so Wonder Woman is perpetually stuck in that pubescent phase of being all doe-eyed about her first boyfriend. That and the remoteness of her origin with the Amazons make her a hard character to really relate to, other than the idea of moving into a big city for the first time. And the acquisition of her secret identity (she swaps names with a nurse called Diana Prince who looks exactly like her and wants to move to South America) feels incredibly flimsy, almost like an afterthought by the writer, William Moulton Marston. He wanted (and was encouraged by his wife) to create a female superhero who resolves conflicts “with love”, but that’s not exactly what he ended up with.
1. Professor X
Charles Xavier led something of an adventurous life before he settled into his wheelchair and role as the headmaster of his school for gifted youngsters. It was on one of these Indiana Jones-esque excursions deep within caverns in a foreign country that he encountered the villain Lucifer, who caused a cave-in that cost Xavier the use of his legs. That might seem like a less than exciting revelation for a character so key to the X-Men universe, but the cause of Professor X’s disability being slightly boring isn’t the weirdest thing in his history. It’s rarely repeated these days, but early on in the X-Men’s history, Charles Xavier was in love with the then 15-year old Jean Grey. The latest recruit to his team of mutant teenagers, Xavier worried about Jean being in danger not just because of a concern for all youngsters, but because of a very creepy desire to be with her that was revealed in X-Men #3. Reading this into the rest of his actions towards Jean and the X-Men is an exercise in weirdness, so we’d really rather Charles’ self-confession never happened so that the leader of the X-Men can have always had a platonic relationship with his students…