The Origins of Superheroes (and Magical Girls)

This is showing up on blogs I frequent, and I think it’s relevant here. Alexander Macris has divided superhero origin stories into three types:

1. Ordinary person accidentally becomes extraordinary through chance.
2. Determined person becomes extraordinary through dedication and will.
3. A person born with extraordinary gifts lives up to his birthright.

 He describes these three origin stories as “proletariat, bourgeoise, and aristocratic.” The examples he gives are interesting but not unassailable. For example, he holds Superman to be “aristocratic,” since he has superpowers on account of being an alien, but Superman is also a farm boy who learned values of honesty, honor, and hard work before moving to the big city, which would put him more-or-less into the “bourgeoise” category—and yet calling a farm boy “bourgeoise” sounds decidedly strange.

I wanted to add a fourth type of origin story, but John C. Wright beat me to it:

4. Ordinary person is selected to become extraordinary through the intervention of a higher power.

This is the origin story typical of magical girl warriors. Generally, they are ordinary schoolgirls selected by talking animals from space or from fairyland. They are frequently reluctant and would rather be ordinary girls, though there are exceptions.

Even those of the “deconstructive” brand of magical girl fall mostly into this category: Phantom Thief Jeanne, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Princess Tutu, and the girls of Magical Girl Raising Project are all selected by godlike powers, and even Madoka is harassed into a Faustian bargain, which is almost but not quite the same thing. What makes these girls different is simply that the powers who’ve selected them turn out to be infernal rather than higher.

By contrast, the typical cute witch falls into Macris’s third category: cute witches usually come to Earth from space or from fairyland and use their powers to help mankind.

Of course, some titles will change things up. Some magical girl warriors are also cute witches from fairyland, such as the Fairy Musketeers. And Sailor Moon falls into both categories, since she is an ordinary schoolgirl who receives her powers from a talking cat, but is also a reincarnated space princess and rightful ruler of the Solar System.

  • Terrycloth

    Category 4 is basically category 1, isn’t it? They didn’t do anything to deserve the powers. Or if they did, it would be category 2.

    • UncleverHans

      No, because chance is chance, whereas receiving extraordinary gifts from a higher power is deliberate.

      • Terrycloth

        Getting picked by the higher powers is luck on the part of the hero, though. (or a reward for their virtue, if it’s a category 2 variant)

        That’s why they call random happenstance ‘acts of god’.

        • UncleverHans

          It’s only random to humans, becuase they don’t know the mind of God. God has already ordained all things to be; there’s no luck involved whatsoever.

        • “Random” describes effect, not cause. You can have a random distribution, but not a random cause.

          In category one, the hero stumbles into his powers, such as Peter Parker happening to stand where a spider was passing through a radioactive beam. Nothing is deliberate. If we continue with the discussion from a theological perspective, everything in this scenario is the result of secondary causes.

          In category 4, the hero is deliberately selected. It is the exact opposite of chance.

        • Hrodgar

          Even in actual life, there is a quite a bit of difference between a miracle and an inexplicable fortuitous coincidence, for all that both are ultimately of God.

          God is everywhere, yet he is particularly in the Cloud and the Pillar of Fire, the Holy of Holies, etc. God speaks to everyone, yet he spoke particularly to Moses and Elijah. God calls all men to follow him, yet to few is given a call like that of Samuel, or David, or St. Paul for that matter.

          Clear definitions of things are all well and good, but they are not necessary to establish what the least examination of the sacred history should make obvious: the two are simply not the same thing.

      • Roffles Lowell

        Theres really very little distinction even in that, depending on your view towards God’s will versus dumb luck… The only distinction I guess is whether or not the author furnishes some explicit exposition towards why God saw fit for Peter Parker to get bit by the spider, for example.
        It’d be interesting to see someone write a story where God is looking down on, for example, Matt Murdoch…. pleased by his triumph over adversity; dismayed at his choice of attire….