Chapter 1: The Origins of Superheroes
Superheroes are not just the creation of comics. They exist in our world, and their ORIGINS are rooted in our history. But be careful what you wish for. The powers you covet may be a gateway to becoming a villain.
ORIGINS is written and produced by award-winning author Jaimie Engle.
Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. From the early cave drawings to our modern day emoticons, it seems we have not only completed a communication circle, but have also showed the evolutionary nature of storytelling. From many cultures, we hear the same tales retold. Some are familiar and others are the things of lore and modern day urban legend. What is real and what is fantasy? The lines can be blurred so thickly that there is no difference, and what at one time was regarded as truth has become twisted into legend.
One of the most brilliant attempts at explaining the truth behind the lore is M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable. In it, we meet two men: one who cannot be broken and the other who breaks for no reason. Bruce Willis’s character has never been sick a day in his life, never been hurt, and is the only person to survive a fatal train crash that he walks away from, free and clear. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mr. Glass, is different. He is born with osteogenesis imperfecta a group of genetic disorders that mainly affects the bones; in which the mere act of falling, if done just right, can fracture or break them. In this film, the concept of the origins of superheroes and villains is explored. If we have a disease like OI on one end of the spectrum than there must be people on the other end who are unbreakable. Right?
The exploration of this concept goes beyond the traits of these characters. The film suggests origins behind the hero’s weakness, why the villain is bad, and even the adjunct of nicknames for the anti-hero: Mr. Glass. It’s beautiful in that his motivation wasn’t to be evil. His quest, though costly, was to find a purpose, his meaning in life, even if it was to be the hero’s arch nemesis. This is presented so well, that it leads you to wonder how much truth is behind this legend? The possibilities for both types of people to coexist on planet earth are great if one exists at all, which they do. I know because I’ve met them before, people with osteogenesis imperfecta. It was a while ago, so the names are fuzzy. Let’s just say it was a woman named Jane and her husband, both of whom had this disorder. Jane was confined to a wheelchair. She homeschooled her son, also a carrier, though with a milder form then his parents. One of the first things I asked her when we met was if she was like the character in Unbreakable. She laughed, sharing how many times she’d heard that before, and then went on to share how she had broken 36 bones, fractured countless others, and that her case was mild compared to some. Compared to Mr. Glass. Now, while she wasn’t on a mission to find her polar opposite, like Jackson was in Unbreakable, it did make me a believer in the possibility of superheroes.
Historically, the condition has been document in many different cultures. According to my research, there’s evidence from Ancient Egypt in the dislocated mummy of a child and in a five year old Arab boy named Satib. A Viking commander had the nickname “boneless” so called for the illusion of his bending bones and imperfect structural formation. Again, in the seventeenth century, a subject of Louis XIV (fourteenth) was recorded as having a broken skeleton.
And what of the other side, of those walking among us who are unbreakable? One entry published by The Guardian suggests mutated genes could hold some answers. Are we talking X-Men here? Maybe in a different podcast. While it is documented that a predisposition for cancer can be found in a person through gene study, it is equally true that certain mutations might explain why a 40 year, pack a day smoker doesn’t succumb to cancer. One study compared the health of people in advancing years who had outlived common causes of death. Dr. Angela Brooks-Wilson leads one such study of “super-ager” types—a concept I find intriguing and might need to write into a short story, that of the “elderly superhero who saves the day.” The subjects are 85 years and older, still in good health, and have never been diagnosed with the common killers: cancer, heart disease, stroke, pulmonary disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s.
Another case involves a man named Steven Pete who has a quirk in his genes that allows him to be nearly immune to pain. He could place his hand on a stove top and not feel the burn. Tim Cridland has the same mutation having sliced himself with skewers, laid on a bed of nails, and swallowed flaming swords. Timothy Dreyer has bones that are so dense they are nearly impossible to break from a mutation called sclerosteosis. Like Willis, he could actually endure a deathly accident and walk away without broken limbs.
Gino Martino is known as “The Human Anvil.” He has this superhuman ability to smash things with his skull. I think my youngest son has this gift because his skull should have cracked on many different occasions. Unlike the abovementioned “mutants,” Martino’s abilities lie in his extra thick skull. We all know people who fit that bill. “The Iceman” sounds like a villain to me, but Wim Hof doesn’t choose sides. His superhuman skin allows him to walk on snow, be buried in ice, and stay submerged for nearly two hours in icy water, unscathed. The thought is that Hof can consciously control his autonomic nervous center or inner thermostat, cranking it up to withstand the cold. Masutatsu Oyama could beat 100 men in two minutes by himself. Master Zhou known as “The Jewel of China” can heat things with his bare hands. Man, this is starting to sound like the X-Men after all. “Mr. Eats it All” a French superhero with the birthname Michel Lotito, could eat anything: an airplane, 7 televisions, 18 bicycles, a coffin that was hopefully empty, a portion of the Eiffel Tower, and 15 shopping carts. At least he gets a lot of iron in his diet. His disorder, Pica, coupled with an extremely thick stomach lining is the origin of his ability. Blind Ben Underwood can see through sound, using echolocation like a bat. I guess Ben Underwood is the real life Batman. Natasha Demkina can see through people. Her superhero name is “Girl with X-Ray Eyes,” and she can literally see into a person’s body, see tissues and organs, and even perform medical diagnoses.
In other circles, the superhero comes in the form of a powerless vigilante. Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America. These men and women take the law into their own hands, seeking justice that they feel is unattainable in today’s court system. Benjamin Fodor, a man from Seattle, decided to become the superhero Phoenix Jones, with his very own supersuit to boot. His passion for fighting crime led him to create the Rain City Superhero Movement, a small team with a military and mixed martial arts background. I wouldn’t want to run into that crew in a back alley. Mr. Xtreme and his superhero team The Xtreme Justice League fight crime in San Diego, perform charitable acts, and even aid the police in catching real life bad guys. These types of vigilante superheroes are examles of the people depicted in Unbreakable.
Screenactor Nicholas Cage has been accused of being an immortal, a finger point that he hasn’t denied. A photograph shared by Ryan Macleod Morris, depicts a young Cage as a Confederate prisoner in a Union Camp in Ohio. Morris swears the man in the 147 year old picture and Cage are one in the same. Comte de Saint-Germain was referred by Voltaire as “A man who knows everything and who never dies.” Documents place the Count in the Ninth Crusade in 1271, the royal houses of Europe spanning more than 600 years from 1651 to 1896, and later as he left Europe for the Americas in the 1900s.
The show Legion leads me to a different theory. What if it’s all in our heads? What if the battle is of the mind; the hero’s powers are no greater than the imagination, the villain’s evil is directed by our own monsters? The mind is extremely powerful, able to create what isn’t there and ignore what is. We paint our memories in shades that are partially true, bent by life and time. Some even live in their minds and find solace; it is a safer place. These are the themes and thoughts that push my own stories, the questions that need answering even when no answer present themselves. We love the supernatural. We wish we could fly or read minds or move things with our thoughts. And while few of us do possess such abilities, the rest of are stuck being normal…average…human. What is our origin? Why do we desire to be more than we are? This is why we love stories. They give us the hope of a life we won’t ever live and an explanation of the universe in a way we can’t truly understand.
ORIGINS is a biweekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore presented by award-winning author Jaimie Engle. If you like supernatural stories, you can head over to The Write Engle and check out the collection under the books tab. If you like characters with superpowers, start with The Dredge. A sample is featured in this week’s podcast. Please review on iTunes & subscribe.
Music: by Ben Sound.