Why Are So Many Superheroes Orphans?

Most of the most popular superheroes in American comics are orphans. Coincidence or something else?

Janet Daley, an American living in Britain who writes for The Telegraph, wonders why almost all male comic superheros are orphans:

The most subtantive question is not whether the invincible saviours in tights are Right wing, or even whether they may only be American. No the critical question is: why are they are all orphans? (Superman, Batman, Spiderman – think about it.)

This is, I would argue, fundamental to their mythical function within the American psyche: in a land of immigrants they personify the individual who is estranged from (or abandoned by) his race, his family, his emotional homeland. Finding themselves displaced persons in a new world (literally in Superman’s case) they must re-invent themselves: become omnipotent personae who can protect themselves from the terrors of the unknown. They are all - with their assumed identities – Gatsby figures who are not what they seem. They have come from nowhere and must seek acceptance by using their preternatural gifts in the service of the land which has adopted them. (It is interesting how many of Superman’s powers are enhanced perception capacities – super-hearing, X-ray vision – which would serve a traveller in a strange culture peculiarly well.)

The superheroes are the ultimate individualists – living out the American dream of the grateful stranger who has triumphed over the loss of his roots and emotional security to serve the nation.

Since I’m not a huge comic book fan, I don’t know off the top of my head if all superheroes have been orphans, but it’s certainly true of the three that are most well-known to the general public — Batman, Superman, and Spiderman — although it’s unclear if there’s a connection between that fact and their popularity.  Nonetheless, it is an interesting observation. It’s only been recently that people have treated comics as something deserving of serious literary or artistic consideration, and one wonders if the creators of these characters had any of the themes that Daley mentions in mind when they created their characters. As is often true of popular literature, they were likely more interested in creating something that people would enjoy rather than making some grand artistic statement.

Nonetheless, Daley points out an interesting coincident, so what might the reason be?

I think the “ultimate individualist” argument is perhaps part of it, but I’d also note that there seems to be a tradition in Western literature of heroic figures with tragic pasts an perhaps that’s where the comic book creators got the idea. You see similar themes in old westerns with the idea of the mysterious hero who arrives out of nowhere, with no ties to anyone, and saves the day (think High Noon, or The Lone Ranger). Like this superheros, these Western heroes are in the the world in which they move, but they’re not really a part of it. Or, perhaps the idea is that the life of a hero isn’t for someone who has family connections and emotional attachments, a theme that has been part of the stories of Superman/Clark Kent, Batman/Bruce Wayne, and Spiderman/Peter Parker for years now.

The idea of the loner-as-hero is not a new one, and it’s not really surprising to see it being repeated in comic books.

Anyone else have any ideas?

FILED UNDER: Comic Books, Entertainment, Popular Culture
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. JKB says:

    Okay, I presume there is a lack of awareness about Disney movies, at least the old ones, or even most children’s stories. Always orphans although more there is some displacement from divorce.

    I presume there is some need to have a reason why the hero or main character can’t just jump into mom or dad’s arms where the threat they must rise to meet is then all better.




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  2. michael reynolds says:

    Ms. Daley’s over-thinking it, a common problem when smart people talk about literature. I think it’s more a matter of practical story-telling. As a practical matter you don’t want your heroes splitting focus. It would be wrong to have them simply ignore their families, that would make them less admirable. But it would be boring to write about their family responsibilities. So you find a way to dispose neatly of such encumbrances: you go with orphans, aliens, or dystopian scenarios that kill everyone off leaving your heroes free to be heroic.

    Occam’s razor: the simplest answer is because it makes life easier for the writer.

    It’s like asking why so many fictional detectives have dead wives and drink too much: off-the-rack motivation and off-the-rack vulnerability. Writers do what’s easy.




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  3. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    In the case of Disney you have juvenile heroes. Adults trump kids, so you remove adults to leave focus on the kids. (Or fish, mice or mermaids, as the case may be.)




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  4. Vast Variety says:

    Rising above the ashes of one’s own personal tragidy and becoming a protector of those who can’t protect themselves is always a great story.




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  5. al-Ameda says:

    Because their parents can’t deal with them.
    I’m standing by that explanation.




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  6. John Burgess says:

    I agree with Michael.

    I think a look at the creators of superheroes might also be informative. None were what could be called ‘ordinary’ for their time and place. They could well have been projecting who they would liked to have been, what they would have liked to have been able to do to rid the world of oppressors.

    I think it worth pointing out that the Golden Age of Comics was pretty much contemporaneous with the rise of Nazism. Too, most of the writers were Jewish, from families that had fled oppression in Europe.




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  7. gVOR08 says:

    the mysterious hero who arrives out of nowhere, with no ties to anyone, and saves the day

    High Noon doesn’t really fit that, but Shane does perfectly.




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  8. John D'Geek says:

    They’re not all Orphans, no. Wonder Woman’s mother and sister were just fine. But they do all have a problem to overcome that the reader can identify with. I’d also agree with Campbell & Jung that there are plenty of Archetypes going on here. In fact, I would posit that the Archetypes are the critical piece to their successes.




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  9. An Interested Party says:

    It isn’t just American superheros that are orphans…there’s also James Bond, Harry Potter, and Alex Rider, all from the UK…the most obvious reasons seem to be the lack of family entanglements, as Michael observed above, as well as creating sympathy for the characters…




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  10. As Michael Reynolds suggests, it’s mostly for Conservation of plot detail reasons. Unless you intend to specifically explore the relationship between the superhero and their family members, there’s no reason to clutter up to narrative with unnecessary characters.




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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    I think it’s more that the open-ended form is crucial to a comic book. Comics have to be read by new readers on a weekly basis, so the stories can’t be expected to have arcs that would move beyond the main character. And the heroes are expected to go on forever, basically.

    This is why superheroes don’t really have personal desires or dreams in the sense that Odysseus or Aeneas had. They technically have pasts, but at no point will a superhero’s past catch up to them, or will they ever return home and retire. (At least in the Golden Age.) They just go on to the next issue.




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  12. Dave Schuler says:

    Storytelling convention. Heroes as “the son of the widow” goes back to Hesiod in the West, Sargon the Great in the Near East. Which is about as far back as you can go.




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  13. Gustopher says:

    Superman often isn’t really an orphan, he has Ma and Pa Kent, which gives him all the family entanglements and drama.

    There have been a bunch of different variants (parents die when he’s still Superboy because he can’t fix a tropical virus, Pa Kent dies when Superman is an adult, who knows what they new continuity has), but he’s always had a good, solid Real American ™ upbringing, and ends up being a dyed in the wool liberal.

    Batman, on the other hand, was apparently raised by the hired help. “Go to your room!” “You’re fired!”




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  14. sam says:

    “one wonders if the creators of these characters had any of the themes that Daley mentions in mind when they created their characters”

    The last person you want to ask about the meaning or significance of the work is the artist. My fav is Robert Plant’s response to the request that Zepplin perform Stairway to Heaven at Live Aid. From memory: “Jesus, I don’t why everybody always asks for that song.”




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  15. michael reynolds says:

    @sam:

    I get “inspiration” questions all the time, every writer does. I tell people it’s not about inspiration, it’s my job. But it’s so persistent that writers invent bullsh!t stories just to have something to say that sounds better than, “I have bills to pay.” Writers end up creating origin stories for their stories, just to have something to say.

    No one ever asks the interesting questions, like, why 3rd person limited rather than 1st person? Or how do you decide chapter breaks? Or how do you world-build? Of course when writers get together we always talk about the same thing: money.




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  16. stonetools says:

    I think if you go back to comic’s precursors, the fairy tale, you will find that many of the protagonists are orphans, including female ones like Cinderella. Seems to be an ancient storytelling convention.

    The first super hero was Zorro , who appears as an adult without a family. He has the mask, the cape, and the secret identity, though.




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  17. sam says:

    @stonetools:

    The first super hero was Zorro , who appears as an adult without a family. He has the mask, the cape, and the secret identity, though.

    I dunno. Achilles pretended he was a girl for a long time and later went around in women’s clothes for a while.




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  18. @stonetools:

    The first super hero was Zorro

    The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) predates Zorro (1919).




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  19. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Just to spin the wheel one more time, some literary writers note that superhero sagas are also Horatio Alger type stories where the main character overcomes obstacles by his own resourcefulness.

    Of course, Horatio Alger stories are REALLY about the value of connections, but since that’s not the meme that people use about them, I’ll move away from that point.




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  20. michael reynolds says:

    They seek him here,
    They seek him there,
    Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
    Is he in heaven?
    Or is he in hell?
    That damned, elusive Pimpernel.

    But he had no superpowers, just wit, sex appeal and a quick parry and thrust.




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  21. @michael reynolds:

    Batman doesn’t have superpowers either. That’s not a requirement to be a superhero.




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  22. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Fair point.




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  23. PD Shaw says:

    @michael reynolds:” Adults trump kids, so you remove adults to leave focus on the kids.”

    That’s why I predicted Dumbledore was going to die in the last book. For Harry and his friends to be heroes, he couldn’t be there to solve the problems.




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  24. PD Shaw says:

    One of the key ingrediants of a superhero story is a costume, almost always designating a secret identity which serves to protect family and friends from retaliation from criminals and super-villains. That would seem to make family superfluous to the superhero story, whether orphan or not.




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  25. Batman doesn’t have superpowers either. That’s not a requirement to be a superhero.

    In fact, in practice, he has. No one that does not have superpowers could fight dozens of criminals with no firearms, alone.




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  26. I think if you go back to comic’s precursors, the fairy tale, you will find that many of the protagonists are orphans, including female ones like Cinderella. Seems to be an ancient storytelling convention

    Our Mr. Reynolds is right. Comic books usually uses a very predictable structure to tell a story and in fact parents sometimes would create a emotional distraction(That´s one of the reasons that you don´t see any romantic interest or even any woman besides Bianca Castafiore in the Tintin stories, that´s why every Disney character has nephews, but not children).

    That comic books that Stan Lee did for DC Comics, that everyone hated, shows pretty well how these stereotypical elements are useful and are established. There is the villain, the romantic interest, the sidekick, and so on.




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  27. mattb says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think it’s more a matter of practical story-telling. … It would be wrong to have them simply ignore their families, that would make them less admirable.

    Got it in one. And most comic book writers don’t know how to deal with that (beyond making the family/significant other a constant target). Right now the only two mainstream comics that I can think of with whole families are:

    a. The Fantastic Four — and everyone has powers, including the kids
    b. DC’s Animal Man — and in that’s mainly due to the fact that the writer actually seems to know how to handle a family.

    To some degree, Spider-man (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) mined this lack of family to a brilliant extent in the early comics. Perhaps the best example is a multi-page sequence where Spider-man frees himself from a pile of rubble because if he doesn’t he (as Peter Parker) can’t get his Aunt May the medication she needs and she’ll die (repeating his failure with Uncle Ben).

    Generally speaking, relatives and significant others exist in comics only to be killed, maimed, rapes, etc in order to create heroic pathos. Marriages are just as bad and that’s why they keep getting eliminated.

    All of this became especially heightened as time went on. It probably reached a fever pitch post Dark Night Returns and Watchmen and during the extreme excesses of 90’s comics (complete with their Women in Refrigerators).




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  28. mattb says:

    So… @michael reynolds,

    Why 3rd person limited rather than 1st person?

    How do you decide chapter breaks?

    How do you world-build?
    (Seriously, I’m interested in the last one… been reading a lot about that recently).




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  29. Drew says:

    Interesting stuff.

    I’m a hard sell on movies. Just more of a real world vs movie or story guy.

    Saw the new Batman movie this evening. Go see it.

    Not going to say anything more.




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  30. michael reynolds says:

    @mattb:

    Hah.

    Okay. Use 3rd if you have a broad, big canvas story. 1st is more easily identifiable but 3rd gives you scope for something plot-driven. Staying 3rd “limited” – meaning the reader only knows what the individual character knows – let’s you build in suspense sort of in multiple plotlines. But it’s also challenging for the reader — which is why my readers have to be a bit smarter than Suzanne Collins’s readers.

    Chapter breaks are mostly about pacing at least for me. I tend toward 10-18 page chapters with 2 or 3 separate scenes. More short scenes in a chapter accelerates the pace. A single scene of say 12 pages in a chapter sets the pace a bit slower. (If we’re doing 3rd limited.) If you have a 150 page book you probably don’t want 50 chapters, so it’s also about pacing as relates to the length of your ms.

    On world-building I create a “series bible.” This is part sales document and part part straight-up world-building. So I write a “log line,” I write a rationale, talk about the psychology and the marketing, do a bit of outlining.

    The hardcore world-building involves a lot of Google images. I start “casting” by pulling head shots, many more than I need. Some of those head shots are for characters I already have in mind, but others kind of push me to create a new character. I do the same with locations — I find pix, maps, floor plans, etc… An early series my wife and I did we had floorplans of the homes for all 8 major characters and we knew what each of them saw from their window.

    If I’m writing a series I pack heavy — I know I’m going to burn through a lot of plot, a lot of locations, etc… So I want a well-defined environment, strong core characters, well-thought-out “rules,” and I need to know what my plot machine is, the thing that will give me action in book 2, 3, 4 etc… If technology or lifeforms are involved I sometimes do drawings — did that for Animorphs, actually drew the ships, the aliens, etc… I’m going to think about repetitive elements — things I need to have in each book. But I’m also very much looking to avoid familiar tropes. If anything feels familiar I try to steer away.

    Series writing is different than single title. If you want to see series writing crash and burn read George RR Martin’s last two Fire and Ice books. He let the backstory eat his series, he held onto too many cards for too long, and he took the easy way out by killing off characters to get a short-term adrenalin hit and ended up killing characters he really needed. His first 3 books are as good as any fantasy ever written. Brilliant. His next one was a mess and book five was sh!t. He had run out of plot, run out of character and was just voguing.




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  31. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @André Kenji de Sousa: As we talk about Batman, I am reminded of a phrase that comes from a detective series–alas, I only read one of the series and cannot remember the title character–where the sidekick is an idle rich boy who aids the investigator for a lark.

    He has come to see that the Bruce Wayne does have a superpower. His superpower is mind-numbing levels of wealth.




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  32. Jen says:

    Most children’s literature features either absent or detached parents (Nancy Drew, Boxcar kids, Disney, etc.) It’s fundamental to the storytelling: kids couldn’t have the adventures they have if both parents were present and paying attention.

    On the superheros–I would think that it would be hard to hide an identity from someone who knows you as well as a parent would, thus being an orphan is better for the standard of fiction: the willing suspension of disbelief.




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  33. Wayne says:

    Re “In fact, in practice, he has. No one that does not have superpowers could fight dozens of criminals with no firearms, alone.”

    So Stallone, Arnold, Bruce Willis, Jet li, Bruce Lee and many other action heroes have superpowers?




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  34. So Stallone, Arnold, Bruce Willis, Jet li, Bruce Lee and many other action heroes have superpowers?

    1-) In a given sense, yes, they have. Jackie Chan was pretty popular because he tried to be realistic as possible.

    2-) The problem of Batman is that he lives in a world full of people that have superpowers. In fact, many of his villains have superpowers. But, again, that´s the problem of making wider political and philosophical questions from comic books.




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  35. Diomedes says:

    @stonetools: It’s been a while since I read The Mark of Zorro, and it’s possible I’m confusing it with the movie, but I’m pretty sure his parents were still alive.

    Edit: just checked my copy. Sure enough, Don Alejandro is there in the final chapter for his son’s dramatic reveal, and before.




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  36. mattb says:

    @André Kenji de Sousa:

    In a given sense, yes, they have. Jackie Chan was pretty popular because he tried to be realistic as possible.

    To the degree that he did his own stunts, I guess that’s as realistic as possible.

    But in terms of the fights, Jackie Chan’s great super power is to get large groups of attackers to patiently wait their turn and attack him cleanly and sequentially. Man, I wish I had that power.




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  37. matt says:

    @michael reynolds: @PD Shaw: Thanks I’ve often wondered those questions myself but I’ve never had an author to ask.




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