Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Best Origin Stories)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top 5 list and debate the merits therein.

Greg: Hey, true believers (isn’t the statute of limitations up for that phrase?). It’s the Hard Traveling Fanboys back for the first installment of Countdown. While you’ve seen countdowns to various crises in comic books over the years, we hope you’ll find our countdowns interesting in their own right. Since you discovered a bit about our Secret Origins last week, we thought we’d kick off Countdown with a look at our favorite superhero origin stories.

Nick: And, to clarify, not origin stories in the greater sense such as “Superman sent from Krypton,” but specific origin stories told by specific creative teams. At this point, each noteworthy hero has likely had his or her origin reworked several times over, so we’ve got a pretty wide range to choose from.

So, without further adieu, let’s kick this thing off with my choice for the fifth greatest origin story of all time.

Nick’s No. 5: Batman: Dark Victory, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale.

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Nick: Now, if we were having a countdown of the best Batman stories ever told, this one sure as hell wouldn’t be at the fifth spot, but that debate will come in time.

Greg: An excellent story, but an interesting choice for this list. Many forget that the story involves the origin of Robin.

Nick: Exactly. I completely own up to the fact that for most of my comic-reading life, I was one of those “anti-Robin” Batfans. I thought that the idea of a guy as dark and brooding as Bruce, who had seen so much tragedy, would never put a child in danger like this. It never seemed to make sense to me, and thus, I preferred my Bat bird-free.

But, this book can be credited with making me open my mind up a little on the concept. It fits firmly in step with Batman: Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween, both serious gritty takes on Bruce Wayne. And yet, it introduces Dick Grayson in a way that makes me understand Bruce’s thought process beyond the 1940s reasoning of “put a kid in the book to sell books to kids.”

The book spends a lot of time with Dick just dealing with his parents’ death so that by the time he puts on the green tights, it’s kind of a fist-pump moment. The last panel of the book also is very heartwarming, in that it foreshadows the years of history these two characters will soon develop.

Greg: Dick Grayson is my favorite character in comics, so I obviously approve of this choice. While the book is still very much a Batman story, rarely has a creative team done as good a job at presenting Dick’s transformation into Robin. In fact, it’s fair to say that most of the great Dick Grayson stories take place after he’s no longer wearing the red and green. Loeb and Sale do a masterful job of taking readers on a journey through the eyes of a character who, in many ways, couldn’t be more different from his partner.

Nick: As usual, you put things so much more eloquently than I feel capable.

Greg’s No. 5: Batman: Earth One, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.

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Nick: Yes. An outstanding story that gives us a flawed, young version of Bruce, a new creepy-as-hell villain, and perhaps most importantly, BADASS Alfred.

Greg: Along with Superman, Batman has had his origin written and rewritten more than perhaps any other major comic book character. Unlike Superman, however, it’s often a lot harder to break new ground with Batman due to Frank Miller’s masterpiece Year One. However, freed from the reins of modern continuity, Johns does something both bold and masterful — he completely turns the most classic of all origin tales on its head.

Where Miller, Loeb and even Finger presented a steely, cold, calculating creature almost beyond humanity, Johns embraces the humanity of Bruce Wayne, a man possessed by rage, grief and guilt. As you mentioned, he takes the character of Alfred Pennyworth, who has always been portrayed as a snide but dutiful butler, and transforms him into a badass of epic proportions. Instead of a foul-mouthed slob, Harvey Bullock becomes a handsome wannabe celebrity under Johns’ pen. And Jim Gordon is a man who has all but given up on life. Yet despite all these changes, Johns and Frank manage to capture the essence of the characters in their own way. Alfred is still the father figure Bruce needs. And the world’s greatest cop is still lurking within Jim Gordon.

Nick: Completely agreed. Year One casts perhaps the biggest shadow of any comic storyline ever, so it’s tough to attempt to retread that ground. Geoff Johns, however, avoids that altogether. I think “fresh” is a great word to use here. The whole thing feels so different, yet still has that sense of familiarity you should have when reading a great story about the Bat.

And let me take this opportunity to warn all our readers: If you have a problem with fanboys worshipping at the altar of the great Geoff Johns, you might want to look elsewhere. Two bigger GJ fanboys may not be found.

Greg: And in addition to our hero Mr. Johns, I have to give credit to the marvelous pencils of Gary Frank. He is adept at conveying emotions, and the scenes here between Bruce and Alfred are among my favorite panels in all of comics.

Nick: Frank’s depiction of Batman without eye slits was key. He actually allowed readers to look into Bruce’s soul at times just by using Bruce’s pupils beneath the cowl, and it added this whole additional emotional context to every scene that had Bruce in costume.
And as you said, the new version of Harvey Bullock was great. Almost like a heroic version of what Flass was in Year One.

Nick’s No. 4: Green Lantern: Secret Origins, by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis.

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Greg: The first of what I suspect will be a couple of crossovers between our lists.

Nick: After Geoff Johns successfully gave the Green Lantern family of characters a kickstart with Rebirth, he eventually got around to telling his version of the origin of Hal Jordan.

But really, it isn’t so much the origin of Hal Jordan that makes this book. It’s the origin of the relationship between Hal and Thaal Sinestro, quite possibly THE greatest hero/villain relationship in all of comics now.

Most of Johns’ GL run is predicated on knowing, understanding, and empathizing with Hal when it comes to dealing with Sinestro. In addition to having to escape the shadow Parallax left hanging over his life, there’s also the creeping sensation that Hal never left his mentor’s shadow, either. And here, we see why Sinestro was perhaps the greatest of all the Green Lanterns.

Greg: Absolutely. For those who don’t know anything about Green Lantern, this is the book to start with, and it’s precisely for the reason you named. The relationship between Hal and Sinestro is the backbone and the main thematic element that drove Geoff Johns’ nearly 10-year Green Lantern story.

Nick: It also establishes one of my personal favorites, Atrocitus, as a major player in Green Lantern lore, and manages to introduce new readers to years of mythology in just seven issues.

This book manages to fit in Abin Sur, Hector Hammond, Black Hand, Tom “Pieface” Kalmaku and build the foundation of the Hal Jordan/Carol Ferris relationship. For a book that is really all about character development, it moves at a pace unlike any other I’ve ever seen.

Greg: Seeing how the story concluded in May’s Green Lantern #20 only makes Secret Origin more potent. The back-and-forth relationship between Hal and Thaal shines through even in the midst of crazy battles and introductions to Atrocitus and Black Hand.

Nick: I’m trying very hard to base my list on the origins themselves, but GL #20 is still very fresh on my mind.

Greg’s No. 4: Starman: Sins of the Father, by James Robinson and Tony Harris.

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Nick: Heard good things, but never read it. Give me your sales pitch.

Greg: Starman is a book that passed me by when it was actually on the shelves, largely because its rise in popularity coincided with my dwindling interest in comics. I’d heard the critical praise even back then, though. After reading glowing reviews from a certain comic book website several years ago, I finally took the plunge and purchased the original trade of Sins of the Father from a local comic shop. I was instantly impressed. It’s important to note that I knew nothing about Starman going in. I had certainly heard of the original Starman, but I always associated him with being an old geezer in Zero Hour.

Nick: So, what sets it apart from other origins?

Greg: The Starman series is all about Jack Knight, the son of the original Starman, Ted Knight. It’s very much a legacy book, yet it drops you instantly into the action without it ever feeling overwhelming or too continuity-driven. As for what sets it apart, for starters, this is not just a character origin story. It’s very much a world-building story. James Robinson builds Opal City from the ground up, filling it with as many interesting, unique characters as any real-life town. He also gives Jack Knight one of the most distinctive voices I’ve ever read for a mainstream superhero.

Nick: Ok, that makes some sense now. As our readers will undoubtedly learn over time, you are a big fan of the concept of legacy characters in comics. And something tells me we just might have something Starman-centric in the works for a future column….

Greg: Much like Johns began a compelling friendship in Secret Origin, Robinson and Harris create one of the first instances I know of a supervillain mentoring a superhero. The Shade-Starman relationship is layered, deep and compelling, as is all of the book’s dialogue. In the span of a few issues, we become immersed in Opal City and find ourselves rooting for Jack Knight and his crazy friends. Jack is presented in many ways as a fanboy — obsessed with collecting things, completely disinterested in celebrity and completely unwilling to become what we know he is destined to be.

And like all great origin stories, it sets up years’ worth of stories through subtle allusions and nods.

Nick: Ok, the Shade/Starman dynamic does sound interesting. I’m adding this to my to-read list as we type.

Nick’s No. 3: The Ultimates, by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch

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Greg: Our first Marvel book on the list, and it’s a good one.

Nick: While this doesn’t really serve as an origin story for any individual character other than Captain America, this is a modernized retelling of the first teamup of the Avengers, here called the Ultimates in keeping with Marvel’s new (at the time) Ultimate universe. As I’m sure most of our readers will be aware, the Ultimate U was conceived as a way to bring new readers in by providing easy jumping-on points. Marvel launched new series with new #1 issues, none of which were tied to the mainstream universe and all of which began with a new, modern-day origin story.

The Ultimates, rather than being your typical “heroes meet, fight, then join together” story, paints the classic Avengers characters as individuals brought together by Nick Fury, the Director of SHIELD, here reimagined as a shadowy governmental organization that has post-9/11 paranoia written all over it.

Each character is given his or her moment to shine, and each character feels distinct, rather than generic, which is something especially hard to do with characters like Hank and Janet Pym. Plus, kudos to Millar for taking the Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch relationship to where we all kind of thought it might have been in the mainstream universe, even if it was never mentioned. Also, the Hank/Janet superhero domestic violence scene was downright disturbing.

Greg: I admittedly haven’t read a lot of the Ultimate line, but I did read the first two Ultimates collections, and I was really impressed by their ability to make me care about characters I never found appealing as a kid — Captain America, Thor and Iron Man for starters. Millar’s take on Thor was particularly appealing, as he was presented as either a true Norse god or a psychopath along the lines of Maxie Zeus. That was an interesting subplot to an exciting story.

Nick: Yes, Ultimate Thor is probably the series’ best contribution, although sex-crazed Hulk would also be near the top of that list.

Greg: I also saw a lot of parallels between the Ultimates and the big-screen version of the Avengers we saw last year.

Nick: Yes! The idea of Sam Jackson as Nick Fury was lifted directly from these pages.

The characters at one point have a discussion about who would play them in a movie, and Fury suggests Samuel L. Sadly, the suggestion of Steve Buscemi as Bruce Banner never came to be.

But, beyond just the look, you’re right, the Avengers movie felt like a nice middle ground between the modern Ultimate interpretations of each character and their more classic counterparts.

To sum it up, whenever anyone asks me to recommend an Avengers book, this is always the first one I throw out there. Sometimes continuity can be a fantastic thing for story, but other times not being constrained by it can make a story much more enjoyable since you aren’t as sure of what the outcome may be.

Greg’s No. 3: Green Lantern: Secret Origin, by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis.

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Nick: Wish I had thought of it myself. We talked about this book already, but let’s touch on it again briefly.

Greg: We’ve already said most of what needs to be said about this one, but I’d like to add one point I neglected earlier. Emerald Dawn is a great Green Lantern origin story. Likewise, Alan Moore’s run on Green Lantern Corps featured some of the coolest, greatest stories in comics history. What Johns did brilliantly in Secret Origin is marry the concepts he liked from both books, modernize the origin and yet maintain the spirit of those old tales. Picking up the Five Inversions and Abin Sur’s demise was a ballsy move, but Johns pulled it off. And he managed to create an even more succinct and interesting origin story than Emerald Dawn.

Nick: I actually think that Emerald Dawn I and II have kind of gotten short shrift since Johns’ run started, but hey, as long as people are starting to care about GL again, it’s all good.

Nick’s No. 2: Ultimate Spider-Man, Volume 1, by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley

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Greg: This is a book/series I’ve never read, so I’m going to lay out for you on this one.

Nick: Ok, this may get long. As we will soon cover in a future edition of Secret Origins, this is the book that got me into comics. It was my first graphic novel or trade collection that I ever purchased, so it holds great sentimental value for me. Beyond all of that, however, it stands on its own as an all-time great origin story. Much like some of the other works we’ve discussed, this retells the classic Peter Parker origin that we all know and love, but puts it in a new, fresh setting.

It also redefines his relationship with key characters of the Spider-Man mythos, namely Uncle Ben, Aunt May and the Osborns. Uncle Ben’s death, rather than being told in the first issue, is given time to breathe and we get to see why exactly Peter held him in such high esteem.

Plus, Ultimate Mary Jane is so much more down to earth and believable than supermodel Mary Jane. Her and Peter’s relationship forms the main narrative of the 160 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, and those seeds began to be sown here. We also get an updated version of the spider-bite that gives Peter personal ties to both Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius, something that helps the title as it continues forward.

Greg: That answers one of my primary questions of how it differentiates itself from the original Lee/Ditko origin.

Nick: I could go on for days and days, but my love for this book really comes down to my love for Ultimate Peter Parker. Bruce Wayne may be the guy I’ve always dreamed of being, but Ultimate Peter is the guy I feel like I could have become if there were radioactive spiders available to me. For better or worse, this is a book that attempts to speak to the high schoolers of the 2000s, and succeeds on every level.

Greg: I look forward to reading this book in the very near future. Hmm….

Nick: However, I can’t move on without throwing some kudos to Bendis and Bagley. When I read or watch anything Spidey-related, I hear the interior monologue that Bendis gave Ultimate Peter and compare any visual to the sleek stylings of Bagley. On a side note, Amazing Spider-Man 2’s costume update makes me fill with fanboy joy.

Greg’s No. 2: The Man of Steel, by John Byrne.

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Nick: Much like you on my number two, I have never read this and will defer to your knowledge of all things El.

Greg: I can already feel the rage of Silver Age Superman fans. But let me be clear — John Byrne’s Superman, for better or worse, will always be “my” Superman. Man of Steel was and remains a controversial work for many of the reasons I love it — it completely does its own thing and washes away many of the concepts and ideas introduced in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that, in my opinion, weighed the original superhero down.

Far from the borderline cocky god figure who masqueraded as a clumsy reporter (see David Carradine’s monologue in “Kill Bill”), Byrne’s Superman is more man than alien. Krypton is presented as a cold, emotionless world where Jor-El is one of the few who sees the value of emotions. And where previous versions of the origin had the Kents die, Byrne not only leaves them alive but makes them the most integral part of who Superman becomes, which brings me to my next point. Byrne’s Superman IS Clark Kent. Clark is not a disguise, and Superman doesn’t spend his days longing to live on Krypton as Kal-El. He embraces his adopted planet over his birth planet, and that provides the crux for who he becomes — a god who has the same doubts, struggles and concerns as us normal folk.

Nick: Fantastic points. Sounds like an interpretation of Supes I could get behind, whereas a lot of the more Silver Age material is the stuff that helped to create my disdain for the character.

Greg: Byrne also crafted a far superior version of Lex Luthor to any that came before. Gone was the mad scientist who paraded around in a battlesuit. In his place was the ideal ’80s villain — the richest man in the world, a man who could buy and sell anyone and anything … except the Man of Steel.

Even with more than 25 years of hindsight, the story still rings original and fresh. And, once again, Byrne did his own thing while maintaining the heart of the main characters. He simply reimagined everything for a new day and time and presented a more relatable hero.

And I suppose that just leaves one book, which happens to share its spot atop both our lists.

Nick and Greg’s No. 1: Batman: Year One, by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

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Nick: OK, what can we possibly say about this book that hasn’t been said a thousand times before by people much more qualified than you or I?

Greg: Probably nothing. It is the Watchmen of superhero origin stories and the work by which others are judged.

Nick: It really is. A lot of times, when a work in any medium is praised for so long, there tends to be a backlash towards it after a time. There’s a tendency to fall back on the word “overrated,” but in the case of Year One, it deserves every ounce of praise it ever has received.

Greg: Nobody has ever written a better Batman or Jim Gordon. Some may have matched Miller, but none exceeded him. And keep in mind, most of the great Batman stories written since 1987 — Long Halloween, Dark Victory, Black Mirror for starters — build upon the ideas presented in Year One. It’s impossible to overstate how important this story is to Batman lore.

Nick: Yes, and it did something that few Batman stories had done in the past: It made Batman and Jim Gordon equals. More than friends, they were peers. It really redefined what is probably my favorite relationship between two characters in all of comics.

Greg: It’s Jim Gordon’s origin story as much as Batman’s. In fact, I’ve always read the book through the lens of Jim Gordon inspiring Bruce Wayne. Bruce is a man who doesn’t see much hope in his city until he meets Gordon.

Nick: You nailed it. Gordon, at his best, is supposed to represent to Bruce what about Gotham is still worth fighting for, perhaps even moreso than his parents’ memory.
But I’m a little biased. Talking about that Gordon/Batman relationship gets me a little misty.

Greg: And Mazzuchelli’s pencils? My God. This is among the best-drawn comics I’ve ever seen. He sets the mood in a way other Batman artists would attempt to duplicate for years. Major credit to Richmond Lewis, who was masterful coloring her husband’s artwork.

Nick: Year One was something I found fairly early on in my comic-reading life, and I remember it being the first book where rather than accepting the art as a necessary function, I was actually blown away.

All in all, it’s a beautiful book that stands without peer. And, it’s a book that DC has been living off the legacy of for years now, what with pretty much every character receiving their own Year One at some point or another.

So, Greg, any closing thoughts on Year One or any other topics we’ve covered?

Greg: I think the one thing that stands out to me about all these great stories is that, like a great cover song, each work manages to be boldly original. Even when tackling characters with 70 years of history, the writers and artists understand how to put their own stamp on these characters.

Nick: And really, that’s what makes comics great. Each creator gets to leave a mark, for better or for worse, on characters that have endured for 70 years and will likely continue to endure for 70 more.

I hope that anybody reading this who hasn’t read these books (ourselves included) will make time to find a copy and give them a shot. All great jumping-on points for the uninitiated.

Anyway, hope you all enjoyed it. Catch us the second Thursday in August when we Countdown our top 5 minority characters in comics.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.