1. Hawkman and Hawkgirl
Who is Hawkman? Well, he’s Carter Hall, a reincarnated Egyptian prince able to fly and fight bad guys courtesy of the mysterious Nth metal. No, wait: He’s Katar Hol, a policeman from the planet Thanagar living on Earth. Or is he both? The current origin of Hawkman merges the story of Carter Hall—the Hawkman created in the ’40s—with that of Katar Hol—the Hawkman first seen in the ’50s. He’s now a multiply reincarnated Egyptian whose many lives—and the lives of his on-again/off-again companion Hawkgirl—and superpowers are tied to the existence of Nth metal, which comes from Thanagar. It’s a fusion that makes sense of a potentially nonsensical explanation, though recent crossover events like Blackest Night have threatened to complicate matters again.
2. Ghost Rider
Ghost Rider’s real-world origins are odd enough without even talking about his comic book story. The character could only have happened in the early ’70s, when the Comics Code Authority’s relaxation of restrictions against horror-themed characters dovetailed with a public fascination with daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel. Thus was born Johnny Blaze, a stunt cyclist who sells his soul to Satan and finds himself possessed by strange demonic powers at night, which he spends driving around righting wrongs and terrifying good guys and bad guys alike with his flaming skull head. Or at least that was the story at first. Perhaps to pave over the hero’s opportunistic origins, Marvel has subsequently changed Ghost Rider’s story substantially, altering the initial deal with the Devil into a deal with Mephisto, the Marvel Universe’s go-to demonic bad guy. Turns out Mephisto used Ghost Rider as a way to ensnare a rival demon Zarathos. More recently, Ghost Rider has been trapped in hell and learned that his powers might actually come from an angel. Then there’s Daniel Ketch, the other Ghost Rider, who is Blaze’s long-lost brother. Or something. If nothing else, the various Ghost Rider series have proven that even an awesomely silly idea like a demon-possessed biker can be given all the complications of a Tolstoy novel.
3. Jason Todd (a.k.a. Robin, Red Hood, Nightwing, Red Robin)
A street urchin who met Batman while trying to steal the tires off the Batmobile, Jason Todd became the second Robin as a way to channel his rage. But unlike his predecessor, Dick Grayson, Todd was a brat who constantly undermined Batman’s authority. When readers were given the opportunity to kill him off by calling a 900-number, a margin of 72 votes determined that Todd would die after getting beaten by the Joker with a crowbar and blown up in a warehouse explosion. The death lasted for nearly a decade before Todd was brought back as the most recent incarnation of the classic Batman foe Red Hood, resurrected by the aftershocks of an alternate-reality Superboy punching the walls of reality. (Yes, you read correctly.) He became a psycho Nightwing for a while, then switched back to Red Hood, then traveled around alternate Earths as the heroic Red Robin, and is currently a gun-toting antihero version of Red Hood. The pattern suggests Red Nightwing to be Todd’s next role, but maybe he can try being Spoiler or Azrael for a while. Is the Anarky name free right now?
The son of Cyclops and Jean Grey’s clone Madelyne Pryor, Nathan Christopher Charles Summers was introduced in the X-Men comics of the late ’80s, a dangerous place for any character hoping to retain some semblance of plausibility. When Apocalypse gave the baby a techno-organic virus, Cyclops was forced to send Nathan into an alternate-reality future where he could be cured and groomed to be the savior of mutantkind. He returned in the early ’90s as a grizzled commando named Cable, who recruits the New Mutants in his war against Stryfe, his evil clone. Cable’s history heavily involves time travel and clones— two plots devices that rely on confusion to create the illusion of logic—with him spending most of his first years slogging through alternate-reality baggage before the writers started pushing the mutant-messiah angle. An intriguing alternative to the opposing ideologies of Xavier and Magneto, Cable teamed up with Deadpool for a surprisingly enjoyable buddy comedy series, and ultimately served as the protector of Hope, the first mutant baby born after Scarlet Witch eliminated new mutants in House Of M. Then he died, but with this character’s history, he’s sure to be back.
5. Donna Troy (a.k.a. Wonder Girl, Troia, Darkstar)
Donna Troy came into being out of necessity. Longtime Wonder Woman writer Robert Kanigher introduced the character of Wonder Girl to tell stories about Wonder Woman as a teenager. (He later introduced Wonder Tot for similar purposes.) And though Kanigher also wrote stories in which the three incarnations of Wonder Womanhood had adventures together, the comic was able to write them off as “impossible tales.” It all made sense. Sort of. But when Wonder Girl joined the Bob Haney-created sidekick supergroup The Teen Titans in 1965, something had to give. Thus, after four years with no explanation for Wonder Girl’s origin, she became Donna Troy, an orphan rescued from a burning building by Wonder Woman and given Amazonian superpowers. It was all still well within the realm of comic book logic, even when the popular Marv Wolfman/George Perez New Teen Titans series filled out some of the details. Then things get complicated. During the period after Crisis On Infinite Earths when seemingly every DC superhero saw his or her origin reworked, Donna Troy’s story changed. Turns out she’d had her memory wiped and forgotten a childhood education at the hands of the Titans of Greek mythology on the planet of New Chronus. Upon having her memories restored, she changed her name to Troia. (Or back to Troia, depending on your point of view.) Perhaps sensing the story had not gotten convoluted enough, John Byrne later added a further twist by making Donna Troy Wonder Woman’s magical double then revealing she’d lived multiple lives, one of which was the Donna Troy comics fans already knew. Or thought they knew, anyway.
Introduced as the psychic twin sister of Captain Britain, Elizabeth Braddock was a member of various intelligence agencies and even served as Captain Britain for a short time before joining the X-Men. With her psychic butterflies and purple hair, Psylocke was the team’s resident adorable telepath, until she went through a mystic portal that wiped her memory and left her an agent of The Hand, Marvel’s premier ninja clan. Her body switched with Japanese assassin Kwannon, Psylocke traded the butterflies for a psychic blade and her pink body armor for a black turtleneck swimsuit, developing a romantic relationship with Archangel before her gratuitous death in the pages of X-Treme X-Men. Resurrected a few years later, Psylocke was taken out of her reality to jump around alternate dimensions with the Exiles for a short-lived revamp of their title, and after a brief period spent floating in multiversal limbo, Braddock returned to the primary Marvel Universe. She is now a regular character in Uncanny X-Force, serving as the moral compass for a team composed of morally ambiguous mutant murderers.
7. Christian Walker, Powers
Over dozens of issues, arcs, and trade-paperback collections of Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers, ostensible series protagonist Detective Christian Walker was a bit of a blank. A broad-shouldered, even-keeled, vaguely Boy Scoutish type, he didn’t seem to have much of a personality, and served more as a foil to his flamboyant, drama-prone partner Deena Pilgrim than as a character in his own right. That changed dramatically when—after revealing bits of his past as a superhero—his origins were finally revealed. Whereas most comic-book heroes with ridiculously convoluted backgrounds earned them the hard way—over decades of storylines, reboots, revisions, and continuity rewrites—Walker’s came out in one big burst of history that stretched back to the dawn of mankind, when he was a hairy apelike thing. As he and a rival fought over control of their tribe, they both evinced superpowers that devastated the area, but couldn’t harm each other. So they walked away and evolved. Over millennia, they found each other and clashed over and over in different realms and in different ways, with Walker repeatedly forgetting most of his experiences, since his mind can’t hold any more history than an ordinary human’s. Nonetheless, Bendis let the reader in on that history one iconic clash at a time, from pre-history up to the present day.
While doing research for an assignment, college student Sophie Bangs became the vessel for Promethea, a little girl from 411 A.D. transformed into a living story by the god Thoth-Hermes. When Promethea inhabits her body, Sophie enters the Immateria, where she meets the character’s previous incarnations, including the Winsor McCay-inspired Little Margie and a Wonder Woman-esque version embodied by the gay male artist of a long-running Promethea comic book. After witnessing the death of her Promethea predecessor, Sophie takes a trip through the spheres of the Kabbalah Tree Of Life, a journey that prepares her for her duty as Promethea: bringing forth the Apocalypse and ushering in a new age of enlightenment. The character’s millennia-spanning, philosophically dense mythology comes from the mind of Alan Moore, and Promethea ultimately evolves from a living story into Moore’s treatise on the metaphysical universe. But it all makes for riveting reading when combined with J.H. Williams III’s gorgeously experimental artwork.
Where did the trouble with Supergirl start? Was it when writer Otto Binder first decided back in 1959 that Superman—the “last son of Krypton”—needed a long-lost cousin? Or was it when the Bronze Age emphasis on realism led to publishers scrapping decades of continuity to “fix” iconic characters? Whatever happened to her later on, Supergirl used to have a silly but fairly easy-to-follow story: Born on a chunk of Krypton that survived the rest of the planet’s explosion, Kara Zor-El was sent to Earth as a teenager, just before the chunk was destroyed by meteorites. There she adopted the secret identity of Linda Lee Danvers and had typical superhero adventures before being killed in 1985 in the Crisis On Infinite Earths mini-series, as a deck-clearing for a full Superman reboot. After the reboot, “Supergirl” returned, but not as Kara Zor-El, last daughter of Argo City. First she was Matrix, a synthetic being created by a different version of Lex Luthor. Then Matrix merged with a human named Linda Danvers, becoming a kind of angel. Later, Matrix left Linda’s body, though Linda remained Supergirl. Then Linda Danvers quit being Supergirl and virtually disappeared from the DC Universe, aside from a few brief appearances (and, unofficially, in Peter David’s creator-owned series Fallen Angel). Meanwhile, DC writers keep bringing Kara Zor-El back via alternate timelines and alternate worlds, currently in more conventional form as Superman’s teenage cousin from Krypton. If you pick up a Supergirl comic from anytime after 1988, it might take a few pages before you know who the heroine is.
10. Power Girl
Like many characters on this list, Power Girl’s origin wasn’t that convoluted at first. Introduced in the ’70s, she was an alternate-universe version of Supergirl. On Earth-Two, home to the ’40s versions of heroes like Flash and Green Lantern, Power Girl joined the Super Squad and held her own against established male heroes, a trait that helped make her the team’s breakout star. (Well, that and artist Wally Wood’s depiction of her as the sort of superhero Russ Meyer might dream up.) Then Crisis On Infinite Earths happened and suddenly Power Girl was from Atlantis, not Krypton. Then she lost some of her powers, donned an ugly headband, gave birth, and joined a superteam that nobody remembers called Sovereign Seven before eventually returning in her old costume with her old, non-Atlantean origin.
Speaking of Atlantis, any discussion of convoluted origin stories would not be complete without Aquaman, who first appeared in 1941 as a response to Timely Comics’ popular character Namor, The Sub-Mariner. At first, Aquaman’s powers—breathing underwater, fish-talking—came from having grown up in a home built in the ruins of an undersea kingdom. In later accounts, he’s revealed to be the son of a woman exiled from Atlantis, and thus naturally gifted with all things aquatic. For a while, Aquaman’s various artists and writers built from there, returning Aquaman to Atlantis and growing his cast. But the character’s popularity began to fade in the ’70s, and since then he’s undergone revamp after revamp and retcon after retcon, getting grittier, kinglier, and hairier (and losing a hand) as his origin got revamped and tied ever-closer to his identity as the ruler of Atlantis. Then he went away to be replaced by a younger Aquaman who’s also disappeared. Then he came back. Probably. It gets murky at the bottom of the ocean.
12. Monet “M” St. Croix
The oldest daughter of a Monegasques ambassador, Monet St. Croix was trapped inside an untouchable, deaf, and mute body called Penance after refusing to help her mutant brother conquer another dimension. The young mutants of Generation X discovered Penance, though the team already featured a Monet St. Croix. This Monet was revealed to be the real Monet’s twin sisters, Nicole and Claudette, who merged with each other and took on the appearance of their sister after her transformation. The M-Twins eventually faded into obscurity while M joined up with Jamie “Multiple Man” Madrox’s X-Factor Investigations after the disbanding of Generation X. Now writer Peter David thankfully ignores her past and focuses on her role as the team bitch.
13. Wonder Man
Stan Lee, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby created the character of Simon Williams—a.k.a. Wonder Man—for the ninth issue of The Avengers back in 1964, in the era when a single issue of a Marvel comic contained as much story and backstory as a year’s worth of issues today. Over the course of one comic book, readers met Simon, an angry ex-con who blamed Tony Stark for his woes and worked with the evil genius Baron Zemo to attain superpowers, join The Avengers, and then betray the team. Williams had a change of heart before the story was over and was killed, only to have his brain patterns recorded by the heroes as a reward for his bravery. And that’s where the wild, twisty Wonder Man saga really begins. In the years that followed, Wonder Man’s brain patterns were exploited by supervillains, used as a model for androids, and then eventually restored as a version of Simon Williams that’s a being of pure energy—which, according to who’s telling the story, either means that he’s immortal or that a good explosion can disperse him. (It also means that he can do almost anything, so long as he has his wits about him.) Like most superheroes, Wonder Man has “died” and returned so many times that his simple, powerful origin story has become diluted. No wonder then that Simon Williams has turned away from the heroic life from time to time, driven a little batty by his constantly evolving powers and by the multiple versions of himself that still exist out there.