If there's one thing Stan Lee knew, it was how to create cool, interesting characters that would last for decades and become classic superheroes. And that's a relief, since it's arguable this is in fact the only thing Stan Lee knew, judging by the nonsensical origin stories of some of Marvel Comics' most beloved characters. Whether blasting off to Mars, getting bombarded with radiation or simply watching their families die and vowing to fight crime in a leotard afterwards, Marvel superheroes' career-starting legends all share a unifying trait: they don't actually make an ounce of fucking sense.
The Fantastic Four
Origin Story: Hoping to beat the Commies to Mars, '60s super-scientist Reed Richards builds a fab rocket ship and announces his plans to blast off into space. The United States government cautions Reed about getting exposed to potentially lethal cosmic rays, though astoundingly has no objections to a US citizen shooting off homemade rockets into the atmosphere, nor Reed bringing his actress girlfriend Susan Storm, her teenage brother Johnny and a jet pilot named Ben Grimm along with him. (The government's funding for hijinx-related projects, it should be noted, was more robust back then.)
Thanks to Scott Tipton and Comics101.com for the scans!
Comic Book Consequences: Naturally, Reed and his friends are exposed to cosmic rays almost instantly:
The quartet gain fantastic superpowers as a result: Reed can now stretch his body, Susan can turn invisible, Johnny can turn into a human fireball and Ben Grimm is given the unstoppable power of being shit-hideous.
What Would Have Happened in Real Life: After building an unlicensed aircraft in his yard and boasting about shooting his girlfriend and her 17-year-old brother into outer space, Reed Richards is promptly brought up on charges of criminal negligence and child endangerment, his name tarnished in the scientific community. Richards flees the US to avoid prosecution, taking a teaching position at the Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala. Since Guatemala has the lowest literacy rate in Central America, he spends most of his class time playing cards with his students and cursing his "total bitch" ex-girlfriend, who took advantage of Reed not bombarding her with space radiation by launching a successful acting career.
A Second Possibility: Reed Richards wisely decides to keep quiet about his goal to beat the Communists to Mars after noticing the horrified looks on his colleagues' faces, and so manages to get into outer space without tipping off the authorities. Once there, the four are bombarded with cosmic rays and, as advances in radiation can attest, nothing much happens initially. Since it takes the better part of a year to reach far-off Mars, Reed and co. settle in for the voyage, playing charades and watching Ben Grimm's astonishingly comprehensive collection of amateur pornography.
After a month of lethal radiation, Johnny develops a cataract in his left eye and Ben Grimm becomes sterile. After two months, Susan's hair begins to fall out in clumps and Richards starts pooping blood. By the time they reach Mars, every one of them has cancer. Luckily, due to the heavy nuclei in cosmic radiation all are profoundly brain damaged at this point, and nobody even notices. Now piloting a spacecraft while legally retarded, Reed suggests they abandon their Mars mission and fly off in the direction of a distant galaxy instead, on the grounds that it looks like ice cream. They are never heard from again.
Origin Story: Vietnam veteran Frank Castle puts his past as a killing machine Green Beret behind him, taking his wife and two kids on a delightful picnic in New York's Central Park. Their pleasant family times are interrupted by mafia gang war shenanigans (the worst kind), which spill out of the woods and onto their picnic blanket and cold chicken legs.
Frank's wife and kids are riddled with so many bullets that, even if they'd somehow managed to survive their 748,092 gunshot wounds, they'd most likely have died of lead poisoning. Frank's a little bitter about all of this.
Comic Book Consequences: Frank realizes that superheroes might be helpful in some cases (fighting super villains, rescuing kittens, ensuring $100 million four-day domestic box office grosses), but in two other areas are woefully inefficient: keeping mafia-related gun battles out of our nation's public parks, and mending a broken heart. Unable to repair the second problem but positively brimming with ideas about how to fix the first, Frank draws a white skull on some body armor, gets himself a fuck-ton of guns and paints the town scarlet with mobster blood.
What Would Have Happened in Real Life: Frank engages in a costly lawsuit with the city of New York, hoping to net $15 million for their negligence in failing to prevent mobster gunplay in public recreation areas. The city eventually wins the case on a technicality, since Frank had been picnicking in a non-sanctioned picnic area, and the bullet-ridden remains of his family technically counted as litter.
A Second Possibility: Furious that his family's murder has gone unpunished, Frank paints a white skull on some body armor, walks out onto the street holding guns, and shoots the first criminals he sees. He is promptly apprehended and incarcerated for murder, as his attention-grabbing costuming choice made him fairly easy to spot during his post-shooting spree getaway.
Frank Castle serves five consecutive life sentences without possibility for parole. He is briefly considered a vigilante hero during the Reagan era, when New York crime becomes a hot-button issue, but after Giuliani's term he fades into obscurity. He is currently interested in female pen pals looking for friendship ("...and then who knows?").