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.
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?").
Origin Story: Government scientist Bruce Banner hides in a remote desert bunker, preparing to detonate the world's first gamma bomb. Meanwhile, idiot teenager Rick Jones somehow manages to bypass government security, waltz out onto a restricted desert test area and stand on a big red "X" while picking his nose thoughtfully. Banner spots the teen and immediately realizes what he should do: detonate the bomb. Sadly, he listens to his conscience instead, telling his colleagues to delay the countdown while sprinting out into the desert to rescue the idiot.
What Banner doesn't know, though, is that his trusted colleague Igor Starsky... is a filthy, filthy Commie spy! With impeccable logic, Starsky reasons that if Banner is killed in the explosion, America will halt testing on gamma bombs, and glorious Russia will realize its dream of spreading its economically crippling socialist ideologies on an unsuspecting world. He and Hutch launch the gamma bomb just as Banner heroically pushes Rick into a nearby trench, taking the brunt of the gamma explosion head-on. It's tragic...
Or is it?
Comic Book Consequences: No! It's fucking awesome! Bruce Banner is transformed by life-giving radiation into the Hulk (who is incredible). He's enormous, incredibly strong and fueled by Bruce Banner's anger.
Would you like Bruce when he's angry? Good sirs, we humbly propose that you would not.
What Would Have Happened in Real Life: A gamma bomb (or "dirty bomb") is specifically designed to spread radioactive material with the intent to kill, using conventional explosives to help distribute it. From the perspective of Bruce banner at ground zero, getting hit with a gamma bomb would be no different than getting hit with a plain ol' bomb: You'd explode hilariously, which he does.
Meanwhile, all nearby towns within the blast radius of the detonation site-and, luckily, Teen Idiot Rick Jones-succumb to radiation poisoning over a period of weeks. The ensuing cover-up and media frenzy ignite the biggest American political fiasco of the century, as the front pages of respected newspapers showcase doe-eyed children trying pathetically to hold ice cream cones in their mutated flipper hands. The controversy halts America's burgeoning nuclear research effort. This is good news for Igor Starsky, who uses the gamma bomb blueprints to help the Commies take over the world. (And really, good for them. They worked hard and they earned it.)
A Second Possibility: Presuming that Bruce Banner managed to find a heretofore-undiscovered radioisotope, his gamma bomb does, in fact, turn him into a towering green monster when detonated-albeit a towering green dead one, since a gamma bomb still needs a conventional explosive to distribute it. A half hour after detonation, it then turns the populations of all nearby towns downwind of the blast site into towering green monsters. Since they are fueled by rage, and since getting transformed into a green mutant would make anyone irritable, they commence rampaging throughout North America, triggering the first Mutant War. The Russians make the best of America's confusion by, again, taking over the world (they're such dicks).
Origin Story: Skinny fine arts major Steve Rogers tries desperately to enlist in the army (it was a different time) so he can fly overseas and sock Fritz right in his Nazi jaw. Already handling more volunteers than they can handle (again, a different time), the army rejects him on the reasonable grounds that he's a skinny fine arts major. Why waste the airplane fuel?
Luckily for Rogers, a shadowy government agency enlists him as one of many test subjects they're experimenting on to create American super-soldiers, meaning less soldiers would be needed to sock Nazis in the jaw, saving even more airplane fuel. (It's expensive.)
Comic Book Consequences: Steve is injected with "super-soldier" serum until he transforms into a muscled god-at which point the genetically perfect, blond-haired, blue-eyed superman is ready to battle everything the evil Nazis represent.
What Would Have Happened in Real Life: The super-soldier serum-an anabolic steroid cocktail brimming with various classified growth hormones not approved by the FDA-has immediate virilizing and hormonal side effects. They manage to atrophy his testicles, increase his cholesterol levels, give him acne all over his back and grow him a sexy pair of large, non-lactating breasts. While the shadowy government agency debates whether or not to allow a woman into the military, Steve responds to critical spikes in his testosterone levels by breaking free from his restraints, grabbing a nearby doctor and anally violating him while pounding fist-sized holes in the wall and demanding a protein shake.
He is immediately shot full of tranquilizers and the super-soldier program is quietly shelved. Steve spends the rest of his life trying unsuccessfully to sue to the government. He is eventually paid a modest settlement just to shut him up. He opens a gym, enters a few power-lifting competitions, dates a waitress named Tracy and dies at 32 of liver failure.
The Nazis, meanwhile, with the absence of a credible superhero to combat Zombie Robot Hitler, swiftly conquer the world.
Origin Story: Evolution has taken another bold step forward for humankind, resulting in a bizarre new species that possesses claws, metallic skin and unstoppable crime-stopping powers. A bald paraplegic mutant named Charles Xavier founds a school where mutants can learn about their powers, wear spandex outfits and prevent mutant super-crime on a global level.
Comic Book Consequences: The X-Men are born! Much like a football team at a human school, the X-Men's line-up changes periodically as students graduate and decide to star in spin-off adventures, blasting off into other galaxies to fight space-based mutant super-crime or traveling to the future to battle mutant super-crimes that have yet to be, or interning at Pillsbury. (Charles Xavier's School For Mutants has a robust outplacement program for graduates.)
Other students, like Wolverine and Cyclops, stay on as associate professors, fighting one another for choice teaching positions and clawing for tenure.
What Would Have Happened in Real Life: Since mutation happens at a chromosomal level in small, random increments over countless generations, Professor X's mutant school is populated less by telekinetic fire-throwing demi-gods and more likely by one kid with a slight bump on her back that, after a few hundred thousand years and with the help of Professor X's well-funded breeding program, blossoms into a non-working bat-wing. Professor X's successor happily sends his mutant out into the world to fight crime and battle prejudice. She is promptly shot attempting to stop a bank robbery by flapping her little bat-wing.
Origin Story: Mild-mannered nerd Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider.
Comic Book Consequences: Come on, you've seen the movies.
What Would Have Happened in Real Life: Again with the radioactivity? It's a wonder that Marvel legend Stan Lee lived long enough to create all of these characters, since he seemed to be under the impression that leaping at, getting exploded by or otherwise having your body submersed in radioactive waste was a one-way ticket to sprouting wings, buying dance tights and lifting Buicks over your head. It'd be easy to dismiss this as the ignorance of the '60s, but as early as the 1920s it was pretty well established that chronic exposure to atomic radiation caused cancer and leukemia. So it's not that everyone thought atomic radiation was awesome, so much as it was just Stan Lee-fixing himself uranium rod sandwiches and standing in front of the mirror flexing.
Anyway, yeah: The alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays in radioactive material destroy living cells by breaking their chemical bonds and disrupting the cell's genetic instructions. Despite what Stan Lee tells you, this is bad. Peter Parker dies.