‘Me against the world’: why superheroes are so often orphans

Batman, Spider-Man and many others lost parents when young. A new exhibition explores their complex stories

Spider-Man, Batman, Black Panther and Superman, stars of the strip cartoons printed in comics and at the bottom of newspaper pages, have gone on to inspire film franchises or, in the case of Little Orphan Annie, who started in a syndicated strip, a popular stage and film musical.

Celebrated in popular culture across the world, these fictional characters are all children who lost their parents at an early age. It is a tried and tested, tragic narrative formula that efficiently releases them into the wider world, as well as exposing them to danger.

This April, London’s Foundling Museum is to mount a major exhibition that delves into the lasting and powerful presence of orphans, adoptees and foster-children in comic-strip storytelling.

“It’s a part of our society that we don’t think or talk about much, yet it’s hiding in plain sight all over popular culture,” said Caro Howell, director of the museum, first founded in 1739 as a shelter for abandoned children.

“From little Annie onwards, the world is familiar with the way these characters survived without parents, but it is a lived reality for hundreds of thousands of children growing up away from their family or in care. Like these fictional orphans, they need immense resilience to get over the trauma and build an identity. How do they build a sense of self-worth?” said Howell.

The exhibition, Superheroes, Orphans & Origins: 125 Years in Comics, will cover the narrative threads laid out in mainstream comics, graphic novels and sequential art in different countries, and look at the bleak origins and complex identities of some of the most popular characters.

Amina from Zenobia is a Syrian refugee. Photograph: Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman

DC Comics’ Superman was found by his adoptive parents, while Spider-Man’s mother and father die in a plane crash. Batman’s parents are killed in a street robbery and Black Panther is known as “the orphan king” after his mother dies soon after childbirth and his father is killed. Marvel’s X-Men also experience early discrimination and social ostracisation that later shape the stance they take on good and evil.

But it is not all about traditional superheroes in garish outfits. The exhibition will look also at other characters from early newspaper strips, including Skeezix from Gasoline Alley, who was left on a doorstep in 1921.

And among the original artwork displayed for the first time will be artist Robyn Smith’s 2021 recreation of Nubia, the black sister of Wonder Woman, for DC Comics. “These are people who have had to construct their identity against a background of huge social stigma. They are outsiders,” said Howell. “This is also the source of their power and what makes them special. But it keeps them alone, struggling to form permanent relationship sometimes.”

Images of Superman and Batman from the 1940s and 1950s will be shown alongside early copies of Marvel’s Black Panther and special editions of X-Men from the 1970s and 1980s. Original drawings from Sunny and other historic comics, including Hogan’s Alley, are on display, as well as Sanmao, which translates as “three hairs” and was created in 1935 by revered Chinese cartoonist Zhang Leping. It goes on display in Britain for the first time.

The exhibition has its origins in work from 2014 commissioned by the museum from poet and performer Lemn Sissay, who grew up in care. His poem Superman Was a Foundling was printed on the walls of the museum’s Study Studio and was intended to draw attention to the disparity between our admiration for fostered, adopted or orphaned fictional characters and what Sissay saw as a widespread disregard for their real-life counterparts.

“For people who grew up without birth parents, the Foundling Museum is a place of visibility and even validation,” said Howell. “By exploring this overlooked aspect of the superhero origin story, we hope to raise awareness of the immense resilience needed to overcome separation, loss, stigma and society’s indifference.”

Many of the other works going on display have been created by international artists inspired by their own experiences in care. Carlos Giménez, creator of Paracuellos (1976), spent much of his Spanish childhood moving between the “social aid” homes created during the Franco era.

Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom’s 2019 work Palimpsest reflects on her status as an international adoptee. Born in Korea, she lived in an orphanage until the age of two and was then adopted, and lived in Sweden. Keiji Nakazawa survived the Hiroshima bombing, but his father, brother and sister died. His mother later died of related health issues, prompting him to create the manga series Barefoot Gen.

Themes of abandonment and identity are traced through comic strips to the present day. Japanese manga characters from the 1990s and early 2000s, Kuro and Shiro from Tekkonkinkreet, appear alongside American comic Jesse “Street Angel” Sanchez and contemporary graphic-novel protagonists including Amina from Zenobia, who is a Syrian refugee.


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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