Why So Many Superheroes Are Orphans

A new exhibition at London’s Foundling Museum explores how growing up without birth parents shapes comic book characters

Person looking at comic book
Many superheroes are orphans. A new exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London explores how parental loss shapes their heroic trajectories.  Unsplash

Before he became Spider-Man, Peter Parker was an orphaned teenager living with his aunt and uncle. Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, transformed himself into Batman after vowing to avenge his parents’ murders. Kal-El, a.k.a. Clark Kent and, later, Superman, was adopted by earthlings after his home planet, Krypton, exploded.

Outside of believing that good always triumphs over evil, these superheroes have something else in common, too: They grew up without their birth parents. “Superheroes, Orphans and Origins: 125 Years in Comics,” on view through August 28 at the Foundling Museum in London, explores how comic book protagonists’ experiences as adoptees and orphans helped shape them into heroes.

Parental loss “forces that character to assert themselves in the world at a much earlier age,” Laura Chase, the museum’s assistant curator, tells Design Week’s Henry Wong. “[I]t introduces them invariably to an issue of justice in a really visceral way.”

In addition to comics about traditionally Western superheroes, the show also includes international comics, historical newspaper clippings, modern digital artwork, and graphic novels spanning 125 years and nine countries. The oldest object on view is an 1895 newspaper page featuring the R.F. Outcault comic “Hogan’s Alley,” which depicts a barefoot homeless child known as the Yellow Kid, according to the Economist.

The museum also commissioned three new pieces from comic artists Asia Alfasi, Bex Glendining and Woodrow Phoenix, who often draw on their own identities and experiences during the creative process. Glendining, a queer, biracial artist, reimagined Superman through the lens of gender fluidity, reports Design Week.

The exhibition arose from a popular 2014 piece commissioned by the museum from artist Lemn Sissay, who grew up in care homes and with a foster family. He printed his poem Superman Was a Foundling—which referenced hundreds of orphaned, fostered and adopted characters, such as Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings and Princess Leia from Star Wars—on the walls of the museum’s Study Studio.

Orphans are part of the museum’s origin story, too. It’s located in a historic hospital established in 1739 to care for babies at risk of abandonment. For over 200 years, the hospital took in more than 25,000 foundlings—children who were either abandoned and found by others or handed over by parents who could not support them. One of the hospital’s most famous patrons was George Frideric Handel, who used his Messiah oratorio to raise money for the charity.

Several comic books displayed together
Superheroes like Spider-Man, Superman and Batman all lost their parents. The exhibition explores the resilience of fictional children who grow up without their birth parents.  Pixabay

Writers and creators make their main characters orphans for any number of reasons. Without parents, they can more easily have epic adventures that lead them into danger. An orphan origin story also makes superheroes outsiders and instills a deeply personal sense of right and wrong.

“They need answers,” says Phoenix, per the Economist. “They need justice. Perhaps they need revenge.”

Speaking with the Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe, Caro Howell, the museum’s director, says, “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.”

Superheroes, Orphans and Origins: 125 Years in Comics” is on view at the Foundling Museum in London through August 28.