Superheroes are made, not born. Kind of a cheesy sentiment, but one that’s nonetheless true. Having superpowers doesn’t automatically make someone a hero, their choices do. Yet not all heroes can punch through walls or fly. Sometimes a superhero team is a disabled teenage bioengineer with treasonous tech, a frail girl whose body is at odds with her ambitions, a bright-eyed hopeful with a father unjustly imprisoned, a near-invincible teenager with villainous birth parents, and their self-aware, synthetic intelligence nibbling named Martin. If you’re a fan of found family, complicated family dynamics, and internal conflict, you won’t want to miss Lee Blauersouth’s Secondhand Origin Stories.
A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown
Opal has been planning to go to Chicago and join the Midwest’s superhero team, the Sentinels, since she was a little kid. That dream took on a more urgent tone when her superpowered dad was unjustly arrested for protecting a neighbor from an abusive situation. Now, she wants to be a superhero not only to protect people, but to get a platform to tell the world about the injustices of the Altered Persons Bureau, the government agency for everything relating to superpowers.
But just after Opal’s high school graduation, a supervillain with a jet and unclear motives attacks the downtown home of the Sentinels, and when Opal arrives, she finds a family on the brink of breaking apart. She meets a boy who’s been developing secret (and illegal) brain-altering nanites right under the Sentinel’s noses, another teenage superhero-hopeful who looks suspiciously like a long-dead supervillain, and the completely un-superpowered daughter of the Sentinels’ leader. Can four teens on the fringes of the superhero world handle the corruption, danger, and family secrets they’ve unearthed?
The Good Stuff
Blauersouth’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to blend found family with complicated family dynamics, two of my favorite themes to explore. So many superhero stories focus on either team dynamics or struggles with family of origin, we rarely get both. Especially both in the context of a second generation. These are the children of heroes struggling with legacy, perception, living up to expectations, and figuring out what they want vis-à-vis, not the out and proud superheroes themselves. It’s a new take on superhero stories, and one I’m already a fan of.
Why? Because it puts a new twist on old themes. Superheroes are very much a media darling right now, and, quite frankly, I’m a bit exhausted. There are only so many ways to tell a first generation superhero origin story. Blauersouth’s story takes the concepts of legacy, expectations, and heroic desire to a new place by contextualizing them in the realm of the superheroes’—and supervillains—children. What is it like to grow up in the shadow of a literal human paragon? Or, what if your parents were villains instead of heroes? How do you understand yourself and your powers when they’re visible reminders to the world at large of people who did horrible things?
Secondhand Origin Stories explores generational pain and trauma both through the psychological and the physical. Each of the younger generation must ask themselves who they want to be in the context of what they, and their parents, have suffered. You can’t always help what’s done to you or where you come from. But, you can make a choice about what you’ll do with the pain that can come from it.
Coping with pain and disability is another running theme in Secondhand Origin Stories. From internal conflict to injury and disability to superpowers that quite literally mark someone as being a child of villains, the book explores just how much damage being superpowered, or being related to someone who is, takes a toll. Rarely ever do we superhero stories tackling this issue. All too often, injury and disability get tucked away in superpowered worlds.
But just because Superman is super strong doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel pain. Decades of broken bones, damaged nerves, and scarring will take their toll. And what about the non-supers in this world? What is it like to be ‘normal’ or even ‘sickly’ when you’re surrounded by physically fit, beautiful, and strong people who fight off villains every day? That’s a lot of pressure and expectation, especially if the supers are your parents. Secondhand Origin Stories is an exploration of chronic pain and disability against a superpowered background; it’s a welcome, and much needed story to tell.
All these themes feed into the question posed on the cover: who gets to be a hero? What does being a hero mean and who controls access to being perceived of a being heroic? This question plays itself in different yet complimentary ways through each of the four primary characters.
Like Lena Luthor, Yael’s parentage would make society question xyr motivations and whether or not xe would eventually turn evil. Isaac has the intelligence and drive to help people, but bureaucratic bullshit, and his own stubbornness, would seem to put him on the path to being a supervillain because people fear his technology more than they listen to his motives. Each has to ask themselves whether perception matters more than their self-understanding. They each also must consider whether they will impose limits on themselves since they’re either too strong or too intelligent to exist within the rules that already exist.
Opal is not just Black but dark skinned Black, and lacks both sufficient education and public pose to put her above public scrutiny. Drew flat out tells her she’s too Black, poor, and working class for people to accept her as a hero. We’re vividly reminded of how Black folks are perceived of as dangerous when she first arrives in Chicago and fears being shot just for being a large Black person with a hoodie (albeit a pink flowery one) in a position that could be considered that of an aggressor. Her father has also been imprisoned unjustly by a system that would not accept him as a hero and then punished him for helping others by using his powers.
Through her, we see just how unjust even the hierarchy of superheroism can be. Which functions well as a mirror into whose stories get told in superhero media. With the rise of Black Panther and comic book lines featuring heroes like America Chavez, Kamala Khan, and Shuri, things seem to be changing for the better. We’re getting more and more superheroes of color fronted in their own stories. Yet the industry is still overwhelmingly white. When you look at store shelves the answer to “who gets to be a hero” seems overwhelmingly to be cishet, white, conventionally attractive, able-bodied men (though yes, there are more and more female heroes these days, too). And that’s to say nothing of the real-life injustices in the prison system that Opal’s story reflects.
More than the other three, Jaime’s story explores what it feels like to be not only not super, but not even physically fit. She has bad asthma, scoliosis, low bone-density, a propensity for vomiting, and a whole host of other mild bodily ‘disfunctions.’ Things most of us would consider, you know, being a normal human being. But she’s the child of supers and treated as if she’s too frail to take care of herself, much less help others. She’s a wonderful way to explore that being strong in the real way is just as important as being physically strong.
It’s a complicated, interesting cast of characters. They’re all queer, too, which is another thing we’re missing a lot of in superhero stories. Martin was honestly my favorite character, even if they were more of a background presence for most of it. I can’t help it, I’m a sucker for synthetic intelligences becoming self-aware. And I love that they got a chance to speak about their preferred pronouns and have a space in the little family of trying-to-be-heroes. Queer found family superhero stories are one in a million, and this is one of those ones.
Secondhand Origin Stories can be a bit slow. I honestly hesitated even calling this a drawback. The superhero genre tends to be faster paced and action oriented. With the focus being so much on internal conflict, Secondhand Origin Stories lacks the action-fronted pace many of us our used to with this topic. That need not be a drawback for the most part. As a more meditative exploration of internal character journeys than a punch up badguys all the time story, it’s excellent.
At the same time, the pacing of the second act did flag a bit, even for a more internal story. The first act introduced the attack on the Sentinals tower—where the Superhero team lives. The second act barely moves this aspect of the plot forward at all, only to have it pick up again at the beginning of the third act to race toward the final confrontation and denouement.
Fortunately, I found the characters interesting enough that even when this part of the plot disappeared, they still engaged me. If you’re the kind of person for whom interesting characters can make up for a slow plot, you’ll enjoy this.
There are a few moments where literary references to other works (like Jane Eyre) and societal parallels can be a bit heavy handed, but they’re not overly distracting. And it might just be me. Twilight has rather soured me for instances of a character thinking, “This is just like that book I read in English class,” so I might be overly prone to rolling my eyes.
I wish we’d gotten more from Jenna, the mysteriously absent Aunt. She sounds like a fascinating character with a truly complex psychology, so I really hope we get to see a lot from her in the sequel. The only other question I have at the end of the book is whether or not Yael ever found xyr hamster Skittles in Martin’s central hub. Please say, xe did, Blauersouth!
As for content warnings, there are a few instances of misgendering and both external and internalized ableism. I think the author handles the issues really sensitively. Whether from good research or personal experience (I happen to know it’s both), the result is the same: it’s one of the best handling of these issues I’ve seen. Especially with regard to ablism. Even if you are sensitive to these issues, I highly encourage you to read through to see how well Blauersouth handles them. The book is also a great primer for how to be a good ally and learn from your mistakes in these situations, so on that score, I recommend anyone read it.
Final Score: 8/10
A gem among superhero stories that focuses on the margins and disability in a superpowered world. While a bit more meditative than your normal superhero stories, it absolutely delivers on character development and themes. The pacing of the second act may flag, but the finale is worth it. I got teary eyed when certain conversations started, and by the time I reached the last page, I was full-blown weeping. In a good way. I can’t wait for the sequel!