In modern popular fiction, a superhero (sometimes rendered super-hero or super hero) is a type of costumed heroic character who possesses supernatural or superhuman powers and who is dedicated to fighting crime, protecting the public, and usually battling supervillains. A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine (also rendered super-heroine or super heroine). Fiction centered on such characters, especially in American comic books since the 1930s, is known as superhero fiction.
- Early history
- 1980s onward
- Common traits
- Common costume features
- Trademark status
- Minority superheroes
- Ethnic and religious minorities
- Sexual orientation and gender identity
By most definitions, characters do not require actual supernatural or superhuman powers or phenomena to be deemed superheroes. While the Dictionary.com definition of "superhero" is "a figure, especially in a comic strip or cartoon, endowed with superhuman powers and usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime", the longstanding Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the definition as "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also: an exceptionally skillful or successful person". Terms such as masked crime fighters, costumed adventurers or masked vigilantes are sometimes used to refer to characters such as the Spirit, who may not be explicitly referred to as superheroes but nevertheless share similar traits.
Some superheroes use their powers to counter daily crime while also combating threats against humanity from supervillains, who are their criminal counterparts. Often at least one of these supervillains will be the superhero's archenemy. Some long-running superheroes such as Iron Man, Captain America, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Spider-Man have a rogues gallery of many villains.
The word 'superhero' dates to at least 1917. Antecedents of the archetype include such folkloric heroes as Robin Hood, who adventured in distinctive clothing. The 1903 play The Scarlet Pimpernel and its spinoffs popularized the idea of a masked avenger and the superhero trope of a secret identity. Shortly afterward, masked and costumed pulp-fiction characters such as Zorro (1919) or The Shadow (1930) and comic strip heroes, such as the Phantom (1936) began appearing, as did non-costumed characters with super strength, including Patoruzú (1928), the comic-strip character Popeye (1929) and novelist Philip Wylie's protagonist Hugo Danner (1930).
In the 1930s, both trends came together in some of the earliest superpowered costumed heroes such as Japan's Ōgon Bat (visualized in painted panels used by kamishibai oral storytellers in Japan since 1931), Mandrake the Magician (1934), Superman in 1938 and Captain Marvel (1939) at the beginning of the Golden Age of Comic Books.
During the 1940s there were many superheroes, and only a few of these were female. The Flash, Green Lantern and Blue Beetle debuted in this era. This era saw the debut of first known female superhero, writer-artist Fletcher Hanks's character Fantomah, an ageless ancient Egyptian woman in the modern day who could transform into a skull-faced creature with superpowers to fight evil; she debuted in Fiction House's Jungle Comics #2 (Feb. 1940), credited to the pseudonymous "Barclay Flagg". The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, a non-costumed character who fought crime and wartime saboteurs using the superpower of invisibility created by Russell Stamm, would debut in the eponymous syndicated newspaper comic strip a few months later on June 3, 1940.
One superpowered character was portrayed as an antiheroine, a rarity for its time: the Black Widow, a costumed emissary of Satan who killed evildoers in order to send them to Hell — debuted in Mystic Comics #4 (Aug. 1940), from Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics. Most of the other female costumed crime-fighters during this era lacked superpowers. Notable characters include The Woman in Red, introduced in Standard Comics' Thrilling Comics #2 (March 1940); Lady Luck, debuting in the Sunday-newspaper comic-book insert The Spirit Section June 2, 1940; the comedic character Red Tornado, debuting in All-American Comics #20 (Nov 1940); Miss Fury, debuting in the eponymous comic strip by female cartoonist Tarpé Mills on April 6, 1941; the Phantom Lady, introduced in Quality Comics Police Comics #1 (Aug. 1941); the Black Cat, introduced in Harvey Comics' Pocket Comics #1 (also Aug. 1941); and the Black Canary, introduced in Flash Comics #86 (Aug. 1947) as a supporting character. The most iconic comic book superheroine, who debuted during the Golden Age, is Wonder Woman. Inspired by the Amazons of Greek mythology, she was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, with help and inspiration from his wife Elizabeth and their mutual lover Olive Byrne. Wonder Woman's first appearance was in All Star Comics #8 (Dec. 1941), published by All-American Publications, one of two companies that would merge to form DC Comics in 1944.
In 1952, Osamu Tezuka's manga Tetsuwan Atom (more popularly known in the west as Astro Boy) was published. The series focused upon a robot boy built by a scientist to replace his deceased son. Being built from an incomplete robot originally intended for military purposes Astro Boy possessed amazing powers such as flight through thrusters in his feet and the incredible mechanical strength of his limbs.
The 1950s saw the Silver Age of Comics. During this era DC introduced the likes of Batwoman in 1956, Supergirl, Miss Arrowette, and Bat-Girl; all female derivatives of established male superheroes. 1958 saw the debut of superhero Moonlight Mask on Japanese television.
The Marvel Comics teams of the early 1960s typically included at least one (and often the only) female member, much like DC's flagship superhero team the Justice League of America (whose initial roster included Wonder Woman as the token female); examples include the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl, the X-Men's Jean Grey (originally known as Marvel Girl), the Avengers' Wasp, and the Brotherhood of Mutants' Scarlet Witch (who later joined the Avengers). In 1963, Astro Boy was adapted into a highly influential anime television series. Phantom Agents in 1964 focused on ninjas working for the Japanese government and would be the foundation for Sentai-type series. 1966 saw the debut of sci-fi/horror series Ultra Q created by Eiji Tsuburaya this would eventually lead on to the sequel Ultraman, spawning a successful franchise focused upon the Giant Hero subgenre where the Superheroes would be as big as giant monsters (Kaiju) that they fought.
In 1972, the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman anime debuted, which built upon the superhero team idea of the live-action Phantom Agents as well as introducing different colors for team members and special vehicles to support them, said vehicles could also combine into a larger one. Another important event was the debut of Mazinger Z by Go Nagai, creating the Super Robot genre. Go Nagai also wrote the manga Cutey Honey in 1973, although the Magical Girl genre already existed, Nagai's manga introduced Transformation sequences that would become a staple of Magical Girl media.
The 1970s would see more anti-heroes introduced into Superhero fiction such examples included the debut of Shotaro Ishinomori's Skull Man in 1970, Go Nagai's Devilman in 1972 and Gerry Conway and John Romita's Punisher in 1974.
The dark Skull Man manga would later get a television adaptation and underwent drastic changes. The protagonist was redesigned resemble a grasshopper, becoming the renowned first masked hero of the Kamen Rider series. Kamen Rider is a motorcycle riding hero in an insect-like costume, who shouts Henshin (Transform) to don his costume and gain superhuman powers.
The ideas of second-wave feminism, which spread through the 1960s into the 1970s, greatly influenced the way comic book companies would depict as well as market their female characters: Wonder Woman was for a time revamped as a mod-dressing martial artist directly inspired by the Emma Peel character from the British television series The Avengers (no relation to the superhero team of the same name), but later reverted to Marston's original concept after the editors of Ms. magazine publicly disapproved of the character being depowered and without her traditional costume; Supergirl was moved from being a secondary feature on Action Comics to headline Adventure Comics in 1969; the Lady Liberators appeared in an issue of The Avengers as a group of mind-controlled superheroines led by Valkyrie (actually a disguised supervillainess) and were meant to be a caricatured parody of feminist activists; and Jean Grey became the embodiment of a cosmic being known as the Phoenix Force with seemingly unlimited power in the late 1970s, a stark contrast from her depiction as the weakest member of her team a decade ago.
Both major publishers began introducing new superheroines with a more distinct feminist theme as part of their origin stories and/or character development. Examples include Big Barda, Power Girl, and the Huntress by DC comics; and from Marvel, the second Black Widow, Shanna the She-Devil, and The Cat. Female supporting characters who were successful professionals or hold positions of authority in their own right also debuted in the pages of several popular superhero titles from the late 1950s onward: Hal Jordan's love interest Carol Ferris was introduced as the Vice-President of Ferris Aircraft and later took over the company from her father; Medusa, who was first introduced in the Fantastic Four series, is a member of the Inhuman Royal Family and a prominent statesperson within her people's quasi-feudal society; and Carol Danvers, a decorated officer in the United States Air Force who would become a costumed superhero herself years later.
In 1975 Shotaro Ishinomori's Himitsu Sentai Gorenger debuted on what is now TV Asahi, it brought the concepts of multi-colored teams and supporting vehicles that debuted in Gatchaman into live-action. In 1978, Toei adapted Spider-Man into a live-action series. In this continuity, Spider-Man had a vehicle called Marveller that could transform into a giant and powerful robot called Leopardon, this idea would be carried over to Toei's Battle Fever J and now multi-colored teams not only had support vehicles but giant robots to fight giant monsters with.
In subsequent decades, popular characters like Dazzler, She-Hulk, Elektra, Catwoman, Witchblade, Spider-Girl, Batgirl and the Birds of Prey became stars of long-running eponymous titles. Female characters began assuming leadership roles in many ensemble superhero teams; the Uncanny X-Men series and its related spin-off titles in particular have included many female characters in pivotal roles since the 1970s. Volume 4 of the X-Men comic book series featured an all-female team as part of the Marvel NOW! branding initiative in 2013. Superpowered female characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Darna have a tremendous influence on popular culture in their respective countries of origin.
With more and more anime, manga and Tokusatsu being translated or adapted, western audiences were beginning to experience the Japanese styles of superhero fiction more than they were able to before. Saban's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, an adaptation of Zyuranger created a multimedia franchise that used footage from Super Sentai. Internationally, the Japanese comic book character, Sailor Moon, is recognized as one of the most important and popular female superheroes ever created. Though not technically a superhero, Mario of the Super Mario series is normally associated with superheroes.
Many superhero characters display the following traits:
Many superheroes work independently. However, there are also many superhero teams. Some, such as the Fantastic Four, DNAgents, and the X-Men, have common origins and usually operate as a group. Some are families in which the parents and kids have superpowers, like The Incredibles. Others, such as DC Comics’s Justice League and Marvel’s Avengers, are "all-star" groups consisting of heroes with separate origins who also operate individually, yet will team up to confront larger threats. The shared setting or "universes" of Marvel, DC and other publishers also allow for regular superhero crossover team-ups. Some superheroes, especially those introduced in the 1940s, work with a young sidekick (e.g. Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky). This has become less common since more sophisticated writing and older audiences have lessened the need for characters who specifically appeal to child readers. Sidekicks are seen as a separate classification of superheroes.
Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/adventure, it crosses into many genres. Some superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (e.g. Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil), horror fiction (e.g. Hellboy, The Spectre), paranoid fiction (e.g. Watchmen, Marvelman/Miracleman), and conventional science fiction (e.g. Green Lantern, Guardians of the Galaxy). Many of the earliest superheroes, such as the Sandman and the Clock, were rooted in the pulp fiction of their predecessors.
Within their own fictional universes, public perception of superheroes varies greatly. Some, like Superman and the Fantastic Four, are adored and seen as important civic leaders or even celebrities. Others, like Hulk, Spider-Man and the characters of Watchmen, are met with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and Doom Patrol, defend a populace that almost unanimously misunderstands and despises them.
Common costume features
A superhero's costume helps make him or her recognizable to the general public. Costumes are often colorful to enhance the character's visual appeal and frequently incorporate the superhero's name and theme. For example, Daredevil resembles a red devil, Captain America's costume echoes the American flag, Batman's costume resembles a large bat, and Spider-Man's costume features a spiderweb pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing masks (frequently without visible pupils) and skintight unitards originated with Lee Falk's comic strip The Phantom.
Many features of superhero costumes recur frequently, including the following:
Many superheroes (and supervillains) operate from a base or headquarters. These bases are often equipped with state-of-the-art, highly advanced, and/or alien technologies. They are typically set in disguised and/or in secret locations to avoid being detected by enemies or the general public (for example, Superman's Fortress of Solitude or the Batcave). Some bases, such as the Baxter Building or the Hall of Justice, are common public knowledge (even if their precise location may remain secret). Many heroes and villains who do not have a permanent headquarters may have a mobile base of operations instead.
To the heroes and villains who have secret bases, these bases can serve a variety of functions, including (but not limited to) the following:
Most dictionary definitions and common usages of the term are generic and not limited to the characters of any particular company or companies.
Nevertheless, variations on the term "Super Hero" are jointly claimed by DC Comics and Marvel Comics as trademarks in the United States. Registrations of "Super Hero" marks have been maintained by DC and Marvel since the 1960s, including U.S. Trademark Serial Nos. 72243225 and 73222079. In 2009, the term "Super Heroes" was registered as a typography-independent "descriptive" US trademark co-owned by DC and Marvel.
Critics in the legal community dispute whether the "Super Hero" marks meet the legal standard for trademark protection in the United States-distinctive designation of a single source of a product or service. Controversy exists over each element of that standard: whether "Super Hero" is distinctive rather than generic, whether "Super Hero" designates a source of products or services, and whether DC and Marvel jointly represent a single source. Some critics further characterize the marks as a misuse of trademark law to chill competition.
In keeping with their origin as representing the archetypical hero stock character in 1930s American comics, superheroes are predominantly depicted as white Anglo-Saxon American middle- or upper-class heterosexual young adult males who are typically tall, athletic, educated, physically attractive and in perfect health. Beginning in the 1960s with the civil rights movement in the United States, and increasingly with the rising concern over political correctness in the 1980s, superhero fiction centered on cultural, ethnic, national and racial minority groups (from the perspective of US demographics) began to be produced. This began with depiction of black superheroes in the 1960s, followed in the 1970s with a number of other ethnic superheroes. In keeping with the political mood of the time, cultural diversity and inclusivism would be an important part of superhero groups starting from the 1980s. In the 1990s, this was further augmented by the first depictions of superheroes as homosexual.
Ethnic and religious minorities
In 1966, Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther, an African monarch who became the first non-caricatured black superhero. The first African-American superhero, the Falcon, followed in 1969, and three years later, Luke Cage, a self-styled "hero-for-hire", became the first black superhero to star in his own series. In 1989, the Monica Rambeau incarnation of Captain Marvel was the first female black superhero from a major publisher to get her own title in a special one-shot issue. In 1971, Red Wolf became the first Native American in the superheroic tradition to headline a series. In 1973, Shang-Chi became the first prominent Asian superhero to star in an American comic book (Kato had been the deuteragonist of the Green Hornet media franchise series since its inception in the 1930s.). Kitty Pryde, a member of the X-Men, was an openly Jewish superhero in mainstream American comic books as early as 1978.
Comic-book companies were in the early stages of cultural expansion and many of these characters played to specific stereotypes; Cage and many of his contemporaries often employed lingo similar to that of blaxploitation films, Native Americans were often associated with shamanism and wild animals, and Asian Americans were often portrayed as kung fu martial artists. Subsequent minority heroes, such as the X-Men's Storm and the Teen Titans' Cyborg avoided such conventions; they were both part of ensemble teams, which became increasingly diverse in subsequent years. The X-Men, in particular, were revived in 1975 with a line-up of characters culled from several nations, including the Kenyan Storm, German Nightcrawler, Russian Colossus, Irish Banshee, and Japanese Sunfire. In 1993, Milestone Comics, an African-American-owned media/publishing company entered into a publishing agreement with DC Comics that allowed them to introduce a line of comics that included characters of many ethnic minorities. Milestone's initial run lasted four years, during which it introduced Static, a character adapted into the WB Network animated series Static Shock.
In addition to the creation of new minority heroes, publishers have filled the identities and roles of once-Caucasian heroes with new characters from minority backgrounds. The African-American John Stewart appeared in the 1970s as an alternate for Earth's Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and would become a regular member of the Green Lantern Corps from the 1980s onward. The creators of the 2000s-era Justice League animated series selected Stewart as the show's Green Lantern. In the Ultimate Marvel universe, Miles Morales, a multiracial American youth who was also bitten by a genetically-altered spider, debuted as the new Spider-Man after the apparent death of the original. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who is revealed to have Inhuman lineage after her shapeshifting powers manifested, takes on the identity of Ms. Marvel in 2014. Her self-titled comic book series became a cultural phenomenon, with extensive media coverage by CNN, the New York Times and The Colbert Report, and embraced by anti-Islamophobia campaigners in San Francisco who plastered over anti-Muslim bus adverts with Kamala stickers. Other such successor-heroes of color include James "Rhodey" Rhodes as Iron Man, Ryan Choi as the Atom, and Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle.
Certain established characters have had their ethnicity changed when adapted to another continuity and/or media. A notable example is Nick Fury, who is reinterpreted as African-American both in the Ultimate Marvel as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuities.
Sexual orientation and gender identity
In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of the Canadian mutant superhero team Alpha Flight, was homosexual, after years of implication. This ended a long-standing editorial mandate that there would be no homosexual characters in Marvel comics. Although some minor secondary characters in DC Comics' mature-audience 1980s miniseries Watchmen were gay, and the reformed supervillain Pied Piper came out to Wally West in an issue of The Flash in 1991, Northstar is considered to be the first openly gay superhero appearing in mainstream comic books. From the mid-2000s onward, several established Marvel and DC comics characters (or a variant version of the pre-existing character) were outed or reintroduced as LGBT individuals by both publishers. Examples include the Mikaal Tomas incarnation of Starman in 1998; Colossus in the Ultimate X-Men series; Renee Montoya in DC's Gotham Central series in 2003; the Kate Kane incarnation of Batwoman in 2006; Rictor and Shatterstar in an issue of X-Factor in 2009; the Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott is reimagined as openly gay following The New 52 reboot; and in 2015, a younger time displaced version of Iceman in an issue of All-New X-Men.
Many new openly gay, lesbian and bisexual characters have since emerged in superhero fiction, such as Gen¹³'s Rainmaker, Apollo and Midnighter of The Authority, and Wiccan and Hulkling of the Young Avengers. Notable transgender or gender bending characters are fewer in number by comparison: the alter ego of superheroine Zsazsa Zaturnnah, a seminal character in Philippine popular culture, is an effeminate gay man who transforms into a female superhuman after ingesting a magical stone. Desire from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series and Xavin from the Runaways are both characters who could (and often) change their gender at will. Alysia Yeoh, a supporting character created by writer Gail Simone for the Batgirl ongoing series published by DC Comics, received substantial media attention in 2011 for being the first major transgender character written in a contemporary context in a mainstream American comic book.
The Sailor Moon series is known for featuring a substantial number of openly LGBT characters since its inception, as Japan have traditionally been more open about portraying homosexuality in its children's media compared to many countries in the West. Certain characters who are presented as homosexual or transgender in one continuity may not be presented as such in others, particularly with dubbed versions made for international release.