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A superhero (sometimes rendered super-hero or super hero) is a fictional character of "extraordinary or superhuman powers"[1] dedicated to protecting the public. Since the debut of the prototypical superhero Superman in 1938, stories of superheroes—ranging from brief episodic adventures to continuing years-long sagas—have dominated American comic books and crossed over into other media. The word itself dates to at least 1917.[1] A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine (also rendered super-heroine or super heroine). "Super-heroes" is a trademark co-owned by DC Comics and Marvel Comics.[2] Superheroes are authentically American, spawning from The Great Depression era.

By most definitions, characters do not need actual superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes,[3] although terms such as costumed crime fighters are sometimes used to refer to those such as Batman and Green Arrow without such powers who share other common superhero traits.

Normally, superheroes use their powers to police day-to-day crime while also combating threats against humanity by supervillains, who as their name implies are criminals of "unprecedented powers" in the same way that superheroes are crime fighters with "unprecedented powers." Generally, at least one of these supervillians will be the superhero's archnemesis, though several popular and long-running series, such as Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man, each have a rogues gallery of archnemeses. Superheroes sometimes will combat irregular threats that also match their powers, such as aliens, magical entities, and so forth.


Common traits

  • Extraordinary powers and abilities, relevant skills and/or advanced equipment. Superhero powers vary widely; superhuman strength, the ability to fly, enhanced senses, and the projection of energy bolts are all common. Some superheroes, such as Batman, Green Arrow, Hawkeye and the Question possess no superhuman powers but have mastered skills such as martial arts and forensic sciences to a highly remarkable degree. Others have special weapons or technology, such as Iron Man's powered armor suits and Green Lantern’s power ring. Many characters supplement their natural powers with a special weapon or device (e.g., Wonder Woman's lasso and bracelets, Spider-Man's webbing, Wolverine's adamantium claws, Daredevil's billy club, or Thor's hammer).
  • A strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one's own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward. Such a code often includes a refusal or strong reluctance to kill or wield lethal weapons.
  • A motivation, such as a sense of responsibility (e.g. Spider-Man), a formal calling (e.g., Wonder Woman), a personal vendetta against criminals (e.g. Batman), or a strong belief in justice and humanitarian service (e.g. Superman).
  • A secret identity that protects the superhero's friends and family from becoming targets of his or her enemies, such as Clark Kent (Superman), although many superheroes have a confidant (usually a friend or relative who has been sworn to secrecy). Most superheroes use a descriptive or metaphoric code name for their public deeds. Secret identities were almost universal in early superhero comics, but have been decreasingly popular in recent years, beginning with the publication of Fantastic Four and accelerating due to "modern" tastes.
  • A distinctive costume, often used to conceal the secret identity (see Common costume features).
  • An underlying motif or theme that affects the hero's name, costume, personal effects, and other aspects of his or her character (e.g., Batman resembles a large bat, operates at night, calls his specialized automobile, which also appears bat-like, the "Batmobile" and uses several devices given a "bat" prefix, Spider-Man can shoot webs from his hands, has a spider web pattern on his costume, and other spider-like abilities).
  • A supporting cast of recurring characters, including the hero's friends, co-workers and/or love interests, who may or may not know of the superhero's secret identity. Often the hero's personal relationships are complicated by this dual life, a common theme in Spider-Man and Batman stories in particular.
  • A number of enemies that he/she fights repeatedly. In some cases superheroes begin by fighting run of the mill criminals before super villains surface in their respective story lines. In many cases the hero is in part responsible for the appearance of these super villains (the Scorpion was created as the perfect enemy to defeat Spider-Man, and characters in Batman's comics often accuse him of creating the villains he fights). Often superheroes have an archenemy who is more troubling than the others. Often a nemesis is a superhero's doppelganger or foil (e.g., Sabretooth embraces his savage instincts while Wolverine tries to control his. Batman is grim, while the Joker is flamboyant).
  • Independent wealth (e.g., Batman or the X-Men's benefactor Professor X) or an occupation that allows for minimal supervision (e.g., Superman's civilian job as a reporter).
  • A headquarters or base of operations, usually kept hidden from the general public (e.g., Superman's Fortress of Solitude or Batman's Batcave).
  • A backstory that explains the circumstances by which the character acquired his or her abilities as well as his or her motivation for becoming a superhero. Many origin stories involve tragic elements and/or freak accidents that result in the development of the hero's abilities.

Many superheroes work independently. However, there are also many superhero teams. Some, such as the Fantastic Four and X-Men, have common origins and usually operate as a group. 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 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.

Superheroes most often appear in comic books, and superhero stories are the dominant form of American comic books, to the point that the terms "superhero" and "comic book character" have been used synonymously in North America[citation needed]. With the rise in relative popularity of non-superhero comics, as well as the popularity of Japanese comics (manga), this trend is slowly declining[citation needed]. Superheroes have also been featured in radio serials, novel, TV series, movies, and other media. Most of the superheroes who appear in other media are adapted from comics, but there are exceptions.

Marvel Characters, Inc. and DC Comics share ownership of the United States trademark for the phrases "Super Hero" and "Super Heroes" and these two companies own a majority of the world’s most famous and influential superheroes. Of the "Significant Seven" chosen by The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (1989), Marvel owns Spider-Man and Captain America and DC owns Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Like many non-Marvel characters popular during the 1940s, the latter two were acquired by DC from defunct publishers.[4] However, there have been significant heroes owned by others, especially since the 1990s when Image Comics and other companies that allowed creators to maintain trademark and editorial control over their characters developed. Hellboy and Spawn are some of the most successful creator-owned heroes.

Reflective of his time, Charlton Comics' Captain Atom was an astronaut in his civilian identity. Strange Suspense Stories #75 (June 1965). Cover art by Steve Ditko.

Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/adventure, it crosses into many genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Punisher), others horror fiction (Spawn, Spectre) and others more standard science fiction (Green Lantern, X-Men). 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. Others, like Batman and Spider-Man, meet with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and the characters of Watchmen, defend a populace that 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 resembles a large bat, and Spider-Man's costume features a spider web pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing masks (frequently without visible pupils) and skintight unitards originated with Lee Falk's comic strip hero The Phantom. Several superheroes such as the Phantom, Superman, Batman and Robin wear breeches over this unitard. This is often satirized as the idea that superheroes wear their underpants on the outside.[citation needed]

Many features of superhero costumes recur frequently, including the following:

  • Superheroes who maintain a secret identity often wear a mask, ranging from the domino masks of Green Lantern and Ms. Marvel to the full-face masks of Spider-Man and Black Panther. Most common are masks covering the upper face, leaving the mouth and jaw exposed. This allows for both a believable disguise and recognizable facial expressions. A notable exception is Superman, who wears nothing on his face while fighting crime, but uses large glasses in his civilian life as Clark Kent. As well, because Superman possesses super speed, he is able to move his face back and forth quickly enough when he is Superman to blur any distinguishable features.  Some characters wear helmets, such as Doctor Fate or Magneto.
  • A symbol, such as a stylized letter or visual icon, usually on the chest. Examples include the uppercase "S" of Superman, the bat emblem of Batman, and the spider emblem of Spider-Man. Often, they also wear a common symbol referring to their group or league, such as the "4" on the Fantastic Four's suits, or the "X" on the X-Men's costumes.
  • Form-fitting clothing, often referred to as tights or Spandex, although the exact material is usually unidentified. Such material displays a character’s athletic build and heroic sex appeal and allows a simple design for illustrators to reproduce.
  • While a vast majority of superheroes do not wear capes, the garment is still closely associated with them, likely because two of the most widely-recognized superheroes, Batman and Superman, wear capes. In fact, police officers in Batman’s home of Gotham City have used the word "cape" as a shorthand for all superheroes and costumed crimefighters. The comic-book miniseries Watchmen and the animated movie The Incredibles humorously commented on the potentially lethal impracticality of capes. In Marvel Comics, the term "cape-killer" has been used to describe Superhuman Restraint Unit, even though few notable Marvel heroes wear capes.
Captain America's costume displays many features common to superheroes. Art by Gabriele Dell'Otto
  • While most superhero costumes merely hide the hero’s identity and present a recognizable image, parts of the costume (or the costume itself) have functional uses. Batman's utility belt and Spawn’s "necroplasmic armor" have both been of great assistance to the heroes. Iron Man's armor, in particular, protects him and provides technological advantages.
  • When thematically appropriate, some superheroes dress like people from various professions or subcultures. Zatanna, who possesses wizard-like powers, dresses like a stage magician, and Ghost Rider, who rides a superpowered motorcycle, dresses in the leather garb of a biker.
  • Several heroes of the 1990s, including Cable and many Image Comics characters, rejected the traditional superhero outfit for costumes that appeared more practical and militaristic. Shoulder pads, kevlar-like vests, metal-plated armor, knee and elbow pads, heavy-duty belts, and ammunition pouches were common features. Other characters, such as The Punisher or The Question, opt for a "civilian" costume (mostly a trench coat).

Secret headquarters

Many superheroes (and supervillains) have headquarters or a base of operations. These locations are often equipped with state-of-the-art, highly-advanced or alien technologies, and they are usually disguised and/or in secret locations to avoid being detected by enemies, or by the general public. Some bases, such as the Baxter Building, are known of by the public (even though their precise location may remain secret). Many heroes and villains who do not have a permanent headquarters are said to have a mobile base of operations.

To the heroes and villains who have a secret base, the base can serve a variety of functions.

  • a safehouse, where the heroes can conceal themselves from their enemies.
  • a laboratory, for experiments and scientific study.
  • a research library, covering a variety of topics from science, to history, to criminal profiling.
  • an armory, for weapons design, construction and storage.
  • a garage/hangar/dock.
  • a communications center.
  • a weapons platform, for defense of the facility (these are more common to supervillains).
  • a trophy room, where mementos of significant battles and adventures are displayed.
  • a common area, for social activity (typically for larger teams, such as the Justice League or the Avengers).

Superheroes outside the United States

Kamen Rider 1 was the hero of the original Kamen Rider series in 1971. This statue stands outside of Bandai's Tokyo headquarters.

There have been successful superheroes in other countries most of whom share the conventions of the American model. Examples include Cybersix from Argentina, Captain Canuck from Canada, and the heroes of AK Comics from Egypt.Japan is the only country that nears the US in output of superheroes.[citation needed] The earlier of these wore scarves either in addition to or as a substitute for capes and many wear helmets instead of masks. Moonlight Mask, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai (the basis for Power Rangers), Metal Hero Series and Kikaider have become popular in Japanese tokusatsu live-action shows, and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Casshern, The Guyver, and Sailor Moon are staples of Japanese anime and manga. However, most Japanese superheroes are shorter-lived. While American entertainment companies update and reinvent superheroes, hoping to keep them popular for decades, Japanese companies retire and introduce superheroes more quickly, usually on an annual basis, in order to shorten merchandise lines.[citation needed] In addition, Japanese manga often targets female readers, unlike U.S. comics, and has created such varieties as "magical girl" (e.g. Cardcaptor Sakura) for this audience. .

In 1947, Filipino writer/cartoonist Mars Ravelo introduced the first Asian superheroine[citation needed], Darna, a young Filipina country girl who found a mystic talisman-pebble from another planet that allows her to transform into an adult warrior-woman. She was the first solo superheroine in the world to get her own feature-length motion picture[citation needed] in 1951 and has become a cultural institution in the Philippines.

British superheroes began appearing in the Golden Age shortly after the first American heroes became popular in the UK.[5] Most original British heroes were confined to anthology comics magazines such as Lion, Valiant, Warrior, and 2000AD. Marvelman, known as Miracleman in North America, is probably the most well known original British superhero (although he was based heavily on Captain Marvel). Popular in the 1960s, British readers grew fond of him and contemporary UK comics writers Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman revived Marvelman in series that reinvented the characters in a more serious vein, an attitude prevalent in newer British heroes, such as Zenith.

In France, where comics are known as bande dessinée (literally "drawn strip") and regarded as a proper art form, Editions Lug began translating and publishing Marvel comic books in anthology magazines in 1969. Soon, Lug started presenting its own heroes alongside Marvel stories. Some closely modeled their U.S. counterparts (such as the trio of Harvard entomologists-Olympic athletes — Mikros, Saltarella and Crabb — of the S.H.I.E.L.D.-esque saga of C.L.A.S.H.), while others included the shape-changing alien Wampus. Many were short-lived, while others rivaled their inspirations in longevity and have been the subject of reprints and revivals, such as Photonik.

In India, Raj Comics, founded in 1984, owns a number of superheroes, such as Nagraj, Doga and Super Commando Dhruva, that carry Hindu ideas of morality and incorporate Indian myths. Some of the Indian / Hindi superhero movies include Mr. India[citation needed], Shiva[citation needed], Shehenshah, Ajooba, Toofaan[citation needed], and Krrish.[citation needed]

Cat Claw is a superheroine co-created by a pair of Serbian comic artists and writers.

Malaysia also create several recognized superheroes such as Kapten Malaysia (which resembles Superman and appeared in kids magazines), Keluang Man (which resembles Batman and appeared in animation), & Cicak-Man (which had appear in his two successful comedic superhero films).

Types of superheroes

In superhero role-playing games, such as Hero Games' Champions, Green Ronin Publishing's Mutants and Masterminds, Cryptic Studios' MMORPG City of Heroes and Champions Online, superheroes are formally organized into categories or archetypes based on their skills and abilities. Since comic book and role-playing fandom often overlap, these labels have carried over into discussions of superheroes outside the context of games:[citation needed]

Plastic Man's shapeshifting abilities have often been used for humorous effect. Plastic Man #17 (May 1949). Cover art by Jack Cole.

These categories often overlap. For instance, Batman is both a skilled martial artist and gadgeteer, and Hellboy has the strength and durability of a brick and some mystic abilities or powers, similar to a mage. Wolverine fits into both the slasher and healing categories. Very powerful characters—such as Superman, Thor, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Dr. Manhattan, and the Silver Surfer—can be listed in many categories. Flying, super-strong, invulnerable heroes such as Superman, Captain Marvel and Thor are sometimes in a category all their own, known as "Paragons" or "Originals" (as they were some of the earliest heroes in comics).Another possibility is that Superman is a "Paragon" and a "Blaster" (heat vision and super-breath), Captain Marvel is a "Paragon" and a "Mage" (the Power of Shazam), Thor is "Paragon" and a "Elemental" (weather manipulation) and Hancock is a "Paragon" and a "Healer" (immortality), or perhaps even the Martian Manhunter (Paragon, Ghost, Blaster, Shapeshifter, Size Changer, Mentalist, Mastermind and Healer). So, in esscence, the Fantastic Four consists of a Shapeshifter/Mastermind (Mister Fantastic), a Ghost/Mentalist (Invisible Woman, an Elementalist (the Human Torch), and a Brick (the Thing).

Trademark status

Most dictionary definitions[6] 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. Registrations of "Super Hero" marks have been maintained by DC and Marvel since the 1960s.[7] (U.S. Trademark Serial Nos. 72243225 and 73222079, among others).

Joint trademarks shared by competitors are rare in the United States.[8] They are supported by a non-precedential 2003 Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decision upholding the "Swiss Army" knife trademark. Like the "Super Hero" marks, the "Swiss Army" mark was jointly registered by competitors. It was upheld on the basis that the registrants jointly "represent a single source" of the knives, due to their long-standing cooperation for quality control.[9]

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.[10] Some critics further characterize the marks as a misuse of trademark law to chill competition.[11]

America's Best Comics, originally an imprint of Wildstorm, used the term science hero, coined by Alan Moore.

History of American superheroes in comic books


The first Phantom Sunday strip (May 28, 1939). Art by Ray Moore.

The mythologies of many ancient civilizations feature pantheons of gods and goddesses with superhuman powers, as well as demigods like Heracles and heroes such as Gilgamesh and Perseus.[12][13] Later, folkloric heroes such as Robin Hood and the 19th century protagonists of Victorian literature, such as the masked adventurer The Scarlet Pimpernel, featured what became such superhero conventions as secret identities. Penny dreadfuls, dime novels, radio programs and other popular fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries featured mysterious, swashbuckling heroes with distinct costumes, secret identities, unusual abilities and altruistic missions. These include Zorro, the Green Hornet, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and Spring Heeled Jack, the last of whom first emerged as an urban legend. Likewise, the science-fiction hero John Carter of Mars, with his futuristic weapons and gadgets; Tarzan, with his high degree of athleticism and strength, and his ability to communicate with animals; and the biologically modified Hugo Danner of the novel Gladiator were heroes with unusual abilities who fought sometimes larger-than-life foes.

The most direct antecedents are pulp magazine crime fighters — such as the "peak human" Doc Savage, the preternaturally mesmeric The Shadow, and The Spider — and comic strip characters such as Hugo Hercules, Popeye and The Phantom.[citation needed] The first masked crime-fighter created for comic books was writer-artist George Brenner's non-superpowered detective the Clock,[14][15] who debuted in Centaur Publications' Funny Pages #6 (Nov. 1936). Historians point to the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) as the debut of the comic-book archetype the superhero.

Golden Age

In 1938, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, who had previously worked in pulp science fiction magazines, introduced Superman.The character possessed many of the traits that have come to define the superhero: a secret identity, superhuman powers and a colorful costume including a symbol and cape. His name is also the source of the term "superhero," although early comic book heroes were sometimes also called "mystery men" or "masked heroes".

DC Comics, which published under the names National and All-American at the time, received an overwhelming response to Superman and, in the years that followed, introduced Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawkman, Aquaman and Green Arrow. The first team of superheroes was DC's Justice Society of America, featuring most of the aforementioned characters. Although DC dominated the superhero market at this time, companies large and small created hundreds of superheroes. The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner from Marvel Comics (then called Timely Comics) and Plastic Man and Phantom Lady from Quality Comics were also hits. Will Eisner's The Spirit, featured in a comic strip, would become a considerable artistic inspiration to later comic book creators. The era's most popular superhero, however, was Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, whose exploits regularly outsold those of Superman during the 1940s.

During World War II, superheroes grew in popularity, surviving paper rationing and the loss of many writers and illustrators to service in the armed forces. The need for simple tales of good triumphing over evil may explain the wartime popularity of superheroes. Publishers responded with stories in which superheroes battled the Axis Powers and the patriotically themed superheroes, most notably Marvel's Captain America as well as DC's Wonder Woman.

Like other pop-culture figures of the time, Superheroes were used to promote domestic propaganda during wartime, ranging from the purchasing of war bonds[citation needed] to racist caricatures of the Japanese.[citation needed]

Following superheroes' popularity during this time, those characters' appeal began to dwindle in the post-war era.[16] Comic-book publishers, casting about for new subjects and genres, found success in, particularly crime fiction, the most prominent comic of which was Lev Gleason Publications' Crime Does Not Pay,[17] and horror.[citation needed] The lurid nature of these genres sparked a moral crusade in which comics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency began. The movement was spearheaded by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who famously argued that "deviant" sexual undertones ran rampant in superhero comics.[18]

In response, the comic book industry adopted the stringent Comics Code. By the mid-1950s, only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman retained a sliver of their prior popularity, although effort towards complete inoffensiveness led to stories that many consider silly, especially by modern standards. This ended what historians have called the Golden Age of comic books.

Silver Age

In the 1950s, DC Comics, under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, recreated many popular 1940s heroes, launching an era later deemed the Silver Age of comic books. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and several others were recreated with new origin stories. While past superheroes resembled mythological heroes in their origins and abilities, these heroes were inspired by contemporary science fiction. In 1960, DC banded its most popular heroes together in the Justice League of America, which became a sales phenomenon.

Empowered by the return of the superhero at DC, Marvel Comics editor/writer Stan Lee and the artists/co-writers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Bill Everett launched a new line of superhero comic books, beginning with The Fantastic Four in 1961 and continuing with the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, and Daredevil. These comics continued DC’s use of science fiction concepts (radiation was a common source of superpowers) but placed greater emphasis on personal conflict and character development. This led to many superheroes that differed from predecessors with more dramatic potential. For example, the Fantastic Four were a superhero family of sorts, who squabbled and even held some unresolved acrimony towards one another, and Spider-Man was a teenager who struggled to earn money and maintain his social life in addition to his costumed exploits.

While the superhero form underwent a revival, the rise of television as the top medium for light entertainment and the effects of Comics Code Authority obliterated genres such as westerns, romance, horror, war and crime . In the coming decades, non-superhero comics series would occasionally rise to popularity, but superheroes and comic books would be forever intertwined in the eyes of the American public.


In the 1970s, DC Comics paired Green Arrow with Green Lantern in a team-up series. Writer Dennis O'Neil portrayed Green Arrow as an angry, street-smart populist and Green Lantern as good-natured but short-sighted authority figure. This is the first instance in which superheroes were classified into two distinct groups, the "classic" superhero and the more brazen anti-hero.In the 1970s, DC returned Batman to his roots as a dubious vigilante, and Marvel introduced several popular antiheroes, including The Punisher, Wolverine, and writer/artist Frank Miller's dark version of the longtime hero Daredevil. Batman, The Punisher, and Daredevil were driven by the crime-related deaths of family members and continual exposure to slum life, while X-Men's Wolverine was tormented by barely controllable savage instincts and Iron Man struggled with debilitating alcoholism. The trend was also seen in the 1986 miniseries Watchmen by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, which was published by DC but took place outside the "DC Universe" with new characters. Some of the superheroes of Watchmen were emotionally unsatisfied, psychologically withdrawn, sexually confused, and even sociopathic. Watchmen also examined perceived flaws in the superhero mythos such as the inculpability of vigilantism, and the supposed ultimate irrelevance of fighting crime in a world threatened by nuclear holocaust.

Another story, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1985–1986), continued Batman’s renovation/reinterpretation. This miniseries, written and illustrated by Frank Miller, featured a Batman from an alternate/non-continuity future returning from retirement. The series portrayed the hero as an obsessed vigilante, necessarily at odds with official social authority figures, illustrated both by the relationship between Batman and retiring police commissioner James Gordon, and by the symbolic slugfest between the Dark Knight and Superman, now an agent/secret weapon of the U.S government.

Miller continued his treatment of the Batman character with 1987's Batman: Year One (Batman issues #404-407) and 2001's The Dark Knight Strikes Again (also known as DK2). DK2, the long-awaited follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns, contrasts the traditional superhero-crimefighter character with the politicized characters that evolved during the 1990s (perhaps epitomized by The Authority and Planetary, both written by British author Warren Ellis). In DK2, Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor is the power behind the throne, controlling a tyrannical American government, as well as Superman himself. Superman's submission to Luthor's twisted power structure, in the name of saving lives is contrasted with Batman's determined attack against corrupted institutions of government; the message perhaps that crime can occur at all levels of society, and that heroes are responsible for fighting both symptoms and causes of societal dysfunction and corruption.

Struggles of the 1990s

By the early 1990s, anti-heroes had become the rule rather than the exception, as The Punisher, Wolverine and the grimmer Batman became popular and marketable characters. Anti-heroes such as the X-Men’s Gambit and Bishop, X-Force's Cable and the Spider-Man adversary Venom became some of the most popular new characters of the early 1990s. This was a financial boom time for the industry when a new character could become well known quickly and, according to many fans, stylistic flair eclipsed character development.In 1992, Marvel illustrators Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld — all of whom helped popularize anti-heroes in the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises — left Marvel to form Image Comics. Image changed the comic book industry as a haven for creator-owned characters and the first significant challenger to Marvel and DC in thirty years. Image superhero teams, such as Lee’s WildC.A.Ts and Gen¹³, and Liefeld’s Youngblood, were instant hits but were criticized[citation needed] as over-muscled, over-sexualized, excessively violent, and lacking in unique personality. McFarlane's occult hero Spawn fared somewhat better in critical respect[citation needed] and long-term sales.

In this decade, Marvel and DC made drastic temporary changes to iconic characters. DC's "Death of Superman" story arc across numerous Superman titles found the hero killed and resurrected, while Batman was physically crippled in the "KnightFall" storyline. At Marvel, a clone of Spider-Man vied with the original for over a year of stories across several series. All eventually returned to the status quo.

Throughout the 1990s, several creators deviated from the trends of violent anti-heroes and sensational, large-scale storylines. Painter Alex Ross, writer Kurt Busiek and Alan Moore himself tried to "reconstruct" the superhero form. Acclaimed titles such as Busiek's, Ross' and Brent Anderson's Astro City and Moore's Tom Strong combined artistic sophistication and idealism into a super heroic version of retro-futurism. Ross also painted two widely acclaimed mini-series, Marvels (written by Busiek) for Marvel Comics and Kingdom Come for DC, which examined the classic superhero in a more literary context, as well as satirizing antiheroes. Magog, Superman’s rival in Kingdom Come, was partially modeled after Cable.


Almost since the inception of the superhero in comic books, the concept has come under fire from critics. Most famously, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) alleged that sexual subtext existed in superhero comics, and included the infamous accusations that Batman and Robin were gay and Wonder Woman encouraged female dominance fetishes and lesbianism.

Writer Ariel Dorfman has criticized alleged class biases in many superhero narratives in several of his books, including The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Mind (1980), and is not alone in doing so. Marxist critics, such as Matthew Wolf-Meyer ("The World Ozymandias Made") and James Dittmer ("The Tyranny of the Serial") often point out that not only does the superhero arguably constitute a ruling class, but by simply defending the world as-is, they effectively keep it from changing, and thus lock it into status quo. Some contemporary critics are more focused on the history and evolving nature of the superhero concept, as in Peter Coogan's Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (2006), but political/ideological analyses are still very much present in the field.

The idea of the superhero has also been explored in several well-received contemporary graphic novels. Daniel Clowes' "The Death Ray" (2004) examines the idea of the superhero as a non-costumed delusional misanthrope and serial killer and Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) reimagines the Superman archetype as a mercurial god-like figure.

Growth in diversity

For the first two decades of their existence in comic books, superheroes largely conformed to the model of lead characters in American popular fiction of the time, with the typical superhero a white, middle- to upper- class, tall, heterosexual, professional, 20-to-30-year-old male. A majority of superheroes still fit this description as of 2009, but beginning in the 1960s many characters have broken the mold.


The first known female superhero is writer-artist Fletcher Hanks's minor character Fantomah,[19] 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".

Another seminal superheroine is Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, a non-costumed character who fought crime and wartime saboteurs using the superpower of invisibility; she debuted in the eponymous syndicated newspaper comic strip by Russell Stamm on June 3, 1940. A superpowered female antihero, 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.

Though non-superpowered, like the Phantom and Batman, the earliest female costumed crimefighters are The Woman in Red,[20] 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,[21] 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); and the Black Cat,[22] introduced in Harvey Comics' Pocket Comics #1 (also Aug. 1941). The superpowered Nelvana of the Northern Lights debuted in Canadian publisher Hillborough Studio's Triumph-Adventure Comics #1 (Aug. 1941), and the superhumanly strong Miss Victory was introduced in Holyoke (comics) the same month. The character was later adopted by A.C. Comics.

The first widely recognizable female superhero is Wonder Woman, from All-American Publications, one of two companies that would merge to form DC Comics. She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston with help and inspiration from his wife Elizabeth and their mutual lover Olive Byrne.[23][24]. Wonder Woman debuted in All Star Comics #8 (Jan. 1942).

Starting in the late 1950s, DC introduced Hawkgirl, Supergirl, Batwoman and later Batgirl, all female versions of prominent male superheroes. Batgirl would eventually shed her "bat" persona and become Oracle, the premiere information broker of the DC superhero community and leader of the superheroine team Birds of Prey In addition, the company introduced Zatanna and a second Black Canary and had several female supporting characters that were successful professionals, such as the Atom's love-interest, attorney Jean Loring.

As with DC's superhero team the Justice League of America, with included Wonder Woman, the Marvel Comics teams of the early 1960s usually included at least one female, such as the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl, the X-Men's Marvel Girl and the Avengers' Wasp and later Scarlet Witch. In the wake of second-wave feminism, the Invisible Girl became the more confident and assertive Invisible Woman, and Marvel Girl became the hugely powerful destructive force called Phoenix.

In subsequent decades, Elektra, Catwoman, Witchblade, and Spider-Girl became stars of popular series. The series Uncanny X-Men and its related superhero-team titles included many females in vital roles.[25]

In American comics, superheroines often sport improbably large breasts and an illogical lack of muscle-mass, and their costumes sexualise their wearers almost as a matter of course. For example, Power Girl's includes a small window between her breasts; Emma Frost's costume traditionally resembles erotic lingerie; and Starfire's started as a full-body covering and has, over four decades, been reduced to a thong, pelvic covering, mask, and stiletto heels. This visual treatment of women in American comics has led to accusations of systemic sexism and objectification.[26][27]

Superheroes of color

In the late 1960s, superheroes of other racial groups began to appear. In 1966, Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther, an African king who became the first non-caricatured black superhero[28]. 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 1971, Red Wolf became the first Native American in the superheroic tradition to headline a series.[29] In 1974, Shang Chi, a martial artist, became the first prominent Asian hero to star in an American comic book. (Asian-American FBI agent Jimmy Woo had starred in a short-lived 1950s series named after a "yellow peril" antagonist, Yellow Claw.)

Comic-book companies were in the early stages of cultural expansion and many of these characters played to specific stereotypes; Cage often employed lingo similar to that of blaxploitation films, Native Americans were often associated with wild animals and Asians were often portrayed as martial artists.

Subsequent minority heroes, such as the X-Men's Storm (the first black superheroine) and the Teen Titans' Cyborg avoided such conventions. Storm and Cyborg were both part of superhero teams, which became increasingly diverse in subsequent years. The X-Men, in the particular, were revived in 1975 with a line-up of characters culled from several nations, including the Kenyan Storm, German Nightcrawler, Russian Colossus and Canadian Wolverine. Diversity in both ethnicity and national origin would be an important part of subsequent superhero groups.

In 1989, Marvel's Captain Marvel was the first female black superhero from a major publisher to get her own title in a special one-shot issue. In 1991, Marvel's Epic Comics released Captain Confederacy, the first female black superhero to have her own series.

In 1993, Milestone Comics, an African-American-owned imprint of DC, introduced a line of series that included characters of many ethnic minorities, including several black headliners. The imprint 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 roles of once-Caucasian heroes with minorities. The African-American John Stewart debuted in 1971 as an alternate for Earth's Green Lantern Hal Jordan. In the 1980s, Stewart joined the Green Lantern Corps as a regular member. The creators of the 2000s-era Justice League animated series selected Stewart as the show's Green Lantern. Other such successor-heroes of color include DC's Spectre (African-American), Atom (Asian), and Blue Beetle (Latino). Marvel Comics, in 2003 retroactive continuity, revealed that the "Supersoldier serum" that empowered Captain America was subsequently tested on an African American.[30]

LGBT characters

In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of the Canadian mutant superhero team Alpha Flight, was homosexual, after years of implication.[31] This ended a long-standing editorial mandate that there would be no LGBT characters in Marvel comics.[32] Although some secondary characters in DC Comics' mature-audience miniseries Watchmen were gay, Northstar was the first openly gay superhero. Other gay and bisexual superheroes have since emerged, such as Pied Piper, Gen¹³'s Rainmaker, and the gay couple Apollo and Midnighter of Wildstorm Comics' superhero team the Authority.

In the mid-2000s, some characters were revealed gay in two Marvel titles: Wiccan and Hulkling of the superhero group Young Avengers; and the X-Men's Colossus in the alternate universe Ultimate Marvel imprint. Xavin, from the Runaways is a a shape-changing alien filling the part of a transgendered lesbian. In 2006, DC revealed in its Manhunter title that longtime character Obsidian was gay, and a new incarnation of Batwoman was introduced as a "lipstick lesbian" to some media attention.[33][34]

In other media


Superhero films began as Saturday movie serials aimed at children during the 1940s. The decline of these serials meant the death of superhero films until the release of 1978's Superman, a critical and commercial success. Several sequels followed in the 1980s. 1989's Batman was also highly successful and followed by several sequels in the 1990s. Yet while both franchises were initially successful, later sequels in both series fared poorly both artistically and financially, stunting the growth of superhero films for a time.

In the early 2000s, hit films such as 1998's Blade, X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002) and the reboot Batman Begins (2005) have led to many more superhero films, both successful (such as 2008's Iron Man) and less so (such as 2003's Daredevil). Other superhero films in the decade have included sequels as well as The Hulk (2003), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), Watchmen (2009), and the reboots Superman Returns (2006) and The Incredible Hulk (2008).

Live-action television series

Several live-action superhero programs aired from the early 1950s until the late 1970s. These included Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, the campy Batman series of the 1960s starring Adam West and Burt Ward and CBS' Wonder Woman series of the 1970s starring Lynda Carter. The Incredible Hulk of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, had a more somber tone.In the 1990s, the syndicated Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, adapted from the Japanese Super Sentai, became popular.[citation needed] Other shows targeting teenage and young adult audiences that decade included Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In 2001, Smallville retooled Superman's origin as a teen drama. The 2006 NBC series Heroes tells the story of several ordinary people who each suddenly find themselves with a superpower.


In the 1940s, Fleischer/Famous Studios produced a number of groundbreaking Superman cartoons, which became the first examples of superheroes in animation.

Since the 1960s, superhero cartoons have been a staple of children’s television, particularly in the U.S.. However, by the early 1970s, US broadcasting restrictions on violence in children’s entertainment led to series that were extremely tame, a trend exemplified by the series Super Friends. Meanwhile, Japan's anime industry successfully contributed to the genre with their own style of superhero series, most notably Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.

In the 1980s, the Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends brought together Spider-Man, Iceman, and Firestar. The following decade, Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, aimed at somewhat older audiences, found critical success in mainstream publications.[35] Series that followed included Superman: The Animated Series (1996) and Cartoon Network's adaptation of DC's Justice League (2001) and Teen Titans.

Comics' superhero mythos itself received a nostalgic treatment in the 2004 Disney/Pixar release The Incredibles, which utilized computer animation. Original superheroes with basis in older trends have also been made for television, such as Cartoon Network's Ben 10 and Nickelodeon's Danny Phantom.

The new animated show The Super Hero Squad Show premiered September 14, 2009. This show has all of Marvel’s favorite characters such as Captain America, Falcon, Hulk, Reptil, Silver Surfer, Thor, and Wolverine. They are the protectors of Super Hero City, where Stan Lee just happens to be the Mayor. They must protect the city from the likes of Dr. Doom and his hoard of villains live in Villainville. The season-long plot involves pieces of the Infinity Sword being scattered across the globe during Iron Man's fight with Doctor Doom. The show is based on Marvel Super Hero Squad action figure line marketed by Hasbro beginning in 2006.


Beginning 1940s, the radio serial Superman starred Bud Collyer as the titular hero. Fellow DC Comics stars Batman and Robin made occasional guest appearances. Other superhero radio programs starred characters including the costumed but not superpowered Blue Beetle, and the non-costumed, superpowered Popeye. Also appearing on radio were such characters as the Green Hornet, the Green Lama, Doc Savage, and the Lone Ranger, a Western hero who relied on many conventions of the superhero genre (faithful sidekick, secret identity, prodigious skill in combat, code of conduct).



Superheroes occasionally have been adapted into prose fiction, starting with Random House's 1942 novel The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther. In the 1970s, Elliot S! Maggin wrote the Superman novels, Last Son of Krypton (1978) and Miracle Monday, coinciding with but not adapting the movie Superman.[36] Other early adaptations include novels starring the comic-strip hero The Phantom, starting with 1943's Son of the Phantom. The character likewise returned in 1970s books, with a 15-installment series from Avon Books beginning in 1972, written by Phantom creator Lee Falk, Ron Goulart, and others.

Also during the 1970s, Pocket Books published 11 novels based on Marvel Comics characters.[36] Juvenile novels featuring Marvel Comics and DC Comics characters including Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Justice League, have been published, often marketed in association with TV series, as have Big Little Books starring the Fantastic Four and others.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Marvel and DC released novels adapting such story arcs as "The Death of Superman" and Batman's "No Man’s Land".

Original characters

The 1930 novel Gladiator by Philip Gordon Wylie featured a man granted super-strength and durability through prenatal chemical experimentation. He tries to use his abilities for good but soon becomes disillusioned, making him an early example of both the superhero and its latter day deconstruction.

Robert Mayer's 1977 Superfolks tells of a retired hero who has married and moved to the suburbs being drawn back into action.

The Wild Cards books, created and edited by George R. R. Martin in 1987, were a non-comic book-based science fiction series that dealt with superpowered heroes. The characters in the series follow many of the superhero archetypes.

Science-fiction author Michael Bishop parodied superheroes in his 1992 novel Count Geiger's Blues in which a pop culture-hating art critic plunges into a pool of toxic waste and transforms into a costumed superhero and gains an allergy to high art.

The plot of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay focuses on two fictional Golden Age writer/illustrators and their character The Escapist. The Escapist stories detailed in the novel were later adapted into an actual comic book series published by Dark Horse Comics.


Existing comic-book Superheroes have appeared in original novels, as well as in novelizations of comic-book story arcs.

Computer games

While many popular superheroes have been featured in licensed computer games, up until recently there have been few that have revolved around heroes created specifically for the game. This has changed due to two popular franchises: The Silver Age-inspired Freedom Force (2002) , City of Heroes (2004), and Champions Online (2009) a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (or MMORPG), all of which allow players to create their own superheroes and/or villains.


In the 80s and 90s, the Internet allowed a worldwide community of fans and amateur writers to bring their own superhero creations to a global audience. The first original major shared superhero universe to develop on the Internet was Superguy, which first appeared on a UMNEWS mailing list in 1989. In 1992, a cascade on the USENET newsgroup rec.arts.comics would give birth to the The Legion of Net.Heroes shared universe. In 1994, LNH writers contributed to the creation of the newsgroup rec.arts.comics.creative, which spawned a number of original superhero shared universes.

See also

Superheroes portal


  1. ^ a b Merriam-Webster Online: "Superhero"
  2. ^ "United States Patent and Trademark Office latest status info for trademark serial #78356610
  3. ^ Per Niccum, John. "'V for Vendetta' is S for Subversive", Lawrence Journal-World, March 17, 2006; Gesh, Lois H., and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Superheroes (John Wiley & Sons, 2002; ISBN 978-0-471-02460-6), Chapter 3: "The Dark Knight: Batman: A NonSuper Superhero"; Adherents.com, "The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Characters: Rev. Dr. Christopher Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (one of the world's first masked crime-fighters)" (undated, no byline); Lovece, Frank, The Dark Knight (movie review) Film Journal International, July 16, 2008 ("Batman himself is an anomaly as one of the few superheroes without superpowers…"), and other sources. 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 more longstanding Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the definition as "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also : an exceptionally skillful or successful person".
  4. ^ Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (Taylor Publishing: Dallas, Texas, 1989), pp. 178–181, reprinted at website Religious Affiliation of Comics Book Characters: "The Significant Seven:History's Most Influential Super-heroes" [sic]
  5. ^ British Superheroes: The Forites
  6. ^ Dictionary.com: Superhero
  7. ^ Ulaby, Neda. All Things Considered, "Comics Creators Search for 'Super Hero' Alternative". March 27, 2006
  8. ^ Schwimmer, Martin. The Trademark Blog, "Do DC and Marvel Own Exclusive Rights in 'SUPER HERO'?" 2004.
  9. ^ Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Arrow Trading Co., Inc. v. Victorinox A.G. and Wenger S.A.. 2003
  10. ^ Coleman, Ron. Likelihood of Confusion, "SUPER HERO® my foot". 2006.
  11. ^ Doctorow, Cory. Boing Boing, "Marvel Comics: stealing our language". 2006.
  12. ^ SeeCoogan, Peter (25 July 2006). Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin, Texas: MonkeyBrain Books. ISBN 1-932-26518-X. 
  13. ^ Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert's review of Watchmen rogerebert.com; March 4, 2009
  14. ^ Don Markstein's Toonopedia: The Clock
  15. ^ International Heroes: The Clock
  16. ^ Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) ISBN 080186514X, ISBN 978-0801865145, p. 57
  17. ^ Wright, pp. 77-85
  18. ^ Amazing Heroes (issue # unknown; 1987): "Fredric Wertham: Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate", by Dwight Decker. Revised version reprinted at website The Art Bin: Articles and Essays
  19. ^ Don Markstein's Toonopedia: Fantomah
  20. ^ Don Markstein's Tonnopedia: The Woman in Red and Grand Comics Database: Thrilling Comics #2
  21. ^ Don Markstein's Toonopedia: Miss Fury
  22. ^ Markstein's Toonopedia: Black Cat and Grand Comics Database: Pocket Comics #1
  23. ^ Bostonia (Fall 2001): "Who Was Wonder Woman? Long-ago LAW alumna Elizabeth Marston was the muse who gave us a superheroine", by Marguerite Lamb
  24. ^ The New York Times (February 18, 1992): "Our Towns: She's Behind the Match For That Man of Steel", by Andrew H. Malcolm
  25. ^ Comic Zone (May 1, 1996): "An Interview with Chris Claremont"
  26. ^ Gadfly (no date): "No Girls Allowed", by Casey Franklin
  27. ^ Sequart.com (March 15, 2001): "The State of American Comics Address", by Julian Darius
  28. ^ Brown, Jeffrey A. (2001). Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics and their Fans. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-57806-281-0. 
  29. ^ Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Red Wolf
  30. ^ Truth: Red, White & Black #1-7 (Jan.-July 2003) at Grand Comics Database.
  31. ^ Gay League - North Star
  32. ^ The Comics Journal: Online Features
  33. ^ BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Batwoman hero returns as lesbian
  34. ^ TIME.com: Caped Crusaders -- Jun. 12, 2006 -- Page 1
  35. ^ Ken Tucker said of the former, in "TV Review: Holy Bat-Toon!", Entertainment Weekly, September 4, 1992: "The animation is first-rate, moving Batman across gray cotton clouds and against a backdrop of teetering Art Deco-style skyscrapers. ... In contrast to both the '60s show or [director] [Tim] Burton's movies, the new Batman features plots that actually make sense and an occasional bit of clever dialogue that never curdles into camp". Of the latter Frank Lovece of in TV Review: X-Men, Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 1993, said: "[T]he art is miles above the pasteboard cutouts of the 1960s and '70s superhero 'toons, and the characters are more believably flawed. The dialogue still comes straight from drive-in movies, though...."
  36. ^ a b ComicsResearch.com (n.d.): Superhero Novels


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