In modern popular fiction, a superhero (sometimes rendered super-hero or super hero) is a type of heroic character possessing extraordinary talents, supernatural phenomena, or superhuman powers and is dedicated to a moral goal or protecting the public. 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.
By most definitions, characters do not require actual supernatural or superhuman powers or phenomena to be deemed superheroes, although terms such as costumed crime fighters, costumed adventurers or masked vigilantes are sometimes used to refer to those such as Batman and Green Arrow without superpowers who share other superhero traits.
Some superheroes use their powers to counter day-to-day crime while also combating threats against humanity by supervillains, their criminal counterparts. Often, one of these supervillains will be the superhero's archenemy. Some long-running superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, have a rogues gallery of enemies. Superheroes sometimes will combat such threats as aliens, supernatural entities, and even ideological enemies such as Nazis.
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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) and comic-strip heroes such as the Phantom (1936) began appearing, as did non-costumed characters with super strength, including PatoruzÃº (1928), the comic-strip character Popeye (1929) and novelist Philip Wylie's protagonist Hugo Danner (1930). Both trends came together in superpowered, costumed heroes such as Ågon Bat (1931), visualized in painted panels used by kamishibai oral storytellers in Japan, and the first comic-book superhero, Superman (1938)
Early superhero films were produced in the 1940s, during the Golden Age of Comic Books, but interest lagged during the Cold War era; the form resurfaced in the late 1970s, and after 2000 developed into a number of highly profitable franchises.
Many superhero characters display the following traits:
- Extraordinary powers or abilities, exceptional skills and/or advanced equipment and technology. 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, Thor's weather manipulating hammer, and Green Lanternâs 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, and Wolverine's adamantium claws).
- 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), or to protect themselves from getting arrested by the police, like Spider-Man, 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. However, some superheroes, such as those of the team the Fantastic Four, eschew secret identities and are publicly known or even celebrities. There are also rare ones whose true identities are common public knowledge, even with a costumed identity (e.g. Iron Man and Captain America).
- 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 wears a bat-themed costume, uses bat-themed gadgetry and equipment and operates at night; 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 rogues gallery consisting of enemies that he/she fights repeatedly. In some cases superheroes begin by fighting run-of-the-mill criminals before supervillains surface in their respective story lines. In many cases the hero is in part responsible for the appearance of these supervillains (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 especially threatening. Often a nemesis is a superhero's doppelganger or foil.
- 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, DNAgents, and the X-Men, have common origins and usually operate as a group. Others, such as DC Comicsâs Justice League, Marvelâs Avengers, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 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.
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 or even celebrities; Iron Man is another example of this. Others, like Batman and Spider-Man, are met with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and the characters of Watchmen, 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 hero The Phantom.
Many features of superhero costumes recur frequently, including the following:
- Superheroes who maintain a secret identity often wear a mask, ranging from the domino of Robin 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. 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 characterâs athletic build and heroic sex appeal and allows a simple design for illustrators to reproduce.
- While a great many superhero costumes do not feature 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 Batmanâs 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.
- While most superhero costumes merely hide the heroâs 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 Question and The Green Hornet, opt for a "civilian" costume (mostly a trench coat). A few, such as the Runaways, do not wear any distinctive outfits at all.
Many superheroes (and supervillains) have headquarters or bases of operations (for example, Batman's Batcave). 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. Some bases, such as the Baxter Building, are common public knowledge (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 secret bases, these bases can serve a variety of functions, including (but not limited to) the following:
- a control room where specialized monitors and other advanced technology alert superheroes to activities requiring their intervention
- a command center where they are allowed the ability to send out commands through monitoring equipment
- an operations room that stores their technological and alien devices
- a crime lab or laboratory, for experiments and scientific study
- a safehouse, where the heroes can conceal themselves from their enemies
- a research library, covering a variety of topics including science, history, or criminal profiling
- an armory, for weapons design, construction and storage
- a garage, hangar, or dock, for storage of vehicles
- an information centre or 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)
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.
The first known female superhero is 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".
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 antiheroine, the Black Widowâ"a costumed emissary of Satan who killed evildoers in order to send them to Hellâ"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, 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 TarpÃ© Mills on April 6, 1941; the Phantom Lady, introduced in Quality Comics Police Comics #1 (Aug. 1941); and the Black Cat, 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. 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. 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 and Black Widow. 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.
Internationally, the Japanese comic book character Sailor Moon is recognized as one of the most important and popular female superheroes ever created.
Superheroines often sport improbably large breasts and an illogical lack of muscle-mass relative to their demonstrated physical strength levels, 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 over four decades became progressively much skimpier. This visual treatment of women in American comics has led to accusations of systemic sexism and objectification.
In keeping with their origin as representing the archetypical hero stock character in 1930s American comics, superheroes are predominantly depicted as Caucasian, American middle- or upper- class, athletic, tall, attractive, heterosexual, educated, young adult male. 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 characters depicted as Native Americans and Asian Americans. In keeping with the political mood of the time, cultural diversity would be an important part of superhero groups in the 1980s. In the 1990s, this was further augmented by the first depictions of superheroes as homosexual, beginning with the pre-existing Marvel Comics character Northstar being explicitly so declared in 1992.
In 1966, Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther, an African king 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 1971, Red Wolf became the first Native American in the superheroic tradition to headline a series. In 1974, Shang Chi, a martial artist, became the first prominent Asian superhero 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 (and other African-Americans) 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 wuxia martial artists. Subsequent minority heroes, such as the X-Men's Storm (the first African-female superhero) 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.
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 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 as well as whites. Milestone's initial run lasted four years, during which it introduced Static, a character adapted into the WB Network animated series Static Shock. A subsequent agreement with DC Comics allowed the Milestone characters to enter the main DC Universe but they have all since been erased and their current legal status remains unknown.
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 Firestorm (African-American), Atom (Asian), and Blue Beetle (Latino). Marvel Comics, in 2003 retroactive continuity, revealed that the "Supersoldier serum" that empowered Captain America was originally tested on African American, Isaiah Bradley, who is the grandfather of the Young Avengers' Patriot. In Ultimate, Miles Morales, a 13-year-old Black-Hispanic youth who was also bitten by a genetically-altered spider, takes up the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker dies. The MCU continuity features Gen. Nick Fury as executive director S.H.I.E.L.D..
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 secondary characters in DC Comics' mature-audience miniseries Watchmen were gay, Northstar was the first openly gay superhero appearing in mainstream comic books. Other gay and bisexual superheroes have since emerged, such as Pied Piper, GenÂ¹Â³'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 shape-changing alien filling the part of a transgender lesbian. In 2006, DC revealed in its Manhunter title that longtime character Obsidian was gay. In the same year, the new incarnation of Batwoman was introduced as a "lipstick lesbian" to some media attention. The Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott, Obsidian's father, was reintroduced as gay in the 2011 The New 52 reboot.
- List of child superheroes
- List of anthropomorphic animal superheroes
- list of alien races in DC Comics
- List of alien races in Marvel Comics
- List of metahumans in DC Comics
- List of superhero debuts
- List of superhero teams and groups
- List of comic book superpowers
- List of actors who have played superheroes
- Olga Mesmer
- Real-life superhero