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Super Heroes

Batman and Superman, two of the most recognizable and iconic superheroes. Art by Alex Ross and Jim Lee.

A superhero (sometimes rendered super-hero or super hero) is a fictional character "of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest".National Periodical Publications v. Empire Comics, New York Court of Appeals, April 21, 1954. Since the debut of the prototypal 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. A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine (also rendered super-heroine or super heroine).

By most definitions, characters need not have actual superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes, although terms such as costumed crimefighters are sometimes used to refer to those without such powers who share other common traits with superheroes.

The two-word version of the term is a trademark co-owned by DC Comics and Marvel Comics.

Common traits

Promotional art for The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2, #50 (April 2003), by J. Scott Campbell and Tim Townsend.
  • Extraordinary powers and abilities, relevant skills, and/or advanced equipment. Although 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 and the Question possess no superhuman powers but have mastered skills such as martial arts and forensic sciences. 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, Daredevil's billy club, Thor's hammer, Gambit's playing cards, etc.)
  • 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 (exceptions such as the Fantastic Four notwithstanding), 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.
  • 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, calls his specialized automobile, which also appears bat-like, the "Batmobile" and uses several devices given a "bat" prefix).
  • 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, 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.
Promotional art for Fantastic Four #509, by Mike Wieringo and Karl Kesel.

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. 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. With the rise in relative popularity of non-superhero comics, as well as the popularity of Japanese comics (manga), this trend is slowly declining. 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. 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, Spawn and Invincible 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.

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 Clark Kent, who wears nothing on his face while fighting crime as Superman, but uses large glasses in his civilian life. 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 due to the fact that two of the most widely-recognized, 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. Other shorthands for superheroes are used in the computer game City of Heroes, when a player's hero fights with some of the game's supervillain groups such as the Hellions, Skulls, and Clockwork, the villains will often say, "The capes are trying to stop us," "I smell spandex" (referring to the spandex costumes some heroes wear), or "Attack the mask" (an allusion to the masks used by some superheroes). The comic book series 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 (e.g. Thor, Black Panther and Storm).
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. The earlier of these wore scarf/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 Heroes and Kikaider have become popular in Japanese tokusatsu live-action shows, and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Casshan, 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. 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. . Perhaps the most famous of Japanese superheroes is Son Goku fro the Dragon ball series who some say is the Japanese equivalent to superman.

In 1947, Philippines/Filipino writer/cartoonist Mars Ravelo introduced the first Asian people/Asian superheroine, 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 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. 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 enthomologists-Olympic athletes Mikros, Saltarella and Crabb or the S.H.I.E.L.D.-esque saga of C.L.A.S.H.), while others indulged in weirder attributes, such as the shapeshifting/shape-changing Extraterrestrial life in popular culture/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, Shiva, Shehenshah, Ajooba, Toofaan, and Krrish.

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

Types of superheroes

In superhero role-playing games, such as Hero Games' Champions, Green Ronin Publishing's Mutants and Masterminds or Cryptic Studios' MMORPG City Of Heroes, superheroes are informally 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:

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

super intellect A hero is smarter than an average man. EX.Martian Manhunter, Professor X

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 also fits into a healing category. Very powerful characters, such as Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Dr. Manhattan and the Silver Surfer can be listed in many categories. Flying, super-strong, invulnerable heroes such as Superman and Captain Marvel are sometimes in a category all their own, known as "Original," as they were some of the earliest heroes in comics.

Character examples

While the typical superhero is described above, a vast array of superhero characters have been created and many break the usual pattern:

Promotional art for Wolverine: Origins #1 (June 2006) by Michael Turner.
  • Wolverine has shown a willingness to kill and to engage in anti-social behavior. He belongs to an underclass of morally ambivalent anti-heroes who are coarser and more violent than classic superheroes. Others include Green Arrow, Huntress, John Constantine, Blade and, in some incarnations, Batman. Namor the Sub-Mariner is the earliest example of this archetype, originally appearing in 1939. Some, such as Wolverine, Deadpool, and Daredevil, are often repentant about their actions, while others, such as The Punisher and Rorschach, are unapologetic.
  • While many superheroes are accepted by the communities they protect, some, such as Spider-Man, Outsiders and the X-Men, have generally been viewed with suspicion or disapproval by some of the press and general public.
  • Some superheroes have been created and employed by national governments to serve their interests and defend the nation. Captain America was outfitted by and worked for the United States Army during World War II and Alpha Flight is a superhero team formed and usually managed by an arm of the Canadian Department of National Defence (Canada). The Ultimates, in particular, work directly under the U.S. government and are used as a metaphor for U.S. military and political power. The Savage Dragon is virtually unique in that he began his superhero career as police officer, rather than a costumed vigilante. Wonder Woman in her day job works for the government as an agent.
  • Many superheroes have never had a secret identity, such as Luke Cage or the members of The Fantastic Four. Others who once had secret identities, such as Captain America and Steel, later made their identities public. The third Flash and Iron Man are rare examples of "public" superheroes who regain their secret identities.
  • The Hulk is usually defined as a superhero, but he has a Jekyll/Hyde relationship with his alter ego. When enraged, scientist Bruce Banner becomes the super-strong Hulk, a creature of little intelligence and self-control. His actions have often either inadvertently or deliberately caused great destruction. As a result, he has been hunted by the military and other superheroes.
  • While most superheroes traditionally gained their abilities through accidents of science, magic (paranormal)/magical means or rigorous training, the X-Men and related characters are genetic mutants whose abilities naturally manifest at puberty. Mutants more often have difficulty controlling their powers than other superheroes and are persecuted as a group.
  • Some superhero identities have been used by more than one person. A character (often a close associate or family member) takes on another's name and mission after the original dies, retires or takes on a new identity. The Flash, Blue Beetle and Robin are notable mantles that have passed from one character to another. Green Lantern and Nova are standard titles for the thousands of members of their respective intergalactic "police corps". The Phantom and the Black Panther both adopted personae and missions that have lasted several generations.
  • Thor, Hercules and Ares are mythology/mythological gods reinterpreted as superheroes. Wonder Woman, while not a goddess in her current incarnation, is a member of the Amazons/Amazon tribe of Greek mythology given many "god like" powers, enough to challenge the gods themselves.
  • Spawn, Etrigan, Ghost Rider and Hellboy are actual demons who have been manipulated by circumstance into being forces of good.
  • Superman, the Silver Surfer, Martian Manhunter, and Captain Marvel (the Marvel Comics character) are Extraterrestrial life in popular culture/extraterrestrials who have, either permanently or provisionally, taken it upon themselves to protect the planet Earth.
  • Adam Strange, on the other hand, is a human being who protects the planet Rann.
  • Some characters tread the line between superhero and villain because of a permanent or temporary change in character or because of a complex, individualistic moral code. These include Juggernaut, Emma Frost, Catwoman, Elektra, Black Adam and Venom. This change often coincides with a spin-off series in which the character must be a likable protagonist. The Thunderbolts and the Suicide Squad are teams made up mostly of former villains acting as super heroes.
  • Because the superhero is such an outlandish and recognizable character type, several comedic heroes have been introduced, including Ambush Bug, The Tick, Bananaman, The Flaming Carrot, The Great Lakes Avengers, Herbie Popnecker, The Powerpuff Girls and The SimpsonsRadioactive Man. Early, Harvey Kurtzman-edited issues of Mad Magazine featured several parodies of superheroes and count as some of the first satiric treatments of this subject matter.
  • The title characters of the franchise Gargoyles are powerful warrior creatures who have an instinctual need to protect their territory and the beings living in it, although that need can be broadly interpreted by individuals.
  • Certain heroes, such as The Punisher, are known as anti-heroes. Anti-heroes who work for the greater good do so with questionable, perhaps cruel means.

Trademark status

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

Joint trademarks shared by competitors are rare in the United States. 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.

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.

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

History of superheroes in comic books


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

Early mythologies feature pantheons of gods with superhuman powers, as well as heroes such as Gilgamesh and Perseus. Later, folklore/folkloric heroes such as Robin Hood and the 19th century protagonists of Victorian era/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. The first masked crime-fighter created for comic books was writer-artist George Brenner's The Clock, who debuted in Centaur Publications' Funny Pages vol. 1, #6 (Nov. 1936). In terms of superpowered characters, many historians consider the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) the point at which the comic-book archetype began.

Golden Age

Action Comics #1 (June 1938), Superman's debut. Cover art by Joe Shuster.

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.

Whiz Comics #2 (Feb. 1940), the debut of Captain Marvel. Cover art by C. C. Beck

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.

After the war, superheroes lost popularity. This led to the rise of genre fiction, particularly horror fiction/horror and crime fiction/crime. The lurid nature of these genres sparked a moral crusade in which comics were blamed for juvenile delinquency. The movement was spearheaded by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who famously argued that "deviant" sexual undertones ran rampant in superhero comics.

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

Showcase #4 (Oct. 1956) introduced the second Flash and the Silver Age. Cover art by Carmine Infantino & Joe Kubert.

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 western fiction/westerns, romance novel/romance, horror fiction/horror, war and crime fiction/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 ground-breaking, socially conscious series. Writer Dennis O'Neil portrayed Green Arrow as an angry, street-smart populism/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.

The cast of DC Comics' Watchmen. Promotional art by Dave Gibbons.

In the 1970s, DC returned Batman to his roots as a dubious vigilante, and Marvel introduced several popular anti-heroes, 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 taken to a higher level 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 flaws in the superhero mythos such as the inculpability of vigilantism, and the 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. Both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were acclaimed for their artistic ambitiousness and psychological depth, and became watershed series.

Miller continued his seminal 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 more politically conscious 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 the corrupted institutions of government; the message is that crime can occur at all levels of society, and the heroes are responsible for fighting both symptoms and causes of societal dysfunction and corruption.

Struggles of the 1990s

Todd McFarlane's occult hero Spawn.

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 as over-muscled, over-sexualized, excessively violent, and lacking in unique personality. McFarlane's occult hero Spawn fared somewhat better in critical respect 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.

Superhero philosophy

The "philosophy" informing the ethos of vigilante superheroes (especially as seen in the Punisher and Batman characters) was essentially formulated centuries ago by Aristotle: Men possessing superior virtue and self-mastery necessarily transcend the external human bureaucratic-administrative framework:

"There are men, wrote Aristotle, so godlike, so exceptional, that they naturally, by right of their extraordinary gifts, transcend all moral judgment or constitutional control: 'There is no law which embraces men of that caliber: they are themselves law.'"

Note that not all superheroes are vigilantes. During the Silver Age, for example, Batman was a deputized officer of the Gotham City police force. Other superheroes have worked, either openly or covertly, with or for government or international organizations. In 1986, John Byrne's Superman was officially deputized by the Metropolis mayor to allow him to arrest criminals legally.


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 Homosexuality/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 Emperor's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Mind (1980). Contemporary critics seem to be 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).

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, heterosexual, professional, 20-to-30-year-old male. A majority of superheroes still fit this description as of 2007, but beginning in the 1960s many characters have broken the mold.


Promotional art for Wonder Woman vol. 3, #5 (May 2007) by Terry Dodson & Rachel Dodson.

The first known female superhero is writer-artist Fletcher Hanks's minor 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 print syndication/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, 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); 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 three 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 companion 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. 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.

The idealized physiques and frequently sexual costumes (such as those of Power Girl, Emma Frost and Starfire) of female superheroes have led to accusations of sexism.

Superheroes of color

Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87, the first appearance of John Stewart. Art by Neal Adams.

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. 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 Americans of the United States|Native American in the superheroic tradition to headline a series. 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 "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 the patronizing nature of the earlier characters. 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 different 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 X-Men-related groups, as well as series that attempted to mimic the X-Men’s success. In the modern age, minority headliners are still rare but almost all teams feature at least a few minority characters.

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 best known example is perhaps John Stewart who debuted in 1971 in the socially conscious series Green Lantern/Green Arrow. Stewart was a black and somewhat belligerent architect who Green Lantern’s alien benefactors chose as Hal Jordan's standby, an idea that initially discomforted Jordan and was meant to discomfort some readers. In the 1980s, Stewart became the Green Lantern permanently, making him the first black character to take the mantle of a classic superhero. The creators of the 2000s-era Justice League animated series selected Stewart as the show's Green Lantern, boosting his profile.

DC has recently passed some other long-established superhero mantles to ethnic minorities. These include the new Firestorm (African-American), Atom (Asian) and Blue Beetle (Latino). Alternatively, Marvel Comics retcon/revealed in an acclaimed 2003 limited series that the "Supersoldier serum" that empowered Captain America was subsequently tested on Isaiah Bradley, an African American man.

LGBT characters

In 1992, Marvel the closet/revealed that Northstar, a member of Alpha Flight, was homosexuality/homosexual, after years of implication. This ended a long-standing editorial mandate that there would be no LGBT characters in Marvel comics. 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 Authority's gay couple Apollo and Midnighter.

In the mid-2000s, some characters were revealed gay in two Marvel titles: The Ultimate Marvel incarnation of the X-Men’s Colossus and Wiccan and Hulkling of the superhero group Young Avengers. 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.

Subsequent minority heroes, such as the X-Men's Storm (the first black superheroine) and The Teen Titans' Cyborg avoided the patronizing nature of the earlier characters. 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 different 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 X-Men-related groups, as well as series that attempted to mimic the X-Men’s success. In the modern age, minority headliners are still rare but almost all teams feature at least a few minority characters.

In other media


Promotional image of Halle Berry as film version of X-Men character Storm.

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 which was a tremendous success. Several sequels followed in the 1980s. 1989's Batman was also highly successful and was followed by several sequels in the 1990s. The Superman and Batman franchises were initially successful but later sequels in both series fared poorly, stunting the growth of superhero films for a time. In the early 2000s, blockbusters such as 1998's Blade (often credited with starting the current superhero revival in American cinema), 2000’s X-Men, 2002’s Spider-Man, and 2005's Batman Begins have led to dozens of superhero films. The improvements in special effects technology and more sophisticated writing that both respects and emulates the spirit of the comic books has drawn in mainstream audiences and caused critics to take superhero films more seriously.

Live-action television series

Several popular but, by modern standards, campy live action superhero programs aired from the early 1950s until the late 1970s. These included Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, the psychedelic-colored Batman series of the 1960s starring Adam West and Burt Ward and CBS’s Wonder Woman series of the 1970s starring Lynda Carter. The popular Incredible Hulk of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, had a more somber tone.

Lou Ferrigno as the Hulk in the 1978 episode "Married".

In the 1990s, the TV syndication|syndicated Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, adapted from the Japanese Super Sentai, became popular. 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 people who "thought they were like everyone else, until they woke with incredible abilities".

In Japan, tokusatsu (Japanese term for special effects) superhero TV series are very common.


The New Batman Adventures promotional image. Art by Bruce Timm.

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 1980s, 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 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men led the way for series that displayed advanced animation, mature writing and respect for the comic books on which they were based. This trend continues with Cartoon Network’s successful adaptation of DC's Justice League and Teen Titans.

The comics superheroes mythos itself received a nostalgic treatment in the acclaimed 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.


In the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, Superman was one of the most popular radio serials in the United States. 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).

In the 1990s, the BBC broadcast radio plays adapting comic-book stories from at least three publishers.



Superheroes occasionally have been adapted into prose fiction, starting with Random House's 1942 novel The Adventures of Superman (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. 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. 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) and City of Heroes (2004), a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (or MMORPG), boths of which allow players to create their own superheroes.


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