The Prehistory of the Superhero

Superhero movies have been soaring at the box office throughout the twenty-first century and especially in the last decade. Originally the province of children and then of adult “geeks,” superheroes have finally gone mainstream.

But, where did they come from?

Their earliest progenitors were the heroes of myth: gods and demigods who slew chthonic monsters of chaos and created new orders, both cosmic and cultural, sorting out worlds and founding cities.

In the 19th century, as the market for printed stories grew along with economic development and the rise of literacy, the genre of adventure fiction blossomed.

In the early 20th century, a new kind of adventure hero arose. The Scarlett Pimpernel had a “secret identity.” His everyday persona was that of a harmless aristocratic fop. This provided cover for his heroic identity. This trope was then adopted by Zorro and then a whole wave of “mystery men” in pulp magazines and comics, later culminating in Batman.

Newspaper comic strips originally focused on mischievous children and childlike animal scamps like “Krazy Kat.” But then the strapping adventure hero began swooping from the pulps into the funny pages: characters like Dick Tracy, Tarzan, and Flash Gordon.

In pulp magazines and novels, sci-fi heroes began acquiring superhuman powers. There was John Carter of Mars (by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs) and Hugo Danner.

The greatest superhero was also the first: Superman. In Superman, his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster weaved together several preexisting threads. He was a leaping, strapping adventure hero in the tradition of Tarzan and Doc Savage. But since his feats were superhuman, he was also a mythical strongman in the tradition of Hercules and Samson. And with the “scientific” origins of those powers (which were similar to those of Carter and Danner), he was also a scifi marvel. And his secret identity also connected him to the tradition of the mystery men.

This was a winning formula that was first appreciated by children, then by adults who retained their childlike sense of wonder, and now by people of all kinds.