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The first superhero?

Out of a recent conversation popped this interesting question: who was the first superhero? After a short discussion and a few guesses (Superman, Batman, etc), it was agreed that this might be the most perfect question to ask the internet in the long history of questions.

The earliest superhero I could find reference to was Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, four years before Superman, who was probably the first popular superhero. Mandrake’s super power was his ability to “make people believe anything, simply by gesturing hypnotically”. Does anyone out there know of any superheroes who made an earlier media appearance?

There’s a related question that has some bearing on the answer to the above question: what is a superhero? There have probably been books (or at least extensive Usenet threads) written on this topic, but a good baseline definition needs to acknowledge both the “super” and the “hero” parts. That is, the person needs to have some superhuman power or powers and has to fight the bad guys. But this basic definition is flawed. Superman is an alien, not human. Batman doesn’t have any super powers…he’s a self-made superhero like Syndrome in The Incredibles. Or can a superhero be anyone (human or no) that fights bad guys and is superior to normal heroes…the cream of the hero crop? And what about a costume or alter ego…are they essential for superheroism? These are all questions well-suited for asking the internet, so have at it: what’s a good definition for a superhero?

And there’s (at least) one more angle to this as well…where did the idea of the superhero come from? As Meg suggested to me at dinner last night, was there a cultural need for a superhero during a super-crisis like the Great Depression? Or did the idea evolve gradually from regular heros (cowboys, space cowboys, etc.) to heros who were magicians (with special powers…it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a magician possessing supernatural powers) to classic superheroes like Superman?

Reader comments

JoshuaOct 18, 2005 at 12:55PM

First use of the term "superhero"? First fictional character meeting the qualifications of "superhero"? It seems to me that the notion of "superhero" is bound up with the medium of comic books. Wikipedia's entry on Superhero has a nice definition.

Dan DareOct 18, 2005 at 12:58PM

Surely Jesus is a shoe-in?

Joe CrawfordOct 18, 2005 at 12:58PM

Ancient myths of gods or humans granted the powers of gods are not any different from the superheroes as conceived in the 20th C. Flying, superhuman strength, psychic powers -- these are nothing new. Wikipedia has a nice detailing of Superheroes, in particular the subsection Predecessors.

Additionally, you might enjoy the book Superheroes on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society. Great book on the psychology of comic books and to a lesser extent their authors.

Dan GarfieldOct 18, 2005 at 12:59PM

Kottke, while I admire the attempt to get to the heart of the matter I think you may be thinking about this a bit too hard.

If you want some historical insight check out

furthermore, to my knowledge Superman did not at all debut in 1928 but rather in 1938. Detective Comics (the U.S.A.'s first widely distributed super-hero comic book printing house) started up with Batman in 1935, though this may have been in response to numerous small press releases of other Batman-ish books like The Phantom and other detective pulp in the couple of years previous.

But the reason I say you're thinking about it to hard is because the idea of super-heros is prehistoric. It goes back to before the dawn of human civilization. Think about all the ancient Myths you learned about when you were a kid. Hercules is a particularly well televised example of this but its actually one of the better documented and more recent mythical hero stories of all time, being that its greek and all. There were probably early homo sapiens somewhere in africa about 900,000 years ago telling super hero stories to each other within minutes of the development of speech. Its just how humans think. We look at our own frailties and failings and then imagine a man (or woman) who is like us but without those frailties. A Superman.


p.s. I do of course realize and relish in the irony that I have accused you of thinking too much about it considering how much I have clearly thought too much about this. C'est la vi, hypocrisy doesn't bother me even a little bit.

MegOct 18, 2005 at 1:02PM

I think the guy who discovered fire probably nails this one.

AdamOct 18, 2005 at 1:02PM

I think there does need to be some tightening down of the definition of "superhero," or else we can make a case for quasi-historical figures like Zorro and Robin Hood, or even mythological characters like Hercules.

jkottkeOct 18, 2005 at 1:09PM

furthermore, to my knowledge Superman did not at all debut in 1928 but rather in 1938.

Sorry, that was a typo. Mandrake the Magician debuted in 1934, not 1924...making Superman's debut in 1938.

crazymonkOct 18, 2005 at 1:10PM

Yup, I'm thinking mythological as well: Hercules, Achilles, maybe even the gods.

By the way, I hope y'all have read Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon.

jkottkeOct 18, 2005 at 1:13PM

Wikipedia has a nice detailing of Superheroes, in particular the subsection Predecessors.

And why on earth did I not think to check Wikipedia, home of obsessive documentation of nearly everything?

Dale CruseOct 18, 2005 at 1:16PM

Dan Garfield, I believe you are presenting dates in a misleading way. The first appearance of Batman was Detective Comics #27 in 1939. While the first issue of Detective Comics obviously appeared earlier, it is misleading to say Batman appeared in 1935.

There have been heros for as long as man has roamed the Earth, but the first hero with super powers is generally accepted to be Superman.

turbanheadOct 18, 2005 at 1:24PM

Might I just add that Mandrake (along with the Phantom) were the first superheroes I read about as a child, growing up in India. I remember wishing for a top hat, cape, wand and magical powers like he had when I was a kid. Alas, once I discovered Superman, Mandrake (and his sidekick Lothar) went out the window.

SteveOct 18, 2005 at 1:37PM

Depending on how you classify these things, it's probably either Superman (the character who gave his name to the concept), Gilgamesh (powers beyond those of ordinary men!), or the Scarlet Pimpernel (who seems to be the first example, or at least the first that I can find, of the rich dandy who dons a mask to fight crime; Orczy's book predates Zorro by a smidge, and Zorro was pretty clearly an influence on Batman). Tarzan, Doc Savage, Mandrake, and other pulp characters don't seem to have some of the characteristics I'd look for.

MegOct 18, 2005 at 1:42PM

Okay, not to bandy about stereotypes, but where are the girl comic-heads? Tell me you're still googling so you'll sound smart when you do comment, girls...

Darryl RingOct 18, 2005 at 1:56PM

"Surely Jesus is a shoe-in?"

If you're talking about fictional characters, definitely.

eric LinOct 18, 2005 at 2:23PM

i agree with steve, in that the first superhero i could think of was gilgamesh. i think what jason is stuck on here is the first comic book hero - not just a character who uses superhuman powers for good, but one whose tales were published in modern drawning. if it wasn't just drawn, but told through modern media that defines a superhero for jason, wouldn't the shadow preceed mandrake in his radio drama?

if all we're talking about is well documented stories of superhumans using power for good, then, ya, i'm not sure if anyone preceeds gilgamesh. maybe krishna? or is there a chinese superhero whose legend preceeds sumerian times?

DustinOct 18, 2005 at 2:24PM

"Where did the idea of the superhero come from?"

While I don't know explicitly where the idea comes from, it seems to me that there are a few interesting threads that could be looked at. First, many of the original superhero creators were immigrants or children of immigrants -- Americans but not quite like other Americans. Much has been made of the "Jewishness" of Superman -- an immigrant from an Old World whose geeky, mild-mannered, weakling exterior hides his inner superiority to everyone around him, who even chose an American name to hide his secret foreign-sounding one. A second thread is the rise of teen culture in the US, and the development of the gender gap as the necessity for greater and greater independence became a factor in child-rearing. FInally, I think it bears looking at the problems of urban living which, at the beginning of the 20th century, had become the main environment for most Americans. Especially important in this connection is the anonymity afforded by urban living and the alientation -- call it the Walter Mitty effect -- leading people to desperately wish for a way to prove themselves worthy and *noticable*.

Erik V.Oct 18, 2005 at 2:27PM

If you mean the origin of the comic book superhero, Iโ€™m inclined to go with the Golem. Otherwize, I like the origin of Shazam!, even though heโ€™s not exactly the first superhero.

Mike KonczewskiOct 18, 2005 at 2:51PM

Most comic book historians list the Clock as the first modern costumed superhero. He debuted in 1936, beating out Batman (1938) and Superman (1939).

The idea of a "super" hero, though, is as old as recorded literature: Gilgamesh, Hercules/Heracles, Achilles, Samson, Beowulf, etc. Hercules even wore a costume--the skin of the Nemean Lion.

KaiOct 18, 2005 at 3:00PM

I'll throw my hat into the ring on the question of "what defines a Superhero?"

I'd venture that a "super hero" as opposed to an ordinary hero, is someone who essentially devotes their life to being a hero as their foundation. In this sense, I *would* consider quasi-mythological figures such as Zorro or Robin Hood to be effectively superheroes, though they lack a lot of the stereotypes we've come to associate with superheroes. (Or perhaps not... depending on how you look at it.)

What sets the superhero apart from the "everyday" hero such as the fireman who's job is to do things that might be seen is perfectly heroic, is that the Superhero generally is symbolic. The superhero does what nobody else is doing, in a way that most people can't, at least not readily. Batman has, in some incarnations, rationalized that he does what he does because nobody else can. Notice if you will, that most if not all superheroes are beyond (but not neccessarily above) what regular people think of as the law. Superman regularly does things that would, if you think about it, break scores of laws. And the activities of Batman - or Robin Hood - go without saying. Part of what makes the superhero super, perhaps, is his ability to perform these duties and not abuse the fact that he must operate outside the normal bounds of citizens.

All this is, I feel, a bit part of what feeds into making a hero a superhero in our minds - when they become larger than life, existing outside the boundaries that we normally exist in. Ironically, history in real life has probably seen more "super villains" than real super heroes; it's much more tempting to human weakness and easier, to go outside the normal boundaries and cause harm or perform selfish acts. Many of the colorful supervillains from comic books, especially Batman's rogue gallery of criminals, are not very far removed in some cases from the activities of real life villains who are epic in scope.

I actually do think The Incredibles explored this issue in a subtle way; the fact that the basis of Syndrome's psychosis is that he was fixated on one element of the superhero making a person a "super" - special powers or abilities. That was evidenced in his plot to destory the ideas of "supers" by making everyone "super" eventually; as if giving everyone special powers is all it would take to eliminate the idea of heroes.

Dale CruseOct 18, 2005 at 3:09PM

Mike Konczewski, you have your dates mixed up as well. Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 - Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Supes predates Bats.

greywulfOct 18, 2005 at 3:39PM

A superhero should be many things:
- larger than life
- a force for good
- an inspiration to his peers
- battle equally epic villains
- exist in a literary form

Put me down for a vote for Gilgamesh as the first superhero. That's a written tale at least 4,500 years old.

Tom ScolaOct 18, 2005 at 3:58PM

Popeye, who made his first appearance in 1929, is probably the first comic-strip based superhero.

The first Zorro dime novel was published in 1919.

The first Tarzan book was in 1912.

TaylorOct 18, 2005 at 4:00PM

Count another for Gilgamesh.

PaulOct 18, 2005 at 4:23PM

A superhero is someone we wish/hope is around. Someone who could, sooner or later, right wrongs.

ClintOct 18, 2005 at 4:37PM

If you really want to get into why it is we need heros, you should watch Bill Moyer's interview series with Joseph Campbell entitled The Power of Myth. You can get it from PBS.

Jason RossittoOct 18, 2005 at 4:41PM

Thank you to whoever mentioned Kavalier and Clay (I'm not going to scroll all the way back up there to find out who). Subsequent posts mentioned the "jewishness" of Superman and the Golem, both central themes in the novel. Its one of my favorite books of all time and a solid exploration of the early evolution of american superhero culture, as well as "jewishness" in america during WWII.

SumanaOct 18, 2005 at 4:41PM

With regard to Jesus - don't just look at the stuff in the canonical Bible. The Apocrypha have him doing very superhero-ish things.

Joe CrawfordOct 18, 2005 at 5:06PM

Dustin says:
First, many of the original superhero creators were immigrants or children of immigrants -- Americans but not quite like other Americans. Much has been made of the "Jewishness" of Superman -- an immigrant from an Old World whose geeky, mild-mannered, weakling exterior hides his inner superiority to everyone around him, who even chose an American name to hide his secret foreign-sounding one.

Indeed Dustin. There's a great book on that topic as well -- Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book:

"By the author of The Comic Book Heroes, Killing Monsters, and scores of successful comic books and screenplays, Men of Tomorrow is the first book to tell the surprising story of the young Jewish misfits, hustlers and nerds who invented the superhero and the comic book industry. Among the characters in this vibrant panorama:

" * Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, the goofy myopic creators of Superman, who sold the rights to the Man of Tomorrow for $130 to...
" * Harry Donenfield, former pornographer and con-man, and his partner, Jack Liebowitz, founder of DC Comics, who went on to help build Steve Ross's legendary Warner Communications
" * Batman's Bob Kane, who rose to fame and fortune in a career based entirely on lies and self-promotion
" * Mort Weisinger, the ruthless editor of Superman, who suffered a nervous breakdown when he tried to be a superhero himself
" * Plus Stan Lee, founder of a new kind of hero, including Spiderman, at Marvel Comics; Will Eisner, whose creation "The Spirit" has become a cult classic, and many, many more.

"Springing unheralded out of working-class Jewish immigrant neighborhoods in the depths of the Depression, these young men transformed an odd mix of geekdom, science fiction, and outsider yearnings into blue-eyed, chisel-nosed crime-fighters and adventurers who quickly captured the mainstream imagination. Within a few years their inventions were being read by 90% of American children and had spawned a new genre in movies, radio and TV that still dominates youth entertainment seventy years later."

Apparently this thread is inspiring my inner librarian, recommending books left and right.

AegirOct 18, 2005 at 5:21PM

I believe Marvel and DC Comics jointly own the trademark on the term 'superhero', so a superhero is precisely what and who they say it is.

DustinOct 18, 2005 at 6:17PM

I thought of something else that has to be considered in the rise of the superhero. As Joe Crawford notes, superhero comics and science fiction hit the mainstream together, sharing creators, distributers, and reading publics. Both deal with science and technology and their effects in society -- in a characteristically (for the '30s) optimistic manner. A man will come from a faraway planet and act as the world's protector; another will use his wealth and brilliance to develop tools that will be used to fight crime in the streets. No problem -- even those caused by science and technology -- can not be solved by the application of science and technology. By the '50s, with the advent of nuclear technology and the revelations of the Holocaust, this optimism is somewhat tempered -- the new crop of superheros that emerged in the decades after WWII (Hulk, X-Men, Spiderman) were hunted, persecuted, plagued by superpowers they did not want, which they carried as a burden (and of course the resurgence of Batman and Superman put them into a similar mold).

In this light, the difference between modern superheros and older heros (Jesus, Gilgamesh, Hercules, Arthur) is that the older heroes operated in a religious milieu; their powers were derived from their connection with the divine. Superheroes are secular characters, whose powers (more often than not, anyway) derive from the realm of science and technology. Granted, there are some magical superheroes -- Wonder Woman, for instance, or Captain Marvel -- but even then it is often their ability to manipulate the world of science and technology (e.g. WW's invisible plane) that sets them apart.

AndrewOct 18, 2005 at 7:27PM

I really liked the idea of Popeye as the first sequential art precedent! But the general Modernist and American concept of a superhero also has deep roots in the radio legacy of The Shadow and others. I don't know enough about early european newsprint comics to hazard a guess; I wouldn't be surprised to hear of one. Other western antecenants not mentioned in detail, King Arthur (most certainly magical, and indirectly religious being THE socialized mythic antecend to the Divine Right of Kings) Robin Hood, certainly Populist, but no superpowers...falls into the category of abnornally super abilities a la Batman, and if Batman isn't included on this list, well....

jcOct 18, 2005 at 7:59PM

Jason/Meg: This is from my wife (a girl comic-head who has worked at Marvel and DC Comics): The Shadow first appeared in 1931. In "Men of Tomorrow" a history of comics, they say, "The Shadow can claim to be the first 'superhero.' Not superhuman, but a new combination of romance, violence, and visual trademarks."

NinjaYaddaYaddaYaddaOct 18, 2005 at 8:13PM

Being human is not a prerequisite for having "superhuman" powers.

Superman has superhuman powers because he possesses powers that are above that of mankind. Therefore, he is a superhero.

Batman, as cool as he is, is not a superhero. But he is a super hero. =o)

AmyOct 18, 2005 at 8:46PM

Definitely read Michael Chabon's excellent The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (if you haven't already). He really gets into "the why" of superheroes (and there's a cool chapter starring Dali in a metal diver suit).

jkottkeOct 18, 2005 at 8:57PM

I don't believe Gilgamesh et al qualify because although we think of them as myths or fiction now, the person or persons who first constructed these stories probably did not, nor did the early readers/listeners. As I understand it, they were writing/talking about real people, not fictional superheroes.

ArtemOct 18, 2005 at 10:12PM

I agree with some of the earlier posts. I would say that Greek legends (and even earlier) would be the first superheros. As for the comment about Superhero's being believable. Current Superhero's mmight not be believed in by their writers, but young children stilll believe in Superhero's. The writers just stopped believing what they were talking about.
As for the reason for Superhero's; I think her's (or 'super' heros) were always needed. It's jsut earlier superhero's like cowboys are not seen as super now. However, they were much better than the average at gunslinging and all had colerfull names and personalities. I think we the dawn of the 30s and in even earlier in the post World War I era, people realized that a gun slinging cowboy could not save them. People demanded (or wanted) hero's with more powers. Hero's that would not be plowed down by machine guns and rifles. Hense superman was made. As street crime began to dominate people's fears, less super-human heros like Batman appeared.
That's my 2 cents.

M BeheOct 18, 2005 at 11:10PM

Actually God was the first superhero.

haydesignerOct 18, 2005 at 11:32PM

Since man invented god, I agree with M. Behe.

Dwight ShruteOct 19, 2005 at 1:42AM

A hero kills people... people who wish him harm.

A hero is part human and part supernatural.

A hero is borne out of a childhood trauma, or out of a disaster- that MUST be avenged.

Steve TurnerOct 19, 2005 at 3:56AM

I've seen only brief mentions of The Phantom here - I'd have thought he was one of the earliest superheroes in comics. Checking Wikipedia - - he's described as the first costumed superhero, debuting in February 1936. So that predates some of the more well-known examples that started up a few years later (though maybe not the likes of The Shadow, but it depends on whether you think of him as a "costumed superhero" or not).

The Phantom is a funny one really - he's a US creation, but seems to have become far more well known in other countries, Australia especially (my country). For generations, comic fans here who had no interest in obviously American superheroes have been big Phantom fans. Not sure how it happened.

I still like the idea of the ancient gods and heroes being superheroes though, but it does probably stretch the definition a little too far (it's like asking superhero fans now whether Buffy fits the definition!)

lightning cookieOct 19, 2005 at 5:20AM

Heros of ancient Greek, Roman and Nordic mythology

JoergOct 19, 2005 at 9:30AM

There are also two distinct types of superheros. Those that were born with their superpowers (like Superman), and those that received their powers through some freak accident (Hulk) - and are troubled by their powers - superheroes with a much darker psyche.

MartinOct 19, 2005 at 9:53AM

Tarzan was created before any of them, and as Will Eisner said, characters like Superman, Batman - and Tarzan - are generally created in response ot the times.

For example, Tarzan was created in response to the beasts in the jungle - which were considered man's enemy at the time - whilst Superman was created when man's enemy was man himself.

I think that is probably the definition of "superhero" - a fictional character created in response to the times.

Richard RodgerOct 19, 2005 at 10:52AM

Sounds like the category superhero is something George Lakoff would have a lot of fun with...

Darren James HarknessOct 19, 2005 at 11:04AM

A colleague of mine is studying the superhero genre for his PhD thesis -- he has an excellent discussion of superheros vs. myth here

Ara PehlivanianOct 19, 2005 at 11:04AM

A good place to start is the name. "Mandrake the Magician" is an alias and that already makes him more of a hero than say "Mandrake Kottke."

JemaleddinOct 19, 2005 at 11:12AM

Let's be clear about this: Gilgamesh, Jesus and Tarzan cannot be considered superheroes because they lack the one key ingredient to the superhero formula that you're all forgetting: tights.

A superhero in a tunic or a loincloth is just some yahoo.

Seriously though, I feel like I have to point out that a superhero doesn't require a person to have super powers. It just means that they're more than a hero - which I've always interpreted in the sense of the greek hero: a person who goes on a quest, overcomes adversity and then dies. Superheroes don't die.

Leslie KaminoffOct 19, 2005 at 11:26AM

Mention needs to be made of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," which was published in 1905 by the Baroness Orczy, and was most likely Johnston McCulley's inspiration for Zorro, which originally appeared as a serialized story in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. See:Zorro: The Legend Through The Years

Orczy's novel, and the serialization of Zorro could be considered the percursors to comic books, and this certainly set the mold for all the subsequent secret identity superheroes fighting injustice who had girlfriends more in love with the alter ego, etc.

BarryOct 19, 2005 at 1:08PM

In modern fiction, I'd vote for Sherlock Holmes.

alexOct 19, 2005 at 1:26PM

i would say that that, in the comic book format, the first super-powered character would be popeye, who was capable of superhuman feats of strength by eathing spinach (1929). the same year also provided the comic book format with the first sort of vigilante-crime-fighter, the shadow. the full costumed crime fighter debuted in 1936 with the phantom. you can argue that the first time the medium of the comic book, the costume, and the super powers (not of magical origin - and i make that distinction because science, technology, mutation, etc. are devices that influence literature far more prominently post-industrial revolution, wheras magic and divinity were devices with long histories) were brought together was, indeed, the action comics superman debut issue.

Scott CraigOct 19, 2005 at 2:43PM

jkottke says:
I don't believe Gilgamesh et al qualify because although we think of them as myths or fiction now, the person or persons who first constructed these stories probably did not, nor did the early readers/listeners. As I understand it, they were writing/talking about real people, not fictional superheroes.

This may be an overstatement. It's very difficult to guess exactly how some of these ancient civilizations viewed their literature. Gilgamesh was the son of a goddess and had supernatural abilities -- just like Achilles, Heracles, etc.

These are not mere mortals but they are blessed with divine gifts. They were often agents of change bringing culture, social change or advancement to a civilization. Their stories were more than just historical lessons - there was an element of religion and cult worship. I would argue that they are part of the archetype of the superhero - even if they are foreign to our current definition.

Anyway - interesting topic.

MikeDriehorstOct 19, 2005 at 3:55PM

Okay, maybe this has been stated in the previous 51 posts, but I didn't take time to read them.

I'd say Batman is the only true superhero. The others -- Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, Flash (yes, I watch the Justice League with my oldest son) -- all have certain un-human powers. So, duh, of course they are super. They almost HAVE to be superheroes.

But, it's Batman that doesn't have any supernatural ability. He's had to scratch and claw for his super powers. He uses his brain -- likely the smartest superhero there is -- and work out to maintain his physical abilities.

-- Mike

Frank FrickOct 19, 2005 at 4:49PM

Someone was probably smoking spinach when they suggested that Popeye was the first superhero. As the "Men of Tomorrow" book makes clear, the precursors to Superman and Batman were Doc Savage and The Shadow, created in the Street and Smith pulp magazines of the early '30s. It is interesting to note that DC Comics currently plans to return its universe to its early roots and purge all magical powers from their characters, leaving Wonder Woman in limbo it would seem.

Tom ScolaOct 19, 2005 at 8:47PM

โ€œAs the "Men of Tomorrow" book makes clear, the precursors to Superman and Batman were Doc Savage and The Shadow, created in the Street and Smith pulp magazines of the early '30s.โ€

That may be true, but Popeye predates all of them. And why is Men of Tomorrow the definitive reference? There are lots of works that cite Popeye as the first.

ChaunceyOct 19, 2005 at 11:23PM

Is there an earlier "justice League" (that is "Super Group") before the Three Musketeers?

DanielOct 20, 2005 at 1:09AM

what about the ancient greek myths

maratzOct 20, 2005 at 8:21AM

Since the North American history is relatively short, in searching for the superhero, maybe you should take a look into European or Asian history. I'm pretty sure there were stories about the super-capable guys fighting for the justice long before the 1934. These stories were probably told by the word of mouth, more likely then written down or sketched.

In the Middle age, there were some extra-strong guys, who'd fight the whole armies... Guys like divine Greek commanders should be also considered.

Frank FrickOct 20, 2005 at 12:10PM

"And why is Men of Tomorrow the definitive reference? There are lots of works that cite Popeye as the first."

Here now, from the same work that cites Popeye as the first:
Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) should still be the first full-fledged superhero comic and thus start the Golden Age, but not because it introduced an entirely new set of conventions: it merely presented them all together.

Lionel StanderOct 20, 2005 at 2:48PM

While Mandrake the Magician used "Jedi mind tricks" to do his good deeds and Popeye was super strong, neither survived in the comic books like Superman, nor did they add the element of the secret identity to the mix.

Peter WinklerOct 20, 2005 at 9:04PM

Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator.

“First published in 1930, Gladiator is the tale of Hugo Danner, a man endowed from birth with extraordinary strength and speed. But Danner is no altruist. He spends his life trying to cope with his abilities, becoming a sports hero in college, later a sideshow act, a war hero, never truly finding peace with himself. The character of Danner inspired both Superman's creators, and Lester Dent's Doc Savage. But Wylie, an editor with the New Yorker, sought to develop more than a pulp hero. His Gladiator provides surprising insights into the difficulties suffered by the truly gifted when born in our midst.”

See also:

The New Adam
By Stanley G. Weinbaum
First published in 1939

memerOct 21, 2005 at 7:03PM

Beyond having some super ability of one kind or another, the "hero" part in superhero i think implies there's some grunting from effort along the line; some great risk involved.

By that viewpoint, that cuts out a lot of the Gods. Many of them could create whole universes and wot not on a whim. Sons and daughters of Gods and demigods could be considered superheros tho. Hercules might be a great example. Rugged dude who had to go thru some pretty tough hoops to claim his prize.

I think in any culture tho, the first superheros are the ones from folk stories. Paul Bunyan, anyone?

TomOct 22, 2005 at 4:26PM

The very first super hero that man could have related to had to be an animal simlar to that of Godzilla. Back in the day when we were still walking around on fours and threes, great beasts would rome the forests and we would look to them with our sticks and rocks in hand and think, Now there is a super hero with great powers. This is of course was prior to Gods and Cartoons.

bobOct 24, 2005 at 3:57PM

Anyone ever read "Monkey"? It is a translation of "Journey to The West", a 16th Century folk tale of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King accompanying the Monk XuanZang to India to retrieve the Ramayana. This translation presents the folk tale as the fantasy it was undoubtedly intended to be. Sun Wukong is presented as a superhero in this telling. It makes for a great read because this author bolied the translation down into a pulp tale.
Check it.

Speaking of pulp, Osamu Tezuka, the father of AstroBoy, has had his manga version of the tale of Buddha released in a really nice edition. It is as Joseph Cambell descibred Buddha in "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" with Prince Siddartha as a spiritual hero.
One More:

So I just wanted to posit that the superhero is an idea(l) that is passed down to us from the Eastern storytelling tradition. The Western style that we are most familiar with comes from the Greek Pantheon but the idea of the Super Heroin its most ancient form does probably belong to the Asiatics.
*not asian or selling books*

Aidan MaconachyOct 25, 2005 at 3:10PM

Jesus a shoo in?

Well no - he wouldn't be the first. In his day he wasn't regarded as much of a "hero" ... more of a victim.

Steph MineartOct 26, 2005 at 12:18AM

Bob mentioned the epic Ramayana, which is itself the story of a "superhero" -- the god Rama, who does some pretty nifty stunts, along with his brother Lakshama and monkey hero side-kick Hanuman (my personal favorite). I think he's probably right about Asia being the earliest origins of superheroism; Hinduism is one of the world's oldest religions and it's full of larger-than-life men/gods who right wrongs and fight for truth and justice.

NameOct 26, 2005 at 8:19PM

First, to the guy who said "Jesus" was a superhero. Jesus wasn't a superhero, he was a human being who actually lived on earth. Superheros are fictional. Second, to the guy who said Gilgamesh was a superhero. Gilgamesh isn't a superhero, he is an archtypal hero from mythology. A "superhero" is from a comic book, a "hero" is from mythology. You might say that comic books are just a modern form of mythology, but that is not true. Comic books are made for one reason; profit. They try to sell an entertaining story for money. Myths don't. Myths served an important purpose in ancient times, they weren't sold and they weren't just for entertainment value.

Marvin ThomasOct 27, 2005 at 12:08AM

you guys are so busy overanalyzing what constitutes a "superhero" that there is no way a concensus on this issue will ever be reached. And some of you are totally missing the point. At the risk of coming off as glib, if you want to know if a character (real or imaginary) is a superhero just ask any 12 year old. Never underestimate the kool-factor.

DavidOct 27, 2005 at 5:13AM

i have an assignment on superheroes and i have been looking them up on the net for a few hours and i would have to say that the Phantom and Popeye are the first comic book superheroes. o, and Jesus is another good one, but he hasnt got his own comic book

PJOct 27, 2005 at 4:33PM

Musashi, 18th century. Or at least the first Dirty Harry.

valerieNov 29, 2005 at 1:03PM

et du penetre cadre com padre et com tu premise et tu resno?

aleyaNov 29, 2005 at 1:06PM

Why has the supermodel changed so much? and how come the girl superheroes rank second best, and the poor helpless girl is always the on e to be saved? and if a girl is a superhero or has super powers, she is always the villain. in most casas anyway.

HarrisonDec 23, 2005 at 12:11AM

Lest we forget Popeye the Sailor?

Joe SingletonJan 11, 2006 at 10:49AM

I always think of Gilgamesh as the first superhero. He was 2/3 a god, giving him "super-powers", but leaving him some human weakness. He was honorable and fought for more than merely his own ego. He even had a sidekick, the wild man, Enkidu.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.