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A superhero is a fictional character who is noted for feats of courage and nobility and who usually has a colorful name and costume and abilities beyond those of normal human beings. Since the definitive superhero, Superman, debuted in 1938, the stories of superheroes - ranging from brief episodic adventures to continuing years-long sagas - have become an entire genre of fiction, one that has dominated American comic books and crossed over into other media.
By most definitions, characters need not have actual superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes, although sometimes terms such as costumed crimefighters are used to refer to those without such powers who have many other common traits of superheroes.
Since the 1938 debut of Superman, the character who inspired the term superhero and did much to define it, the stories of superheroes — ranging from episodic adventures to decades-long sagas — have dominated American comic books and crossed over into several other forms of media.
- Extraordinary powers and abilities, relevant skills, and/or advanced equipment. Although superhero powers vary widely, superhuman strength, the ability to fly and enhancements of the five senses are all common. Some superheroes, such as Batman, The Question and Captain America, possess no superpowers but have mastered skills such as martial arts and forensic sciences. Others have special equipment, such as Iron Man’s powered armor suits and Green Lantern’s power ring.
- 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 to kill.
- 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., Punisher), 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), 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 flamboyant and 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 looks bat-like, the "Batmobile" and uses several devices given a "bat" prefix).
- A trademark weapon, such as Wonder Woman’s "Lasso of Truth" or Captain America’s shield.
- 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, including an archenemy who is more troubling than the others. Often a nemesis is a superhero's opposite or foil (e.g., Sabretooth embraces his savage instincts while Wolverine tries to control his).
- 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).
- An "origin story" 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.
Most superheroes usually 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 of 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 made such obvious child endangerment seem implausible and 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, prose novels, 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, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, and Iron Man and DC owns Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Although, 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. Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/science fiction, it crosses into many genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Daredevil), 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 and Spider-Man's costume features a web pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing masks and skintight unitards originated with Lee Falk's comic strip crimefighter The Phantom. Many features of superhero costumes recur frequently, including the following:
- Superheroes who maintain a secret identity often wear a mask, ranging from the domino 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 symbol, such as a stylized letter or visual icon, usually on the chest. Perhaps the most recognizable are uppercase "S" of Superman and the bat emblem of Batman.
- Form-fitting clothing, often referred to as tights or spandex, although the exact material is usually not identified. 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. The comic book series Watchmen and the animated movie The Incredibles humorously commented on the sometimes-lethal impracticality of capes.In Marvel Comics The term "cape killer" has been used to describe anti-superhuman conventional forces.
- While most superhero costumes merely hide the hero’s identity and present a recognizable image, parts of some costumes 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 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.
Superheroes outside the United States
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 scarves either in addition to or as a substitute for capes and many wear helmets instead of masks. Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, 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. Japanese superhero franchises are also more closely connected to general Japanese science fiction/fantasy, containing more complex technological and mystical ideas than most American superhero stories. They also more often feature more lethal violence on the part of the hero. In addition, Japanese manga often targets female readers, unlike U.S. comics, and has created such varieties as "magical girl" which is aimed at a female audience. [see also Henshin]
In 1947, Filipino writer/cartoonist Mars Ravelo introduced the first 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 have revived Marvelman in series that display a jaundiced and cynical slant on heroism, 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, while others indulged in weirder attributes, such as the shape-changing alien Wampus. Many were short-lived, while others rivaled their inspirations in longevity and are now the subject of reprints and revivals.
In India, Raj Comics, founded in 1984, owns a number of superheroes, such as Nagraj, Doga and Super Commando Dhruva, that, while somewhat akin to Western superheroes, carry Hindu ideas of morality and incorporate Indian myths.
Types of superheroes
In superhero role-playing games, such as Hero Games' Champions, Green Ronin Publishing's Mutants and Masterminds or Cryptic Studios' online Massively Multiplayer game City Of Heroes, superheroes are informally organized into categories or archetypes based on their skills and abilities. Since comic book and role-playing fandom overlap, these labels have carried over into discussions of superheroes outside the context of games:
- Armored Hero: A gadgeteer whose powers are derived from a suit of powered armor, e.g. Iron Man, Steel.
- Blaster: A hero whose main power is a distance attack, usually an "energy blast" e.g., Cyclops, Starfire, Static.
- Brick/Tank: A character with a superhuman degree of strength and endurance and usually an oversized, muscular body, e.g., Robotman, Hercules, The Thing, The Hulk, Colossus, and Savage Dragon. Almost every superhero team has one member of this variety, a fact X-Factor's Guido Carosella noted when he took the codename "Strong Guy" at a reporter's suggestion that that was his role in the team.
- Dominus: A hero who controls a giant robot, a subtype common in Japanese superhero and science fiction media, e.g. Megas XLR, Big Guy, the Power Rangers. S.T.R.I.P.E. from the series Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. is a good example of an American comics Dominus.
- Elementalist: A hero who controls some natural element or part of the natural world, e.g., Storm (weather), Polaris(magnetism), the Human Torch (fire).
- Gadgeteer: A hero who invents special equipment that often imitates superpowers, e.g., Forge, Nite Owl.
- Mage: A hero who is trained in the use of magic e.g., Doctor Strange, Zatanna, most Magical Girls.
- Marksman: A hero who uses projectile weapons, typically guns, bows and arrows or throwing blades, e.g., Punisher, Rose Tattoo, Green Arrow, Hawkeye.
- Martial Artist: A hero whose physical abilities are mostly human rather than superhuman but whose hand-to-hand combat skills are phenomenal. Some of these characters are actually superhuman (Daredevil, Iron Fist), while others are human beings who are extremely skilled and athletic (Batman and related characters, Elektra and Shang Chi).
- Mentalist: A hero who possesses psionic abilities, such as telekinesis, telepathy and extra-sensory perception, e.g., Professor X, Jean Grey, Saturn Girl.
- Shapeshifter: A hero who can manipulate his/her own body to suit his/her needs, such as stretching (Mister Fantastic, Plastic Man) or disguise (Changeling, Mystique). Other such shapeshifters can transform into animals as a means of combat (Beast Boy). Characters like The Mask also share lots of these traits as well.
- Size changer: A shapeshifter who can alter his/her size, e.g., the Atom (shrinking only), Colossal Boy (growth only), Hank Pym (both).
- Slasher: A hero whose main power is some form of hand-to-hand cutting weapon, either devices, such as knives or swords (Zorro), or natural, such as claws (Wolverine).
- Speedster: A hero possessing superhuman speed and reflexes, e.g., The Flash, Quicksilver.
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 the mystic arts abilities of a mage. Very powerful characters, such as Superman, Captain Marvel, Dr. Manhattan and the Silver Surfer can be listed in many categories.
- See also: List of comic book superpowers
While the typical superhero is described above, a vast array of superhero characters have been created and many break the usual pattern:
- Wolverine has shown a willingness to kill and behave anti-socially. He belongs to an underclass of morally ambivalent anti-heroes who are coarser and more violent than classic superheroes, which often puts the two groups at odds. Others include Green Arrow, Black Canary, 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 and Daredevil, are often repentant about their actions, while others, such as The Punisher and Rorschach, are unapologetic.
- 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. 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.
- 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 is a rare example of a "public" superhero who regained his secret identity.
- 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, 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 is a standard title for the thousands of members of the intergalactic Green Lantern Corps and several individuals have been the Green Lantern of Earth. The Phantom and the Black Panther both adopted personas and missions that have lasted several generations.
- Thor and Hercules are mythological gods reinterpreted as superheroes. Wonder Woman, while not a goddess in her current incarnation, is a member of the Amazon tribe of Greek mythology.
- Spawn, The Demon and Ghost Rider 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 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 and Venom. This change often coincides with a spin-off series in which the character must be a likable protagonist.
- Because the superhero is such an outlandish and recognizable character type, several comedic heroes have been introduced, including The Tick, The Flaming Carrot, The Great Lakes Avengers, Herbie Popnecker, The Powerpuff Girls and The Simpsons’ Radioactive 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.
Most dictionary definitions and common usages of the term are generic and not limited to the characters of any particular company or companies. However, the terms "Super Hero," and "Super Heroes," have been jointly trademarked by DC Comics and Marvel Comics (U.S. Trademark Serial Nos. 72243225 and 73222079).
According to former Mego Toys CEO Marty Abrams, the company owned toy licenses for both Marvel and DC characters in the early 1970s and released dolls in a series called "World's Greatest Superheroes", in packaging that stated "Superhero is a trademark of Mego". Both Marvel and DC objected, as they had used the term for decades. Mego sold its alleged trademark to both companies for one dollar apiece.
Marvel and DC have maintained the trademark since. Others have sometimes used "super-hero," with a hyphen, as a spelling covering all such heroes. In March 2006, DC and Marvel attempted to register "super-hero" as well.
Warren Ellis has suggested that the term "underwear perverts" may be applied to superheros; Cory Doctorow and other bloggers at boingboing frequently use the term as a way to point out what they see as Marvel and D.C.'s unreasonable trademark. 
History of superheroes in comic books
The origins of superheroes can be found in several prior forms of fiction, dating to at least the superhuman exploits of the warrior-king Gilgamesh in the Babylonian epic poem "Epic of Gilgamesh". Many share traits with with more historically recent protagonists of Victorian literature, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sherlock Holmes. Penny dreadfuls, dime novels and other popular fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries featured mysterious, swashbuckling heroes with distinct costumes, secret identities and altruistic missions. These include Zorro, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and Spring Heeled Jack, who first emerged as an urban legend. Likewise, John Carter of Mars and Tarzan were heroes with unusual abilities who fought larger-than-life foes.
Pulp magazine crime fighters, such as Doc Savage, The Shadow and The Spider, and comic strip characters, such as Hugo Hercules, Popeye and The Phantom were later, more direct influences. Many historians consider the first appearance of Superman the point at which superhero literature began.
In 1938, writer Jerry Siegel and illustrator Joe Shuster, who had previously worked in pulp science fiction magazines, introduced Superman. The character possessed many of the traits that have come to define the superhero: a secret identity, superhuman powers and a colorful costume including a symbol and cape. His name is also the source of the term "superhero," although early comic book heroes were sometimes also called "mystery men" or "masked heroes".
DC Comics, which published under the names National and All-American at the time, received an overwhelming response to Superman and, in the years that followed, introduced Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawkman, Aquaman and Green Arrow. The first team of superheroes was DC's Justice Society of America, featuring most of the aforementioned characters. Although DC dominated the superhero market at this time, companies large and small created hundreds of superheroes. The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner from Marvel Comics (then called Timely Comics) and Plastic Man and Phantom Lady from Quality Comics were also hits. Will Eisner's The Spirit, featured in a comic strip, would become a considerable artistic inspiration to later comic book creators. The era's most popular superhero, however, was Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, whose exploits regularly outsold those of Superman during the 1940s. During World War II, superheroes grew in popularity, surviving paper rationing and the loss of many writers and illustrators to service in the armed forces. The need for simple tales of good triumphing over evil may explain the wartime popularity of superheroes. Publishers responded with stories in which superheroes battled the Axis Powers and the patriotically themed superheroes, most notably Marvel's Captain America.
After the war, superheroes lost popularity. This led to the rise of genre fiction, particularly horror and 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.
In the 1950s, DC Comics, under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, recreated many popular 1940s heroes, launching an era later deemed the Silver Age of comic books. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and several others were recreated with new origin stories. While past superheroes resembled mythological heroes in their origins and abilities, these heroes were inspired by contemporary science fiction. In 1960, DC banded its most popular heroes together in the Justice League of America, which became a sales phenomenon.
Empowered by the return of the superhero at DC, Marvel Comics editor/writer Stan Lee and the artists/co-writers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Bill Everett launched a new line of superhero comic books, beginning with The Fantastic Four in 1961 and continuing with the Incredible Hulk Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, and Daredevil. These comics continued DC’s use of science fiction concepts (radiation was a common source of superpowers) but placed greater emphasis on personal conflict and character development. This led to many superheroes that differed from predecessors with more dramatic potential. For example, the Fantastic Four were a superhero family of sorts, who squabbled and even held some unresolved acrimony towards one another and Spider-Man was a teenager who struggled to earn money and maintain his social life in addition to his costumed exploits.
While the superhero form underwent a revival, the rise of television as the top medium for light entertainment and the effects of Comics Code Authority obliterated genres such as westerns, romance, horror, war and crime . In the coming decades, non-superhero comics series would occasionally rise to popularity but superheroes and comic books would be forever intertwined in the eyes of the American public.
Deconstruction of the superhero
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 populist and Green Lantern as good-natured but short-sighted authority figure. This is the first instance in which superheroes were classified into two distinct groups, the "classic" superhero and the more brazen anti-hero. In the 1970s, DC returned Batman to his roots as a dubious vigilante and Marvel introduced several popular 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. 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. The superheroes of Watchmen were emotionally unsatisfied, psychologically withdrawn, sexually confused, and even sociopathic.
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 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
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.
Almost since the inception of the superhero in comic books, the concept has come under fire from critics. Most famously, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) alleged that sexual subtext existed in superhero comics, and included the infamous accusations that Batman and Robin were gay and Wonder Woman encouraged female dominance fetishes and lesbianism.
Writer Ariel Dorfman has criticized alleged class biases in many superhero narratives in several of his books, including The 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.
- See also: List of superheroines
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 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; 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).
The first widely recognizable female superhero is Wonder Woman, from All-American Publications, one of three companies that would merge to form DC Comics. Co-created by psychologist William Moulton Marston and his wife Elizabeth, she 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.
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 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 person 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 (an African-American), Atom (an Asian) and Blue Beetle (a Latino). Alternatively, Marvel Comics revealed in an acclaimed 2003 limited series that the "Supersoldier serum" that empowered Captain America was first tested on an African American.
- See also: List of black superheroes
The religious attitudes of superheroes are rarely discussed. Generally characters' religious backgrounds are common to their regional origins, e.g. the Midwestern Superman is a Methodist, the English Captain Britain is an Anglican and the Kenyan Storm practices a vaguely defined African religion—although, like a majority of superheroes, they are rarely seen practicing.
A few superheroes, however, proudly show themselves as members of minority faiths in their nations of origin. The X-Men’s Shadowcat was one of the first recognizably Jewish superheroes, followed by the Justice League’s Atom Smasher. The Legion of Superheroes' Colossal Boy wears a Star of David and his mother was prime minister of Israel. The Fantastic Four's Thing was raised Jewish as well. Daredevil, Nightcrawler and Hellboy are all practicing Catholics, contrasting the demonic attributes or appearances of each. The first Captain Canuck was a Mormon and Wolverine practices Buddhist meditation.
- See also: LGBT comic book characters
In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of Alpha Flight, was homosexual, after years of implication. This ended a long-standing editorial mandate that there would be no gay 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 superheroes have since emerged, such as 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, a new incarnation of Batwoman was introduced as a "lipstick lesbian" to some media attention.
In other media
Superhero films began as Saturday movie serials aimed at children during the 1940s. The decline of these serials meant the death of superhero films until the release of 1978‘s Superman which was a tremendous success. Several sequels followed in the 1980s. A popular Batman series lasted from 1989 until 1997. These 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 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.
In the 1990s, the syndicated children's program Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, adapted from the Japanese Super Sentai, became exceptionally 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, superhero TV series are rather common. See Tokusatsu.
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 of America. Along with The Green Hornet and The Shadow, the series helped popularize superheroes during their earliest years. By the early 1950s, the rise of television ended radio serials, including superhero shows.
Popular superheroes have occasionally been adapted into prose fiction, starting with the 1942 novel Superman by George Lowther. Elliot S! Maggin also wrote two popular Superman novels, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday, in the 1970s.
The Phantom also has an extensive history in prose format, starting with 1943's Son of the Phantom. In 1972, Avon Books started a 15-installment series of Phantom novels, written by people like creator Lee Falk and Ron Goulart. Moonstone Books recently announced it would release two collections of Phantom short stories.
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. DC Comics' Superman is commonly thought to be based partially on the novel. 
Robert Mayer's 1977 Superfolks tells of a retired hero who has married and moved to the suburbs being drawn back into action. It was a precursor of efforts to 'deconstruct' superheroes, and was a direct influence on writers Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek; its most recent edition carries an introduction by Grant Morrison.
The Wild Cards books, created and edited by George R. R. Martin launched in 1987, were a non-comic book-based science fiction series that dealt with super-powered 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.
Superheroes have also appeared in many novels, including adaptations of such story lines as The Death of Superman and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. The most famous novel to deal with superheroes is the Pulitizer Prize winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It focuses in on the early history of the comic book industry and the creation of superheroes The Escapist and Luna Moth by two New York Jewish boys, Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay.
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, both 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. The Internet has also helped in distributing superhero fan fiction to a large audience.
The World Wide Web has also given writers and artists the ability to display webcomics and webanimation of their superhero creations. Original works of superhero prose, comics, or animation can be posted cheaply on the Internet, giving creators a new canvas in which to tell superhero stories. With the freedom of community-based sites such as YouTube and Google Video, it has been possible to create new superheros with modest followings and cult status, with some popular characters being viewed thousands of times a week.
- Per Lawrence Journal-World (March 17, 2006): "'V for Vendetta' is S for Subversive", by Jon Niccum, "The Dark Knight: Batman — A NonSuper Superhero", Gamespot: PS2 Games: Batman Begins, Spotlight Comics Annual #2 (May 2002); "The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Characters: Rev. Dr. Christopher Syn, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (one of the world's first masked crime-fighters)" (no date), and other sources.
- Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (Taylor Publishing: Dallas, Texas, 1989), pp. 178-181, reprinted at website Religious Affiliation of Comics Book Characters: "The Significant Seven: History's Most Influential Super-heroes" [sic]
- British Superheroes: The Forites
- Dictionary.com: Superhero
- Amazing Heroes (issue # unknown; 1987): "Fredric Wertham: Anti-Comics Crusader Who Turned Advocate", by Dwight Decker. Revised version reprinted at website The Art Bin: Articles and Essays
- Don Markstein's Toonopedia: Fantomah
- Don Markstein's Tonnopedia: The Woman in Red and Grand Comics Database: Thrilling Comics #2
- Don Markstein's Toonopedia: Miss Fury
- Markstein's Toonopedia: Black Cat and Grand Comics Database: Pocket Comics #1
- Comic Zone (May 1, 1996): "An Interview with Chris Claremont"
- Gadfly (no date): "No Girls Allowed", by Casey Franklin
- Sequart.com (March 15, 2001): "The State of American Comics Address", by Julian Darius
- Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Red Wolf
- Gay League - North Star
- The Comics Journal: Online Features
- BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Batwoman hero returns as lesbian
- TIME.com: Caped Crusaders -- Jun. 12, 2006 -- Page 1