Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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Fantasy characters with superhuman powers visually marked out from the rest of humanity by their fantastical apparel. First devised for exploitation in Comic books, they are, although since featured in Cinema and tv, still largely confined to that medium, their particular appeal for comics being their colourful and dramatically expressive costumes. Variations on the theme have proliferated to such an extent that the superhero has become virtually an Icon.

In the early 1930s, writer Jerome Siegel (1914-1996) and artist Joe Shuster (1914-1992) conceived Superman, the first superhero, loosely based on Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930), as a newspaper strip, but were unable to interest anyone; the character did not see publication until Action Comics #1 (1938). In this first 13-page story most of the defining characteristics of the superhero, which now look like clichés but were at the time highly original, were established. The story tells of an infant sent to Earth by rocketship from a doomed distant planet whose inhabitants have mental and physical abilities far superior to humans'. The child grows up to realize his superhuman powers and decides to dedicate them to the cause of justice. He keeps his unique abilities a secret from the world by leading a dual existence, using his powers only when wearing his distinctive costume. The feature caught the national imagination and Action Comics's publisher, National (see DC Comics), aggressively sued anyone attempting to publish any similar feature (see Captain Marvel).

The characteristics which have come to define the typical superhero were thus established at the outset: the possession of one or several superhuman abilities; the use of these abilities against injustice and criminality; a dramatic costume expressing the unique powers; a perceived need to hide these powers from the general public, necessitating the establishment of an "ordinary" persona to hide the secret identity, so that the superhero becomes, in effect, a Pariah Elite; consequent difficulties in personal relationships, especially romantic ones. In the comic books there is a reluctance to attribute the special abilities to Magic: almost always there is a cod-science rationale; thus superheroes are generally Technofantasy figures.

Soon characters with superhuman strength, amazing physical skills and the ability to fly appeared in a great number of comic books. Timely Comics (later called Marvel Comics) introduced two durable superheroes: The Sub-Mariner, whose initial hatred of humans was transformed into a patriotic hatred of Nazis during WWII and who later took to crimefighting, and The Human Torch, an android with the ability to set himself and others ablaze (both started in Marvel Comics #1, 1939). A long list of superheroes appeared in the succeeding months – The Shield, The Flash, The Spectre, Green Lantern, Captain America, Bulletman, Hourman, etc. – plus superheroines, beginning in 1941 with Wonder Woman. In general the stories were simplistic tales: the superhero pitted his or her abilities against the Villains, and won. This worked well during wartime, and superhero comics were enormously popular among members of the armed forces, but with the coming of peace readers turned more towards romance, Western, crime and horror comics. Superman and Batman were given a boost by the release of three cinema serials from Columbia Pictures: Superman (1948) and Superman vs The Atom Man (1950) (see Superman Movies), and Batman (1948) (see Batman Movies), but few other superheroes survived this period.

The backlash against the perceived damaging influence of crime and horror comics in the early 1950s eventually created a second wave of popularity for the superhero. DC, who had continued throughout to publish Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, began a revival with the creation of The Legion of Superheroes (see Superhero Teams) in Adventure Comics #247 (1958), the reader response to which encouraged them to revive many moribund superheroes. The Green Arrow, The Flash, Hawkman, Aquaman and The Justice League were resurrected and revamped. Superheroines, too, were given an overhaul, with Wonder Woman receiving a new origin story and makeover and Supergirl making her first appearance. Stan Lee at Marvel Comics enticed artist Jack Kirby away from DC, and together they began to create a line of superheroes which were to prove among the most popular comic-book characters of the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with The Fantastic Four (in Fantastic Four #1, 1961). Spiderman, Thor and others followed, all occasionally meeting up or finding themselves in conflict with one another in what became known as The Marvel Universe. The stories now featured monsters and costumed supervillains to give the plots more variety. The personalities of these super-individuals were developed and relationships between them were explored. But this process of humanizing the superheroes – of giving them personal problems – eventually backfired; sales again declined, and the early 1970s saw a doldrums. Attempts to maintain reader interest included many teamups and crossover stories, until DC and Marvel joined forces to produce a large-format comic book pitting their most popular superheroes against each other: Superman versus The Amazing Spiderman (1976). This was the first of several such cooperations. A further boost was given to many superheroes by the screening of tv shows and movies starring such long-established characters as The Hulk, Wonder Woman, Spiderman and Superman. Another means used to improve sales was to employ one of a number of particularly talented artists to breathe new life into failing characters: Neal Adams on Batman and Green Lantern, John Byrne on The X-Men, George Perez on The Teen Titans and Frank Miller on Daredevil.

The late 1970s saw the beginning of changes in the distribution and retailing of comic books which affected their content. Street newsstands were closing and the chainstores often did not stock comics. In the early 1980s, new outlets began to appear in the form of specialist shops stocking comic books published by an increasing number of small, more creator-oriented publishing companies. A market for more mature and thought-provoking comic books emerged. Talented new writers and artists were re-examining and experimenting with the superhero mythos. Responding to the trend, DC, published two seminal Graphic Novels: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (#1-#4 1986; graph coll 1987) by Frank Miller and Watchmen (#1-#12 1986-1987; graph coll 1987) by Alan Moore. Both these works placed superheroes in the real world and examined the resultant ramifications. Since the publication of these two books, ideas associated with the superhero have continued to develop in comic books, if not in other media.

The modern comic-book superhero is not the universally applauded figure he once was: he is now the springboard for a complex array of subtle and profound ideas and a fertile visual image for the expression of and comment upon all aspects of the human condition. [RT]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.