A superhero (sometimes rendered super-hero or super hero) is a type of fictional stock character possessing extraordinary talents, supernatural phenomena, or superhuman powers and dedicated to protecting the public. A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine (also rendered super-heroine or super heroine).
While the word "superhero" itself dates to at least 1917, the term "Super Heroes" is a typography-independent 'descriptive' USA trademark which is co-owned by DC Comics and Marvel Characters, Inc.
By most definitions, characters do not strictly require actual supernatural or superhuman powers or phenomena to be deemed superheroes, although terms such as costumed crime fighters or masked vigilantes are sometimes used to refer to those such as Batman and Green Arrow without such powers who share other superhero traits. Such characters were generally referred to as "mystery men" in the Golden Age of Comic Books to distinguish them from characters with super-powers.
Some superheroes use their powers to counter day-to-day crime while also combating threats against humanity by supervillains, their criminal counterparts. Often, one of these supervillains will be the superhero's archenemy. As well, some long-running superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man, have a rogues gallery of enemies. As well, superheroes sometimes will combat such threats as aliens, magical entities, American war enemies such as nazism or communism, and godlike or demonic creatures.
- 1 History
- 2 Common traits
- 3 Types of superheroes
- 4 Trademark status
- 5 Growth in diversity
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
The word "superhero" dates to at least 1917. The 1903 play The Scarlet Pimpernel and its spinoffs popularized the idea of a masked avenger; shortly afterward, masked and costumed pulp-fiction characters such as Zorro (1919) and comic-strip heroes such as the Phantom (1936) began appearing. As well came non-costumed characters with super strength, including Patoruzu (1928), the comic-strip character Popeye (1929) and novelist Philip Wylie's protagonist Hugo Danner (1930). Both tracks came together in the superpowered, costumed hero Superman (1938).
Superheroes most often appear in comic books, and superhero stories are the dominant form of American comic books. After success in the printed community, superheroes have also been featured in radio serials, novel, TV series, movies, and other media. Most of the superheroes who appear in other media are adapted from comics, but there are exceptions and changes are common.
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 the vast majority of the world’s most famous and influential superheroes. Of the "Significant Seven" chosen by The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (1989), Marvel owns Spider-Man and Captain America and DC owns Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Shazam (formerly known as Captain Marvel), and Plastic Man. Like many non-Marvel characters popular during the 1940s, the latter two were acquired by DC from defunct publishers. However, there have been significant heroes owned by others, especially since the 1990s when Image Comics and other companies that allowed creators to maintain trademark and editorial control over their characters.
Many superhero characters display the following traits:
- Extraordinary powers or abilities, exceptional skills and/or advanced equipment. Superhero powers vary widely; superhuman strength, the ability to fly, enhanced senses, and the projection of energy bolts are all common. Some superheroes, such as Batman, Green Arrow, Hawkeye and the Question possess no superhuman powers but have mastered skills such as martial arts and forensic sciences to a highly remarkable degree. Others have special weapons or technology, such as Iron Man's powered armor suits, Thor's weather manipulating hammer, and Green Lantern’s power ring. Many characters supplement their natural powers with a special weapon or device (e.g., Wonder Woman's lasso and bracelets, Spider-Man's webbing, and Wolverine's adamantium claws).
- A strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one's own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward. Such a code often includes a refusal or strong reluctance to kill or wield lethal weapons.
- A motivation, such as a sense of responsibility (e.g. Spider-Man), a formal calling (e.g., Wonder Woman), a personal vendetta against criminals (e.g. Batman), or a strong belief in justice and humanitarian service (e.g. Superman).
- A secret identity that protects the superhero's friends and family from becoming targets of his or her enemies, such as Clark Kent (Superman), or to protect themselves from getting arrested by the police, like Spider-Man, 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. However, some superheroes, such as those of the team the Fantastic Four, eschew secret identities and are publicly known or even celebrities. There are also rare ones whose true identities are common public knowledge, even with a costumed identity (e.g. Iron Man and Captain America).
- A distinctive costume, often used to conceal the secret identity (see Common costume features).
- An underlying motif or theme that affects the hero's name, costume, personal effects, and other aspects of his or her character (e.g., Batman wears a bat-themed costume, uses bat-themed gadgetry and equipment and operates at night; Spider-Man can shoot webs from his hands, has a spider web pattern on his costume, and other spider-like abilities).
- 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 rogues gallery consisting of enemies that he/she fights repeatedly. In some cases superheroes begin by fighting run-of-the-mill criminals before supervillains surface in their respective story lines. In many cases the hero is in part responsible for the appearance of these supervillains (the Scorpion was created as the perfect enemy to defeat Spider-Man; and characters in Batman's comics often accuse him of creating the villains he fights). Often superheroes have an archenemy who is especially threatening. Often a nemesis is a superhero's doppelganger or foil (e.g., Sabretooth embraces his savage instincts while Wolverine tries to control his; Batman is dark, taciturn, and grim, while the Joker is colorful, loquacious, and flamboyant).
- Independent wealth (e.g., Batman or the X-Men's benefactor Professor X) or an occupation that allows for minimal supervision (e.g., Superman's civilian job as a reporter).
- A headquarters or base of operations, usually kept hidden from the general public (e.g., Superman's Fortress of Solitude or Batman's Batcave).
- A backstory that explains the circumstances by which the character acquired his or her abilities as well as his or her motivation for becoming a superhero. Many origin stories involve tragic elements and/or freak accidents that result in the development of the hero's abilities.
Many superheroes work independently. However, there are also many superhero teams. Some, such as the Fantastic Four, DNAgents, and the X-Men, have common origins and usually operate as a group. Others, such as DC Comics’s Justice League, Marvel’s Avengers, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, are "all-star" groups consisting of heroes with separate origins who also operate individually, yet will team up to confront larger threats. The shared setting or "universes" of Marvel, DC and other publishers also allow for regular superhero team-ups. Some superheroes, especially those introduced in the 1940s, work with a young sidekick (e.g., Batman and Robin, Captain America and Bucky). This has become less common since more sophisticated writing and older audiences have lessened the need for characters who specifically appeal to child readers. Sidekicks are seen as a separate classification of superheroes.
Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/adventure, it crosses into many genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Punisher), others horror fiction (Spawn, Spectre) and others more standard science fiction (Green Lantern, X-Men). Many of the earliest superheroes, such as The Sandman and The Clock, were rooted in the pulp fiction of their predecessors.
Within their own fictional universes, public perception of superheroes varies greatly. Some, like Superman and the Fantastic Four, are adored and seen as important civic leaders; or even celebrities, Iron Man being an example of this. Others, like Batman and Spider-Man, are met with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and the characters of Watchmen, defend a populace that almost unanimously misunderstands and despises them.
Common costume features
A superhero's costume helps make him or her recognizable to the general public. Costumes are often colorful to enhance the character's visual appeal and frequently incorporate the superhero's name and theme. For example, Daredevil resembles a red devil, Captain America's costume echoes the American flag, Batman's costume resembles a large bat, and Spider-Man's costume features a spiderweb pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing masks (frequently without visible pupils) and skintight unitards originated with Lee Falk's comic strip hero 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 of Robin and Ms. Marvel to the full-face masks of Spider-Man and Black Panther. Most common are masks covering the upper face, leaving the mouth and jaw exposed. This allows for both a believable disguise and recognizable facial expressions. A notable exception is Superman, who wears nothing on his face while fighting crime, but uses large glasses in his civilian life as Clark Kent. Some characters wear helmets, such as Doctor Fate or Magneto.
- A symbol, such as a stylized letter or visual icon, usually on the chest. Examples include the uppercase "S" of Superman, the bat emblem of Batman, and the spider emblem of Spider-Man. Often, they also wear a common symbol referring to their group or league, such as the "4" on the Fantastic Four's suits, or the "X" on the X-Men's costumes.
- Form-fitting clothing, often referred to as tights or Spandex, although the exact material is usually unidentified. Such material displays a character’s athletic build and heroic sex appeal and allows a simple design for illustrators to reproduce.
- While a great many superhero costumes do not feature capes, the garment is still closely associated with them, likely because two of the most widely recognized superheroes, 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 miniseries Watchmen and the animated movie The Incredibles humorously commented on the potentially lethal impracticality of capes. In Marvel Comics, the term "cape-killer" has been used to describe Superhuman Restraint Unit, even though few notable Marvel heroes wear capes.
- While most superhero costumes merely hide the hero’s identity and present a recognizable image, parts of the costume (or the costume itself) have functional uses. Batman's utility belt and Spawn's "necroplasmic armor" have both been of great assistance to the heroes. Iron Man's armor, in particular, protects him and provides technological advantages.
- When thematically appropriate, some superheroes dress like people from various professions or subcultures. Zatanna, who possesses wizard-like powers, dresses like a stage magician, and Ghost Rider, who rides a superpowered motorcycle, dresses in the leather garb of a biker.
- Several heroes of the 1990s, including Cable and many Image Comics characters, rejected the traditional superhero outfit for costumes that appeared more practical and militaristic. Shoulder pads, kevlar-like vests, metal-plated armor, knee and elbow pads, heavy-duty belts, and ammunition pouches were common features. Other characters, such as The Question, opt for a "civilian" costume (mostly a trench coat). A few, such as the Runaways, do not wear any distinctive outfits at all.
Many superheroes (and supervillains) have headquarters or base of operations (for example, Batman's batcave). These bases are often equipped with state-of-the-art, highly advanced, and/or alien technologies. They are typically set in disguised and/or in secret locations to avoid being detected by enemies or the general public. Some bases, such as the Baxter Building, are common public knowledge (even though their precise location may remain secret). Many heroes and villains who do not have a permanent headquarters are said to have a mobile base of operations.
To the heroes and villains who have secret bases, these bases can serve a variety of functions, including (but not limited to) the following:
- a control room where specialized monitors and other advanced technology help superheroes in staying on guard.
- a command center where they are allowed the ability to send out commands through monitoring equipment.
- a operations room that store their technological and alien devices.
- a crime lab/laboratory, for experiments and scientific study.
- a safehouse, where the heroes can conceal themselves from their enemies.
- a research library, covering a variety of topics from science, to history, to criminal profiling.
- an armory, for weapons design, construction and storage.
- a garage/hangar/dock.
- a information centre/communications center.
- a weapons platform, for defense of the facility (these are more common to supervillains).
- a trophy room, where mementos of significant battles and adventures are displayed.
- a common area, for social activity (typically for larger teams, such as the Justice League or the Avengers).
Types of superheroes
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In superhero role-playing games, such as Hero Games' Champions, Green Ronin Publishing's Mutants and Masterminds, Cryptic Studios' MMORPG City of Heroes and Champions Online, superheroes are formally organized into categories or archetypes based on their skills and abilities. Since comic book and role-playing fandom often overlap, these labels have carried over into discussions of superheroes outside the context of games:
- Acrobat: A hero whose skills rely on their incredible aerobic and gymnastic abilities, whether they're naturally honed (like Daredevil or Dick Grayson), or superhuman (like Spider-Man, Krrish or Black Widow).
- Aerial: A hero whose primary power is flight (not to be confused with the strong and durable Paragons). These types fly either through physical means (wings like Angel, Falcon or Hawkman) or through special means (levitation or energy propulsion like Nova, Banshee or Cannonball). Heroes who are extraordinary aviators (like the Thunderbirds) may also count as Aerials.
- Armored Hero: A gadgeteer whose powers are derived from a suit of powered armor; e.g., Iron Man, Alcan foil-wrapped pork stock warrior and Steel.
- Aquatic: A hero whose abilities either come from living underwater (like Aquaman, Namor and Aspen Matthews from Fathom) or from being trained to adapt to underwater conditions (like the Sea Devils).
- Blaster: A hero whose main power is a distance attack, usually an "energy blast"; e.g., Cyclops, Starfire and Static.
- Brick/Tank: A character with a superhuman degree of strength and endurance and, for males, usually an oversized muscular body; e.g., The Hulk, She-Hulk, The Thing, Colossus, The Tick, and Lobo. Almost every superhero team has one member of this variety, a point X-Factor's Guido Carosella noted when he took the codename "Strong Guy" at a reporter's suggestion that this was his role in the team.
- Elementalist: A hero who controls some natural element or part of the natural world; e.g., Storm (weather), Magneto (magnetism), Swamp Thing (vegetation), the Human Torch (fire), Iceman (ice), Crystal (manipulation of classical elements) and Static (electricity).
- Energizer: A hero who emits great amount of energy in combat (ki, chakra, karma, etc.), either by supernatural powers (like Cole McGrath, Iron Fist, Gambit or Aang) or for combat.
- Feral: A hero whose abilities come from a more bestial nature. This bestial nature could manefest itself either partially (like Wolverine), fully (like Beast), or through therianthropic dual natures (such as the supernatural werewolf Jack Russell, or the mutant werewolf Wolfsbane).
- Gadgeteer: A hero who uses special equipment or weapons that often imitates superpowers but have no super powers themselves; e.g. Batman, Iron Man, Forge and Nite Owl.
- Ghost: A hero with 'ghost' type powers: either invisibility (such as Invisible Woman); or intangibility (such as Kitty Pryde); or both (such as Martian Manhunter, The Vision, Deadman, Ghost and Danny Phantom).
- Government Agent: A hero (or sometimes antihero) who is recognized by his or her occupation as a government soldier, or special service agent of any agency in the planet such as Nick Fury, Black Widow, Men in Black, Maria Hill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Phil Coulson - see also Registration Acts. This category can also include heroes who used to be an agent; e.g., The Punisher.
- Healer: A hero who is able to quickly recover from serious injury; e.g., The Crow, Wolverine, the Hulk, and Deadpool. This may also be a hero whose primary ability is to heal others; e.g., Elixir.
- Mage: A hero who is trained in the use of magic; e.g., Doctor Fate, Doctor Strange, Magik, Zatanna, John Constantine.
- Marksman: A hero who uses projectile weapons, typically guns, bows and arrows or throwing objects; e.g., Green Arrow, Cable, Gambit, Hawkeye and The Punisher.
- Martial Artist: A hero whose physical abilities are sometimes related to some sort of martial art e.g. judo, taekwondo etc. rather than superpowers but whose hand-to-hand combat skills are phenomenal. Some of these characters are actually superhuman or is empowered by an external source (Iron Fist and Captain America), while others who don't always have superpowers but are extremely skilled and athletic (Batman and related characters, Black Canary, Shang Chi, Raffles the Gentleman Thug, Wildcat and multiple members of the Watchmen).
- Mecha/Robot Pilot: A hero who controls a giant robot, a subtype common in Japanese superhero and science fiction media; e.g., Megas XLR, Power Rangers Big Guy, Mazinger Z and Gilbert Ratchet.
- Mentalist: A hero who possesses psionic abilities, such as telekinesis, telepathy and extra-sensory perception; e.g., Professor X, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Psylocke, and Raven.
- Molecular: A hero with the power to manipulate molecules, thus being able to alter the laws of physics (such as Doctor Manhattan, Firestorm and Captain Atom).
- Paragon: A hero who possesses the basic powers of super-strength, flight and invulnerability. They are considered to be one of the most powerful of the superhero types: consisting of such heroes as the extraterrestrials Superman and Martian Manhunter, the magically fuelled Shazam; the cosmically empowered Green Lantern; or even mythological gods such as Thor and Ares.
- Possessed: A hero who harbors an entity inside of him/herself; e.g., Etrigan the Demon, Ghost Rider, Spectre.
- Rider: A hero who rides either a powerful vehicle, like Ghost Rider or the Silver Surfer; or rides a unique creature, like Shining Knight.
- Robotic: A hero whose own nature and skills are derived from technology. This category includes remote controlled robots (Bozo the Iron Man, XJ-9, Box), cyborgs (Vic Stone, RoboCop, Deathlok) and androids (The original Human Torch, Red Tornado, The Vision).
- Shapeshifter: A hero who can manipulate his/her own body to suit his/her needs, such as stretching (Plastic Man, Mister Fantastic, Elongated Man), or disguise (Changeling/Morph, Mystique). Other such shapeshifters can transform into animals (Beast Boy), alien creatures (Ben 10) or inorganic materials (Metamorpho).
- Size Changer: A hero who can alter his/her size; e.g., the Atom (shrinking only), Colossal Boy, Apache Chief (growth only), Hank Pym, The Ultramen, The Wasp (both).
- Slasher: A hero whose main power is some form of hand-to-hand cutting weapon—either devices, such as knives or swords, Elektra, Blade, Katana, John Steed, or natural, such as claws (Wolverine). Even those able to form psionic blades such as Psylocke can be placed in this category.
- Speedster: A hero possessing superhuman speed and reflexes; e.g., The Flash, Quicksilver, Velocity (comics) and Dash Parr
- Super Genius/Mastermind/Detective: A hero possessing superhuman/superior intelligence or intellect; e.g., Batman, Iron Man, Professor X, The Question, L, Brainiac 5, Mister Fantastic, John Constantine.
- Teleporter: A hero who is able to teleport from point A to point B to point C, etc; e.g., some teleport due to their own body chemistry, Nightcrawler, others teleport via telekinetic energy (Blink and Mysterio II, others for unknown reasons (Jumper)and Vanisher.
- Time Manipulater: A hero possessing either a natural, magical, or science-based control of time. This could be either time travel like The Doctor or Waverider, the ability to make time stop like Tempo or both, like Hiro Nakamura (who can also teleport), or The Brown Bottle.
- Yeller: A blaster who can emit powerful sonic blasts; e.g., Banshee and Black Canary
These categories often overlap. For instance, Batman is a skilled detective, martial artist and gadgeteer, and Hellboy has the strength and durability of a brick and some mystic abilities or powers, similar to a mage. Wolverine fits into both the slasher and healing categories, and Spider-Man fits into acrobat, gadgeteer and amazingly brick groups. Very powerful characters—such as Superman, Thor, Wonder Woman, Shazam, Dr. Manhattan, Namor and the Silver Surfer—can be listed in many categories. Flying, super-strong, invulnerable heroes such as Superman, Shazam and Namor are sometimes in a category all their own, known as "Paragons" or "Originals" (as they were some of the earliest heroes in comics). Another possibility is that Superman is a "Paragon/Blaster" (heat vision, artic-breath and super-scream), Shazam is a "Paragon/Mage" (the Power of Shazam), Thor is "Paragon/Elemental" (weather manipulation) and Silver Surfer is a "Paragon/Rider/Molecular" (by the Power Cosmic), or perhaps even the Martian Manhunter ("Paragon/Ghost/Blaster/Shapeshifter/Size Changer/Mentalist/Mastermind"). So, in esscence, the Fantastic Four consists of a Shapeshifter/Mastermind (Mister Fantastic), a Ghost/Mentalist (Invisible Woman), an Elementalist/Aerial (the Human Torch), and a Brick/Martial Artist (The Thing).
Nevertheless, variations on the term "Super Hero" are jointly claimed by DC Comics and Marvel Comics as trademarks in the United States. Registrations of "Super Hero" marks have been maintained by DC and Marvel since the 1960s. (U.S. Trademark Serial Nos. 72243225 and 73222079, among others).
Joint trademarks shared by competitors are rare in the United States. They are supported by a non-precedential 2003 Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decision upholding the "Swiss Army" knife trademark. Like the "Super Hero" marks, the "Swiss Army" mark was jointly registered by competitors. It was upheld on the basis that the registrants jointly "represent a single source" of the knives, due to their long-standing cooperation for quality control.
Critics in the legal community dispute whether the "Super Hero" marks meet the legal standard for trademark protection in the United States-distinctive designation of a single source of a product or service. Controversy exists over each element of that standard: whether "Super Hero" is distinctive rather than generic, whether "Super Hero" designates a source of products or services, and whether DC and Marvel jointly represent a single source. Some critics further characterize the marks as a misuse of trademark law to chill competition.
Growth in diversity
For the first two decades of their existence in comic books, superheroes largely conformed to the patriarch-model of lead characters in American popular fiction of the time, with the typical superhero being predominately Caucasian, American middle- or upper- class, athletic, tall, attractive, heterosexual, educated, young-adult male. A majority of superheroes still fit this description as of 2010, but beginning in the 1960s many characters have broken the mold.
The first known female superhero is writer-artist Fletcher Hanks's 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 antiheroine, the Black Widow—a costumed emissary of Satan who killed evildoers in order to send them to Hell—debuted in Mystic Comics #4 (Aug. 1940), from Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics.
Though non-superpowered, like the Phantom and Batman, the earliest female costumed crimefighters are The Woman in Red, introduced in Standard Comics' Thrilling Comics #2 (March 1940); Lady Luck, debuting in the Sunday-newspaper comic-book insert The Spirit Section June 2, 1940; the comedic character Red Tornado, debuting in All-American Comics #20 (Nov 1940); Miss Fury, debuting in the eponymous comic strip by female cartoonist Tarpé Mills on April 6, 1941; the Phantom Lady, introduced in Quality Comics Police Comics #1 (Aug. 1941); and the Black Cat, introduced in Harvey Comics' Pocket Comics #1 (also Aug. 1941). The superpowered Nelvana of the Northern Lights debuted in Canadian publisher Hillborough Studio's Triumph-Adventure Comics #1 (Aug. 1941), and the superhumanly strong Miss Victory was introduced in Holyoke (comics) the same month. The character was later adopted by A.C. Comics.
The first widely recognizable female superhero is Wonder Woman, from All-American Publications, one of two companies that would merge to form DC Comics. She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston with help and inspiration from his wife Elizabeth and their mutual lover Olive Byrne. Wonder Woman debuted in All Star Comics #8 (Jan. 1942).
Starting in the late 1950s, DC introduced Hawkgirl, Supergirl, Batwoman and later Batgirl, all female versions of prominent male superheroes. 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.
Superheroines often sport improbably large breasts and an illogical lack of muscle-mass, and their costumes sexualise their wearers almost as a matter of course. For example, Power Girl's includes a small window between her breasts; Emma Frost's costume traditionally resembles erotic lingerie; and Starfire's started as a full-body covering and has, over four decades, been reduced to a thong, pelvic covering, mask, and stiletto heels. This visual treatment of women in American comics has led to accusations of systemic sexism and objectification.
In the late 1960s, superheroes of other cultural, ethnic, national, and 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 superhero to star in an American comic book. (Asian-American FBI agent Jimmy Woo had starred in a short-lived 1950s series named after a "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 (and other African-Americans) often employed lingo similar to that of blaxploitation films, Native Americans were often associated with shamanism and wild animals, and Asian Americans were often portrayed as wuxia martial artists. Subsequent minority heroes, such as the X-Men's Storm (the first african-female superhero) and the Teen Titans' Cyborg avoided such conventions. 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 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 superhero groups.
In 1989, Marvel's Captain Marvel was the first female black superhero from a major publisher to get her own title in a special one-shot issue. In 1991, Marvel's Epic Comics released Captain Confederacy, the first female black superhero to have her own series.
IIn 1993, Milestone Comics, an African-American-owned media/publishing company entered into a publishing agreement with DC Comics that allowed them to introduce a line of comics that included characters of many ethnic minorities as well as whites. Milestone's initial run lasted four years, during which it introduced Static, a character adapted into the WB Network animated series Static Shock. A subsequent agreement with DC Comics allowed the Milestone characters to enter the main DC Universe but they have all since been erased and their current legal status remains unknown.
In addition to the creation of new minority heroes, publishers have filled the roles of once-Caucasian heroes with minorities. The African-American John Stewart debuted in 1971 as an alternate for Earth's Green Lantern Hal Jordan. In the 1980s, Stewart joined the Green Lantern Corps as a regular member. The creators of the 2000s-era Justice League animated series selected Stewart as the show's Green Lantern. Other such successor-heroes of color include DC's Firestorm (African-American), Atom (Asian), and Blue Beetle (Latino). Marvel Comics, in 2003 retroactive continuity, revealed that the "Supersoldier serum" that empowered Captain America was originally tested on African American, Isaiah Bradley, who is the grandfather of the Young Avengers' Patriot. In Ultimate, Miles Morales, a 13-year-old Black-Hispanic youth who was also bitten by a genetically-altered spider, takes up the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker dies. The MCU continuity features Gen. Nick Fury as executive director S.H.I.E.L.D..
In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of the Canadian mutant superhero team Alpha Flight, was homosexual, after years of implication. This ended a long-standing editorial mandate that there would be no LGBT characters in Marvel comics. Although some secondary characters in DC Comics' mature-audience miniseries Watchmen were gay, Northstar was the first openly gay superhero appearing in mainstream comic books. Other gay and bisexual superheroes have since emerged, such as Pied Piper, Gen¹³'s Rainmaker, and the gay couple Apollo and Midnighter of Wildstorm Comics' superhero team the Authority.
In the mid-2000s, some characters were revealed gay in two Marvel titles: Wiccan and Hulkling of the superhero group Young Avengers; and the X-Men's Colossus in the alternate universe Ultimate Marvel imprint. Xavin, from the Runaways is a shape-changing alien filling the part of a transgender lesbian. In 2006, DC revealed in its Manhunter title that longtime character Obsidian was gay. In the same year, the new incarnation of Batwoman was introduced as a "lipstick lesbian" to some media attention. The Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott, Obsidian's father, was reintroduced as gay in the 2011 The New 52 reboot.
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- Real-life superhero
- Science hero
- Superhero film
- List of actors who have played superheroes
- List of superhero debuts
- List of comic book superpowers
- Marvel Characters, Inc.; DC Comics; United States Patent and Trademark Office (16 November 2004). "Trademark Status & Document Retrieval". United States Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved 30 October 2013. "US Serial Number: 78356610 [...] Standard Character Claim: Yes. The mark consists of standard characters without claim to any particular font style, size, or color."
- Per Niccum, John. "'V for Vendetta' is S for Subversive", Lawrence Journal-World, March 17, 2006; Gesh, Lois H., and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Superheroes (John Wiley & Sons, 2002; ISBN 978-0-471-02460-6), Chapter 3: "The Dark Knight: Batman: A NonSuper Superhero"; Adherents.com, "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)" (undated, no byline); Lovece, Frank, The Dark Knight (movie review) Film Journal International, July 16, 2008 ("Batman himself is an anomaly as one of the few superheroes without superpowers…"), and other sources. While the Dictionary.com definition of "superhero" is "A figure, especially in a comic strip or cartoon, endowed with superhuman powers and usually portrayed as fighting evil or crime," the more longstanding Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the definition as "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also : an exceptionally skillful or successful person".
- Merriam-Webster Online: "Superhero"
- Lovece, Frank (November 11, 2013). "Superheroes Go the American Way on PBS". Newsday. Retrieved 2013-11-15.
- 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]]]
- The Superhero Book by Gina Misiroglu (2004)
- Dictionary.com: Superhero
- Ulaby, Neda. All Things Considered, "Comics Creators Search for 'Super Hero' Alternative". March 27, 2006
- Schwimmer, Martin. The Trademark Blog, "Do DC and Marvel Own Exclusive Rights in 'SUPER HERO'?" 2004.
- Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Arrow Trading Co., Inc. v. Victorinox A.G. and Wenger S.A.. 2003
- Coleman, Ron. Likelihood of Confusion, "SUPER HERO® my foot". 2006.
- Doctorow, Cory. Boing Boing, "Marvel Comics: stealing our language". 2006.
- Markstein, Don. "The Black Widow". Don Markstein's Toonopedia. Archived from the original on April 15, 2012. Retrieved 26 July 2013. "Fantomah was the first female character in comics to use extraordinary powers in combatting evil. The Woman in Red was the first to wear a flashy costume and maintain a dual identity while doing so. But The Black Widow was the first to do both."
- Fantomah at Don Markstein's Toonopedia
- Not Seen but not Forgotten: The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, Hogan's Alley #17, 2010
- 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
- Bostonia (Fall 2001): "Who Was Wonder Woman? Long-ago LAW alumna Elizabeth Marston was the muse who gave us a superheroine", by Marguerite Lamb
- The New York Times (February 18, 1992): "Our Towns: She's Behind the Match For That Man of Steel", by Andrew H. Malcolm
- 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
- Brown, Jeffrey A. (2001). Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics and their Fans. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-57806-281-0.
- Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Red Wolf
- Truth: Red, White & Black #1–7 (Jan.–July 2003) at Grand Comics Database.
- 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
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