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MLJ Comics' 1940s superhero the Black Hood
Fox Feature Syndicate's 1930s-1940s superhero the Flame

In modern popular fiction, a superhero (sometimes rendered super-hero or super hero) is a type of heroic character possessing extraordinary talents, supernatural phenomena, or superhuman powers and is dedicated to a moral goal or protecting the public. A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine (also rendered super-heroine or super heroine). Fiction centered on such characters, especially in American comic books since the 1930s, is known as superhero fiction.

By most definitions, characters do not require actual supernatural or superhuman powers or phenomena to be deemed superheroes.[1][2][3] While the 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 longstanding Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the definition as "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also : an exceptionally skillful or successful person". Terms such as masked crime fighters, costumed adventurers or masked vigilantes are sometimes used to refer to characters such as the Spirit, who may not be explicitly referred to as superheroes but nevertheless share similar traits.

Some superheroes use their powers to counter day-to-day crime while also combating threats against humanity by supervillains, their criminal counterparts. Often, at least one of these supervillains will be the superhero's archenemy. Some long-running superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Wolverine, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man have a rogues gallery of recurring enemies. Superheroes sometimes will combat such threats as aliens, supernatural entities, and even ideological enemies such as Nazis.


The word "superhero" dates to at least 1917.[4] Antecedents of the archetype include such folkloric heroes as Robin Hood, who adventured in distinctive clothing.[5] The 1903 play The Scarlet Pimpernel and its spinoffs popularized the idea of a masked avenger and the superhero trope of a secret identity;[5] shortly afterward, masked and costumed pulp-fiction characters such as Zorro (1919) and comic strip heroes such as the Phantom (1936) began appearing, as did non-costumed characters with super strength, including Patoruzú (1928), the comic-strip character Popeye (1929) and novelist Philip Wylie's protagonist Hugo Danner (1930).[6] Both trends came together in some of the earliest superpowered, costumed heroes such as Ōgon Bat[7][8](visualized in painted panels used by kamishibai oral storytellers in Japan since 1931), Mandrake the Magician[9][10][11](1934), and Superman (1938).

Early superhero films were produced in the 1940s, during the Golden Age of Comic Books, but interest lagged during the Cold War era; the form resurfaced in the late 1970s, and after 2000 developed into a number of highly profitable franchises which turned into movies such as Avengers or Man of Steel.

Common traits[edit]

Many superhero characters display the following traits:

  • 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, 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 project artificial webbing from wrist-mounted web shooting gadgets, 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 Batman, Spider-Man and Superman 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; the Sentinels were designed to hunt mutants who often represent the protagonists of Marvel stories; and characters in Batman's comics often accuse him of inadvertently creating the villains he fights). Often superheroes have a recurring archenemy who is especially threatening, or a nemesis who is depicted as a doppelganger or foil (e.g. Wolverine is outmatched physically by Sabretooth, who embraces his savage instincts while the former attempts to suppress his; the psychopathic Reverse-Flash's costume and abilities are very similar to the Flash's; the Joker is flamboyant and colorful in contrast to the moody, grim Batman).
  • Independent wealth (e.g. Batman's family fortune, the X-Men's patron Professor X) or an occupation that allows for minimal supervision (e.g. Spider-Man's civilian job as a freelance photographer).
  • 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. Some are families in which the parents and kids have superpowers, like The Incredibles. Others, such as DC Comics’s Justice League and Marvel’s Avengers, 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 crossover 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. Some superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (e.g. Batman, Daredevil), horror fiction (e.g. Hellboy, The Spectre), paranoid fiction (e.g. Watchmen,[12] Marvelman/Miracleman), and conventional science fiction (e.g. Green Lantern, Guardians of the Galaxy). 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. Others, like The Hulk and the characters of Watchmen, are met with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and Doom Patrol, defend a populace that almost unanimously misunderstands and despises them.

Common costume features[edit]

MLJ Comics' 1940s superhero the Firefly

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 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 the Green Hornet 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, the "X" on the X-Men's costumes, or the ¨i¨ on The Incredibles 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 the fictional Superhuman Restraint Unit organization, 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. For example, the Venom symbiote suit and Spawn's "necroplasmic armor", with their supernatural abilities have both been of great assistance to the wearer. 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.
  • Some characters eschew the traditional superhero outfit for apparel considered to be more practical and utilitarian. Shoulder, knee and elbow pads, Kevlar-coated vests, metal-plated armor, heavy-duty belts, and ammunition pouches appears on 1990s-era antiheroes such as Cable, Deadpool, and many Image Comics characters. Other characters, such as the Runaways and the various protagonists of the Infamous video game series, do not wear any distinctive outfits at all.


Many superheroes (and supervillains) operate from a base or headquarters. 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 (for example, Superman's Fortress of Solitude or the Batcave). Some bases, such as the Baxter Building or the Hall of Justice, are common public knowledge (even if their precise location may remain secret). Many heroes and villains who do not have a permanent headquarters may have a mobile base of operations instead.

To the heroes and villains who have secret bases, these bases can serve a variety of functions, including (but not limited to) the following:

Trademark status[edit]

Most dictionary definitions[4][13] and common usages of the term are generic and not limited to the characters of any particular company or companies.

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,[14] including U.S. Trademark Serial Nos. 72243225 and 73222079. In 2009, the term "Super Heroes" was registered as a typography-independent "descriptive" US trademark co-owned by DC and Marvel.[15]

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.[16] Some critics further characterize the marks as a misuse of trademark law to chill competition.[17]

Female superheroes[edit]

Golden Age[edit]

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".[18][19] The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, a non-costumed character who fought crime and wartime saboteurs using the superpower of invisibility created by Russell Stamm, would debut in the eponymous syndicated newspaper comic strip a few months later on June 3, 1940.[20] One notable superpowered character was portrayed as an antiheroine, a rarity for its time: 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.

Most of the other female costumed crimefighters during this era lacked superpowers. Notable characters include The Woman in Red,[21] 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,[22] 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); the Black Cat,[23] introduced in Harvey Comics' Pocket Comics #1 (also Aug. 1941); and the Black Canary, introduced in Flash Comics #86 (Aug. 1947) as a supporting character.[24]

The most iconic comic book superheroine, who debuted during the Golden Age, is Wonder Woman.[25] Inspired by the Amazons of Greek mythology, she was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, with help and inspiration from his wife Elizabeth and their mutual lover Olive Byrne.[26][27] Wonder Woman's first appearance was in All Star Comics #8 (Jan. 1942), published by All-American Publications, one of two companies that would merge to form DC Comics in 1944.

Silver and Bronze Ages[edit]

From the onset of the Silver Age of Comics, DC introduced the likes of Batwoman, Supergirl, Miss Arrowette, and Bat-Girl; all female derivatives of established male superheroes. The Marvel Comics teams of the early 1960s typically included at least one (and often the only) female member, much like DC's flagship superhero team the Justice League of America (whose initial roster included Wonder Woman as the token female); examples include the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl, the X-Men's Jean Grey (originally known as Marvel Girl), the Avengers' Wasp, and the Brotherhood of Mutants' Scarlet Witch (who later joined the Avengers).

The ideas of second-wave feminism, which spread through the 1960s into the 1970s, greatly influenced the way comic book companies would depict as well as market their female characters: Wonder Woman was for a time revamped as a mod-dressing martial artist directly inspired by the Emma Peel character from the British television series The Avengers (no relation to the superhero team of the same name),[28] but later reverted to Marston's original concept after the editors of Ms. magazine publicly disapproved of the character being depowered and without her traditional costume;[29] Supergirl was moved from being a secondary feature on Action Comics to headline Adventure Comics in 1969; the Lady Liberators appeared in an issue of The Avengers as a group of mind-controlled superheroines led by Valkyrie (actually a disguised supervillainess) and were meant to be a caricatured parody of feminist activists;[30] and Jean Grey became the embodiment of a cosmic being known as the Phoenix Force with seemingly unlimited power in the late 1970s, a stark contrast from her depiction as the weakest member of her team a decade ago.

Both major publishers began introducing new superheroines with a more distinct feminist theme as part of their origin stories and/or character development. Examples include Big Barda, Power Girl, and the Huntress by DC comics; and from Marvel, the second Black Widow, Shanna the She-Devil, and The Cat.[31] Female supporting characters who were successful professionals or hold positions of authority in their own right also debuted in the pages of several popular superhero titles from the late 1950s onwards: Hal Jordan's love interest Carol Ferris was introduced as the Vice-President of Ferris Aircraft and later took over the company from her father; Medusa, who was first introduced in the Fantastic Four series, is a member of the Inhuman Royal Family and a prominent statesperson within her people's quasi-feudal society; and Carol Danvers, a decorated officer in the United States Air Force who would become a costumed superhero herself years later.

Modern Age[edit]

In subsequent decades, popular characters like Dazzler, She-Hulk, Elektra, Catwoman, Witchblade, Spider-Girl, Batgirl and the Birds of Prey became stars of long-running eponymous titles. Female characters began assuming leadership roles in many ensemble superhero teams; the Uncanny X-Men series and its related spin-off titles in particular have included many female characters in pivotal roles since the 1970s.[32] Volume 4 of the X-Men comic book series featured an all-female team as part of the Marvel NOW! branding initiative in 2013.[33] Internationally, the Japanese comic book character Sailor Moon is recognized as one of the most important and popular female superheroes ever created.[34][35][36][37][38] Superpowered female characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer[39] and Darna[40][41] have a tremendous influence on popular culture in their respective countries of origin.

Superheroines often sport improbably large breasts and an illogical lack of muscle-mass relative to their demonstrated physical strength levels, 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 over the years became progressively much skimpier. This visual treatment of women in American comics has led to accusations of systemic sexism and objectification.[42][43]

Minority superheroes[edit]

In keeping with their origin as representing the archetypical hero stock character in 1930s American comics, superheroes are predominantly depicted as white Anglo-Saxon American middle- or upper- class heterosexual young adult males who are typically tall, athletic, educated, physically attractive and in perfect health. Beginning in the 1960s with the civil rights movement in the United States, and increasingly with the rising concern over political correctness in the 1980s, superhero fiction centered on cultural, ethnic, national and racial minority groups (from the perspective of US demographics) began to be produced. This began with depiction of black superheroes in the 1960s, followed in the 1970s with a number of other ethnic superheroes.[44] In keeping with the political mood of the time, cultural diversity and inclusivism would be an important part of superhero groups starting from the 1980s. In the 1990s, this was further augmented by the first depictions of superheroes as homosexual.

Ethnic and religious minorities[edit]

In 1966, Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther, an African monarch who became the first non-caricatured black superhero.[45] 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 1989, the Monica Rambeau incarnation of Captain Marvel was the first female black superhero from a major publisher to get her own title in a special one-shot issue. In 1971, Red Wolf became the first Native American in the superheroic tradition to headline a series.[46] In 1973, Shang-Chi became the first prominent Asian superhero to star in an American comic book (Kato had been the deuteragonist of the Green Hornet media franchise series since its inception in the 1930s.[47]). Kitty Pryde, a member of the X-Men, was an openly Jewish superhero in mainstream American comic books as early as 1978.[48]

Comic-book companies were in the early stages of cultural expansion and many of these characters played to specific stereotypes; Cage and many of his contemporaries 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 kung fu martial artists. Subsequent minority heroes, such as the X-Men's Storm and the Teen Titans' Cyborg avoided such conventions; they were both part of ensemble teams, which became increasingly diverse in subsequent years. The X-Men, in particular, were revived in 1975 with a line-up of characters culled from several nations, including the Kenyan Storm, German Nightcrawler, Russian Colossus, Irish Banshee, and Japanese Sunfire. In 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. Milestone's initial run 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 identities and roles of once-Caucasian heroes with new characters from minority backgrounds. The African-American John Stewart appeared in the 1970s as an alternate for Earth's Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and would become a regular member of the Green Lantern Corps from the 1980s onwards. The creators of the 2000s-era Justice League animated series selected Stewart as the show's Green Lantern. In the Ultimate Marvel universe, Miles Morales, a multiracial American youth who was also bitten by a genetically-altered spider, debuted as the new Spider-Man after the apparent death of the original. Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager who is revealed to have Inhuman lineage after her shapeshifting powers manifested, takes on the identity of Ms. Marvel in 2014. Her self-titled comic book series became a cultural phenomenon, with extensive media coverage by CNN, the New York Times and The Colbert Report, and embraced by anti-Islamophobia campaigners in San Francisco who plastered over anti-Muslim bus adverts with Kamala stickers.[49] Other such successor-heroes of color include James "Rhodey" Rhodes as Iron Man, Ryan Choi as the Atom, and Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle.

Certain established characters have had their ethnicity changed when adapted to another continuity and/or media. A notable example is Nick Fury, who is reinterpreted as African-American both in the Ultimate Marvel as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuities.

Sexual orientation and gender identity[edit]

Main article: LGBT themes in comics

In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of the Canadian mutant superhero team Alpha Flight, was homosexual, after years of implication.[50] This ended a long-standing editorial mandate that there would be no homosexual characters in Marvel comics.[51] Although some minor secondary characters in DC Comics' mature-audience 1980's miniseries Watchmen were gay, and the reformed supervillain Pied Piper came out to Wally West in an issue of The Flash in 1991, Northstar is considered to be the first openly gay superhero appearing in mainstream comic books. From the mid-2000s onwards, several established Marvel and DC comics characters (or a variant version of the pre-existing character) were outed or reintroduced as LGBT individuals by both publishers. Examples include the Mikaal Tomas incarnation of Starman in 1998; Colossus in the Ultimate X-Men series; Renee Montoya in DC's Gotham Central series in 2003; the Kate Kane incarnation of Batwoman in 2006; Rictor and Shatterstar in an issue of X-Factor in 2009; the Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott is reimagined as openly gay following the The New 52 reboot;[52][53] and in 2015, a younger time displaced version of Iceman in an issue of All-New X-Men.[54]

Many new openly gay, lesbian and bisexual characters have since emerged in superhero fiction, such as Gen¹³'s Rainmaker, Apollo and Midnighter of The Authority, and Wiccan and Hulkling of the Young Avengers. Notable transgender or gender bending characters are fewer in number by comparison: the alter ego of superheroine Zsazsa Zaturnnah, a seminal character in Philippine popular culture,[55] is an effeminate gay man who transforms into a female superhuman after ingesting a magical stone. Desire from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series and Xavin from the Runaways are both characters who could (and often) change their gender at will. Alysia Yeoh, a supporting character created by writer Gail Simone for the Batgirl ongoing series published by DC Comics, received substantial media attention in 2011 for being the first major transgender character written in a contemporary context in a mainstream American comic book.[56]

The Sailor Moon series is known for featuring a substantial number of openly LGBT characters since its inception, as Japan have traditionally been more open about portraying homosexuality in its children's media compared to many countries in the West.[57][58] Certain characters who are presented as homosexual or transgender in one continuity may not be presented as such in others, particularly with dubbed versions made for international release.[59]

Other types[edit]

See also[edit]


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