They've dominated the box office for the better part of a decade, to say nothing of comic books, television and video games. They've been called the myths of the modern age. But where do superheroes come from? Like all great pop culture phenomena, the superhero was born from a wide range of influences, many of them now forgotten.
Strange visitor from another world
The first and most recognisable superhero is, of course, Superman, first published in Action Comics #1 in 1938. Superman is such an iconic image that it's hard to imagine a world without him. But when creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented the character, he was the perfect combination of new and old -- similar to classic archetypes, but in a new and exciting way. Siegel and Shuster had previously imagined the character as a telepathic villain, but later reused the name for a champion of right -- and the superhero as we know it was born.
Depression-era America was a boom period not only for comic books but for all sorts of magazine publications. One of the most successful was the fitness-magazine empire of publisher Bernarr (formerly Bernard) McFadden. McFadden's magazines featured "true" stories from readers and were garishly decorated with photos of bodybuilders and beauty queens. Although critics railed against McFadden's magazines, he popularised the image of the strongman in his trunks and boots -- an image that would play an important role in the development of the superhero.
The 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of the pulp: cheap magazines that featured adventure, mystery, horror and science-fiction stories. Quickly produced and luridly illustrated, the pulps provided cheap entertainment and birthed characters as diverse as The Shadow and Conan the barbarian. Many comic creators were avid pulp readers, and some of the parallels are obvious -- pulp sci-fi heroes such as Captain Future often wore tight-fitting bodysuits, while scientific adventurer Doc Savage has an Arctic Fortress of Solitude (and his first name is Clark). Most notably influential were vigilante heroes like the Shadow, a black-cloaked avenger who waged a one-man war on crime.
Pulp heroes were often dark figures, but comics in colour needed brighter images. The garish costumes of superheroes owe a lot to circus performers -- to say nothing of characters like Robin and Deadman, who were circus performers before they turned to fighting crime.
Mythological characters like Hercules and Thor have starred in their own comics, but the influence of myth runs deeper. When British writer Grant Morrison reinvented DC Comics's Justice League in the 1990s, he identified each character with a different Greek god. With a few exceptions -- Plastic Man as Dionysos was a good choice, but not exactly an iconic character -- the parallels were clear and powerful. Even Siegel and Shuster compared Superman to characters like Samson and Hercules. And of course, Wonder Woman draws on creater William Moulton Marston's idiosyncratic view of Greek mythology.
Newspaper comic strips and pulp magazines often contained magical and fantastic stories; Captain Marvel got his powers from an ancient wizards, while heroes like the Blue Beetle were empowered by magical artefacts. A few were even literal ghosts.
Siegel and Shuster were huge science-fiction fans, and the influence of sci-fi has been present in the superhero from day one. Heroes got their powers from alien technology, otherworldly origins, or even the native strength of an Earthling in space (a concept swiped from pulp hero John Carter). In the 1960s, sci-fi concepts became even more prevalent in comics. Heroes with mystical powers, such as Hawkman, Green Lantern and the Blue Beetle, were re-imagined as aliens or humans armed with science-fiction gadgetry. Science-fiction titan Alfred Bester even wrote the words of the Green Lantern oath.
Although we think of superheroes as the dominant genre of comic books, this was far from true in the post-war world. Horror comics, filled with tales of grue and mayhem, were huge -- and controversial. Even though pressure from parents' groups and the US government put an end to the reign of the horror comic and publisher EC Comics, the influences remained. Comics writer Chris Sims has pointed out that the origin of Spider-Man is basically an EC Comics horror story, with the exception that it continues. Similarly, Fantastic Four co-creator Jack Kirby incorporated elements of the monster comics he'd been drawing for Marvel into the character of the Thing.
The pulps and comics originated in a world of dubious ethics and sometimes dubious legality. Titles and characters were cranked out in a hurry to meet tight deadlines and cash in on perceived trends. The success of Captain America spawned a legion of patriotic heroes, for instance, while Captain Marvel is only the most shameless of a series of Superman rip-offs. And yet, although the frenzied churn of derivative comics produced many forgettable characters and stories, it also produced classics.
The British contribution
British comics have never really been known for superheroes; even the best-known native superhero comic, Marvelman, originated as a Captain Marvel knock-off. British writers emerged from a subversive comic world that combined science fiction, horror and war comic elements with a strong vein of parody and dark humour. The result is that the modern era of American comics has been disproportionately defined by British creators.
With its diverse set of influences, the superhero is a strange creation, a mixture of decades' worth of pop culture given a mythological gloss. Originally served up as disposable entertainment for children, superheroes have offered generations of writers an opportunity to tell stories that couldn't be told in any other way. In fact, the resilience of the form lies in its varied origins. As their burst of big-screen success shows, there's something for everyone in these strange, hybrid heroes.