Superherofictional comic book hero, usually with abilities far beyond those of normal human beings. The abilities are usually superhuman (invulnerability, flight), but may be perfected versions of normal abilities (heightened reflexes or senses). Superheroes spend much of their time fighting supervillains, monsters and natural disasters. This kind of fiction is generally considered a subgenre of fantasy or science fiction, but its nature is such that it easily combines with numerous other genres' elements, including horror fiction, crime fiction and detective fiction. Marvel Comics Group and DC Comics, Inc share ownership of the United States trademark #1179067 for the phrase "Super Heroes."
Many superheroes, e.g. Batman and the Green Hornet, are ordinary men possessing no super-powers. Their status as a superhero derives from an extraordinary willpower, intellect, physical perfection, exotic outfits and equipment, and a drive to fight for what is right--or, at least, what they consider right.
The word "superhero" owes its existence to the most famous superhero of all time: Superman, one of the most powerful superheroes, and the standard by which other superheroes are judged. However, many of these same traits were shared with protagonists of later Victorian literature, such as Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, Sherlock Holmes, the pulp hero Doc Savage, and the dime novel stories of Buffalo Bill.
Common character elements
There are a wide range of attributes that are typically considered part of a superhero's make up, although they are by no means definitive. Typically, the classic superheroes have a few of the following features:
The fantastic nature of these characters usually require an elaborate backstory called an origin story where the circumstances of the character acquiring his/her abilities or equipment is explained as well as their motivation for using it for fighting evil.
- "Brick": A character with a superhuman degree of strength and endurance, e.g. The Incredible Hulk and the Thing.
- "Energy Blaster": A hero whose main power is a distance attack, e.g. Cyclops.
- "Archer": A subvariant of this type where the hero uses missile weapons that typically have a variety of specialized functions like explosives, glue, nets, rotary drill, etc., e.g. Green Arrow, Hawkeye.
- "Mage": A subvarient of this type where a character is trained in the use of magic which partially involves ranged attacks., e.g. Doctor Strange, Dr. Fate
- "Martial Artist": A hero whose physical abilities are mostly human rather than superhuman, but whose combat skills are phenomenal, e.g. Batman, Daredevil, Captain America.
- "Gadgeteer": A hero whose main asset is access to useful equipment that often imitates superpowers and usually has the relevant technical skills to maintain the equipment and use it to the character's best advantage, e.g. Forge.
- "Speedster": A hero possessing superhuman speed and reflexes, e.g. The Flash, Quicksilver.
- "Mentalist": A hero whose main abilities are psionic in nature such as psychokinesis, telepathy and extra-sensory perception, e.g. Professor X and Jean Grey of the X-Men.
- "Shapechanger": A hero who can manipulate his/her own body to suit his/her needs as disguise or stretching, e.g. Mister Fantastic, Plastic Man, Changeling.
- "Substance oriented Bodychanger - A shapechanger who can change his/her body into the equivalent of a mass of a substance that can have variable density such as sand or water. e.g. Sand.
- "Sizechanger": A shapechanger whose powers involve altering their size to their advantage, e.g. The Atom (shrinking only), Colossal Boy (growth only), Hank Pym (both).
This kind of fantasy is considered largely an American creation. However, there have been successful superhero characters in other countries which share many of the conventions of the American model. The most notable examples include Cybersix for Argentina, Marvelman from the United Kingdom, and most notably Japanese anime and manga series like Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Sailor Moon.
Divergent character examples
While these are the traits of the classic superhero, many break the mold. For example:
Most recently introduced superheroes have never had a secret identity. Some superheros that once had a secret identity, like Steel/John Henry Irons (DC Comics) have later made their true identity public. Other superheroes like the Fantastic Four and Wonder Woman (in her current version) have never had a secret identity to begin with.
Evolution of the character types' growing ethnic and gender diversity
Through the history of comic books, this kind of character usually conformed to the basic social assumptions and stereotypes in popular fiction during the first half of the 20th century. Hence, the typical superhero character at that time was a white, middle to upper class, heterosexual male professional. Typically, the character was often either independently wealthy like Batman or had a job that allows for a minimum of supervision so his whereabouts did not have to be precisely accounted for such as Superman's civilian job as a reporter. The typical female superhero was seen as a exception like Wonder Woman or docile and obedient helpmeets like Susan Richards AKA the Invisible Girl.
In the 1960s, the various Marvel Comics characters began to loosen the demographic type to allow for different images such as Spider-Man making a marginal living as a freelance photographer. Furthermore, the company created superhero characters of other racial groups as such as the Black Panther, Luke Cage and . The early examples of these characters often played to specific stereotypes; for example, Asians were often masters of martial arts. The rise of modern feminism also encouraged more active and independent female characters though some seemed to exist to be preachy radical feminist stereotypes like Marvel's Ms. Marvel. Eventually, more sophisticated characters were later developed to display a more honest sense of diversity such as Marvel Comics' Storm of the X-Men and DC Comics' Cyborg of the Teen Titans. Marvel comics has also introduced the first openly gay superhero, Northstar, but that is a character element that is still treated with some trepidation in mainstream stories.
1980s genre deconstruction
Although Marvel Comics pioneered the idea of superheroes having character flaws, in the 1980s the concept was taken much further into deconstruction of the character form. It began in the acclaimed Daredevil stories by Frank Miller where the title character struggled with inner demons that seem to take him to the brink of madness, while in Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Batman was recast as a obsessive and brutal vigilante who enjoys causing genuine terror in his criminal enemies. Alan Moore made a similar contribution in Watchmen with his characters who were people who were profoundly human in nature and tried to do the right thing in their point of view, such as Rorschach, a murderously brutal and insane vigilante who battled evil as he perceived it through his hateful paranoid schizophrenia. The success of these stories led to numerous imitations by other talents, but critics complained they missed the essential artistic elements of redemption and tragedy in the original stories. Without those elements, the imitations often came off as unlikable psychotics with little redeeming value.
In the late 1990s, there was a reaction where notable talents like Kurt Busiek and Alan Moore who endeavoured to reconstruct the genre with successful titles like Astro City and Tom Strong that combined artistic sophistication and idealism into a superheroic version of retro-futurism.
The genre's dominance in the American comic books
This genre has been dominant in comic books for decades. The reason for this domination would partly be because of the fact that their adventures could not be adequately depicted in other visual media outside animation. Also, the genre has proven be remarkably flexible in the kind of stories it can tell since almost anything can be happen in the genre's world and it can still feel natural in it. For instance in an early period of the 1980s series, The New Teen Titans, the team faced off against a supervillain who controlled a cult in one story, then went off to another galaxy to participate in a space war in the following story, then returned to Earth in the next story to become involved in a gritty urban crime drama involving young runaways. The content of these three stories are each radically different from one another, and yet the same principle characters are involved without any feeling that they clash with the subject matter.
Treatment in other media
The superhero genre's treatment in media outside comics was generally limited in terms of the characters used and the popular attitude towards them. With a few exceptions, they were considered children's fare. Superman, for instance, had a lavish adaptation in animation with Fleischer Studios, but his first live-action adaptations were notoriously cheap film serials.
Most fans believe the problem was aggravated by the success of the live action Batman TV series, which was staged as a campy spoof of comics and superheroes. The series stereotyped comic books and superheroes as laughable and stupid. That attitude would plague further adaptations of the genre like in the Superman film series starring Christopher Reeve. In that series, although there were some successful efforts to establish the grandeur of the character, it still relegated his archenemy, Lex Luthor to being a comic villain with broader comic sidekicks.
In the 1980s, there were more successful efforts to establish more dramatic stories like Robocop, directed by Paul Verhoeven, but the film Batman in 1989 directed by Tim Burton was the first modern attempt to emulate the dark mood of the comics. However, although it launched some imitators, fans complained that the Batman series degenerated into the same stereotypical silliness of the 1960s TV series under Joel Schumacher. This trend culminated with the film Batman and Robin, from 1997, which proved to be an embarrassment for all involved.
After that fiasco, the genre's respect began to recover with the success of the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' character, Blade. The success of this obscure character gave other film producers the hope that other comic book characters could be successful if adapted with more fidelity to the comics. That hunch proved correct with the success of the films, X-Men and Unbreakable in 2000. The reality of this respectful approach's commercial appeal was definitely confirmed with the spectacular success of the film adaptation of Spider-Man. This blockbuster hit has led to further adaptations of characters like Daredevil, The Hulk and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Although the box office results of these film has varied widely, there has been enough success for fans to speculate that there will be numerous other adaptations for some time to come.
Another notable treatment of the superhero theme in non-comics media is the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the protagonist is a dyed-in-the-wool idealist superhero (superpowers, a secret identity and supervillains come with the package) who exists in the horror genre. The series presents a believable superhero, while nevertheless poking gentle fun at the superhero genre (along with other genres). Other TV superhero series enjoying varying degrees of success include: Angel, Alias, Lois and Clark, Roswell, Timecop, Sheena, Dark Angel, Smallville and Mutant X.