Features

Secret Origins Part 2: The Secret Origin of the Superhero Genre

“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”
–   Opening Narration for Adventures of Superman, (1951-58)
     People need heroes. We have always needed heroes, to look up to,  to aspire towards, to set an example. Superheroes are by no means new; every ancient religion has stories about beings a step above the normal human, whether they be gods, demigods, immortals, sorcerers, or angels. Modern America is no different from ancient Rome; we still have a pantheon of gods and goddesses who protect us by fighting evil. Some are said to come from beyond the stars, others are mere mortal knights with fantastic suits of armor. Some are humans bestowed with amazing powers; others are immortal gods who have been around since before time itself. We have always looked up to beings more powerful than ourselves. We just don’t call them gods anymore: we call them superheroes.

     Trying to identify the very first superhero is a difficult task, and one that lends itself to a great deal of debate. Characters as diverse as Hercules, the Golem, and Sherlock Holmes are said to be the original inspirations for the heroes. And while the Shadow, the Phantom, and the Green Hornet were the first heroes to crop up in the early 1930s, they were more super-detectives when they first began. But as the Great Depression dragged on and the threat of war loomed once more, it was clear that America needed a new kind of hero.

On June 30, 1938 the first modern superhero came to Earth. His name was Superman, and he birthed a new generation of heroes. He had all the traits of a real superhero: an origin, a secret identity, a costume, a girl, and, of course, superpowers. Since his inception, Superman has been the archetypical superhero and the one to whom every superhero is compared.
Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 was a huge success, and soon after many other Superhero Comics started to appear. And so began what is now known as the Golden Age of Comic Books. Many of the most lasting characters were created during this time. Most of the heroes were created by DC comics, or absorbed by them later, such as Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman. Timely Comics, a predecessor of Marvel Comics, introduced the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and Captain America.

Around this time, the first Superhero Films started to appear in the form of weekly serials, featuring heroes such as Captain Marvel, Batman, the Phantom, Captain America, and, of course, Superman. These serials were aimed at children and were very similar to the comic books they were based on, including cliffhanger endings. For the most part, these serials were both financial and critical successes, but they share little else with modern Superhero Films.

Unfortunately, as the 1940s came to a close, the popularity of Superhero Comics began to decline, with crime and horror comic books becoming more popular. Quite a few superheroes had spent their lives fighting against the Axis of Evil, and with the war over, it became difficult to find new threats for the heroes to conquer. Many superhero titles ended their runs and superhero films all-but disappeared. Superman was one of very few heroes who managed to prosper during this time, with the successful TV series Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves. However, one show was not enough to keep the public from thinking that the Superhero Genre was doomed in every media.
This changed in 1956, with the reintroduction of the Flash, the beginning of the Silver Age of Comic Books. It began a revitalization of many of the DC superheroes, who were redesigned and updated in ways that made them more appealing to a new audience. In addition, DC established the Earth-One and Earth-Two realities. The Golden Age heroes were said to live on Earth-Two, with the new Silver Age characters living on Earth-One. This idea of parallel dimensions has become extremely important in the DC Universe, and made the transition from Golden Age to Silver Age much smoother. Just as importantly, 1960 saw the introduction of the Justice League of America (JLA), the first of many superhero teams.

By this time, Timely Comics had become Atlas Comics and its publisher, Martin Goodman, wanted to cash in on the renewed popularity of superheroes. Goodman assigned then-unknown comic-book editor Stan Lee to create a superhero team for Atlas. Lee decided to take that opportunity to start writing stories about superhero characters that had faults and foibles, unlike the flawless DC characters. And so the Fantastic Four were born, the first Marvel Comics superheroes.
The Fantastic Four were soon followed by more Stan Lee creations: the Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, and Daredevil. These heroes were all much more grounded in reality than the DC heroes. While they fought threats just as fantastic as anything the DC heroes faced, they did it while living in real cities and dealing with real-life problems. By the late 1960s, superheroes completely dominated the comic book world and these same heroes continue to do so to this day.

While superheroes flourished in comic books, superhero films were still few and far between. A few Superhero TV Shows were made during the 1960s, such as Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, and The Green Hornet, starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee. But for the most part, superheroes did their daring-do in ink. As the Silver Age of Comic Books came to an end in the 1970s, two things became clear: 1) that people loved superheroes, and 2) that people were ready to believe a man can fly.

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.

2 Comments

  • Would love to read a piece discussing the Jewish influences behind Superman. I can hook you up with some resources if you want.

  • Thanks, Sara — I was going to ask why there’s no text spent here on the Jewish writers! It’s like Chabon says in Kavalier & Clay: “Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.” It makes sense to start addressing the genre’s history at a low-res level that allows you to cover the whole period, though.

    (By the way: hi, I’m that tall kid who played Frank in Vassar’s 2009 RHPS.)