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Entry updated 11 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.

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Superhero fiction is a genre based on many early models, but which crystallized in Comics; since then it has infiltrated the Cinema, Radio, Television and books. Stories involving figures with super (or at the least extraordinary) powers, and whose actions tend to keep the world safe, almost certainly existed, in some form, before Alexandre Dumas (who see for bibliography and detailed argument) created the Count of Monte-Cristo in 1844, though his story was exceedingly influential for the rest of the nineteenth century; and sf stories of supermen go back to the beginning of the twentieth century. As Claude Lalumière argues in his introduction to Super Stories of Heroes & Villains (anth 2013), the paradigm pre-Comics text is Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930), which established the "superhero" pattern first put into visual form in Action Comics (June 1938), where the comic-book hero Superman made his first appearance; he was soon given his own comic. Imitations soon appeared, including Captain Marvel (from 1940), Wonder Woman (from 1942) (for other early female examples see Miss Fury), Plastic Man (from 1944), Human Torch (from 1939), Captain America (from 1941) and so on. These characters differed from the Pulp-magazine heroes of the 1930s, like Doc Savage, who, though highly trained and with access to superscientific devices, were ordinary human beings; superheroes had Superpowers which, despite their varying sf rationalizations, were effectively Magic abilities.

One hugely popular borderline superhero is Batman, created as a character in 1939 and given his own comic in 1940: though deploying an array of futuristic gadgetry he has no superpowers, and is in the line of descent from Doc Savage, not Superman – although one acknowledged Batman precursor was The Shadow, who can famously "cloud men's minds" and walk unseen (see Invisibility). Others who like Batman get by with merely abnormal strength, agility and endurance include Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise. However, superheroes and Heroes of the period were alike in that both spent most of their working hours struggling against crime – often crime carried out by Mad Scientists seeking to rule the world – and in this important respect hero-fiction and superhero fiction formed a continuum rather than two different genres. Also, then as now, superhero fiction was (most of the time) only a borderline-sf genre. Most of the action took place in a comic-book version of the real world, against gangsters, secret agents and the like; the borderline-sf elements lay in the origin of the superhero (Superman, for example, getting his power from his birth on the alien planet Krypton) and secondarily in the often superscientific devices used by the Villains. (In this Encyclopedia we have therefore been somewhat selective in choosing which superhero comics, films and television series should be given entries.)

Having begun in the comics, superheroes soon started appearing in other media: children's books, Radio serials and Cinema serials (see Serial Films) at first. After intensive activity in the 1940s, the superhero theme came to seem rather played out by the 1950s, since its possible story variations seemed few. It was in the comics, again, that the superhero found a new lease of life, notably in the work Jack Kirby did for Marvel Comics, and especially in his creation of The Fantastic Four in 1961. (For many years Marvel propaganda had it that Stan Lee was the true creator of the Marvel superheroes of the 1960s, with Kirby merely the artist assigned to carry out instructions. The now-dominant revisionist view is that Kirby was the presiding genius of the new superhero format, which among other things involved enormous advances in the techniques of comic-book Illustration.) Superheroes became humanized; they aged, had neuroses, suffered angst; they often behaved badly; sometimes they were corrupted by their constant battle against the tawdry and the criminal; some superheroes chose to become Supervillains instead; sometimes they even had sex lives (unlike the usually prissy and celibate Superman). In short, they became very much more interesting. These changes did not happen overnight; they began with The Fantastic Four, but developed in The Incredible Hulk from 1962, The Amazing Spider-Man in his own comic from 1963, X-Men (from 1963) and so on. The complex stories developed in The Fantastic Four were particularly memorable (and science-fictional) when the Four found themselves pitted against Galactus, and especially in those issues containing the most surreal superhero of all, the temperamental and reviled Silver Surfer, imprisoned in Earth's atmosphere by Galactus, riding capriciously through space on his surfboard and sometimes saving Earth. He had his own comic for a while, The Silver Surfer (1968-1970).

Superhero fiction since the 1960s, while it has remained often repetitive and simplistic in its mass-market manifestations, has developed, here and there, an extremely sophisticated edge – sometimes in mass-market comics but more often in Graphic Novels. One landmark was Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (books #1-#4 1986; graph 1986), which re-created Batman in darker, more painful shades than ever before, but the outstanding critique of the superhero comic from within the genre itself is Alan Moore's Watchmen, a coherent graphic novel which is (unusually) a true novel in structure; its first publication constituted the twelve issues of Watchmen (1986-1987) from DC Comics. This is true sf, which confronts with great imaginative intensity the whole issue of what a society would be like that did actually contain superheroes, and how corrupting and fatiguing the state of superheroism might be. Also complex and sophisticated, beginning at around the same time, is the Wild Cards series of original anthologies (from 1987) edited by George R R Martin, in which superheroes are called "Aces" for fear of copyright infringement. The Wild Card stories (and the subsequent sequence of graphic books based on them) imagine, among other things, how superheroes might interact with historical process.

Robert Mayer's Superfolks (1977) is an early satire on the superhero theme. A blackly comic novel which also forms a critique of the superhero business is Michael Bishop's Count Geiger's Blues (1992); Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude (2003) is a sophisticated literary handling of the theme; Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible (2007) cheerfully spoofs superhero and Supervillain tropes; Cole's Shadow Ops trilogy opening with Fortress Frontier (2013) energetically deploys superheroes in a Military SF context; and Lavie Tidhar's The Violent Century (2013; exp 2015), an Alternate History whose twentieth century is impacted by the existence of various comics-homage Superpowers, clearly occupies an imaginative space first opened up by Watchmen. Superpowered "Epics" with a penchant for evil and tyranny are opposed by a determined underground resistance of "Reckoners" in Brandon Sanderson's Reckoners series beginning with Steelheart (2013).

Sadly, the increasing intelligence and imagination displayed in many superhero comics since the 1960s has seldom been reflected in their television and film equivalents. Superhero television series that receive entries in this encyclopedia include The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979), The Adventures of Batman and Robin (1992-1995), Batman (1966-1968), The Bionic Woman (1976-1978), The Flash (1990-1991), The Incredible Hulk (1977-1982), The Invisible Man (1975-1976), Legends of the Superheroes (1979; vt Challenge of the Superheroes) – live-action debut of the DC Comics team the Justice League of AmericaThe Man from Atlantis (1977-1978), The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978), Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982), Superboy (1988-1991), Superman (1953-1957) and Wonder Woman (1974-1979) (see Wonder Woman Film/TV). The notable thing about this list is that all but one (Sapphire and Steel) are US; the superhero phenomenon is almost exclusively a US phenomenon. The other notable thing is that these series are nearly all infantile. One marginal superhero (not usually thought of in that light) of greater interest than most of the above is Vincent, the Beast in Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990); this may be due to George R R Martin, its chief writer, who is very much alive to the mythic resonances of the superhero genre.

In twentieth-century Cinema, the superhero genre managed better, at least in the big-budget Superman (1978) and Batman (1989) (see Batman Films) movies and their sequels, than it normally did on television; but beyond these franchises there was not a great deal of interest.

Indeed, in older cinema treatments people with Superpowers often come to a bad end, as in X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963), The 4D Man (1959), The Dead Zone (1983) and The Lawnmower Man (1992). The protagonists of The Return of Captain Invincible (1982), The Toxic Avenger (1984), The Transformers – The Movie (1986), Masters of the Universe (1987), RoboCop (1987), Darkman (1990) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) cannot be called hardcore superheroes, being respectively a drunkard, disgusting, robots, musclebound, cyborgized, hideously deformed and pizza-eating adolescent reptiles, although in the new era of superheroes (these all being films of the 1980s) this rag, tag and bobtail bunch seemed to represent precisely where the superhero genre then found itself.

More recently in the twenty-first century, there has been a huge vogue for live-action (though with heavy use of CGI effects) adaptations of comics superhero franchises including – besides the perennial Batman Films sequels and reboots – the X-Men Films from 2000, Spider-Man (2002) and its sequels, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Iron Man (2008) and its sequels, and even Watchmen (2009). Many more DC Comics and Marvel Comics superheroes have found their way to the wide screen; see in particular the Marvel Cinematic Universe overview entry. An interesting treatment not directly rooted in established comics continuity is M Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000).

The fact still unrealized by much of the world of letters is that the best superhero fictions are still to be found where they were found in the first place: in the comics. [PN/DRL]

see also: Champions; City of Heroes; Freedom Force; Golden Heroes; The Greatest American Hero; Mutants and Masterminds; Superhero 2044; Villains and Vigilantes.

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