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Superman and Batman, two of the most recognizable and iconic superheroes. Art by Alex Ross Superman and Batman, two of the most recognizable and iconic superheroes. Art by Alex Ross

A superhero is a fictional character who is noted for feats of courage and nobility and who usually has a colorful name and costume which serve to conceal their true identity, and abilities beyond those of normal human beings. A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine, although this term has fallen out of favor in the modern era.

The word superhero originated with Superman, who debuted in 1938, and the stories of superheroes - ranging from episodic adventures to decades-long sagas - have become an entire genre of fiction that has dominated American comic books and crossed over into several other media.


Common traits

Wonder Woman. Art by Terry Dodson Wonder Woman. Art by Terry Dodson

Spider-Man. Art by J. Scott Campbell Spider-Man. Art by J. Scott Campbell

Although superheroes widely vary, a number of characteristics have become associated with the typical superhero:

  • Extraordinary powers and abilities, mastery of relevant skills, and/or advanced equipment. Although superhero powers vary widely, superhuman strength, the ability to fly and enhancements of the senses are all common. Some superheroes, such as Batman and Green Hornet, possess no superpowers but have mastered skills such as martial arts and forensic sciences. Others have special equipment, such as Iron Man’s power armor and Green Lantern’s power ring.
  • A strong moral code, including a willingness to risk one’s own safety in the service of good without expectation of reward.
  • A special motivation, such as a sense of responsibility (e.g. Superman), a strong sense of justice (e.g. Batman), a formal calling (e.g., Wonder Woman), or a personal vendetta against criminals (e.g., The Punisher).
  • A secret identity that protects the superhero’s friends and family from becoming targets of his or her enemies. Most superheroes, but not all, use a descriptive or metaphoric code name for their public deeds.
  • A flamboyant and distinctive costume, often used to conceal the secret identity
  • An underlying motif or theme that affects the hero’s name, costume, personal effects, and other aspects of his character (e.g., Batman resembles a large bat, calls his headquarters the "Batcave" and his specialized automobile, which also looks bat-like, the "Batmobile").
  • A trademark weapon, such as Wonder Woman’s "Lasso of Truth" and Captain America’s shield.
  • 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 number of enemies that he/she fights repeatedly, including an archenemy who stands out among the others. Often a nemesis is a superhero’s opposite or foil (e.g., Sabretooth embraces his savage instincts while Wolverine battles his).
  • Independent wealth (e.g., Batman or the X-Men's benefactor Professor X) or an occupation that allows for minimal supervision (e.g., Superman's civilian job as a reporter).
  • A secret headquarters or base of operations (e.g., Superman's Fortress of Solitude).
  • An "origin story" that explains the circumstances by which the character acquired his/her abilities as well as his/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.

The Fantastic Four. Art by Jack Kirby The Fantastic Four. Art by Jack Kirby

Most superheroes work independently. However, there are also many superhero teams. Some, such as the Fantastic Four and X-Men, have common origins and usually operate as a group. Others, such as DC Comics’s Justice League and Marvel’s Avengers, are "all-star" groups consisting of heroes of separate origins who also operate individually.

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 made such obvious child endangerment seem implausible and lessened the need for characters who specifically appeal to child readers. Sidekicks are seen as a separate classification of superheroes.

Superheroes most often appear in comic books, and superhero stories are the dominant genre of American comic books, to the point that the terms "superhero" and "comic book character" are often used synonymously in North America. Superheroes have also been featured in radio serials, prose novels, TV series, movies, and other media. Most of the superheroes who appear in other media are adapted from comics, but there are exceptions.

Marvel Characters, Inc., and DC Comics, share ownership of the United States trademark for the phrases "Super Hero" and "Super Heroes" as they applies to comics, and these two companies own a majority of the world’s most famous superheroes. However, throughout comic book history, there have been significant heroes owned by others, such as Captain Marvel, owned by Fawcett Comics (but later acquired by DC), and Spawn, owned by creator Todd McFarlane.

Although superhero fiction is considered a subgenre of fantasy/science-fiction, it crosses into many other genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Daredevil), others horror fiction (Spawn, Hellboy), while others contain aspects of more standard science fiction (Green Lantern, X-Men). Many of the earliest superheroes, such as The Sandman and The Clock, were rooted in the pulp fiction of their predecessors.

Because the fantastic nature of the superhero milieu allows almost anything to happen, particular superhero series frequently cross over into a variety of vastly different genres. In the 1980s series The New Teen Titans, for example, the Titans battled a supernatural cult leader in one story, went off to another galaxy to participate in a space war in the following story, and then returned to Earth and became involved in an urban drama involving young runaways. The content of each of these stories is quite different, yet the same principal characters are involved.

Common costume features

Captain America’s costume contains many features common to superheroes. Art by Gabriele Dell'Otto Captain America’s costume contains many features common to superheroes. Art by Gabriele Dell'Otto

A superhero’s costume helps make him or her recognizable to the general public, both in and outside of fiction. Costumes are often colorful to enhance the character's visual appeal. Costumes frequently incorporate the superhero's name and theme. For example, Daredevil resembles a red devil, the design of Captain America's costume echoes that of the American flag, and Spider-Man’s costume features a web pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing skin-tight costumes originated with Lee Falk's comic strip creation 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 masks of Green Lantern and Ms. Marvel to the full-face masks of Spider-Man and Black Panther. Most common, however, are masks covering the upper face, leaving the more indistinguishable jaw and neck areas exposed. This allows for both a believable disguise and recognizable facial expressions.
  • A symbol, such as a stylized letter or visual icon, usually on the chest. Examples include DC Captain Marvel's thunderbolt and the lowercase "i" of the Incredible Family. More recognisable ones are Superman's uppercase "S" and the Bat Emblem of Batman.
  • Form-fitting clothing, often referred to as tights or spandex, although the exact material is usually not identified; in cases where it is it may often be explained as due to the material being made from unstable molecules or something similar. Such material displays a character’s athletic build and heroic sex appeal. The overall appearance could be described as being ostensibly nude figure drawing.
  • The form-fitting costume typically utilizes a contrasting color for the gloves, boots, and pelvic region (e.g. red briefs and boots on blue tights for Superman, or black gloves, boots, collars, and pelvic guards on red spandex for each member of the Incredible Family (Jack-Jack, however, wears a red jumpsuit with a black collar, black sleeve cuffs, black soles, and no pelvic guard), to emphasize that area.
  • The fact that most male superheroes are muscular in build and wear form-fitting clothing rarely receives comment, yet the idealized figures and sometimes scanty costumes of superheroines has lead to some readers to accuse the predominantly male comic book industry of sexism.
  • While a vast majority of superheroes do not wear capes, the garment is still closely associated with them, likely due to the fact that two of the most widely-recognized superheroes, Batman and Superman, wear one. The comic book series Watchmen and the movie The Incredibles, among other media sources, humorously commented on the sometimes-lethal impracticality of capes.
  • While most superhero costumes merely hide the hero’s identity and present a recognizable image, parts of some costumes have functional uses. Batman's utility belt and Spawn’s "necroplasmic armor" have both been of great assistance to the heroes. Iron Man, in particular, wears powered armor that 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 magician, and Ghost Rider, who rides a superpowered motorcycle, dresses in the leather garb of a biker.
  • Several heroes of the 1990s, including Cable and many Image Comics characters, rejected the traditional superhero outfit for costumes that appeared more practical and militaristic. Shoulder pads, kevlar-like vests, metal-plated armor, knee and elbow pads, heavy-duty belts, and ammunition pouches were common features.

Superheroes outside the United States

Superheroes are seen as a largely an American creation but there have been successful superheroes in other countries most of whom share the conventions of the American model. Examples include Cybersix from Argentina, Captain Canuck from Canada and the heroes of AK Comics from Egypt.

Japan’s Gatchaman Japan’s Gatchaman

Japan is the only country that nears the US in output of superheroes. The earlier of these wore scarves (which can be just as dangerous as capes at times) either in addition to or as a substitute for capes and many wear helmets instead of masks. Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Metal Heroes, Kikaider, and Gekkō Kamen (and increasingly, the Chouseishin Series) have become popular in Japanese tokusatsu live-action shows, and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman and Sailor Moon are staples of Japanese anime and manga. However, most Japanese superheroes are more shortly-lived. While American entertainment companies update and reinvent superheroes, hoping to keep them popular for decades, Japanese companies retire and introduce superheroes more quickly (usually on an annual basis) in order to shorten merchandise lines. Japanese superhero franchises are closely connected to general Japanese science fiction/fantasy, contain more complex technological and mystical ideas than most American superhero stories, and often feature more violence and killing on the part of the hero.

Young Marvelman Annual (1960) Young Marvelman Annual (1960)

British superheroes began appearing in the Golden Age shortly after the first American heroes became popular in the UK [1]. Most original British heroes were confined to anthology comics magazines such as Lion, Valiant, Warrior, and 2000AD.

Marvelman, known as Miracleman in North America, is probably the most well known original British superhero (although he was based heavily on Captain Marvel). Popular in the 1960s, British readers grew fond of him and contemporary UK comics writers Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have revived Marvelman in series that display a jaundiced and cynical slant on heroism. This attitude is also prevalent in newer British heroes, such as Zenith.

In India, Raj Comics owns a number of superheroes that possess key characteristics of Marvel/DC, but in an Indian setting. Characters such as Nagraj, Doga and Super Commando Dhruva, while somewhat akin to Western superheroes, carry Hindu ideas of morality and incorporate Indian myths.

See also: Manga

Character subtypes

In superhero role-playing games (particularly Champions), superheroes are informally organized into categories based on their skills and abilities. Since comic book and role-playing fandom overlap, these labels have carried over into discussions of superheroes outside the context of games:

Daredevil displays the abilities of a martial artist. Art by John Romita, Sr. Daredevil displays the abilities of a martial artist. Art by John Romita, Sr.

  • "Brawler": A hero who engages in direct physical conflict, but does not necessarily have any true ability to soak damage. These heroes are known for the ability to deliver punishment and to take at least some degree themselves. Spider Man and Wolverine are both examples of Brawlers.
    • "Martial Artist": A refined version of the Brawler, the martial artist hero usually has physical abilities which are mostly human rather than superhuman but possess phenomenal combat skills. Some of these characters are actually superhuman (Daredevil, Iron Fist) while others are normal human beings who are extremely skilled and athletic (Batman and related characters, Black Widow).
  • "Brick/Tank": A character with a superhuman degree of strength and endurance and (usually) an oversized, muscular body, e.g., The Thing, The Hulk, Colossus, Savage Dragon.
  • "Blaster": A hero whose main power is a distance attack, usually an "energy blast" e.g., Cyclops, Starfire, Static.
    • "Archer": A subvariety of this type who uses bow and arrow-like weapons that have a variety of specialized functions like explosives, glue, nets, rotary drill, etc., e.g., Green Arrow, Hawkeye, Speedy.
    • "Mage": A subvariety of this type who is trained in the use of magic that partially or wholly involves ranged attacks, e.g., Doctor Strange, Doctor Fate.
  • "Gadgeteer": A hero who invents special equipment that often imitates superpowers, e.g., Forge, Nite Owl, Gizmo.
    • "Armored Hero": A gadgeteer whose powers are derived from a suit of powered armor, e.g., Iron Man, Steel.
    • "Dominus": A hero who controls a giant robot, a subtype common in Japanese superhero and science fiction media, e.g. Megas XLR, Big Guy, the Power Rangers
  • "Speedster": A hero possessing superhuman speed and reflexes, e.g., The Flash, Quicksilver.
  • "Mentalist": A hero who possesses psionic abilities, such as telekinesis, telepathy and extra-sensory perception, e.g., Professor X, Jean Grey, Saturn Girl.
  • "Shapeshifter": A hero who can manipulate his/her own body to suit his/her needs, such as stretching (Mister Fantastic, Plastic Man) or disguise (Changeling, Chameleon Boy).
    • "Size changer": A shapeshifter who can alter his/her size, e.g., the Atom (shrinking only), Colossal Boy (growth only), Hank Pym (both).

These categories often overlap. For instance, Batman is a both a skilled martial artist and gadgeteer and Hellboy has the strength and durability of a brick and the mystic arts abilities of a mage. Very powerful characters, such as Superman, Dr. Manhattan,Silver Surfer, and Martian Manhunter, can be listed in many categories; the Manhunter and Silver Surfer both excel in every category except martial arts and gadgetry.

Divergent character examples

Wolverine. Art by Frank Miller Wolverine. Art by Frank Miller

The U.S. Military battles the Hulk. Art by Herb Trimpe The U.S. Military battles the Hulk. Art by Herb Trimpe

While the typical superhero is described above, a vast array of superhero characters have been created and many break the usual pattern:

  • Wolverine has shown a willingness to kill and behave anti-socially. Wolverine belongs to an entire underclass of anti-heroes who are grittier and more violent than classic superheroes, which often puts the two groups at odds. Others include Rorschach, Green Arrow, Black Canary, The Punisher, and, in some incarnations, Batman.
  • Some superheroes have been created and employed by national governments to serve their interests and defend the nation. Captain America was outfitted by and worked for the United States Army during World War II and Alpha Flight is a superhero team formed and usually managed by the Canadian government.
  • Many superheroes have never had a secret identity, e.g. Wonder Woman (in her current version) or the members of The Fantastic Four. Others who once had secret identities, such as Captain America and Steel, have later made their identities public. The modern Flash is a rare example of a "public" superhero who regained his secret identity.
  • The Incredible Hulk is usually defined as a superhero, but he has little self-control and his actions have often either inadvertently or deliberately caused great destruction. As a result, he has been hunted by the military and other superheroes.
  • Some superhero identities have been used by more than one person. A character takes on another's name and mission after the original dies, retires or takes on a new identity. Green Lantern, The Flash and Robin are notable mantles that have passed from one character to another.
  • Superman, Silver Surfer, Martian Manhunter, and Captain Marvel (the Marvel Comics character) are extraterrestrials who have, either permanently or provisionally, taken it upon themselves to protect the planet Earth.
  • Adam Strange, on the other hand, is a human being who protects the planet Rann.
  • Thor and Hercules are mythological gods reinterpreted as superheroes. Wonder Woman, while not a goddess (anymore), is a member of the Amazon tribe of Greek mythology.
  • Spawn, The Demon and Ghost Rider are actual demons, who have found themselves manipulated by circumstance into allying with the forces of good. Hellboy, however, is a demon who is heroic on his own accord.
  • Some characters tread the line between superhero and villain because of a permanent or temporary change in character or because of a complex, individualistic moral code. These include Juggernaut, Emma Frost, Magneto, Catwoman, Elektra, and Venom.
  • Because the superhero is such an outlandish and recognizable character type, several comedic heroes have been introduced, including The Tick, The Flaming Carrot, The Ambiguously Gay Duo, and The Simpsons’ Radioactive Man. There have also been various parodies on the superhero occupation as well, for example, Cartoon Network once made a Space Ghost: Coast to Coast commercial showing superheroes and talk show hosts having their licenses renewed.

Trademark status

The terms "Super Hero," "Super Heroes," and by association, "superhero"[2] have been jointly trademarked by DC Comics and Marvel Comics to describe entertainment on television, film, and printed media (U.S. Trademark Serial Nos. 72243225 and 73222079).

However, as an attempt to avoid the trademark, "super-hero" with a hyphen has sometimes been used as a generic spelling that covers all such heroes. In March 2006, DC and Marvel attempted to register "super-hero" as well. Some bloggers have suggested using the term "underwear pervert" to describe the characters of Marvel and DC in protest [3] [4].

Origin of the trademark: From a story told by former Mego Toys CEO Marty Abrams: In the 1970's, Mego held the toy license for both Marvel and DC characters, and decided to ship cases containing characters from both publishers together. The name World's Greatest Superheroes was printed on the packaging, and in small letters it said "Superhero is a trademark of Mego". Shortly thereafter, Mego got phone calls from its two leading superhero licensers, Marvel and DC, who both objected to Mego's claim to a trademark on a word that they had both been using for decades. A meeting was arranged, and Mego sold a share of the trademark to each publisher for a dollar. And since there wasn't any other significant superhero comic publisher around at the time, no-one challanged the trademark.

Growth in diversity

Until the 1960s, superheroes largely conformed to the model of lead characters in American popular fiction in the first half of the 20th century. Hence, the typical superhero was a white, middle- to upper- class, heterosexual, professional, 20-to-30-year-old man. A majority of superheroes still fit this description but, in subsequent decades, many characters have broken the mold.

Female characters

Wonder Woman #1. Art by H.G. Peter Wonder Woman #1. Art by H.G. Peter

The first significant female superhero was DC Comics' Wonder Woman, created by psychologist William Moulton Marston in 1941 as a role model for young women. She was the only widely popular female superhero for two decades and is arguably still the most famous.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, DC debuted female versions of prominent male superheroes, such as Supergirl, Batwoman, and Hawkgirl, as well as female supporting characters that were successful professionals, such as Superman's love interest Lois Lane, who starred in a spin-off series aimed at young female readers.

Meanwhile, Marvel Comics introduced The Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl and the X-Men's Marvel Girl, but these characters were physically weak and were portrayed primarily as romantic interests of their teammates. The 1970s saw these heroes become more confident and assertive (Marvel Girl was eventually transformed into Phoenix, arguably the most powerful character in the Marvel universe) and the launch of several series starring female superheroes, including Spider-Woman and Ms. Marvel. Initially, some characters were preachy feminist stereotypes, like Ms. Marvel and DC's Power Girl, until writers grew more accustomed to society's changing attitudes.

In subsequent decades, Elektra, Catwoman, Witchblade and Spider-Girl became stars of popular series and the X-Men, one of the few superhero teams to feature as many female characters as male, became the industry's most successful franchise. Storm, Rogue and Psylocke were some of the most popular "X-Women."

Non-Caucasian characters

In the late 1960s, superheroes of other racial groups began to appear. In 1966, Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther, the first non-caricatured black superhero. In 1972, Luke Cage, an African-American "hero-for-hire," became the first black superhero to star in his own series while Red Wolf became the first Native American [7]. In 1974, Shang Chi, a martial arts hero, became the first Asian hero to star in an American comic book series.

Comic book companies were in the early stages of cultural expansion and many of these characters played to specific stereotypes; Cage often employed lingo similar to that of blaxploitation films, Native Americans were often associated with wild animals and Asians were often portrayed as martial artists. Subsequent minority heroes, such as the X-Men’s Storm (the first black superheroine) and The Teen Titans’ Cyborg avoided the patronizing nature of the earlier characters as the comics industry became more mature and diverse.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87, the first appearance of John Stewart. Art by Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87, the first appearance of John Stewart. Art by Neal Adams

In the 1971, the series Green Lantern/Green Arrow commented on race relations with the introduction of John Stewart, a black and somewhat belligerent architect who Green Lantern’s alien benefactors chose as Hal Jordan’s standby, an idea that initially discomforted Jordan and was meant to discomfort some readers although he quickly proves himself. In the 1980s, Stewart became the Green Lantern permanently, making him the first black person to take the mantle of a classic superhero. The creators of the 2000s-era Justice League animated series selected Stewart as the show’s Green Lantern, boosting his profile, although some fans accused the creators of Justice League of including him in lieu of other Green Lanterns merely to add diversity.

In 1993, Milestone Comics, an African-American-owned imprint of DC, introduced a line of series that included characters of many ethnic minorities, including several black headliners. The imprint lasted four years, during which it introduced Static, a character adapted into the WB Network series, Static Shock.

Newspaper headline from Alpha Flight #106. Art by Mark Pacella Newspaper headline from Alpha Flight #106. Art by Mark Pacella

Non-heterosexual characters

In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of Alpha Flight, was homosexual, after years of implication. Although some secondary characters in Watchmen were gay, Northstar was the first openly gay superhero to have a permanent presence in a continuing series. Since then, a few other semi-prominent gay superheroes have emerged, such as Gen¹³'s Rainmaker, The Authority's gay couple Apollo and Midnighter, and The Flash adversary-turned-supporting hero The Pied Piper.

Recently, a few characters were revealed gay in two Marvel titles, the Ultimate incarnation of Colossus in Ultimate X-Men and Wiccan and Hulkling of the Young Avengers.

Diversified teams

In 1975, Marvel revived the X-Men, introducing a new team with members culled from several different nations, including the German Nightcrawler, the Russian Colossus, the Canadian Wolverine and the Kenyan Storm. The X-Men, which became comic books’ most successful franchise in the coming decade, continued to have a radically diverse roster and an underlining message of tolerance and unity. Ethnic diversity would be an important part of subsequent X-Men-related groups, as well as series that attempted to mimic the X-Men’s success.

Treatment in other media


Halle Berry as Storm and Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler in the second X-Men film Halle Berry as Storm and Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler in the second X-Men film

Main article: Superhero films

Superhero films began as Saturday movie serials aimed at children during the 1940s. The decline of these serials meant the death of superhero films until the release of 1978‘s Superman. Several sequels followed in the 1980s. A popular Batman series lasted from 1989 until 1997. These franchises were initially successful but later sequels in both series fared poorly, stunting the growth of superhero films for a time.

In the early 2000s, blockbusters such as 2000’s X-Men, 2002’s Spider-Man and 2005's Batman Begins have led to dozens of superhero films. The improvements in special effects technology and more sophisticated writing that both respects and emulates the spirit of the comic books has drawn in mainstream audiences and caused critics to take superhero films more seriously.


In the1940s, Fleischer/Famous Studios produced a number of groundbreaking Superman cartoons, which became the first examples of superheroes in animation.

Since the 1960s, superhero cartoons have been a staple of children’s television, particularly in the U.S.. However, by the early 1980s, US broadcasting restrictions on violence in children’s entertainment led to series that were extremely tame, a trend exemplified by the series Super Friends.

In the 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men led the way for series that displayed advanced animation, mature writing and respect for the comic books on which they were based. This trend continues with Cartoon Network’s successful adaptation of DC's Justice League. The comics superheroes mythos itself received a nostalgic treatment in the popular 2004 Disney/Pixar release The Incredibles.

Live-action television series

Burt Ward as Robin and Adam West as Batman in the 1960s Batman television series Burt Ward as Robin and Adam West as Batman in the 1960s Batman television series

Several popular but, by modern standards, campy live action superhero programs aired from the early 1950s until the late 1970s. These included The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, the psychedelic-colored Batman series of the 1960s starring Adam West and Burt Ward and CBS’s Wonder Woman series of the 1970s starring Lynda Carter. The popular Incredible Hulk of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, had a more somber tone.

In the 1990s, networks attempted several unconventional uses of the superhero genre in live action shows, including the exceptionally popular Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, adapted from the Japanese Super Sentai. Other shows targeting teenaged and young adult audiences, included Lois and Clark, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias and Smallville, which retooled Superman's origin as a teen drama.

Real-life superheroes

Some real life individuals have taken-up identities and costumes resembling those of superheroes. None have taken on the sizable missions associated with fictional superheroes but have used their guises to perform civic deeds and/or highlight a cause. Examples include Terrifica, a New York City woman who [9] patrols bars and clubs to protect inebriated women from men and Superbarrio, a Mexico City resident who rallies for various labor rights causes [10].

See also

External links

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