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Superhero fiction

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Superhero fiction

Superhero fiction can be defined by the following tropes / elements (not all are necessary): superpowers, costumes and masks (trope), secret identities, hero vs. villain, genre blindness, crime fighting / vigilantism, 'super' plots, and superhero culture. Most of these are fairly intuitive with the probably exception of "superhero culture". It's a bit difficult to define, but roughly, "superhero culture" is where the general populace knows about supers, expects heroes to help and villains perpetrate evil deeds, and is aware of and expects the other tropes, such as masks, costumes, and powers. (Source: Fritz Freiheit) (e)

From Wikipedia

From Superhero fiction at Wikipedia

Superhero fiction
Stylistic origins Early 20th century United States
Cultural origins Golden Age of Comic Books
Distinctive features Focus on the adventures of heroic figures possessing superhuman abilities.

Superhero fiction is a genre originating in and most common to American comic books, though it has expanded into other media through adaptations and original works.

The form is a type of speculative fiction examining the adventures of costumed crime fighters known as superheroes, who often possess superhuman powers and battle similarly powered criminals known as supervillains. Occasionally, this type of fiction is referred to as superhuman or super-powered fiction rather than superhero fiction in order to reflect that broader scope of both heroes and villains, as well as cover those characters with enhanced abilities that fall outside the classic superhero/supervillain dichotomy.

Common plot elements


A superhero is most often the protagonist of superhero fiction, although some titles, such as Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, use superheroes as secondary characters.


Secret identities

Both superheroes and supervillains often use alter egos while in action. While sometimes the character's true name is known, alter egos are most often used to hide the character's secret identity from their enemies and the public.


Death in superhero fiction is rarely permanent, as characters who die are often brought back to life through supernatural means, retcons or other reasons. Fans have termed the practice of bringing back dead characters "comic book death".

Another common trait of superhero fiction is the killing off of a superhero's significant other by a supervillain to advance the plot. Comic book writer Gail Simone has coined the term "Women in Refrigerators" (named after an incident in Green Lantern #54 where Kyle Rayner's girlfriend Alex DeWitt is murdered by the supervillain Major Force and stuffed into Rayner's refrigerator) to refer to this practice.


Oftentimes, many works superhero fiction occur in the a shared fictional universe, sometimes (as in the cases of the DC and Marvel Universes) establishing a fictional continuity of thousands of works spread over many decades.

Changes to continuity are also common, ranging from small changes to established continuity, commonly called retcons, to full reboots, erasing all previous continuity.

It is also common for stories works of superhero fiction to contain established characters and setting while occurring outside of the main canon for those characters.


Crossovers often occur between characters of different works of superhero fiction. In comic books, highly publicized "events" are published featuring crossovers between many characters.

Intercompany crossovers, between characters of different continuity, are also common.



File:First Phantom Sunday strip.jpg
The first Phantom Sunday strip (May 28, 1939). Art by Ray Moore.

The mythologies of many ancient civilizations feature pantheons of gods and goddesses with superhuman powers, as well as demigods like Heracles and heroes such as Gilgamesh and Perseus.[1][2] Later, folkloric heroes such as Robin Hood and the 19th century protagonists of Victorian literature, such as the masked adventurer The Scarlet Pimpernel, featured what became such superhero conventions as secret identities. Penny dreadfuls, dime novels, radio programs and other popular fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries featured mysterious, swashbuckling heroes with distinct costumes, secret identities, unusual abilities and altruistic missions. These include Zorro, The Green Hornet, the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and Spring Heeled Jack, the last of whom first emerged as an urban legend. Likewise, the science-fiction hero John Carter of Mars, with his futuristic weapons and gadgets; Tarzan, with his high degree of athleticism and strength, and his ability to communicate with animals; and the biologically modified Hugo Danner of the novel Gladiator were heroes with unusual abilities who fought sometimes larger-than-life foes.

The most direct antecedents are pulp magazine crime fighters—such as the masked & caped Zorro (1919) with his trademark "Z", the preternaturally mesmeric The Shadow (1930), the "peak human" Doc Savage (1933), and The Spider (1933)—and comic strip characters such as Hugo Hercules, Popeye and The Phantom. The first masked crime-fighter created for comic books was writer-artist George Brenner's non-superpowered detective the Clock,[3][4] who debuted in Centaur Publications' Funny Pages #6 (Nov. 1936). Historians point to the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938) as the debut of the comic-book archetype the superhero. Outside the American industry of comics, the first full-fledged superhero is consideredTemplate:By whom to be the Nyctalope, written by French writer Jean de La Hire in 1911.

Golden Age

Silver Age

In the 1950s, DC Comics, under the editorship of Julius Schwartz, recreated many popular 1940s heroes, launching an era later deemed the Silver Age of comic books. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and several others were recreated with new origin stories. While past superheroes resembled mythological heroes in their origins and abilities, these heroes were inspired by contemporary science fiction. In 1960, DC banded its most popular heroes together in the Justice League of America, which became a sales phenomenon.

Empowered by the return of the superhero at DC, Marvel Comics editor/writer Stan Lee and the artists/co-writers Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Bill Everett launched a new line of superhero comic books, beginning with The Fantastic Four in 1961 and continuing with the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, and Daredevil. These comics continued DC’s use of science fiction concepts (radiation was a common source of superpowers) but placed greater emphasis on personal conflict and character development. This led to many superheroes that differed from predecessors with more dramatic potential. For example, the Fantastic Four were a superhero family of sorts, who squabbled and even held some unresolved acrimony towards one another, and Spider-Man was a teenager who struggled to earn money and maintain his social life in addition to his costumed exploits.


In the 1970s, DC Comics paired Green Arrow with Green Lantern in a team-up series. Writer Dennis O'Neil portrayed Green Arrow as an angry, street-smart populist and Green Lantern as good-natured but short-sighted authority figure. This is the first instance in which superheroes were classified into two distinct groups, the "classic" superhero and the more brazen anti-hero.

In the 1970s, DC returned Batman to his roots as a dubious vigilante, and Marvel introduced several popular antiheroes, including The Punisher, Wolverine, and writer/artist Frank Miller's dark version of the longtime hero Daredevil. Batman, The Punisher, and Daredevil were driven by the crime-related deaths of family members and continual exposure to slum life, while X-Men's Wolverine was tormented by barely controllable savage instincts and Iron Man struggled with debilitating alcoholism. The trend was also seen in the 1986 miniseries Watchmen by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, which was published by DC but took place outside the "DC Universe" with new characters. Some of the superheroes of Watchmen were emotionally unsatisfied, psychologically withdrawn, sexually confused, and even sociopathic. Watchmen also examined perceived flaws in the superhero mythos such as the inculpability of vigilantism, and the supposed ultimate irrelevance of fighting crime in a world threatened by nuclear holocaust.

Another story, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1985–1986), continued Batman’s renovation/reinterpretation. This miniseries, written and illustrated by Frank Miller, featured a Batman from an alternate/non-continuity future returning from retirement. The series portrayed the hero as an obsessed vigilante, necessarily at odds with official social authority figures, illustrated both by the relationship between Batman and retiring police commissioner James Gordon, and by the symbolic slugfest between the Dark Knight and Superman, now an agent/secret weapon of the U.S government.

Miller continued his treatment of the Batman character with 1987's Batman: Year One (Batman issues #404-407) and 2001's The Dark Knight Strikes Again (also known as DK2). DK2, the long-awaited follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns, contrasts the traditional superhero-crimefighter character with the politicized characters that evolved during the 1990s (perhaps epitomized by The Authority and Planetary, both written by British author Warren Ellis). In DK2, Superman's nemesis Lex Luthor is the power behind the throne, controlling a tyrannical American government, as well as Superman himself. Superman's submission to Luthor's twisted power structure, in the name of saving lives is contrasted with Batman's determined attack against corrupted institutions of government; the message perhaps that crime can occur at all levels of society, and that heroes are responsible for fighting both symptoms and causes of societal dysfunction and corruption.

Struggles of the 1990s

By the early 1990s, anti-heroes had become the rule rather than the exception, as The Punisher, Wolverine and the grimmer Batman became popular and marketable characters. Anti-heroes such as the X-Men’s Gambit and Bishop, X-Force's Cable and the Spider-Man adversary Venom became some of the most popular new characters of the early 1990s. This was a financial boom time for the industry when a new character could become well known quickly and, according to many fans, stylistic flair eclipsed character development. In 1992, Marvel illustrators Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld—all of whom helped popularize anti-heroes in the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises—left Marvel to form Image Comics. Image changed the comic book industry as a haven for creator-owned characters and the first significant challenger to Marvel and DC in thirty years. Image superhero teams, such as Lee’s WildC.A.Ts and Gen¹³, and Liefeld’s Youngblood, were instant hits but were criticized as over-muscled, over-sexualized, excessively violent, and lacking in unique personality. McFarlane's occult hero Spawn fared somewhat better in critical respect and long-term sales.

In this decade, Marvel and DC made drastic temporary changes to iconic characters. DC's "Death of Superman" story arc across numerous Superman titles found the hero killed and resurrected, while Batman was physically crippled in the "KnightFall" storyline. At Marvel, a clone of Spider-Man vied with the original for over a year of stories across several series. All eventually returned to the status quo.

Throughout the 1990s, several creators deviated from the trends of violent anti-heroes and sensational, large-scale storylines. Painter Alex Ross, writer Kurt Busiek and Alan Moore himself tried to "reconstruct" the superhero form. Acclaimed titles such as Busiek's, Ross' and Brent Anderson's Astro City and Moore's Tom Strong combined artistic sophistication and idealism into a super heroic version of retro-futurism. Ross also painted two widely acclaimed mini-series, Marvels (written by Busiek) for Marvel Comics and Kingdom Come for DC, which examined the classic superhero in a more literary context, as well as satirizing antiheroes. Magog, Superman’s rival in Kingdom Come, was partially modeled after Cable.

In non-comics media


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, a critical and commercial success. Several sequels followed in the 1980s. 1989's Batman was also highly successful and followed by several sequels in the 1990s. Yet while both franchises were initially successful, later sequels in both series fared poorly both artistically and financially, stunting the growth of superhero films for a time.

In the early 2000s, hit films such as 1998's Blade, X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002) and the reboot Batman Begins (2005) have led to many more superhero films, both successful (such as 2008's Iron Man) and less so (such as 2003's Daredevil). Other superhero films in the decade have included sequels as well as The Hulk (2003), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), Watchmen (2009), and the reboots Superman Returns (2006) and The Incredible Hulk (2008). Although the genre's commercial appeal has been relatively uneven, the subgenre become a major element of mainstream film production with outstanding successes like The Dark Knight in 2008 and The Avengers in 2012 attracting major revenue and critical plaudits.

Live-action television series

Several live-action superhero programs aired from the early 1950s until the late 1970s. These included Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, the campy Batman series of the 1960s starring Adam West and Burt Ward and CBS' Wonder Woman series of the 1970s starring Lynda Carter. The Incredible Hulk of the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, had a more somber tone. In the 1990s, the syndicated Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, adapted from the Japanese Super Sentai, became popular. Other shows targeting teenage and young adult audiences that decade included Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In 2001, Smallville retooled Superman's origin as a teen drama. The 2006 NBC series Heroes tells the story of several ordinary people who each suddenly find themselves with a superpower.


In the 1940s, 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 1970s, US broadcasting restrictions on violence in children’s entertainment led to series that were extremely tame, a trend exemplified by the series Super Friends. Meanwhile, Japan's anime industry successfully contributed its own style of superhero series, such as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman.

In the 1980s, the Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends brought together Spider-Man, Iceman, and Firestar. The following decade, Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, aimed at somewhat older audiences, found critical success in mainstream publications.[5] Series that followed included Superman: The Animated Series (1996) and Cartoon Network's adaptation of DC's Justice League (2001) and Teen Titans.

Comics' superhero mythos itself received a nostalgic treatment in the 2004 Disney/Pixar release The Incredibles, which utilized computer animation. Original superheroes with basis in older trends have also been made for television, such as Cartoon Network's Ben 10 and Nickelodeon's Danny Phantom.

The new animated show The Super Hero Squad Show premiered September 14, 2009. This show has all of Marvel’s favorite characters such as Captain America, Falcon, Hulk, Reptil, Silver Surfer, Thor, and Wolverine. They are the protectors of Super Hero City, where Stan Lee just happens to be the Mayor. They must protect the city from the likes of Dr. Doom and his hoard of villains live in Villainville. The season-long plot involves pieces of the Infinity Sword being scattered across the globe during Iron Man's fight with Doctor Doom. The show is based on Marvel Super Hero Squad action figure line marketed by Hasbro beginning in 2006.


Beginning 1940s, the radio serial Superman starred Bud Collyer as the titular hero. Fellow DC Comics stars Batman and Robin made occasional guest appearances. Other superhero radio programs starred characters including the costumed but not superpowered Blue Beetle, and the non-costumed, superpowered Popeye. Also appearing on radio were such characters as the Green Hornet, the Green Lama, Doc Savage, and the Lone Ranger, a Western hero who relied on many conventions of the superhero archetype.

Novels, prose, poetry


Superheroes occasionally have been adapted into prose fiction, starting with Random House's 1942 novel The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther. In the 1970s, Elliot S! Maggin wrote the Superman novels, Last Son of Krypton (1978) and Miracle Monday, coinciding with but not adapting the movie Superman.[6] Other early adaptations include novels starring the comic-strip hero The Phantom, starting with 1943's Son of the Phantom. The character likewise returned in 1970s books, with a 15-installment series from Avon Books beginning in 1972, written by Phantom creator Lee Falk, Ron Goulart, and others.

Also during the 1970s, Pocket Books published 11 novels based on Marvel Comics characters.[6] Juvenile novels featuring Marvel Comics and DC Comics characters including Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Justice League, have been published, often marketed in association with TV series, as have Big Little Books starring the Fantastic Four and others.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Marvel and DC released novels adapting such story arcs as "The Death of Superman" and Batman's "No Man’s Land".


Original superhero or superhuman fiction has appeared in both novel and short-story print forms unrelated to adaptations from the major comic-book companies. It has also appeared in poetry.

Print magazines devoted to such stories include A Thousand Faces: A Quarterly Journal of Superhuman Fiction, published since 2007 in print and electronic form, and online only as of 2011[7] and This Mutant Life: Superhero Fiction, a bimonthly print publication from Australia, published since 2010.[8] The latter magazine was one of the few to also publish superhero poetry, ceasing to do so as of 2011. Superhero poems there included Philip L. Tite's "Brittle Lives", Mark Floyd's "Nemeses", and Jay Macleod's "All Our Children".

Novels with original superhuman stories include Robert Mayer's Superfolks (St. Martin's Griffin, March 9, 2005); James Maxey's Nobody Gets the Girl (Phobos Books, 2003); Rob Rogers's Devil's Cape (Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint, 2008); Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible (Pantheon Books, 2007); David J. Schwartz's Superpowers: A Novel (Three Rivers Press, 2008); Matthew Cody's Powerless (Knopf, 2009); and Van Allen Plexico's Sentinels series of superhero novels (Swarm/Permuted Press, beginning in 2008). Collections of superhuman short stories include Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories, edited by Owen King and John McNally (Free Press, 2008), and Masked, edited by Lou Anders (Gallery, 2010).

Audio / podcast

Increasingly, authors turn to new media to help distribute and promote their work.[9] Several examples of superhero fiction can be found in these forms[10]

Mur Lafferty's Parsec Award-winning novel, Playing For Keeps, features characters with less-than-heroic capabilities, showing that the idea of the superhero is established enough in popular culture for such developments of the theme to be possible. Published in 2008 by Swarm Press, it predates the recent SyFy show, Three Inches (which explores a similar theme) by two years. Playing For Keeps is also available for free in audio, podcast, and PDF formats.

Video games

While many popular superheroes have been featured in licensed video games, up until recently there have been few that have revolved around heroes created specifically for the game. This has changed due to two popular franchises: The Silver Age-inspired Freedom Force (2002), City of Heroes (2004), and Champions Online (2009) a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (or MMORPG), all of which allow players to create their own superheroes and/or villains.


In the 1980s and 1990s, the Internet allowed a worldwide community of fans and amateur writers to bring their own superhero creations to a global audience. The first original major shared superhero universe to develop on the Internet was Superguy, which first appeared on a UMNEWS mailing list in 1989. In 1992, a cascade on the USENET newsgroup rec.arts.comics would give birth to the The Legion of Net.Heroes shared universe. In 1994, LNH writers contributed to the creation of the newsgroup rec.arts.comics.creative, which spawned a number of original superhero shared universes.

Magazine-style websites that publish superhero fiction include Metahuman Press, active since 2005,[11] and Freedom Fiction Journal.[12] Superhuman fiction has also appeared in general science fiction/speculative fiction web publications, such as the weekly Strange Horizons, a publication that pays its contributors.[13] Two examples there are Paul Melko's "Doctor Mighty and the Case of Ennui" and Saladin Ahmed's "Doctor Diablo Goes Through the Motions".

Superhero fiction outside the United States

File:Kamen rider eurodata.png
Kamen Rider 1 was the hero of the original Kamen Rider series in 1971. This statue stands outside of Bandai's Tokyo headquarters.

There have been successful superhero works 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 is the only country that nears the US in output of superheroes. The earlier of these wore scarves either in addition to or as a substitute for capes and many wear helmets instead of masks.

Moonlight Mask, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai (the basis for Power Rangers), Metal Hero Series and Kikaider have become popular in Japanese tokusatsu live-action shows, and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Dragon Ball, Casshern, Devilman, The Guyver, and Sailor Moon are staples of Japanese anime and manga. However, most Japanese superhero series are shorter-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. In addition, Japanese manga often targets female readers, unlike U.S. comics, and has created such varieties as "magical girl" (e.g. Cardcaptor Sakura) for this audience. .

In 1947, Filipino writer/cartoonist Mars Ravelo introduced the first Asian superheroine, Darna, a young Filipina country girl who found a mystic talisman-pebble from another planet that allows her to transform into an adult warrior-woman. She was the first solo superheroine in the world to get her own feature-length motion picture in 1951 and has become a cultural institution in the Philippines.

British superheroes began appearing in the Golden Age shortly after the first American heroes became popular in the UK.[14] 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 revived Marvelman in series that reinvented the characters in a more serious vein, an attitude prevalent in newer British heroes, such as Zenith.

In France, where comics are known as bande dessinée (literally "drawn strip") and regarded as a proper art form, Editions Lug began translating and publishing Marvel comic books in anthology magazines in 1969. Soon, Lug started presenting its own heroes alongside Marvel stories. Some closely modeled their U.S. counterparts (such as the trio of Harvard entomologists-Olympic athletes—Mikros, Saltarella and Crabb—of the S.H.I.E.L.D.-esque saga of C.L.A.S.H.), while others included the shape-changing alien Wampus. Many were short-lived, while others rivaled their inspirations in longevity and have been the subject of reprints and revivals, such as Photonik.

In late 1980s, Raj comics introduced superhero genre in India and in the process became one of the biggest comics publishing house in India. Raj comics universe is home to many Indian superheroes, most notable among them being Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruva and Doga. Indian superheroes have also made their presence felt in other media including television and movies over the years. Notable among these are Shaktimaan, Chitti Babu, Mr. India, Krrish, Drona and G.One.

Cat Claw is a superheroine co-created by a pair of Serbian comic artists and writers.

Malaysia also created several recognized superheroes such as Kapten Malaysia (who resembles Superman and appeared in kids' magazines), Keluang Man (who resembles Batman and appeared in his own animation series), and Cicak-Man (who has appeared in two successful comedic superhero films).

In Australia, the print magazine This Mutant Life: Superhero Fiction was launched by editor Ben Langdon as a bi-monthly to publish prose and some poetry (it discontinued accepting poetry in 2011) of original superhuman fiction.


Almost since the inception of the superhero in comic books, the concept has come under fire from critics. Most famously, the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) alleged that sexual subtext existed in superhero comics, and included accusations that Batman and Robin were gay and Wonder Woman encouraged female dominance fetishes and lesbianism.

Writer Ariel Dorfman has criticized alleged class biases in many superhero narratives in several of his books, including The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Mind (1980), and is not alone in doing so. Marxist critics, such as Matthew Wolf-Meyer ("The World Ozymandias Made") and Jason Dittmer ("The Tyranny of the Serial") often point out that not only do the superheroes arguably constitute a ruling class, but by simply defending the world as-is, they effectively keep it from changing, and thus lock it into status quo. Some contemporary critics are more focused on the history and evolving nature of the superhero concept, as in Peter Coogan's Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre (2006).

See also

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External links

Template:Fiction writing Superhero fiction can be defined by the following tropes / elements (not all are necessary): superpowers, costumes and masks (trope), secret identities, hero vs. villain, genre blindness, crime fighting / vigilantism, 'super' plots, and superhero culture. Most of these are fairly intuitive with the probably exception of "superhero culture". It's a bit difficult to define, but roughly, "superhero culture" is where the general populace knows about supers, expects heroes to help and villains perpetrate evil deeds, and is aware of and expects the other tropes, such as masks, costumes, and powers. (Source: Fritz Freiheit)

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  1. See Coogan, Peter (25 July 2006). Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin, Texas: MonkeyBrain Books. ISBN 1-932265-18-X. 
  2. Roger Ebert. Roger Ebert's review of Watchmen; March 4, 2009
  3. Don Markstein's Toonopedia: The Clock
  4. International Heroes: The Clock
  5. Ken Tucker said of the former, in "TV Review: Holy Bat-Toon!", Entertainment Weekly, September 4, 1992: "The animation is first-rate, moving Batman across gray cotton clouds and against a backdrop of teetering Art Deco-style skyscrapers. ... In contrast to both the '60s show or [director] [Tim] Burton's movies, the new Batman features plots that actually make sense and an occasional bit of clever dialogue that never curdles into camp". Of the latter Frank Lovece of in TV Review: X-Men, Entertainment Weekly, March 5, 1993, said: "[T]he art is miles above the pasteboard cutouts of the 1960s and '70s superhero 'toons, and the characters are more believably flawed. The dialogue still comes straight from drive-in movies, though...."
  6. 6.0 6.1 (n.d.): Superhero Novels
  7. A Thousand Faces
  8. This Mutant Life
  9. Scott Sigler
  10. Superhero fiction on
  11. Metahuman Press
  12. Freedom Fiction Journal
  13. Strange Horizons: "About Us"
  14. British Superheroes: The Forties


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