For Truth and Justice: A History of Superheroes – Part 1


Stela’s upcoming new graphic novel, Haven, brings superheroes to our stable of titles. Superheroes are ubiquitous these days but where did it all begin?

April 18, 1938, a new comic magazine appeared on newsstands, Action Comics #1. It also sported something new on the cover. A man in blue tights and a red cape throwing a car into a wall. The man was Superman and the superhero genre was born. Nothing like him had been seen before and the public loved it.


The Shadow
The Shadow

Before Superman appeared there were some characters who gave us certain superhero tropes. Putting aside mythological superhumans like Hercules or Cuchulainn and legendary heroes like Robin Hood, in the early 20th century we see the seeds of the superhero archetype.

In the 1903 play (and later novel series), The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy introduces us to the masked avenger and secret identities. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a spy and masked hero of the French Revolution, in the guise of a the shallow, dim-witted, dandy Sir Percy Blakeney, he is actually an expert swordsman and fearless agent of justice rescuing aristocats from the guillotine.

A millionaire playboy who dresses in dark clothes and a mask fights crime (sound familiar?) in the 1914 Jimmie Dale alias The Grey Seal, pulp stories (pulp magazines and novels were inexpensive publications). Jimmie is, at first, a bored socialite who breaks into homes and safes just to prove he can but later on uses his skills in lockpicking and disguise to bust crime.

Zorro made his entry in 1919 continuing the tradition started in The Scarlet Pimpernel. By American pulp writer Johnston McCulley, Zorro is a masked vigilante set in the Pueblo of Los Angeles during the era of Spanish California. He protects the common people and indigenous population from corrupt officials and other villains.

In the newspaper comics of 1934 and ‘36 there was Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom. Mandrake used magic to fight crime and villains, including gangsters, extraterrestrials, and mad scientists. His greatest power was a fast hypnosis that he used to create illusions in people’s mind. Not to mention other powers like turning invisible, shapeshifting, levitation, and teleportation.

Seemingly immortal, the current Phantom, Kit Walker, is actually the 21st. Each Phantom passes on the persona to a new bearer of the costume. The Phantom has no powers but fights injustice with his strength, wits, and skill with weapons.

In a series of pulp stories and novels in the 1930’s The Shadow fought crime with his heightened reflexes, expert marksmanship, and his hypnotic power to “cloud men’s minds”. The Shadow is regarded by many as the precursor to many superheroes, most notably Batman.

Doc Savage was a series of pulp stories from 1933 and into the 40’s. Born Clark Savage, Jr. Doc  was raised by a team of scientists and experts, assembled by his father, to be the perfect man. He developed great strength and endurance, martial arts expertise, vast knowledge of all the sciences, and the ability to mimic voices. He and his aides went on dynamic adventures.

Post Superman: The Golden Age

Action Comics #1
Action Comics #1

Superman wasn’t the only superhero to appear in Action Comics #1, a thinly veiled copy of Mandrake, Zatara the Magician (who later was the father of the more interesting Zatana). Throughout the 1940’s there was a slew of new superheroes. Some memorable and iconic, some…not so much.

The second superhero to appear after Superman was The Arrow. Not a huge success but he was the precursor to such characters as Green Arrow or Hawkeye.

Less than a year after Action Comics #1 another character would make his debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman. Batman was the night to Superman’s day, and like Superman an instant hit.

Shortly after, the first comic book anti-hero, Namor the Sub-Mariner, was published in Marvel Comics #1. Unlike any character before he was the mutant son of a sea captain and a princess of Atlantis. He sought vengeance against the surface world for perceived threats to Atlantis.

From water to fire the Human Torch also appeared in Marvel Comics #1. The first non-human hero, the Human Torch was actually an android that would burst into flames when exposed to oxygen.

1940 and ‘41 saw the biggest boom of new superheroes. It was during this time that Flash, Captain Marvel (Shazam), Hawkman, Green Lantern, Captain America, Aquaman, Green Arrow, and Wonder Woman came into being.

For Truth and Justice: A History of Superheroes continues next week with part two. Look for Haven to appear on the Stela app on May 16, 2019.

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