Comics 101 – What Are Super-Heroes?

A super-hero is a fictional character – typically an adventurer or vigilante of some sort – with superhuman powers or abilities (physical, mental or spiritual in nature), whose exploits are chronicled almost entirely in comic books or other media adaptations of those comic book adventures. These are typically children’s cartoons, but several super-hero movies have been released in the past 10 years.

Some common characteristics include:

  • A brightly-colored, skin-tight, often thematic costume (Batman’s costume resembles a giant bat, Captain America’s costume is in patriotic red, white and blue)
  • A need to keep his or her identity secret. This is often in an attempt to protect the hero’s loved ones.
  • A strong moral code. A hero will often do something with no more motivation than, “It’s the right thing to do.”
  • Weapons or other gear that are impossible with current science.

Not all super-heroes fall neatly into those characteristics (The Fantastic Four, for example, do not operate with secret identities), but most do.

Super-heroes can trace their history to the pulp heroes of the 1920s and 30s.

Specifically, elements of Doc Savage, who was the peak of human evolution, can be seen in Superman’s abilities in his earliest adventures; and Batman’s dark tone can be drawn to The Shadow, while his costume has more in common with comic strip hero, The Phantom. The Phantom predates Superman, but because Superman has super-human powers, he is generally considered the first super-hero.

The vast majority of super-hero comic books produced today are published by either DC Comics or Marvel Comics. In fact, they co-own the copyright to the term “super-hero.” No other comic book company can use “super-hero” or any variation of the term.

Super-hero stories lend themselves well to other genres, from the “intergalactic cop” science fiction of Green Lantern to the Law & Order kind of police procedural in Powers.

Most modern super-hero stories continue to feel the impact of The Watchmen. Characters that were written primarily for children for 40-70 years are now dealing with much more mature themes including political corruption, betrayal, madness, and what happens when the “bad guys” win. Lex Luthor has been President of the United States, and Norman “Green Goblin” Osborn is, as of this writing, currently one of the most powerful politicians in the Marvel Universe.

The future of super-heroes is as uncertain as super-hero comics. As independent comics and graphic novels gain a greater foothold in the industry, DC and Marvel are taking more chances with their properties, allowing creators the opportunity to dramatically kill off all but the most recognizable properties if it suits the needs of the story.