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A superhero (sometimes rendered super-hero or super hero) is a type of stock character possessing "extraordinary or superhuman powers" and dedicated to protecting the public. Since the debut of the prototypical superhero Superman in 1938, stories of superheroes—ranging from brief episodic adventures to continuing years-long sagas—have dominated American comic books and crossed over into other media. The word itself dates to at least 1917. A female superhero is sometimes called a superheroine (also rendered super-heroine or super heroine). "SUPER HEROES" is a trademark co-owned by DC Comics and Marvel Comics.
By most definitions, characters do not strictly require actual superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes, although terms such as costumed crime fighters or masked vigilantes are sometimes used to refer to those such as Batman and Green Arrow without such powers who share other common superhero traits. Such characters were generally referred to as "mystery men" in the so-called Golden Age of Comic Books to distinguish them from characters with super-powers.
Normally, superheroes use their powers to counter day-to-day crime while also combating threats against humanity by supervillains, their criminal counterparts. Often, one of these supervillains will be the superhero's archenemy. As well, some longrunning superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and Iron Man each have a rogues gallery of enemies. As well, superheroes sometimes will combat such irregular threats as aliens, magical entities, American war enemies such as nazism or communism, and godlike or demonic creatures.
Superheroes most often appear in comic books, and superhero stories are the dominant form of American comic books. After success in the printed community, superheroes have also been featured in radio serials, novel, TV series, movies, and other media. Most of the superheroes who appear in other media are adapted from comics, but there are exceptions and changes are common.
Marvel Characters, Inc. and DC Comics share ownership of the United States trademark for the phrases "Super Hero" and "Super Heroes" and these two companies own the vast majority of the world’s most famous and influential superheroes. Of the "Significant Seven" chosen by The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History (1989), Marvel owns Spider-Man and Captain America and DC owns Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man. Like many non-Marvel characters popular during the 1940s, the latter two were acquired by DC from defunct publishers. However, there have been significant heroes owned by others, especially since the 1990s when Image Comics and other companies that allowed creators to maintain trademark and editorial control over their characters developed. Hellboy and Spawn are some of the most successful creator-owned heroes.
Many superheroes work independently. However, there are also many superhero teams. Some, such as the Fantastic Four, DNAgents, X-Men, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 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 with separate origins who also operate individually, yet will team up to confront larger threats. The shared setting or "universes" of Marvel, DC and other publishers also allow for regular superhero team-ups. 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 lessened the need for characters who specifically appeal to child readers. Sidekicks are seen as a separate classification of superheroes.
Although superhero fiction is considered a form of fantasy/adventure, it crosses into many genres. Many superhero franchises resemble crime fiction (Batman, Punisher), others horror fiction (Spawn, Spectre) and others 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.
Within their own fictional universes, public perception of superheroes varies greatly. Some, like John Cunningham and the Fantastic Four, are adored and seen as important civic leaders. Others, like Batman and Spider-Man, are met with public skepticism or outright hostility. A few, such as the X-Men and the characters of Watchmen, defend a populace that almost unanimously misunderstands and despises them.
A superhero's costume helps make him or her recognizable to the general public. Costumes are often colorful to enhance the character's visual appeal and frequently incorporate the superhero's name and theme. For example, Daredevil resembles a red devil, Captain America's costume echoes the American flag, Batman's costume resembles a large bat, and Spider-Man's costume features a spiderweb pattern. The convention of superheroes wearing masks (frequently without visible pupils) and skintight unitards originated with Lee Falk's comic strip hero The Phantom.
Many features of superhero costumes recur frequently, including the following:
Many superheroes (and supervillains) have headquarters or a base of operations. These locations are often equipped with state-of-the-art, highly-advanced or alien technologies, and they are usually disguised and/or in secret locations to avoid being detected by enemies, or by the general public. Some bases, such as the Baxter Building, are common public knowledge (even though their precise location may remain secret). Many heroes and villains who do not have a permanent headquarters are said to have a mobile base of operations.
To the heroes and villains who have secret bases, these bases can serve a variety of functions.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (December 2012)|
In superhero role-playing games, such as Hero Games' Champions, Green Ronin Publishing's Mutants and Masterminds, Cryptic Studios' MMORPG City of Heroes and Champions Online, superheroes are formally organized into categories or archetypes based on their skills and abilities. Since comic book and role-playing fandom often overlap, these labels have carried over into discussions of superheroes outside the context of games:
These categories often overlap. For instance, Batman is a skilled detective, martial artist and gadgeteer, and Hellboy has the strength and durability of a brick and some mystic abilities or powers, similar to a mage. Wolverine fits into both the slasher and healing categories, and Spider man fits into acrobats, speedster, and gadgeteer groups. Very powerful characters—such as Superman, Thor, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Dr. Manhattan, and the Silver Surfer—can be listed in many categories. Flying, super-strong, invulnerable heroes such as Superman, Captain Marvel and Thor are sometimes in a category all their own, known as "Paragons" or "Originals" (as they were some of the earliest heroes in comics). Another possibility is that Superman is a "Paragon" and a "Blaster" (heat vision and super-breath), Captain Marvel is a "Paragon" and a "Mage" (the Power of Shazam), Thor is "Paragon" and a "Elemental" (weather manipulation) and Hancock is a "Paragon" and a "Healer" (immortality), or perhaps even the Martian Manhunter (Paragon, Ghost, Blaster, Shapeshifter, Size Changer, Mentalist, Mastermind and Healer). So, in esscence, the Fantastic Four consists of a Shapeshifter/Mastermind (Mister Fantastic), a Ghost/Mentalist (Invisible Woman), an Elementalist/Aerial (the Human Torch), and a Brick/Martial Artist (The Thing).
Nevertheless, variations on the term "Super Hero" are jointly claimed by DC Comics and Marvel Comics as trademarks in the United States. Registrations of "Super Hero" marks have been maintained by DC and Marvel since the 1960s. (U.S. Trademark Serial Nos. 72243225 and 73222079, among others).
Joint trademarks shared by competitors are rare in the United States. They are supported by a non-precedential 2003 Trademark Trial and Appeal Board decision upholding the "Swiss Army" knife trademark. Like the "Super Hero" marks, the "Swiss Army" mark was jointly registered by competitors. It was upheld on the basis that the registrants jointly "represent a single source" of the knives, due to their long-standing cooperation for quality control.
Critics in the legal community dispute whether the "Super Hero" marks meet the legal standard for trademark protection in the United States-distinctive designation of a single source of a product or service. Controversy exists over each element of that standard: whether "Super Hero" is distinctive rather than generic, whether "Super Hero" designates a source of products or services, and whether DC and Marvel jointly represent a single source. Some critics further characterize the marks as a misuse of trademark law to chill competition.
For the first two decades of their existence in comic books, superheroes largely conformed to the model of lead characters in American popular fiction of the time, with the typical superhero a white, middle- to upper- class, tall, heterosexual, professional, 20-to-30-year-old male. A majority of superheroes still fit this description as of 2010, but beginning in the 1960s many characters have broken the mold.
The first female superhero is Sheena, Queen of the Jungle from Fiction House's Jumbo Comics #1. She was created by Jerry Iger and Will Eisner. She was the first female comic-book character with her own title, with her 1937 (in Great Britain; 1938 in the United States) premiere, preceding Wonder Woman #1 (cover-dated Dec. 1941).
The second known female superhero is writer-artist Fletcher Hanks's minor character Fantomah, an ageless, ancient Egyptian woman in the modern day who could transform into a skull-faced creature with superpowers to fight evil; she debuted in Fiction House's Jungle Comics #2 (Feb. 1940), credited to the pseudonymous "Barclay Flagg".
Another seminal superheroine is Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, a non-costumed character who fought crime and wartime saboteurs using the superpower of invisibility; she debuted in the eponymous syndicated newspaper comic strip by Russell Stamm on June 3, 1940. A superpowered female antihero, the Black Widow—a costumed emissary of Satan who killed evildoers in order to send them to Hell—debuted in Mystic Comics #4 (Aug. 1940), from Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics.
Though non-superpowered, like the Phantom and Batman, the earliest female costumed crimefighters are The Woman in Red, introduced in Standard Comics' Thrilling Comics #2 (March 1940); Lady Luck, debuting in the Sunday-newspaper comic-book insert The Spirit Section June 2, 1940; the comedic character Red Tornado, debuting in All-American Comics #20 (Nov 1940); Miss Fury, debuting in the eponymous comic strip by female cartoonist Tarpé Mills on April 6, 1941; the Phantom Lady, introduced in Quality Comics Police Comics #1 (Aug. 1941); and the Black Cat, introduced in Harvey Comics' Pocket Comics #1 (also Aug. 1941). The superpowered Nelvana of the Northern Lights debuted in Canadian publisher Hillborough Studio's Triumph-Adventure Comics #1 (Aug. 1941), and the superhumanly strong Miss Victory was introduced in Holyoke (comics) the same month. The character was later adopted by A.C. Comics.
The first widely recognizable female superhero is Wonder Woman, from All-American Publications, one of two companies that would merge to form DC Comics. She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston with help and inspiration from his wife Elizabeth and their mutual lover Olive Byrne. Wonder Woman debuted in All Star Comics #8 (Jan. 1942).
Starting in the late 1950s, DC introduced Hawkgirl, Supergirl, Batwoman and later Batgirl, all female versions of prominent male superheroes. Batgirl would eventually shed her "bat" persona and become Oracle, the premiere information broker of the DC superhero community and leader of the superheroine team Birds of Prey In addition, the company introduced Zatanna and a second Black Canary and had several female supporting characters that were successful professionals, such as the Atom's love-interest, attorney Jean Loring.
As with DC's superhero team the Justice League of America, with included Wonder Woman, the Marvel Comics teams of the early 1960s usually included at least one female, such as the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl, the X-Men's Marvel Girl and the Avengers' Wasp and later Scarlet Witch. In the wake of second-wave feminism, the Invisible Girl became the more confident and assertive Invisible Woman, and Marvel Girl became the hugely powerful destructive force called Phoenix.
In subsequent decades, Elektra, Catwoman, Witchblade, and Spider-Girl became stars of popular series. The series Uncanny X-Men and its related superhero-team titles included many females in vital roles.
In American comics, superheroines often sport improbably large breasts and an illogical lack of muscle-mass, and their costumes sexualise their wearers almost as a matter of course. For example, Power Girl's includes a small window between her breasts; Emma Frost's costume traditionally resembles erotic lingerie; and Starfire's started as a full-body covering and has, over four decades, been reduced to a thong, pelvic covering, mask, and stiletto heels. This visual treatment of women in American comics has led to accusations of systemic sexism and objectification.
In the late 1960s, superheroes of other racial groups began to appear. In 1966, Marvel Comics introduced the Black Panther, an African king who became the first non-caricatured black superhero. The first African-American superhero, the Falcon, followed in 1969, and three years later, Luke Cage, a self-styled "hero-for-hire", became the first black superhero to star in his own series. In 1971, Red Wolf became the first Native American in the superheroic tradition to headline a series. In 1974, Shang Chi, a martial artist, became the first prominent Asian superhero to star in an American comic book. (Asian-American FBI agent Jimmy Woo had starred in a short-lived 1950s series named after a "yellow peril" antagonist, Yellow Claw.)
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 such conventions. Storm and Cyborg were both part of superhero teams, which became increasingly diverse in subsequent years. The X-Men, in the particular, were revived in 1975 with a line-up of characters culled from several nations, including the Kenyan Storm, German Nightcrawler, Russian Colossus and Canadian Wolverine. Diversity in both ethnicity and national origin would be an important part of subsequent superhero groups.
In 1989, Marvel's Captain Marvel was the first female black superhero from a major publisher to get her own title in a special one-shot issue. In 1991, Marvel's Epic Comics released Captain Confederacy, the first female black superhero to have her own series.
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 animated series Static Shock.
In addition to the creation of new minority heroes, publishers have filled the roles of once-Caucasian heroes with minorities. The African-American John Stewart debuted in 1971 as an alternate for Earth's Green Lantern Hal Jordan. In the 1980s, Stewart joined the Green Lantern Corps as a regular member. The creators of the 2000s-era Justice League animated series selected Stewart as the show's Green Lantern. Other such successor-heroes of color include DC's Firestorm (African-American), Atom (Asian), and Blue Beetle (Latino). Marvel Comics, in 2003 retroactive continuity, revealed that the "Supersoldier serum" that empowered Captain America was subsequently tested on an African American, Isaiah Bradley a.k.a. "the black Captain America", who is the grandfather of the young avengers Patriot.
In 1992, Marvel revealed that Northstar, a member of the Canadian mutant superhero team Alpha Flight, was homosexual, after years of implication. This ended a long-standing editorial mandate that there would be no LGBT characters in Marvel comics. Although some secondary characters in DC Comics' mature-audience miniseries Watchmen were gay, Northstar was the first openly gay superhero appearing in mainstream comic books. Other gay and bisexual superheroes have since emerged, such as Pied Piper, Gen¹³'s Rainmaker, and the gay couple Apollo and Midnighter of Wildstorm Comics' superhero team the Authority.
In the mid-2000s, some characters were revealed gay in two Marvel titles: Wiccan and Hulkling of the superhero group Young Avengers; and the X-Men's Colossus in the alternate universe Ultimate Marvel imprint. Xavin, from the Runaways is a a shape-changing alien filling the part of a transgender lesbian. In 2006, DC revealed in its Manhunter title that longtime character Obsidian was gay as well as his father Alan Scott The Golden Age Green Lantern in a rebooted The New 52 universe and a new incarnation of Batwoman was introduced as a "lipstick lesbian" to some media attention.
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