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Uri-On , Israel's first color superhero comic, drawn by Michael Netzer in 1987

A superhero is a fictional character who usually possesses superhuman abilities or high-tech equipment that is used to protect humanity and fight evil . Superheroes typically have great courage and a noble character . It is not uncommon for them to keep their true identity secret by dressing up and appearing under a pseudonym . In the stories, their opponents are monsters or villains , but they also ward off natural disasters and aliens . The first superhero comics originated in the USA in the 1930s; the first superhero is Superman .

Characteristics of superheroes


Extra disguised as Batman

The figure of the archetypal superhero unconditionally risks her life for others. In contrast to his opponents, a superhero maintains high morale and only kills his opponents when it is inevitable. Many superheroes are endowed with a history of origin, in which the origin of their powers and their decision to fight for the good are examined in more detail. Typically, superheroes get their powers through advanced technology ( Batman , Iron Man ), a biological change ( Spider-Man , Fantastic Four ), an accident during an experiment ( Hulk , The Flash ).

But they can also owe their powers to their extraterrestrial origins ( Superman ) or magic ( Doctor Strange , Phantom Stranger ). Often, the acquisition of superpowers, as in the case of the Hulk or Spiderman, leads to more or less noticeable physical changes. Examples of these superhuman abilities are very often superhuman strength, the ability to fly, heightened senses or the ability to give off energy in various forms (e.g. heat , light , sound ).

A typical, stylistic element of superheroes is an individual Achilles heel , similar to the place on which the linden leaf fell ( Siegfried from the Nibelungen saga). So z. B. Superman's powers near green kryptonite , making him vulnerable.

Certain superheroes fall through this grid. Unlike the classic examples, they react irresponsibly, openly show weaknesses or make mistakes. So is z. B. Wolverine also brutal and uncompromising, Spider-Man reveals his human flaws and Hulk also threatens the innocent through his uncontrollable transformations. Other superheroes, however, only work against payment, such as B. Luke Cage and his partner Iron Fist . Other atypical superheroes have dark origins, such as the demons Hellboy , Spawn and Ghost Rider , or they are former super villains such as Elektra or Catwoman . These characters are often referred to as antiheroes .

Fight against bad guys

Superheroes almost always compete against an opponent who, like themselves, has superhuman abilities and a special identity. Mostly this is recruited from a pool of villains who belong to a certain superhero saga. Superman has it z. B. often to do with Lex Luthor , one of Batman's most important opponents is the joker .

Costume and aids

A characteristic of superheroes can be a special costume . This is used for recognizability and possibly also to cover up the identity (e.g. with a mask ). Examples of this are Batman and Spider-Man. Utensils (e.g. bat belt, batmobile ) are often kept in the same design as the costume. These costumes don't always have to be colored, but they are often recognizable.


Many superheroes operate single-handedly, but superhero groups have also been formed throughout comic history. Well-known examples here are the X-Men , Gen¹³ , the Fantastic Four ( Fantastic Four ), the Justice League of America (often short JLA ) and The Avengers ( Avengers ).

The companions of superheroes, so-called sidekicks , or closest confidants who support the hero are also important. So Batman has his companion Robin and his butler Alfred Pennyworth . Many male superheroes have a normal partner as a steady partner (Lois Lane in Superman, Joan Randall in Captain Future , Tarzan's Jane).

History and development of the superheroes

Forerunner in mythology and literature

There have been legends of superhuman heroes such as Herakles and Achilles since ancient times . The judge Samson also shows superhuman strength. In other myths, too, there are characters who in some respects could be regarded as forerunners of modern superheroes, for example Väinämöinen in Kalevala, Finland . An example of the direct takeover of a mythical hero is the Thor comic series .

The forerunners of modern superheroes can be traced back to the 19th century. Sherlock Holmes and Allan Quatermain stand out as literary figures with special skills. The dime novels about Buffalo Bill , Zorro , Robin Hood , Tarzan or Spring Heel Jack also influenced the creation of the later superheroes in the Anglo-Saxon region. Figures from Pulp Magazine , including Doc Savage and The Shadow, have had a direct impact .

Early days of superhero comics ("Golden Age")

Fan in Wonder Woman costume

1938 first appeared a story with Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster , in the series Action Comics . Although the costumed crime fighter Phantom appeared in comic strips before Superman , Superman is widely seen as the first superhero. He already showed many of the typical superhero traits, namely secret identity , superhuman powers and costume.

The response to Superman was very positive, and DC Comics featured Hawkman , the Flash , Green Lantern , Batman and, a little later, Robin and Wonder Woman , the first superhero, in the months that followed . Although DC initially dominated the superhero comic market, other publishers soon joined them, in addition to Fawcett Comics with Captain Marvel , Marvel Comics (at that time Atlas or Timely) with the heroes Human Torch and Sub-Mariner . It was then that Will Eisner began producing his comic strip The Spirit , a character with some superhero traits that quickly won many fans. By Quality Comics , the first was a parody of the genre, Plastic Man .

The superheroes of this time were typically white , young to middle-aged men of the middle and upper classes. During the Second World War, superhero characters grew in popularity with audiences, despite the rationing of paper and the drafting of many writers and draftsmen. During this phase, comics appeared in which superheroes fight the Axis powers , and patriotic heroes such as Captain America were created. What is remarkable is the allusion of many costumes to the stars and stripes, for example the use of their colors or the stars depicted on them.

After the war, the popularity of superheroes waned. The moral guardian Fredric Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent , in which he claimed that comics were a trigger for juvenile delinquency. He also argued that superhero comics had perverse undertones. Horror comics and crime stories were also attacked. In response to Wertham's allegations, the Comics Code was introduced, which practically banned violence and sex in superhero comics . By the early 1950s, superheroes had almost disappeared from the scene, only stories of the most famous characters (Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman) continued to be published. Many horror and crime comics were discontinued and many small publishers went bankrupt. In addition, the emerging television competed with comics.

Resurgence of the superhero comics ("Silver Age")

In 1956, DC Comics released a new version of Flash that was an instant hit. The company then revived Hawkman , Green Lantern, and a few others, mostly with a more modern, science-fiction- based approach. DC also started a team series with the publisher's biggest stars, the Justice League of America .

Spurred on by the success of DC, Marvel's editor and writer Stan Lee, along with illustrators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, also created several superhero series. 1961 appeared with the Fantastic Four, the first new superhero series from Marvel. Lee placed great emphasis on personal conflict and character development, which the perfect superhero of the 1940s had largely lacked. This new generation of superheroes included Thing , Spider-Man , Hulk and the X-Men .

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, non-white superheroes began to appear in Marvel Comics. The first was the Black Panther , king of the fictional African small state of Wakanda . Other examples include Luke Cage , an African American mercenary, and Shang Chi , an Asian martial artist. Despite their new direction, these characters were relatively often stereotypical. Cage's use of language was based on the old blaxploitation films of the time, and Asian characters were almost entirely proficient in kung fu or karate.

At this time, for the first time since Wonder Woman, strong female characters began to appear in superhero comics. By the early 1960s, the Invisible Woman and Marvel Girl had been introduced as weak women, mostly saved by the male heroes. In the seventies, however, these characters became more confident and new, strong female characters emerged. Marvel's Spider-Woman, Storm , Ms. Marvel, and DC's Power Girl are a few examples, but the latter two were over-the-top, radical feminists.

Emergence of dark themes ("Bronze Age")

The more carefree “Silver Age” came to an end with The Amazing Spider-Man's 1973 edition “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”. In this issue, Gwen Stacy, an established character and Spider-Man's friend, tragically dies. This marked a turning point as it was previously not customary to let such a supporting figure die.

By the early 1980s, Marvel Comics had created a number of successful anti-heroes, including the Punisher, Wolverine from the X-Men, and Frank Miller's reinterpretation of Daredevil. These characters were plagued by doubts and traumatized by a dark past. So the punisher's family was killed by the mafia, and Wolverine constantly fought against his animal instincts. Daredevil got a new backstory in which he was beaten by his drunk father. This incident, as well as his tough childhood in Hell's Kitchen, determined his later life.

In 1985, the publisher DC decided to wipe out the entire DC multiverse in the maxiseries Crisis on Infinite Earths and create a new universe as part of its 50th birthday and many problems with understanding new readers . The aim was to erase existing contradictions and to end confusion about heroes with the same name in different parallel worlds, since after the crisis there was only one version of each hero.

The restructuring culminated in the miniseries Watchmen (1986). Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created a world of torn, withdrawn, and even sociopathic superheroes. Around the same time, Frank Miller created The Dark Knight Returns , a story about an aged Batman returning from retirement. The series showed the hero as a driven madman, traumatized by the murder of his parents in front of his eyes, and with the temptation to forcibly shape society according to his will.

Some critics believe that this trend was in keeping with the zeitgeist of the 1980s. At that time a figure who selflessly fought for the good was no longer credible enough; destructive or self-doubting characters, on the other hand, offered a new narrative pattern. The success of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns resulted in a wide variety of imitations; by the early 1990s, antiheroes had almost become the norm.

In the following 1990s, an opposing trend began that tried to revive the classic superheroes. Titles like Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Alan Moore's Tom Strong are examples of this recollection.

Speculative bubble of the 1990s and aftermath ("Modern Age")

Spider-Man figure

In contrast to the previous ages of superheroes, there is no precisely defined starting point for the modern age and no firmly established term. Peter Coogan and Grant Morrison coined the term “Renaissance Age” in their publications and argue with a return to the heroes of the silver age. Mark Voger uses the term “Dark Age” to refer to the dark themes and the increased appearance of antiheroes . The term “modern age” was mainly coined by price catalogs, i. H. Collective works that determine the value of a comic.

The beginning of the modern age still shows clear influences of the bronze age, which is why the definition of a starting point is controversial. In the early 1990s , Marvel and DC hardly created any new superheroes for ongoing series, instead relying on tried and tested characters. Many of the well-known heroes have been revised and re-enacted. The cartoonist Todd McFarlane reworked Spider-Man for Marvel and achieved a record sales of 2.5 million copies with # 1 in the US series Spider-Man . DC took a different strategy and decided to eliminate the DC multiverse . The result was the twelve-part series Crisis on Infinite Earths , which destroyed or united the parallel universes and ended the continuity problem that often confused new readers. The appearance of this series in 1985 is often viewed as the beginning of the modern age. Again, the beginning of the new era two years later can be associated with the appearance of the first edition of the post-crisis Justice League in 1987. The great departure of many cartoonists from DC and Marvel to the newly founded Image Comics publisher in 1992 is also seen as the starting point of the modern age.

Image Comics was founded in 1992 by a group of previous Marvel cartoonists, including McFarlane. The draftsmen were annoyed that they had to give up the rights to the characters they had developed to the publishers, and thus most of the profits that were raised with the successful characters went to the publisher. Thanks to the popularity of these cartoonists, the new publisher quickly rose to become the biggest competitor for Marvel and DC. This publisher's creations are Spawn , Witchblade , Savage Dragon , Gen¹³ , WildC.ATs and Stormwatch . The rights to the new characters remained with their creators, and without any influence from the editorial staff of an established publisher, the characters deviated from the usual superhero conventions. The artistic quality of these comics is remarkable, although in some cases the story suffers. However, this did not bother the fans and the sales figures were good. In order to compete against Image Comics, Marvel and DC redesigned many of their characters and carried out events of great importance. The preliminary death of Superman was also reported in daily newspapers, Batman's spine was broken in the story The Fall of the Dark Knight , and Spider-Man battled his clone.

Comics sales were higher than ever in the early 1990s , variant covers and special editions flooded the market, and speculators saw comics as an investment. This speculative bubble led to excesses such as B. five variant covers of X-Men # 1, a new series by the popular team that sold several million copies. At this time, other publishers were also pushing into the superhero market. Valiant Comics and Malibu Comics were very successful for a few years, but when the speculative boom subsided in the mid-1990s, many of these publishers lost their independence. Valiant was bought by Acclaim Entertainment , renamed Acclaim Comics and finally dissolved, Malibu was bought by Marvel and also soon discontinued.

During the 1990s, the variety of superhero characters was greater than ever thanks to the wide range on offer. There were strong female characters like Storm and Rogue and African American characters like Bishop and Spawn. In addition, the first homosexual superheroes were introduced, e.g. B. Marvels Northstar , Rainmaker from Gen¹³ and Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority .

In the first few years of the new millennium, Marvel Comics in particular implemented some new concepts and approaches, including manga- inspired superheroes and series tailored for female readers. Nevertheless, a return to the tried and tested took place for the most part. Two of the more successful new superheroes were Venom, who started as an opponent to Spider-Man, and Cable, leader of the X-Force, an offshoot of the X-Men.

A more recent development are superhero families and friends groups like in The Incredibles , Sky High , Heroes and My Superhero Family . Similar to the X-Men series, cosmic accidents as the cause of the forces are in decline and the focus is on human destinies. The masking of superheroes has also decreased over time, especially in film adaptations; an example of this is Wolverine .

The medium of film is becoming more and more important in the modern age. Thanks to the further development of computer-generated imagery technology and other technical innovations, superheroes and superpowers can be depicted realistically and credibly. Hollywood is discovering the potential of the superhero genre and a multitude of superhero films have been produced since the late 1990s. The filmmakers don't just refer to comics. In the Pixar film The Incredibles , superheroes are conceived just for film for the first time.

Dissemination in the media and in the world

Superhero stories first appeared in comic book form and form a significant portion of comic book production in the United States . Many stories were also adapted in the form of radio plays, television series, films and computer games.

The two publishers Marvel Comics and DC Comics are the market leaders in the US comic industry. The majority of the world-famous superheroes are owned by the two publishers, which in the case of DCs often also happened through acquisitions by other publishers. The English term "Super Heroes" has been a protected brand name of both publishers since 1981 - a rare case in which two competing companies jointly own the rights to a brand. Well-known DC superheroes are Superman , Batman and Wonder Woman , Marvel superheroes include Spider-Man , Captain America and the X-Men . However, there are also characters whose stories appear in other publishers or who have appeared in the past. Examples are Captain Marvel (Fawcett Comics, part of DC since 1972), Spawn ( Image Comics ) and Hellboy ( Dark Horse Comics ).

Non-American creations, however, are z. B. Cybersix from Argentina , Marvelman from Great Britain and various Manga figures from Japan (e.g. Sailor Moon and other Magical Girls as well as several characters from Shōnen manga such as Dragon Ball ). Asterix , invented in France , is probably the only hero who can boast at least as many feats and successes as the classic superheroes.

In the German-speaking countries there have been some attempts to establish their own superheroes in the past, but these were in any case unsuccessful and were discontinued after a few issues. The superhero comics known in Germany are therefore translations of US comics and various manga series published under license.

Although superhero stories are seen as a sub-genre of fantasy and science fiction , it has been shown that they can be at home in almost any genre. Superhero comics combine influences from horror , comedy , detective novel , science fiction, fantasy and others. The representation of superheroes finds expression in role-playing games and cosplay .


Radio plays



The one with the Pulitzer Prize excellent novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon deals with the golden age of superheroes, the 1940s. In it, two immigrants invent a superhero, the escapist , who fights evil with the help of his extraordinary skills of escape. 2004 under the title Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist at Dark Horse Comics actually a comic about the escapist published.


Since the mid-2000s, more and more professionally produced comics about superheroes have appeared on the Internet (mostly in English). These are mostly set up as sequels and are expanded to include new pages by their creators at more or less regular intervals. The following series are exemplary:

  • Johnny Saturn from Scott and Benita Story about the adventures of a dark martial arts street fighter and his encounters with various other superheroes and villains (since 2004).
  • Magellan by Stephen Crowley. A webcomic about the experiences of young students at a superhero academy that is part of a global superhero task force (since 2004).
  • Heroes Inc. by Scott E. Austin. Heroes Inc. presents public domain superheroes from the golden age of comics in a new, updated guise (since 2009).
  • Union of Heroes by Arne Schulenberg and Jens Sundheim, a professionally made photo comic with a serious story about superheroes in the Ruhr area of ​​a parallel world (since 2008).


Already known superheroes are often used for advertising purposes through cooperation between the respective comic book publisher and the product manufacturer. The superhero figures are also to be promoted through merchandising .

If no known superheroes are used to advertise the product, it also happens that hero characters are invented specifically for this purpose or that the product itself is portrayed as a superhero.

Superheroes in the real world

Inspired by the comic superheroes, the idea of ​​the Real Life Superhero was born in the USA . A real life superhero dresses up as a superhero and does things that a superhero can do in real life.

See also


  • Thomas Bohrmann: “Great strength follows great responsibility”: Superheroes in the cinema. In: Thomas Bohrmann, Werner Veith, Stephan Zöller (Eds.): Handbuch Theologie und Popular Film. Volume 2. Ferdinand Schöningh, Paderborn 2009, ISBN 978-3-506-76733-2 , pp. 199-212.
  • Lukas Etter / Thomas Nehrlich / Joanna Nowotny (eds.): Reader superheroes. Theory - History - Media . Bielefeld: transcript 2018. ISBN 978-3-8376-3869-1
  • Ulrike Gehring : Superheroes. On the aestheticization and politicization of human extraordinaryness , Marburg (Jonas-Verlag) 2011. ISSN 0340-7403
  • Aleta-Amirée von Holzen: Mavel-lous Masked Man. Double identities in superhero films , in: Stranger Worlds. Paths and Spaces of Fantasticism in the 21st Century , edited by Lars Schmeink and Hans-Harald Müller, De Gruyter Verlag, Berlin and Boston 2012, pp. 187–202. ISBN 978-3-11-027655-8 .
  • Joseph Imorde / Jörg Scheller (ed.): Superheroes. For the aestheticization and politicization of human extraordinaryness . Critical Reports 1/2011, Volume 39.
  • Jörg Scheller : Philanthropic capital heroism. The entrepreneur in the superhero film , in: Jens Eder, Joseph Imorde , Maike Sarah Reinerth (eds.): Medialität und Menschenbild . de Gruyter, Berlin, 2012, pp. 219–233. ISBN 978-3-11-027596-4 .
  • Ulrike Sprenger: Super Heroes in shock. In: Alexander Kluge . Facts & fakes. Television postscripts. Edited by Christian Schulte, Reinald Gußmann. Vol. 4: The Eiffel Tower, King Kong and the white woman. Vorwerk 8, Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-930916-55-X , pp. 45-56.

Web links

Commons : Superheroes  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Thomas Nehrlich: Introduction . In: Lukas Etter / Thomas Nehrlich / Joanna Nowotny (eds.): Reader Superhelden. Theory - History - Media . transcript, Bielefeld 2018, ISBN 978-3-8376-3869-1 , p. 27-33 .
  2. ^ Blumberg, Arnold: The Night Gwen Stacy Died. The End of Innocence and the Birth of the Bronze Age. March 11, 2016, archived from the original on July 26, 2011 ; accessed on March 9, 2016 (English).
  3. Miller, Frank , et al. a .: Daredevil. Roulette. Ed .: Shooter, James. Volume 1, No. # 191 . Marvel Comics, New York City 1983. (Eng.)
  4. Woodward, Jonathan: The Annotated Crisis On Infinite Earths. March 11, 2016, accessed March 9, 2016 .
  5. Coogan, Peter: Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre , Austin 2006 (Eng.)
  6. Morrison, Grant : Superhelden: What we humans can learn from Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman & Co , Hannibal-Verlag , Höfen 2013.
  7. Voger, Mark: The Dark Age: Grim, Great & Gimmicky Post-Modern Comics , Raleigh (NC) 2006 (Eng.)
  8. ^ The Bell Tolls for Superman , in: The New York Times, September 5, 1992 (Eng.)
  9. ^ Trademark Status & Document Retrieval (TSDR). United States Patent and Trademark Office, November 24, 1981, accessed January 15, 2014 .
  10. Asterix at ( Memento of the original from June 23, 2016 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  11. Heroes for Hearts e. V .: Cosplayers get involved with seriously ill children , awarded by startsocial .
  12. Marvel Comics : Marvel Advertising , accessed February 23, 2016