I’m interested in the evolution of a nonexistent but familiar profession, that of the superhero.
I’d define a professional superhero as some markedly superior individual who works, almost always without pay, to fight crime and/or rescue people. The constant danger combined with a distinct absence of material rewards may explain why this profession exists only in fiction.
And superheroics is a profession, and not a mere occupation, because — like physicians, lawyers, teachers, military officers, engineers and journalists — superheroes must be trusted to exercise special skills and abilities on behalf of people who don’t possess or even necessarily understand them. Superheroes must adhere to an ethical code to make sure that they do not exploit the people they’re supposed to help. That’s what puts the “hero” in “superhero.”
Which raises another issue. The term “hero,” like the terms “villain” and “monster,” is not a job description. It’s always the expression of the viewpoint of an outsider. Heroes and villains and monsters never call themselves that. However, the popular term “superhero” will have to serve here.
So, where did this odd calling come from? I’d say it evolved from heroic popular fictional protagonists like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Tarzan and the Saint.
The first two are sort of limited-purpose superheroes, using their abilities and disguises to rescue victims of the French revolution and to oppose dictatorship in old California, respectively.
The atavistic Tarzan largely wanted to be left alone, but his taste for adventure and inherent sense of justice continually put him up against some bad hats.
A similar enthusiasm for justice and adventure prompted Simon Templar, the Saint, to waggishly hunt and dispose of criminals.
The first three heroes were wealthy and needed no compensation, and Templar lived well as the “Robin Hood of Modern Crime” by relieving crooks of their ill-gotten gains. Early in his career, the Saint also functioned anonymously, using a haloed stick-figure drawing as his symbol, but his “secret identity” became known fairly quickly.
The first true superheroes probably appeared in the Depression-era American pulp magazines, the earliest being the Shadow in 1931. The magazine character was the personification of a spooky radio narrator who laughed and talked about knowing the evil that lurks in the hearts of men. He’d debuted on July 31, 1930, on Street and Smith’s radio program Detective Story Hour.
The character’s owners decided to exploit the nebulous Shadow’s popularity by devoting a magazine to him, hiring writer Walter Gibson. Gibson developed the Shadow as a mysterioso cloaked avenger with a network of agents and an array of skills and secret identities. He had independent means and no real private life, only disguises that he employed in his constant battle against crime.
The immediate success of that magazine prompted Street and Smith to launch another superhero pulp in 1933. Doc Savage was raised from birth as part of a scientific experiment in creating an altruistic superman, and was endowed with genius, great strength and unswerving moral purpose. Training himself in the knowledge of a dozen scientific and medical professions, Clark Savage Jr. also designed an arsenal of super-scientific gadgets that he concealed in a utility vest, traveled in various customed design vehicles and maintained two spectacular headquarters — his offices in the Empire State Building and his arctic retreat in the Fortress of Solitude.
Doc’s impressive upbringing apparently took its toll on him, though. Even to readers in the 1930s, he must have seemed emotionally repressed.
Also in 1933, a Detroit radio station introduced the western superhero the Lone Ranger, who abandoned his civilian identity and dedicated his life to masked crimefighting because he was the sole survivor of an ambushed band of Texas Rangers.
In 1936, a newspaper comic strip presented a superhero who’d inherited his profession. Lee Falk’s seemingly immortal Phantom was actually the jungle-dwelling descendant of a family that had dedicated itself to fighting piracy.
Then, in 1938, came the comic book hero Superman, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Certain real professions seem to lend themselves to superheroics, and one of them is journalism, Superman’s choice. Spider-Man, the Green Hornet, the Question and Captain Marvel were also journalists. Journalism offers the champion a chance to learn of emergencies quickly and a professional ethic that permits him to involve himself in crusades to help the public and expose wrongdoings.
The professional superhero bears a certain secularized resemblance to religious figures. That long-standing familiarity may be one reason why the mass audience has always found this absurd profession to be somewhat plausible. The Saint was preceded by literal saints, as well as the Buddhist bodhisattvas, enlightened beings with special powers motivated by compassion to aid humanity.
Superbly talented and morally focused detective protagonists like Sherlock Holmes are the next best things to superheroes, even though they sometimes charge fees for their work. Some of them, like the wealthy peer Lord Peter Wimsey, don’t even need to bother with that. So Batman and Miss Marple turn out to have a great deal more in common than one might think.