"I've never told anyone this... but you were my biggest inspiration. I'd be honored to shake your hand."
While the deeper roots of the Superhero
can be traced back for millennia, with superhuman warriors such as Gilgamesh populating ancient mythology and vigilantes like Robin Hood numbering among many cultures' great folk heroes, the codification of the superhero genre
had to wait until the emergence of commercial fiction. Only when word-of-mouth storytelling gave way to mass-market publication did the iconic themes and qualities that make a "superhero" captivating - impressive and extraordinary abilities, secret and/or outlaw identities, defense of others without need for reward - prove appealing (and marketable) enough to meld together into a new archetype: heroism, re-imagined for the modern age and audience.
With Action Comics #1
and its introduction of Superman
(June 1938), these new heroes would find their lasting home in comic books. But prior to this emergence of the Golden Age Of Comics, earlier prototypes of the genre had to blaze the trail via a wider range of media: penny dreadfuls, pulp novels and magazines, radio dramas, newspaper comic strips, and stage plays all preceded the explosion of comic books in the 1930s. The heroes of these works, whose adventures set the stage for the Golden Age, weren't always as completely "super" as their successors, but such prototypes demonstrate the transition by which age-old heroic folktales gave way to our contemporary genre of commercial superhero fiction.
Of the characters that arose during this transition, most have faded from the popular imagination, as the Golden Age's superhuman heroes tended to overshadow their predecessors, who seldom boasted more than a Charles Atlas Superpower
or a signature gadget to their advantage. Only a lucky handful (Zorro, Tarzan, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Lone Ranger) have remained popularly-recognized since their inception. But superpowered or not, widely-remembered or not, it's these Proto Superheroes to which later Golden, Silver, Dark and Modern Age comic superheroes owe their success, as inspiration for their archetype and the industry that birthed them.
- Doctor Occult, created in 1935 by the same writers who would shortly introduce Superman, was an Occult Detective whose mystical powers aided his investigation of crimes. Also called "Dr. Mystic", in one early adventure he visited a magical realm in which he wore a cape and could fly, thus beating out Superman to be the first flying caped superhero in American comics.
- The Clock, created in 1936, is believed to be the first masked hero to appear in American comic books. A hypnotist with a secret underground lair, The Clock also used gadgets such as a cane whose head becomes a projectile, and a diamond stud which fired tear gas. He customarily left a Calling Card with a clock face and the motto "The Clock Has Struck".
- The creation of cartoonist William H.D. Koerner, Hugo Hercules was the titular hero of a comic strip that ran less than 5 months, from September 1902 to January 1903, for the Chicago Tribune. Endowed with superhuman strength, he was a lighthearted character who mostly rescued people from accidents or foolish mishaps rather than crime.
- Mandrake The Magician was created in comic strips (1934). He is the prototype for many later magician-style heroes, most notably the Zatara family.
- The Phantom, created in 1936, was one of the first masked-and-costumed superheroes in comic strips.
- Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, premiered in a British tabloid strip in 1937, before emigrating to Golden Age American comic books. Essentially a distaff Expy of Tarzan with a gift for talking to animals, she's a rare case of a Proto Superheroine.
- Olga Mesmer, The Girl with the X-Ray Eyes, appeared in a pulp magazine comic strip from 1937-1938. Although lacking a secret identity, she had Super Strength and X-ray vision, so is sometimes considered another precursor to Superman.
- The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) has a pretty good claim for being a proto-hero as well as an inspiration for Batman. He's a brooding loner bent on revenge who is massively wealthy, a Master of Disguise, and has picked up immense physical prowess along the way. The Batman villain Bane, who is an Evil Counterpart of Batman, has a backstory based off of that of Dantes/The Count.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel is the Master of Disguise hero of a classic action-adventure story written by Baroness Emmuska Orczy in 1901 and debuted as a play in 1903-05. A one-man Underground Railroad who smuggled French bluebloods out of the clutches of unforgiving revolutionaries, the Pimpernel is the likely source of the genre's Secret Identity and Calling Card concepts, as well as the undisputed Trope Maker for the Rich Idiot with No Day Job.
- The best-known proto-supervillain by far, The Phantom of the Opera was created by Gaston Leroux in 1909. A key Trope Codifier for the elegant masked criminal, complete with themed obsessions and a Red Right Hand, Erik bears all the trappings of a Rogues Gallery bad guy: the dehumanizing Start of Darkness, the Supervillain Lair, the ample use of Death Trap weapons, even a Robotic Torture Device.
- The first superpowered literary hero is believed to be Nyctalope, who had cybernetic implants to enhance his vision as well as a cybernetic heart. He either debuted in 1911 or 1908, depending on who you ask. He was created by author Jean de la Hire.
- John Carter of Mars was first released in serial form in February of 1912. John Carter has a Mysterious Past, doesn't remember his childhood and seems to have always been in his thirties. Being from Earth, he has seemingly 'Supermarsian' strength and agility in Mars' lower gravity; many stock feats of super-athleticism used throughout the genre made their debut here.
- Tarzan debuted in October of 1912, boasting a slate of Charles Atlas Superpowers attributed to his blue-blooded heritage and Noble Savage upbringing by apes. Later novels also made him an Omniglot, and immortal by way of an appropriated eternal-life drug. He's a major influence on virtually every jungle-themed hero to follow, and his Raised by Wolves origin story and knack for communicating with animals were emulated by many later superheroes including Aquaman.
- The first superpowered mutant in fiction (although he was called an "anomaly" at the time), The Night Wind first appeared in Cavalier magazine in 1913. Born with Super Strength, he was an ordinary bank clerk who became a fugitive after he was framed for theft, seeking evidence to clear his name.
- The Reverend Doctor Syn, aka "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh", featured in a series of novels starting in 1915. A swashbuckling Anti-Hero of late 18th century England, he foiled Crown agents' attempts to prosecute his neighbors for smuggling by riding out by night, dressed as a spooky scarecrow. Later books established that this was his second alternate identity, as the mild-mannered vicar-by-day had also been a notorious pirate for a time.
- Zorro started in 1919, when The Curse of Capistrano appeared in the Pulp Magazine All-Story Weekly. The Californio nobleman Don Diego de la Vega disguises himself in black clothes, cape, mask and hat. Using the alias Seņor Zorro (Mr Fox), he seeks to "avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians", and "to aid the oppressed." He's cunning like a fox and a Skilled swordsman. The first Proto Superhero to feature in his own movie (The Mark of Zorro, 1920), he's one of the biggest inspiration for Batman: another superhero without superpowers, masked in black, named for an animal, and dedicated to fighting crime and corruption.
- Thunderbolt (1920) had a short career as a masked-and-hooded vigilante after learning that the fortune he'd inherited had been acquired via his uncle's legal, but immoral business practices. When his uncle's co-conspirators refused to return their ill-gotten gains to the people they'd cheated, he donned a costume and recruited an ex-con sidekick to steal it back.
- The Man In Purple (1921) was one of the many non-powered Proto Superheroes who robbed the rich and corrupt to give to the poor. Noted for always carrying the means to dispose of his distinctive purple mask and jacket, the better to seamlessly revert to his Secret Identity leaving no evidence behind.
- The Green Archer, from the 1923 novel of that name, was a mysterious bow-wielding vigilante whose costume was designed to emulate a ghost story, Scooby-Doo Hoax-style. He stalked an unscrupulous tycoon who'd done his family wrong, killing first the man's accomplices and then their boss, who himself had some supervillain-like traits (e.g. leaving victims unattended in a slow-acting Death Trap to die). The first masked hero to feature in episodic film serials of the day (1925).
- The Crimson Clown (1926) was another pulp-novel Robin Hood-like vigilante: a WWI veteran who used a gas gun to knock out the corrupt and undeserving, and return the profits of their misdeeds to the people they'd exploited.
- Solomon Kane, from the pulp novels of the same name by writer Robert E. Howard (the same individual who created Conan the Barbarian), first started in 1928. Kane is a late-sixteenth to early-seventeenth century English Puritan who travels the world, accompanied by his aide N'Longa, fighting and killing vampires and other evil beings with his musket and the Staff of Solomon.
- The 1930 Pulp novel Gladiator focused on Hugo Danner, who became gifted with incredible strength thanks to an experiment carried out by his father. However, unlike several examples here, all Hugo wants to do is utilize his powers to make a normal life for himself.
- Dr. Coffin, aka The Living Dead Man and The Man With 500 Faces, was a pulp-hero vigilante introduced in 1932. An undertaker by trade, he worn a gaunt skull-like mask to better intimidate the criminals he fought.
- The Spider was a Pulp Magazine hero created in 1933 as a Follow the Leader Expy of The Shadow. Stan Lee credits him as an inspiration for Spider-Man.
- Phantom (not that one) was a pulp-novel masked detective from 1933, and the third longest-running pulp hero after The Shadow and Doc Savage. Notable for having a secret laboratory and for aiding the police when summoned by a Bat Signal.
- Doc Savage is another early example, appearing in pulp novels from 1933 to 1949. He lacks any traditional superpowers, instead having been trained by both scholars and savages alike to become the pinnacle of humanity: a massive Genius Bruiser with his own group of partners to help him out in various fields of expertise.
- Cobra, from 1934, was both a spy for British Intelligence and a Punisher-like vigilante. Raised by an Indian yogi, he used techniques of Eastern mysticism in his espionage work, and also donned a snake mask to stalk criminals who'd eluded justice with lethal cobra-venom darts.
- Green Ghost, also from 1934 pulps, was the role adopted by an honest policeman fired on suspicion of a crime he had nothing to do with. Unable to arrest wrongdoers, but still wishing to help his brother cops, he worked incognito to foil slippery villains' plans.
- Ka-Zar was a Tarzan Expy who started in pulp novels in 1936, then migrated to Marvel Comics. Unlike Tarzan, his physical abilities were acquired via a witch doctor's potion, and when he spoke to animals, he'd hear them respond in complete sentences that no one else could hear.
- The Domino Lady, another Proto Superheroine, appeared in the risque Pulp Magazine Saucy Romantic Adventures starting in 1936. A masked Guile Hero who left calling cards similar to The Clock's, she took her revenge for the murder of her DA father by robbing corrupt politicians and gangsters, then donating the loot to charity.
- The Shadow (1930) from radio dramas and pulp novels. Debuting as a Horror Host narrator who introduced short tales of suspense, his signature creepy laugh and Catch Phrase ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?") roused so much interest with listeners that he was expanded into an intimidating crime-fighter in his own right. One of the main inspirations for Batman, who admits as much in-Verse during a crossover story (see page quote).
- The Lone Ranger (1933) and The Green Hornet (1936) were both created by the same guy, and basically have the same shtick as masked heroes, albeit in different time-periods.
- Following a series of unsolved attacks upon servant-women in and near 1837 London, reports of a mysterious, leaping, possibly-inhuman culprit "Spring-Heel(ed) Jack" spread rapidly via yellow journalism and street rumor. Descriptions of "Jack" varied wildly, from a human sexual predator dressed in a bearskin to a fire-breathing, shape-shifting apparition, but many of the most popular accounts (dramatized in sensational plays and penny dreadfuls that titled him The Terror of London) portrayed him as a Proto Supervillain of sorts: a jilted lover bent on vengeance against women, with artificial Wolverine Claws and spring-loaded boots.
- Some of the very earliest masked-hero-with-Secret Identity tales to be published, mostly in 19th-century penny dreadfuls and dime novels, were Very Loosely Based on a True Story accounts of Real Life historical fugitive Dick Turpin. A British poacher, burglar, horse thief and killer executed in 1739, his criminal exploits and assumption of multiple false identities inspired any number of sensationalized accounts, re-imagining Turpin as The Highwayman and a dashing Gentleman Thief in works such as Rookwood (1834) and Black Bess or the Knight of the Road (1867/68).