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"I've never told anyone this... but you were my biggest inspiration. I'd be honored to shake your hand."
Batman to The Shadow, Batman #253

While the deeper roots of the Superhero can be traced back for millennia, with superhuman warriors such as Gilgamesh populating ancient mythology and Semi-Divine Classical Mythology heroes as well as 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 Comic Books, 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. Unlike their successors these heroes, especially ones found in literature, didn't have the same restrictions placed on them by the Moral Guardians and so modern readers can find themselves surprised to find that many of these characters feel like deconstructions of the superhero genre years before the genre really took off.

Of the characters that arose during this transition, most have faded from the popular imagination. 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. (See also: Non-Powered Costumed Hero.) Only a lucky handful (Zorro, Tarzan, The Shadow, The Phantom, The Lone Ranger, Golden Bat) 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, Bronze, Dark and Modern Age comic superheroes owe their success, as inspiration for their archetype and the industry that birthed them.


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    Comic Books 
  • Doctor Occult, created in 1935 by the same creators 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".
  • A modern evocation of this trope: When the Crisis on Infinite Earths shredded DC's existing continuity, the question arose of what exactly the Justice Society of America was supposed to have been like if Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were never members. So Roy Thomas created expies of them, and Superman's expy was clearly designed in the plainclothes Proto-Superhero mold, a super-strong guy named Iron Munro. Appropriately, Thomas based him on Aarn Munro by John W. Campell and Hugo Danner, the hero of the science fiction novel Gladiator that inspired Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to invent Superman. Hugo Danner was also used, being the father of Iron Munro. The name Iron Munro had already been used in Shadow Comics in the 40s, in addition, Thomas also made a story of Hugo Danner to Marvel in the 70s.
  • Some of the heroes in The Twelve fit the proto-superhero archetypes such as the Phantom Reporter and Mr E, the former noting in his narration how awkward it is to meet someone dressed exactly like him with the two clearly being based on characters like the Shadow.

    Comic Strips 
  • 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.
  • Popeye started out as a bit character in a 1929 Thimble Theatre syndicated strip, then migrated to Western Animation via a 1933 stint in Betty Boop. In his first appearance he could recover from injuries by rubbing the head of a magical chicken. When readers' letters urged his return, the gimmick of spinach as a Power-Up Food bestowing Super-Strength was introduced: a comedic harbinger of later Super Serum-enhanced heroes such as Captain America.
  • 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 inspired the whole Jungle Princess genre, and is 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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Judex is a French Film Serial created in 1914, but delayed from release until 1916 thanks to World War I. Having been criticized for how his serial adaptation of Fantômas (see Literature below) had glorified criminals, director Louis Feuillade created Judex (Judge) as a heroic alternative: a Master of Disguise mystery man, seeking to foil the villainous banker who had driven his father to bankruptcy and suicide. Revenge achieved, a follow-up serial Judex's New Mission (1917) depicted him as a full-on vigilante and protector of the innocent. Shadow is compared to Judex, interestingly, in France, during the Nazi occupation, the Shadow strip was called Judex. Judex at Cool French Comics.
  • The Mark of Zorro (1920) shaped Zorro as we know him. It was based on the first Zorro story, "The Curse of Capistrano", published just the year before, but that story featured a Zorro who wore a sombrero and threatened people with a gun. This film invented the masked swordsman that became popular, which would later greatly inspire the creation of Batman, even moreso since canonically Bruce Wayne's parents get murdered after watching the 1940 remake in theaters.
  • Hunterwali, a domino-wearing, whip-wielding Non-Powered Costumed Hero from the 1935 Bollywood film of the same name.
  • Discussed in Unbreakable. Elijah Price expounds on the ways comic book superheroes have their roots in earlier forms and archetypes, and uses this fact to bolster his belief that they are ultimately based on real life.

  • The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) has a pretty good claim for being a proto-hero as well as an inspiration for Batman. He is a brooding loner, and bent on revenge. He is also 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 association between The Count and the Proto-Superhero concept goes back a long way. The Son of Monte Cristo, an original sequel to the novel filmed in 1940, depicted Dantes's heir as a Zorro-like political vigilante, The Torch.
  • Rocambole, a character from the 1844 french serial novel The Dramas of Paris, influenced both Fantomas and Judex - a skilled fighter and master of disguises, he was a criminal mastermind who quickly became the most popular character in the series, and eventually got a Heel–Face Turn that turned him into a vigilante, complete with secret lair and cadre of sidekicks.
  • Captain Nemo from Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869) has the makings of a proto-supervillain, including a Secret Identity (his real name was only revealed in the sequel, The Mysterious Island), advanced super-weapons (rifles firing electric bullets), a crew of devoted henchmen and the Nautilus as a lethal Cool Ship.
  • Another proto-supervillain by Jules Verne is Professor Schultze, the master of Stahlstadt from The Begum's Millions (1879), who wants to kill an entire peaceful city with his super-cannon For the Evulz.
  • ...And a third example from Jules Verne would be Robur the Conqueror (another character with a Secret Identity) from the eponymous novel (1886) and its sequel, Master of the World (1904); while already an anti-hero or anti-villain in the first novel, he goes into full-blown megalomaniac supervillain mode by the second and wants to Take Over the World (obvious, really, with a title like that) thanks to his revolutionary flying, amphibious, submersible Military Mashup Machine (likely one of the earliest literary examples of that trope).
  • Nick Carter was a pulp detective hero created in 1886. While he didn't have a costume or superpowers, he did fight many traditional comic book-style villains, such as aliens and monsters. He was a major inspiration for Doc Savage.
  • Dr. Jekyll of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is another good example of a proto-supervillain: a Mad Scientist who creates a Psycho Serum that turns him into A Darker Me so he can indulge in evil without having to worry about conscience or morality. One of the earliest examples of a proto-super (good or evil) with a Transformation Sequence.
  • Sherlock Holmes, who debuted in 1887's A Study in Scarlet, is as great a detective as the later Batman with sidekicks, a base and impressive martial arts skills. Although he worked openly and his one super-villain nemesis didn't quite threaten world domination, his serialized adventures captivated a nation and were seen as a reaction to the nefarious activities afoot in what was then the world's largest metropolis.
  • An early proto-supervillain is Griffin from H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897), also one of the first to use a genuine superpower.
  • 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.
  • One of the most recognizable of all proto-supervillains, 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 idea of villain hiding a terrible disfigurement behind a mask would also inspire Doctor Doom. Ironically enough, the Phantom in the story actually does build Doombots, but for another character.
  • The first superpowered literary hero is believed to be The 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.
  • Fantômas by Frenchmen Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain, is another proto-supervillain with a Secret Identity: a criminal mastermind and a master of disguise who always gets away in the end. He debuted in 1911.
  • 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 is 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 Gray Seal (1914) is bored wealthy playboy Jimmie Dale by day, master burglar do-gooder by night foiling the true evil-doers the Crime Club, complete with a costume (grey clothes, mask, hat and custom lockpick storage), calling card and a secret lair (that he calls The Sanctuary even though he uses it more like Clark Kent uses a phone booth). Also something of a master of disguise as he made use of not one but two underworld personas (anticipating Batman's "Matches" Malone). He also employed a butler and a driver.
    • The lady who has stolen his heart Marie La Salle was not far behind in the investigative alter ego game, doing her own thing guiding him as mysterywoman "the Tocsin" and underworld resident "Silver Mag".
  • 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.
  • Initially a villain in the Sexton Blake detective stories, Waldo the Wonder-Man (Union Jack magazine, 1918) had the strength of six men and, due to a neurological condition, could not feel pain. Originally a criminal antagonist, he evolved into a chivalrous Worthy Opponent, then a thrill-seeking hero-for-hire, and finally backslid into a Gentleman Thief.
  • 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 all-black clothes, including cape, mask and hat. Using the alias Señor ZorroMr. Fox — he seeks to "avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians", and "to aid the oppressed." He did so without superpowers except for his superb training, masked in black and operating mostly at night, with the sole aid of his faithful valet and assistant Bernardo. To say he's one of the biggest inspirations for Batman is understating the case; in fact, it's now in-universe canon that Bruce was inspired by him.
  • 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 literary 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, occasionally accompanied by his comrade N'Longa, fighting and killing vampires and other evil beings of both human and magical nature with his musket, sword and the Staff of Solomon. He shows kindness (in his own subdued way) to the oppressed and innocent, and against the corrupt and evil, nothing, not even the Eldritch Abominations of Lovecraftian bent, will escape his pursuit of justice for the downtrodden.
  • 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. Loosely based on Master of Disguise film star Lon Chaney, he was a horror-film actor who'd faked his own death to take on a new life as an undertaker and crime-fighter, using creepy make-up and a slew of false identities to scare confessions out of 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, in his 1974 book Origins Of Marvel Comics, credited him as an inspiration for Spider-Man — or at least, his tagline, "The Spider, Master of Men!"; the two characters otherwise have virtually nothing in common.
  • 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.
  • Moon Man (1933) was a Just Like Robin Hood type vigilante who stole from the wealthy and corrupt in order to give the money to the poor, and was secretly a policeman being hunted by his loved ones.
  • 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.
  • The original 1934 version of Black Bat qualifies as this, although the 1938 retooled version is essentially a separate, post-Superman character.
  • 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.
    • Marvel has stated that their Golden Age Ka-Zar is not the same character as the Silver Age one, and per Word of God, the Golden Age Ka-Zar is considered not to be part of the Marvel Universe.
  • 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.
  • Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers story "Northwestward": Discussed Trope during the dinner. The as-yet unnamed guest argues that the hero Superman is an insult to the supernormal powers of previous heroes. He compares Hercules to Superman, and says there’s too much of an imbalance of power. Nothing can be exciting or suspenseful with Superman’s powers.
  • Discussed in My Brother is a Superhero: the protagonist's mom argues that Peter Pan counts as a superhero, since he can fly, move between worlds and lives forever.

  • 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 catchphrase ("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. Another 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 man, and are implied to be related in-universe. The original versions had much in common, with the notable exception that the Ranger, while masked, was universally recognized as one of the good guys, while the Hornet was feared as the worst criminal of them all.


    Urban Legends 
  • Following a series of unsolved attacks upon servant-women in and near 1837 London, reports of a mysterious, leaping, possibly-inhuman culprit "Spring-Heeled 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.'s timeline Fight and Be Right has an allohistorical development of British comic books, where Victorian era penny dreadfuls about Spring-heeled Jack develop over time into comic books about a Batman-like superhero, also named Spring-heeled Jack. The chapter that focuses on this cultural development doubles as the timeline's 2011 pre-Christmas special, hence its more lighthearted tone and subject matter.

    Real Life 
  • 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 many sensationalized accounts long after his death, 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).
  • Edward "Blackbeard" Teach came surprisingly close to fulfilling the supervillain archetype in Real Life, holding the port of Charleston and entire small island colonies for ransom and theatrically fostering a popular image that colors Pirate Tropes to this day. His status as an Historical Domain Character made him even more of a legend after his death in 1718, with works such as the penny dreadful Marooned By Blackbeard (1903) making Teach himself, or his countless Captain Colorbeard Expies, a stock villain for adventure tales of many genres, Proto-Superhero stories included.