Thursday, May 22, 2014

What is original about Superman and Batman

Non-superhero fans might not see much difference between Superman and Spider-Man and Everyotherman.

They probably don’t know that Superman is generally considered the world’s first superhero and that Batman followed less than a year after.

Why did Superman and Batman endure to this day but no action figures or film franchises came calling for, say, the Enchanted Dagger and Micro-Face?

To be sure, not every original character has a long life, and not every character who has a long life has it because of originality…but I do think Superman and Batman’s originality contributed to their success.

Multiple external factors contributed to the longevity of the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, but here are conceptual reasons.

What was original about Superman:

  • first comic book character with powers, costume, and secret identity (all three elements existed before, but not in a single character)
  • unfamiliar figure in familiar setting (prior to Superman, science fiction commonly portrayed humans visiting other worlds—we were the strangers in a strange land)
  • civilian, not hero, was the fabricated identity
  • a superhuman who was benevolent, not alienated or power-mad

What was original about Batman:

Batman was not the first do-gooder without powers. He was also not the first hero who was orphaned as child, not the first to wear a costume, not the first to have a secret identity, and not even the first with blanks for eyes.

Yet he was the first hero in comic books whose orphaning inspired his heroism—i.e. the first with a psychological reason to wage war on crime.

Of pre-Batman costumed heroes the Scarlet Pimpernel, Tarzan, Zorro, Gladiator, the Green Hornet, Doc Savage, the Phantom, the Shadow, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and the Spider, none appear to be driven by vengeance or grief rooted in childhood; the Lone Ranger’s brother was killed, but both were already adult.

Also, Batman was a hero who looked like a villain and a vigilante who was also a detective.

Both Superman and Batman synthesized qualities from previous figures of literature, film, and myth to create something that felt utterly new.

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