Superheroes are the best of us. Never mind all those powers or the crazy costumes. The heart of a superhero is meant to inspire – Marjorie Liu
Who the first superhero was, and is largely depends on your definition of the term superhero.
As the devil lies somewhere in the incredibly minute detail, just as it always does when you’re diving headline into the finer points of literature and comics, definitions are the all-encompassing and only, factor that matters when you’re trying to establish, once and for all, who the world’s first superhero was.
Websters defines a superhero as being “a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers” or “an exceptionally skillful or successful person”, and while the latter part of the definition might be applicable to real-world heroes, we’re not here to gauge or ascertain the merits of what does and doesn’t make a person a hero, we’re here to talk about capes, costumes, and comics.
The World’s First Costumed Crusader
Based solely on Wester’s definition of the term superhero, the first hero to don a disguise and use his or her extraordinary powers to help others didn’t debut in a comic book.
He actually made his first appearance on stage in Nottingham, in the UK in 1903 before becoming the subject of a series of novels chronicling his adventures, the first of which was published two years later in 1905.
Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is the archetype that a multitude of other superheroes were later based on.
A wealthy socialite by day who uses his talents for escape, disguise, and swordplay to rescue members of the French nobility from the clutches of Madame La Guillotine during the Reign of Terror, this aristocratic avenger was the subject of twelve novels and two collections of short stories and is widely credited as being a source of inspiration for the two-fisted, vigilantes that filled the pages of the more popular pulp magazines of the late nineteen twenties and early thirties.
The First Superhero
While we’ve spent more hours than we could ever possibly count immersed in the pages of books, our real passion is the home of superheroes, comic books.
No other literary format can lay claim to the superhero, and while we’ve acknowledged the Pimpernel’s place in the bastion of heroes and his undoubted influence on the men and women who would later shape and create the world of superpowered crusaders, he played little or no active part in the four-color universe.
So who was the first superhero to grace the pages of a comic book?
We know what you’re thinking, and right about now you’re probably envisioning the cover of Action Comics #1 in your mind’s eye and muttering something along the lines of “It’s Superman, it has to be Superman” to yourself.
And even though that’s a pretty safe bet, it’s also wrong. The first superhero to appear in the pages of a comic book, or more accurately as a comic strip, was The Phantom.
Created by Lee Faulk in 1936, the Ghost Who Walks made his debut in February of that same year, and Faulk’s strip followed the adventures of Kit Walker the sworn protector of the jungles and citizens of Bangalla, who wore, and continues to wear a costume to disguise his real identity.
While he isn’t gifted with the same powers that Superman, who would make his comics debut two years later in 1938, possesses The Phantom was and is an individual who uses his physical prowess and detective skills to protect the innocent from those who would do them harm.
He is, for all intents and purposes, the jungle version of Batman.
The Nineteen Thirties Explosion
It wasn’t long before The Phantom found himself being pursued by Superman, the mysterious benefactor from another world who arrived to keep America safe from all enemies, foreign, domestic, and intergalactic in 1938.
Kal-El’s initial foray into the world of comics was followed by the more low-key Batman, whose approach to fighting crime owed more to The Shadow and The Spider than the savior from another galaxy.
The last superhero to emerge in the decade that saw the world plunge headlong into armed conflict was Captain Marvel. Again, we know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t Carol Danvers.
The first Captain Marvel was actually Shazam, who eventually morphed into the persona that he still uses to this day. And, if we’re honest, and even though we know it isn’t exactly cool to admit it, we kind of prefer the name Shazam to Captain Marvel.
The Nineteen Forties
The Forties was always going to be a quiet decade for superheroes, mainly because of the events that were shaping the world at the time. Gripped by war and worrying about the future, few people had time for comics, but the decade did provide the world with three notable firsts.
The Woman In Red, who made her first appearance in March 1940 was the world’s first female superhero, and she was swiftly followed by the world’s first supersoldier, Steve Rogers (also known as Captain America) who hit newsstands in March 1941.
In case you thought we’d forgotten about the Flash and the JSA (Justice Society of America), don’t worry, we hadn’t.
Jay Garrick started running faster than the speed of sound for DC Comics in January 1940 and the world’s first superhero team (the third first that we mentioned earlier), made their comic book debut in All Star Comics #3 which appeared at the tail end of 1940.
Stan Lee And The Nineteen Sixties
The fifties were bereft of superheroes, as the post-war years left people yearning for realism, which helped to popularise Western and Horror comics.
That all changed when Stan Lee took it upon himself to bring superheroes back in the nineteen sixties, and by the time he’d introduced the world to The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men, the only kind of hero that the kids and grown-ups who read comics cared about were the ones who wore costumes and had the sort of extraordinary powers that we mere mortals can only dream about.