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Off My Mind: Birth of Superheroes in the 20th Century

How come we didn't have more heroes before the 1900s?

Superheroes have existed for less than a hundred years.  Sure heroes like the Lone Ranger and Jonah Hex are from the 1800s, but they aren't super. By today's continuity in comics (in Marvel and DC), there weren't any costumed heroes until WWII.  So why weren't there more heroes before the 1900s? 
 
Recently artist Francesco Francavilla drew a picture depicting the Avengers if they were alive hundreds of years ago and Neil Gaiman showed us what Marvel characters would look like in the year 1602. Wait a moment, knights and soldiers wore colorful armored suits but that still doesn't make them super.  
 
Not being a historian or anthropologist, I have to wonder what was it about the 20th Century that caused the birth of costumed superheroes? 
 == TEASER == 

 Everyone looked so stuffy in 1602.
In the old days people were more refined. Men stuck to the rules. They were cautious and too humble to wear a gaudy crime fighting costume -- they wore gaudy hats instead.  Cities were smaller -- the United States was getting settled after all -- and people lived rural lives. There was never a need for a costumed vigilante to rise to the occasion. So there weren't any superheroes.
 
 Apocalypse in his early days.
There are some characters that have been around a long time like Apocalypse, Vandal Savage and Ra's al Ghul. Even Mr. Sinister started his genetic tinkering in the 1800s. Despite this, it doesn't seem like people even had superpowers before the 20th Century. Were there more individuals with powers but were too shy or conservative to use them publicly? You never hear today's comic book characters talking about heroes in their past.
 
When I first started reading comics, I thought the 1960s was the birth of heroes. Nuclear testing, radiation poisoning and mutations jump started the entire superhero explosion, right? But superheroes did exist before the nuclear era like Superman and Batman. Their origins have been tweaked so they didn't until modern times. Today we're seeing more of a focus on Marvel's costumed WWII heroes in the Invaders and All-Winners Squad
 
What was it about the 20th Century that caused the birth of mutants, Thor's banishment to Midgard, visits by Martian Manhunter, the Silver Surfer and Galactus? We have seen in Jonathan Hickman's S.H.I.E.L.D. series that Galactus did come to Earth before (but no one seems to recall it) and there were some heroes such as Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton. They just didn't wear flashy costumes or have superpowers. 
 
We could just chalk it up to fate and the destiny of mankind. The time wasn't right before. There could be some celestial force that saw the destructive path the human race was headed and pushed mankind into entering the next phase of our existence. Superheroes are here to stay. This is the Age of the Superheroes. Time will tell if there will be another evolution for the heroes of Earth.
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Posted by kitsuneconundrum

Galactic alignment.

Posted by RiotBananas

  Nuclear testing, radiation poisoning and mutations jumped started the entire superhero explosion, right?     

Shouldn't this say "Jump started"? 
 
I can see the next batch of heroes being born through genetic engineering of some sort. 
Posted by tonis

back in the day before print and tv it was a LOT easier to stay incognito. They were there though I'm sure. Hiding as rumors and legends passed along much more quietly.

Posted by Danial79

I think Superheroes appeared with the development of "the city". It's as you always say, G-Man, there are no heroes outside of the cities.

Posted by Deadknight

They did have a Runaways story where the team ended up in 1907 New York and met several "wonders" as they were called, including an earlier Punisher, the Yellow Kid, and a dapper zombie.
Posted by Baron_Emo

It's all tied to the development and popularity of science fiction stories. The concept of alien invaders, the atomic age, an exponential growth of technology sparked the imaginations of many of the time.  

Posted by weapon154

Because they didn't have good storylines to leave them with.

Posted by welshguy

If its question about why didn't the notion of superheroes come about earlier then I think its because the twentieth-century saw a great change in how mankind looked at the world and itself. Our better understanding of science, technology and the human body paved the way for writers to speculate more on the fantastic and the incredible, thus we have super soldiers, flying men and whatnot.  
Not sure if this makes sense. I'm hyped up on a few kinds of cough medicine and some other medication that probably shouldn't be mixed but meh, what's the worst that can happen?

Posted by karrob
@welshguy said:
"

If its question about why didn't the notion of superheroes come about earlier then I think its because the twentieth-century saw a great change in how mankind looked at the world and itself. Our better understanding of science, technology and the human body paved the way for writers to speculate more on the fantastic and the incredible, thus we have super soldiers, flying men and whatnot.  
Not sure if this makes sense. I'm hyped up on a few kinds of cough medicine and some other medication that probably shouldn't be mixed but meh, what's the worst that can happen?

"
Well said
Posted by Roninidas

Not sure, but that is alot to think about.

Edited by Mainline

He has lived many roles, used many names, since tribal magic granted him super-speed in the early 1800s, but his time-hopping landed this mysterious veteran speedster and former acrobat in present-day Alabama, acting as guardian and mentor for Impulse.

Detailed History

The young messenger for a fort in the American West discovered an ambush being set for the local Blackfoot clan. The shaman, with his last breath, used tribal magic to imbue the scout with superhuman speed. The scout found the Indians and the US Army detachment, and disarmed them all, preventing the massacre. From that day forth he became known as  Ahwehota—“He who runs beyond the wind” (Flash v.2 #97: Terminal Velocity, 1995).

Years later, Windrunner felt the call of what has since been called the speed force. He ran faster than he had ever run before, but hesitated at the last moment... and caromed off the edge of the field, landing several decades in the future.  He periodically attempted to reach the field again, each time jumping forward to a new era, where he adapted and used a series of names: Whip Whirlwindin the 1890s, Lightning in the 1920s, Quicksilver in the early 1940s. By 1948, he had settled on Max Mercury



--- 
With respect to why this time?  Probably the same reason an abnormally large number of universe-critical things keep revolving around the tiny blue marble called Earth (heck, in the DCU it's been retconned into the beginning of all life and the source of all reality).  Writers are human and humans are conceited.  Despite geocentricity being disproven and despite billions of other humans on the planet... American Earth Now is the center of all space, time, and reality in comics.  :P
Posted by Divine_Monkey

Nuclear power, baby! Because if comics have ever taught us anything, it's that rolling around in radioactive waste gives you superpowers.
 
(on a more serious note, they had heroes in the past. They just didn't all them "super". But I think guys like Hercules, Beowulf, Gilgamesh qualify. And then there was costumed ones like Spring Heeled Jack.)

Posted by Doctor!!!!!

Everybody knows that Superhero parents need to be dead.... 
Thats a good start to all origins!

Posted by WhitOro

Because spandex was invented only in 1959.
Posted by Jotham

I'm confused. Are you saying why aren't there any superheroes in comics that supposedly take place before the 20th century, or why weren't superheroes invented until the 20th century?
If it's the latter, I'd argue Western culture is chock full of colorful and powerful people who could easily be called superheroes.

Posted by Undeadpool

I think he means "in continuity", which makes it an EXCELLENT question. I guess because of the lack of radioactivity (seriously, how many superheroes are "science" heroes?) and as for aliens: what we need to remember is that they didn't just pop into creation with knowledge of stellar travel any more than we did, so it took them awhile to develop it. Why they got it so much faster than us is up for debate, but it's probably the same reason why all alien races look basically the same while humans look diverse (writing convenience).

Staff
Posted by AskaniSon295

All Heroics in modern stories start with Hercules, Now do to the influence of the christian church on Media I was seen that any character having super powers had in fact made a pack with the devil. So literature of the 1st-19th century  tends to stay away from "super heroes" due to censorship. The fact that science in the 16th-19th centuries becomes more of a dominateing force in human society and widely excepted as the norm created an avenue where no authors could create characters based loosely of scientific theories which did not blasphmise the church authority. Where the original Superheros of Greek,Roman, Hindu, Norse and Asian myth have exisxted for centuries it is only in the 20th and 21st century do we understand the impact they have had on Human culture.

Posted by Lvenger

Another great Off My Mind G-Man. I find all of them really interesting, particularly this one since I'm doing history as an A Level.

Edited by Kamen Rider Kajiki
(from a non fictional perspective)
If you'd say that the true ''Super'' hero started with Superman then I'd say yes Super heroes are from an idea the 20th and 21st century. The modern superhero that is. But then you would be have to ignore ALLOT of super hero prototypes that did had powers and costumes before Superman was created. Especially if you consider Pulp Heroes like The Shadow Super Heroes nowadays since he was wearing a costume an had at least some powers like mind control to become invisible to the eye. And then you look back to World Newton which also shows some of those earlier prototypes like the Nyctalope who was essentially like Iron man but started in the early 1900's ( Alan Moore changed him so much in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and stopped his adventures in the early years of the golden age.
 

I also find it weird that @G-man: mentions Batman as a superhero, while he has no powers just talents. Batman is by all means still a vigilante and if you look at the vigilante's you can suddenly go back a whole lot!. Before the Shadow and before the débuts of Zorro , The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Scarecrow(Who all had adventures set before the 1900's) we'll reach about 100 years before Superman was finalised. You'd end up with the Penny Dreadful smuggler heroes and adventures. The oldest of which is SpringHeeled Jack who was first a local rumour of a lady harassing demon who became so popular that they made a play and Penny Dreadfuls with his character as the main concept. He eventually ended up a dressed up rich talented gentlemen who had made a pair of special boots and a costume to get his inheritance back from crooks who elaborately manipulated it from his possession. Even further back i found cool piece of 1835 Dime literature by the writer of the Scarlett Letter which refers to the Gray Champion who ended up more as an idea of freedom rather then a hero. But still owned those guards in the same fashion as an Super Hero. All these can be considered heroes most of which as seen from a fictional point of view played out their adventures before 1900. and when comparing them to Batman's super hero status even super heroes. 
 
Sorry if this was a bit confusing, I'm not really awake at the moment lol
Posted by GT-Man

Nice
Posted by humanfly26

the advance of nuclear technology

Posted by Psychotime

MODERNISM

Posted by NexusOfLight

I thought they were called gods back then.

Edited by Metatron_Da_Don

Potential

Aliens
Celestials
are responsible.
"An ancient cosmic race that used their godlike abilities to experiment on lower life forms. They are responsible for mankind's potential to gain superhuman powers."
Deviants, Eternals
"The Eternals first came into being about a million years ago when the First Host of  Celestials arrived on Earth to perform genetic experiments on the nascent human race. To test the adaptability of the human gene, the Celestials accelerated the evolution of a handful of subjects and gave them the genetic potential to mentally manipulate limited quantities of cosmic energy, as well as other superhuman traits. Thus the Celestials created the race of Eternals, an evolutionary offshoot of humanity. The Celestials also performed similar experiments on subjects that led to the creation of the Deviants, another offshoot of humanity."
 
Mutants/superhumans are the result of Celestials tampering with prehistoric human gene pool!

Manifesting Powers

20th century is when it just exploded due to technology. Radioactive spiders, electric power lines and what not.
 
As for real life why we didn't see superhero comics, they had stories like Beowulf and knights in magic armor, and mythology to keep them busy with stories of superhumans.
Posted by ForeignLawns

I'd chock it up to an increasingly literate youth and cheap pulp publishing; essentially supply + demand = fad!
 
The genre was just a product of its time.

Posted by Doctorchimp

There were plenty of heroes before the comic heroes of the 20th century. What would you call greek and roman mythology? Persians who read about Rostam? King Arthur? All those old wild west and frontiersman stories of the incredible?  
 
The heroes of our time reflect an age of space exploration, nuclear energy, and the digital age. Their basis though is very much in line with the ancient heroes of yesteryear.

Posted by RYU/BATMAN

The Justice Society of America were heroes of War World 2. They are currently old today in comics.
They didn't really get a remake in their origin.

Posted by tigerex78

I will agree with doctor chimp about the heroes of Greek and Roman Mythology. You can also talk about Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Samson from the Bible.  Beyond that there were mentions in 19th century literature about super powered beings like Edward Hyde(super strength) Dorian Gray (Immortality) Frankenstien's Monster, The invisible man, and a few others.  Not all the heroes we read about in today's comics have superpowers(batman and many others come to mind) Why not Robin Hood?  You could also include the many myths and legends of various cultures around the world.  Many Native American legends have people with super powers.  The stories have existed for many years and many times are the foundation on which the 20th century superheroes are built on.

Edited by Kamen Rider Kajiki
@tigerex78:  I think he mentioned of the modern superheroes as in the sense of a brightly coloured costumed hero with powers. Though his claim is faulty by mentioning Batman as a Superhero because then a whole lot of vigilantes are qualified to be superheroes. (as i mentioned a bit hazily on the previous page)
 
Edit: i think he and vigilantes
Posted by turoksonofstone

Superhero Evolution:
0.Biblical/Mythical Heroes (Bible/Word of Mouth)
1.Knights (Song/Legend/written word)
3.Cowboys (Penny Dreadfuls)
4.Mysterymen (Pulps)
5.Superheroes (Comics)

Edited by AMP - Seeker of Lost Knowledge

There have always been heroes in throughout history. Consider HAWKMAN:

 Hawkman's Past Lives

He was an Prince of Ancient Egypt (Khufu), a Knight during the 5th century Britain (Brian Kent/The Silent Knight), a blacksmith in 14th century Germany (Koenrad Von Grimm), a 16th century English colonist (Captain John Smith), a gunfighter in the American Old West (Hannibal Hawkes/The Nighthawk), a Pinkerton detective in the early 20th century (Detective James Wright), and then a superhero in the 21st century (Carter Hall/HAWKMAN).
Edited by Kamen Rider Kajiki
@turoksonofstone said:

" Superhero Evolution: 0.Biblical/Mythical Heroes (Bible/Word of Mouth)1.Knights (Song/Legend/written word) 3.Cowboys & Smugglers (Penny Dreadfuls and Dime Novels) 4.Mysterymen (Pulps) 5.Superheroes (Comics) "
 
Fixed.

Posted by turoksonofstone
@Kamen Rider Kajiki said:
" @turoksonofstone said:

" Superhero Evolution: 0.Biblical/Mythical Heroes (Bible/Word of Mouth)1.Knights (Song/Legend/written word) 3.Cowboys & Smugglers (Penny Dreadfuls and Dime Novels) 4.Mysterymen (Pulps) 5.Superheroes (Comics) "
 
Fixed.

"
lol, I wanted to say dime novel's too but wasn't sure if they kept a 10 cent cover price in the 1880's through their last days.
Posted by Kamen Rider Kajiki
@turoksonofstone: I'm that not sure either, but i'm pretty sure the English loved masked smugglers too XD
Posted by The Impersonator

Samson was a biblical hero who had super-strength.

Posted by emmbro30
@tigerex78 said:
"I will agree with doctor chimp about the heroes of Greek and Roman Mythology. You can also talk about Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Samson from the Bible.  Beyond that there were mentions in 19th century literature about super powered beings like Edward Hyde(super strength) Dorian Gray (Immortality) Frankenstien's Monster, The invisible man, and a few others.  Not all the heroes we read about in today's comics have superpowers(batman and many others come to mind) Why not Robin Hood?  You could also include the many myths and legends of various cultures around the world.  Many Native American legends have people with super powers.  The stories have existed for many years and many times are the foundation on which the 20th century superheroes are built on. "

I'd have to agree as well.  What about Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Mike Fink and Johnny Appleseed  from american folk lore?  As stated there was King Aurthur and the Knights of the Round table: King Aurthur, Merlin, Sir Lancelot, Sir Percival (1st Black Knight) and others.  We also had the gun slingers of the old west.  Not to mention the League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  Each century apon close review has had their own set of "Super" heroes.  It has only been recently that the title of Super Hero has been coined.
Posted by Herx

<In comic universes>
heroes had always existed be they super powered or not, i mean we've had some great examples already such as ancient gods or figures of myth and legend. Of course then there were the witch hunts during the early half of the 1000's ( milenium ) where anyone who seemed to have sime sort of paranormal ability was decreed a witch or a worshiper of satan and thus excecuted. This fear of the paranormal probably made people with super human abilityis keep quiet and hide them out of fear, and the stigma of that fear probably stayed with them untill the 20th century when superman ( golden ) turned up onto the scene and showed the super powered comunity that they were not alone, and could come out and do good.  
Masked vigilanties had existed ( we've had many described already ) but they oparated in the shaddows or within secretive comunities so that no body knew about their activites, then like the super humans Superman turned up and allowed these shaddowy figure to step into the public light. In short heroes and people with super poweres did exist, they just needed an example to step into the public lime light and pave the way for them, which just happened to be during the early 20th century.  
 
Oh and aliens did come to earth, e.g. in DC Yalan Gar    was the green lantern of sector 2814 two thousand years ago, and came to earth.

Edited by Do I have to give a name?

I would think that the reason superheroes aren't prominent in continuity before the 20th century is simply that it would of messed with history too much. It's one thing to say that there were masked vigilantes, or some of the immortal characters etc running around doing their thing. But to say for example that there was a Superman like character in 17th century France would  totally mess things up. Because that kind of character would completely change the world which they inhabit, meaning that by the time continuity caught up with the present day the writers would have had to completely reimagine the political, social and even moral standings of the entire world. Which would be self defeatest when really all your trying to do is tell a story about Spider-man or Wolverine and what they're doing in the here and now. 
 
With that said there are quite a few elseworlds stories involving modern characters in the past. Though a lot of those prove my point, in that they have a character completely change the outcome of wars or become ruler of a country.
Edited by Norusdog

simple answer;
Humans are too self-absorbed in their own self-importance in-the-now.  Let's pretend the human race survives, and at least semi-flourishes, and is around in the year 2400....-IF- comics are still being read you can BET that if ANY of "today's" heroes/villains survive to that time......ALL OF THEM will have been re-written for that time period.  Superman wouldn't have crash-landed on Earth till 2380's or some such...etc etc etc. 
 
very few (and certainly not enough to sustain the cost of such a series/book) would be interested in reading about Captain Musketman.  end of discussion.
 
 (not gonna elaborate because it's too long of a conversation that should be had at another time)

Posted by TobyD81

I'm not so sure that superheroes are a 20th-century phenomenon, especially if we consider an expanded view on superhero origins. What about King Arthur? He hung out with the wizard Merlin and was given Excalibur, an item of power, by the Lady of the Lake. Could that be considered a superheroic origin story? What about the Greek gods, Icarus, Samson, or Hercules?

Posted by SuperRenegade

There have always been "superheroes" and superhero stories. You might have heard of a book called The Epic of Gligamesh  one of the oldest surviving stories in human culture from early Mesopotamian civilizations. That story chronicled a King who lived for over a hundred years, survived a worldwide flood, and performed superhuman feats. Another story one could point to is Beowulf. Beowulf is an ancient Celtic piece of literature that depicts a man ripping the arm of a monster or single handedly defeating a dragon. Let's also not forget the many depictions of Gods throughout history. Although we may take it for granted in modern comics because Gods are such a staple in comics today and have established character histories within comic universes, but the stories of Gods were some of the original superhero stories: people with extraordinary powers doing extraordinary things. Our modern superheroes are just a modern representation of an ancient need for storytelling, and the flashy costumes and names are merely a reflection of our own personal American culture. 

Posted by batman_is_god

Superheroes are modern gods. We used to have Hercules and Odysseus, now we have Superman and Batman.
Posted by Risky

What if there were such but they weren't called "supheros"? Demigods like Hercules, Castor, Theseus, Apollo and others roamed the world for uite some time and some of them even found their day into the new nowaday "hero-pantheon". Even Jesus might have been a "superhero".  Some saints and their wonders qualify for the later time. We might see them as myths but in fact all thos legends around the world of brave heros fighting wondrous threats of many sorts might be the first superheros.

Posted by TheMess1428

We need more heroes crossbreeding and getting the next generation of heroes. I say the top notch human would be the son of Batman and Wonder Woman. 
 
WHOA! Could you imagine a new Amalgam universe where they are all children of DC/Marvel crossbreeding? Not just mixing the characters but like imagine a kid between Superman and She-Hulk, Batman and Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman and Captain America, Spider-Man and Black Canary, etc.

Posted by CaptainGenisVell

What about all the heroes and myths throughout time? Hercules must count surely.

Edited by Deadcool

Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November

Posted by angryamazon
@TheMess1428 said:
" We need more heroes crossbreeding and getting the next generation of heroes. I say the top notch human would be the son of Batman and Wonder Woman.      
  I love it!!!  
 WHOA! Could you imagine a new Amalgam universe where they are all children of DC/Marvel crossbreeding? Not just mixing the characters but like imagine a kid between Superman and She-Hulk, Batman and Ms. Marvel, Wonder Woman and Captain America, Spider-Man and Black Canary, etc. "
I dig it.
Posted by crusader8463

 Because of science. Most heroes get their powers through some kind of scientific discovery and the means just were not available back then. 
 
 The cosmic heroes simply never came about because the universe is a big place and we only got the attention of cosmic beings because our technology finally put us on their radar of attention. In cosmic time a few thousand years is nothing, and humans simply have not exsisted long enough. For mutants you could argue that it simply took until this point for humans to evolve enough to have genetic anomalies that cause powers.
 
As for magic and natural talent, well they did exist and made up the fables of years gone by. Alexander the Great, Hercules, Jason, and Odysseus. Hell, you could argue that Achilles was the original Super Man. Invincible except for the one weakness of his ankle.

Posted by Proverb

To be facetious? Comic book superheroes all turned up in the 20th century because that's when people started writing comic books about superheroes. The genre is rooted in the pulp mystery men of the 1930s and so it's apropos that the "big bang" of superhero mythology begins there as much in-universe as it did out-of-universe.

Posted by SneakyPenguins

This has been one of the better "Off My Minds" in a while nice one G-man. 
I think if you look at how the heroes came to be super its because of modern (or fake in most cases) science like Cap and the other more common way they become super is finding old artifacts.  

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