Defining The Superhero

By | Sunday, December 02, 2007 4 comments
I was going some Christmas shopping today in a Barnes & Noble, and stumbled across a new biography entitled The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. It was the first association I'd seen been Houdini's name and the term "superhero" and that gave me a bit of pause to consider the whole title.

I can actually see an argument for Houdini being a superhero. After all, he pulled off many seemingly miraculous escapes over his earlier career and he spent much of his later career debunking charlatan mystics who took people's money under false pretenses. But "America's First"?

If he's not America's first superhero, why? Who might be considered for that position? What would a superhero prior to 1899 (Houdini's first real performance as a magician) look/sound/act like?

In 1954, the New York Court of Appeals, in speaking of the infamous legal battle between Superman and Captain Marvel, defined superheroes as characters "of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest." Webster's has a more broad definition: "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers." In either case, though, we're generally looking at someone with beyond normal human abilities who acts in a socially positive manner.

My first thought was to go to American folklore. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and the like. The first recorded accounts of Paul Bunyan, though, don't occur until 1906 and Pecos Bill wasn't invented until 1923. John Henry seems like a contender -- the latest anyone's suggested his story started has been the 1870s. Davy Crockett (1786-1836) and Jim Bowie (1796-1836) are possible, too, but their legends tend not to get too much into the superhuman category. Mark Twain's characters are all fairly solidly grounded in reality -- even the Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan was just a normal guy caught in an extraordinary circumstance. The first Oz book appeared in 1900.

Who else can we consider? The Yellow Kid wasn't really heroic, nor super (unless you count a constantly-changing nightshirt). John "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman could be considered heroic, but not really super. Natty Bumppo doesn't really get into the super range either. What about Thomas Edison? While his feats are considered standard science today, he was called "The Wizard of Menlo Park" once upon a time. Were his inventions magical enough at the time to be considered super?

I'm drawing a blank on any other possible contenders beyond John Henry or Thomas Edison. Any other nominations? Can we put these guys to a vote somewhere?
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Anonymous said...

I agree with you on Houdini, I wouldn't agree with that title at all. I'm thinking about Robin Hood, maybe. King Arthur? ... Sherlock Holmes--not physically powerful but mentally superior. I think we'd have to only consider fictional characters, because "superhuman" is otherwise unnatainable in reality.

Well, I was specifically trying to focus on American superheroes. Otherwise you get into all sorts of ancient myths & legends long before you get to Holmes or Robin Hood.

Matthew E said...

My personal choice for a long time was the Scarlet Pimpernel... but then I read Peter Coogan's book (Superheroes: The Secret Origin of a Genre) (or something very like that) and he argues persuasively that Superman was the first one you could really apply the word 'superhero' to.

Prof Fury said...

Sean, have you read Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay? There's some material there about Houdini-as-superhero that you might find interesting.