Defining a Superhero

By | Thursday, August 10, 2023 1 comment
I was recently reminded of a biography entitled The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. When I first saw the book maybe 15 years ago, 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. (And seemingly implicit in these definitions, the character must be human. Or, at least, not a literal god.)

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 back then to be considered super?

(Note again that I'm limiting my consideration to the United States. Mostly to avoid having to go through thousands of centuries-old legends like King Arthur, Odysseus, Brunhild, and Sun Wukong! Keeping it to the US means we can limit our search to only a couple hundred years. I mean, yes, we could also consider superhuman characters from Native American tales, but that opens us back up to centuries of material, so I'm going to leverage some socio-political narcassism for the sake of putting some reasonable boundaries on the consideration.)

Any other nominations for "America's First Superhero"? Can we put these folks to a vote somewhere?
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Matthew E said...

I like the definition of "superhero" in Peter Coogan's book of the same name. As I recall it it's got three parts:

A superhero is an individual who
a) has extraordinary abilities (even if those abilities are just "being good at fighting"),
b) has a pro-social mission, and
c) participates in at least some of the conventions of the superhero genre (which means, has a superhero name, has a secret identity, wears a costume, belongs to a superhero group, etc.)

The figure Coogan picks as the earliest such is... I can't remember his name. Might have been Nat something? Some guy in an obscure nineteenth-century novel who maintained a secret identity to fight native Americans. Wait, I have Coogan's book here. Nick of the Woods! That was it. But really I think you'd have to pick Superman as the first, because Superman was the one that let us know that something new had started here, even if you can point to the Phantom or the Crimson Avenger appearing a bit earlier.