The first superhero? OCT 18 2005
Out of a recent conversation popped this interesting question: who was the first superhero? After a short discussion and a few guesses (Superman, Batman, etc), it was agreed that this might be the most perfect question to ask the internet in the long history of questions.
The earliest superhero I could find reference to was Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, four years before Superman, who was probably the first popular superhero. Mandrake's super power was his ability to "make people believe anything, simply by gesturing hypnotically". Does anyone out there know of any superheroes who made an earlier media appearance?
There's a related question that has some bearing on the answer to the above question: what is a superhero? There have probably been books (or at least extensive Usenet threads) written on this topic, but a good baseline definition needs to acknowledge both the "super" and the "hero" parts. That is, the person needs to have some superhuman power or powers and has to fight the bad guys. But this basic definition is flawed. Superman is an alien, not human. Batman doesn't have any super powers...he's a self-made superhero like Syndrome in The Incredibles. Or can a superhero be anyone (human or no) that fights bad guys and is superior to normal heroes...the cream of the hero crop? And what about a costume or alter ego...are they essential for superheroism? These are all questions well-suited for asking the internet, so have at it: what's a good definition for a superhero?
And there's (at least) one more angle to this as well...where did the idea of the superhero come from? As Meg suggested to me at dinner last night, was there a cultural need for a superhero during a super-crisis like the Great Depression? Or did the idea evolve gradually from regular heros (cowboys, space cowboys, etc.) to heros who were magicians (with special powers...it's not that much of a stretch to imagine a magician possessing supernatural powers) to classic superheroes like Superman?