Before “Biff! Pow! Bam!”

What we need is a comprehensive examination of the history of popular literature with a view toward cataloging what we might call "proto-superheroes."

By Jess NevinsApril 22, 2016

Before “Biff! Pow! Bam!”

On the Origin of Superheroes by Chris Gavaler. 264 pages.

SUPERHEROES, as characters and as a genre, are frustrating to study. Once any sort of critical apparatus is applied to the “superhero,” this figure becomes extremely difficult to define. Does he or she have to have superpowers? Batman doesn’t. Does he or she have to wear a costume? Several don’t. Does he or she have to have a selfless mission? Not all do. Do they have to appear in superhero comics? Again, one can find exceptions. In the face of this difficulty, superhero scholars have devoted entire books to attempting to define this aggravatingly fuzzy and nebulous character type. Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan’s book What Is a Superhero? (Oxford University Press, 2013) makes a fair run at this.

Similarly, the superhero genre, when examined closely, features a coherent core that dissolves into a mass of other genres on its edges. There have been superheroes in science fiction, hard-boiled detective fiction, Westerns, mimetic fiction, and heroic fiction — in just about every genre and mode. One can’t even say that superhero fiction is defined by the production of an affect, as horror stories are, since modern superhero stories often provide bittersweet or downright depressing endings in place of the presumptively hopeful endings in which the genre once specialized.

If defining the superhero and the superhero narrative is difficult, at least comics scholarship since the 1960s has ensured that the modern history of both are well known and well described. Numerous monographs and books, not to mention Wikipedia entries and fan websites, cater to the reader wishing to find out how Superman, Batman, et al. developed over the decades from their pulp origins in the 1930s to their current financially successful and sometimes even aesthetically ambitious incarnations. Less well known and well described, however, is the prehistory of the superhero, the heroes and genres that fed into and influenced early instances of the genre. Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 (cover dated June 1938), and his immediate antecedents, especially Hugo Danner from Philip Wylie’s 1930 novel Gladiator, are familiar. Less familiar, however, are the heroes who influenced them, and the ones who inspired Superman’s colleagues and competitors. Interested readers looking for the roots of the superhero are forced to read, to paraphrase Poe, quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.

Chris Gavaler’s On the Origin of Superheroes attempts to fill this gap. Gavaler’s book is a rambling, discursive, alternately illuminating and frustrating work. Its goal, though Gavaler never explicitly states it, seems to be to trace both the roots of the concept of the superhero and the genre’s themes from the Bible through the modern era. Readers expecting a linear history, however, will be disappointed. Gavaler’s chosen approach is, as he writes, “frequent, neck-snapping leaps between the twirling past and the swirling present.” The result is neither diachronic nor synchronic, but (as the book’s back matter says) “a quirky, personal tour,” one that repeatedly strains at the limitations of its chapters’ stated themes, and often goes beyond them.

Gavaler organizes the superhero’s antecedents into eight categories: biblical heroes, political revolutionaries, the characters of Gothic and supernatural literature, those of Western/frontier literature, eugenically altered characters, killer vigilantes, Don Juan–style lust-driven adventurers, and planetary romance heroes. Each chapter takes a specific historical or literary antecedent of superheroes — revolutionaries, “Napoleonic Fausts,” evolutionary supermen — and addresses them in Gavaler’s characteristic whiplash fashion. But Gavaler spends a surprising amount of time on modern superheroes rather than on their predecessors. He does so, presumably, on the grounds that modern superheroes are relevant or illuminating to his points, but in practice the historical dimension too often serves merely as an excuse for Gavaler to share his opinions on modern superheroes.

Gavaler’s lack of interest in telling a straightforward history also means that his “quirky, personal tour” becomes a rambling meditation, seemingly tied together only by what interests him from moment to moment. In the first 10 pages of his first chapter, nominally on the superhero’s biblical antecedents, he cites Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics and explains how this was translated into the “multiverse” in superhero comics in the 1960s, talks about Marvel’s 1970s series What If? (which explores alternate realities within Marvel’s superheroic continuity), describes the current “inflationary model” of Marvel and DC’s universes, explains the difference between the real-world Big Bang and the origin of Marvel and DC’s continuities, describes the cave drawings at Lascaux in France as “the first comic book in human history,” considers and rejects the idea that gods can be superheroes, and summarizes Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (a comic book retelling of the Trojan War). The Bible does not appear until later, and when it does it is almost immediately shunted aside in favor of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Gavaler describes as the ur-plot for superhero-vs-supervillain conflict. Next we get a description of a fundamentalist pastor’s comic book adaptation of the Bible. Eventually references to biblical heroes appear, but Gavaler spends no time in tracing their influence or explaining, for instance, how King David helped shape modern superheroes. Instead he moves on to the history of the golem, and then to describing Talus, from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, as “the first Iron Man.”

To paraphrase humor writer Artemus Ward, people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. There are virtues to Gavaler’s omnivorous approach to narrating history. Newcomers to the subject of superheroes will likely not have thought of Spenser’s Talus in the context of superheroes, or known about Hawthorne’s Gray Champion, from 1835 — likely American literature’s first superhero. Likewise, Gavaler offers a compelling discussion of the Ku Klux Klan and their portrayal in Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen (1905), in the context of fictional (and real) masked vigilantes. Gavaler argues that Dixon’s Klan are “superhero ground zero … the first twentieth-century dual-identity costumed heroes in American lit.” Later still, Gavaler’s cataloging of superheroic characters in the pulps is worth reading for a reminder that the serial fiction of the 1930s was a strong influence on the superhero comics of the 1940s. As might be apparent from this account, however, the drawback of Gavaler’s mosaic approach is that history is not allowed to accrete and build on itself: instead, we get a series of firsts and origins with no sense of their relationship. On the Origin of Superheroes contains a great deal of information, but little of it is contextual.

This results, unfortunately, in shallow coverage of subjects that deserve in-depth consideration. Gavaler wisely sidesteps the quagmire that is defining the superhero — “definitions work like erasers. I prefer the pointy end of the pencil,” he writes — but he also ignores or glosses over important topics that do not fit neatly into his schema. The proto-superheroes of pre-biblical myth and medieval and Renaissance texts receive next to no consideration by Gavaler — a bizarre exclusion from a work about the precursors of superheroes. He labels Robin Hood the “ur-vigilante,” and name checks Fulk FitzWarin, but one searches in vain for mentions of Earl Godwin, Hereward the Wake, and others, much less a discussion of the “social bandits” tradition Eric Hobsbawm famously discusses in Bandits. Similarly, 19th-century dime novel characters with superheroic characteristics — the direct and influential ancestors of the heroes of the pulps, and therefore the grandfathers (and grandmothers) of the early superheroes — are mostly missing from Gavaler’s book.

One might argue that Gavaler makes no pretense to comprehensiveness, but his book also includes many personal asides that have little to do with the topic he is putatively discussing. Gavaler’s opinion of the comic Cerebus the Aardvark and the misogyny of its creator Dave Sim, Gavaler’s account of his relationship with a “Tea Party friend,” and Gavaler’s opinion on the Iraq War — to take three of many — seem particularly out of place. His occasional flights of whimsy, as in his description of the Lascaux cave drawing in comic book terms, are jarring. A personal approach can be compelling, but in this case Gavaler’s opinions and snippets of personal history distract from, rather than complement, his narrative.

Most problematic, finally, is Gavaler’s sometimes cavalier approach to issues and characters. His description of the golem, perhaps the largest influence on the Fantastic Four’s Thing, cherry-picks aspects of the figure’s history and describes it in a facile fashion. His description of Spenser’s Talus as both “the first Iron Man” and “a drone” is simply incorrect: Talus is neither a man in an iron suit nor a guided robot, but the first heroic android with agency, the evolutionary next step from the tomb automata common in medieval epics. Gavaler’s assertion that superheroes are revolutionary, “born to disrespect authority,” is debatable and not at all the given that he assumes. Robin Hood, in Gavaler’s words the “founding father of noble outlaws,” was in fact opposed to corrupt local officials but a faithful servant of the king — just as Superman, especially in his early appearances, would scare a corrupt senator but never dream of anything but loyalty to the president. And Gavaler’s statement that “with a very few notable exceptions … vampires are male” effaces the entire tradition of female vampires, who were particularly numerous in the 19th century.

Gavaler’s title, On the Origin of Superheroes, suggests that his book offers a history of the superhero, but in fact it is a meditation. This is unfortunate: Gavaler’s grasshopper approach precludes the historical explanation and context for which his subject cries out. Those expecting a scholarly or critically rigorous approach or methodology will be disappointed. When Gavaler does spend time on a character, for instance in his description of Hawthorne’s Gray Champion, the result can be entertaining and enlightening. His discussion of the Klan’s influence on superheroes, in particular, is groundbreaking. But too often he provides scanty explanations and insufficient supporting material.

Sadly, this is true of those few works of comics scholarship which do attempt to describe the antecedents of the superhero. Most books that trace the history of the superhero start in 1938, with the debut of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s Superman, and work their way forward, taking it as a given that this character is the first superhero. Works like Jeffrey K. Johnson’s 2012 McFarland book Super-history: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present and Brian J. Robb’s 2014 Running Press book A Brief History of Superheroes: From Superman to the Avengers, the Evolution of Comic Book Legends cover the post–1938 period thoroughly, but one searches in vain for mentions of Superman’s predecessors. Those works that do examine the development of the superhero before Superman, meanwhile, generally do so in a cursory fashion. Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor’s 2013 Crown Archetype book Superheroes!: Capes, Cowls, and the Creation of Comic Book Culture only spends a chapter on Superman’s predecessors, and focuses primarily on pulp heroes, ignoring the predecessors to the pulps. Peter Coogan’s 2006 MonkeyBrain book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre traces the character back a bit further, but not much, while Jason Tondro’s 2011 McFarland book Superheroes of the Round Table: Comics Connections to Medieval and Renaissance Literature delves deeper but addresses a small and eclectically selected slice of history.

What we need is a comprehensive examination of the history of popular literature, with a view toward cataloging what we might call “proto-superheroes.” The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, has two superhuman characters, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh, while the more famous of the two, arguably stretches the bounds of the superhero past the breaking point: he is a rapist who is motivated by self-interest and a thirst for glory. But Enkidu is specifically created by a god to put an end to Gilgamesh’s predations on the people of Uruk. He has a superhero’s motivation (to protect the helpless), a superpower (strength), and a kind of costume (his wild man’s hairiness). We might thus say that he is a proto-superhero — the first of many in the history of popular literature. Characters like Robin Hood and King Arthur have superheroic elements, and have exerted a self-evident influence on superheroes. But there are many other characters who have some or many of the elements which make up a superhero, but who have not been given the critical attention they deserve. Moll Cutpurse, based on the historical Mary Frith (circa 1584–1659) and appearing in T. Middleton and T. Dekker’s 1611 play The Roaring Girle; or, Moll Cut-Purse, is an urban crime-fighting vigilante, the first in popular literature, and has both a dual identity and a codename. Thomas de Quincey’s Masque, from his Klosterheim (1832), is a costumed, dual-identity vigilante who fights oppression and rules his city as firmly as Batman rules Gotham City — Klosterheim, notably, was still being taught when Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the creators of Batman, were schoolchildren. And a number of magazines in the late 1890s and early 1900s ran stories about crime-fighting characters, modeled on the world-famous strongman Eugen Sandow (1867–1925), who possessed superhuman strength. These magazines were read by and influenced the creators of more famous pulp magazine heroes, who in turn influenced the first generation of comic book superheroes.

The superhero, in other words, was not a new creation when Superman first appeared in 1938: the modern superhero is the culmination of four millennia of popular narratives about costumed vigilantes and superhuman adventurers. We would thus benefit from scholarship and criticism that begin with The Epic of Gilgamesh rather than with Superman, and that trace the many influences of proto-superheroes to and on each other as well as to and on modern superheroes. Only by illuminating the entire history of superheroic narrative, and not just the last eight decades of it, will we begin to understand the character’s appeal, its elements, and what makes it distinctive.


Jess Nevins is a reference librarian at Lone Star College in Tomball, Texas. He is the author of numerous books on popular culture, including The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (2016), The Victorian Bookshelf (2016), and The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana (2005).

LARB Contributor

Jess Nevins is the author of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century (Praeger, 2020) and The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger (Praeger, 2017), among other works. He is a college library director in Tomball, Texas.


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