8 Proto-Superheroes

With Stan Lee‘s recent passing, we have all spent some time lately thinking about the history of Marvel, comic books, and superheroes in general. However, with the more recent release of Robin Hood with Taron Egerton, I asked myself “Is Robin Hood a superhero?”

The First Comic Book Heroes

Stan Lee joined Marvel, then called Timely Comics, after World War II had already ended. Heroes like Captain America, Namor, and The Human Torch were already splashed across the pages. 

On the side of what would become DC Comics, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman had also already been featured in various comics by the time that Stan the Man was in the industry. So even though he perfected the genre, he didn’t create it.

However, these characters may have been the first comic book superheroes, but they were far from the first super-humans in fiction.  

English Heroes

Like mentioned above, Robin Hood could very easily be described as a superhero, especially if Hawkeye and Green Arrow can be members of the Avengers and Justice League respectively. There is nothing new about someone who can shoot archery better than anyone else, and uses that skill to save people from oppression of some sort. 

If we were to move from the archery heroes, to Batman, we can see The Scarlet Pimpernell, an Englishman named Sir Percy Blakeney, who would put on a mask, and save aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution. Acting like a unskilled simpleton without his mask, and skillfully wielding a sword and escaping daring situations with it, he was among the first double-identity heroes. 

Then we get to a Catwoman styled villain, the Moll Cutpurse, a woman by the name of Mary Frith who would steal and sell stolen goods. Unlike the first two listed here however, Mary Frith was a real woman. So not exactly a hero, and not exactly fictional, she still was a major inspiration for the female Cat Burglar of Selina Kyle, and deserves to be mentioned.  

Anglo-Saxon Heroes

We can also look to heroes such as Beowulf, a story about a man in Scandanavia, who would defeat the monster Grendel and its mother after they each respectively attacked the mead house of the local King. 

The idea of one warrior defending and representing a whole culture of peoples is seen today in heroes like Captain America. The strongest among us, with values that align, and those around him view him as a personification of their very society. 

Mythological Heroes & Gods

The first heroes of these styles were those in the ancient mythologies. Separate from the gods, were sometimes Demigods, sometimes just well trained heroes. 

In ancient Mesopotamia, we have the hero Gilgamesh, who started off as a real king, but after his death, the tales of his life became more embellished and deified. Granted superhuman strength, visiting the underworld, and fighting against Enkidu (a man raised in the wilds) as a symbol of Civilization and the natural world. Even then, some authors believed that arrogance and pride would be the fall of man to the natural world, a narrative that is used today in apocalypse stories. 

Ancient Egypt had the Pharaoh Nectanebo II, who had the abilites to see into the future, and transform himself into giant animals such as snakes and eagles. One of the earliest magical characters who used his power for good, instead of evil. Even for centuries after, magic and the occult was used as a way to represent evil dark forces in the world, but not for Nectanebo. Todays equivalent could be Doctor Strange or John Constantine.

Note: This is not Nectanebo II, instead this is a magical slate that he discovered that, when water passed over the surface of it, would turn that water into an anti-venom. An example of a benevolent magical artifact under his care. 

Hercules, originally known in the Greek as Heracles, was a demigod. Son of Zeus and a mortal woman, he stands slightly separate from many of these other heroes, but still deserves to be mentioned. Even though GrecoRoman mythology is full of heroes, more so than any other culture, Hercules stands above the rest as the most popular throughout time. 

Lastly, much farther East than all others previously mentioned, is the first superhero team, the Chinese Seven Brothers (in some versions it’s 10, in others 5). A family of brothers, each with superpowers that they use to defend their town from various antagonists. Powers included Super Strength, ability to stretch limbs to impossible lengths, and flying, the basic story has been adapted multiple times, such as the Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, and others. There is even a weakness in the form of Limestone that renders their powers inert, not unlike Kryptonite. 

In most of these cultures, there are also stories of the gods. All powerful beings who held control over the world, not necessarily morally correct in their actions. While many look to the gods as symbols of morality, they were really more of a symbol of the lack of control in the world. There will always be someone more powerful than you, who might make decisions you don’t agree with. There will always be nature, who will takes its course, regardless of the opinions of those it affects. However, it is these heroes that really define what is important in a generation. They, as people, stand up against nature, monsters, and the gods, as a symbol of what people should do. Stand up for themselves, others around them, and their beliefs. 

Part of the reason that now we have so many heroes in modern culture, is because we are not as unified under a specific message as historical societies. In years past, civilizations were under attack so much from outside forces, that they all agreed to band together and work for a common cause, with common means. We see this in recent American history, after the attacks of 9/11. American as a nation had been more unified in those following months than they had for over a generation. However, nowadays we are back to infighting to the point where some scholars are throwing out words like “Impeachment” and “New Civil War.”

With this divide, comes many different values, and we see these values in our superheroes. From traditionalism and freedom of Capitan America, to futurism and security of Iron Man, to every other popular superhero of today, we can see the different values of different citizens echoed in our superhuman heroes. 

Further Reading

  • On the Origin of Superheroes – Chris Galaver
  • The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger – Jess Nevins

Who is your favorite Proto-Superhero? Let us know in the comments below! 

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