Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs

Illustration of PDF document

Download Comic Books Study Guide

Subscribe Now

SOURCE: "Super-heroes," in Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium, translated by Nadia Fowler, Little, Brown and Company, 1972, pp. 100-29.

[In the following essay, Reitberger and Fuchs analyze the modern mythology of super heroes, concentrating on the powers, foes, companions, and female counterparts of Superman, Batman, and others.]


Superman—the man of steel, helper of all those in distress, defender of the weak and oppressed, strongest of all men, invincible, handsome as a god, noble and gentle—in short, a man far superior to any other human being. He is the ultimate hero, the epitome of his young readers' dreams.

There are so many heroes with superhuman qualities. Jules Feiffer once said that if they joined together with the even more numerous super-villains they would darken the skies like locusts. And all of them experience adventures without a break—mostly adventures of dimensions, countless times the earth, no, whole galaxies are rescued from destruction or enslavement and, on a smaller scale, America is made safe for democracy. Cosmic super-policemen, they patrol the universe, but they do not seek adventure in the same way as the old legendary heroes of mythology and legend did. They do not have to search for evil to combat: evil positively leaps at them and never lets them rest. Without pause they have to prove their super-faculties and powers, for their raison d'Mtre is constant battle. They go to battle as the ordinary man goes daily to his office.

The concept of the super-hero was new to comics. It arrived in 1938 in the shape of Superman. Tarzan, The Phantom, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, already established in comics at that time, were of course also superior beings; just like The Shadow, Nick Carter, Doc Savage or Sherlock Holmes, who had hunted down villains for decades in millions of cheap pulps.

But Superman and Co. presented a new species of hero to the comic book world—godlike, invincible creatures. Even the way they dressed was quite different. They wore colourful tights, with or without mask or cape, and this intriguing garb was a kind of trade-mark, like Hercules' lion skin.

Superman is as old as the ages. Achilles and Siegfried stood at his cradle—and they are all three invulnerable, except for Achilles' heel, the spot on Siegfried's back and Superman's susceptibility to kryptonite.

Super-heroes, these new 'characters' as they were at first referred to in the comics industry, all bore traces of old myths and legends. Joe Siegel described his 'Man of Steel' as 'the world's greatest adventure strip character', a 'character like Samson, Hercules and all the strong men I ever heard tell of rolled into one'. (In the beginning Superman did not have the exaggerated powers he later assumed.)

But not only Superman, other characters of comics also had mythical ancestors: the first Flash is a reincarnation of Mercury (note his costume!); the modern Icarus, Hawkman, of the Egyptian prince Knufu (a later version of Hawkman hails from the planet Thanagar); The Green Arrow, based on an Edgar Wallace tale, is a descendant of Robin Hood; Hawkeye is a modern Philoctet. Bill Finger must have had Aladdin in mind when he created The Green Lantern (he wanted to give Green Lantern the name of Alan Ladd to indicate his secret identity!) and Bill Everett, creator of Namor (Roman read backwards) was inspired by some lines in Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner.

Most super-heroes draw their special faculties from very ancient sources, but their characters are modified and changed to such an extent that today, with their modern images, they may be regarded as original. They express in today's idiom the ancient longing of mankind for a mighty protector, a helper, guide, or guardian angel who offers miraculous deliverance to mortals.

Marvel Comics have chosen the Nordic gods as their speciality. Olympians, such as...

(The entire section contains 17654 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Comic Books study guide. You'll get access to all of the Comic Books content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Already a member? Log in here.


Historical And Critical Perspectives


Underground Comix