Who was the first comic book super hero?

Well who was he? And when were they created?

Did the idea of comics with super hero’s in them take off like wild fire? Who coined the term “super hero”?

So many questions!


While there were detective and space age type heroes at the time, Superman, created in 1939 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster could probably be regarded as the first “superhero” and gave his name to the genre. The first three issues of Action Comics, where he appeared were not great sellers but the fourth really off. By 1941 sales were close to a million a month. (Goularts’ Encyclopaedia of American Comics)

Batman , who had no supernatural powers, came in 1939 (Bob Kane artist and Bill Finger,writer)

Ironically, as Hitler rose to power, Superman shared names with the Ubermensch,
of Nieztsche’s writing, which alledgedly had an influence on Nazi mythology - though this may be debatable. The American creators of the Superman were Jewish.

The first published Superman appearance was in 1938 - and it seems that Seigel and Schuster had created the character several years before.

Of course, that’s nitpicking. I agree that Superman was the first comic book super-hero. Although in comic strips, Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom pre-dated him.

True. Also, while Superman was the first “superhero,” he wasn’t the first costumed hero in comics. I believe that distinction goes to the Crimson Avenger.

Admittedly, his costume was little more than a mask, hat and trenchcoat, but he was first. There was also Doctor Occult, created by Seigel and Schuster as well.

Not that simple a question. The easy answer is Superman, who first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, published by one of the companies that would later merge to become DC Comics. He had all of the elements which have since become de rigeur – the super powers, the secret identity, the costume, and the whole helping-people thing.

Superman was preceded by Dr. Occult (also a Siegel & Shuster creation) in New Fun Comics #6, 1935. I haven’t read Dr. Occult’s early appearances, but the character does have superhuman powers (mystical in nature). He doesn’t, OTOH, have a costume. So I guess the ultimate question is whether you require a costume to be a superhero. If not, then Dr. Occult wins by several years.

The Phantom appeared in comics before Superman as well. He fits the superhero profile more than Dr. O – he’s got those purple duds – but he doesn’t have any actual powers of which I’m aware. (Then again, neither does Batman, so maybe that shouldn’t be the defining characteristic either.)

So anyway, no real clear answer, but, depending on definition, probably either Dr. Occult or Superman.

As for whether the superhero took off like wildfire, you bet it did. DC, which actually wasn’t DC yet, was already publishing Adventure Comics, More-Fun Comics, and Detective Comics, when Superman appeared with Action #1. These were all anthology titles with several strips per issue, including several continuing features. Not only was Action very successful, the issues with Superman on the cover well outsold the others. Soon, each of DC’s titles had a superhero headlining the anthology, and Superman and Batman got their own solo books as well. DC launched other books with superhero headliners, and the company’s competitors got in on the act too – such as with Fawcett’s Whiz Comics starring Captain Marvel (aka Shazam!) and Marvel Mystery Comics (featuring The Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and the Angel). I think anyone would agree that by the early 40’s, less than a half-decade after the form was invented, superheroes were the most popular genre of American comic books.

That’s not to say that superheroes dominated the racks at that time like they do today (or at least like they do from the major publishers). War and adventure stories continued to be a staple throughout the 1940’s. Remember also that most comics then published were anthologies, so most comics you could buy had several adventure stories in each issue (or maybe a war or western strip), even if Batman or Green Lantern was on the cover.

By the mid-40’s the superhero genre lost a lot of steam and most superhero strips were cancelled to be replaced with war, western, and adventure strips. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman carried on, but All-American Comics (featuring Green Lantern) became All-American Men of War; All-Star (featuring the Justice Society of America) became All-Star Western, etc., etc. Non-supers dominated from the mid-40’s onwards. Horror and crime (with some romance thrown in) became the most popular genres in a very diverse field beginning in the early 50’s until Congress started investigating the lurid stories of the day in the mid-50’s, which led to the demise of industry leader EC Comics and several of its competitors.

After that, DC revived some of its superhero franchises (starting with Flash in '55) and the superhero genre was reignited. Even then, however, the industry was much more diverse and supers didn’t really start to dominate until the mid-60’s when Marvel’s success with the new superhero line it had begun in ‘61 caused it to abandon Romance, teen, monster and western strips for more supers; DC and most others followed suit. (Heck, even Archie Comics started a superhero line!) In the 70’s the industry began to open up some with monster and barbarian books, but they were never the publishers’ bread and butter and didn’t really last into the 80’s. So it’s really the 60’s when superheroes gained the position at the head of the market that they enjoy to this day.


Fun fact: Marvel Comics has a trademark on the term “super-hero.”

Much of this work being done by Julius “Julie” Schwartz, who passed away last week. :frowning:

It could be argued that Marvel’s new success with supers was because Stan Lee had effectively married several genres into their super-hero titles – Fantastic Four #1, for instance, had elements of romance, monster, and teen comics in the story.

Actually, I believe that’s a trademark held jointly by Marvel and DC.

While Dr. Occult didn’t always wear a costume, he did have adventures in another dimension where he wore a ceremonial costume. The comics historians I’ve read usually credit him with being the first costumed super hero.

The Crimson Avenger is considered the first masked comic book hero.

Where does ‘The Shadow’ fit into all this? He was certainly a costumed hereo with super powers. Is it just that Shadow comics didn’t appear until long after the print stories or what?

You’re right of course, seems that S & S had a job trying to sell the idea to the newspaper syndicates and comic book publishers for a few years before it actually got taken up.

Exactly. The pulp heroes (The Shadow, Doc Savage, the Avenger, et al) had a separate history from comics (which they did a lot to inspire). The Shadow, intended for a slightly older audience than Batman, was a lot gorier and sexier (Batman had no real equivalent of Margo Lane), and just never scored well with comics, which were specifically geared for children in the 1940s. The Shadow had some fairly popular and well-regarded series in the 70s (by Mike Kaluta) and 80s (by Howard Chaykin, and later by such notables as Bill Sienkiewiecz, Kyle Baker, Gerard Jones and Eduardo Barreto), but the character never made as big an impact as Batman in the comics. Doc Savage has had an even less-distinguished comics career, although he was an obvious inspiration for Superman and, currently, Tom Strong.

And Hitler & company hated Superman.

In RL, the Nazis banned Superman comics & related material.

BTW–the early DC comics portrails of Superman’s attitudes towards race & religion were suprisingly forward-minded, with nothing that doesn’t pass muster today. This was a big part of why the Nazis hated the character–he was the antithesis of what they were talking about when they used the term “ubermench”.
The character was decent & fundamentally moral, then & now. You can let your children read Superman, & feel confident that they’ll pick up a good set of morals. Heaven knows I did. :slight_smile:

And HERE is what the Big Guy means to me. A link to an old post.

Please forgive the typing errors, it was posted in a hurry.

Pretty much. In addition, the pulp Shadow (which started in 1931) had no super powers. He was human, and used guns, a superb organization, and mystery to fight evil. It’s also debatable whether he was costumed – he wore a hat, and a trenchcoat, and covered his mouth with a red scarf.

In the radio show – started in 1937, long after the Shadow as a hit in the pulps – he was given the power to cloud men’s minds.

and here I thought it was this guy.

This is a question with many answers, as already noted in this thread.

If the criteria are “costumed hero with superpowers, in a comic book” then Superman is the winner, in 1939.

If the criteria are “hero with superpowers, in a comic book” then one of the magician characters like Dr. Occult wins, sometime in 1939 (though if you get technical, the real winner is probably Mandrake, whose newpaper comic strip was reprinted in early comic books and who provided the basis for Dr. Occult, Zatara, etc.)

If the criteria are “hero with superpowers in a newspaper comic strip,” then the winner is, of all people, Popeye, who debuted in 1929. (I don’t believe he did the “spinach gives him superstrength” thing on a regular basis until the cartoons, though, which debuted in the early 30s.) Mandrake the Magician followed in 1934 (he just wore a magician’s then-normal stage togs–tux, top hat and cape–so I’m not sure you can call him a costumed hero any more than Popeye was one for wearing sailor’s gear.)

If the criteria are “costumed hero who fights evil in a comic book,” then the answer is a Shadow/Green Hornet derived character like the Crimson Avenger, who debuted in 1938.

If the criteria are “costumed hero who fights evil in a newspaper comic strip,” then the winner is the Phantom, who premiered in 1936:


…though you could make a case for the Phantom Magician (who?):


If the criteria are “hero who adopts a secret identity to fight evil in any medium,” then you’re looking at literary heroes like the Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) and Zorro (1919.) If the criteria are “hero with superhuman powers in any medium” – well, it goes back to Hercules at least.

Nitpick on the Shadow: he actually started as a radio show in 1930, as the narrator of a mystery/thriller show sponsored by pulp publisher Street and Smith. The narrator was popular, so the publishers hired Walter Gibson to write pulp stories about him, leading to the creation of the extremely popular Shadow pulp magazine in 1930. Eventually in 1937 the radio Shadow was transformed from a mere narrator into a full fledged character something like the pulp hero … with, as RealityChuck notes, the addition of “mind clouding” powers, something he never had in the pulps.


Whoops, that should be 1931 for the premiere of the Shadow magazine, as RealityChuck says.

This is a question with many answers, as already noted in this thread.

I"f the criteria are “costumed hero with superpowers, in a comic book” then Superman is the winner, in 1939."

As I mistyped previously the debut year was 1938

“If the criteria are “hero with superpowers, in a comic book” then one of the magician characters like Dr. Occult wins, sometime in 1939 (though if you get technical, the real winner is probably Mandrake, whose newpaper comic strip was reprinted in early comic books and who provided the basis for Dr. Occult, Zatara, etc.)”

According to Goulart’s Encyclopaedia , Dr Occult was the first horror orientated feature in comic books, beginning in "New Fun # 6 (October 1935) In “More Fun” (late 1936,) he appeared with the “first true superhero origin” according to Comics historian Charles Woolley. He could fly and Goulart acknowledges that there were some elements of the then “unsold” Superman being played around with with this character though he was no “Superman clone” He retired after "more Fun # 33 (July 1938) with a brief revival by DC in 1989.

Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, and all the rest of the early “superheroes” were referred to as ‘mystery men’ until at least late in 1941.
The first comic book character to fight for truth, justice & the American Way, wear an identity-concealing costume, use an alias, and be referred to as a “super hero” was actually…the Guardian. Ironically, he was a character so obscure that he didn’t even have his own series. In fact, The Guardian was actually the SIDEKICK to a gang of “Dead End Kids” knock-offs called 'the Newsboy Legion."


This bit of trivia I gleaned from an issue (can’t remember which one though) of the 1980s series “the All-Star Squadron” which was a retcon of all the Golden Age 'Mystery Men" heroes (at least those owned by DC comics as of 1982).

Excellent post, but the Barry Allen version of Flash first appeared in Showcase #4 (September-October 1956).