(Investigator 123, 2008 November)


Sprayed with gamma rays; doused in mutagenic chemicals; bitten by a radioactive bug; born on a distant planet; physically enhanced by alien technology; or magically transformed by a wizard. That's how superheroes originate.

Good superheroes fight crime and promote truth, justice and the American way. Bad ones ["supervillains"] seek to take over the world and form alliances with Communists, crime syndicates, and evil politicians.


The first superhero was Superman (began 1938) whose success prompted editors to introduce other superheroes. With World War II came Bullet Man (1940), Flash (1940), Wonder Woman (1940) and Captain America (1941).

The super-powered wore bright costumes often with "underpants outside", often a mask and cape, and had a secret identity and secret headquarters. They always won their battles, often against super-powered criminals thereby reassuring everyone that good ultimately triumphs, as Democracy would over Communism.

In the 1960s came new superheroes including Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, Captain Atom, and The Thing. Some had everyday problems of study, relationships and employment and struggled under the responsibilities that super powers imposed.


Pulp fiction and comic strips of the 1930s featured heroic crime fighters, fantastic adventures, strange powers, mysterious lands, and scantily clad women needing rescue.

Tarzan of the Apes (1912) was endowed with animal strength, endurance and trained senses. The Shadow (1930), Phantom (1936) and Batman (1939) were superior crime-fighters; Flash Gordon travelled the galaxy and righted wrongs on other planets; and Conan the Barbarian (1932) tackled primitive civilizations.

These were "costumed crime fighters" rather than superheroes since they lacked superhuman traits and relied on superior training, talent, or technology. Batman, for example, had peak physical condition, was expert in hand-to-hand combat, drove a high tech "Bat Car", and wore a utility belt holding gadgets of every sort.

Such escapist fantasy reassured Americans impoverished by the Great Depression or anxious over Nazism and Imperial Japan. Science was unknown to most people but they'd heard of x-rays, mutations, gas warfare, and malformed babies and this made fantasy believable.

Tarzan, Batman and Phantom keep making comebacks. Similar to Tarzan was "Turok Son of Stone". Commencing with Valiant Comics the story ran 1954 to 1982. Two pre-Columbian Indians, Turok and his brother Andar, wandered a lost valley encountering dinosaurs (called "Honkers"), primitive tribes, great natural disasters, and giant birds, insects and apes.


Superman first appeared in a comic book in 1938 written by Jerry Siegel and drawn by Joe Shuster.

In the story parents on the doomed planet Krypton send their baby boy to Earth where he is reared by Martha and Jonathan Kent. The baby is named Clark and develops x-ray vision, flight, and unlimited strength. Superman can't be hurt or destroyed except by a mineral called Kryptonite. Clark Kent works as a "mild mannered" reporter for the Daily Planet. Fellow reporter Lois Lane, bedazzled by Superman, constantly shrugs Clark off.

The first movie Superman was Kirk Alyn (1910-1999). Then came George Reeves (1914-1959) of the 1950s TV series with Phillis Coates the first Lois Lane and Noel Neill the second.

Dean Cain starred in the 1993 TV series Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Tom Welling was Super Boy in the TV series Smallville (2001). Christopher Reeve starred in four Superman movies (1978; 1981; 1983; 1987). Brandon Rough starred in Superman Returns (2006).

We sometimes hear of the "curse of Superman". Actors playing Superman, or supporting cast, seem bedevilled by suicide, accident, illness, financial ruin and madness.

Kirk Alyn starred in Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs Superman (1950). He rarely worked in Hollywood again, claiming "Playing Superman ruined my career", developed Alzheimers, and died in obscurity.

George Reeves died by gunshot in 1959. He too couldn't get another acting role and mismanaged his finances. It's rumoured he was murdered for an affair with a producer's wife, but more likely he killed himself.

Most calamitous was Christopher Reeve. His non-Superman movies were box-office flops, malaria struck him in 1993, and a horse-riding accident left him paralyzed in 1994.

Reeve's "Lois Lane", Margot Kidder, had a car accident in Canada in 1990, was wheelchair dependent for a year, sold her jewelry to pay for convalescence, and incurred debts of $350,000. She developed drink and drug problems, suffered a nervous breakdown in 1996, and had another car accident in 2001.

Superman's creators too seemed "cursed". Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the rights to the Superman character to DC Comics for $100, were fired from the corporation in 1947, and spent decades in legal wrangling for compensation.

However, Dean Cain may have broken the supposed curse. He refused to do risky stunts, had a $2million insurance policy, and seems OK to this day. Similarly, Tom Welling of the TV series Smallville currently remains healthy.

Margot Kidder said after her 2001 car accident: "If I hadn't hit a telegraph pole after rolling three times, I would have dropped down a 50ft to 60ft ravine. Why don't people focus on that?" The curse of Superman is now the "Luck of Superman"!


Captain America arrived in 1941. Steve Rogers, a youth too sickly to fight in WWII, becomes test subject for a secret serum which enhances him to human physical peak. He obtains an indestructible shield, wears a costume featuring the American flag, and fights Nazis, Japs and Fascists. Captain America lost popularity after WWII but resurfaced from "suspended animation" in 1964.

Captain Atom appeared in 1960. His alter ego, Allen Adam, becomes "atomized" when trapped in an experimental rocket, which explodes. Like Superman he flies and is super-strong and invulnerable. His costume is red and yellow.

Other "Captain" superheroes include Captain Marvel (1940-1953), Captain Canuck of Canada (1975) who obtained super-strength from extra-terrestrials, and Captain Britain (1976) whose super-strength, force-field and ability to fly were implanted by Merlyn the Magician.

Captain Nazi, a perfect specimen of Hitler's master race, appeared in December 1941. His super strength, speed, enhanced senses and ability to fly made him a tough opponent of Captain Marvel and Bullet Man. With Hitler's defeat Captain Nazi retired into suspended animation. He returned in the 1990s, joined Lex Luthor's Society of Super Villains, strove to restart the Third Reich, and battled Wonder Woman and other superheroes.


The Flash, the fastest man in the world, got his super speed when lightning struck a cabinet of chemicals. Air friction poses no problem to his super-fast movements because he has an "aura" that neutralizes it. The Flash wore a tight red costume and yellow boots.

I recall a comic story in which the Flash and his alter-identity simultaneously converse with a third person. To explain the presence of both the next page slowed Flash's movement down and showed him crossing and re-crossing the room between spoken phrases, and simultaneously changing his clothing, faster than the hearer could move his head right and left.

Of course super speed would also require super-fast reflexes for super-fast stops and turns to avoid repeated concussion from collisions with walls, trees and whatever!

Actually there were four main Flashes plus other less popular ones. The first Flash, college student Jay Garrick, appeared in Flash Comics in 1940.

The second Flash, Barry Allen, existed in a parallel world and appeared in comics from 1956 to 1986. Upon his heroic death the Flash mantle passed to his nephew Wally West (Kid Flash) from 1986 to 2006. Next came Bart Allen grandson of Barry Allan who Flashed in 2006-2007.

Among the less famous Flashes was a female, Jesse Chambers, whom Wally West asked to be his replacement.


Wonder Woman, the daughter of an Amazon Queen, is a busty beauty whose crime-fighting outfit is a red and blue bathing suit and red boots. She obtained superpowers from the Olympian gods and has bulletproof bracelets, a "truth lasso" (which forces lassoed baddies to tell the truth), and great strength, speed and agility. In the television series she switches from everyday clothing to her crime-fighting swimsuit by spinning around.

The comics described her as "beautiful as Aphrodite, wise as Athena, swifter than Hermes, and stronger than Hercules." Wonder Woman began in 1941 and became a TV series in 1975-1979.

Her creator, William Moulton, was a psychologist, pro-feminist, and invented a lie detector, hence the idea of a truth lasso.


Spider-Man came to Marvel Comics in 1962, actually as a "Spider-Teenager".

Spider-Man is the alter ego of Peter Parker a lonely, awkward high school student bitten by a radioactive spider. Its mutated DNA merges with his DNA and gives him adhesive hands and feet, a powerful grip, and the ability to sling spider-like threads and swing through city streets at amazing speeds.

In the comic series he developed into a college student, then a teacher, and has a daughter who becomes "Spider-Girl". The big-budget movie Spider-Man (2002), however, has a modern setting but still portrays him as a student.


Dr Bruce Banner works on a gamma-ray bomb but gets careless. Gamma rays are in the high-energy sector of the electromagnetic spectrum and lethal in high doses. Details of Banner's exposure vary, in the movie version Banner inherits modified DNA from his geneticist father and is further altered when gamma rays interact with nanotechnology.

Banner thereafter transforms into the Hulk whenever he's seriously upset.

The Hulk ripples with solid muscle, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s, is green in color, huge in size, amazing in strength (able to toss cars and trucks), and can bounce and jump along at great speed.  


There are numberless other superheroes in comics, books and films. These include Human Torch, Hawkman, Aquaman, Starman, Dr Strange, Daredevil, Green Goblin, Green Lantern, Plastic Man, Iron Man, Black Panther, Galvaniser, Gambit, Ghost Rider, Hellboy, Spawn, Invincible, Professor X, Saturn Girl, Invisible Girl, Power Girl, Mister Fantastic, Shapeshifter, Doctor Solar, Sub-Mariner, and Quicksilver. The list goes on and on.

Some male superheroes have female counterparts such as Bullet Girl, Hawkgirl, Batwoman, Supergirl, Spider-Girl, etc.

DC Comics which introduced Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Hawkman, Aquaman and Green Arrow banded most of these into the "Justice League of America" in 1960, a move that increased sales tremendously.

Japan's output of superheroes is second to America's, and many other countries also have superheroes.

Superheroes and costumed crime fighters are sometimes classified as follows:


Super heroes apparently wear super-strength costumes, since they never emerge naked from burning buildings, powerful tornadoes, catastrophic collisions, fiery explosions, or high-velocity jumps (when wind speed should rip or burn the costume off). In the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie, however, Superman's mother sews his costume using ordinary fabric.

Also superheroes' hair never gets disarrayed no matter how violent the action!

Many superheroes use an anti-aging formula, since we don't see them aging. Superman and Wonder Woman look as young in current movies as in the 1940s. Others reach the modern world upon awaking from suspended animation. Spider Man remains an adolescent, still in college, after 45 years! His original co-students would have become teachers, taught him for 40 years, and now face retirement, whereas he still struggles to make next grade.


Legalities aside, technology can now endow everyone with superhero abilities.

You can smash through walls as effectively as the Hulk by using plastic explosives! You can burn through metal as effectively as the Human Torch by using a thumb-sized blowtorch! You can entangle baddies as effectively as Spider-Man's webs by using netting fired from a grenade launcher! You can pack a punch like the Phantom by supplementing exercise with steroids! If that's not enough you can surprise assailants with 50,000 volts from your stun gun!

Super fast adhesives to stop opponents in their tracks, and clothing to render you invisible are almost here!

All sorts of superhero gear can be ordered via the Internet including:

You can stop bullets and knives like Superman's chest with a bullet-proof vest. You can achieve super-hearing with long-range parabolic microphones to pick up talk at one kilometre and pocket-sized microphones to eavesdrop at 50 metres! Night vision goggles will permit clear sight on the darkest night and miniaturised thermal imaging cameras will let you see through thick smoke as effectively as x-ray vision!


Dean, T 2006 December, The science behind Superheroes, Cosmos, Issue 6, pp 56-64

West, P 2005, The curse of Superman, Fortean Times, No. 193, p53
(B S)