Spoiler alert: It’s not Superman!
While researching the previous article, I came across an interesting question. Fans of ‘reading article titles’ will know that the question was: ‘Who was the first Superhero?’
After an exhausting search which lasted longer than it probably should have, I’ve got the answer. And this answer never appeared when I typed in ‘Who was the first Superhero?’ on multiple search engines – not ONCE.
And just to be clear: This isn’t a joke article, and it’s not clickbait. Much like a postman or a midwife, I will deliver your gift unto you, because that’s my job.
And sure, you could just skip ahead and find out. I can’t stop you from doing that. If you do skip ahead and feel like you haven’t read enough for the day, here’s an article on Hellgate: London to tide you over.
Regardless, I invite you to join me as I recount my literally-epic journey of discovery. And I mean that literally – this isn’t a normal article as much as a map of the thought-notes I hit along the way.
Superman is the first Superhero, everyone knows that!
It’s a popular opinion Superman is the first superhero. This is objectively wrong.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines superhero as: ‘A fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers.’
Notice how the word ‘comic‘ didn’t appear in that definition? Notice how it didn’t mention a costume, or a theme (such as bats)?
See, when most of us use the word ‘superhero‘, we actually mean ‘comic superhero‘.
The Merriam-Webster definition also answers the question of how Batman is a superhero even though he doesn’t have superpowers: Because he has ‘extraordinary‘ powers. His abilities in combat and, in the past, detective work are well above the norm.
If Batman is a comic superhero – which he is – then it stands to reason that the first comic superhero was actually…
Was The Phantom the first superhero?
The Phantom first appeared in 1936. That’s two years before Superman. If we accept that Batman is a superhero, then it stands to reason that The Phantom – not Superman – is actually the first comic superhero.
Our younger readers might not be familiar with The Phantom, so here’s a quick recap of what he’s all about.
The original Phantom was the lone survivor of a pirate attack and found himself shipwrecked on the shores of a fictional African country called Bangalla. The natives found him and nursed him back to health.
With no way to return home, he accepted his fate and decided to personify an old Bangallan jungle myth of an undying protector who cannot be killed. he made his home/base in a giant cave that was shaped like a skull. In classic comic style, his base was named Skull Cave.
It’s a legacy position, meaning it was passed on through the family line. This is how the myth of the immortal Phantom is perpetuated – when one Phantom dies, their son takes over. The current Phantom is the 21st Phantom, and he continues the tradition of devoting his life to combating injustice by using his Phantom training, his wits, and sometimes guns.
But it could be argued (by me, in the next section) that The Phantom still isn’t the first comic superhero. Let’s get back to the ‘first superhero’ question again. Just for fun, let’s pretend that ‘superheroes’ actually means ‘superpowered heroes in comics’.
This raises even more issues.
GET IT? COMICS? ISSUES?
Point is: There have been many good-natured superpowered beings in comics long before Superman ever appeared…
Did the first superhero appear in Manga?
One thing that a lot of people don’t realise about Superman is that he’s a sci-fi character. He gets his powers through scientific means: Coming from another planet, absorbing sunlight etc.
Just like Superman, Green Lantern is also a well-known sci-fi superhero who has terrible movies made about him. He wasn’t originally, though – the first Green Lantern, Alan Scott, was actually a magic-based superhero.
One may argue that magic is just science that we don’t understand yet. However, there’s no science behind the concept of mysticism.
In fact, mysticism is the literal polar opposite of science: Science is about knowledge and understanding, mysticism is about understanding just enough to manipulate energies, or in some cases, not about understanding anything (such as in Lovecraftian horror).
If the original Green Lantern is a superhero – which he is – then that confuses the issue even more.
Manga, as you may know, is essentially the Japanese word for ‘comic’. But you may not know that Manga appeared as early as the 12th century.
We just need one appearance of a good-spirited kitsune – a trickster fox spirit with magical powers – in a comic anywhere between the 12th and (early) 20th centuries to undeniably oust the Man of Steel as the first comic superhero.
I don’t own a time machine, but I think it’s a safe bet that happened – at least once.
So who was the first superhero then?
If we ignore the ‘comic’ implications of the word ‘superhero’ and allow non-sci-fi characters, we can see that Merlin from the King Arthur mythology qualifies as a superhero. Going further back, we could also argue that Jesus of Nazareth counts as a superhero. Anyone who’s seen the recent Superman movies, you know what I’m talking about.
But the very first appearance of a ‘fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers’ goes back even further than that – a LOT further.
In fact, the very first superhero is also the star of what’s widely considered to be the earliest surviving work of literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh.
The Gilgamesh of the tale was an ancient Sumerian king. Like Heracles/Hercules, he was a human/god hybrid. As such, he had abilities above other humans, which means he was clearly ‘superhuman’. He often fought and defeated wild beasts.
He was (at the time) the strongest human who had ever lived, making him the first Hulk-like character. He was a master strategist, making him the first Batman-like character. I could continue in this vein for quite some time, but the existence of Gilgamesh brings us to one final point of interest.
One might even say (if one was trying to tie up an article, which one is) that Gilgamesh was above other humans in all things. His abilities were well over the abilities of others. The Germans have a word for this idea of an ‘over man’: Ubermensch.
Ubermensch is the name that Superman bore in his first appearance, in which he was a villain.
And just like Superman, Gilgamesh began as a villain and ended up as a superhero.
Superman might not have been the first superhero, but Gilgamesh appears to have been the first Superman-type character.
That’s something that Superman fans can – and should – be very proud of. Superman might not be the first superhero ever, but his archetype exemplifies the idea that with great power comes great responsibility.
That’s a great phrase. I wish a comic character had made it their motto.
DON’T COMMENT. See how you’re not commenting, right now? I’m making you do that with my super-powered mind-control, I am.