Part two of my series on the history of comic book superheroes delves into their prehistory and what I consider the driving force behind their creation and primary motivation for their actions—at least initially.
Comic book scholars often refer to superhero stories as a “modern mythology.” It is true that superheroes and ancient gods share much in common. Some gods, such as Hercules and Thor, have even become superheroes. But there is a crucial difference between mythology and comic books. Unlike comic book writers, the chroniclers of Greek epics and Norse sagas believed they were recording history, not fantasy. In many ways, the tone and spirit of superhero stories, not to mention their place of birth, have more in common with American Tall Tales. No one who either told or listened to these yarns believed that the outlandish feats of Pecos Bill, Mike Fink, or Paul Bunyan actually took place, they just all silently agreed to pretend they did for the duration of the story. But because superhero tales have always been created as works of pure fiction intended to appear on the printed page, they are ultimately products of literature, and their original creators repeatedly mentioned the same three literary characters as primary sources of inspiration.
In an interview published in comics historian Thomas Andrae’s 2011 book, Creators of the Superheroes, Jerry Siegel named these characters while discussing the influences behind his and artist Joe Shuster’s creation of the very first superhero, Superman (more on him in Part 3):
I loved The Mark of Zorro, and I’m sure that had some influence on me. I did also see The Scarlet Pimpernel but didn’t care much for it. . . . Of course, we loved Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood.
Robin Hood made his first literary appearance in Piers Plowman, written by William Langland in 1377, but it was Howard Pyle’s 1883 retelling, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and film portrayals by Fairbanks (1922) and Errol Flynn (1938) that made him a household name (Flynn will always be my definitive Robin Hood). Though not exactly a superhero by today’s standards, this outlaw archer has been imitated by a long succession of bow-wielding comic book characters: in terms of both dress and personality, the Green Arrow is practically Robin’s clone (and his crime-fighting partner and lover, Black Canary, a more kick-ass version of Maid Marian). In addition, Sherwood Forest provided the model for hidden sanctums including the Batcave and the Fortress of Solitude, while groups such as the Avengers and the Justice League of America (JLA) are basically super-powered versions of the Merry Men.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s 1905 novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel (based on her 1903 play), has been adapted into several movies (Jerry Siegel would have seen the 1934 version, starring Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon), television series and a Broadway musical. The title character of the story took his pseudonym from an English wildflower. You might not expect botanical imagery to strike terror into the hearts of today’s criminals, but it has proven pretty effective for such comic book superwomen as Thorn, Nightshade, and the Black Orchid. The Scarlet Pimpernel’s band of compatriots was actually called a League (foreshadowing the JLA’s overseas branch, Justice League Europe), and his swift galley, The Day Dream, was a pre-industrial precursor to the Batboat and other customized crime-fighting vehicles. His mastery of disguise meant he had no need for a trademark costume, but his public persona of Sir Percy Blakeney did provide the Scarlet Pimpernel with one of the signature traits of a superhero: a misleadingly foppish secret identity.
Johnston McCulley perfected the superhero prototype with Zorro, who made his first appearance in “The Curse of Capistrano,” published in the August 9, 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly. Zorro’s adventures have also been adapted several times for the big and small screens, with notable portrayals by Douglas Fairbanks (1920), Tyrone Power (1940), Guy Williams (1957-59), Frank Langella (1974) and Antonio Banderas (1998 and 2005). In his 1986 groundbreaking Batman epic, The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller established that it was Power’s 1940 The Mark of Zorro (my personal definitive version) that young Bruce Wayne had just seen with his parents on the night they were gunned down before his eyes. Mark of Zorro reveals how the seemingly dandyish Don Diego Vega first adopted the alter ego of this masked, black-garbed swashbuckler. The cunning Zorro, or “Fox” in English, also foreshadowed a long line of superheroes—from Batman to Spider-Man to Wolverine—who would take their names and powers (symbolic or physical) from animals.
Yet despite the superficial resemblances, Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro were different from most of today’s costumed comic book do-gooders in one crucial respect. Their death-defying careers were devoted not to stopping crime, but to committing it.
The medieval version of “trickle down economics” that made Sir Robin of Locksley famous was literally highway robbery. In addition, while Robin Hood and his merry guerrillas were basically fighting a war against colonialism—Prince John was overtaxing the Saxon peasants whose land his invading Norman knights had conquered—they were still committing treason against their duly appointed ruler. During the Reign of Terror, English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney repeatedly violated France’s sovereignty as the Scarlet Pimpernel by smuggling aristocratic enemies of the Republic out of the country before their blue blood could be spilled by Robespierre’s lethal paramour, Madame Guillotine. When Don Diego returned home to old Los Angeles in the early 1800s, after years spent in a Spanish military academy, he found the peons suffering under the exploitation of wealthy cabelleros and the tyranny of a despotic junta. Soon, Zorro began his own terrorist campaign, as McCulley put it, “to avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians,” and “to aid the oppressed.”
Each of these original caped crusaders struck out against governments—not always their own—that preyed on their citizens. These idealistic rebels believed it was not only their right but also their duty to violate the law whenever it was necessary to preserve justice, even if it meant as drastic a measure as revolution. At the very least, these flamboyant agitators acted according to a duty once espoused by early 20th century activists and journalists to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Given his noble heritage, it makes sense that the first true superhero would feel the same way.