They fly, crawl, spin at incredible speeds and for the most live in major urban centres, holes in the ground or occasionally post boxes. They're usually human, sometimes animal and occasionally vegetable, but they all fight to save the planet from all manner of nasties. With the aid of their faithful sidekicks, superheroes are for some of us an integral part of childhood and the inspiration for many a film, television series, costume party and game. So wear your underpants on the outside, put on those radioactive lenses and let's save the world.
Superheroes can be divided into three categories - those that are truly super through no fault of their own, those that have been messed about by Mother Nature and those that are just Mr or Miss average that go out of their way to help their fellow citizens.
Superman who was normal on his own planet but discovered his full potential when he fell to Earth.
The Martian Manhunter, another extra-terrestrial trapped on planet Earth with alien powers like telepathy and shapeshifting.
The X-Men, who due to the process of evolution have mutated, many with superhuman abilities.
These guys usually use their powers for good. Sometimes they are 'chosen' by higher powers - like the Green Lanterns, Captain Marvel, the Mighty Thor or even Captain America (who was 'volunteered' to fight the good fight) and more often than not they succeed in the tasks asked of them. For example, Superman can fly, change his clothes at the speed of light (the obvious underpants situation being a major flaw) and lift monumental weights in order to fight for truth, justice and, well mostly justice really.
Super by Chance
The next category of superheroes comprises those who have had their physical makeup tampered with, causing superhuman abnormalities. They then have to live with the curse of these super abilities which they often have trouble controlling. Major players in this field include:
Spider-Man who was unfortunate enough to have been bitten by a radioactive spider.
The Flash when caught in a freak lab explosion had all his molecules messed about with so he can't even perform menial tasks without burning through his loafers at superspeeds.
The Incredible Hulk who was plain Dr Bruce Banner, until he got caught up in a blast of 'gamma' radiation and as a result, he turned into a great big green monster with rippling muscles, a dodgy hairdo and thighs to die for. This, however, only happened when the good doctor became angry. As a direct result he was continually pursued by the police, even though he saved damsel after damsel and never killed a bad guy.
Inspector Gadget was the bumbling police detective who would have done anything for a promotion. He is fitted out with every electronic gadget to help him catch his criminal - these include an extendable neck, elasticated knees and a hat that contains an umbrella, a helicopter and a boxing glove amongst other things.
Superheroes who fall into this category are usually nice guys who tend to fluff up on the job - the Hulk used to destroy everything in his path, Inspector Gadget used to malfunction at least three times a mission, Spider-Man has to juggle (and not well) work, study and a romantic life and recent incarnations of the Flash were not altogether overly blessed with smarts, so the art of faux pas is not beyond his reach...
Super by Choice
The final category of hero, the ordinary 'Joe', is the normal guy who is fighting for the needy - a bit like the A-Team. They usually have an array of super gadgets and rely on their swift thinking. Popular heroes who fall into this category include:
Batman is the archetypal normal hero. During the day he is millionaire business man Bruce Wayne, but at night he patrols Gotham City in a range of vehicles with his side kick, dressed in fantastic rubber outfits that increase his pectorals by two inches in depth.
Danger Mouse is the epitome of the ordinary guy fighting for Her Majesty the Queen. With his dashing eye-patch, faithful sidekick and 'des res' post box in Mayfair, London, UK he was eye-fodder for a whole generation of kids and their electronic babysitter.
The Punisher tootles about in a big black van shooting j-walkers and crimelords indiscriminately all in the name of vengeance.
Iron Man manufactured his own amazing metal robot suit so he could survive, but in the meantime took to battling various ad-hoc bad guys with homemade weapons attached to his 'power-suit'.
Of course, whatever type of superhero there may be a few will stand out from the crowd, but in a bad way. These bumbling idiots that think themselves heroes more often than not just mess it up for everyone else. Space Ghost, Underdog, Roger Ramjet, Plastic Man, Beastboy - the list of these flawed and altogether too comic 'anti-heroes' is almost as long as Mr Fantastic's arm.
Superheroes and Their Flaws
Superheroes, although truly super, often have a depth their characters which either explains their powers or why they become heroes. It has to be said that any hero benefits from having a 'dark side'1. Batman is on the point of complete and utter mental breakdown, Iron-Man fights alcoholism, Storm of the X-Men is claustrophobic, the Mighty Thor doesn't know if he is a god or just a guy with delusions of grandeur and numerous Green Lanterns have had to fight not only intergalactic armies intent on destroying the Earth, but homophobia too.
In the superhero arena, flaws take the form of a super-weakness, some of which are;
Spider-Man is a wimpy school-kid who lives with his aunt.
Iron Man is a businessman on the verge of heart failure.
Daredevil is blind.
Deathlock goes a stage further. His tragic weakness is he's dead.
It appears however, that many superheroes show no sign of weakness or have any skeletons in the cupboard. Wonder Woman can do amazing things with a whip, shield bullets with her wristbands and maintain that fab hairdo after three double back flips. In fact just about every hero can take enormous amounts of punishment yet appear unscathed with a pristine uniform and perfect hair at the end of a furious fight with their arch-nemesis. This illusion could perhaps be explained by what they wear.
Being heroes, these characters need clothes that make them stand out from the crowd. However, the superhero's choice of clothes can only be described as suspect. Some have had the aid of fashion designers to assist in this area, such as the Incredibles Edna Mode - a woman with a penchant for heroes, but a sensible distaste of anything caped. Spider-Man even found one of his costumes onboard an alien spacecraft, leading to quite a transformation seeing as the suit had a life of its own!
The superhero wardrobe can be separated into two types. The first type is usually a mix of rubber, leather, spandex, nylon, PVC and Kevlar which covers the entire body - Batman, Spider-Man and Banana-Man2 all favoured this get-up, the forerunner being Superman who managed to change into his costume in telephone boxes, a superhuman feat in itself.
The other type of clothing, endemic to the early 1980s, was to have our heroes bare as much flesh as possible - the Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman and even Batman's sidekick Robin (because his tights left nothing to the imagination) are guilty of this trend. As Coco Chanel reminded us, you can have the perfect frock, but you must accessorise and it's in this category that our super heroes excel;
Wonder Woman has her bullet-proof bangles, her tiara, sparkly gold lasso and invisible jet (terrible to find even if you DO remember where you parked it).
Batman has his Utility Belt and Batmobile.
Hellboy has his trenchcoat and a big gun.
The Phantom has his mask and rings.
The Silver Surfer has his iconic surfboard.
And Blade has his…blade.
All in all, superheroes have had a rough ride on the fashion roller coaster, with costumes that are designed to make them sweat and haircuts that haven't changed in forty or so years - but they do have more important things to worry about.
Any community minded individual feels it part of their civic duty to perform a service for their fellow human. This involves working. A job. Superheroes divide into two sections in this element of life. The first is the hero who has a secret identity so they can go out to work, pay the bills and put beef curry or vegetarian pasta on the table at the end of the day. Superman leads a double life as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Spider-Man finds time in between fighting bad guys to work as freelance photographer Peter Parker. Batman is high society man Bruce Wayne, Daredevil dishes out courtroom justice as lawyer Matt Murdock. The Martian Manhunter disguises himself as police detective Jon Jones and even Wonder Woman once worked as secretary Diana Prince.
The other type of working heroes are the ones who work as, well - heroes. The Fantastic Four and Captain America with the Avengers make no illusion to being super, providing a service to the people of the world. The X-Men apparently reside as live-in tutors or students at a Mutant Academy, yet aren't paid for the privilege and don't appear to receive bursaries. It appears they all must have an endless supply of funds available because after nearly destroying cities and towns every time they fight it out with the evildoers they dont have to pay a stitch in repair fees and don't earn a wage either...
Some superheroes need various foodstuffs to give them their strange but wonderful powers. Eric is just a normal schoolboy but if he eats a banana he becomes Banana-Man. When Olive Oyl is in trouble, Popeye opens up a can of spinach and becomes a regular pillar of strength, and all that is needed to give Scooby Doo a little encouragement is a Scooby Snack - a rather delicious dog biscuit. The Flash burns calories in a…flash, and in order to re-energise has to eat copious amounts of burgers, fries and power-shakes without any affect on his fabulous skin, and Roger Ramjet would never find the strength to beat up the bad guys without his Proton Energy Pills. Superheroes who get their powers this way all suffer from the same problem - those powers wear off without a constant supply of their magic food.
Every hero needs a home and some are grand palaces, like Superman's Fortress of Solitude. A castle made of ice in the North Pole, it's a great place to get away from fighting crime and nagging wives. Other heroes go for a more secular and spartan style of abode, like Batman's cave or Danger Mouse's Royal Mail Postbox. Some have no choice but to live with relatives, Spider-Man lodges with his aunt and the Incredibles share their family home. Many heroes hide away, living in secret (like the students at the Xavier Institute for the Gifted), but others make a habit of being noticed. The Fantastic Four live in the Richards Building, a skyscraper stuck in the middle of Manhattan for all to see, the Teen Titans cohabitate in Titan Tower and the Justice League share a huge space station orbiting the Earth.
Love and Relationships
Saving the world is hard work. Sometimes after a hard day battling the forces of evil you just want to go home, sit down and moan about it to someone you love. Superman found solace in his co-worker and eventually wife Lois Lane. Spider-Man had a few on-off girlfriends until he cemented a relationship with girl next door Mary-Jane Watson. Reed and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four work together and fight together, a perfect husband and wife team. Tank Girl takes out her frustrations (mostly sexual) on mutant kangaroo men.
However, some superheroes find love and intimacy more difficult to accomplish. Rogue of the X-Men has a superpower that means when touching another person she drains them of their life force, not a great asset when you want a kiss and a cuddle. Batman and Wonder Woman have always had a bit of a 'thing', but their work-life always seemed to get in the way. Perhaps the worst off is Spawn. He's now a supernatural demon fighting for his soul and his wife has married again believing him dead. No chance of fireworks there really.
Superheroes, although they are truly super, need a helping hand - this usually takes the shape of a sidekick who although not super, is generally amazing. The sidekick is often a 'normal' human being who may possess knowledge or contacts that the hero needs in times of crisis.
Female sidekicks are commonly scientists, journalists or family members. Spider-Man had his beloved aunt, Superman had Lois Lane (news reporter) and Hellboy has Dr Kate Kerrigan. The female sidekick is the best to have as they know all the answers and possess the logic that our heroes, bless them, lack.
The male sidekick can be two specific types. There are those who aid the hero in everything they do - good examples of this kind include Robin and Alfred the Butler who help Batman and Honk Kong Phooey, the Karate Kicking pooch, had Spot as his assistant - however, it was Spot who solved the crimes on most occasions.
The other type of male sidekick is the one that wants to help but unfortunately is usually too scared and ends up getting in the way or, even worse, getting captured. One of the most popular examples of this kind of hero is Penfold3, the faithful civil servant sidekick to Danger Mouse - he was the one who would object to any and everything. He was often silenced with a 'Penfold... Shush'. Another hero who had a sidekick who was more of a hindrance than a help was Scooby Doo. While every other hero gets a good-looker, academic or generally handy human, Scooby gets Shaggy - an unshaven, unkempt relic who, when he tries to run slips over his flares.
The Villain of the Piece
Every superhero needs an enemy, an arch-nemesis, usually moulded after the baddies in 'James Bond' films and more often than not after the same thing - world domination. Superman has Lex Luthor, a tyrant with an eye on ruling the United States, and the world. The Silver Surfer battles against his boss Galactus who eats worlds. Spawn fights the Devil himself and the Sandman, while not a true superhero in the sense of the word does battle with his own family to ensure humanity is reasonably safe. Danger Mouse's main enemy is Baron Silas Greenback, a frog who is clearly modelled on the James Bond archetypal evil mastermind, Blofeld - he even has a pet caterpillar called Nero.
Evil villains are not usually born evil, they become that way due to some cruel twist of fate that has ostracised them from the rest of society. Megalomania sets in and the next thing you know they are out to conquer the world. Batman's enemies best exemplify this:
Catwoman was a lonely woman living on her own with a lot of cats.
Two-Face was the tragic victim of an acid attack.
The Riddler was a genius who lost his job because they didn't like his invention.
Superheroes of the World Unite
As we move further into the 21st Century, there is a strange phenomenon whereby superheroes are combining strengths to fight ever-increasing threats to global peace. There are growing teams of 'supers' - the Justice Society, the Justice League, X-Men, Alpha Flight, Teen Titans, the Avengers, the Watchmen, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and family units like the Incredibles. The ever growing list asks the question 'Are there any superheroes who go it alone any more?'
A case in point is The Tick, a big guy in a blue suit with antenna. The Tick's main superpower is being 'nigh invulnerable', his battle cry is 'Spoon!!' and although he is none too bright, he has a big heart. Protecting The City with his sidekick Arthur, who used to be an accountant until he found a 'moth suit' (although most people think it's a rabbit suit), and other heroes including the American Maid, the Sea Urchin and Der Fleidermouse, the Tick is an endearing example of the modern 'hero'.
Along with the Tick, 'new' heroes that are starting to make waves in the fight against crime and general wrong doing are a little more intriguing than the regular tight-wearing 'thump-first, ask questions later' type we all know and maybe love. Powdered Toast Man, the Crimson Chin, FatDog Mendosa, the Flaming Carrot and Too-Much-Coffee Man are surprising additions to the swelling ranks of superheroes the world over.