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Superheroes, the contemporary extension of the ancient gods, represent ideals to which we all aspire.

Well, that looks good on paper, and to a degree, it is true. The fundamental explanation, however, for the enduring popularity of superheroes—from the granddaddy of them all, Superman, to the Man of Steel's more recent successors like Witchblade—is envy. People wish they could do the amazing things that superheroes do. Young children tie towels around their necks and pretend to fly, or stage ninja battles in their backyards, before graduating to less visceral, more vicarious means of simulating superpowers: engaging in computer and role-playing games, reading comics and fantasy books, and watching superheroes on film.

Two superpowers fascinate people most: flight and invisibility. In his report for National Public Radio's This American Life, in a segment entitled Invisible Man vs. Hawkman (February 23, 2001), commentator John Hodgman surveyed a handful of participants on their preference between those abilities. Flight, the ultimate symbol of freedom and happiness, is a common theme in nighttime dreams, while invisibility denotes stealth and even insecurity. To no surprise, many men revealed their transparency by opting for invisibility. What flabbergasted Hodgman was that each of his interviewees' motivations was purely selfish: They wanted to fly to Paris, or to sneak into the women's locker room. No one said they'd use their powers to help others—they'd only help themselves.

Humans may covet the gift of flight, but flying is so routine within the supercommunity, it's easier to hail an airborne hero than a taxicab. DC Comics' Superman, Supergirl, Captain Marvel and the rest of the Marvel Family, and Martian Manhunter fly effortlessly. Marvel Comics' Thor is pulled through the air by hurling his magic hammer. The Fantastic Four's Human Torch and the Teen Titans' Starfire scorch the skyways, leaving behind flaming trails. Iron Man's armor, Starman's cosmic rod, and Green Lantern's power ring propel them. The Silver Surfer rides his space-spanning surfboard throughout the deepest regions of the Marvel universe. DC's Hawkman and Hawkwoman; X-Man Archangel; the Wasp of the Avengers; and TV hero Birdman flap their wings, and Sub-Mariner, his winged ankles. Doctor Strange, Marvel's Master of the Mystic Arts, floats with his Cloak of Levitation, while Jean Grey of the X-Men levitates via telekinesis. Justice Leaguers Wonder Woman and the Atom glide on air currents, and Gen13's Freefall manipulates gravity. Members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, the teenage adventurers living one thousand years in the future, all have flight rings. And while the X-Men's Nightcrawler can't fly, he can do the next best thing: teleport.

That other superpower, invisibility, is not as prevalent among superheroes as one might think. The Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four (formerly the Invisible Girl before changing times liberated her) can disappear (as could her possible model, the 1940s newspaper-comic heroine Invisible Scarlet O'Neil). The Legion's Invisible Kid gained admittance to the team by pulling a vanishing act, and the cartoon hero Space Ghost relies upon his Invisibelt to fade away. Then there are the phasers, phantom superheroes whose ghostly appearances spook their foes, or allow them to walk through walls: Dark Horse Comics' Ghost, the Legion's Phantom Girl (a.k.a. Apparition), the Justice Society's Obsidian, the X-Men's Kitty Pryde (a.k.a. Shadowcat), and Top Ten's Jack Phantom display this trait, as do deceased DC Comics heroes like Deadman and the Spectre. The android member of the Avengers, the Vision, has absolute mastery of his density, through thick and thin.

Superstrength is the superpower supreme, however, found among more characters than any other. There are the infinitely strong, like Superman, who can push asteroids, or the Hulk, whose strength is fueled by rage. Other mighty men and women registering high on the muscle meter are Marvel's Thor, Hercules, Iron Man, She-Hulk, Gladiator, and the Thing; DC's Captain Marvel and Supergirl; and Image (later Awesome) Comics' Supreme. The next level down includes Wonder Woman and Troia (the original Wonder Girl); America's Best Comics' Tom Strong; Gen 13's Fairchild; Marvel's Sub-Mariner and Spider-Man, who can heave cars; and Acclaim's Magnus, Robot Fighter, who can karate chop through rogue cyborgs. They're not alone: Dozens of other superheroes have varying grades of enhanced strength. Being able to bench-press tons sometimes carries a hefty price: Ben Grimm lost his humanity when cosmic rays mutated him into the Thing, and the gamma-irradiated Bruce Banner cannot control his incredible alter ego, the Hulk.

Most superstrong heroes are also bolstered by invulnerability, or superdense skin. The Hulk can shrug off mortar shells, while Superman can withstand even greater blasts. The Avenger Iron Man's armor and X-Man Colossus' steel skin keep them safe from most attacks, and Ferro (a.k.a. Ferro Lad) of the Legion of Super-Heroes can transmute into iron. The Invisible Woman's force fields protect her and her Fantastic Four teammates. The accident that turned Luke Cage into Marvel Comics' hero for hire called Power Man buffered his skin into the organic equivalent of Kevlar. The X-Men's Wolverine may not be invulnerable, but his mutant healing ability allows him to rebound quickly from wounds.

Size does matter among superheroes. Many can grow, like Dark Horse's Hero Zero, Marvel's Black Goliath, the Doom Patrol's Elasti-Girl, the Legion's Colossal Boy, and the ghostly Spectre, who once expanded to such heights that he clobbered a similarly sized opponent with a planet! Then there's Henry Pym, the size-changing Avenger known as Giant-Man and Goliath (and Yellowjacket!). Pym started his career by getting small as the astonishing Ant-Man, then teaming up with another tiny titan, the Wasp. The world's smallest superhero, DC Comics' Atom, can shrink to microscopic size, as can the Legion's suitably named Shrinking Violet, and Golden Age (1938–1954) freedom fighters Doll Man and Doll Girl clobbered crooks despite their Barbie-esque statures.

Other heroes shift their shapes in the line of duty. Created in 1941, the first morphing superhero was Plastic Man, who not only stretches his body but also disguises himself as anyone or any object—pliable Plas has snared many a felon by pretending to be a chair or a lamp. Ralph Dibny, DC Comics' sleuthing Elongated Man, drinks a liquid called Gingold for his powers, and has frequently snuck an extended ear into a room to get the goods on bad guys. The malleable Mr. Fantastic's primary attribute is his intellect, but he'll bounce and bend with the Fantastic Four when necessary. Superman's pal, Jimmy Olsen, has been known to guzzle his elastic serum to become Elastic Lad, and in 2000, the Atomics' Mr. Gum joined the ranks of the rubbery heroes. Stretching characters aside, the Rapunzel-like Medusa of Marvel's Inhumans can turn her flowing red hair into entrapping tentacles or harmful projectiles. Beast Boy (a.k.a. Changeling) of the Teen Titans monkeys around in a variety of animal forms. The Super Friends' junior allies the Wonder Twins trigger their abilities by joining together their rings and chanting, Wonder Twin powers, activate!—Jayna, like Beast Boy, transmutes into creatures, but her brother Zan can become liquid (a superpower lampooned by the Cartoon Network in a 2002 commercial featuring Zan as water in a mop bucket). The multi-powered Martian Manhunter is also a shape shifter, and employs this ability regularly—the bald, green form he uses as a Justice League member disguises his true extraterrestrial appearance, which unnerves most Earthlings.

Superspeed covers a lot of ground among superheroes. The Marvel mutant Quicksilver is blindingly fast, as are Marvel's Golden Age speedster the Whizzer and the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents' Lightning. DC Comics is so enamored of fast heroes that it has a stable of them, including three generations of Flashes (Wally West, Flash III, got his start as Kid Flash, swift-footed sidekick to Flash II); two generations of Johnny Quicks; a Lady Flash; the racing Russians called the Kapital Kouriers; teen-age speedster Impulse; his mentor Max Mercury; and the villainous Professor Zoom. One thousand years from now, the Tornado Twins, descendents of Flash II (Barry Allen), will zip alongside the Legion, as will one of their children, XS. These heroes are all linked by an extradimensional energy supply known as the Speed Force.

Some superheroes possess supersenses. Wolverine is able to sniff out friend and foe alike, while Superman can adjust his hearing to pick up voices from miles away and decipher frequencies generally inaudible to the human ear. The Man of Steel also boasts a range of optic powers: heat, X-ray, telescopic, infrared, and microscopic visions. X-Men member Cyclops can't regulate the devastating laser blasts from his eyes without his ruby-quartz visor. Marvel's Daredevil lost his sight, but compensates with a radar sense that allows him to perceive nearby objects, while Spider-Man's spider sense warns him of impending danger—and he can cling to walls, to boot! Captain Mar-Vell is in tune with the Marvel universe thanks to his Cosmic Awareness, an ability Wizard: The Comics Magazine once called spider sense on steroids. Rogue's superpower involves touch: She absorbs the abilities and memories of those she encounters, a mutation that keeps her at arm's length from her friends in the X-Men.

Some superheroes snap, crackle, and pop with electrical energy. Siblings Spark (formerly Lightning Lass), Live Wire (a.k.a. Lightning Lad), and their villainous brother Lightning Lord possess this shocking trait in their futuristic adventures with the Legion, as does DC's Black Lightning and Milestone's Static (a.k.a. Static Shock). Then there's Thunderbolt, the mystical being who is living lightning. Thunderbolt fought crime in the 1940s when summoned by Justice Society of America member Johnny Thunder, and is called into action in the 2000s by Jakeem Thunder.

Elemental powers are also widespread among superheroes. Storm of the X-Men and Rainmaker of Gen 13 manipulate the weather, Marvel's Iceman is a human popsicle who can form ice and snow, DC's Red Tornado commands the wind, and the Human Torch and Gen 13's Burnout are able to create flame. The purviews of Comico's Monolith, Vortex, Morningstar, and Fathom are earth, air, fire, and water, hence their superteam name: the Elementals. H2O-breathers Aquaman and Sub-Mariner are kings of DC and Marvel Comics' seas. DC's Metamorpho the Element Man emulates the properties of the periodic table, transforming his body into a wide array of gases and chemical compounds. Marvel's Scarlet Witch alters probabilities to create seemingly supernatural phenomena, while other matters arcane fall under the jurisdiction of sorcerers such as Marvel's Doctor Strange and Clea, and the spirit-channeling mutant Dead Girl; and DC Comics' Dr. Fate, Tempest (formerly Aqualad), and father-daughter magicians Zatara and Zatanna, the latter of whom speak their spells backwards (or sdrawkcab).

And then there are the superbrains: The Legion's Saturn Girl reads minds and Justice Leaguer Aquaman telepathically speaks with fish. Professor Charles Xavier and Jean Grey are the X-Men's resident telepaths. Professor X can, like Saturn Girl, scan minds, but can also implant thoughts and telekinetically manipulate objects. His protégé Grey is able to project powerful mental bolts.

Many superheroes received their superpowers through scientific accidents: Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man, while Barry Allen (and later, Wally West) was simultaneously doused with chemicals and struck by lighting (what are the odds of that happening once, much less twice?) to gain superspeed as the Flash. Fluke accidents like these are unlikely to create anything other than body-bag filler in the real world, but science is striving to create artificial superpowers. Wired magazine's Super Power Issue (August 2003) revealed the latest technological advancements in replicating invisibility (with optical camouflage) and teleportation (an Australian physicist successfully teleported a laser beam in June 2002), as well as weather control, x-ray vision, and other amazing abilities. Journalist Paul Eng's June 4, 2003 ABC News report Super-Hero Tech covered the efforts of the U.S. Army's National Protection Center at the Soldier Systems Center—which sounds like an agency lifted from a superhero comic book—to design protective LECTUS (Law Enforcement/Corrections Tactical Uniform System) battle gear. Eng's opening comment: Batman would be jealous.

Actually, the jealousy is ours. Until LECTUS suits and camouflage cloaks are available at the mall, though, we'll have to rely upon superheroes to be super for us.

It is interesting to note how the representation of the superpowers themselves has changed over the decades. In the 1940s and 1950s, the solution to any superhero's problem was clear: Punch the bad guy in the face (the sure-fire method to use against thugs, mad scientists, Nazis, monsters, alien invaders, and Communist spies). In the 1960s, the superpower ante was upped to satisfy an audience jaded by tumultuous world events. Simple fisticuffs no longer sufficed. Old-timers like Superman grew stronger and almost unstoppable, while the new breed of heroes introduced by Marvel Comics boasted powers unlike anything ever seen before, from Spider-Man's uncanny ability to climb walls to the Silver Surfer's almost-godlike Power Cosmic. For the next three decades, superpowers got bigger and bolder as comic books amped up to complete with special-effects-laden movies, TV shows, and video games: Some superheroes, like Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), became corrupted by power, while omnipotent menaces like the Anti-Monitor (in DC Comics' 1985 maxiseries Crisis on Infinite Earths) threatened to erase all of existence.

As of September 11, 2001, superpowers detoured into realms more realistic: Mighty heroes still battle mighty villains, but newer characters empowered only by determination have become the icons of the twenty-first century. Marvel's 411 (2003) involved real-world peacemakers who have no superpowers, and DC's Gotham Central (2002–present), stars the cops on the beat in Batman's hometown. —ME

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