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Costumes to Comics: A Brief History of Superheroes

Superhero movies and comic books are prevalent in today's popular culture. These brave and heroic characters wear iconic costumes, and they usually have special powers or strengths that enable them to perform impressive feats as they fight crime and villains. Although most superheroes are male, superheroines also exist. Delving into the history and origin of superheroes is a fascinating pursuit because it showcases not only the evolution of superheroes but also the evolution of society.

The First Superheroes

The idea of vigilantes fighting crime is not new. History reveals masked avengers stepping up to protect society and fight criminals as far back as the early 1900s, though the concept of a super-powerful hero has been around for centuries. The character of Zorro likely was inspired by The Scarlet Pimpernel, originally published in 1905. Johnston McCulley brought Zorro to life in the pages of All-Story Weekly beginning in 1919. Shortly after, The Mark of Zorro hit the big screen with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. playing Zorro in a funny and endearing style.

Additional avengers entered the scene after Zorro's success. The Phantom debuted in 1936, a creation of Lee Falk. The Phantom wears a costume and fights crime in the fictional country of Bangalia. The Phantom's costume is noteworthy because it was the first to adopt the skin-tight design that most current superhero costumes have. The Phantom uses superior strength and intelligence to fight adversaries, and he is supposed to be immortal.

Superman appeared in comics beginning in 1938. The almost immediate success of this character led to newspaper strips, a radio program, and animated shorts in theaters. Over time, Superman's powers have evolved and expanded to include impressive abilities such as heat vision and even traveling through time. Although many contend that Superman was not the first superhero, his success certainly spurred the creation of a new and exciting class of heroes, such as Captain America, Batman, Captain Marvel, the Green Lantern, the Flash, and Wonder Woman.

Characteristics of Superheroes

Superhero powers have evolved over time. Common powers include super strength and senses and the ability to fly. However, iconic figures such as Batman actually have no superhuman powers whatsoever. Instead, Batman's abilities involve impressive intellect and martial arts skills. Batman's excessive wealth is also an important component that enables him to fight crime with a variety of advanced weapons and gadgets.

Superheroes often have a special tool or weapon that becomes a trademark of that character. For example, Wonder Woman has a lasso and bracelets, Captain America has a shield, Iron Man has a special armored suit, and the Green Lantern has a power ring that gives the wearer expansive powers. Another predominant quality of superheroes and superheroines is their impressive moral codes that fuel the desire to do good without worry about personal safety or accolades. This sense of responsibility may come as a result of a personal vendetta or from a pivotal moment that occurred in the superhero's past.


In the 20th century, more superheroines were brought to life. Batwoman, Batgirl, and Supergirl were created during the 1950s as counterparts for established male superheroes. It became common for superhero teams to feature a token female character. Feminism hit the superhero scene during the 1970s, and superheroines gained more impressive powers and more active roles in crime-fighting. Some superheroines even grabbed top roles in crime-fighting teams, such as the X-Men's Jean Grey and Storm.

Superhero Costumes

Superhero costumes are a significant part of their identity and persona. When a superhero persona involves identity concealment, the superhero wears a mask. The mask might cover the entire face or just the upper half. Many costumes feature an iconic symbol worn on the chest. This symbol serves as a brand for the superhero. Superhero costumes are generally very form-fitting to display the impressive muscular builds of the wearers. Although capes are not present in every superhero's costume, wearing a cape is identified with these avengers. Superman and Batman are the most notable cape-wearing superheroes.