How Ancient Legends Gave Birth to Modern Superheroes

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The images that pop up in most people’s heads when they think about superheroes can be traced back to the 1938 debut of Superman and the genre evolution that followed. But it’s possible to go back even further, connecting the Hulk to the ancient epic poem of Gilgamesh, and Batman to 17th Century cross-dressing crimefighter Moll Cutpurse.

Librarian/professor/occasional io9 contributor Jess Nevins first came up in the collective consciousness of comics readers with his encyclopedic, highly detailed annotations of works like Kingdom Come and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He’s done non-fiction writing that explores Victorian heroic fiction and the pulps as well. The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4000-Year History of the Superhero is Nevins’ newest book, a massive undertaking that does nothing less than track the notional history of an entire pop culture genre.


Starting with the Middle Eastern epic poem of Gilgamesh and moving throughout history, Nevins’ book serves in part as a tour of heroic literature from ancient times to the 21st Century, showing how the myths and poetic adventures of past eras fed into the DNA of superhero fiction. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s opening pages:

A superhero cannot be defined solely by superhuman powers, because Batman, to name just one, has no superhuman powers. A superhero can- not be defined solely by costume, for a number of superheroes, like the 1990s iteration of DC’s Starman (as created by James Robinson and Tony Harris and appearing in one of the most aesthetically successful extended superhero runs) often appeared wearing no costume. A superhero cannot be de ned solely by a mission statement (“ ghting crime,” “supporting the oppressed”); like a number of characters of the 1940s, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America is primarily a soldier, fighting in a war, rather than a crimefighter. A superhero cannot be defined by having an alternate or dual secret identity; heroes like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four are public heroes, while Arnold Drake, Bob Haney, and Bruno Premiani’s Robotman has no secret identity. A superhero cannot be defined as being generically distinct from characters of other genres; too many examples of superheroes to name appear in other cultural genres (but see below). A superhero cannot befide ned by the end result of her actions; comic superheroes like E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Orlando’s Inferior Five are incompetent, but are nonetheless superheroes despite their inability to catch the bad guy. A superhero cannot be defined as someone who appears in superhero comics or films; the superhero, perhaps surprisingly, is common in many different modes and commercial genres and media. A superhero cannot be defined as someone appearing in anything branded and sold as a superhero text; superheroes have become pervasive enough to appear in works branded and sold as “mainstream” or “literary.” And so on.

The fact is that considering the superhero through a binary lens of “is/ is not” is not the most useful approach to defining what a superhero is— not useful aesthetically, not useful critically, and not useful on the most basic level of accuracy. (After all, a definition of superheroes that actually excludes superheroes simply doesn’t work.)

A more useful approach to addressing the vexed question of the definition of superhero—and “vexed” is indeed the appropriate adjective, given that every critic of superheroes seems to have their own definition, few of which are mutually inclusive with other critics’ definitions—is to consider superheroes on a continuum and to apply fuzzy logic to the matter. Fuzzy logic is a mathematical, engineering, and philosophical approach that arose in the 1960s. In philosophy, fuzzy logic is applied to statements like “Many writers are poor,” which use imprecise vocabulary to create a statement for which the law of the excluded middle (“either ‘x is true’ or ‘x is not true,’ there is no in-between”) does not apply. Because “many” and “poor” are ambiguous and subjective, “many writers are poor” can be partially or mostly true rather than simply true or not true.

Applying this approach to the definition of the superhero frees us from the requirement to craft a definition that will inevitably fail. Instead, what needs to be done is to identify the individual elements that make up the continuum of superheroes. The more of these elements a character has, the more of a superhero she is (and the reverse is true as well), but there is no ideal, Platonic form of the superhero to be reached—there is no “pure” superhero to whom all others are compared. Not even Superman, the iconic superhero, is the ideal form of the character type.


I had questions for Nevins about the book and how our conceptions of heroic archetypes have changed. His answers below might just make you look differently at your favorite superhero.

io9: Can you explain the “heroenkonzept idea” and how it relates to the formula of what we now understand to be superheroes?


Jess Nevins: Essentially, the heroenkonzept is the core concept of the character, the individual elements of the character that make them unique—everything from their origin story to their superpowers to their costume. Superman’s heroenkonzept is “last survivor of a doomed planet” along with “raised by human parents in Kansas” and “ultimate immigrant to the United States” and “superhumanly powerful body” and all those other elements that make him different from every other character, especially the Superman clones.

How it relates... well, there are a bunch of core elements we can use to determine whether a character is more or less of a superhero. As I say in the first chapter, I don’t believe in a binary, yes/no judgment of whether a character is a superhero or not, I believe in a continuum of characters who rate as more superheroic or less superheroic. The heroenkonzept, and the elements and tropes and motifs that make it up, essentially place a character on that scale. Take a cowboy character. Her heroenkonzept is going to have all the elements of a traditional cowboy—the Western setting, the big hat, the six shooters, etc. That heroenkonzept won’t place her on the superheroic continuum. But add in a selfless mission to fight crime, and a costume, and suddenly her heroenkonzept does qualify her.


All those entries in DC’s Who’s Who and the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and the DC & Marvel Wikias, those are heroenkonzepts. No two are the same, and you can use them to place each hero on the superheroic continuum.

Who is and isn’t a protosuperhero? Do any pre-Superman characters who fit your definition of superheroes? 


Nevins: In the book, I use “protosuperhero” to describe all those characters appeared before Superman but also have superheroic elements and heroenkonzepte. There’s a theory that I partially agree with that you can’t really call something a genre until there’s an accepted consensus on what that genre is, and until the genre can be articulated, so you can’t really say that there was science fiction before 1926 (or Verne and Wells, or the 1850s, if you prefer). Characters like Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel have superheroic elements and heroenkonzept, but if seems wrong (and ahistorical) to call them superheroes. So I use “protosuperhero” instead, to describe those characters.

As for who fits my definition—well, any character with some or many of the superheroic elements I list in the book can be called a protosuperhero. Those elements separate ordinary heroes from protosuperheroes. So Robin Hood’s there (selfless mission + costume + codename + vigilantism) as is Roland (selfless mission + extraordinary weapon + extraordinary foes) and Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh (colorful origin + selfless mission + distinctive appearance/costume + superpowers) and Mary Frith, a.k.a. “Moll Cutpurse” (selfless mission + costume + codename + fighting skills + vigilantism). There are a lot of characters who can be considered protosuperheroes, by this way of thinking, but as long as a character has the selfless mission (which no hero can be without) and some of the superheroic elements, they qualify. Whether or not they are significant protosuperheroes is another matter entirely, of course.


It seems like part of what Evolution of the Costumed Avenger is doing is calling for a re-imagination of what have previously been presumed to be antecedents to characters like Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. Why do you think this move is important?

Nevins: The use of the superheroic continuum and the superheroic elements expand the list of antecedents so that the lineage of the superhero becomes much broader and more historical. Now we can go back to the Roman latrones instead of stopping with Robin Hood, and we can see how the legend of Moll Cutpurse had its final flowering in the character of Batman. A lot of previously ignored or overlooked characters become fair game when we talk about the lineage of the superhero. I think redrawing the boundaries is important, because now we can see that the superhero wasn’t a 20th-century invention, but rather the weaving together of many different heroic traditions that date back centuries or even millennia, and the recapitulation of a wide range of historical character types. Superheroes are traditionally seen as a white male genre, but, really, if you look at all the protosuperheroes that led up to Superman and the superheroes, you see that the first protosuperhero, Enkidu, was a POC, and that the first costumed urban vigilante wasn’t Batman but was Moll Cutpurse, back in the early 17th century. If we redraw the boundaries as I’ve suggested, suddenly superheroes aren’t limited to the superhero comics of the past 80 years, but are a character archetype that’s been around for 4,000 years, if not longer.


What do you say in the book about Superman being the character that somehow breaks through to mainstream awareness?

Nevins: Basically, I say that there have been two types of superheroes since the early 19th century, the Costumed Avenger and the Ubermensch, and that Superman was the first major combination of the two types. Siegel and Shuster merged genres, combining science fiction and crime-fighting action/adventure in ways that were uncommon. Those early Superman stories, though basic, have an undeniable energy and wish fulfillment aspect to them. And those early stories are very grounded in reality, with quite realistic criminals for Superman to fight, to the point that they can be called mimetic wish fulfillment.


Those are the elements which in my view explain Superman’s popularity. Although—and I don’t really touch on this in the book—I think part of the reason Superman was so popular was simply that it was Superman time (as Charles Fort once said, “a tree can not find out, as it were, how to blossom until comes blossom-time. A social growth cannot find out the use of steam engines, until comes steam-engine-time”). The culture needed extraordinary heroes, and was getting them in the pulps and in the comics before Superman appeared; Siegel and Shuster simply added to what was already extant and made the ultimate superhero.

Which mainstream comic book superheroes have the most surprising forebears?

Nevins: Oh, there are too many of them for me to choose!.The Hulk is the direct descendant of Enkidu, as are all the frenzied wild men superheroes like Wolverine. Dr. Strange’s ultimate source is the fictional version of the Pharaoh Nectanebo II, who became, in fiction, an ambiguous-leaning-toward-good sorcerer. As I mentioned, Batman owes a lot to Mary Frith and her fictional counterpart Moll Cutpurse. All the heroic robots, like the Vision and the Red Tornado, can trace their roots to the sentient android Talos, from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590-1596). Any hero influenced by Robin Hood, like Green Arrow, owes a debt to the latrones, the outlaw heroes of the Roman Empire. Superheroines like Supergirl and Wonder Woman can look back and see how the female knights of the Middle Ages were there before them in terms of superpowers and an independent attitude. Most of the heroes, when you start looking at influences on them, have unexpected ancestors.


We see knights, ancient demigods and cowboys get folded into the modern superhero paradigm all the time. What do they lose and/or gain when they get reinterpreted like this?

Nevins: I suppose they lose a certain uniqueness in being made part of the protosuperheroic lineage. But I think they also gain from it; we can see what they contributed to modern popular culture. They gain a relevance that they may not have had before to many people, since we can point to them and say that without them the superhero wouldn’t be around. I think some people will see a certain diminishment in the cowboys and epic heroes and knights being linked to superheroes—they’re no longer unique in their separate genres, but are a part of the superhero genre (as well as being part of the cowboy genre and epic poetry and etc., etc.).


Do you think that it’s still possible for creators to make protosuperhero characters in a superhero age?

Nevins: It’d be tough, certainly. Alan Moore did as good a job as could be imagined at it with Tom Strong, and there are the various pulp hero revivals, at Dynamite and others, which seem to be doing well. But I think most characters are going to be heavily influenced by superheroes whether or not the creator wants them to be. It’s easy to create a superhero in Victorian times, but it’s not so easy to create a truly Victorian hero, one who would be the product of a pre-superheroic culture and mindset.