Creative Destruction

December 12, 2006

The Definition of Superhero

Filed under: Art,Content-lite,Popular Culture — Ampersand @ 12:58 pm

This post is a total geek-out; non-geeky readers will want to scroll on past this one. Later today, I’ll also post this week’s baby blogging (sorry for being late on it!).

Paraphrasing Katie Schwarz: No definition will ever work perfectly, because “superhero” isn’t a concrete, distinct category but an archetype. One can use a definition to determine if a character is nearer or further from the archetype, but never to find a definitive line, with supers on one side and everyone else on the other. That line doesn’t exist.

To me, a good definition has to unambiguously include the most iconic superheroes; a definition that excludes Superman, Batman, Robin or Wonder Woman is no good. Additionally, characters that virtually no one would consider superheroes – Mr. Spock, Jessica Fletcher, Garp, Daddy Warbucks, etc. – should be clearly excluded by a good definition.

Robert wrote:

A superhero is a protagonist (or part of a group of protagonists) possessed of some characteristic(s) not attainable through even extraordinary effort by the ordinary members of his or her narrative baseline social milieu, who uses those characteristics to defend that social milieu’s health and existence.

I think this is clearly wrong. First, Robert’s definition grossly expands the conception of which characters are superheroes. The detective character Adrian Monk is a superhero by this definition. So is Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote. So is Jesus. So, arguably, is Bill Gates.

Secondly, Robert’s definition excludes even many characters who virtually all readers will identify as superheros. For instance, the excellent superhero comic Astro City contains dozens of characters who both the creators and experienced superhero readers would identify as superheroes – they fight crime, in costumes, using superpowers and special identities. But most of those characters aren’t protagonists, or part of a protagonist group. So I’d argue that the “protagonist” part of Robert’s definition cannot stand, because it excludes obviously superhero characters.

Similarly, superheroes without extraordinary abilities are excluded. The original “Nite Owl” from Watchmen, for example, wore a costume and mask, was part of an association of superheroes, and fought crime – but he didn’t have any special abilities, he was just pretty good in a fight.

Here’s my definition, which is based on discussions on Usenet many years ago (and so incorporates many people’s thoughts):

To be a superhero, a character must fight for the good of society ((That bit is stuck in mainly to exclude the supervillains.)), and possess at least 4 of the following 5 traits…

1. The character has a second identity, the “super” identity; assuming this identity sets the character apart from ordinary society. This second identity is so distinct that another person can conceivably adopt it, becoming “The New Robin” or whatnot. ((Titles and prefixes (“Captain Kirk”) are not considered second identities in this sense.))

2. The character has superhuman abilities. This includes “powerless” characters, if they are frequently shown accomplishing extraordinary or virtually impossible feats, such as Batman’s acrobatic skills.

3. The character has an extraordinary (not merely distinctive) appearance or costume, for the society the character lives in.

4. The character is dressed or presented in a manner which emphasizes an extraordinarily powerful and/or well-defined musculature, and/or to emphasize their secondary sex characteristics.

5. The character inhabits a continuity/shared system of stories in which most of the protagonists fit the above criteria. ((This point is swiped from Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, by Richard Reynolds.))

A character that fights for the good of society, but possesses only one of these traits, isn’t a superhero at all. So Jessica Fletcher, Adrian Monk, Sherlock Holmes, and the rest of the super-smart detectives aren’t superheroes by this definition. Neither is Daddy Warbucks, nor Bill Gates.

A character that fights for good and possesses two or three of these characteristics isn’t a superhero, but is getting closer to the archetype. Tarzan, The Bionic Woman, and Buffy are two examples of such characters. (This goes against my previous claim that Buffy is a superhero, but that’s fine with me: Buffy is pretty clearly a borderline case.) James Bond and Jesus would also fit into the “borderline, but not really superheroes” category.

A character that fights for good and has four or five of these traits is unambiguously a superhero. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Spiderman are clearly superheroes, as are all those background crimefighters flying around Astro City.

46 Comments »

  1. Well, the Elongated Man was a super-hero. But he didn’t have a secret identity, he didn’t have an impressive physique for his costume to show off, and he didn’t seem to do much crime-fighting.

    Come to think of it, why didn’t he get his own title?

    Comment by Tom Nolan — December 12, 2006 @ 1:37 pm | Reply

  2. Is this criteria specific to American comics or is this to be held across the board? I ask because based on this criteria Superman is a superhero but Son Goku is not(because of #1 and #3).

    Also, what does this mean for characters like Spawn, the Punisher, Wolverine and Elektra? Given their level of violence, should they be considered superheroes?

    Comment by toysoldier — December 12, 2006 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  3. What about Martian Manhunter? (Pardon if that’s mis-spelled or the wrong name; I’m going off my son’s Justice League animated show. This is the character who’s the last survivor of the Martian race, and he can fly, turn ethereal, and I think some generic psychic-type powers.)

    He only does #2 and #5. You could argue that he also has #3 since he lives on Earth now, but he’s just wearing regular clothes for Mars. No secret ID, no rippling muscles.

    (This comment cross-posted at Alas.)

    Comment by Robert — December 12, 2006 @ 2:04 pm | Reply

  4. It was probably wise of you to disclaim upfront that this post is a total geek-out (your term) but also totally unnecessary. It’s obvious on its face. I laugh because although I’m not geeky about comics and superheros, I’m geeky about other things. So sure, get your geek on.

    Comment by Brutus — December 12, 2006 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

  5. Nite Owl wasn’t exactly extraordinarily muscled, either. Neither was Rorschach. And both were in the pretty good category skill-wise, in other words not superpowered. I would argue that Ozymandias was superpowered, though (despite being “just human”). IMO.

    Also, point 4 should have (or perhaps not should, but has) a female equivalent that isn’t about emphasizing well-defined musculature. Altough Wonder Woman is drawn as athletic, she is not drawn extraordinarily so, more of real world championship pentathlonist heptathlonist level.

    Emphasis on musculature (such as in the case J’onn J’onz) does hugely vary between drawers and era — vintage Marvel and DC have superheroes that mostly look athletic but not steroid-pumping so. Obviously, “muscle” characters are always drawn muscular and/or huge (Hulk etc.)

    Comment by Tuomas — December 12, 2006 @ 3:27 pm | Reply

  6. But I should point out that Watchmen isn’t a good comic to analyze the archetype of Superhero — as it deconstructed it, basically — instead, Astro City that you have mentioned defines superheroism as an archetype, thus AC characters fit into it better.

    (This also means that the definition is pretty good, if Busiek agrees).

    Comment by Tuomas — December 12, 2006 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

  7. Am I to take it, then, that none of the Elongated Man’s erstwhile supporters are going to leap to his defence? He used to have a fan-club of sorts, I think, though I’m pretty sure that he wrote his wikipedia entry himself.

    Comment by Tom Nolan — December 12, 2006 @ 3:37 pm | Reply

  8. I would say something about Elongated Man, but I’m trying to avoid hate blogging.

    Comment by Tuomas — December 12, 2006 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  9. Btw, Martian Manhunter (J’onn J’onz) at least used to have a secret identity, that of private detective John Jones. I suppose he gave that up at some point.

    He is also often drawn as quite muscular. And as for #3 — the key words: “for the society the character lives in.”

    Being the last Martian in Earth in Martian clothes looking like a Martian (altough in one of Morrison’s JLA stories it was revealed that his REAL martian look is more alien than the one he is seen in) counts as “distinctive”, IMO.

    /King Nerd [edited out, I wussed out from the potential challenge]

    Comment by Tuomas — December 12, 2006 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

  10. It is an interesting question. For an article I wrote (not available online, sorry) I came up with a not dissimilar set of criteria (corresponding to your points 1-3, with a fourth criterion for super-technology and super-weapons used to artificially gain superhuman powers), although I put a less emphasis on the costume (your criteria #3 and 4) and more on the superhuman powers (if characters have superhuman powers), which I defined more narrowly than you. (Sherlock Holmes for instance, in my view, is not superhumanly smart – not surprising considering that he occasionally encounters people of comparable intelligence in the stories and even said himself that his brother Mycroft is smarter). I am not totally sure about the costumes having to emphasize or display well-developed muscles, this does seem to be an artistic convention to a large extent and varies from time to time. Spider-Man as drawn by Steve Ditko did not *look* as well-muscled as when rendered by Ditko’s successors, and when you look at the first appearances of the Fantastic Four, apart from Ben Grimm they did not look well-muscled either.(1) So in my book, Zorro is a superhero as he fulfils your criteria #1-3. That he does not fulfil #5 does not bother me, as that state of affairs was shared with e.g. Superman during his early appearances (and pretty much all of Superman’s movie appearances). Criterion #5 is not always helpful, as it drifts away from the character to the way an author or publisher handles the relationship between different stories. What if a hero appears in only one story (like Wylie’s “Gladiator”) or in a self-sufficient series of stories (Doc Strange) that does not reference others? What if a writer wants to write a story or series of stories in which there is only one superhero in the world? I think a lot of people probably subconsciously add the additional criterion “and not first published before Action Comics #1″ to whatever list they use, because they are accustomed to think of Superman as the first superhero.

    What I think is a good idea is postulating a second, not secret identity. There are a lot of superheroes who do not keep their civilian ID a secret, yet have a special costume and/or “code-name” when they go out into a fight – for instance the Fantastic Four from their beginning did not keep who they were a secret, yet still they felt compelled not to use their civilian names in action, but noms de guerre which in two cases were actually longer than the civilian ones they “replaced” (Reed Richards – Mister Fantastic, Sue Storm – Invisible Girl (later Invisible Woman – six syllables!). In that way, condition #1 is also fulfilled by the Martian Manhunter (who goes by that name as well as his given name J’onn J’onzz). (2)

    (1) The same would also apply to secondary sexual characteristics if that were a criterion.
    (2) Leaving aside that at least in the comics his natural shape is very different from his normal appearance and that he for a time he also operated in Caucasian male human shape as Detective John Jones.

    (cross-posted at Alas, a Blog)

    Comment by Menshevik — December 12, 2006 @ 3:58 pm | Reply

  11. “Also, what does this mean for characters like Spawn, the Punisher, Wolverine and Elektra? Given their level of violence, should they be considered superheroes?”

    They should. They are just “chaotic good” if you will.

    Comment by ebbtide — December 12, 2006 @ 6:00 pm | Reply

  12. Well, the Elongated Man was a super-hero. (1)But he didn’t have a secret identity, (2)he didn’t have an impressive physique for his costume to show off, (3)and he didn’t seem to do much crime-fighting.

    (1) My definition doesn’t call for a “secret identity.” It says that the character should have “a second identity, the ‘super’ identity; assuming this identity sets the character apart from ordinary society.” And that’s true of Elongated Man; he has his ordinary identity, Ralph Dibny, and his ‘super’ identity, Elongated Man.

    (2) EM often is drawn as having a powerful physique, which is shown off by his costume (although he can also be shapeless and floppy when he wants). See, for example, this illustration of EM from DC’s official Who’s Who’s guide (drawn by Carmine Infantino, an artist whose association with EM goes back decades – he had a really neat approach to showing EM in fistfights); or this illustration by Brian Bolland.

    Finally, EM has “fought for the good of society” in dozens of canonical storylines, so I’m not sure why you think he hasn’t.

    So I’d say EM fufills 4 or 5 of my criteria, depending on if the artist is drawing him as floppy or as muscular. But in either case, he’s a superhero under my definition.

    Comment by Ampersand — December 12, 2006 @ 7:09 pm | Reply

  13. ToySoldier, I think that it’s good that my definition makes Sopn Goku not superhero character. Superpowered martial arts, as it exists in manga, is a different genre with different genre conventions than superhero comics. (Ramna shouldn’t be called a superhero, either.)

    (Of course, a martial artist could be a superhero, an in the case of Iron Fist. But I think it’s clear that Iron Fist and Ramna are in two different genres).

    Comment by Ampersand — December 12, 2006 @ 7:14 pm | Reply

  14. Ampersand actually defended the Elongated Man. I’m just stunned.

    Maybe he’s changed since the 1970s, when his costume sucked even more than it does now (a sort of black and maroon affair) and when he occasionally featured in the stories of real superheroes on the grounds that even the most lack-lustre of them would look good by comparison. And itt was made pretty clear that his super buddies regarded him as something of a joke. “Have you met the Elongated Man? He’s a ‘super hero’ (snort!)”

    Comment by Tom Nolan — December 12, 2006 @ 7:30 pm | Reply

  15. The two main superhero candidates from “the Lord of the Rings” are Gandalf and Aragorn. Let’s see how they stack up. For fun, let’s also consider Ged and Tehanu from Le Guin’s “Earthsea” Cycle. (The books. I refuse to see the movie adaptations.)

    Edited to add: “the Lord of the Rings” spoilers below. There are no real “Earthsea” spoilers.

    To be a superhero, a character must fight for the good of society ((That bit is stuck in mainly to exclude the supervillains.)),…

    Obviously Gandalf, Aragorn, and Ged satisfy this criterion. Tehanu is mostly passive and powerless, but when she acts, she does so for good.

    …and possess at least 4 of the following 5 traits…

    1. The character has a second identity, the “super” identity; assuming this identity sets the character apart from ordinary society. This second identity is so distinct that another person can conceivably adopt it, becoming “The New Robin” or whatnot. ((Titles and prefixes (”Captain Kirk”) are not considered second identities in this sense.))

    Gandalf: Yes, albeit not the typical pattern. His second identity is that of unclothed Maia, but his ordinary identity is also distinctive, etc. Also, he never shows this second identity to mortals. Presumably he adopted it, with its attendant powers, when he was attacked at Weathertop by five of the Nine, and later to fight the Balrog.

    (I do not agree with the film’s interpretation of his capture by Saruman. The book describes no actual conflict, and I think Gandalf just surrendered because he was unprepared and on his enemy’s home turf. He would have realised (and the book suggests this) that there was no point whatsoever in trying to fight. If they had fought, it would probably have been in unclothed state.)

    I think he would have had to unclothe against the Witch King, if the latter had not withdrawn from the gates of Minas Tirith, unless, that is, he can’t unclothe in the presence of mortals. That is an interesting conjecture and one which would explain why a single Nazgul (albeit the most powerful, and backed by an army) was so confident after he had already resisted five of them at Weathertop. It also explains why he had so much difficulty dealing with a bunch of orcs, when he was stuck up a tree in “The Hobbit”. But I digress.

    The “another character could adopt the identity” theme is reversed, in that Gandalf assumed Saruman’s “the White” identity as leader of the Order and Council.

    Aragorn: Yes. He adopted his second identity early in the book, and we tend to forget that originally he was just Strider. Theoretically, if Aragorn had died, another could have adopted the “heir to the Throne of Gondor” identity.

    Ged: No, “Archmage” was just a title. His “Hawk” identity doesn’t count because he uses it to go incognito among people. It does not set him apart from them. Rather the opposite.

    I would argue that his secret name is essentially another identity from his use-name. It it more than a mere title, being the essence of him and the source of his power. However it does not set him apart from other people. Everyone in Earthsea has a secret name, and “adopting it” (telling someone his name) brings him closer to them, rather than setting him apart.

    It is impossible for there to be another Ged, though there could be (and were) other Archmages.

    Tehanu: Yes. Though she is rarely able to access her second identity, or its powers. However, although this identity sets her apart from human society, it brings her closer to her own people.

    2. The character has superhuman abilities. This includes “powerless” characters, if they are frequently shown accomplishing extraordinary or virtually impossible feats, such as Batman’s acrobatic skills.

    Gandalf: Yes, obviously.

    Aragorn: Yes, not only his fighting and healing abilities, but also the strength of will to wrest the Palantir from Sauron’s control. His sword is also an Artifact of Great Power that Only He can Wield.

    Ged: Yes, obviously.

    Tehanu: Yes, although most of the time, she was unable to access them.

    3. The character has an extraordinary (not merely distinctive) appearance or costume, for the society the character lives in.

    Gandalf: No, I consider his appearance and costume to be distinctive rather than extraordinary.

    Aragorn: No

    Ged: No, His facial scarring is distinctive but not extraordinary.

    Tehanu: No. Although she was horribly maimed, it’s unlikely that she was the only person in Earthsea to be so afflicted. Even her second identity appearance is not extraordinary in that world.

    4. The character is dressed or presented in a manner which emphasizes an extraordinarily powerful and/or well-defined musculature, and/or to emphasize their secondary sex characteristics.

    Gandalf: No

    Aragorn: No, I picture him as physically powerful, but not extraordinarily so. (I still remember my pre-film mental picture of him.)

    Ged: No

    Tehanu: No, the opposite in fact. In “Tehanu” she is a maimed and crippled child. As a maimed and crippled adult in “The Other Wind”, she is repugnant to look upon.

    5. The character inhabits a continuity/shared system of stories in which most of the protagonists fit the above criteria. ((This point is swiped from Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, by Richard Reynolds.))

    Gandalf: No

    Aragorn: No

    Ged: No.

    Tehanu: No. Interestingly, in the first three books, the active characters are all powerful (though not all superpowerful). Tehanu (the book as well as the character) is a study in powerlessness.

    Final Score:

    Gandalf: 2

    Aragorn: 2

    Ged: 1

    Tehanu: 2

    Not superheros then, but possessing some of the characteristics. I find it interesting that Tehanu (entirely powerless almost all of the time) should score as highly as the mostly powerful Gandalf and Aragorn.

    Edited for markup, minor wording, typos, grammar, and punctuation, and to incorporate Amp’s new criterion #4, (Which affects the analysis only of Tehanu, and doesn’t change the score).

    Comment by Daran — December 12, 2006 @ 8:42 pm | Reply

  16. Good post, Daran. Gandolph and Aragorn are good “test cases” for any superhero definition.

    By the way, I’ve modified point #4 to add in a reference to secondary sex characteristics, following a suggestion made by Kip in the “Alas” discussion and by Tuomas in this discussion.

    Comment by Ampersand — December 12, 2006 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

  17. Ebbtide wrote:

    They should. They are just “chaotic good” if you will.

    And the award for upping the geekiness level of an already incredibly geeky discussion goes to Ebbtide!
    😛

    Comment by Ampersand — December 12, 2006 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  18. I used to be chaotic neutral myself. Not sure what I am now. How do others see me?

    Good post, Daran. Gandolph and Aragorn are good “test cases” for any superhero definition.

    The really interesting one is Tehanu, who is arguably the very antithesis of a superhero. In the eponymous book, she is a brutalised, traumatised, whimpering child, completely dependant upon her adoptive mother and tossed helplessly about by forces utterly beyond her control or even her mother’s. Minor spoilers below…

    She can’t access her inherent superpower (even when she kinda, sorta, realises what it is), not even in extremis.

    (In one of only two plotting disasters in the entire cycle, she once is able to summon her true mother, who deals with the problem at hand as deux ex maschina. The story would have been stronger, in my opinion, if they had solved the problem as they had all their problems before, without the use of superpowers.)

    In “The Other Wind” (the last book of the cycle so far) she is an adult, but she is still timid and remains emotionally dependent upon her adoptive mother. Her power affects the plot in an acceptable way, in that her own kind recognised her when she encountered them, and she could communicate with them. When she finally assumed her alternate identity, it was not to do battle with the big boss, but simply to be her true self.

    Yet she gets the same score on your scale as Ged, Gandalf, and Aragorn.

    Edited for typos, punctuation, and minor wording.

    Comment by Daran — December 12, 2006 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  19. And the award for upping the geekiness level of an already incredibly geeky discussion goes to Ebbtide!

    Thank you!!! LOL…a good Dungeons and Dragons reference wins that contest every time!!! The result of 6 older brothers and one small black and white television that they monopolized when I was young, no doubt….

    Comment by ebbtide — December 12, 2006 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

  20. Thanks to various folk for the additional information on MM. I knew those bastards at the Cartoon Network weren’t to be trusted.

    Comment by bobhayes — December 12, 2006 @ 11:15 pm | Reply

  21. OK, I’ve got another test case for you: Imagine a Tehanu like character. Even if you haven’t read the books, the description I’ve given is enough. Remove her disfigurement and make her sexy. Give her a fancy costume. That would increase her score to 4. Do you really think anyone would consider her to be a superhero? Supervictim maybe.

    I would propose another criterion:

    6. The superpower(s) must be useful and accessible to the superhero most of the time. Periods of powerlessness are permitted, but they are not the superhero’s default condition. “Accessible” means that the superhero must at least gain access to the power when in extremis. (David Banner could not become the Hulk at will, but would do so if provoked to anger.) Useful means that situations in which the power can be used must arise frequently.

    In Tehanu’s case, the powers she would gain by transforming to her alternate self would unquestionably have been useful, but she never had access to them when they were needed. On the other hand, her power to communicate with her own kind was always accessible, (i.e., whenever she met her own kind, she had access to the power), but that only happened on three occasions in her lifetime. (In addition, there was an extended encounter with another of her kind in human form, who could speak human language, so the power was again useless.)

    Comment by Daran — December 13, 2006 @ 4:39 am | Reply

  22. Is there anyone participating in this discussion who hasn’t/doesn’t play D&D?

    Comment by Tuomas — December 13, 2006 @ 6:07 am | Reply

  23. There was, but I hit them with my +5 Broadsword.

    Comment by Daran — December 13, 2006 @ 7:12 am | Reply

  24. Is there anyone participating in this discussion who hasn’t/doesn’t play D&D?

    I have not. But I do play an unnecessary amount of RPGs.

    Comment by toysoldier — December 13, 2006 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  25. I think the D&D question is partly related to age. For folks who first began playing RPGs in the 1970s and 1980s, D&D was, if not the only game in the market, by far the biggest game in the market. Due to sheer market share, D&D (or AD&D) was the game that people were most likely to play as their intro to RPGs.

    Younger RPG players are much more likely to have missed D&D entirely.

    I played D&D when I was a kid. Nowadays our game is derived from Ars Magica, but we’ve made pretty extensive modifications to the system. More often than not, our play is ruleless.

    Comment by Ampersand — December 13, 2006 @ 5:01 pm | Reply

  26. One of the things I have in the back of my mind to do, is write a “why growing old is so great” post. I really am enjoying it. I’m in my early 40s which is about the youngest it is possible to be, yet still be respectably old. 50 is better, and oh, to be 60. At 70 the body knackers out, and probably isn’t cool.

    One the things about being old is that you get to sneer at the whippersnappers. Never played D&D? Never played D&D!? You haven’t done FRP unless you played D&D.

    Comment by Daran — December 13, 2006 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  27. “D&D”? Is that what the young kids today call the Chainmail game?

    If it doesn’t have “% liar”, then it’s crap!

    Comment by bobhayes — December 13, 2006 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

  28. I have the feeling I am the only one who has only played console and computer RPGs. Is there anyone else who was born after 1980?

    Comment by toysoldier — December 13, 2006 @ 9:54 pm | Reply

  29. Dude, my BALLS were born before 1980. God damn kids, running around the Internets, disturbing all the tubes…

    Comment by bobhayes — December 13, 2006 @ 10:22 pm | Reply

  30. Well, I was born in 1980.

    Comment by Tuomas — December 13, 2006 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

  31. Dude, my BALLS were born before 1980. God damn kids, running around the Internets, disturbing all the tubes…

    This is an example of the phenomenon I discuss here. The implication is that the rest of Bob’s body was born after 1980. Don’t think about it, that way madness lies…

    Comment by Daran — December 13, 2006 @ 10:52 pm | Reply

  32. Well, stop playing your loud devil music and help me find my walker, you young punk.

    Comment by bobhayes — December 13, 2006 @ 10:53 pm | Reply

  33. I have the feeling I am the only one who has only played console and computer RPGs. Is there anyone else who was born after 1980?

    Nah, I’m currently in the midst of Final Fantasy XII for PS2. Born in 1977. Close!

    Comment by ebbtide — December 13, 2006 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  34. I believe I’ve posted on this site once or twice in the past, but for the most part I’m content to lurk. However, I cannot resist this topic. Here is the test I propose: Sailor Moon. I contend that Sailor Moon is *not* a superhero, and thus the definition should exclude her. Here we go…

    1. The character has a second identity, the “super” identity; assuming this identity sets the character apart from ordinary society. This second identity is so distinct that another person can conceivably adopt it, becoming “The New Robin” or whatnot. ((Titles and prefixes (”Captain Kirk”) are not considered second identities in this sense.))

    Yes.

    2. The character has superhuman abilities. This includes “powerless” characters, if they are frequently shown accomplishing extraordinary or virtually impossible feats, such as Batman’s acrobatic skills.

    Yes; though I personally have an issue with magical powers being included here, I cannot see how the definition would exclude them.

    3. The character has an extraordinary (not merely distinctive) appearance or costume, for the society the character lives in.

    Yes.

    4. The character is dressed or presented in a manner which emphasizes an extraordinarily powerful and/or well-defined musculature, and/or to emphasize their secondary sex characteristics.

    This is something of a judgement call. Those mini-mini skirts sure show a lot of leg, but by US standards I wouldn’t say that Sailor Moon is presented in a way that emphasizes her secondary sex characteristics. Having said that, one could make the case that the way she’s presented is consistant with an idealized view of the female form *for Japan*, and thus the definition should apply. Let’s put this one on hold for now and see what happens w/the 5th component of the definition.

    5. The character inhabits a continuity/shared system of stories in which most of the protagonists fit the above criteria. ((This point is swiped from Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, by Richard Reynolds.))

    Yes.

    So there you have it, Sailor Moon gets a score of at least 4/5, and depending on how you feel about #4, 5/5. Thus either she is in fact a superhero, or the definition needs more work.

    I personally feel that the key here is that the powers need to be intrinsic to the character. Thus I could accept a character with psychic powers being a superhero, but not one with magical powers. However, if you think that Sailor Moon still gets a Yes on #4, she would still get a 4/5 score, thus leaving her a superhero. Perhaps a blanket statement excluding magical powers completely? Or perhaps people are willing to accept Sailor Moon (and many other modern Magical Girls as well) as being superheroes?

    PS, I was in HS in 1980. And playing D&D.

    Comment by Mondai Oyaji — December 14, 2006 @ 9:33 am | Reply

  35. Bleh, apparently I don’t know how do do quotes after all. Could someone with more powers than I clean that up? Thanks.

    Comment by Mondai Oyaji — December 14, 2006 @ 9:36 am | Reply

  36. One the things about being old is that you get to sneer at the whippersnappers – Daran

    Yes, but unfortunately they get to sneer at you too. The other day I was nearly run down by some punk on a bicycle who added insult to near-injury by calling me an “old cunt”. “What do you mean *old*,” was all I could think to shout after him.

    Comment by Tom Nolan — December 14, 2006 @ 9:46 am | Reply

  37. Like this:

    [blockquote]Quoted text here[/blockquote]

    Except use angle brackets instead of square ones.

    Comment by Daran — December 14, 2006 @ 9:47 am | Reply

  38. Ah, “blockquote” (and angle brackets). Thanks, I’ll remember that for the future.

    Comment by Mondai Oyaji — December 14, 2006 @ 11:13 am | Reply

  39. I’m only vaguely familiar with Sailor Moon, but she strikes me as fairly Superhero-ish.

    Comment by Daran — December 14, 2006 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

  40. Hm. Brevity is the soul of…somethingorother.

    A superhero is someone who fights crime and wears his underpants on the outside.

    Comment by S. Weasel — December 15, 2006 @ 9:32 am | Reply

  41. I worked through all the issues raised in this discussion as part of my dissertation and book, “Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre” (MonkeyBrain Books, 2006). A version of the definition chapter can be downloaded here: http://www.newacademia.com/NdalianisCoverPop/Excerpt.pdf

    The five traits presented above can be boiled down to mission, powers, and identity, everything else (including all the discussion) is covered by generic distinction. Here’s my definition:

    Su•per•he•ro (soo’per hîr’o) n., pl. -roes. 1. A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; who possesses superpowers—extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills (including mystical abilities); who has a superhero identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography or character, powers, and origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and is generically distinct, i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of which is usually a closely guarded secret. —superheroic, adj. Also super hero, super-hero.

    In my dissertation I look at all the extant definitions of the superhero (including Reynolds) and they all boil down to mission, powers, and identity. Generic distinction explains why some characters may not perfectly meet one or sometimes even two of these primary conventions and still be considered superheroes.

    Peter Coogan

    Comment by Peter Coogan — April 25, 2008 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

  42. that means son gohan could be a superhero. His superhero form is the great saiyaman. and he has a “cool” costume.

    Comment by cool — September 6, 2008 @ 6:27 am | Reply

  43. what about santa? hes a super hero! super powers works for the side of good and saves the world every year. he has a secret lair and a costume!

    Comment by Gabriel — November 15, 2009 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  44. This is what I wrote to the No Quarter website:
    What the HELL is wrong with you NO QUARTER Idiots? This DAMN country has gone out of it’s way to discriminate against MEN, especially low-income Men, and you Jerks think it’s the other way around! Men, on average have lower life-spans, are discriminated against in family law, the workplace, grade schools, die first in war, are incarcerated (often falsely) more than women, and all you Jerks can do is complain about Obama having an ALL-MALE BASKETBALL game!! There are All-women Gyms, and that’s O.K. with “society”… The media trahes HIllARY, and you go FUCKING INSANE!!!!!!!!! You wouldn’t even be able to have a government to vote for, if Men hadn’t taken this land from the Native Americans, YOU UNGRATEFUL BITCHES!!!!!!!! Women Invented nothing, men created everything we have!!!!!!!!!You don’t know what real OPRESSION IS!!!!!!!!! GO TAKE A ONE-WAY TRIP TO AFGHANISTAN!!!!!!!! SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BITCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Cry Waah! Misogynist!!! Someplace else!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DAMN IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Comment by Screaming Bear! — November 22, 2009 @ 6:48 pm | Reply

  45. “Also, what does this mean for characters like Spawn, the Punisher, Wolverine and Elektra? Given their level of violence, should they be considered superheroes?”
    I will point out to the commenter the existence of Anti-Heroes. They fit the 4-5 criteria listed above, but the lack the attributes that make a heroic figure, such as nobility of mind and spirit.

    Comment by M.P.K. — June 22, 2012 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

  46. My friends and I are arguing over whether or not pop culture bands (Specifically My Chemical Romance) are superheroes or not. Any third party opinions? I say no they say yes.

    Comment by Bria — October 5, 2016 @ 8:19 am | Reply


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