The History of Superheroes

One of many heroes who has risen over the decades.In creating a setting for a superhero RPG, one of the first steps is to think about how super-powered beings affect the world. Some comic continuities choose to alter history greatly, for example, Watchmen provides a world where Richard Nixon has successfully run for five terms as president after the presence of superheroes allowed America to win the Viet Nam War. Other settings assume that history happened as recorded, but with superheroes somewhere in the background. Most mainstream comics are representative of this philosophy.

An example history of superheroes in described below. This history takes something of a mix of the two philosophies described above. On the one hand, history hasn’t deviated greatly from the real world. On the other hand, many historical events happened because of superheroes – they helped captured Al Capone, inadvertently led to the Kennedy assassination, and so on. This is obviously just one example of a fictional continuity, and can easily be changed to fit many settings. Superheroes and villains are described in the history, but the details on their background and personality are vague, allowing GMs to tweak them to fit their campaign preferences.

The History of Superheroes:

While superheroes are generally considered to be a creation of the 20th century, they have existed in one form another for almost the whole of human civilization. In recent years, they merely have become more common, more unpredictable, and had more influence on the development of society.

Mythological Heroes:
Modern historians believe that the beings now known as superheroes began as far back as the first civilizations. Mythological heroes such as Heracles, Gilgamesh, and Perseus were likely based on real people who displayed superheroic traits. Some scholars go even further, suggesting that pagan deities such as Zeus, Odin, and the like were actually immensely powerful superheroes that came to be worshipped as gods. Up until the 1940s, such pantheons were considered mere mythology. Since the dawn of the Atomic Age and the birth of the modern superhero, however, the theory that such beings truly existed has gained a great deal of credence and popularity.

Other historical and mythical figures have come to be counted among the ranks of superheroes and supervillains as well. Figures such as Robin Hood closely match the motif of a vigilante who acts outside the law in order to pursue justice. Villainous figures such as Jack the Ripper have come to be seen as precursors to modern supervillains. Additionally, unexplained phenomena and urban legends such as werewolves, vampires, and even Bigfoot have come to be seen as possible or even probable in their existence. The birth of the modern superhero has caused many to look upon old legends in an entirely new light, accepting as possible what was previously solely the realm of myth.

The First Modern Heroes:
The first individuals to be considered superheroes of the 20th century came about during the late 1920s and early 1930s. As the American economy slumped and entered the Great Depression, a period of uncertainty settled over the nation. Crime increased dramatically, and standard police forces became overmatched due to limited funding, internal corruption, and poor morale. The first costumed avenger was Dr. Fury, who became known to the public in 1928. Dr. Fury’s “costume” consisted of a trench coat, fedora, and a bandana that masked his face. Wielding a gun and acting on the side of the law, he patrolled the streets of Chicago, spending much of his time battling organized crime. At first, Dr. Fury was seen as a threat, and was treated with the same contempt as the criminals he fought. Not all shared this sentiment, however, and other costumed vigilantes began springing up around the country. Most such vigilantes, such as the Black Shadow and Lady Mercy, relied on nothing more than intense training and combat skill. Others, such as the Human Fly, relied on new inventions and bizarre gadgets in order to fight crime. Naturally, as these vigilantes grew more effective the villains they fought began to take up capes and cowls of their own. The Grey Ghoul acted as a hitman for mobs, killing several police and vigilantes alike. Mistress Mind was arguably the first super-powered individual of the 20th century, although there exists a great debate even today as to whether she was a true psychic or merely a highly skilled mesmerist.

Ironically, the costumed vigilantes who battled evildoers in the streets gained the most fame in more subtle detective work. Elliot Ness, an agent of the U.S. Department of Treasury, contacted Dr. Fury and began formulating a plot to bring down the infamous mobster Al Capone. Using resources that a typical government agent did not have, Dr. Fury eventually uncovered solid evidence of tax evasion and illegal bootlegging. Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison and began serving his sentence in 1932. The story made national headlines and drew attention to the success that the costumed vigilantes were having on society at large. The superheroes were here to stay.

World War II:
Officially, the United States remained out of World War II until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. However, America offered a great deal of aid to Britain and other allies. Because costumed adventurers were not officially part of the government, they were free to serve overseas. Many did, traveling across the Atlantic to battle Axis powers. This led to the first vigilante group, known as the Allies. While the Allies won small victories, they failed to make a difference in the larger scheme due to the Nazis’ Übermensch Project.

The first truly super-powered individual was a German man who operated under the code name of Captain Nazi. He possessed superhuman strength, durability, and speed in addition to the ability to fly at speed comparable to most fighter planes. The unleashing of Captain Nazi on Europe led to the quick fall of France, and the villain did significant damage to England, destroying buildings that even bombing raids could not fell. Even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt had been pushing Congress to go to war in Europe. When the Japanese attacked, public sentiment swayed to Roosevelt’s side and America entered the war.

Even with America’s immense military force, Captain Nazi seemed to have no weakness. It wasn’t until Dr. Fury met the villain in a ruined French village that anyone even knew the German supersoldier could bleed. In the brutal battle that followed, Dr. Fury barely escaped with his life, but had somehow managed to cut Captain Nazi across the left cheek. Fury himself died of his wounds shortly afterwards, but American scientists began examining the Nazi’s blood and finally discovered a weakness.

Inventor Alexander Scott discovered that Captain Nazi’s blood reacted oddly to a rare radioactive isotope known as durium. Using these findings, he created a weapon that fired a focused charge of the element capable of killing the übermensch. The weapon was brought to the fray soon afterwards, and in 1944 Captain Nazi was seriously wounded. His body was never recovered, but many believed him to have died from the radioactive blast. Following the death of Captain Nazi, Germany crumbled. Japan soon followed, and World War II finally came to an end.

McCarthy and the Death of the Superhero:
While America emerged triumphant from World War II, the damage done by Captain Nazi rocked the hero community. Americans began to distrust costumed vigilantes, while communist nations began trying to duplicate the results of the experiment that had created Captain Nazi. While America also toiled to create a superman, the public grew to fear the masked men. Their fear was given a voice in Senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed that the Allies and other hero groups were in league with the communists. During the McCarthy hearings, every known vigilante was called upon to testify and reveal his secret identity. Some complied with the order while others refused, choosing either to disappear into retirement or to continue as wanted criminals. The Allies themselves disbanded shortly after the hearings concluded in 1954. Any heroes who had come forward were offered positions with the U.S. military – wearing a uniform instead of a costume. Those who chose not to join were ordered by the government to cease their crime-fighting activities or become wanted men themselves.

By the late 1950s, neither the Soviets nor the Americans had made any headway in recreating the übermensch formula. Attention turned toward the nuclear arms race and the space race, and most existing superman projects were shut down. Combined with the outlawing of costumed vigilantes in America and other countries around the world, the costumed vigilante became a thing of the past.

The Mutant Phenomenon:
True super-powered individuals didn’t arise until after the world governments chose to abandon those projects for something else. In 1961, a young girl demonstrated the ability to turn invisible. This was only the first instance of the mutant phenomena. Scientists quickly came to an agreement that frequent nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union had resulted in an dramatic increase in radiation worldwide. As a result, some young children were born with appearances or abilities that marked them as something other than humans. This discovery led to international legislation that eventually brought an end to aboveground nuclear testing in hopes of reducing surface radiation on the Earth. Underground and sheltered testing continued, however.

The mutants quickly became feared and even hated by much of the populace, who associated them directly with the World War II villain Captain Nazi. The public demanded that the mutants be tracked down and either isolated or exterminated. President John F. Kennedy, however, took the opposite stance, providing shelter and sympathy to the outcast mutants. This led to his eventual assassination in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald, whose journals and personal writings revealed a deep-seeded hatred for mutants. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, held significantly less sympathy for mutants and ordered them sent to internment camps for the protection of the public.

The treatment of mutants in this era ran parallel to the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result of their similar predicaments, mutants often hid in African-American communities and provided support for the civil right movement, as it was seen as something that benefitted both peoples. A few militant black organizations employed masked mutants as hitmen or bodyguards in their more violent protests, leading to a short revival of the costumed vigilante phenomenon. Dr. King discouraged these acts of violence up until his death in 1968. While the civil rights movement remained strong after King’s death, mutants themselves seemed to vanish. The ones that could pass as normal hid their powers, while others fled from the public, hiding in the wilderness or even in sewers underground. While the mutants disappeared from the public for a short while, they did not vanish entirely. Even today, more than half of the total number of beings displaying paranormal power are believed to be mutant in origin.

Captain Cosmos:
The year 1969 ended the space race when America put a man on the moon, but opened the door to something else. Although NASA had believed the moon to be uninhabited, the landing crew discovered a large fortress that had been cloaked from NASA’s telescopes. The fortress belonged to a strange alien man whose black skin had a constantly moving star pattern on it. The spaceman spoke English and several other languages, apparently learned through listening to radio waves over the long years. He agreed to return to Earth with the astronauts, and was promptly investigated by the American government. The man, whom the papers dubbed “Captain Cosmos” had the ability to manipulate and absorb virtually any kind of energy, enabling him to perform miraculous feats. He claimed to be the last of a dying alien race, and had landed on the moon in the early half of the 20th century, observing Earth from afar ever since.

Unlike the mutants of years prior, Captain Cosmos was quickly embraced by the public, largely because the United States government billed him as their superman. With Captain Cosmos’ arrival several other strange phenomenon, however. A new supervillain called the Overmind, who claimed to be a time traveling robot from the 30th century, repeatedly attempted to conquer Earth, only to be thwarted time and again by Captain Cosmos and his government-appointed sidekick White Dwarf. Another villain by the name of Martin Fay emerged soon afterward, claiming to be the descendant of the enchantress Morgan le Fey. Using the mystic arts, he battled Captain Cosmos to a standstill, and was only unable to claim victory because the force of his enchantments tore open a dimensional rift that pulled him through space and time. Although Captain Cosmos managed to close the rift, several other creatures escaped from the world on the other side and into modern-day Earth. Two of the most well-known and dangerous of these creatures included Lord Holach, a super-intelligent gorilla from another dimension, and Xanatos, an alien being with necromantic powers.

The late 1960s was a surreal time where aliens invaded Earth, time travel became a reality, and alternate dimensions were discovered. It gave way to a grimmer decade, however. When President Richard Nixon asked Captain Cosmos to aid the American war in Viet Nam, the alien refused, choosing to leave Earth for a time rather than support what he called the atrocity of war. This act prolonged the Viet Nam War, which ultimately ended in American defeat. Pessimism began to return, and a darker sort of hero took center stage.

Post Viet Nam and the New Superhero:
Following the brutality of the Viet Nam War, the world became a more cynical place where violence was more commonplace and superheroes put more value on winning the fight against criminals rather than staying in the right while doing so. The age of the antihero began. The most well-known antihero coming out of this era was the Executioner, a hooded vigilante with enhanced reflexes and physical prowess who killed normal crooks and supercriminals alike. The rise of vigilantes that had no boundaries or rules kicked off widespread discussion throughout the world. Some saw these antiheroes as good people who were just doing what needed to be done, while others believed they were as bad as the criminals they fought. Officially, the vigilantes were considered criminals for their penchant for killing. Many police districts did not actively pursue the antiheroes, and some even encouraged their behavior when they got the chance. Ultimately, the antiheroes neither disappeared nor took over, instead becoming one more variety of the increasing population of superhumans in the world.

The Persian Gulf War:
Superheroes reached a height of popularity in 1990, thanks in large part to the Persian Gulf War. While Captain Cosmos again refused to take an active role in a war, several other superpowered individuals had no problem fighting on behalf of the United States and its allies. Thanks to the superpowered forces of the United Nations, Iraq was soundly defeated in a single month, leading to the fewest American casualties in any war to date. Upon returning to their native countries, the super forces were hailed as heroes for their remarkable achievement. Many believed that war itself would be forever changed, although several prolonged conflicts still waited the world in the future. Nonetheless, criticism of superheroes died down almost entirely, allowing several vigilantes who had been in hiding through the darker years to become more public in their crime-fighting.

The Present Day:
Super-powered individuals and costumed vigilantes seem to be everywhere today. The media covers them frequently, often celebrating good deeds but sometimes asking the old controversial questions about the role of masked crimefighters in society. Mutants are still largely feared by the public, although many of them can currently use their powers freely as long as they provide an explanation for their powers. Similarly, supervillains exist in force, ranging from evil geniuses to costumed thugs and even bizarre fare such as evil robots, aliens, and extra-dimensional beings. Despite the amount of exposure super-powered individuals get, they are still relatively rare in number – it is estimated that only 1 in 100,000 individuals throughout the world have either the paranormal abilities or the advanced physical and mental training required to be a successful costumed hero or villain.

Despite the recent explosion of superheroes in the world, there have been no long-standing teams of masked vigilantes since the Allies of World War II. Some postulate that these supposed heroes are simply too disturbed or egotistical to work together effectively. Others believe that an organized group with an established base of operations leads to greater danger to the heroes, allowing their enemies to better discover their secret identities and strike at their loved ones. For whatever reason, such gatherings are almost always short-lived. There are, however, still attempts to form a group that might resemble the Allies. The most recent and high-profile attempt comes from billionaire Jason Noble, who has sent out an invitation to all costumed vigilantes to join a new organization that he has dubbed the Liberty League. What comes of this new superhero force remains to be seen.


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