Who Was America’s First Superhero?

Before Superman, before Batman, before Wonder Woman there was Zorro. And Zorro was the product of Latinx culture.

IMG_9054

Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in April 1938. Batman first started skulking around Gotham in 1939. Wonder Woman flew in from mythical Themyscira in 1941. But even before that, there were others. A decade before, in 1930, we can find The Shadow. Mandrake the Magician started mind control in 1934. And, of course, there’s even the very early comic strip from 1902–1903 with Hugo Hercules.

These, and others, certainly deserve their place as “America’s First Superheroes.”

But, we can point to other heroes, some even without superhuman abilities, as the true originators of the superheroic genre. We really have to look to the canon of romantic novels from the nineteenth century, as well as the huge volume of pulp literature from the early twentieth century for the origins of America’s superheroes.

-1. Alexandre Dumas — Father and Son.

In the 1800s, we find English and French novelists writing romantic tales with swashbuckling heroes; tales of cape and sword. We could list, among these authors, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. In France, we find Alexandre Dumas and his The Three Musketeers and the sequels. Also, Dumas’ own The Count of Monte Cristo provides an important prototype for a hero who has to masquerade as someone he’s not in order to exact revenge on his enemies. None of these characters have superhuman powers. But they do have extraordinary skills, often have to carry out their schemes for justice in secret, and there’s always an element of derring-do about them.

A recent book by Tom Reiss, The Black Count (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography), describes the real-life adventures of Alexandre Dumas, Sr. The father of the famous novelist, Dumas, Sr. was born in France’s Caribbean slave colonies and was the product of a White-planter father and a Black mother. Remarkably, Dumas, Sr. emigrated to France and rose in the French Revolutionary army. He was hailed for his remarkable sword skills, his intimidating physique, and his “superhuman” ability to lift a horse off its feet with just his powerful legs. Reiss argues, in the book, that Dumas, Sr. inspired his son’s most famous novels and provides the template for the Count of Monte Cristo. Napoleon, apparently, envied Dumas, Sr. and left him to rot in a dungeon in Italy after the Egyptian campaign — a plot that sounds a lot like the Monte Cristo novel written by Dumas, Jr.

519j0ma6YJL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_

Tom Reiss’ book describes the first “superman” as a biracial soldier from Revolutionary France.

Reiss writes: “In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas would give his betrayed protagonist not only the fate of his father’s final years but also a fictional taste of a dark sort of triumph. In the novel’s hero you can see the premise of every modern thriller from Batman comics to The Bourne Identity. No other adventure novel of the nineteenth century carries its resonance. After escaping the dungeon and securing the treasure of Monte Cristo, Dantes builds a luxurious subterranean hideout in the caves of the island. He becomes master of all styles of combat, though he mainly uses his mind to defeat his enemies, bending the law and other institutions to his superhuman will. Knowing that the world is violent and corrupt, the Count becomes master of violence and corruption — all with the goal of helping the weakest and most victimized people of all. The Count is the first fictional hero to announce himself as a “superman,” anticipating Nietzsche — not to mention the birth of comics — by many years.”

So, any discussion of America’s first superhero should take into account the Count of Monte Cristo, by Alex Dumas — and based on the real-life adventures and tragedies of the novelist’s father. And note: the first character to describe himself as a “superman” was created by a writer of mixed heritage; one who had to constantly battle racist reviews because of his background.

-2. Penny Dreadfuls and the Scarlet Pimpernel

Moving forward in time, we find two important precursors to the modern American superhero.

The first was birthed in Penny Dreadful publications in England. The character Spring-Heeled Jack appeared in 1837. He was an urban legend, a frightful character described as diabolical, with clawed hands, with eyes of burning fire. He was known for his extraordinary leaps and ability to jump — from which came the “spring-heeled” sobriquet. But he could also appear as a gentlemen, alluding to the importance of disguise. But Jack was a villain, a terror. He wasn’t known for “Robin Hood” style adventures.

He looks a lot like Batman, really.

Jack6

Issue 2 cover of 1904 Aldine Spring Heeled Jack Library

The next precursor is The Scarlet Pimpernel, first a stage play and then a novel, by Baroness Emmuska Orsczy (1905). The novel’s protagonist is Sir Percy Blanckney, a foppish British aristocrat who uses various disguises to save French aristocrats from the guillotine in the era of the French Revolution. With Blanckney we get the first millionaire-by-day and hero-by-night sort of character.

the-scarlet-pimpernel001
Orczy’s protagonist helped start the “fop” trope.

Masquerading as the Scarlet Pimpernel, a name that comes from a particular flower left as his calling card, Blanckney disguises himself as an old woman, as well as a Merchant of Venice-style Shylock in order to throw off the trail of the cunning French Inspector. (Note the heavy antisemitic theme in Orczy’s story). The Scarlet Pimpernel uses his wits, not any cunning swordplay to beat his enemies. The novel is told from the perspective of Blanckney’s French wife, who believes her husband is a huge wimp. Eventually, the Scarlet Pimpernel saves his wife and her brother from arrest and the guillotine and the world is put to rights.

-3. Zorro

In 1919, Johnston McCulley wrote the first serialized novel with the character Zorro — the “fox.” McCulley’s Zorro pulled from Dumas’s and Orczy’s creations — the larger-than-life hero, the disguise — but McCulley’s Zorro did something different, something new, which arguably set the blueprint for the superhero genre.

First, Zorro had an identifiable disguise that he always wore. The mask, the cape, the black outfit, the hat, the sword, the whip. He rode a black horse called Tornado, which is basically the model for Batman’s black Batmobile.

Second, Zorro had a manservant, Bernardo, who knew of Zorro’s identity and aided him in his adventures. Bernardo becomes the first “dymanic duo” as well as a literary device where the hero is able to narrate his thoughts to the reader through exposition to his sidekick.

Third, Zorro’s alter-ego as Don Diego de la Vega provides a more thoroughly dual identity. The Scarlet Pimpernel masquerades as that identity through the disguises of others — an old woman, for example. But Zorro has a costume! He’s Zorro when he puts on a certain outfit.

Fourth, Zorro exists in the geography of the New World, in California of the Spanish era, and sometimes in the era of Mexican California (c. 1805–1846). He’s the first hero, with a mask and a dual identity, who does his adventures in “America.”

Fifth, Zorro’s influence can be seen in later comics characters: The Shadow, Batman, etc. Bob Kane’s testimony, of course suspect as recent research has uncovered the many ways Kane didn’t credit his collaborators, articulates that Zorro played a large role in his ideas about Batman.

Yet, the interesting thing about Zorro, is that the character got his life in the pulps and then in film and only later, in the 1940s, became a proper comic book hero.

Black rider charges in Toth

From Alex Toth’s Zorro comics, late 1950s and early 1960s.

Zorro should be considered America’s First Superhero. He laid an important blueprint for later comic book heroes, and he was uniquely “American” in his origin.

Zorro, the product of Mexican-American culture, is a fundamental part of the creation of the American superhero genre.

Think of that: Latinx culture is as fundamental to American culture as the superhero.


Stephen Andes is writing a history of Zorro. You can follow his quest at https://zorrosghost.com/ and on Twitter.

About Stephen Andes

Associate professor of Latin American history, Louisiana State University. I received my doctorate from Oxford University in 2010. I study Mexican history and pop culture. My latest project is Zorro.
This entry was posted in Superheroes. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply