Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Secret Origins of the Superhero-Part One

Before Spider-Man and Superman, before Marvel and DC, even before comic books, there was the word superhero. (1) My hypothesis is that the word and the concept originated in the 1890s, give or take a decade, just as so much of our popular culture originated at that time. In order to test my hypothesis, I have used an online search engine/database/index of newspapers dating to the nineteenth century. I can't say that the newspaper articles I have found were actually the earliest occurrences in print of the following words. Even if they're not, my guess is that they're close, as ideas, concepts, and memes seem to arise at a certain time, often in a certain place, and in a certain society or culture.

1909-The First Use of Superhero and Superheroine

In late 1909, the British author, playwright, and critic Alfred Sutro (1863-1933) gave a series of talks on the then-current state of literature and fiction-writing in his native country. An article in The Observer of London, dated October 17, 1909, is the earliest use I have found of the words superhero and superheroine (p. 10). The article is in fact entitled "Super-Heroes and Super-Women," and it summarizes a talk Sutro gave at Working Men's College, Camden Town, the evening before. He would give that talk more than once over the month or so to follow. By November and December, summaries of his talk had reached readers in the United States.

Sutro's superhero and superheroine of literature are not positive types. They are instead selfish, self-centered, hedonistic, cruel, brutal, callous. They set themselves above others and know no bounds to their desires or conduct. "The note of the new departure [from the old literature and the old types]," wrote The Observer in its summary of Sutro's talk, "was a force of relentless egoism, a brushing aside of all ties and duties in the quest of self-development, self-gratification--self, always self." Upon reading those words, we might wonder, are we talking here about 1909 or 2018?

Sutro may have given his talk at a liberal or progressive institution, but his ideas are decidedly conservative. As is so often the case, the conservative critic here possessed a keenness of vision often lacking in his more liberal counterparts. Sutro may have been talking about his own time, but he also seems to have foreseen our current situation. There is more to his ideas--so much that pertains today--that I have included an image of the original article below. After you have read it, you might start to think that we are all now like Sutro's superheroes and superheroines--cruel, brutal, callous, unloved and unloving, self-seeking, selfish, self-centered. Maybe that's the general state of humanity and why we are so desperately in need of escape, redemption, and salvation.

When we think of the superhero, we imagine someone with great or extraordinary powers. Alfred Sutro used this new term in a different way, though. His superhero isn't our superhero. His is a man positioning himself above the rest of humanity, and I don't mean above as in "Look! Up in the sky! It's Superman!" I mean above as in the original sense of the word, meaning over or on top of. In the twentieth century, we saw cruel and brutal men who considered themselves above the rest of humanity and who seized or attained power to exercise their will to be so positioned. As with Sutro's superheroes, they were driven by intellectual or pseudo-intellectual ideas which granted them their superiority or over-ness. (See the article below regarding intellectualism.) Some of those men even had a term for themselves: Übermenschen--Overmen. They also had a term for those who must be under them: Untermenschen--Undermen. The first term at least comes from a writer and a work from the previous century. That work, Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, by Friedrich Nietzsche, was published as a complete edition in German in the 1890s. The first English translation, entitled Thus Spake Zarathustra, was published in 1896, that great and seminal year in our popular culture. The first translation done by an Englishman (or maybe he was Scottish) was by Thomas Common. His version came out in 1909, the year in which Alfred Sutro gave his talks at Camden Town.

Sutro, by the way, was Jewish.

To be continued . . .

(1) I'll use the word superhero interchangeably with its variants, super-hero and super hero. Likewise with the words superheroine, superman, and superwoman.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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