The earliest reference to an actual living person as a superhero that I have found is from The Sun of New York, New York, December 24, 1909, page 6, just two months after Alfred Sutro had his talks on the subject first summarized in the London Observer. Again, the use here of the word is not positive. Instead it is sarcastic. The author of the item, entitled "The Little General," seems to have wanted to take his subject down a peg or two. And who was his subject? None other than the Honorable John Francis Fitzgerald (1863-1950), aka "Honey Fitz," grandfather of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Here is the reference:
Fitz has not only covered his chief antagonist [James J. Storrow II] with confusion. He is swimming in a sea of glory. He is the real hero, the super-hero of the Spanish War. Here him beat himself at Captain John Drum Camp, Spanish Veterans:
"I acted like a little General in giving orders about the camp."
Not only did he command the well; he nursed the sick. He had physicians and nurses sent to Virginia. If there is a Massachusetts Iberian Veteran alive to-day, he owes his life to Fitz.
It sounds like Fitzgerald, like politicians of today, boasted about himself and his exploits, likely to build himself up in the eyes of his constituents and to win votes. The item quoted here makes him sound small, though, not large, certainly not like an Übermensch. Nonetheless, he was a political figure, and nowhere would the Übermensch be as active--or as lethal--in the twentieth century as in politics.
The term and concept of the Übermensch is of course German. It comes from Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, written by Friedrich Nietzsche and published in four parts from 1883 to 1891. According to Wikipedia, the word is translated as "Beyond-Man," "Superman," "Overman," "Superhuman," "Hyperman," or "Hyperhuman." (My friend Larry Blake, knowing that the word superhero is protected by trademark, instead refers to his comic book characters as "hyper-heroes.") The word superman clearly came before superhero or superheroine. The earliest occurrence of superman that I have found is again from a British newspaper, from 1892.
1892-The First Use of Superman
In its issue of April 15, 1892, the Birmingham Daily Post (p. 7) printed a long article with the heading "London Gossip" and the subheading "The New Light of Anarchy." The subject is the German philosopher the paper calls "Nietsche," who was by then "lying at the last extremity" at a maison de santé. "He is now deprived of speech, recognises [sic] no one, and is apparently unconscious," quoted the article. Nietzsche would linger in that state or something like it for eight more years, finally to die in 1900. The article mentions "The Coming Book," Zarathustra: A Book for Everybody and Nobody, then in print in Paris but slouching towards Great Britain. The author of the article was confident that his countrymen would resist Nietzsche's worst ideas. He had far less confidence in his Continental counterparts. Anyway, here's the context:
The hero Zarathustra, disgusted with the sordid meanness and base motives of the human race, has retired to a cavern in the desert, with no other companions but an eagle and a serpent. He spends his life meditating on the "Super-Man," the ideal being who is to reform, by precept and example, the whole human race, and bring all men to equality of fortune, position, and intelligence. (1)
So the word and seeming concept of the Superman sprang directly from the philosophical musings of one man. It did not grow out of a generalized culture or popular culture. The author of the article and probably countless critics and observers since Nietzsche's time have seen the Superman as a negative, just as Alfred Sutro saw the superhero and superheroine as negatives in 1909. (2) Even as late as January 1933, science fiction fans Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster cast their version of the Superman as an evil or malevolent being. The title character of their seminal tale "The Reign of the Superman" fell short of success, though, and so Siegel and Shuster refashioned him into a superhero instead of a supervillain. And that's how Superman was born.
To be continued . . .
(1) Nietzsche's concept of the Superman seems to have ties to Darwinian evolution. I don't think we should overlook the influence in turn of Nietzsche and Darwin on the development of eugenics or the influence of all three on Nazi ideas of race and racial superiority. However, Nietzsche was opposed to antisemitism; Nazi crimes can hardly be laid at his feet. I'm no expert on Nietzsche at all, but it seems to me that as a kind of physician, he observed, described, and diagnosed problems among us and in the human psyche. He even made prognoses that have turned out accurate. However, it seems extremely unlikely to me that he would have prescribed nazism or any other socialist or collectivist system, or any kind of mass movement at all.
(2) That's not to say that the idea of the superhero or the Superman was entirely negative before comic-book superheroes came along in the 1930s. In 1918 and 1919, American newspapers referred to fighting men of extraordinary valor and accomplishment as superheroes, including Sergeant Alvin C. York of the U.S. Army and Sergeant G. Morini of the Italian Bersaglieri. Also in 1918, A Soldier's Oath, by William Farnum, was advertised with the blurb "[a] super-hero in a super-play." So maybe going into the 1920s--only a decade or so from the birth of the first superheroes in comics--there was the positive concept of the superhero and the negative concept of the Superman. In Superman, maybe Siegel and Shuster brought the concepts together as a positive character, thus leaving space for the arrival of the supervillain.
The Superman versus the Übermensch and look who comes out on top. Superman #17, from July/August 1942 with cover art by Fred Ray.
Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley