Off the Page: Before Superman

Jessica Plummer

Contributing Editor

Jessica Plummer has lived her whole life in New York City, but she prefers to think of it as Metropolis. Her day job is in books, her side hustle is in books, and she writes books on the side (including a short story in Sword Stone Table from Vintage). She loves running, knitting, and thinking about superheroes, and knows an unnecessary amount of things about Donald Duck. Follow her on Twitter at @jess_plummer.

What makes a superhero?

Superman’s generally accepted as the first superhero. But he wasn’t the first crimefighter with extraordinary powers; he wasn’t the first to don an alias and a costume. He may have been the first to do all three, but that stopped being a requirement of the genre in 1939 with Batman. So why do we all agree that Batman is a superhero – but Zorro, who also has a mask and an alias, is not? Why isn’t the Phantom, who predates Superman with his secret identity and stripey briefs, considered the first superhero? Sure, Superman was born in the comics, but the Shadow and Green Hornet have had comics too – why don’t they count?

Superhero scholars can and have split semantic hairs over this stuff for ages, but I’m more interested in taking a look at the almost/maybe/sorta superheroes who populated the airwaves, funny pages, and pulps in the 30s, when Siegel and Shuster were still trying to find a syndicate willing to publish their mysterious strongman. Some of them, like the Phantom and Green Hornet, fall on the superheroier side of things and so I’ll be devoting separate posts to their multimedia adventures. But there are a few characters who were blowing up the airwaves and the pulps at the time who don’t feel like superheroes, but definitely lent their DNA to the budding genre, and today I’d like to take a closer look at some of the most influential ones.


  • Zorro: Zorro’s influence on superheroes, particularly Batman, is hardly a secret – in fact, it’s so unsubtle that Batman origin stories frequently have the Waynes leaving a Zorro film when Thomas and Martha are killed. But I think we probably could’ve figured it out without that little sombrero-tip. A wealthy, privileged man who plays at being a foolish fop, only to don an all-black costume and mask to fight injustice using cleverness, acrobatics, and a dashing nom de guerre? Gee, Edward Nygma, you got me!Of course, Zorro, who first appeared in a pulp magazine – the predecessors of comic books – was following in the bedazzled footsteps of other crimefighting fops, most notably the Scarlet Pimpernel. But he was popular enough to find himself adapted into the 1920 movie The Mark of Zorro. The wildly successful film sparked huge demand for the character, who went on to star in dozens of stories and more than 40 films around the world. Appearances in radio and comics followed, plus an iconic 1950s TV show, but by the time Batman made the scene, Zorro was still primarily a creature of the written word.
  • The Shadow: The Shadow first appeared as the narrator of the Detective Story Hour radio program, but listener demand led to him starring in his own stories in, you guessed it, the pulps. Like Zorro, the Shadow juggled two identities: wealthy man-about-town Lamont Cranston, and a mysterious figure of vigilante justice, masked and cloaked in black. Again, the influence on Batman’s pedigree is hardly subtle, especially when you factor in the Shadow’s habit of using psychological terror to throw off his opponents’ game – in fact, Bill Finger straight-up copped to using a Shadow story as the basis for the first Batman story. The Shadow’s colorful supervillains left their mark on the comics page as well.By 1940, not only had the Shadow been knowing what evil lurked in the hearts of men on the radio for a decade, he’d appeared in several feature films and serials, and had debuted in a comic strip, which was still the big leagues as far as comics were concerned. If you’re wondering why we as a people can’t go more than a year or so without some form of Batman appearing on television…well, the Shadow knows.
  • Doc Savage: Clark “Doc” Savage, the Man of Bronze, was raised from birth by a team of scientists to be the pinnacle of human perfection and has an arctic hideout called the Fortress of Solitude. Nope, I can’t think of any comic book characters he might have influenced!The good doctor – and his omnipresent torn khaki shirt – first appeared in the pulps in 1933. He hit the radio for a short-lived serial in 1934 and another in 1943, and though he’s made his way to comics and films as well, he’s been less of a presence than the other characters in this list in more modern pop culture…possibly because Superman jacked so much of his schtick. Sorry, Doc.
  • The Lone Ranger: With the three characters I just named, you can pick out specific elements that were lifted and modified for the budding superhero genre. It’s harder to do that with the Lone Ranger, but I’m including him because even if he doesn’t have a foppish millionaire alter ego or a Fortress of Solitude, he’s a masked hero who absolutely dominated mass media in the 1930s, and that’s gotta count for something. (He also rolls with a sidekick and has a code against killing, so it’s not like he’s got nothing in common with the capes and tights set.)The sole survivor of a group of Texas Rangers, the Lone Ranger – usually named John Reid – rights the outlaw wrongs in the Old West, faithful companion Tonto by his side. He first galloped onto the radio in 1933 and was instantly a sensation. Soon he was High-Yo Silvering in novels, film serials, and newspaper comics; later decades would bring TV shows, comic books, and Johnny Depp wearing a dead bird on his head. In fact, he probably has the most modern cultural cache of any of the characters here, at least until the next Zorro movie comes out.Fun fact: The Lone Ranger is the great-uncle of the Green Hornet, whose radio adventures we’ll be taking a listen to next month. Way to literalize being the forefather of a super(ish)hero, Kemo Sabe!

Again, none of these characters are precisely superheroes. But they were the rubric that audiences were fitting the brand-new longjohns brigade into – and, frequently, the characters that people like Jerry Siegel, Bob Kane, and Jack Kirby grew up on. Superheroes sprang out of the influence of these sorts of characters, and so did the popular understanding of what being a superhero meant.