The word 'superhero' dates to at least 1917. Antecedents of the archetype include such folkloric heroes as Robin Hood, who adventured in distinctive clothing. The 1903 play The Scarlet Pimpernel and its spinoffs popularized the idea of a masked avenger and the superhero trope of a secret identity. Shortly afterward, masked and costumed pulp fiction characters such as Jimmie Dale/the Gray Seal (1914), Zorro (1919), The Shadow (1930) and comic strip heroes, such as the Phantom (1936) began appearing, as did non-costumed characters with super strength, including Patoruzú (1928), the comic-strip character Popeye (1929) and novelist Philip Wylie's character Hugo Danner (1930).
In the 1930s, both trends came together in some of the earliest superpowered costumed heroes such as Japan's Ōgon Bat (visualized in painted panels used by kamishibai oral storytellers in Japan since 1931), Mandrake the Magician (1934), Superman in 1938 and Captain Marvel (1939) at the beginning of the Golden Age of Comic Books. The precise era of the Golden Age of Comic Books is disputed, though most agree that it was started with the launch of Superman in 1938. Superman remains one of the most recognizable Superheroes to this day. The success of Superman spawned a whole new genre of characters with secret identities and superhuman powers – the Superhero genre.
During the 1940s there were many superheroes: The Flash, Green Lantern and Blue Beetle debuted in this era. This era saw the debut of first known female superhero, writer-artist Fletcher Hanks's character Fantomah, an ageless ancient Egyptian woman in the modern day who could transform into a skull-faced creature with superpowers to fight evil; she debuted in Fiction House's Jungle Comic #2 (Feb. 1940), credited to the pseudonymous "Barclay Flagg". The Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, a non-costumed character who fought crime and wartime saboteurs using the superpower of invisibility created by Russell Stamm, would debut in the eponymous syndicated newspaper comic strip a few months later on June 3, 1940.
One superpowered character was portrayed as an antiheroine, a rarity for its time: the Black Widow, a costumed emissary of Satan who killed evildoers in order to send them to Hell—debuted in Mystic Comics #4 (Aug. 1940), from Timely Comics, the 1940s predecessor of Marvel Comics. Most of the other female costumed crime-fighters during this era lacked superpowers. Notable characters include The Woman in Red, introduced in Standard Comics' Thrilling Comics #2 (March 1940); Lady Luck, debuting in the Sunday-newspaper comic-book insert The Spirit Section June 2, 1940; the comedic character Red Tornado, debuting in All-American Comics #20 (Nov 1940); Miss Fury, debuting in the eponymous comic strip by female cartoonist Tarpé Mills on April 6, 1941; the Phantom Lady, introduced in Quality Comics Police Comics #1 (Aug. 1941); the Black Cat, introduced in Harvey Comics' Pocket Comics #1 (also Aug. 1941); and the Black Canary, introduced in Flash Comics #86 (Aug. 1947) as a supporting character. The most iconic comic book superheroine, who debuted during the Golden Age, is Wonder Woman. Modeled from the myth of the Amazons of Greek mythology, she was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, with help and inspiration from his wife Elizabeth and their mutual lover Olive Byrne. Wonder Woman's first appearance was in All Star Comics #8 (Dec. 1941), published by All-American Publications, one of two companies that would merge to form DC Comics in 1944.
Pérák was an urban legend originating from the city of Prague during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in the midst of World War II. In the decades following the war, Pérák has also been portrayed as the only Czech superhero in film and comics.
In 1952, Osamu Tezuka's manga Tetsuwan Atom, more popularly known in the West as Astro Boy, was published. The series focused upon a robot boy built by a scientist to replace his deceased son. Being built from an incomplete robot originally intended for military purposes Astro Boy possessed amazing powers such as flight through thrusters in his feet and the incredible mechanical strength of his limbs.
The 1950s saw the Silver Age of Comics. During this era DC introduced the likes of Batwoman in 1956, Supergirl, Miss Arrowette, and Bat-Girl; all female derivatives of established male superheroes.
In 1957 Japan, Shintoho produced the first film serial featuring the superhero character Super Giant, signaling a shift in Japanese popular culture towards tokusatsu masked superheroes over kaiju giant monsters. Along with Astro Boy, the Super Giant serials had a profound effect on Japanese television. 1958 saw the debut of superhero Moonlight Mask on Japanese television. It was the first of numerous televised superhero dramas that would make up the tokusatsu superhero genre. Created by Kōhan Kawauchi, he followed-up its success with the tokusatsu superhero shows Seven Color Mask (1959) and Messenger of Allah (1960), both starring a young Sonny Chiba.
The Marvel Comics teams of the early 1960s typically included at least one (and often the only) female member, much like DC's flagship superhero team the Justice League of America (whose initial roster included Wonder Woman as the token female); examples include the Fantastic Four's Invisible Girl, the X-Men's Jean Grey (originally known as Marvel Girl), the Avengers' Wasp, and the Brotherhood of Mutants' Scarlet Witch (who later joined the Avengers).
In 1963, Astro Boy was adapted into a highly influential anime television series. Phantom Agents in 1964 focused on ninjas working for the Japanese government and would be the foundation for Sentai-type series. 1966 saw the debut of sci-fi/horror series Ultra Q created by Eiji Tsuburaya this would eventually lead on to the sequel Ultraman, spawning a successful franchise focused upon the Giant Hero subgenre where the Superheroes would be as big as giant monsters (Kaiju) that they fought.
In 1971, Kamen Rider launched the "Henshin Boom" on Japanese television in the early 1970s, greatly impacting the tokusatsu superhero genre in Japan. In 1972, the Science Ninja Team Gatchaman anime debuted, which built upon the superhero team idea of the live-action Phantom Agents as well as introducing different colors for team members and special vehicles to support them, said vehicles could also combine into a larger one. Another important event was the debut of Mazinger Z by Go Nagai, creating the Super Robot genre. Go Nagai also wrote the manga Cutey Honey in 1973; although the Magical Girl genre already existed, Nagai's manga introduced Transformation sequences that would become a staple of Magical Girl media.
The 1970s would see more anti-heroes introduced into Superhero fiction such examples included the debut of Shotaro Ishinomori's Skull Man in 1970, Go Nagai's Devilman in 1972 and Gerry Conway and John Romita's Punisher in 1974.
The dark Skull Man manga would later get a television adaptation and underwent drastic changes. The character was redesigned to resemble a grasshopper, becoming the renowned first masked hero of the Kamen Rider series. Kamen Rider is a motorcycle riding hero in an insect-like costume, who shouts Henshin (Transform) to don his costume and gain superhuman powers.
The ideas of second-wave feminism, which spread through the 1960s into the 1970s, greatly influenced the way comic book companies would depict as well as market their female characters: Wonder Woman was for a time revamped as a mod-dressing martial artist directly inspired by the Emma Peel character from the British television series The Avengers (no relation to the superhero team of the same name), but later reverted to Marston's original concept after the editors of Ms. magazine publicly disapproved of the character being depowered and without her traditional costume; Supergirl was moved from being a secondary feature on Action Comics to headline Adventure Comics in 1969; the Lady Liberators appeared in an issue of The Avengers as a group of mind-controlled superheroines led by Valkyrie (actually a disguised supervillainess) and were meant to be a caricatured parody of feminist activists; and Jean Grey became the embodiment of a cosmic being known as the Phoenix Force with seemingly unlimited power in the late 1970s, a stark contrast from her depiction as the weakest member of her team a decade ago.
Both major publishers began introducing new superheroines with a more distinct feminist theme as part of their origin stories or character development. Examples include Big Barda, Power Girl, and the Huntress by DC comics; and from Marvel, the second Black Widow, Shanna the She-Devil, and The Cat. Female supporting characters who were successful professionals or hold positions of authority in their own right also debuted in the pages of several popular superhero titles from the late 1950s onward: Hal Jordan's love interest Carol Ferris was introduced as the Vice-President of Ferris Aircraft and later took over the company from her father; Medusa, who was first introduced in the Fantastic Four series, is a member of the Inhuman Royal Family and a prominent statesperson within her people's quasi-feudal society; and Carol Danvers, a decorated officer in the United States Air Force who would become a costumed superhero herself years later.
In 1975 Shotaro Ishinomori's Himitsu Sentai Gorenger debuted on what is now TV Asahi, it brought the concepts of multi-colored teams and supporting vehicles that debuted in Gatchaman into live-action, and began the Super Sentai franchise (later adapted into the American Power Rangers series in the 1990s). In 1978, Toei adapted Spider-Man into a live-action Japanese television series. In this continuity, Spider-Man had a vehicle called Marveller that could transform into a giant and powerful robot called Leopardon, this idea would be carried over to Toei's Battle Fever J and now multi-colored teams not only had support vehicles but giant robots to fight giant monsters with.
In subsequent decades, popular characters like Dazzler, She-Hulk, Elektra, Catwoman, Witchblade, Spider-Girl, Batgirl and the Birds of Prey became stars of long-running eponymous titles. Female characters began assuming leadership roles in many ensemble superhero teams; the Uncanny X-Men series and its related spin-off titles in particular have included many female characters in pivotal roles since the 1970s. Volume 4 of the X-Men comic book series featured an all-female team as part of the Marvel NOW! branding initiative in 2013. Superpowered female characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Darna have a tremendous influence on popular culture in their respective countries of origin.
With more and more anime, manga and tokusatsu being translated or adapted, Western audiences were beginning to experience the Japanese styles of superhero fiction more than they were able to before. Saban's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, an adaptation of Zyuranger, created a multimedia franchise that used footage from Super Sentai. Internationally, the Japanese comic book character, Sailor Moon, is recognized as one of the most important and popular female superheroes ever created.