Prototype Superheroes: Ranking the Top 5

Ye Olde Superheroes

Narrator:A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect — he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.”

The Moon of Skulls

Superheroes are everywhere these days. Ever since Superman lifted a car in Action Comics #1, countless men, women, and children have donned a cape to fight villains with their strength, wit, and miraculous powers. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Stories have always been told about larger than life heroes such as Gilgamesh, King Arthur, and Robin Hood.

While everyone remembers mythological heroes and dozens of superhero movies have been made recently, one era is often overlooked. A different kind of hero reigned from the Industrial Revolution through the Victorian era, and up until Superman took the spotlight. Not as renowned as the mythological heroes nor as powerful as their successors, these heroes stood for truth and justice everywhere from prose to pulp comics.

This bygone age had many heroes, but only five made our list of the Top 5 prototype superheroes that debuted before 1938.

#5. The Scarlet Pimpernel

Debut: 1905
Created by: Baroness Orczy
Played by: Leslie Howard

Percy Blakeney:We seek him here, 
we seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in Heaven? Is he in Hell?
That damned, elusive Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel

The first member of our prototype superhero list is from a book set during the Reign of Terror and the French Revolution. The Scarlet Pimpernel starred the titular hero, a skilled swordsman and escape artist. Together with a team of sidekicks, he rescued aristocrats from the murderous revolutionaries of the French Republic.

Unbeknownst to the public, The Scarlet Pimpernel was actually a foppish dandy named Sir Percy Blakeney. He cavorted and carried on in his civilian life so that no one would connect him to the heroic Pimpernel. This annoyed his wife, Marguerite, who secretly longed for the Pimpernel.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is often considered to be the origin of superhero secret identities. The idea of a hero disguising himself as a rich, bumbling idiot has been used to great effect by heroes including Bruce Wayne and Don Diego de la Vega.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fictional character, but he has indirectly saved thousands of real lives. An adaptation of the story inspired Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to begin smuggling Jews to safety during World War II. Other WWII Pimpernels include Donald Caskie, Varian Fry, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, and Harald Edelstam. I think Baroness Orczy would have been proud to see her fictional hero inspire so many real ones.

#4 Golden Bat

Debuted: 1930
Created by: Suzuki Ichiro and Takeo Nagamatsu
Played by: Sonny Chiba

Inscription:Ten thousand years from now, a crisis shall befall mankind. When that time comes, if someone just of heart arrives at this place, when he lifts my lid, Golden Bat shall be awakened from his ten thousand year sleep.

Golden Bat “The Origin of Golden Bat” (Season 1, Episode 1)

This prototype superhero is a twofer: the first illustrated superhero and the first Japanese superhero. Golden Bat began as a kamishibai performance, a type of Japanese theater where a storyteller narrates while pictures are shown depicting the story. 

Golden Bat is the last survivor of Atlantis. A prophecy foretold that humanity would be endangered in ten thousand years, so he allowed himself to be sealed away to face the threat when it appeared. He would face countless villains in the future, including alien dictator Doctor Nazo and an evil counterpart called Dark Bat.

Despite predating both of them, Golden Bat behaves like a mix of Superman and Batman. He has many of Superman’s powers, including invulnerability, super strength, flight, and X-ray vision. He also uses Batman’s intimidation tactics, often scaring villains with malevolent laughter or the sight of his skull-like face.

Golden Bat survived the fall of kamishibai theater by making the jump to manga and anime. There have also been several Golden Bat film adaptations, though none circulated widely outside Japan. Considering his popularity and nature as a public domain character, it’s only a matter of time until Hollywood takes a swing at bringing Golden Bat to the West.

#3 Doctor Syn

Debuted: 1915
Created by: Russell Thorndike
Played by Peter Cushing

Mr. Mipps:You can’t change the way of the world, Vicar.
Doctor Syn:No? Unjust laws can be altered as well as made by men. There’s a new spirit in the world, Mipps. Taxed out of existence, robbed of their independence by the King’s Government, the people must fight back how they can.
Mipps:Well, men can’t beat armies, Sir.
Syn:Ideas can. Faith can move mountains.

Doctor Syn, Alias The Scarecrow

The third time is charmed because the third member of our prototype superheroes list has three identities. I promise that his numerology fixation is not on purpose.

The Reverend Doctor Syn was a respectable vicar living in the English village of Dymchurch who had a secret past as the notorious pirate Captain Clegg. Syn eventually tired of the pirate life and faked Captain Clegg’s death.

Doctor Syn tried to live a quiet life, but was eventually drawn into a more chaotic one. He learned that Dymchurch was a major smuggling port and a large portion of his congregation participated in the trade. Even worse, one of Captain Clegg’s surviving allies was the ringleader of the trade, which was drawing attention from rival gangs and corrupt soldiers.

Doctor Syn realized that he would have to take control of the gang to protect his village. He disguised himself as a scarecrow and became The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, a smuggler who terrified criminals and soldiers into submission and killed those who would not be scared away.

Due to his violent nature, Doctor Syn/The Scarecrow/Captain Clegg is more of an anti-hero than a superhero. He respects a strict honor code and goes out of his way to protect his parishioners, which tilts the scale enough to heroism to qualify for this list. 

The real village of Dymchurch loves the character, celebrating a “Day of Syn” in even-numbered years to raise money. Activities include cosplaying as the characters, recreating scenes from the novels, and even a church service led by someone portraying the Reverend Doctor Syn.

#2  Zorro

Debuted: 1919
Created by: Johnston McCulley
Played by: Douglas Fairbanks, Antonio Banderas

“Out of the night when the full moon is bright
Comes a horseman known as Zorro
This bold renegade carves a Z with his blade
A Z that stands for Zorro”

Zorro theme song by Norman Foster and George Bruns

The fourth member of our prototype superheroes list is probably the most famous of them. And whaddaya know, he doesn’t have a numerical thing tying him into the number four!

Don Diego de la Vega was the son of a rich Californian named Alejandro de la Vega. He returned home from university after learning that a tyrannical governor was tormenting his hometown. Realizing that he could not oppose the governor himself, Don Diego creates an alter ego called Zorro (The Fox) to fight the governor’s forces.

Zorro is a swashbuckler par excellence and a skilled horse rider. He famously slashes a Z as a calling card, often into the flesh of a defeated criminal. When not fighting criminals, Zorro can often be found in a cave hidden beneath the de la Vega family’s ancestral home. Say, Mr. Wayne, why does that sound familiar?

Zorro is the most successful member of this list, having appeared in dozens of written stories, eight movies, seven television series, and several comic book series. CBS currently has a Zorro adaptation in the works, featuring a female descendant of Zorro called Z fighting crime in the modern day.

#1 The Shadow

Debuted: 1930
Created by: Walter B. Gibson
Played by: Orson Welles, Frank Readick Jr.

Batman:I’ve never told anyone this, but you were my biggest inspiration. I’d be honored to shake your hand.”
The Shadow: [shaking his hand] “The honor is mine!
Batman: [as The Shadow departs] “No! Don’t leave! The world needs you! Will you help? Will you come out of retirement?
The Shadow: [laughing] “That… only The Shadow knows!

Batman #253

Heh-heh-heh, who knows what hero has been chosen as our number one prototype superhero? The Shadow knows…

The Shadow was never intended to be a superhero. He was originally the narrator of a radio program called Detective Story Hour. Fans were enamored by the mysterious narrator and flocked to newsstands, searching for The Shadow’s comic.

The comic was rushed to production, revealing The Shadow as a costumed crime fighter. He was written as an expert martial artist, a crack shot, and a hypnotist who was able to turn invisible by “clouding the minds of men.” He manipulated police and criminals through an army of followers, setting the stage for a final dramatic confrontation with the criminals.

The Shadow would change over time, swapping out the followers for his lover Margot Lane, adopting a rich idiot disguise as Lamont Cranston, and acting more like Batman than a vigilante willing to kill. There have also been versions that turn The Shadow from violent vigilante to a madman whose sole saving grace is killing people worse than himself. And there was an execrable remake in 1994 starring Alec Baldwin.

The Shadow lacks Zorro’s silver screen success, but is more prolific in prose. He starred in over 300 short stories in pulp magazines and 657 episodes of the radio drama. The Shadow appeared in several movie serials, but his the big budget Baldwin adaptation flopped.

Who is your favorite prototype superhero? Is there someone more deserving who should be on the list? Tell us in the comments.

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