When you say “superhero,” what do you mean? What is a superhero?
In a different context, I might answer that a superhero is a fictional character that is a hero of some sort of extraordinary proportions, usually wearing a colorful costume and possessing superhuman powers. Or I might say it’s a trademarked moniker co-owned by Marvel and DC Comics. Perhaps I might even say that a superhero is the modern-day mythological equivalent of the hero archetype, taking form in comic books and other fictional media.
But I’m not talking works of fiction, I’m talking about real life.
To clarify, what is a real-life superhero?
The first part of the term is easy to explain. What is “real-life”? The definition of real is being an actual thing, existing or occurring as fact. Life is organic, an animate existence.
So basically, if you actually exist and were alive at some point, then you qualify for the first portion of the term.
The second part of the term is a bit more abstract. Breaking the term down to “super” and “hero” isn’t really what defines the combined term of superhero. When I refer to someone as a superhero, I generally do not think they are all that super or even necessarily heroic. They might have those traits, but that’s not what qualifies them as a superhero.
So, what is a superhero? This seems like such a simple question, yet such a complicated answer. It’s a really open-ended question so the answer open-ended. For every solid definition, there’s always an exception or two that can’t be denied. It’s one of those, “There is no wrong answer” questions…but there is no right answer either.
I mean, I know ‘em when I see ‘em. It’s all those guys dressing up (or at least attempting to dress up) as a superhero while going out to attempt make the world a better place in their own way. Generally they have some semblance of a costume to set them apart from the common man. Involved is some mission or activity to effort good. Inspired, at least in part, by their fictional counterpart, a superhero is following along the lines of the comic book-inspired superhero archetype.
So a superhero is someone who is…trying to be a superhero. It’s a weird “life imitating art” sort of deal.
However, there are some common themes to tend to run through the ranks of real-life superheroes. The aforementioned costume or “super-suit” is the most noticeable. And of course, there is a mission or level of activity that is usually required as well. Missions can be very targeted and specific, such as the popular operation of homeless outreach, but many missions are vague or ill-defined. Some sort of “patrol” is another common theme. Patrols can be something similar as just walking around a certain area to more coordinated practices of targeting specific criminal activity. Some superheroes even boast that they patrol on-line.
Speaking on-line, there seems to be an unwritten rule that a superhero has some on-line presence, usually in the form of social media. Despite a recent crackdown on false profiles, you can still find many superheroes on Facebook. Many are identified by the various suffixed-acronyms they add to their names. RLSH is by far the most common, but you also have UJLA, RCSM, AOH, X-Alts, and who knows what else.
Though wearing a costume, having a mission, and being on social media with a funny acronym are all very common characteristics among superheroes, they are not the absolute defining trait. It’s something far simpler. I’ve boiled it down to self-identification and/or association. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound all that superheroic. Basically, if you say you are a superhero, you are a superhero. This, of course, makes for a troublesome answer. It does not exactly set the bar very high to be a superhero.
To be fair, it’s a little more than an inner self-assertion. There has to at least be some level of outer-assertion, if even just creating an online profile and hastily throwing together a shoddy costume. Taking it further, the act of donning a costume or custom-look in attempt to do good associates somebody with the comic book-inspired superhero archetype.
More or less, self-identifying seems to be the lowest common denominator. And how does one self-identify as a superhero? Well, one has to BE a superhero. That comes dangerously close to circular logic, but I hope that it emphasizes to prerequisite of some type of action on the part of a superhero to be considered one. To attain the title of superhero, one must have some sort of action(s) that are in line of the comic book-inspired superhero archetype, wearing a costume and attempting some good. To commandeer and rebrand a quote from Forrest Gump, “Super is and super does.”
Even those superheroes that have denied their superhero-ness are still considered superheroes. This happened with Seattle’s own Phoenix Jones. Jones is one of the more well-known superheroes and founded the now defunct Rain City Superhero Movement. Several times, Phoenix Jones has said that he is not a superhero, stating he was a “masked adventurer, crime-fighter” or something along those lines. This was mostly to distance himself from the “RLSH”, a rather vocal and large subset of real-life superheroes that felt his way of superhero-ing was not the way to go. But when the team you founded has “Superhero” in the title, it’s a bit difficult to not be seen as a self-identified superhero. Plus he has gone on record numerous times stating that he is a superhero, usually in reference to him being either the first or best superhero.
However, Jones still follows the comic book-inspired superhero archetype, having a mission of fighting crime on the streets and wearing his rather recognizable “super-suit.” By dressing “like a superhero”, you are, in effect, identifying yourself as a superhero.
What constitutes a superhero will be a question I will struggle with for a while. Over the years I have tried to delineate those that follow along the lines of the comic book-inspired superhero archetype from your average, everyday do-gooder. I know I have met a few superheroes here and there. But how can I further define what the comic book-inspired superhero archetype? Maybe superheroes are too big to be defined. But probably not. I just hope you get what I’m saying when I say superhero.