I’m not sure how or why, but the last few weeks of premium cable have shown me not only Alec Baldwin’s movie outing as The Shadow, but Billy Zane as The Phantom and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.  Those movies share a couple of things in common: They all came from an era where superhero movies were considered losing propositions and were played as non-costume as possible, but they also drew upon the proto-superhero tradition that predates not only comic book heroes but comic books themselves.  Characters like Zorro, The Avenger, The Spider and Operator #5 are the building blocks of modern superheroes, providing many of the tropes and tools that make comic book heroes what they are, leading to today’s antediluvian query…

The MS-QOTD (pronounced, as always, “misquoted”) has always loved Zorro, especially once I realized he was played by Will Robinson’s dad, but has to go with the Scarlet Pimpernel (because Daffy Duck) asking: Which pre-Superman proto-superhero is the best in your eyes?


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Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture! And a nice red uniform.


  1. I don’t think it’s pre-superman, but I feel like it fits the theme of the question…

    So I’m gonna go with International Rescue. The Tracy Family and their Thunderbirds were a staple of my local library video rentals when I was a kid. The secret base disguised as an island vacation home, all the cool vehicles and that instantly recognizable theme.

    Definitely screams proto-superheroes to me.

  2. Daniel Langsdale on

    Heracles. He had a great solo series with his 12 labors, and was part of the first all-star super-team: the crew of the Argo.

  3. Malone_hasco on

    I’ve read lots of The Phantom as a kid. His status is at least equal to if not higher than Superman here in Finland. When Phantom stopped being published monthly in its own Finnish edition, its was in national news. No one even remembers when or how that happened to Superman or Batman.

  4. Darth Bashir on

    My grandpa let me borrow a couple of Doc Savage books when I was a young teen, really enjoyed them despite them feeling extremely dated.

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