Skip to content

Popeye and Bluto: film’s first superheroes?

What is the true identity of the world’s first superhero? Should we look back to Gilgamesh? Achilles? Hanuman? Samson? Robin Hood? Ōgon Bat? Buck Rogers? Mandrake the Magician? The Phantom? Superman? It would seem the origin story of the super is more a matter of evolution and hybridity than of sudden genesis.

Comics were key – but the role of animation in the development of supers is easy to overlook. Fleischer’s classic Superman series (1940) gave the Man of Steel the power of flight after discovering that his giant leaps looked silly when animated. My candidate for the earliest superhero fight on film – of a kind that wouldn’t become technically possible in live-action films for decades – is from the 1937 Fleischer Studios Popeye short The Paneless Window Washer. The whole film is great, but the fight sequence starting at 3:30 is really excellent. It also seems remarkably modern, with gravity-defying, building-smashing action that would fit straight into the super-hero franchises of today.

Are we watching the powers of Spiderman? Superman? The Hulk? The Flash?* No! It’s Popeye the Sailor Man. (toot toot)

Comments and rebuttals welcome.


See also:

New Wave: the Hybrid Hokusai
Cultural Hybridity, Fast and SlowZen Hae on cross-pollination, imitation and innovation in Indonesian Peranakan literature
Choose What You Want (on the ‘authentic’ watermelon, hybridity and selective breeding)
Hybrids (1) (John Stuart Mill on diversity)
Hybrids (2): combinations and connections (Tim O’Reilly on Combinatorial Innovation)
Hybrids (3): when ideas breed (Kevin Kelly on Combinatorial Innovation)

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...