I recently finished The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (a volume comprising the first 13 short stories) and it occurred to me that Holmes is very much an early superhero.
He has immense powers of deduction and disguise, often baffling even the best police detectives (whom he frequently refers to as ‘imbeciles’) and uses those powers only to further the common good and not for his own personal profit. He also shows another superhero trait, that of recognizing the value of all human beings, even wrongdoers, often finding a way to secure their escape rather than face the corrupt justice system.
But Holmes makes a big deal out of his powers being no more than any person could do with the right application of brainpower. He and Watson frequently point out that he, in fact, knows very little about anything other than what is necessary to solve mysteries. He relies on his library to fill in all the gaps.
Holmes has a counterpart across the Atlantic: Batman. Batman is also a brilliant detective, and similarly hates to see people die, but his whole aura and ethos is built up around his own personal mystery and scary tough-guy demeanour.
“Nicer” American superheroes such as Superman still primarily seem to be about strength and physical powers (either by birthright or through technology) in order to bring about the feeling of “necessary force”. In order to be a hero in American comic-book mythology, one has to stand up to one’s enemies.
I was thinking about British superheroes, and the next one that obviously came to mind was the Doctor. The Doctor has the ability to travel through time and space, and several centuries of knowledge built up from his endless fascination with science and technology. People all over the universe fear him, but he hates violence and does whatever he can to stop people from even giving each other dirty looks. His character, like Holmes, is that of someone who knows he has power and can’t help but use it for good, but because it’s fun, not because it’s right.
I had a search for British superheroes and the one that repeatedly came up in searches was John Constantine. I don’t know much about him, but it seems he has superpowers and is almost embarrassed to use them. He wants to prove to his enemies that he can defeat them using his intellect alone.
Something all these British heroes have in common is that they value their own mental prowess well above their physical abilities, and they’re determined to show their enemies this is the case.
Racking my brains for an American superhero with the same outlook I only came up with Jean-Luc Picard. And they gave him a British accent.