Superheroes are often considered an American export, and the most iconic heroes, like Superman and Batman, are nearly universally recognized around the world. But American superheroes reflect American values and politics, and although they are sometimes diverse and subversive, they are not universal. Around the world, other countries and cultures have adopted the superhero genre to tell their own stories.
In the international superhero scene, you will find many “traditional” superheroes, that get their powers from mad scientists or alien planets and fight generic ills with spandex clinging tight to bulging muscles. But you will also find plenty of diversity to reflect different histories, values, and communities.
Here’s a look at what superheroes look like around the globe.
Superheroes are diverse
The 99, an ambitious response to the Justice League, is a team of 99 superheroes who each acquire a power related to one of the 99 attributes of Allah. The powers come from Noor stones, imbibed with the wisdom of all the books lost during the siege of Baghdad.
Creator Naif Al-Mutawa hopes the concept will combat extremism and promote unity within the international Muslim community. He is concerned not only with Islamophobia but also “how people see themselves in my part of the world”, after finding himself disturbed to see his fellow Muslims associate with the most regressive sects of the religion. The 99, from 99 different countries, work together most often in groups of three to fight evil and promote unity. Individually, their powers are too weak, or at times harmful.
Al-Mutawa also hopes The 99 underscores the common values that Islam shares with other major religions. He consulted religious scholars while creating the series and was devoted to respecting Islam; unsurprisingly however, The 99 has been a source of controversy, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. American media particularly seized upon the burqua-clad hero, Batina the Hidden, as pearl-clutching fodder.
Despite this, The 99 has appeared alongside the Justice League in a crossover series. It also had an animated series, which was suffered from some truly unfortunate animation.
Superheroes are traditional
Superheroes embody and amplify our values. They offer a degree of fiction that allows creators to place serious or spiritual practices in a totally different light. More diverse creators means we are seeing superheroes that represent a wider range of traditions, such as the Aboriginal Australian superhero series Cleverman.
Some cultures have created new tropes in superhero comics. Mexican comics feature countless masked luchador characters, which come from the popularity of lucha libre. Masks were a traditional part of the sport long before comics came along, but the similarity in costume and the popularity of real life wrestlers made them easy to convert into superhero-like characters who fight crime while not in the ring.
Not all heroes are super
Chacha Chaudhry is one of India’s most iconic and beloved comic book characters, and he’s an elderly middle class gentleman who fights corruption, dacoits (bandits), and thugs. There is a clear humorous aspect to his exploits, and moral lessons aimed at children. He himself does not have any super powers other than his fabulous intelligence—“faster than a super computer”— although his main sidekick is Sabu, a giant alien who serves as the brawn to his brain.
Creator Pran Kumar Sharma was inspired by the combined wisdom and goofy humor of the wise old uncle that seemingly every family has. India certainly has “classic” superheroes, products of scientific enhancements or alien cultures, such as Fauladi Singh, but Chacha Chaudhry reflects a culture that holds its elders in higher regard than super buff young dudes. Together, Chacha and Sabu represent the need for both strength and wisdom.
Not all superheroes are serious
Some countries are very fond of parodying the genre. Sweden boasts Kapten Stofil (which approximately translates to Captain Old Fogey), a super curmudgeon and Der Maskerade Proggaren (The Masked Hippie), who riffs on the anti-capitalist progressive music (progg) movement of the 70s and 80s. He gets his superpowers from the ghost of Karl Marx and sports a hammer and sickle on his chest.
Speaking of Marx…
Like most Western imports, superheroes did not make it to the other side of the Iron Curtain (especially as the Soviet Union became a staple villain in American media). Heavy media restrictions meant that Russia and its neighbors missed out on the most influential ages of comic books. Russian translations of staples such as Superman eventually became available, but it was not until very recently that Russia began to create some of their own superheroes.
The upcoming superhero blockbuster Guardians (or Zaschitniki) is set to introduce four Soviet superheroes, created during the Cold War by Soviet scientists. It’s not out until 2017, but the four superheroes are said to represent different nationalities, and have elemental type powers. Three of them can manipulate rock, wind, and water respectively, and the fourth can manipulate his physicality, transforming into a bear. It’s all still a bit of a mystery.
We can’t make any definitive analysis without seeing the film, but the focus on these physical and elemental powers is interesting in the political context. It seems to emphasis the organic greatness of the Soviet Union, coming from it’s vastness and racial and geographic diversity. The fact that it’s also getting a prominent release in China may speak to its politics. We’ll be very interested to see it, not the least because the Bearman looks fucking dope.
Get a load of the imagery in the first half of this teaser, which shows the origins of the four superheroes emerging from dereliction (peep this other trailer for some rad Bearman action).
The superhero comic is a genre that has captured imaginations around the world. It it contains a wealth of diverse viewpoints and values and serves as a means to illustrate and amplify those values. Not everyone relates Captain America; maybe you’re more of a Kapten Stofil. Either way, there truly is a superhero out there for everyone.