8 years before Superman, these were the first superheroes in history

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Superman is widely recognized as the first superhero. Though as a cultural phenomenon it’s true, there’s actually a whole genre of superpowered costumed heroes that predates him, and it’s not in the comics, it’s not even American. It’s the Kamishibaia form of Japanese street performance.

And since World Kamishibai Day was this month (December 7), it’s the perfect opportunity to tell the fascinating and little-known history of this art form.

The kamishibai, which means “paper theater” (kami for paper and shibai for theater) it was very popular in japan during the Great Depression and World War II. Itinerant storytellers, mostly men, narrated illustrated stories for children, representing the characters and sound effects, in much the same way as today’s stories.

Performers would often arrive in town on a bicycle with a small stage mounted on the back, set up shop on a busy street corner, announce their arrival with wooden clappers (hyōshigi), and sell candy as the price of admission. The stories were illustrated on large cards placed inside the stage, which lacked a back, allowing the performer to read the text on the back of each card as he traded them.

Ōgon Batto, o Golden Bat

Golden Bat and other heroes

Like American comics, the Kamishibai stories were serialized, always exciting, and often ended on a cliffhanger, ensuring kids kept coming back for more thrills and goodies. And just like comics, they spanned different genres, but the most popular one was that of the noble superhumans in brilliant costumes.

Superman debuted in June 1938 with Action Comics #1, giving birth to superheroes. But in 1931, seven years before and three before Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster invented it, Japanese children were introduced to Ōgon Batto, or Golden Bat.

Like Superman (and most superheroes back then), Golden Bat was created by two young men, 25-year-old writer Ichiro Suzuki and 16-year-old artist Takeo Nagamatsu. Drawing inspiration from Yōkai folklore, they based it on mythological characters from the pastreimagined as science fiction.

Photo credits: Kageyama Kōyō. Orbaugh, 2014 / The Walter A. Pennino Postwar Japan Photo Collection
Photo credit: Kageyama Kōyō. Orbaugh, 2014 / The Walter A. Pennino Postwar Japan Photo Collection.

Actually, Golden Bat has nothing to do with bats. Its name is due to a cheap brand of cigarettes, and his original design was just as crazy: a golden skull like face, often with crossed eyes, crooked and missing teeth, and sometimes long blond hair. She wore a 17th century costume with a red cape and a high collar or giant ruff and carried a rapier or swordsman’s staff.

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He was a time traveler from Atlantis., explanation enough to make him invulnerable and able to fly, and he lived in a hidden fortress in the Japanese Alps on Honshu. He battled giant robots and villains like his archenemy, Dr. Nazō, a mad scientist from outer space bent on world domination.

Golden Bat was by far the most popular Kamishibai, appearing in manga in 1948, in three live-action films between 1950 and 1972, and in an anime series in 1967.

Golden Bat was by far the most popular Kamishibai, appearing in manga in 1948, in three live-action films between 1950 and 1972, and in an anime series in 1967.

In the early 1930s another kamishibai superhero followed: Gamma no Ōji, or Prince of Gamma, the Prince of Gamma. He was an orphaned prince from another planet who wore a tight blue suit with a badge on his chest, a yellow cloak, and a bird-shaped headdress.

He could fly, was invulnerable, and had super strength. She even had a secret identity in Tokyo. His rogues gallery included an evil blue bald scientist and an alien with a visible brain.

El origen del kamishibai

The story of the Kamishibai does not differ much from that of the American comic either. It arose around 1929-1930, as Japan was modernizing but also suffering from the worldwide Depression, offering young audiences entertainment that was cheaper than the movies and more accessible than the radio. And just as comic book art developed primarily from newspaper strips, while the format, distribution, and content of the genre came primarily from the pulps, the kamishibai has several roots.

A possible predecessor is the emakimono, o emakiscrolls of horizontal images dating to at least the 11th century, which combined painting and calligraphy to narrate stories of religion, epic battles, romance, folklore and the supernatural, that is, essentially old comics.

Photo credit: Horace Bristol/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Horace Bristol/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But there were two direct forerunners of the kamishibai. One is the tachi-e, or standing paintings, which were cardboard-backed drawings on wooden handles, basically paper puppets, within small stages. The other is the katsudō benshi (film narrators), who were performers who stood next to the screen of silent films and narrated them dramatically. Kamishibai storytellers emulated their acting style, and with the introduction of talkies many benshi turned to kamishibai.

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In its heyday, which preceded and coincided with the Golden Age of Comics, up to 5 million people watched Kamishibai daily across Japan, performed by 30,000 animators who were employed by 40 production companies for 50,000 writers and artists in Tokyo and Kansai alone. In 1942, the total number of editions published was over 800,000.

Despite the immense popularity of the stories, many parents and educators disapproved of themclaiming that they were sensational and violent (some were), the same criticism leveled at American comics as early as 1940.

Many parents and educators disapproved of them, claiming they were sensational and violent, the same criticism leveled at American comics as early as the 1940s.

They are also widely used for wartime propaganda, much like American comics. The difference was that in democratic America it was done by election, either popular or commissioned by the government, while in imperial Japan it was done by order of the government and under its strict control. These sanctioned Kokusaku Kamishibai also spread to occupied China, Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Contrary to popular belief, the Allied occupation of Japan after World War II and the Westernization that followed, as well as the advent of television in the early 1950s, they were not the kamishibai’s death knell. In fact, the television was first known in Japan as denki Kamishibai (electric Kamishibai), indicating how ingrained they were in the culture. In fact, its popularity increased after the war, with the number of street performers nearly doubling, to over 50,000. It finally declined in the 1960s. Its popularity waned in the 1960s, as the middle class grew large enough to make television a household item and keep children off the street.

The Kamishibai Legacy

But the kamishibai did not die out; are a direct evolutionary ancestor of mangaboth stylistically and thematically. In fact, many manga and anime artists started drawing Kamishibai, like the famous Mizuki (creator of GeGeGe no Kitarō, actually an adaptation of a popular Kamishibai). And thanks to this, the DNA of the Kamishibai can be found in other things, such as video games.

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The kamishibai too are experiencing a kind of modern renaissance. More for nostalgia and cultural heritage than simple entertainment, performances can be seen in parks and museums across Japan, often recreating the entire experience with a stage set up on a bicycle and candy to sell.

Japanese storyteller Yushi Yasuno presenting a performance of Kamishibai in 2008. Photo credit: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images
Japanese storyteller Yushi Yasuno presents a performance of Kamishibai in 2008. Photo Credit: Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images

Even there are Kamishibai festivals and workshops all over the world, from Australia to Israel, passing through France and Mexico. In the US, Kamishibai events in honor of Asian-Pacific Heritage Month are held across the country, primarily at schools, libraries, and conferences. As already noted, the International Kamishibai Association celebrates World Kamishibai Day every December 7.

Despite the remarkable similarities between the tropes of Golden Bat and Prince Gamma and those of American superheroes, any direct influence is extremely unlikely. Siegel and Shuster would not have heard of them in Cleveland in 1934, and on several occasions when they openly discussed their many influences for Superman, they never mentioned these characters.

It is possible that the parallels are purely coincidental. They could also be partly due to shared influences: Biblical stories were quite well known in Japan, spread mainly through Christian missionaries, who even turned them into Kamishibai (kamishibai dendō dan). For example, the stories of Superman and The Prince of Gamma, shipwrecked orphan children leading a double life among people who are not their own, could also come from the story of Moses.

Another possibility is that they originate from shared universal fantasies, which culminate in similar concepts in all cultures. It is what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious and Joseph Campbell the monomyth, among others.

Be that as it may, the Man of Steel will forever be considered the first “real” superhero. But the truth can be found on the other side of the Pacific, for the price of admission of some candy.