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In June 1938 Action Comics #1 was published, introducing Superman to the world and codifying the modern idea of a superhero that the world has known for almost the past 80 years. There were superpowered heroes that existed in popular culture prior to this, such as the various demigods and heroes of myth (Hercules, the Biblical Sampson, etc.) and more contemporary works such as Gladiator (1930), John Carter in A Princess of Mars (1912), and even folk heroes like Paul Bunyan and John Henry, but Superman basically defined what it meant to have superhuman abilities and set the stage for everything that followed, including Captain Marvel (the DC/Fawcett one), Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Green Lantern, The Flash, and more. Most heroes in science fiction and fantasy prior to that time had no superpowers or at most relied on gadgets.

However, in a fictional universe set prior to 1938, it is almost certain that characters wouldn't view someone having powers in terms of Superman because the modern idea of a superhero hadn't entered the public consciousness yet, similar to how Cowboys and Aliens has its characters contextualize what we would recognize as modern-style extraterrestrial invaders in terms of demons and angels.

My question is this: how would someone alive in the 1920s-1930s explain or rationalize superpowers? I am specifically asking this in terms of a stereotypical urban fantasy/superhero genre conversation set in this time period between two people with superpowers, one who is experienced with powers and one who is new to having them, where the experienced individual provides exposition as to what is going on. The experienced individual is basically trying to sell the idea of "you have superpowers and that's okay" to the inexperienced one.

If this were a conversation set after 1938 the experienced individual would obviously say something akin to "you're like a superhero now" or "you have powers like Superman now" as a point of reference, but if this is in the 1920s-1930s superheroes as we know them weren’t a part of the public consciousness and they wouldn't make that analogy.

Additional Parameters

  • The story is set in New York City during this timeframe - Just to give an idea of where the characters are coming from in a geopolitical or cultural background.

  • Powers work on X-Men rules - The superpowers run on the same rules as X-Men, they just sort of appear without any clear warning. There is no alien contact or secret government super-soldier project or exposure to radioactive rays or some other pulp-y science of the times that the character can point to and say "you touched that and it gave you extra-ordinary abilities". Nor anything like many of the old folktales where you had to make bargains with dark powers or drink out of a wolf's footprint to gain magic.

  • The powers are kind of weird - The best I can analogize it, the powers are kind of like Stands in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure or Quirks in My Hero Academia where the nature of the powers varies massively between wielders despite having a common origin and some are just plain strange. So it's not like they just have minor super strength or a healing touch that can more easily be rationalized (in context of the times) by comparisons to saints or fictional strongmen. The powers don't inherently make one good or evil, though people can always go power-mad.

  • Blessed/Cursed by God isn’t really an option due to context - I realize the further back you go in history the more likely someone is going to invoke religious explanations for unusual or seemingly supernatural phenomena and it is likely that someone will come to this conclusion, but in this case it really doesn’t work. Both people involved in the conversation have powers, and it is very unlikely that the experienced person is going to try to sell the idea of having powers as “oh yeah, we’re horribly cursed” unless they have a martyr complex. Blessed might work to some degree but the powers are too weird to easily classify as a divine blessing.

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    $\begingroup$ The 1920s in the USA were a golden age for real, larger-than-life villains fueled by crime, corruption, social indignation, and sensationalist media. Larger-than-life folks untouchable by the law were well and widely understood. The source or method of superpowers is handwaved anyway - could be "mutations" in one generation, "ether energy" in another, "magic ring", "ancient guardians", or any other form of happy snake-oil. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Feb 15 at 1:26
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    $\begingroup$ Funnily enough, there's a spin-off Marvel comics series (set in the 'Noir' universe) which is all the superheroes during the Prohibition Era. They're mostly treated as circus freaks in that one. Also a fair bit darker than normal Marvel. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Feb 16 at 2:43
  • $\begingroup$ Well, how did the first Superman comic explain it? $\endgroup$ – Dan Feb 17 at 21:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Dan Superman was literally pitched to the comic book industry as "John Carter in reverse". An alien travels to Earth and gets superpowers rather than a human travels to an alien world and gets superpowers. Whereas John Carter's superpowers were based around John Carter being a heavyworlder, with Earth's higher gravity making Earthlings faster and stronger than the Barsoomians. $\endgroup$ – user2352714 May 30 at 5:42
  • $\begingroup$ @user2352714 Interesting tidbit, thanks! But specific to your question, you're asking about a conversation between characters, not an out-of-universe conversation about the story. What I essentially meant was, did early superhero comics like Superman have any difficulty with characters simply stating that someone can fly or move preternaturally fast? The "what" of the ability is apparent; you don't need to compare someone to Hercules before they understand what it means to be super strong. Explaining why the person has those abilities requires a technical explanation. Am I missing something? $\endgroup$ – Dan Jun 2 at 22:51
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Othering is Not Dependent on Context

The name or terminology might be different, as you say ("You're like Superman!"), but assuming there's a community of people with powers (X-Men-esque), people will find a name! Maybe biblical - "You're like Samson!" if they have superstrength - maybe fictional - "You're an Achilles!" if they're invulnerable.

In general, the popular name for those with powers would be dependent on their public image. If they behave heroically, they might be referred to as something like "the Gifted". Some might have quirkier or less useful Gifts, but they can do things that non-Gifted humans cannot.

If the most popularized cases tend to turn to crime or seek power, they could be the Marked, the Curse, or the Dark. Particularly in the 30s, the last might have particularly vile resonances.

If it's just accepted as a fact of life, they might still be the Gifted (if all the powers are positive), or simply the Empowered. Both of these imply agency (a gifter, or an empowerer), but that doesn't have to be a deity, and can be as readily attributed to chance.

If the community is substantial, then they might have a name for themselves that your experienced member might employ - "I don't know what to do?" "I felt the same way when I first found that I was a Bright. Trust me, it can be hard, but you'll find that you've been exceptionally fortunate!"

You don't need a catch-all, particularly if the population is sufficiently small that someone needs to have the concept of having powers explained to them.

"What's a Bright?"

"Brights are people born with the potential for abilities far beyond those of the average citizen. I'm one of them - and so are you! You might be able to do things thought to be miracles or magic!"

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As easily as they would today.

I believe you're seeing an issue where there isn't one, and that a person without our “modern” conceptions of superpowers would still be able to conceptualize superhuman abilities just fine.

The crux of your question seems to be about points of comparison. Humans have been telling stories involving magical powers probably for as long as we’ve had the ability to speak. The world is full of folk traditions about people who can fly or turn invisible or transmute matter, let alone the powers of non-human creatures. These are all beings possessing unexplainable supernatural abilities, which do not stem from some divine cause; the magic simply exists.

Nevertheless, mythological god-powers still provide good points of reference. It’s entirely sensible for a character to remark, “I can hurl electrical energy around, sort of like Zeus,” without believing he literally possesses a power bestowed by a god. In other words, characters can freely describe magical abilities in terms of being similar in effect or appearance to the powers of some mythological deity without the divine connotation attached.

The experienced individual is basically trying to sell the idea of "you have superpowers and that's okay" to the inexperienced one.

Obviously, that particular conversation is specific to those characters. But the general notion of conceptualizing the magical abilities in question wouldn’t be all that different than for someone from our post-Superman society. We just have other things to compare against.

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People with super powers were being depicted in popular fiction at the turn of the century.

In addition to people with gadgets and super tech, there were visitors from other worlds and other planes, persons with magic powers, and plain super powered persons. The fiction of H.G.Wells offers several examples, of which I think the Invisible Man is the best known. Invisibility is a popular super power to this day. More akin to the powers you describe are those in The Man Who Could Work Miracles.

After a few petty demonstrations, the minister becomes enthusiastic and suggests that Fotheringay should use these abilities to benefit others. That night they walk the town streets, healing illness and vice and improving public works.

Maydig plans to reform the whole world. He suggests that they could disregard their obligations for the next day if Fotheringay could stop the night altogether. Fotheringay agrees and stops the motion of the Earth. His clumsy wording of the wish causes all objects on Earth to be hurled from the surface with great force. Pandemonium ensues, but Fotheringay miraculously ensures his own safety back on the ground. In fact (though he is not aware of the enormity of what he had done) the whole of humanity except for himself had perished in a single instant.

Dude is so super powered that he messes things up in a huge way flexing his newfound muscle.

I think Superman was very much a product of his times, and an entity endowed with great powers who lives as a human in the ordinary world was already a familiar concept to readers.

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