Adapted from a lecture given by Madeleine Place, PhD
Note: The opinions expressed herein are solely those of Dr. Place, and do not necessarily represent the views of the editorial staff of this publication. [Nor of the GM and Players.]
Legends of masked heroes fighting for justice have been around since Robin Hood first crossed purposes with the Sheriff of Nottingham. America's first masked hero is generally agreed to have been the mysterious Scarecrow, who fought against the British during the Revolutionary War. So pervasive did the Scarecrow's legend become that two hundred years later his name is still whispered as a kind of underworld boogey-man, and occasional unconfirmed Scarecrow sightings are still reported from time to time.
But costumed crimefighters really became part of the scene in the 20s and 30s. A variety of "mystery men" strode through the shadows of the pulp era battling gangsters, bootleggers and socialist agents. During the Second World War, a number of these heroes joined the struggle against Fascism, and many gave their lives fighting Nazi and Japanese agents, both at home and overseas.
While many of the heroes of the pulp era were rumored to have "powers beyond the ken of mortal men," most historians agree that the first truly super-powered hero was Meta-Man, who burst unexpectedly onto the scene in 1946. Although Meta-Man disappeared as mysteriously as he appeared barely a year later, he was by no means the last of his kind. As if some sort of precedent had been broken, super-powered heroes � and villains � started coming out of the woodwork.
By 1950 there were 10 or 12 superheroes operating around the globe. Demographic estimates of superhumans have of necessity included large, often-unsubstantiated assumptions and wide margins of error. However, the best estimates conclude that the superhuman population grew by less than 5% per year throughout the 60s and 70s � only slightly ahead of general population growth. However, that growth rate seemed to accelerate through the 80s and 90s, so that by 2000 there were as many as 100-200 superheroes worldwide.
We must also note that attempts to quantify the superhuman population were complicated by disagreement over what exactly qualifies someone as "superhuman." Purists insisted that heroes who exhibited no obvious superhuman powers (such as the Champions' Nighthawk) or who relied on advanced technology (such as Defender, also of the Champions) should not be considered as superheroes per se, but merely costumed heroes. However, in practice the line between those categories was often impossible to draw, and all costumed crimefighters have routinely been referred to as superheroes regardless of powers or the lack thereof. (Subsequent events have validated this approach.) Of course, not all those with superpowers followed the path of the hero. Rough estimates are that for every active superhero there were roughly two supervillains � further proof of the old axiom that power tends to corrupt. Additionally, for every superhero there was believed to be another two "minors" � neither heroes nor villains, mostly with weaker or less useful powers, living relatively normal lives. To take but one example, in 1998 it was estimated that over 20% of Hollywood stuntmen had low-level superpowers. These definitions are of course somewhat arbitrary, and some individual superhumans may even change categories at times; however, as a broad generalization it appears to be reasonably accurate.
The distribution of superhumans across the globe was anything but even. At least half of the known superheroes and supervillains operated primarily or exclusively in North America, chiefly the United States. Another quarter operated in Europe, with the remaining quarter spread amongst the remainder of the world. Certainly, a large number of superhumans born in other lands migrated to America, the self-proclaimed Land of the Heroes. But even accounting for this trend, it appears that the US gave birth to far more than our share of superhumans. There are numerous theories to explain this phenomenon � far too numerous to go into here � but the truth is we simply don't know.
Why did people suddenly start developing superpowers in the late 1940s? "Experts," unsurprisingly, disagree. Few heroes and fewer villains were ever inclined to discuss how they got their powers, leaving the rest of us to speculate. Theories range from the technological (atomic radiation, chemical exposure), to the biological (genetic evolution), the psycho-social (advancement of humanity's collective unconscious) to the mystical/spiritual (divine or infernal intervention). Despite fifty years of research, we cannot even say with any certainty if there was one cause, a series of inter-related causes, or several independent causes that happened to occur at the same time.
For a long time, it was widely believed that some heroes were simply "born super" (with powers generally manifesting in puberty or early-adulthood), while others "achieved superpowers" (through training, scientific research or occult studies) and still others "had superpowers thrust upon them" (through the proverbial "freak accident"). However, recent studies based primarily on records of interviews with superhumans seem to indicate that few, if indeed any, supers were born with superpowers or developed them spontaneously, despite their claims. It takes little imagination to understand why a superhero � or even more, a supervillain � might want to conceal how they got their powers; therefore we can perhaps understand why many of them chose to fall back on the easy, and easily accepted "born super" explanation.
[Note From The GM: I originally thought I would write up some stuff about how the government, society, the media, etc. adapted to living in a world with superheroes. But it doesn't seem like I'm going to get around to it. Go read Champions Universe instead, specifically Chapter 3.]
All that changed, of course, on September 11, 2001
Few of us need to be reminded of the events of September 11, 2001. Permit me, however, to recap the main points of that fateful incident as they pertain to our discussion.
It is now known that the villain known as Dr. Destroyer had created a Doomsday device in a secret laboratory underneath the city of Detroit. This device was designed to emit a powerful burst of an unknown form of radiation which would wipe out all life on the planet. All "normal" life, that is; anyone with superhuman powers would be immune to the effect. On September 10th, the Destroyer delivered his ultimatum: the world's superheroes had 24 hours to surrender themselves to him, or he would annihilate "the mundanes," as he called us.
Earth's heroes dared not defy the madman openly, lest he activate his doomsday device. But with a scant six hours left on the Doomsday clock, the Destroyer's hidden lab was located. Under the pretense of surrendering, the largest single gathering of superheroes since the 1996 Gadroon invasion descended on Detroit. The battle was so fierce that its magnitude can only be described in terms of the Richter scale. Much of downtown Detroit was leveled as the forces released underground set off the worst earthquake in living memory.
Most of the details of that desperate battle below Detroit are lost to the mists of time, and perhaps that's just as well. We know that in addition to his normal forces, the Destroyer had gathered a number of the world's less-scrupulous supervillains to his cause. We know that the heroes Kestrel, Binary Man, Dr. Silverback, and most of the Justice Squadron fell before the heroes even reached the Destroyer himself. We know that when his defeat appeared inevitable, the Destroyer activated his Doomsday device anyway. Once the countdown had started, there was no way to stop it from continuing to build power until it discharged, killing 99.99% of the world's population. We believe it was Defender and Nighthawk of the Champions, along with Japan's Tetsuronin, who managed to reach the device and analyze it. While it could not be stopped, the brave heroes managed to find a way to reverse the polarity of the radiation generated by the machine so that it would be harmless to us mundanes.
But there was a trade-off: the radiation that was harmless to those without superpowers would be instantly lethal to anyone with superpowers. Faced with a choice between the death of hundreds, or the death of billions, our heroes chose to sacrifice themselves to save you and me. Around the world, even those with minor powers, cried out in agony as invisible death gripped their souls. Then, they all simply died. All of them. Even those previously regarded as "non-super" heroes: those whose powers had been believed to come solely from technology and the like. They all simply died.
And the world became a smaller, quieter place.
When the proverbial dust cleared after 9-11, the question on the minds of many people around the globe was "Who will protect us now?" Some leaders and commentators strove to reassure us that without supervillains to protect us from, the world no longer needed superheroes. Other were more skeptical, remembering alien invasions, natural disasters, mad scientists and other threats the world had faced over the previous 55 years. In fact initially crime statistics did rise dramatically, as police agencies that had come to rely on help from "the masks" struggled to do their dangerous jobs on their own.
Eventually, however, law enforcement caught up with the new challenges of the 21st century. Today, crime rates are close to what they were before 9-11, and "spectacular crimes" like bank take-overs and mass hostage situations are far less frequent than they were in the days of the supers. Similarly, our military has bolstered their orbital defenses, should the Gadroon or another alien race attempt to return to Earth. Yes, we've had our share of hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters. And certainly lives have been lost that might have been saved if Crusader or the Champions had been around.
But they're not around. They're not going to be. And at the risk of sounding hard-hearted, I would gladly trade the lives they weren't here to save for the thousands, perhaps millions, of lives that Dr. Destroyer, Takofanes and Helter Skelter weren't here to take. If the world seems a smaller, quieter place without superhumans in it � is that entirely a bad thing?