Comics that reinvent the superhero genre.

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Jan. 22 2007 6:36 PM

Men Without Tights

Comics that reinvent the superhero genre.

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NBC's series Heroes, about a group of ordinary people who suddenly acquire extraordinary abilities, is among the year's biggest hits—it attracted 16 million viewers for one episode during November sweeps. The show returns Monday night, as the heroes attempt to avert a nuclear explosion in New York. Heroes is but the latest example of a superhero story becoming popular outside the comics medium; movies like Spider-Man and X-Men and TV shows like Lois & Clark and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have all given their protagonists extraordinary powers and achieved success.

Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes, admits to enjoying comic-book storytelling without having a deep background in the genre. He's proudly declared that his series diverges from comic books by presenting character-driven stories in which superpowers merely play a supporting role. But starting in the 1980s, many comic books embedded superpowers in recognizably real people and their superheroes in the real world. The progenitor of the trend is generally considered to be Alan Moore, whose Watchmen, written in 1986, was one of the first comics to seriously consider the dilemmas caped crusaders might face. In the 1990s and 2000s, comics creators have been even freer with the superhero tradition, doing away entirely with capes and tights, or mashing up the hero genre with comedy, coming-of-age, or romance. Heroes doesn't have a monopoly on humanizing the superhero story, or wrestling with the practical and ethical quandaries of superpowers; many contemporary comics are doing the same.

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Click here for a slide show on some of the most inventive superhero comics.

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.