The Scent of a Superhero (Getting Under the Skin of Superheroes)

Increasingly over the last few years, we’re seeing more live-action superhero movies, and it’s sometimes strange to see real-life people dressed up in skin-tight suits, flying around real cities, and generally trying to embody a character that is larger than life. It makes me think about what is would it be like to meet a superhero in real life. How would they smell, what would a handshake feel like, what kind of person would they be? When you meet one of these fictional characters, (apart from the simple sketch described in comics), what would your first impressions be, and how would that change over time? Here are a few ideas as to what I think some of my favorite mainstream superheroes would be like, in the flesh.

(As always, these mental sketches are based on the comic book characters, not on the movie or the cartoon versions. Those are very different.)

SupermanSuperman smells like fresh cut grass and clean laundry, straight out of the dryer. There are undertones of paper and toner, remnants of his day job. His breath smells like whole-milk, and the cinnamon that was in the apple pie he had for desert, (following his healthy, balanced lunch). He eats with enthusiasm and gusto, (diligently chewing every bite with admirable restraint, and although he rarely has time to eat it, lunch is his favorite meal. His body is hard and unyielding, like a tabletop, so that when he puts his arm around you, it’s like being hugged by a building or a tree; it feels good and stable, but not very comfortable or warm. His hair is clean, with a little bit of old-fashioned Brylcreem to keep it in place. Somewhere in the background, he smells strange, wrong and alien, a little like plastic. But it’s not a bad smell, in fact it adds a much-needed complexity to an otherwise rather cliche-ridden man.


DaredevilPredictably Daredevil smells almost of nothing, he has to keep peripheral smells and sounds down so that he can sense what’s going on in his city. When he lets himself, or rather when he can’t help it, he smells a little bit of fresh sweat, from the exertion of roaming his city’s rooftops, and the soot of all those dirty old buildings. He tastes like himself, by that I mean that, while he tasted little bit like toothpaste and coffee mostly his mouth tastes like him – a hint of pepper and cumin – but it’s subtle. When he sweats that tiny bit, it’s like burnt sugar; smoky and sweet all at the same time. He’s a redheaded but not like Jean Grey, he has the ruddy pink skin and wiry hair of ancient Celtic warriors. He also has a tiny bit of sunburn on his face because he never thinks to use sunblock (because he can’t actually see the sunburn). The skin of his body is white, blindingly so. The hair on his chest is sparse and rough. His hands are big, his fingers are narrow, and his nails are always short. His handshake is light, since he feels it that much more than most, but he hangs on slightly longer than most, soaking up those first impressions.


BatmanBatman is sinewy, his muscles feel tough and wiry, there really isn’t a spare ounce of fat on him and you can easily see and feel that. He is dense and heavy. From a distance he smells like expensive, musky cologne and fresh, slightly acidic sweat. As you get closer you realize that he smells a little damp, like a musty basement or a cave. It’s a pleasant enough smell, but off-putting enough to encourage people to keep their distance ultimately. His hair is sticky with expensive products used to hold it in place when he goes to swanky parties, and because he doesn’t wash quite as much as he should, because he doesn’t care to spend the time. He eats an incredibly high protein diet, filled with meat and fish. As a result, his breath smells mostly of red meat, with hints of garlic from all the rich meals eaten in expensive restaurants when he’s being Bruce Wayne.


WWWonder Woman smells like salt, like seaweed, clay, and cocoa butter; her Amazonian roots showing through her scent. Similarly to Superman, her body is strong, her muscles are dense and unforgiving, but there is a thin layer of fat, which gives her a little more warmth and comfort to touch, and naturally a more curvaceous form. Her long hair is thick and wiry, soft to the touch but almost suffocatingly hot to sleep with. On hot nights she braids it loosely, to keep it from wrapping itself around her neck. Apart from her impressive height, there is almost nothing physically imposing about her, she seems to blend perfectly into her surroundings, at ease in the world because she’s literally part of it. When she walks she strides, she’s never thought about it, it’s entirely unconscious. At heart, she’s royalty, in the old sense of the word, and that’s impossible to hide.


CyclopsAs a younger man, when he first joined the X-Men, Cyclops was an incredibly clean-cut guy. His body was almost hairless. He smelled like soap, and ever so slightly of talcum powder. His breath smelled like toothpaste, and no matter how much he fought, he never smells sweaty. He was slim and long-limbed, with long fingers, which were kept perfectly manicured. He moved quickly, with an edgy nervous quality. Nowadays, he’s older and has let himself go a little after watching his lover die multiple times, and discovering other sides to his psyche (through his relationships with women who can read his mind). He’s become a little grittier, messier. His skin is rougher, he’s a little heavier, and his hair smells ever so slightly like roasted potatoes. His movements are more confident, the edginess has given way to a resigned clarity. On first glance his height and build seem average and unassuming, it’s not until you get closer that you realize how strong he is.


Jean GreyPhoenix and Jean Grey might as well be different people. Apart from the shell of the body, everything about her changes as she evolves/ switches/embraces that power. Upon first meeting, Phoenix smells a little bit like burning, a touch of smoke and singed skin, but the first scent impression of Jean Grey is more like a subtle touch of lavender, maybe from the shampoo she uses. Basically Phoenix smells of the fiery power that threatens to consume her, while Jean will always reek of humanity and smell like the girl next door. Her red hair is fine, there’s a ton of it but the strands are fine and delicate so that it’s always moving in even the slightest breeze. It’s sleek and shiny, and tangles easily, so she doesn’t wash it too often (or it gets dry and flyaway). Obviously she’s strong, (with the training she goes through, she has to be), but you can’t tell. Her muscles lie deep within her flesh and to all intents and purposes it looks deceptively as though she could be easily overpowered. Jean Grey’s saliva tastes like fruit; acidic apples, tart strawberries, and tangerines. Her voice has a singsong melodic quality as if she’s distracted but happy. Jean moves like a little bird, tentative and slightly jerky. In contrast, Phoenix’ mouth tastes like rusty iron and gummy bears, and when she speaks, her voice is louder than it should be. When Phoenix moves it’s fluid, graceful and languid like something from a dream about how women move.


ThorEven from afar Thor is different. He’s not of the Earth or of this time, and it’s obvious in every aspect of him. The air around him smells like lightning, crackling electricity, and the threat of rain. His physical presence is awe-inspiring, his sheer size seems unnatural or at least improbable. His massive hands are calloused and rough, and for a blonde man, he’s got surprisingly hairy knuckles. For some reason, despite all his awesome power, he is strangely approachable, something to do with the rich stench of humanity and abundance all over him. His breath tastes of ham and mead (a lingering remnant of all those evenings feasting), and is body smells like snowy mountains, redolent of the crisp fresh air and frozen water. When he sweats, he smells of strange herbs and dried fruit; nutmeg, sage, raisins, and (oddly) mayonnaise. Ever so slightly musky, his blond hair is greasy but clean, as if he’s never heard of shampoo. He probably hasn’t.


Green LanternGreen Lantern used to smell pretty good, back when Hal Jordan was young and learning to be the Lantern. Back then he had smell of new leather, and fresh engine grease, like the test pilot he had been. He sometimes smelled a little bit of beer and burgers, but it was a good, fresh smell of light, golden American beer, nothing overwhelming, just the tiniest hint. But after his return from the dead, over the years he’s changed. Maybe it was all that time spent in space, interacting with his ring, hiding inside the power of his imagination? Whatever it is, something has changed. Now he smells like cold steel and coffee, (not brewed coffee, but un-ground coffee beans, freshly roasted). It never changes, it’s a good strong smell but no matter how much he showers, or doesn’t, no matter how much he sweats, it just doesn’t change. While Hal’s happy to be back, and really hasn’t noticed this on a conscious level, in the back of his mind it still disturbs him. However, he’s not complaining because for some reason ladies love it; when he walks past they feel strangely attracted to him because he smells like brand-new kitchen implements. On every other level he’s the same as he always was, his body is strong and responds as it should, so he’s not complaining. He’s just happy to be home and whole.

I could go on like this, but I worry that it’s getting pretty strange to share these thoughts. On some level, I think about these kind of things whenever I read a comic, automatically building a more complete image of characters in my head. It seems to me that this is probably the most subjective stuff in comics, since it’s based on so many variables (who I am, my experience of people and the world, which comics I read, when I read them, how often, what kind of people I’ve met who those characters remind me of, etc). Is this something that you think about? And if so, with what comics? And what seems obvious and self-evident when building a more complete mental portrait of a comic book character, and what just pops out of nowhere, but feels right immediately?


Sonia Harris is a British, San Franciscan, graphic designer. She moves through the world making up stories about the strangers around her, about where they’re going, who they are, and what their lives are like. Sometimes it seems a little weird, but as long as no one ever finds out, everything will be fine (shhhhh).



  1. This is the coolest article ever.  Great idea.  

  2. Great article.

  3. hahaha, this is one of the funniest things I have ever read.  Awsome job Sonia!

    I often would think how The Thing would smell.  Obviously, you would assume, like rocks.  But does he sweat?  I can’t imagine him having sweat glands.  And you know that disgusting smell of freshly wet rocks and pavement?  Would he smell like that in the rain?  Nasty.  Oh, and Namor/Aquaman would smell fishy…thats a given.

    I see the next evolution of this article being "Super hero personals ads: m4m, m4f and everything inbetween"

  4. Too much "sweat" in one article.

  5. I would imagine Hal is cold all the time, considering he goes into space more then staying on Earth.

  6. @drakedangerz Definitely!

    @ed121993 These are active people, they have physically demanding jobs.

  7. Great article but no Hulk? I remember Josh saying he smells like sweaty man-rage.

  8. I always took Superman for an Old Spice kinda guy.

  9. Captain America’s handshake feels cold, dry, and stiff. Rigor mortis, yechh.

    Shapeshifters would be really popular on Superhero Craigslist.

  10. Ultimate Tony Stark… that’s got to be a unpleasant smell…

  11. @Sonia – Some scent requests:

    Silver Surfer

    John Constantine  

    The Joker



  12. This was brill! Awesome idea for an article.

    I too am curious as to what The Joker would smell like.

    @P-Money – I’m pretty sure Constantine would smell mostly of Marlboro

  13. Funnily enough, the Joker was one of the first characters I thought of, but I figured I should save that in case I ever write my article about what supervillains are like in the flesh, (because you know they’re waaaay weirder, otherwise they wouldn’t have gone over to evil).

  14. Oooh, a super villain companion piece would be cool, yeah.  

    As for Silver Surfer, my guess is he’d smell like that time I accidentally inhaled a ball-bearing from my Crossfire game.

  15. This is a phenomenal article. To imagine what Thor smells like– nutmage, sage….just fantastic writing and imagination.

  16. Really perfect description of Cyclops. Marvelous!

    (no pun. heh)

  17. I love this piece. Seriously. It reminds me of when Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman (or maybe even James Robinson) wrote about super-heroes — that elegant third-person narration.  In fact… isn’t Sonia re-reading the Sandman books right now…?

    Anyway, great observations. Intelligent and funny.

  18. The only hair product that can keep up with the Man of Steel.  Brylcream.  Outstanding.

  19. Wow, fantastic article! All the little details are just perfect. Well done 🙂

  20. This article is very cool. I would love to see a supervillian courter piece. Also maybe a few more female heroes like The black widow, Emma Frost or Storm.

  21. How bout the Blob?

    He’s gotta have like four sandwich smells alone in him.

  22. I frakkin’ loved this article! Sonia, you deserve a hug. And a raise.
    Got some smell ideas:
    –Medusa– her shampoo brand…
    –The Sentry– anti-depresives breath…
    –Amadeus Cho– smells like a wet dog…
    –Brian M. Bendis– smells like brand new dollar bills…

  23. I just want a Power Girl scent…..



  24. Very good job! Your articles always entertain.

    @Paul: You have managed to get the Crossfire commercial song stuck in my head. 

  25. I loved it.  it’s clrearly well thought out.

  26. A bit beside the point of the article; but until recently Superman had no need to eat, sleep or breathe air. He was sustained by the sun completely. Superman only pretended to eat, sleep and breathe as not to freak out everyone around him. Crazy stuff. 

  27. @Labor That might be the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard. Which writer put together that bit of recon?

  28. Great artical really nice details that make it special

    but some how  I always imagined superman giving of an unnatural amount of warmth.

  29. In the early Superman stories, he fed off the sun. Byrne’s Man of Steel changed more about Superman than people perhaps realize. I only recently (since Morrison brought those concepts back, tbh) began deviling into Superman lore. And yeah, Superman was capital "A" alien.

    He could eat and sleep, of course. But he didn’t have to do so. When you consider Superman choose to "pretend sleep" instead of saving people…well, its kinda this magnificent indulgence Superman performed in going to bed at night.

  30. Poor Batman… have you ever burped after eating fish? He’s lucky he’s rich.

    Howard the duck and Sandman would be interesting. Maybe Swamp Thing and Tex.

    Great article and lucky it’s in text, because if someone told you that, that would be trippy. 

    The guys from "300" small sweaty from a distance, and closer they smell like a lot of dead ants because bugs get stuck in their cavities, and smoke because of all the fires they sat next to and  chafing. Chafing smells really bad… they reek.

  31. @Labor Thats really fascinating. Damn, now I’m in the mood for a good Superman story.

  32. This is such a great idea.I can’t think of many instances where smell comes into play, the Nick Fury smelling like low tide in Madripoor is a good one.

    I like to think that Beast would smell like poorly covered roadkill. And that USAgent would smell like microwaved apple pie.

  33. Oddly enough, Superman seems utterly gross, especially compared to everyone else….

  34. Wow I never thought about this

  35. What a nice piece of poetry. Wonder Woman, clay… genius.

    Also I loved the pictures. Two people pictured but not mentioned: Professor Xavier, juniper and a hint of 3-in-1 oil; Hercules, witchhazel and chicken. 

  36. NICE article i never thought about this

  37. Sonia,

    This is so very… sonia. This is quintessentially you. If I stared at a blank page for 100 years, I would not conjure this. I am in awe. May I borrow 10% of your perspective, say, Sunday afternoon?

  38. I smell like cheese.

  39. i always imagined wayne manor would smell like muscle relaxant creme like deep heat

    Sonia if you ever have to describe someone to a police sketch artist, the artist will be in trouble. “the criminal had hair like a violent storm and his jaw line reminded me of the spiteful bickering of old lovers”

  40. My take on Thor:


    He’s cut beyond belief, muscles on top of muscles, but it’s all somewhat hidden beneath a layer of body fat that never encumbers him, but is always there. The fat isn’t from lack of exercise, he works to keep it on, it helps with warmth and adds an even thicker layer of natural protection (from cuts and such) on top of the immense shield that his muscles provide.

     He also smells of wet fur, lots and lots of wet fur and mead

  41. Allow me a second to gush….This is an amazing article. And its even cooler that its about superheroes. This is by far one of my favorite articles of all time. Excellent piece!! I would love to say more but I would just be repeating myself.– End Gushing.

  42. dont even wanna know what spawn or deadpool smell like

  43. @peterporker – I ate brain in a soup once. It smelled nice…

  44. @chlop – Stop scaring the other readers.  😉

  45. It seperates to the different pieces when it is cooked. After the terror of cleaning a blood dripping brain in your kitchen, you’re in for a treat!

  46. @chlop- you smell like a trouble childhood  8-p

  47. this is epic!

  48. and with this [and a few other] article[s], i have another reason to love thursdays. awesome.

  49. What would catwoman smell like? Day old fish?

  50. @SuperMoore Do you know anyone who owns a lot of cats and spends a lot of time with them? They don’t smell like fish, they smell like kittly litter. I’m not saying that she smells like, I’m just saying, fish isn’t the first thing that come to mind.

    @chop Smells like teen spirit?

  51. nice insights. you work in marketing or advertising?

  52. She works i the field of awesome.  Professional awesome.

  53. Awwww Josh, thanks 😀

    @areml You are correct. I do design work medium-sized online ad firm. Ironically (or typically, if you know me, because my life is just silly) I can’t drive, and so my job is quite surreal.

  54. @soniaharris, Cats love to eat fish. Maybe Catwoman keeps a slab of trout in her sock, snacks on it between robberies…. Maybe, possibly, probably, definitely……….

  55. Damn you and your sordid ways… only humans could give cats fish knowing there is no chance in hell they will go anywhere near water. 🙂

    Catwoman smells like chicken and she’s oily. Ever went to the butcher and took the scraps, boiled it and fed it to your cats? Oily I say! 

  56. Sonia, this is so well written. You can write my superhero romance comics whenever you like.

  57. A short comic regarding a superhero and people’s impressions of him based on his smell? Brilliant! We’ll see parts of the day of a superhero after a fight or whatever, when said superhero needs to ride the bus and we hear the thoughts of whoever is next to him.

    Too weird? 

  58. @powerdad and @chlop Now that I could write… probably wouldn’t want to read it, but I’d at least be capable of it.