The League of Regrettable Superheroes

Revisiting an oldie but goodie

Some comic book superheroes make you think, and some make you wonder. Guess which ones show up in Jon Morris’s The League of Regrettable Superheroes?

“More sophisticated storytelling, including such high-profile critical successes as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, encouraged a new generation of innovative writers and artists to invent some of the most fascinating, thoughtful, well-crafted superhero tales ever produced. We won’t be talking about them, though…”— Jon Morris, The League of Regrettable Superheroes

This labor of love appears just in time for Antman to hit theaters, and reminds us that there were plenty of other righteous crusaders out there who were even more awkwardly conceived of than he. Like Bee Man. And Doll Man. And Nature Boy. There is a great spirit of throw-them-at-the-wall-and-see-who-sticks to many of these comics, and a cheerful disregard for logic and continuity. It’s hard not to feel some affection for these guys once we get to know them.

And we do get to know them, through all the profiles of poorly-conceived and coolly-received superheroes stretching from the thirties into the nineties. Some of them simply missed the mark. Many of them seem to be full-out messing with us (Mother Hubbard? Really?). The whole thing is an extremely amusing snark-fest, but it has to be. Some of these characters are so ungainly the only other option for them is tragedy. For example, there is one benighted creature called Brother Power the Geek, a hybrid hippy/Pinnochio who straggled through two issues before being put out of his misery by the publisher.

Morris, who also runs the comic blog Gone and Forgotten, shows us how all these heroes fit into the grand scheme of things. He provides us with a concise and witty history of the evolution of superheroes in the comics, and the various cultural fashion trends that they followed on the way to their flame-outs. Heroes may be more than merely men, but they don’t exist in a cultural vacuum, after all. All of them arise to face the main threats of their particular days. The early Golden Age years had gangsters and Nazis to battle, the fifties and early sixties had rogue atomic power and the Cold War, and the seventies, eighties and nineties had, well, other stuff—more Russians, and some angst.

Morris breaks his chosen heroes out alphabetically by era for ease for reference. And he does pad his catalogue a little bit by including a few characters that were actually advertising gimmicks or product tie ins, like AAU Superstar and NFL Superpro. But these shills did actually appear in comic books, making them superheroes in a very broad sense.

There are quite a few female superheroes documented here, too, ranging from the humanly heroic Pat Parker to War Nurse to the ghastly Fantomah to the happily married Pow-Girl and the cheerfully odd Squirrel Girl. They are, like their male counterparts, representative of their eras. However, in one unexpected and disturbing illustration, the 1976 character Captain Ultra shoves to the ground a female superhero who dares to flirt with someone else. I didn’t think the seventies were still so cavalier about casual dating violence, but I guess I was wrong.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The illustrations are generous, with at least one full page of each entry devoted to a cover or a representative inside page from the comic. The art, in all its four-color glory, is frequently familiar. Many of these titles came and went by way of Marvel and DC, and more than a few big names have been involved in these misfires. Even such giants as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, and Stan Lee produced some less-than super heroes in the giddy rush of the early days and in the quest to stay relevant in the following decades.

In my humble opinion, some of the more colorful superhero failures from each era are, to begin, these three from the Golden Age (1938-1949):

  • Atoman: “If Atoman’s origin isn’t the first in comics that directly references Albert Einstein, it’s certainly the only one that makes mention of Nobel-snubbed physicist Lise Meitner.”
  • Doctor Hormone: “Apparently, eternal youth and half-animal soldiers could take Doctor Hormone only so far.”
  • Madam Fatal: “Resembling something like a mix of the films Taken and Doubtfire, Madam Fatal represents one of the truly unique characters in comics.”

And three more from the Silver Age (150-169):

  • Dracula: “he ended up clothed in a skin-tight purple bodysuit, with a broad red belt and some sort of bat-eared bonnet.”
  • Fatman the Human Flying Saucer: “a plump but athletic character.”
  • The Sentinels: “In their civilian identities, they wore domino masks as part of their musical gimmick, like a really toned-down KISS.”

And a final sextet from the Modern Age (1970-present):

  • Assorted lesser X-Men: Snot, who does exactly what you think he does; Maggott, “whose power is ‘being infested with parasites’”; and Beak, “He has light bones and weird feathered limbs, but he can’t really fly; his only offensive power is pecking.”
  • Skateman: “one of the few street-level vigilantes in the history of comics to have taken justice into his own hands while wearing pristine white booty shorts.”
  • Thunderbunny: “All Bobby must do is concentrate, clap his hands, and he is transformed—into a giant pink rabbit clad in Spandex!”

As Morris points out early on in The League of Regrettable Superheroes, the overwhelming majority of superheroes have bizarre origin stories—and many of the characters he profiles here are no more or less unlikely than Superman, Spiderman, or the Flash. Many he includes aren’t really that bad at all, despite being variously irradiated, immolated, and reconstructed by aliens. Some of the “regrettable” titles were even modestly successful in their time. Surprisingly, several of the characters he pegs as failures were, by his own admission, interesting and had fairly decent runs. Some have even been revived at least once. They just didn’t strike the same chords with the American public as the ones who became the big guys did, and so fell by the wayside rather than striking gold in reboot and retcon heaven. Some of these heroes may even be worth tracking down and getting better acquainted with through the rather colorful resources of the Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus.

As always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

 

misfits and monsters

Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits &Monsters is, not surprisingly, pretty strange. Goldthwait–a man known for his incredibly dark sense of humor– writes, produces, and directs the new comedy series airing on TruTV with a fully self-aware sense of the absurd. So far, the half-hour episodes play more like Tales from the Crypt than the Twilight Zone. Foul language abounds, blood flows freely, and even the background characters are scathingly cynical. Truly, there is something for everyone.

It Begins With Bubba
misfits & monsters
Seth Green is not a werewolf in this show

Misfits & Monsters begins its run with “Bubba the Bear”, a fairly standard tale of a children’s cartoon come to life. Seth Green (Robot Chicken, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) stars as a mild-mannered voiceover actor whose work comes back to bite him. Bubba the Bear is the role he inherited when the original voice actor had a breakdown and was institutionalized. But Bubba isn’t happy with how he is portrayed, and breaks into the real world to make his point. Graphically.

The episode’s dialogue is at once predictable and surprisingly, deeply snarky. Confronted by Bubba, Green’s character justifies his work with,“Stuttering’s just a tradition…like Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Hugh Grant.” And when Bubba comes for revenge, he declares it “time to get all Revenant on your ass.” 

“Bubba” ends exactly as you expect it to, which is quite all right.

A Shaggy Dog Tale
misfits & monsters
A political animal

The second episode is “Face in the Car Lot”, a 1970s-set extravaganza of politicians and other creatures of the night. Starring David Koechner (Anchorman, The Office) as car-salesman turned presidential candidate Del Wainwright and Tara Lynne Barr as the plucky reporter trying to prove he’s a werewolf, this episode plays like an extended comedy sketch.

When asked what scandals may come up during the campaign, Wainwright confesses, “I ate a toddler once. When I was a werewolf.” This is not enough to derail his campaign–not by a long shot. A hippy vampire shows up with evidence of the crime, but  the political machine just keeps rolling. Many of the lines are lifted almost verbatim from current commentary, tweaked lightly for lycanthropy. It is at once enjoyably silly and quite uncomfortable to watch.

More Misfits & Monsters, Please

There are six more episodes to round out the first season, but TruTV doesn’t give viewers the opportunity to binge. Which, based on the first two installments, I totally would. What I’ve seen so far of Misfits & Monsters is refreshingly goofy. The show is smart enough to be interesting but not so full of itself to wear out its welcome. The stories presented thus far are pretty standard, with the plot twists broadcast early on. But Goldthwait still gives them enough of a snarky twist to make their conclusions funny and satisfying anyway.

I would have to categorize Misfits & Monsters, broadly, as familiar tales well-told. And I look forward to more of that in the rest of the season.

lovecraft country

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country starts with a fascinating premise–what would it be like as an African-American to battle the forces of darkness while also battling the rampant racism of 1950s America? Matt Ruff gives the idea a good run in his episodic 2016 novel. The interconnected stories are well-paced and well-told, and open-ended enough to justify the anticipated television series based on the book. But there are some issues with what is actually delivered.

***

Lovecraft Country is fast-moving and full of action, but spends precious little time in Lovecraft country proper.

Atticus Turner, an African-American  Korean War veteran, travels from Florida to Chicago at his father’s request, only to find Montrose Turner is gone. With his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus follows his father’s trail to a haunted New England town. The trio rescue Montrose from the clutches of one wizard, only to have the wizard’s son continue to trouble them and their families long after they escape back to Chicago. As if that continuing menace weren’t enough, all this happens under the long shadow of Jim Crow.

The plot is loaded with mystery and threats, and each chapter focuses on a single character as part of the larger story. The individual experiences use familiar horror and science fiction tropes from Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, and leaven them with touches of sarcastic humor. The world is a strange place. Might as well laugh.

***

However, the characters are less well-drawn than I had hoped. Atticus is the brave hero, Letitia the spunky sidekick, Montrose the prickly, righteous father, and Braithwhite the slick, heartless wizard. Wives, children, and friends have similarly distinct attributes, without great depth. The only ones I felt had adequate development were Letitia’s sister, Ruby, and Atticus’s Uncle George. The others all move briskly through the action without making a huge emotional impact. As an ensemble, they work extremely well, and are believable in the bounds of the story. But they are not characters for the ages.

***

And, much to my disappointment, Lovecraft Country has only the barest hint of Lovecraft in it. Ruff dwells on the occult, rather than the weird, and the mystical goings-on do not tap into any especially cosmic sense of horror. At one point, Ruff touches on the inhumanity behind canonical Lovecraftian weirdness–

“…when you invoke the language of Adam, you’re addressing nature, and nature doesn’t care, it just does what it’s told. If you garble your instructions–transpose a letter, stress the wrong syllable–you’ll get what you ask for, but it might not be what you want.”

–but he fails to capture it. The supernatural pushes in through ghosts, potions, and spell-casting. With the exception of a couple of interludes in another dimension, the tentacled horrors and amoral other gods simply aren’t here. And if Lovecraft taught us anything, it’s that there is plenty of room for cosmic dread and racism in the world.

***

Lovecraft Country is as fun a read as a horror novel about grossly racist Natural Philosophers can be–which is, oddly enough, very. But perhaps it’s a reflection of Ruff being white while his characters are not that the closing scene of Lovecraft Country seems too pat, like the conclusion of a Very Special Episode of a sitcom. And for a novel with such ambitious ideas, the tidy wrap-up sells the whole grand, entertaining plan just a little short of where I wanted it to be.

Ant Man and The Wasp

Ant Man and The WaspAnt Man and The Wasp is very much like its predecessor–a lightweight, likeable Marvel Universe flick that is still essentially a throw-away. It has the same cast as the first movie, the same tricks, and a little bit of story arc for an audience to invest in. Ant Man and The Wasp does introduce some potentially interesting new characters, but it is ultimately an exercise in getting from the first Ant Man to whichever Marvel blockbuster Scott Lang is meant to show up in next.

Some Minor Spoilers Ahead

The usual suspects are all back.  Paul Rudd is still charming as Ant Man, but he isn’t allowed to be as warm and funny as he was in the first movie. More emphasis is placed on his dad skills this time around. Evangeline Lilly continues to be intense and hyper-competent as Hope, while Michael Douglas continues to be snarky and arrogant as Hank Pym.

Michelle Pfeiffer joins the cast as Janet van Dyne, in a role so predictable I wonder why she did it. We also get Laurence Fishburne as Bill Foster, an old frenemy of Hank Pym from their SHIELD days, and Hannah John-Kamen as Ghost/Ava. I truly hope she gets her own movie someday. The perfunctory overview of her origins and her relationship with Foster raised a whole lot of questions I would like to see answered.

Despite the star power of the main characters, the secondaries are the real interesting ones. Michael Peña’s Luis owns every scene he is in. Randall Park is great as the awkward FBI agent Jimmy Woo, while Walton Goggins is cheerfully sleazy as black marketeer Sonny Burch. Unfortunately, T.I., David Dastmalchian, and Bobby Cannavale were given far less to do than in the first Antman–and the film suffers for it.

Stay On Target!

Overall, it’s a strange mix of too little and too much.

The plot comes across to me as flat and perfunctory, with the characters moving through the script without truly believing any of it. The action is solidly done but meaningless, since only some of the characters rise enough above caricature to make it worth caring about their outcomes. Which is a shame, because the cast is certainly capable.

Piling on that weak foundation are too many problems for any one of them to really matter. We are presented with a dangerous new antagonist in Ghost, a quest to bring the original Wasp out of the quantum realm where she has been trapped for the last thirty years, a persistent probation officer, and a wanna-be crime lord looking to steal Hank Pym’s discoveries. In between all that, our hero is doing his best to be a good dad to his daughter, despite being an ex-con superhero currently riding out house arrest.

The incredible shrinking quantum lab is pretty neat, as is giant Ant Man wading into the harbor to retrieve it. Scott Lang’s suit issues are an effective running gag, and the giant ant hanging out in Scott’s apartment is good silly fun. But the fun stuff isn’t enough to lift Ant Man and The Wasp above its issues.

What Bugs Me

I wanted to like Ant Man and The Wasp. I like the actors, I like the characters, I like the gimmicks. But the whole film ended up being less than the sum of its parts. Once again, Marvel puts Ant Man into a cotton-candy movie that is fun while it lasts but no longer–and, this time, less entertaining than it should have been.

harlan ellison

harlan ellisonHarlan Ellison died last week at the age of 84. He was a genuine legend in science fiction, by all accounts larger than life and twice as abrasive. I never met the man, but he has still been a part of my life for decades.

When I was around eleven years old I found a paperback copy of Again, Dangerous Visions stuck on the basement shelf where unwanted paperbacks ended up. It was the sequel to his transgressive 1967 anthology–and it was enough to suck me in and show me how sharp science fiction could be. Later, I read the man himself–the glorious I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Deathbird Stories.  I watched the supremely 70’s film version of A Boy and His Dog on VHS. I learned the empowering mantra “Pay the writer”.

Over the course of his long career Ellison published more than 1700 works, ranging from short stories to screenplays to essays, from comic books to literary criticisms. He was recognized with multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar awards for works that changed the face of science fiction on page and on screen. He earned the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers Association and by the World Horror Convention, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters if you don’t read him.

Unfortunately, it often takes the passing of a major author to inspire people to discover, or rediscover, their work. So it is with Harlan Ellison. Even though he continued to write prolifically, his heyday was the sixties and seventies when he was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction with his dangerous anthologies and subversive short stories.

These are a few of his works that I consider essential:

dangerous visionsStories
“A Boy and His Dog”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“Soft Monkey”
“Jeffty Is Five”

Collections

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Deathbird Stories
Shatterday
Angry Candy
The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective Revised & Expanded

Nonfiction
The Glass Teat

Television episodes
The Outer Limits   “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”
Star Trek   “The City on the Edge of Forever”
The Starlost “Voyage of Discovery”
Masters of Science Fiction “The Discarded”

As editor
Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions

Graphic novels
Phoenix Without Ashes

There’s plenty to say of Harlan Ellison as a person, good and bad–and it’s all out there for the googling. But as I mentioned earlier, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I had only his vast body of work to judge him by. And by those lights, he was a star.