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A Moon, A Girl … Romance!

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The League of Regrettable Superheroesleagueofregrettablesuperheroes
By Jon Morris
Quirk Books, 2015

Fans of superhero comics tend to be a defensive lot. Despite the recent cultural ubiquity of the genre Avengers films that gross over $1 billion apiece; earnest, po-faced debates about the political significance of Batman; grown ups walking around in Mighty Thor t-shirts without any fear of permanent celibacy — there still clings to it the faint, lingering whiff of its disreputable past. No matter how many copies of Watchmen and Astro City we thrust at unwitting friends and loved ones, the thought still lingers: isn’t this also the medium that gave us Egghead, and the Spider-Clone, and Matter-Eater Lad? Haven’t superheroes, bless their four-colored hearts, oftentimes been just a little bit dumb?

This is not merely a historical condition. A quick glance over the racks at your local comics shop (to say nothing of the marquee at your local multiplex) is enough to give any cultural critic pause. The Avengers? Earth’s Mightiest Heroes have included, at various times, a weeping robot, a purple apron-wearing archer, and a shirtless teenage basketball player in a Mexican wrestler mask. Green Lantern? A humorless space cop in a leotard, with the dumbest rhyming battle cry this side of “shut your lip, potato chip.” Wolverine? An experiment in hair gel gone much too far. And that’s not even getting into the faddish publishing crazes of the moment, which include Spider-Gwen (Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend in a hoodie), Harley Quinn (buxom she-clown in a corset and shoulder pads), and a squadron of varsity-jacket bedecked sidekicks styling themselves We Are…Robin. (As a general rule, comics titles that include ellipses are omens of nothing good.) Stripped of their decades of familiarity, even the giants of the genre are reduced to absurdity. What is Superman but an old-timey circus strongman with a spit curl? What is Batman but a plutocratic, Ayn Randian fever dream in a rodent hood? This is not to disparage one of the proud, defining achievements of American pop culture. It is merely to admit, as all rational fanboys and fangirls must, that we are not exactly talking about Tolstoy.

Such is the heart of Jon Morris’s brisk, clever, and frequently very funny new book, The League of Regrettable Superheroes, an encyclopedia of the some of the oddest, laziest, and most forgettable creations ever to grace or disgrace comic book pages In 255 pages, Morris gives us witty, potted summaries of some of the most absurd kid eternityand ridiculous forgotten characters, ranging in time from the Golden Age ‘40’s to the Chrome Age ‘90’s, each one accompanied by one or more wonderfully-chosen illustrations showing off the heroes at their most preposterously stupid. For example, the western vigilante Gunmaster (“If I MUST resort to guns as they do, then I will be master of the weapon! My enemies have guns, I have better ones!”) is shown crouched next to his sidekick Bullet the Gun Boy in a moment of shared, post-pistol-firing bliss. Likewise, the magical, undead Kid Eternity waves at the reader and stares blankly into the middle distance, while his sidekicks Tecumseh, George Washington, and Rip Van Winkle prepare themselves for action (and if Quality Comics Group doesn’t think I’d follow the adventures of that particular action squad each and every month, they are seriously misjudging my literary tastes).

Morris’s brief, blog-like writeups provide enough background and historical context for each character to bring non-fanboy civilians up to speed. But mostly, the book exists as a vehicle for its deadpan humor, and Morris has no shortage of verbal hand grenades to lob at his victims, as in this comment about the poor sales figures that befell the speedster Zippo:

“One can imagine the high-speed hero crouched in his signature traveling posture, vanishing into the sunset, unable to outrace his own cancellation.”

Or his one-sentence summaries of the members of Harvey Comics’ Miracles Inc.:

“REFLEX, a wing-headed super-speedster who ‘delivers lightning justice!’ In his debut, he’s easily tripped up by an opponent who merely steps out of his path….

THERMO, ‘The Human Inferno,’ who uses his powers primarily to keep the coffee hot and the ice cubes cold…

Lastly, THE WIZARD, called a ‘Master of Sorcery,’ although he is portrayed only as a strategic genius and is assigned mop duty by his peers.”

In less steady hands, such eye-rolling snark might degenerate into a kind of blithe disdain for the entire superhero genre. But Morris (himself a cartoonist and long-time reader of comics) has too pronounced an affection for his subject to let that happen. For all its mockery, this book is clearly the gentle chiding of an incurable nerd. Morris lacerates because he loves.

Although Morris himself is largely unconcerned with any overarching thesis, reading his roughly chronological progression through five decades of stupid creations reveals some illuminating themes. Some of the most memorably ridiculous heroes suffer from a too-obvious embrace of the contemporary zeitgeist: by trying, with visible desperation, to fit in with the cool kids, they unwittingly turn themselves into instant fossils of fads gone by. So, on the one hand, we have Marvel Comics’ 1991 creation NFL SuperPro, produced in partnership with the National Football League to, in Morris’s words, “further popularize American football.” (A look at the athletic proclivities of the average comic reader suggests that the NFL might have been barking up the wrong tree with this one.) A few years later, the same company gave us Adam-X — The X-Treme, the distilled essence of mortifying ‘90’s style. With his long, luscious blond hair, metal knee pads, protruding body spikes, and (for god’s sake) soul patch and backwards baseball cap, he was, quoting Morris, “as radical as a pair of surf pants kicking a rad ollie on a skateboard.”

a moon a girl romanceIn one case (my own personal favorite), we can even watch a character morph along with the cultural moment. Moon Girl was created by EC Comics in 1947 as a late attempt to cash in on the already-fading superhero market. But faced with abysmal sales and changing tastes, the publisher tried frantically to rebrand the title for different markets: first, as a gritty, street-level title under the banner Moon Girl Fights Crime, and then, incredibly, as a teens-in-love comic called A Moon, A Girl…A Romance! Such bald-faced attempts at fad-cashing (to which list might have been added Marvel’s 1980’s super-trucker US 1, and the weirdly enduring disco-dancing X-Man Dazzler) are perhaps the nadir of comic book creation: products reeking so strongly of corporate synergy that it’s doubtful their passing merited more than a shoulder shrug from their indifferent creators.

On the other hand, some of Morris’s discoveries are more charmingly and innocently dumb. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — the creators of Superman, and therefore not only certified geniuses, but the inventors of the entire genre — decided to cap off their careers with the somewhat less enduring Funnyman, a crime-fighting vaudevillian whose intimidation factor was in no way enhanced by his bowtie, seltzer-squirting lapel flower, and puffy poka-dot slacks. Indeed, late-career fall-offs seem to be depressingly common among comics’ leading luminaries. Joe Simon, the co-creator of Captain America, tried to endear himself to the counter-culture early 70’s with Prez, the story of the “First Teen President” (even though he’s actually 21), whose key advisors include his mother (Vice President), his sister (personal secretary), and his Native American best friend Eagle Free. (As of June 2015, the Prez concept has been resurrected and revived in a new series from DC comics, for whom no registered trademark is undeserving of love.) And artist extraordinaire Neal Adams, whose, shall we say, lapses of sound creative judgement have become legendary among fans, might have hit his all-time low with Skateman, a roller-skate-sporting martial artist who was, Morris tells us, “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.”

zippoFor all its snappy patter, Morris’s book is neither comprehensive nor flawless. Wanting to take a light touch to his subject, he chooses to overlook most of the egregious racial and cultural stereotyping that tended to litter even the more respectable stories of comics’ Golden Age. (Characters like the awful Whitewash Jones, created by a very young Stan Lee in the most abominable minstrel show tradition , surely represent the most regrettable superheroes the mind can fathom.) Morris also seems sometimes unaware of occasions when the creators themselves are obviously in on the joke: surely, the great Otto Binder and C.C. Beck, inventors of Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, weren’t expecting readers to look at that particular creation with a straight face.

But even in the midst of all this mockery, Morris can’t help but dig up a few “regrettable” characters who might not inspire all that much regret — heroes whose cultural revival he subtly champions, even as he pierces them with one-liners. In particular, he has a soft spot for many of the strong, brassy women who populated mainstream comics during the wartime years of the 1940’s. It’s impossible not to read genuine enthusiasm in Morris’s description of Fantomah, a mystical jungle warrior who pre-dates even Wonder Woman:

“…Fantomah was capable of supernatural acts of bizarre chastisement, executed without mercy on plunderers, killers, and would-be tyrants who threatened her domain. She banishes one villain to a dinosaur-populated asteroid, transforms a pair of jewel thieves into creatures resembling a cross between grasshoppers and dandelion leaves, and in one spectacular feat demolishes a squadron of military bomber planes — and all occupants therein — with living sandstorms and a flying formation of jungle lions. Wow!”

And who, after all, wouldn’t want to give another publishing shot to the tough-as-nails, Nazi-fighting Pat Parker: War Nurse, or the mighty (albeit Canadian) Nelvana of the Northern Lights?

fantomahTrue to its blog-post origins, Morris’s character summaries are accompanied by a running sidebar featuring each character’s creator, first appearance, and a choice, scathing one-liner. These facetious fact bozes are opportunities for some of Morris’s best material, as with the 1940’s caped crusader Mad Hatter (“Does he wear a hat? Actually, no.”), obvious 90’s rip-off The Ferret (“Not to be confused with: Wolverine, although clearly someone wanted you to.”), and the aforementioned, lamentable Moon Girl (“Current phase: Eclipsed.”). These, along with a fine choice of vintage covers and sample pages (all printed in glorious full color, as these things ought to be), make the book perfect for exploring and dipping into at random: an example of what, in an earlier time, might have been called ideal bathroom reading. (That was before the era when iPads became bizarrely acceptable toilet accessories, of course).

In other words, The League of Regrettable Superheroes is a fun, breezy, lightweight romp. With its smirking but affectionate wit, and its generous supply of colorful illustrations, it’s enough to amuse any comics fan for a sultry summer afternoon. And in its look through the annals of creative misfires, it’s a reminder of the wild, devil-may-care creative energy that has always fueled the comics business, for good and ill. It’s a fine line, after all, between the perfection of a Spider-Man, and the homely awkwardness of a Ferret or Man-Wolf, and a sad eternity of internet ridicule might not be more than a cancelled series away.

Unless we’re talking about the Tecumseh-Washington-Van Winkle superteam. That right there is pure comic book gold.

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Zach Rabiroff lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.