This one came at me out of nowhere. It was an impulse buy when I went to the used book store.
Between the cover art and the title, I had to pick it up and leaf through it to see what it was. If it had been a graphic novel parodying old school art styles and depicting a team of failure superheroes, I probably would have put it right back down again. Because I’m not a big fan of the superhero genre as a whole, and the typical art styles tend to leave me cold. (Though looking at the art on display here, I think I’d get on better with much earlier comic art than modern comic art.)
Given the fact that I am writing a review of it, you can obviously guess that it is not a graphic novel. Instead, it’s a book about various failed superheroes over 70+ years of the comics industry. If you can see the cover image well enough, you might notice it says “The Loot Crate Edition” on the front. Turns out this is an abbreviated edition — a bit over 150 pages, lacking a hundred pages of the regular edition — that was sent out in some Loot Crate shipment. (I have only the most minimal knowledge of Loot Crate, so I’ll just leave it at that; I’m feeling too lazy (not to mention pressed for time) to bother looking up more detailed information at present.) I don’t know if it was shortened by removing pages just of art, or if it removed a lot of the superheroes the longer version covered. Probably the latter. (Either way is a bit tragic.)
Anyhow, since it’s about comic books, I figured that was close enough to qualify for #3: “Read a book about books.” Especially since the point of the challenge is to get you reading things you wouldn’t necessarily read otherwise, and I’m much more likely to pick up a book about Oscar Wilde’s library (my previous selection for #3) under normal circumstances than one about an eclectic selection of failed superhero comics.
The heroes on display in this book ranged from the “what in the world were they thinking?” to the “y’know, I think I might actually like to read some of that.” And their rate of success varied from a single appearance to some who lasted for years, and even a few who were reinvented later and folded into major comic universes (or at least had their names taken away and given to new heroes who became part of those universes).
- Doctor Vampire:
Whatever his medical specialty, the doctor’s pseudonym is a confusing choice. He calls himself Doctor Vampire, but he fights vampires. This muddies the water, to say the least. Imagine a Nazi-fighting superhero naming himself Doctor Nazi, a Captain Crime who battled criminals, or the Red Burglar turning out to be a guy who catches burglars.
I’ve seen a movie with similar naming issues: a movie called Cyborg Cop 2 (which I saw via Rifftrax, as you might expect) in which the hero is a cop who fights cyborgs, rather than being one himself. I’d wonder if the filmmakers knew about “Doctor Vampire,” but I think that’d be giving them way too much credit…
- The Eye: literally a giant, disembodied eye that flies around and sees to it that crime doesn’t pay. Strangely, the author makes absolutely no Sauron jokes in talking about the Eye. (More restraint than I’d have been able to show!)
- Fantomah: possibly the first superheroine, Fantomah basically transforms herself into a living Day of the Dead decoration with near-limitless power whenever someone threatens the jungle. And in her early appearances, she is brutally ruthless. (Then her creator left, and the new writer took away the book’s teeth.) This is one of those ones where I have to admit that I’d be curious to read some of the actual works, provided it was the early, ruthless stuff.
- Madam Fatal:
Resembling something like a mix of the film Taken and Mrs. Doubtfire, Madam Fatal represents one of the truly unique characters in comics. Women who disguised their gender in superhero identities were uncommon but not unheard of. However, America’s macho culture frowned on the opposite arrangement, making Madam Fatal a singular character, to say the least.
How could I not be intrigued by that description? Though I feel like the actual book probably wouldn’t be able to live up to it. (I would say that I’d like to actually see a movie made today to match that idea, but I have a feeling that would be disastrous: Hollywood probably isn’t capable of handling the idea without producing something trans-phobic, or at least dreadfully offensive.)
- Moon Girl: a princess given superpowers by a bit of magical jewelry she wears, who was spurred into action to be with her prince. I…I can’t help it….
I want to read this so I can write a goofy cross-over making Moon Girl and her prince previous incarnations of Usagi and Mamoru (aka Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask).
I’m ashamed even to admit that…and yet…how perfect would that be? (Sailor Moon needs magical jewelry to transform, too…)
- Mother Hubbard: a witch — literally! — who fights such evils as gnomes that steal children’s souls (and/or eyes) in the night. Okay, yes, I would totally read this. This is one of the few that gets four pages instead of two, and we get a good look at the gnomes on one of the pages, and they really remind me of something, but I’m not sure what.
- Nelvana of the Northern Lights: a Canadian superheroine, who fights to protect the Inuit people, aided by her brother (who can only appear as a dog when white men are around). How cool is that? Way back in 1941, she was fighting for the rights of a native group instead of their white oppressors! I would love to read some of this one.
- Rainbow Boy: the character looks pretty goofy — a white unitard with red shoes, red undies-on-the-outside, and a red hat with a rainbow perched on top like the crest on a Greek helmet, not to mention the rainbow printed on the shirt area of his unitard — and his power set includes both flight and the use of rainbows for “barriers, shields, bridges, even temporary prisons.” It might be interesting to see the character revived for Gay Pride purposes. (Assuming he’d be given a less doofy costume, of course…)
- Speed Centaur: he’s a centaur. He fights crime. In 1940s America. What part of that isn’t cool? (Seriously, why didn’t this guy make the grade? Maybe the writing was no good?)
- Spider Queen:
A masked red-and-blue figure appears, using web-shooting devices to swing from the rooftops. An outlaw mistrusted by authorities, the spider-inspired crime-fighter uses scientific powers to defeat evil in its myriad forms. If all that sounds familiar, it should…though we’re not talking about everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man. This is Spider Queen, a different arachnid-themed do-gooder. Even more significant, she precedes the famous wall crawler by twenty years.
Her costume leaves much to be desired (though not, I suppose, by comic book standards) given the short skirt, and she was apparently always being called a ‘doll,’ which would drive this 21st century reader up the wall (without the use of webs), but I like the idea that a woman had so many of Spider-Man’s distinguishing traits long before Peter Parker came along.
- Brother Power the Geek: I have no words for this one. Seriously. Even if I typed out the whole segment on it, I still wouldn’t have any words. I want to read this just to find out what the bloody heck it is. (This would have benefited from the four page treatment to give you more of a look at the title character.) They were trying to tap into hippie counterculture. I have to wonder if they even came close to succeeding…
- Dracula: after a single issue adaptation of the classic Bela Lugosi movie (yeah, that had to be a disaster, unless comic book issues were a lot longer back then), two more issues of “Dracula” were printed, in which a descendant of “the historical King of the Vampires” accidentally turns himself into a vampire-like superhero while running an experiment on bat blood. (I have to ask: is “the historical King of the Vampires” the comic’s description of his heritage, or the author of this book’s? Because Vlad Dracula — aka Vlad the Impaler — was a very real person, but he was absolutely not the King of the Vampires. (Not a king of any kind, in fact. And not a vampire, either. As far as I know.)
- Fatman the Human Flying Saucer: on the whole, this just merits an eye-roll. Though turning into a UFO is a pretty interesting gimmick for a superhero. (Wasn’t there a pathetic character on a TV show named Fatman? Like, on Animaniacs or something?) I only want to mention him because the list of his rogues gallery includes “the hideous Brainmen from Mars,” which just makes me think of Mars Attacks…
- Mr. Muscles: in his origin story, he defeats the paralysis of polio by sheer determination to be the best. Yeah, it doesn’t work that way, guys. Just ask FDR.
- The Sentinels: a trio of supposed protest-singers gain superpowers from their landlord. (Sure, why not?)
The most unfortunate aspect of the Sentinels, though, is that the beatnik gimmick isn’t followed through. All three have fame and fortune on their mind, they hate communism, and they’re downright deferential to authority figures. What kind of protestors are these?
While I agree that the comic’s authors obviously fell flat on their faces with this one, I have to argue with the entry’s description of the band trying to be part of the “counterculture beat movement” and of “the beatnik gimmick.” It’s 1966 and the protests at that time were against the Vietnam War (which this lot seems to support instead of protest): wouldn’t that make the appropriate word “hippie,” not “beatnik”?
- Holo-Man: a hologram who can turn solid when needed, and is capable of great feats of derring do. This totally should have been about Ace Rimmer.
- Morlock 2001: for the most part, I have no words. But there’s just one thing, no, two things. One, I see no connection between this (as described) and H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. Two, the hero is a plant in the shape of a man. In Osamu Tezuka’s Lost World, there are two girls who are vegetable in the shape of woman. I couldn’t help think of them as soon as I read the description of this hero’s origin. But is there any chance the authors of “Morlock 2001” had ever read Tezuka’s Lost World? (I have no idea if it was even available in English at the time. Might have been; it’s short and part of a well-regarded trilogy of short works. (The other two being Metropolis and Nextworld.) Then again, I’m not sure how much of Tezuka’s manga saw English translation before the year 2000…)
- Phoenix the Protector: at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this one made me think of a Tezuka manga, too. (Though actually one I’ve only seen as anime, not read in the original manga format.) According to this book, “Phoenix” is “known as a surprisingly depressing comic.” Depressing was actually a standard feature in Tezuka’s works (despite his cheerful art style, he did suffer from depression all his life) and his Phoenix was a collection of interconnected stories — usually with either a grim setting or a brutally dark ending, or both — tied together by the presence of the mythical phoenix. The plot of this “Phoenix” doesn’t bear any real connection to Tezuka’s Phoenix, but some of the over-the-top fatalism is reminiscent if not of Tezuka’s work, at least of general anime tropes, particularly from early anime. Maybe that’s just what the mid-seventies were like? (Grim side note: both this and “Morlock 2001” debuted in the year I was born. Yikes.)
Well, that ended up being “most of the highlights” rather than “some” of them….
Anyway, I found the author’s style to be entertaining overall (a few of the jokes didn’t work for me, but most of them were fun) but I would have enjoyed the book more if there had been more samples from the comics under discussion. Maybe the longer version has more samples…