Alternative Superheroes

Alternative Superheroes

(pop culture)

For more than half a century various writers and artists have created alternative versions of superheroes in efforts to satirize, critique, subvert, and redefine the superhero concept and genre, or view them from a new perspective. Some alternative superhero stories are funny parodies, others are serious and even disturbing.

One of the first was “Superduperman,” a collaboration by editor/writer/artist Harvey Kurtz-man and artist Wally Wood in MAD #4 (April-May 1954). This was a landmark story, not only as a devastating satire of superheroes, but also in setting the mold for parodies in MAD Magazine ever since. The title character is Clark Bent, a repellently grotesque social misfit, who is pathetically in love with knockout reporter Lois Pain. At the end of the story Superduperman reveals his dual identity to Lois Pain, who rejects him as a “creep.” Writer Alan Moore has credited Superduperman as a major influence on his own efforts at reworking the superhero genre with Miracleman and Watchmen. Over the years MAD has done many other superhero parodies, including “Batboy and Rubin!” from Kurtzman’s MAD #8 (December 1953-January 1954), which was adapted into animation in a 2011 episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Steve Ditko created Mr. A, in reality reporter Rex Graine, who secretly operates as a masked vigilante. Through Mr. A, Ditko expresses his adherence to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, most notably the belief that good and evil are absolutes. Mr. A first appeared in Wally Wood’s magazine Witzend #3 in 1967.

Little known, yet still highly influential, Robert Mayer’s satirical prose novel Superfolks was first published in 1977. Its protagonist is David Brinkley (named after the legendary television newsman), a superhero known as Indigo, who greatly resembles Superman. Indigo’s superpowers faded over the years, and in the novel he is leading the life of an ordinary middle-aged, married man with children. Then Brinkley has a midlife crisis and his superpowers begin to return. The novel takes an ironic look at superheroes, exploring their attitudes towards sexuality, their psychological problems, and the potential dark side of the superhero concept. The book has influenced such comics writers as Kurt Busiek and Alan Moore.

In 1986, Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter oversaw the creation of the New Universe line of comics, which attempted to take a more realistic approach to the superhero genre, disposing of conventions such as costumed identities. The flagship series was Shooter’s The Star Brand, about a man named Ken Connell who acquires a tattoo that endows him with virtually limitless power. D. P. 7 was a memorable New Universe series, created by the late Mark Gruenwald and artist Paul Ryan, about seven “displaced paranormals” who escape from a clinic that attempted to exploit their superhuman powers. The New Universe line ended in 1989, but writer Warren Ellis co-created a new version of the New Universe in the series newuniversal, that debuted in 2007.

In conventional superhero stories, death seems like a revolving door, since virtually every significant character who has been killed off sooner or later comes back to life. That was not the case in Strikeforce: Morituri. Created by writer Peter B. Gillis and artist Brent Anderson, and published by Marvel Comics, the first issue bore a cover date of December 1986. The series depicts a futuristic Earth that is under attack by an alien race called the Horde. An Earth scientist creates the Morituri Process that endows volunteers with superhuman powers — at the price of killing the subject within a year. Hence this was a superhero series in which mortality was very real.

Writer/artist Rick Veitch has created several comics series that critique the superhero genre, including The One (1985–1986), The Maximortal (1992), and perhaps most notably, Brat Pack (1990–1991). Brat Pack investigates the dark side of the relationships between superheroes and their kid sidekicks, with such teams as the racist and murderous Judge Jury and his sidekick Kid Vicious, and the gay pedophiliac Midnight Man and his kid sidekick Chippy.

In 1993 writer Alan Moore collaborated with artists Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch on 1963, a comics miniseries published by Image Comics that presented a satiric pastiche of the Marvel Comics of the 1960s. In text sections Moore portrayed himself as “Affable Al,” in a cutting parody of “Smilin’ Stan Lee’s” public persona. Among the series’ superheroes were Mystery Incorporated (based on the Fantastic Four); USA, Ultimate Special Agent (based on Captain America); the Unbelievable N-Man (an analogue of the Hulk); Horus, Lord of Light (a counterpart to Thor); and Johnny Beyond (a Dr. Strange-like character depicted as a beatnik).

Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming created Powers, which was originally published by Image Comics in 2000 and is now published by Marvel. Powers is a comic in the police procedural genre, centering on Christian Walker, a former superhero, and Deena Pilgrim, police detectives who investigate cases involving “powers,” the series’ term for superpowered individuals.

Alternative cartoonist Chris Ware has repeatedly used a balding, overweight, costumed figure whom he calls “the Super-Man.” In Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), the Super-Man appears to be an ordinary actor who falls to his death when he leaps off a building. In other works, such as strips in The Acme Novelty Library Final Report to Shareholders and Saturday Afternoon Rainy Day Fun Book (2005), the Super-Man has actual superpowers but is an amoral figure, murdering anyone who displeases him.

In Eightball #23 (2004), alternative cartoonist Daniel Clowes created the story of “The Death-Ray,” a dark variation on the Spider-Man saga. A teenager named Andy acquires superhuman strength and a “death ray” gun that disintegrates his victims. Despite his initially idealistic intentions, Andy, as the Death-Ray, is corrupted by his power and utterly alienated from the rest of humanity, and becomes a serial killer who disintegrates people for committing even minor offenses.

In recent years, both DC Comics and Marvel Comics have invited alternative and independent comics creators to do their own satiric takes on the companies’ classic superheroes. DC’s Bizarro Comics (2001) and Bizarro World (2006), named after Superman’s “imperfect duplicate,” include work by Jessica Abel, Peter Bagge, Kyle Baker, Bob Fingerman, Matt Groening (The Simpsons), Chip Kidd, James Kochalka, Tony Millionaire, Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Paul Pope, Jeff Smith (Bone), and Craig Thompson. Marvel relaunched its classic title Strange Tales as an alternative comics showcase in 2009. The first and second Strange Tales miniseries featured work by Bagge, Jeffrey Brown, Molly Crabapple, Nicholas Gurewitch, Dean Haspiel, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (Love and Rockets), Jason, Terry Moore (Echo, Strangers in Paradise), Pekar, Pope, Alex Robinson, Stan Sakai, Dash Shaw, Ty Templeton, and Shannon Wheeler.

Another alternative vision of the superhero genre is provided by the Wild Cards series of prose books, ranging from short story collections to full-length novels, which began in 1986. The editor of the series is George R. R. Martin, assisted from the sixth volume on by Melinda M. Snod-grass. (Martin is now best known as the author of the best-selling series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the basis for HBO’s Game of Thrones.) Among the many science-fiction authors who have contributed to the series are Martin, X-Men’s Chris Claremont and the late Roger Zelazny. Marvel produced comics based upon the Wild Cards books in 1990 and 1991. A new prose volume in the Wild Cards series was published by Tor Books in June 2011 and another in 2012.

The 2010 film Super, written and directed by James Gunn, is a black comedy about cook Frank d’Arbo, played by Rainn Wilson (The Office) and comic shop employee Libby, played by Ellen Page (Juno), who become superheroes known as the Crimson Bolt and his sidekick Boltie. Both suffering from psychological problems, Crimson Bolt and Boltie are far more violent than conventional superheroes, willing to brutalize and even kill their adversaries. —PS

The Superhero Book: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Comic-Book Icons and Hollywood Heroes © 2012 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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