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Floating Eyeballs, Trained Bees: History's Most Cringeworthy Crusaders

Think about superheroes for a minute.


... You are kind of touchy, has anyone told you that?

No, I get it. I write about the superhero as a cultural construct, so I hear from a lot of people who are sick to death of superheroes, who find the whole notion of gifted, gaudily-attired elites who act as extralegal agents of benign intervention hopelessly puerile ... and not a little Fascist.

I've heard it all, and I agree with most: adolescent wish-fulfillment? Yup. Simplistic morality tales? Quite often, yes.

I mean, real talk: dressing up in a circus outfit to fight crime is just a dumb idea. It's the kind of idea a kid would come up with.

Which, of course, is exactly the point.

Superheroes are dumb ideas — big, bold, brightly-colored dumb ideas. They are what happens when pure, unfettered imagination encounters our world as it is, finds it wanting, and conjures something to fix it. Something joyous and colorful, something that can perform astounding feats, something that – crucially – is looking out for us. That's all a superhero is: something wonderful that's got our backs.

It's easy to forget that today, because superheroes are now so ubiquitous they've become cultural furniture, and the outlandishness so essential to them gets ruthlessly downplayed and disavowed in an attempt to make them more relatable, more – spare me — relevant.

There was once a time – in the months and years after Superman debuted and became the sensation he did, making rival publishers desperate to ride his cape — when the American imaginative impulse churned out brightly-attired do-gooders at a breakneck pace, heedless of mundane notions like relatability, heedless of anything but telling a story kids would like. Some of these heroes managed to join the pantheon of contemporary demigods we call superheroes alongside the Man of Steel.

Most ... didn't.

A new book, The League of Regrettable Superheroes, by Jon Morris, offers a lovingly guided tour through the spandex-strewn Limbo that is home to some of the biggest, boldest, dumbest superheroes ever offered up for public consumption. To leaf through its pages is to witness our collective imagination at its most hopeful, eagerly iterating the superhero idea over and over again, like a puppy that never tires of returning the ball.

Morris runs Gone and Forgotten, a blog where he assiduously, and hilariously, and occasionally savagely, chronicles the weirder and more whimsical aspects of comics history. His tone here is gentler, but the goofiness he documents is just as goofy as ever.

Take, for example, The Eye. Please.

Truth in advertising: The Eye was a mysterious, giant, floating, all-knowing eyeball that hectored people to fight crime on its behalf. Which they did, and can you blame them?

Other entries run less eerie, but no less gleefully bizarre: There's Madam Fatal, the alter ego of actor Richard Stanton, who dresses as a frail old woman to wage a one-lady, Vap-o-Rub-scented war on crime. There's Speed Centaur, the speedy centaur. There's Kangaroo Man, who trains a superintelligent kangaroo to mete out swift, pouchy justice.

Plenty of these also-ran heroes have gone on to become, in comics circles at least, much-mocked punching bags. I knew before I opened the book, for example, that The Red Bee would get a write up, and here he is, resplendent in his sheer pink silk blouse, red striped tights, and trained bees he keeps in a canister on his belt, including his favorite bee, whose name, it feels somehow important to note here, is Michael.

Michael the Bee.

See, I love that. I love the swing-for-the-fences, bat-poop craziness of old-school superheroes, in all their gleefully gimmicky glory. So as great as it is to see some of my old familiar favorites getting a moment in the spotlight (Brother Power the Geek! The Legion of Super-Pets! Fatman the Human Flying Saucer!), I was particularly pleased to make some new discoveries, like the star-spangled Puppeteer of 1944, who made only a half-dozen appearances.

As Morris notes in his clever write-up, it's easy to see why. The creator of The Puppeteer flouted the first rule of superheroing: simplify.

The Puppeteer sported a red, white and blue costume with a huge white V emblazoned on the chest for no readily discernable reason. He could fly, but only if someone played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on a special pipe organ in his HQ. He had a trusty bald eagle sidekick. Named Raven. That could talk. Most egregiously, he was called The Puppeteer, but puppetry didn't figure into his crime-fighting schtick at all. He didn't have a Puppetcar, or a Puppetcave. No, he took the name The Puppeteer because his secret identity was a professional puppetmaker.

That's just ... a lot. Way too much. Superheroes are about distilling a kid's fondest desires (I wish I were strong, I wish I could fly, I wish my parents would die and leave me a vast fortune that I could then channel into punching crime in the face a lot, with verve and elan) into iconography. The Puppeteer 's brand management was all over the place; the poor shmuck never stood a chance.

Morris is a fine writer, capable of condensing broad publishing trends – say, the punishing, grim-n'-gritty nihilism that settled over superhero comics in the 1990s – into sardonic, clear-eyed sentences like this one:

"But the twentieth century's last decade or so put a radical, outrageous, Cool Ranch-flavored spin on comics characters, adding blades, goatees, overcoats, amorality and attitude to everyone and everything." Pretty much.

That excerpt, let's note, comes from the entry on Adam X -The X-Treme, the stabby mutant from outer space who rocked a mullet and a backwards baseball cap because 1993 happened to everybody.

Readers like me, who keep a dog-eared copy of Jeff Rovin's 1985 book The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on their desks, will find themselves reminded of that volume as they read: both books strike the same wry, bemused tone.

And readers like me, who revel in the unabashed silliness of superheroes and find the modern vogue for bloated self-seriousness wearying, will also find themselves relieved that someone as knowledgeable and funny and passionate as Morris wrote the book we've ached for someone to write for years.

... If it couldn't have been us, we mean.

Okay fine: This is a book I wish I'd written. There, I said it. It's a great idea, executed with adroit prose, attractive design and painstaking production quality – full-page, full-color excerpts accompany each entry, turning what could have been a merely dutiful archive into a vibrant, living, expertly curated tour of a long-neglected and seriously goofy facet of American cultural history.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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