So. Five worst spandex heroes ever. Follow-up to our list of the 25 best. This goes against my nature, of course. I prefer to discuss stuff I like. Also, I tend to avoid the stuff I don’t like. So my opinion on the worst of the worst is probably going to be a bit… uninformed. But what the hell. Unreasonable opinions are the beating heart of the interwebs, right?
Still. In an attempt to be a bit less unreasonable, I’ll be using slightly different criteria than what I used for the 25 Greatest list. To whit:
- Most important is the character’s general level of popularity. It’s easy to pick on bad minor characters like Matter-Eater Lad or the Dell Comics Dracula, but I thought it would be more interesting to look at bad characters people might have actually heard of. They may not really be the worst of the worst, but their popularity magnifies their level of suck.
- Creative vision. Part of what’s landed these characters on the list is the lack of vision behind them. But that’s not always the case, and when creative vision goes bad, it goes WAY bad…
- Quality of concept. It’s been said that there are no bad characters, and in compiling this list, I found that to be mostly true. But you do sometimes run into super hero birth defects, and they are generally crippling.
Finally, remember: this is all just one dork’s opinion. I don’t expect everyone to agree with all my picks, and would in fact be a little worried if they did. No personal attack on anyone’s tastes is intended.
And now that we’ve got the disclaimers out of the way… Let’s start dishing dirt…
5. Doll Man
Never heard of him, you say? Well, that’s just because you weren’t around in the Golden Age of comics. Doll Man was kind of a big deal back then, starring in two separate series for most of the 1940s: Feature Comics from 1939-49, and his own self-titled series, which ran for an incredible 12 years, from 1941-53. He outlasted just about every other spandex character of the era, save for Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.
The appeal was in the gimmick. Doll Man was the first shrinking super hero, with the ability to reduce himself to six inches in height while retaining his full-sized strength. Though completely nonsensical, the image of a tiny man punching out full-sized thugs is kinda fun. He had an impressive creative pedigree, too: he was created by funnybook giant Will Eisner, who was followed on the strip by Lou Fine and Reed Crandall. The character’s early years were marked by fine artwork and some of the better storytelling of comics’ formative years. Rather than the stiff, static look of many early comics, Doll Man stories offered dynamic layout and cool perspective shots made possible by the hero’s diminutive size. This action page by Crandall showcases the sort of thing readers could expect to see:
So what’s not to like? Well… For one thing, the character is called “Doll Man.” Not exactly a name to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Granted, it was a fun strip, written for children in a different age. So I might be able to let the name slide if not for the costume. Because… Well, hell, let’s take a good look at that thing:
Sleeveless, pantsless baby blue leotard. Little red pixie boots. Collared half-cape. Wow. Sometimes I wonder if Doll Man wasn’t also the first cross-dressing super hero. I mean, he’s showing more leg than Wonder Woman, and has more effeminate footwear. I guess it’s nice that there’s at least one objectified male super hero out there, but I’m not sure that outfit’s “sexy” so much as “odd.” I guess clothes really do make the man.
4. Booster Gold
Created by Dan Jurgens in 1985, Booster Gold is a down-on-his-luck jock from the future who comes back in time to seek fortune and glory with super powers derived from advanced technology. It’s not a bad set-up. You can have some real fun playing around with the mechanics of fame, dealing with publicity, sponsors and the tension between personal freedom and corporate sell-out. Plus, it allows for a lot of character growth over time, as Our Hero learns to overcome his shallow motivations and become a better man.
Which I think may be the problem here. Booster Gold is shallow, greedy, self-centered, and kinda dumb. But Jurgens soft-peddles those flaws in an effort to keep him heroic. So he winds up a little too flawed to be entirely likeable, and a little too nice to be really interesting. He works as a comedic character, as he’s used in Keith Giffen and JM DeMatteis’ Justice League. But as a dramatic lead, he falls flat.
How do you fix him? Give him some rough edges. Let him be flawed. There’s nothing wrong with a glory-hound hero, as long as he’s still heroic at the end of the day. Batman can give him all the shit he wants, but it’s easy to be a selfless do-gooder when you’re independently wealthy. Everybody gotta eat.
It might surprise some to hear me say that I don’t think Gambit is an inherently bad character. Stripped down to his core concept, in fact, he’s pretty awesome. He’s the charming rogue, the heroic thief. That’s one of my favorite heroic archetypes, and it’s rare in the super hero genre. His kinetic energy powers are pretty cool, too, as is the playing card motif he’s got going on. This guy should be the X-Men’s answer to Han Solo or Robin Hood. Everyone should love him. Instead, at least half the audience wants to punch his teeth down this throat every time he shows up.
So what went wrong here? Execution. As created by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee, Gambit is completely insufferable. He’s written with so much attitude, so much cocky smarm, that he never gets the chance to be much more than a tool. They tried so hard to make him cool that… he’s just not. He smacks of effort, and there’s nothing less cool than that.
He also got stuck with maybe the most annoying accent in the long and terrible history of annoying Chris Claremont accents. It’s the combination of poorly-realized phonetics and pidgin French that does him in, I think. Placed atop Gambit’s general level of suck, it makes me wanna strangle not just him, but Claremont, too.
He’s got too much stuff bolted onto him, as well. Because in addition to being a Cajun master thief with energy powers who can throw exploding playing cards with incredible accuracy, he’s also a kick-ass martial artist who fights with a bo staff, and his energy powers somehow make him immune to telepathy. That’s the kind of “one more thing” overstuffing you expect from a 13-year-old boy, rather than a funnybook professional. Later writers have, incredibly, tacked even more crap onto him, but I think I’ve made my point with just the Claremont and Lee version: Gambit is unfocused and annoying.
And then there’s the costume.
Holy crap, that’s bad. Purple body armor, black stretch pants, shiny blue shin guards, Flash Gordon face harness… and brown trench coat? Horrible. I’ve seen some streamlined, less busy versions of it from later artists that work better. But Jim Lee’s original design is pretty terrible, and just another example of how too many disparate elements ruined a character with potential.
Now, before you get the torches and pitchforks, hear me out. I really like Hawkman, in both his Golden and Silver Age versions. But he’s become a victim of corporate comics continuity, and that’s made him a complete train wreck for the last quarter-century.
Let’s start with the basics: Created by Gardner Fox and Dennis Neville in 1940, Hawkman is (as you would guess) a hawk-themed super hero, a man with a wing harness that allows him to fly. He fights crime from the air, using ancient weapons taken from his day job as an archeologist. Simple enough, and a cool visual: guy with wings bonking gangsters over the head with a mace. That character ceased publication in 1951, and was rebooted ten years later by Fox and artist Joe Kubert. They added science fiction elements that muddied the premise a bit, but he was otherwise unchanged.
The problems start in the 1980s. DC Comics rebooted their shared universe in an attempt to keep their characters relevant and up to date. But they tried to have their cake and eat it, too. Some characters were rebooted more than others, and out of a desire not to upset their existing fanbase, they tried to keep the old stories in continuity while completely changing things at the same time. A gritty reboot of Hawkman (Tim Truman’s actually rather good Hawkworld) left holes in Justice League stories he’d appeared in, and the attempts to plug those holes tore the character to shreds.
There was old Hawkman, new Hawkman, a replacement for the new-old Hawkman that didn’t jibe with any of the other three versions, and everything got totally confused. Eventually, DC just gave up, rolling every still-existing version of the character (including his various girlfriends) into some kind of mystical Hawk God to make a composite character who was all the previous Hawkmen, and none of them. And when they realized how weird and confusing that version of the character was, they finally admitted defeat, and stopped using Hawkman altogether.
Because that’s totally better than telling your fans it’s just a funnybook, and that they really need to chill out about who did what in stories published before many of them were born.
The sad thing is, they weren’t done. They later untangled the Hawk God to restore the original Hawkman, then set about killing and reincarnating him a couple of times for reboot purposes. His series was also taken over for a while by a Hawkgirl variation who was (I shit you not) the granddaughter of the original Hawkman’s cousin.
She was actually a pretty good character, but it doesn’t matter. Any character associated with Hawkman was cursed for 25 years by the incredible clusterfuck his owners made of him. I can think of no better illustration of everything that’s wrong with corporate comics. Good ideas get dragged down by bad ones, and characters who should be simple and straightforward accumulate so much crap they drown in it. It’s a terminal lack of creative vision, and he’s not the only victim of it. He’s just the most prominent.
But Hawkman’s not the worst thing spandex fiction’s got to offer. Oh, no. Far from it. That dubious honor goes to…
1. Rob Liefeld
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: Rob Liefeld is NOT a super hero. Sometimes I suspect that he’s a cartoon character, but never a super hero. He sure has created a lot of them, though, and almost all of them suck. They suck so hard, in fact, that while I might not be able to pick any one of them out as the worst spandex character ever, the sheer volume of suckage on display tells me that one of them has to be. It’s just the law of averages.
Admittedly, it’s become very fashionable in funnybook circles to slag off on Liefeld. He’s an easy target, especially for people who grew up loving his work and are now embarrassed by their youthful poor taste. And I can understand that. When I was a kid, I loved… uhm… Well, okay, there were no funnybook makers as bad as Liefeld when I was a kid. But I hated Jack Kirby, and that’s every bit as bad as loving Liefeld. Just, you know… in reverse.
What was I saying? Oh, yeah. It’s easy to pick on Liefeld, but that’s only because he really is that bad. While there’s no way I could possibly hate him as much as this guy does, I’m not going to defend his work as some kind of accidental genius outsider art, either. He’s just a sloppy, self-taught comics fan who makes bad funnybooks. There’s a careless, abandoned joy to his work, I’ll admit. But I can say the same thing about the comics I made in elementary school, and I’d never try to pass those off as professional work to anybody. I’m tempted to call him the Ed Wood of comics, but Wood had aspirations to art, and Liefeld’s never been that ambitious.
His work is juvenile and pea-brained, and proud of it. It’s all surface, and even that’s kinda half-assed. He’ll toss a barely-formed idea on the page and never develop it further, no matter how long he keeps writing about it. Even worse, he’s derivative. I’ll give him Supreme (his take on Superman), if only because of the excellent work Alan Moore did with it. But there are so many Liefeld characters who are rip-offs of other characters he created under work for hire agreements that I can’t even tell them apart (much less remember their names). His greatest creative legacy is that he gave us freaking Deadpool, and it took somebody else to realize that he works best as parody.
Which… Actually, I’ll take that back. Liefeld’s greatest creative legacy is his willingness to step aside and let others play with his toys. Whether it’s Alan Moore and Rich Veitch on Supreme, Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell on Glory, or (my current favorite) Brandon Graham and Simon Roy on Prophet, when Liefeld lets people run wild, the results are often spectacular.
His own stuff, though, still sucks. Thus, the dubious honor of closing out this ignoble round of the Dork Awards.