I Guess My Heroes Were Losers

There are comic book characters that, for whatever reason, strike such a nerve with you as a kid that you never really lose interest in them, even years later. This is all well and good if your heroic inspirado came from Superman or Batman, with their lunch boxes and pillowcases, it was easy enough to keep those connections going, but for other characters, the only time you saw them was when they would appear in someone else’s book or in a mini-series that everyone gets all excited about but never buys.

Interestingly, at least in my case, the characters that I will be discussing share more than just relative obscurity and somewhat dubious abilities. They all have costumes (or, perhaps, uniforms) that are pretty different from their contemporaries. Whether it be a big medallion or a particularly cool helmet, these characters sported some detail that really caught my eye as a kid. I guess that’s how it works, you know? I remember reading these comics over and over again, and would just obsess over every panel, soaking in every detail, to get as much as I possibly could from this 35¢ adventure. The irony does not escape me as a I reflect on how I often read comics today, skimming from bubble to bubble with sometimes nary a glance at the panel, at least for a few books—many of which are ten times the price!

So let’s dig through the cobwebs of my memories to find those heroes that I really liked but, I guess, never caught on with anyone else:

Phantom Stranger

Now, I am sure I have talked about him before over the years, but I can’t help it — I am just completely enthralled with this fedora-wearing, medallion-sporting mystery man. I know nothing about him at all — I just remember at least one DC Digest where he just sort of helped make thing happen, speaking in that dark, warbly text that I always read as a kind of a firm-but ghostly murmur.  He appeared in the Books of Magic miniseries long ago (which I wrote about years ago), but I rarely, if ever, see him regularly.  I think he’s getting a bit more play in Justice League: Dark and I think I saw him discussing phantom-y matters with John Constantine, but other than that…I mean, I literally don’t even know what his powers are, you know?  Heck, I think I’m actually making up stuff about him right now!  As a kid, I always felt like he should team up with the Unknown Soldier, since they both seemed to strike me as being lonely characters and would probably have lots to talk about.

Adam Strange

Yes, I know there was an Andy Diggle book about Adam Strange and I know thatbe played a prominent role in 52 and Countdown to Adventure, which was super awesome, but still: I want more.  I just have this strange feeling that I have other expectations for this character, expectations that I fully admit are completely due to the outfit.  It’s just so cool, with the fin helmet, you know?  Strange scratches the same retro itch that Rocketeer does — this peek into what was futuristic way back when.  (That would be a great team up, too, come to think of it.)  As a kid, I never cared much about Rann’s problems or anything, I just wanted to see Strange take care of some aliens — kind of a less grizzled F.E.A.R. Agent, I guess — and fly around in his jet pack. I was happy to see him get some action later on in the Countdown books, but, of course, he was blinded and rarely wore the suit, so it didn’t exactly live up to my admitted inane expectations.  Given how much time he spent with Animal Man a few years ago, perhaps it’s time for an Adam Strange-Animal Man-Swamp Thing crossover. Too much to ask, probably. Of course, if Leonardo DiCaprio’s film about the character does come out in 2013 or 2014, perhaps everyone will get a chance to enjoy the character’s red and white glory.

Plastic Man

This is kind of an odd one, because I remember having decidedly mixed feelings about this character as a kid, probably because of the cartoon, The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show — which just seemed to me a pretty lame concept–comedy and adventure? What was my young brain supposed to do with these disparate promises?  Still, whenever Plas made his way into my books, I really loved him, mostly because he was just funny and oftentimes completely inappropriate. He was the court jester for the Justice League, and oftentimes helped the reader to relax a bit and just enjoy these stories. I loved his interplay with the rest of the characters and found myself fighting any attempt to give him too much of a backstory or show his “serious” side. In terms of costume details, I was always fascinated by his almost Bono-like sunglasses, which, as far as I can remember, are always on — I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without them.  For team ups, well, the natural one is Plastic Man and Elongated Man…but if I could get a crossover where Mr. Fantastic brings those two in for help…wow.  Talk about a stretch!

I hasten to mention that not all of my sad sacks are stuck in back catalog limbo. Take, for example, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing. Both Things are getting a fair amount of attention, and I, for one, am amazed that Swamp Thing is still around.  Of course, when it comes to these creatures and their rudimentary non de plumes, I am reminded of Man Bat, who captured my imagination as a kid, as I thought about one bored creator, likely drunk, sprawled out on the floor, so saw an upside-down copy of Bat Man and thought, “I’ve got it!”  (I had a rich inner life as a kid.)  And a few of my favorites have seen a resurgence—Power Man and Iron Fist was one of the comics my friend Ricky, who lived down the block, would collect, so it’s been really fun to see those two characters become more central to the Marvel Universe (though I miss seeing them just on their own dealing with inner city crime).  And, of course, like so many kids, I was enthralled with Dr. Strange, though I don’t think I ever owned a single comic — the ads for his books just seemed to look cool, you know?

I guess a big reason these characters looked so large for me was the fact that I did not really have many opportunities to read their books. When a six year old boy is given the freedom to buy one comic after a particularly hectic time at the dentist, said six year old is going to be very judicious about his choice (I remember my dad getting visibly irritated that I was taking so long after a rather unfortunate haircut, but the dentist trips were the worst). I was not going to risk jumping onto a comic I knew nothing about, no matter how cool the cover was. By and large, I had to check these comics out at friend’s houses or in spinner racks while waiting for my mom to buy groceries. And, in a way, I am grateful. The stories I made for these characters were my own, and often just glimpses into larger arcs that I never got around to finishing.  A bit part of art, about any creative endeavor, is restraint — perhaps the same might be said of being a fan? That not having every issue, not knowing about every story, is actually a benefit, leaving the fan to do add to the creative soup?

Now, of course, comics are probably the last way many of these characters sneak into kid’s imaginations. Cartoons and movies and, yes, bedsheets, ironically, introduce these characters with nary a mention of the comic books that first gave them an audience. I find that vaguely depressing, as one often does when comparing one’s youth with the following generation’s. The ads that I saw for other books, from Man Bat specials to The Savage Sword of Conan gave me a glimpse into stories I would never, in a bajillion years, get a chance to read, so I just had to guess as to what was going on in those pages. In a way, it was the characters whom I read about the least, like the Phantom Stranger, whom I thought about the most—precisely because I had nothing to go on — which, paradoxically, gave them more emotional weight and a special place in my comic book heart.

How about you? Which characters did you like as a kid who never really seemed to “make it” later on?

 


Despite recent evidence to the contrary, Mike Romo is an actor in Los Angeles. You can reach him through email, visit his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter. He’s on Instagram, too.

Comments

  1. I remember that old plastic man cartoon. Shown the same time as “Mighty Man and Yukk” (remember that one?). That was great fun… and comedy. Is there a difference of powers between Plastic Man and Elongated Man? I’d like more Plastic Man stories please.

    • glennsim says:

      FWIW, Plastic Man seemed to spend a lot of time shaping his body into actual objects, like bicycles, vases, suitcases, etc. (which people mysteriously did not notice the bizarre red-yellow-black coloration). Whereas Elongated Man (similar to Mr. Fantastic) seems more limited to just stretching his body.

    • Kyle Baker + Plastic Man= Comic book magic.
      Unfortunately there were no X-Men or Batman guest starring in that series so it didn’t last long. I believe it did collect an Eisner though in its short time of production. Well worth digging out of the back issue bins.

    • BradLWoods2 says:

      God I love Plastic Man. The cartoon was a favorite of mine… remember Bad Luck Hula Hula, Penny, and Baby Plas? I even had the action figure with the popup neck.

  2. HailScott HailScott says:

    I remember loving DC’s Vigilante when I was a kid. They brought it back a few years ago, but. . . meh.

  3. I had a Dr. Fate action figure as a kid and I really loved that design, etc. I’ve read a few of the Dr. Fate minis, but he doesn’t seem to get much attention and definitely can’t support his own book. For some reason I never really got into the JSA even though I’ve always loved those Golden Age characters, particularly Jay Garrick and Alan Scott.

    Got the Golden Age Dr. Fate Archives last year and even then they didn’t seem to know what to do with the character. He went from a sorcerer fighting magical foes to more of a crimefighter socking racketeers in the jaw and even became an actual medical doctor at one point.

  4. i’ve always been fascinated by the Phantom Stranger and the Spectre. Too crazy DC characters with immense power with Judeo-Christian, biblical roots. I haven’t been able to read many stories with them, but i’m always on the lookout.

    I believe Mike Mignola did a Phantom Stranger mini back in his pre Hellboy, Big 2 days.

  5. Smasher says:

    I remember in the 80s getting a bunch of my classmates to play Rocket Raccoon for about 5 minutes before they gave up.

    • DavidClark DavidClark says:

      The kid at the end of my cul-de-sac “borrowed” my Rocket Raccoon issues 29 years ago.

    • Wade Christian Wade Christian (@capbloggington) says:

      Any time I meet someone who didn’t read the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket Raccoon is my lead selling point.

      “They’re a bunch of cosmic characters, most of whom have existed in relative obscurity since the 70s or 80s.”
      “Why would I want to read that?”
      “One of them is Rocket Raccoon.”
      “Who’s that?”
      “He’s an anthropomorphic raccoon. In space.”

      If that doesn’t sell them. then I’m not sure they understand what comics are really about.

  6. ctrosejr ctrosejr says:

    @Mike: If you want more Phantom Stranger, you should check out Mike Wagner’s recent run on Madam Xanadu. He plays a pretty important role in that book. http://tinyurl.com/ck2xu59

    Also, I LOVE the new incarnation of Adam Strange on the Young Justice cartoon. I think they did a great job of updating his look while honoring his old outfit. The character also seems to be appropriate in a way that modern watchers / readers can appreciate. They did a really great job with him.

  7. marktomko says:

    Great article. The Phanton Stranger and Plastic Man were a big deal for me too.

  8. Mickey Mickey (@GeeksOfChrist) says:

    I’m always up for more Adam Strange.
    But I don’t see anything topping the Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino/ Murphy Anderson stories.

  9. Neeks Neeks says:

    I agree with Phantom Stranger being an awesome character which admittingly i know little to nothing about ( which im guessing is part of his persona) and have barely read anything with him other then his brief cameos in different titles. Thats why im hoping this Phantom Stranger series that comes out will be awesome.

    I also like Dr Fate and Plastic man which other people mentioned above and dont know why these characters arent being written in any of the DCU Presents so far.

    • i forget where i read or heard it, but some prominent creator mentioned that if the Phantom Stranger or Spectre show up in your story, then you know shi#t is hitting the fan. always loved that.

    • Neeks Neeks says:

      haha ya thats true you could say the same thing about the Watcher or Galactus showing up in Marvel Comics

  10. CaseyJustice CaseyJustice says:

    The Slingers. I loved the first 12 issues of that series, and then they were gone. Prodigy and Ricochet pop us here and there, but for the most part they’re toast.

    • MisterKyleW MisterKyleW says:

      I was going to post the Slingers as well! One of the very first comics I regularly collected. I loved that book!

    • diazb3 says:

      totally beat me to this, i´m glad i´m not the only one who thought that they were cool

    • CaseyJustice CaseyJustice says:

      This is why iFanboy is great. Where else am I gonna meet the only two other dudes who bought Slingers?

      You guys read “The Loners” a few years back? Had some good Ricochet in there, and a little tease of Dusk.

  11. JFTESQ says:

    I also like Phantom Stranger, Spectre, and Doctor Fate. The Adventure Comics run in the early 70′s with Jim Aparo art is the Spectre at his crime punishing best.

  12. Cal-eb says:

    I got into comics in the late 80′s from reading ratty old back issues from an indoor flea market. They were mid 70′s to early 80′s Marvels and som DC’s. They were all random issues and not a lot of variety. Fell in love with some characters just cause of the adds. I thought 3-D Man,The Human Fly and Son Of Satan were huge deals just from one or two images. I remember a subscription ad that made me go nuts for Captain Marvel. Loved his costume had no idea who he was or what he could do. Made up a whole backstory for him. Kind of was a let down when I found out he was a kree soldier. Fell i love with the Falcon over an old Mego ad. The best part of getting one or two issues of a title was being left to wonder what was going to happen next without ever knwoing. Now with over 60 long boxes, wikipedia, and all the old handbooks, I know a lot more, but have a lot less wonder. I kind of miss it.

  13. zenman zenman says:

    First rule of the Phantom Stranger fanclub ..

    nobody talks about the Phantom Stranger fanclub …

  14. pyynk pyynk says:

    I joke with people that I sail the endless sea of obscure characters. Sure I love Batman, but like Mike said that’s EASY. My favorite characters tend to be folks like Union Jack, Vigilante, and Booster Gold. Admittedly, Booster isn’t nearly as obscure as he used to be (thank you Geoff Johns!), but to the world at large (or at least my non-comics friends) the three of them might as well “Captain Flag Man Guy”, “That Cowboy Dude”, and “Ohh! The Douche-y One!”

  15. There was a whole crop of new heroes when I was a kid that came out of the DC Annuals crossover Bloodlines. Argus, Myriad, Gunner and a whole bunch of characters got superpowers after being bitten by giant shape-shifting aliens. I don’t think any survived more than a handful of years but I remember liking a few of them.

    Looking back, the were AWFUL.

  16. darkstar darkstar says:

    I totally agree, the mysterious magical characters (Phantom Stranger, Spectre, Dr. Fate) really sparked my imagination because I had no clue as to the extent of their powers. Plastic Man also made for the funniest panels during his JLA days. The hero that I’d like to throw into the mix is The Question. While buying old comics I frequently got books from The Question’s first run. His Modus Operandi was more like Rorschach than Batman and he always drove the point home that a tough, skeptical man in a trenchcoat could solve most any problem.

    He got a nice portrayal in the Justice League cartoon, but Vic Sage has sadly been absent from comics since Blackest Night. I’m not even sure if he’d fit in a modern setting book. maybe a period piece like Hex got… (fingers crossed)

  17. MikePositive MikePositive says:

    Guy Gardner. I loved him as a kid, bought every issue of his solo title, even wrote a SONG (well, to the tune of another song) in a letter column letter (that, as a kid, I never got around to sending) because I thought he was kind of awesome, and not as dull as that era’s Hal Jordan.

    Though he could be another one, kind of, as I got really into him when he became Parallax. Hell, the whole Zero Hour event may be a thing I loved no one else did.

  18. Rob3E Rob3E says:

    Definitely enjoy some characters that never found a huge audience. I do like Man-Bat, the Question, the Creeper. Ambush Bug still “pops” up from time to time, but often in his own, zany, not-quite-in-continuity mini series. I miss that short window of AB history when he stopped being a criminal and instead became a lunatic pest to the other superheroes, usually Superman. Legion of Substitute Heroes.
    Madcap seemed kind of like a Creeper knock off, but I liked the Creeper, so he was okay, too. I always wanted more Howard the Duck, unless I actually got it. Then it just increased my appreciation of Steve Gerber. I hear the Power Pack kids have been showing up again recently, so I’ll have to check in with them again.
    And then there was that one Spider-Man comic where the Toad teams up with the son of the Frogman and this kid with Doc Ock arms that he decided would be spider legs instead and started calling himself Spider-Boy. They called themselves the Misfits, I think, and I always wanted them to return, but I don’t think they ever did.

    Oh, and ‘Mazing Man.

  19. mickmac59 mickmac59 says:

    Definitely Dr Fate – a fave that never seemed to get his due. And the Creeper, for the same reason (with you on that one, @Rob3E).

  20. Jr. Wormwood Jr. Wormwood says:

    Not exactly from the early days of my youth, but I always wanted to know more about Box from Alpha Flight. Especially in the days when Jim Lee was on that title. Might have been a lame character, maybe a great character, I just remember having random issues of Alpha Flight and thinking he/it looked really cool.

    I’m sure there are many others, but my mind is a blank right now :/

  21. bub64882 bub64882 says:

    As a little kid, when I got to pick a comic for road trip or something, I almost always grabbed DC’s the Warlord. Many one and dones, and that were-black-cat woman with the black fur bikini….meOW!

    Later, I got hooked on Alien Legion when Frank Cirocco was on art….A Grey Day to Die graphic novel still sits on my desk…I loved that book before Stroman destroyed it.

  22. DavidClark DavidClark says:

    Ragman!…anyone?

    How about villains that captured your imagination?
    For me…. Shocker – something about the brown and yelow costume

    • RAGMAN is COOL!!! Something about being a patchwork of lost souls makes him the most angsty hero out there. There was a series where Joe Kubert did all the covers which was great.

  23. Vidman Vidman says:

    I loved and still to this day do love Hawk and Dove. My absolute favorites. I prefer the Dawn Granger Dove.

    I have every Hawk and Dove titled comic, I missed most of their adventures after they canceled their 89 comic, but I got back in after Blackest Night. I was excited that they got their own title recently, but they put title killer Liefeld on the book. I don’t mind Liefeld, except that any comic he does the art for will soon perish, due to the vast majority of people being sheep and following certain websites out there.

    I hope they get more attention, and that DC hasn’t looked at the recent short run of their book and thought, wow, we can’t sell a Hawk and Dove book. I hope the other books with Liefeld sell badly, so that they can justify starting Hawk and Dove up again soon with different artists and writers. (sorry guys that love hawkman and deathstroke, sux to be you, just like it sucked to be me a few months ago)

  24. Wade Christian Wade Christian (@capbloggington) says:

    I always had a soft spot for Man-Bat, too. Due to the time I grew up in, though (the late 80s/early 90s), there were plenty of characters that seemed cool as a kid, but never made it, due to being lame. Darkhawk jumps to mind. Every time someone tries to make him less lame (like DnA did in War of Kings), it just highlights how lame he really is.

    I also really got into some of that Marvel 2099 stuff, especially Spider-Man 2099. That lasted a few years, but that was probably due to PAD’s writing more than any actual quality in the character. He still shows up in occasional things, but I think it’s largely as nostalgic fan service, rather than because anyone thinks he’s a good character now.

    Oh, so many awful characters from that period. Thankfully I skipped most of the Image stuff (my brother fell into it, though) and was old enough to see some of the crappy, mid-90s X-Men for what they were (Maggot, anybody?), so I didn’t get as burned as I could have.

  25. supersnac90 says:

    Apache Chief…I was an awful child.

  26. speedball, longshot, dazzler, and cloak and dagger. my dc character was starman. a friend of mine would always buy static, so his character wins because all of those shows.

    • Rob3E Rob3E says:

      Yes to Cloak and Dagger. I always think there’s potential for some great Cloak and Dagger stories that haven’t been done yet.

  27. I love Plastic Man even though when I was a kid I HATED that cartoon. Although if anyone saw the pilot for the never released cartoon (which is actually now on the Cartoon Network DC block I think…) with Tom Kenny as the character…It’s funny. It’s on YouTube so I’d check it out. You know what got me into the character though? Frank Miller. Yes ‘Dark Knight Strikes Back’ has an extreme version of the character but he made the guy extra powerful and insane. I kinda wish he was a bit more insane like that.

    In terms of villains:

    Shocker (Love that horrible costume)
    Hypno Hustler (Again a terrible concept but if you make him more modern he COULD work)

  28. hugosleestak says:

    My favorites as a kid, and still to this day …

    Captain Mar-Vell. No, not the cosmic Jim Starlin version with the blond hair who died and keeps trying to psych you out that he might kinda sorta be back eventually. Not that one. The one *before* him, by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, the silver haired science fiction hero, the guy who looked like fifteen tons of dynamite when he was drawn by Neal Adams in the Kree-Skrull war. THAT guy. Starlin took the character in other directions that I tried to like and just wasn’t able to.

    Captain Atom – the original Ditko version with the french curves on his mask,. Not the later powered down version that Ditko also drew, and definitely not the Dr. Manhattan-ish version floating around now.

    Shade the Changing Man – the original Ditko version. People forget just what a rich world Ditko created with Shade. The man whose powers basically came from the twisted neuroses of the people he was fighting; the man who was hunted and hated by the other-dimensional law enforcement agent he dearly loved; the hero whose real enemy was the woman he wanted for a mother-in-law, and who was usually faking a coma. Insane, awesome stuff.

    Plastic Man – the fairly serious hero with a dry-yet-bizarre sense of humor. For a long time now, Plas has been drawn as if he was being portrayed by Jim Carrey. Nope. In the old days, Plas would turn himself into a full set of luggage, but for him it was just kind of normal. It was everyone else who was an oddball.

    Manhunter – the Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson kung fu/secret agent version who got blowed up in his last eight page story. It was like combining The Fugitive, James Bond and Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name.” Huge fun, and it felt more “adult” to me than anything else at the time.

    Iron Man – well, duh. He wasn’t always raking in the big bucks with Hollywood movies. When I was a kid, he was a second stringer, and sometimes even a third, but I always believed in the potential of the character.

    Lots more, but I’ll stop here.

  29. BradLWoods2 says:

    Anybody else a fan of Guy Gardner? And who could forget Puck?

  30. Runaway13 says:

    One of my favorite heroes is Beast Boy and I feel that he is overlooked a lot. And when DC finally puts him in the New 52 he’s red. I miss the old Beast Boy so much. And I also miss the old Teen Titans.

  31. As you can tell by my avatar I loved the Silver Surfer growing up (still do. He’s one of my favorite characters in all of comics, not just Marvel and DC). I grew up with a fascination in Astronomy and Cosmology and a character that could “surf” the cosmic winds and visit distant galaxies was right up my alley. During his run in the 90s I loved the high concept of each adventure. There was nothing like it happening back on Earth with the main cast of heroes and it definitely stood out in my mind.

    Alas he couldn’t hold a ongoing series now if he tried, but he got shine in Annihilation a couple years ago, the Annihilators mini-series, and now back with the Defenders. So I guess I can be happy he’s back in the spotlight…..somewhat (I do NOT count the second Fantastic Four movie).

  32. bugmanjon says:

    I have always dug Stingray, ROM, the Prowler, and Vision from Marvel. As for DC I always wanted to hang out with Adam Strange, Metamorpho, Blue Beetle, and Martian Manhunter.

  33. RecksDeud RecksDeud says:

    When I was a kid, I’d go grocery shopping with my dad, and I’d read (and beg for) the comics they had on their magazine racks. That’s why the Will Payton version of Starman, Hawk & Dove and the Creeper will always have a place in my heart. That’s also where I learned about Nth Man, The Ultimate Ninja!

    I was also a fan of the Archie characters DC relaunched with their Impact Comics line in the early ’90′s, especially The Comet, The Shield and The Fly.

    But the hero that got me hooked was Wendell Vaughn, Quasar. I got the first issue from an indoor asian flea-market when I was 10, and I haven’t looked back. Thanks to Quasar and Eon, after all these years, I just can’t shake this damn comic book addiction.