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:
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.
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.
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?