Superheroes: We need to find a modern Marvel

Why does Hollywood keep returning to the same old superheroes? There’s a universe of oddities out there, says Matt Thomas

Saturday 22 October 2011 23:03

Summer blockbuster season, never the preserve of wide-ranging creative thinking, seems to have hit a new low, especially when it comes to the matter of superheroes. The recent glut of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and X-Men films has proved that there's a big market for cinema featuring costumed bodybuilders knocking the snot out of each other and Hollywood has responded by cranking out sequels, remakes and reboots so formulaic that it's getting hard to tell one film from another.

We've just had X-Men: First Class, a repurposing of a franchise already on its third go around, and, new last week, Warner Bros' Green Lantern – in which your standard all-American test pilot saves the universe, having learned some boiler plate lessons about friendship, honour and self sacrifice along the way.

Why is it always the same old story? You don't have to venture very far off-piste to find much more interesting comic-book heroes, who exist outside the well-muscled-blokes-smashing-each-other-in-the-head archetype.

Take the Haunted Tank. Although there's a fairly limited range of situations in which a Second World War tank possessed by the ghost of a Confederate general can be of much use, the character was a mainstay of DC's G.I. Comics for the best part of 20 years. It brought the Civil War-era general's phantom back for a 2008 mini-series in which he found himself trapped in an Iraq-based tank under the charge of an African American commander. Hilarity ensued.

Luckily for the film industry, racist tank ghosts are just the tip of the weird iceberg when it comes to comics. If you're looking for a genuinely mind-mangling experience, look no further than the adventures of Herbie Popnecker aka the Fat Fury. Rotund and bespectacled, Herbie possessed some of the most spectacular and poorly defined powers ever possessed by a being in the spectacular and poorly defined world of comics. Deriving his supernatural powers from a selection of magical lollipops, he was super-strong, intermittently invulnerable, had a time-travelling clock and quite often found himself facing off with the devil, two-headed giraffe elephants and aliens. Comic-book wizard Alan Moore says that Herbie is his favourite strip of all time, which tells you a lot about the both of them.

Also running counter to the muscles-stacked-on-muscles aesthetic you'll find on most modern heroes is Fatman the Human Flying Saucer. The alter-ego of Van Crawford, a sort of podgy Bruce Wayne millionaire type, Fatman was granted the ability to transform into a human flying saucer by an alien, who imparted it to him in the form of a chocolate milkshake. Writer Otto Binder rather seemed to run out of steam after developing the original story, as did the comic, which folded after three issues.

What makes Fatman's brief existence even more bizarre was that Binder was a key contributor to the success of Captain Marvel, one of the most successful of early superheroes and went on to write for Superman, creating an estimated 50,000 pages of comic books before his death in 1974. Whether or not he counted Fatman among that tally remains unreported.

The most confusing of all comic-book characters, though, has to be Man-Thing. Not to be confused with Swamp Thing or The Thing, Man-Thing is essentially a chemically animated, shambling, emotionless patch of swamp – a role tailor-made for Mickey Rourke. An average Man-Thing adventure might find the mystic muck monster battling gorgon hillbillies, astral pirates and/or a maker of hallucinogenic candles. Marvel launched the comic-book series with a bumper, 32-page edition rejoicing in the title of the Giant-Sized Man-Thing, which has to be worth a laugh.

Given that the ranks of comic oddballs stretch off into the infinite, you can understand the difficulties Hollywood has in picking the protagonists of its blockbusters. But it wouldn't take a lot of effort to give us something just slightly different and a lot more interesting.

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