Comic Book Motifs – Real Life Superheroes

A column article by: Zack Davisson

It is a sad but true fact that far more people will see the movie than read the comic. The film Kick Ass, for example, earned $19.8 million in its opening weekend, and while comic books don’t generally publish earnings it is safe to say that every single published issue of the Kick Ass comic, including the trade collections, amounts to a very small percentage of that. Many moviegoers may not even be aware that the Kick Ass comic even exists, thinking that the story was written specifically for the film, and a successful movie can even exile the source material to oblivion. (For example, there are not a lot of people reading the 1932 novel King Kong nowadays, but it would be hard to find someone unfamiliar with the 1933 film of the same name.)

This means that the majority of people will think that the innovations and concepts they see on film originated with that genre. What they think is new and exciting is often a good twenty years or more behind what happened in the world of comics. The people they think are the innovators are actually the copiers.

Case in point, Kick Ass and the “Real Life Superhero” concept.

The concept works on a very basic premise: What if, inspired by comic book superheroes, a regular person decides to put together a costume and go fight crime as if they were a real superhero?

For the premise to work, there are two simple rules:

1. No Superpowers - And by no superpowers, this doesn’t mean you get to be Batman, the Green Arrow or even Richard Dragon – Kung-Fu Fighter. Sure, great martial artists and Olympic-level archers exist, but in real life they still can’t dodge bullets, shoot arrows into the barrels of pointed guns or swing effortless through the city like Tarzan on a vine. In the real world these are as much superpowers as being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound or to change the course of mighty rivers.
2. No Gadgets – Like with superpowers, this means that your costume/gear can’t consist of anything fancier than what you can pick up at your local sporting goods/hardware store or maybe what you can order from the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Even military-grade gear is not easy to get into civilian hands, despite what the latest issue of The Punisher would have you believe.

The first character to follow the motif of “real life superhero” appeared in 1932 in the third issue of All American Comics. Abigail Mathilda "Ma" Hunkel first showed up as part of Sheldon Meyer's semi-autobiographical Scribbly the Boy Cartoonist series. Meyer, then working for Max Gains and charged with the task of cutting-up and reassembling old newspaper comics so they could be re-sold in the new “comic book” format, occasionally found himself with a few blank pages that he filled with his own cartoons. Going on the basis of “write what you know” Meyer created the alter-ego of a boy cartoonist trying to break into the world of comics. A few years later Meyer had moved up in the world and in charge of editing the All-American line, he started up a strip with his old pal Scribbly Jibbet, still trying to break into comics but now with a neighborhood cast of characters including Ma Hunkel running the local grocery store.

The big change came in issue #20 of when, inspired by her son’s admiration for the Green Lantern, Ma Hunkel climbed into a pair of red long-johns, strapped on a homemade cape and put a cooking pot with two eye-holes cut out to become the first “real-life superhero” known as the Red Tornado. Her first act of heroism was to rescue two kidnapped kids, her daughter Sissy and friend Dinky Jibbet, and the Red Tornado’s adventures would continue from then on out. Even though she had no powers and her costume consisted only of what she could find in her kitchen, the Red Tornado famously missed out on attending the first meeting of the Justice Society of America due to an embarrassing rip in her long-johns…

Treated as a parody, the Red Tornado never really inspired a genre of real-life crime fighters, and the next attempt would not appear until 1977 when a new Marvel comic hit the stands with the tag-line "The Wildest Super-Hero Ever — Because He's Real!!” The 1970s was a time when stuntmen and daredevils could be bona fide celebrities due largely to Evel Knievel’s spectacular feats which were major events drawing huge television audiences and winning Guinness Book of World Records. Even though he had the costume for it, it was not Knievel however that leapt from the pages of a comic book, but his rival Rick Rojatt with his handmade costume and persona of The Human Fly. Rojatt’s gig was that he never appeared out of costume or revealed his true face, but performed daring deeds such as wing-walking a DC-8 airplane at 250 mph and breaking Knievel’s record by jumping 27 buses on a rocket-powered motorcycle. The comic book version of Rojatt’s character took quite a few liberties, including having bones replaced with steel due to numerous daredevil accidents, but it did have a nineteen-issue run based on the concept of a “real life superhero.”

For the rest of the decade, the “real-life superhero” went back to its origin as a joke and a parody, such as Dom Deluise’s superhero alter-ego “Captain Chaos” from the Cannonball Run (1981/1984) movies and the popular police drama Hill Street Blues (The World According to Freedom, 1982) when Sgt. Mick Belker runs into a guy in a costume calling himself Captain Freedom. The Captain Freedom character would appear in four more episodes until Freedom’s Last Stand (1982) when the brave Captain met with a bad end by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and was brutally shot down by robbers, showing what would happen to a real person attempting to act in the manner of a superhero.

In 1984 DC Comics decided to give the concept a serious twist with the four-issue Wild Dog mini-series, focusing on a sub-machine gun wielding, hockey mask wearing vigilante who decides to take the law into his own hands after Mafia members murder his girlfriend. About the only special gadget Wild Dog had was a pair of electified “taser” gloves that could conceivably made for real, and the comic made of point of showing how Wild Dog could not use anything a real person would not have access to and wielding nothing that did not exist in the real world.

Wild Dog was a hero in the post-Punisher/post-Rambo vein, bringing deadly violence against criminals. It was a popular concept, and a few others in the same vein would pop up, such as Casey Jones in 1985 in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles who also sported a hockey mask and swung various sports implements. Wild Dog was much more grounded in the real world, lacking mutant turtle companions and with absolutely no ninjas.

There have been others over the years, such as the sociopath Nite-Wing in 1997, but it has most often been done within the context of a superhero world. Like the Red Tornado, these were often normal people in a superhero world, inspired by the actual heroes around them to imitate their actions. Wild Dog probably went the farthest in trying to keep the character outside of comic continuity, but eventually the character wound up in Action Comics and the original concept was thrown away. Ultimately, it must be said, Wild Dog was also a pretty terrible comic, and it is no surprise that the character faded away with little impact.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter who did it first, but who did it best, and for that Kick Ass definitely wins. Kick Ass does innovate in grounding its character in a modern superhero-less world, where comic books alone provide the inspiration rather than actual masked mystery men. However, with the appearance of the sword-fighting Hit-Girl bringing inhuman martial arts to the mix and slaughtering gun-wielding mobsters by the dozen, that grounding in the real world doesn’t last long.

This isn’t too bad though. Even the most reality-grounded character eventually has to find their way into fantasy land, because the real world and the comic book world just don’t share too many characteristics. In real life, guys and girls who put on costumes to patrol the streets just end up looking goofy like those people who participate in the “Real Life Superheroes” internet fiasco, or else they simply end up dead like Captain Freedom.

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