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Well, They Can’t All Be Batman: Jon Morris on His ‘League of Regrettable Superheroes’

 

The Justice League of America and the Avengers are the top teams in comics, super-groups composed of the most popular, most powerful and most iconic superheroes in their respective publisher’s fictional universes. Jon Morris’ League is… not that kind of league.

Morris, a graphic designer, cartoonist and writer, has devoted himself to compiling and chronicling the weirdest superheroes from throughout comics history on his blog Gone & Forgotten, which he’s maintained since the late 1990s. Those efforts have lead to a new book, The League of Regrettable Superheroes: Half-Baked Heroes From Comic Book History, which features a full 100 of the most spectacular misfires of the 20th century comics industry, from 1939’s Bozo The Iron Man to 1997’s Maggott, from shoe shill AAU Shuperstar to the compressed air-powered speedster Zippo.

If you read comics, then chances are many of the heroes will be familiar to you (Doll Man, Kid Eternity, Peacemaker, Squirrel Girl, etc), and if you read about comics online — and I have very good reason to believe you do — you’ll  also recognize plenty of the Internet’s favorite punchline superheroes (NFL Superpro, U.S. 1, The New Guardians, Man-Wolf, etc).

But Morris goes deep into the sea of oddities, dragging up such pearls as The Eye (a giant, disembodied, talking eye that fought crime), Speed Centaur (a superhero who was also a centaur) and Dynamite Thor (who solved every problem, including ones of transportation, with dynamite).

With so many heroes covered, “league” might not be the right word for this army of heroes — they’re really more of a legion. And “regrettable” might not be the right word either, as it’s clear from reading Morris’ book that he certainly doesn’t regret these characters’ creation. He loves them all.

Well, all of them but one.

Morris’ affection for the oddest of odd-ball superheroes becomes even more clear when you speak to him about it — and that’s exactly what we did.

 

 

ComicsAlliance: I have to admit that the first thing I did when I got the book was to head straight to the Golden Age section to see if The Red Bee, a particular favorite of mine for reasons I can’t entirely explain, was included and, sure enough, he made the cut. I understand he’s a particular favorite of yours as well; can you explain what you see in the Bee?

Jon Morris: The Red Bee is absolutely one of my all-time favorite heroes, and probably my hands-down favorite from the Golden Age — so much so that he almost earned the dedication in the front of the book: “To the Red Bee — so few have done so much with so little.” (I chickened out and dedicated the book to my parents, instead. Maybe next time, Red Bee!)

For me, at least part of the appeal of the Red Bee lies in what appears to be the diminishing returns on his powers; for some reason, a fella who fights crime with his fists and a special gun sounds just fine, but a fella who fights crime with his fists, a special gun and a trained bee seems somehow less equipped than the crimefighter who’s operating sans abeilles.

It doesn’t hurt that his creators obviously approached him with tongues firmly planted in cheek, too — the stories are credited to “B.H.Apiary,” which almost certainly is intended to stand for “Bee Hive Apiary,” which is, at the very least, pretty cute on their part.

He’s got a great look, his covers on HIT Comics are some of the best-looking, his stories are written with great wit, and it doesn’t hurt that at least a couple of comics’ more nuanced authors — Grant Morrison and James Robinson — had managed, in recent years, to find a pithy sort of vulnerability and empathy amidst the seeming absurdity of the character.

 

 

CA: As your introduction made clear, you don’t think there’s necessarily such a thing as a bad character. Is that a general belief, or do you think it applies 100% of the time? Do you think every one of these characters at least has potential? Even Doctor Hormone?

JM: I think there are a few characters who, in order to pass muster, need to have everything but the chassis switched out. B’Wana Beast is a pretty good example, for instance, originally having been mined from a well-intended but rich vein of cultural paternalism and objectionably idealized European colonialism. This is so endemic to the character that later writers like [Alan] Moore and Morrison use it as their hook in recontextualizing him. Heck, his own co-creator was allegedly so offended by the character, he walked off after the second story, so he’s a problematic character at best.

Then, jump ahead a few decades, and B’Wana Beast is a wildly popular supporting character on the Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series, but that’s owed in no small part to the fact that they had completely thrown out his origin and rebuilt the character from the ground up. Excepting a costume, name and powers, the B’Wana Beast fans might know today and the original B’Wana Beast share absolutely nothing in common, which is pretty much the only way you’re going to make a character like that work in a contemporary setting.

So, yeah, I do believe you can redeem every character, even if it requires replacing so many parts that you end up with an almost new character.

 

 

As for the specific case of Doctor Hormone, this is a character who is a combination of the genuinely terrifying and obvious seat-of-the-pants plotting. He turns the old young, he turns the young old, makes soldiers out of boy scouts, turns men into fleas, men into monkeys, turns world leaders into donkeys, and then disappears down a hole in time while fighting a thinly-disguised Ku Klux Klan and sleeps for centuries in the subterranean bower of some entity not exactly unlike God.

It seems to me that there’s enough there for a writer of sufficient skill to weave a genuinely disturbing, engaging story of body horror, politics and the supernatural. All it takes is the right creators and some conscientious pruning.

CA: Can you tell us a little bit about the initial editing process, in terms of what characters made it into the book and which did not? I have to imagine that there were a lot of characters who didn’t make it in, but are still certifiably regrettable. (After looking up The Red Bee, for example, I then looked to see if The Zebra was there and, sadly, he was not.) What sort of criteria did you use when picking the membership of your League?

JM: The initial list of candidates I put together for my editor contained a little over 1,000 superheroes from assorted media and different countries, and that was ultimately supplemented with another 200 or so I uncovered while doing my research. So there are a lot of potential entries which were gently set aside in favor of the hundred-plus characters who did make it in.

In the case of The Zebra, I recall that it was decided that either Quality’s 711 or Harvey’s Zebra would make it in. Since Harvey was so heavily represented in the Silver Age section, we opted for 711, whose concept isn’t so dissimilar from the Zebra’s that it would’ve been repetitive to include them both, anyway.

Superheroes from non-comics media like film and television were excluded, as were those who’d only appeared in comics as part of a licensing deal from other media (including, for instance, the exclusion of Captain Nice, one of my favorite deliberately daffy superheroes). Deliberately goofy superheroes who were created for a joke – like Legion of Super-Heroes reject Arm-Fall-Off Boy, for instance – generally didn’t make the cut, nor superheroic identities of established characters (thus no Super-Goof, Archie’s Super-Teens, etc), and the focus was largely kept on North America where superheroes as we generally understand the term have always enjoyed a particular abundance.

My goal was to create something of a narrative for this under-served branch on comics history, so narrowing it down to this chronological progression of North American comic book heroes helped build the story of these inspired also-rans and enjoyable never-weres.

And if it’s any consolation, I’ve got a list here of at least 1,100 potentially-regrettable superheroes who never made the book, so I’m sure everyone’s individual favorite punching bag was up for consideration at some point.

 

 

CA: Are there any you had a particularly tough time deciding whether to put in there or not? Are there any heroes in the book that you strongly considered not putting in it, or any that almost made it in but didn’t?

JM: There are a few entries which had to be pulled for one reason or another, to my regret. I’d initially intended to cover Ogon Batto, the genuinely bizarre Japanese superhero who preceded Superman and Batman alike, if just to discuss the injustice of his exclusion from most superhero histories. It was impossible to get my hands on source material for the character, though, so we reluctantly had to drop him from the list.

There’s one character I suppose I should leave nameless, so as not to offend his creators or (not that I think he has any) fans. But, although he ultimately ended up in the book, I considered cutting him repeatedly simply because he was literally the one character in the book for which I had zero affection whatsoever. Every other entry, I tried to write from an appreciative perspective, because I generally like at least something about (almost) every character in the book, even if it was only the balls it took to launch such weird concepts.

But this one fellow, his invention was both redundant and cynical, and I legitimately find his origin and backstory offensive. I’ll leave his identity to your imagination, but I’ll give you two clues: He’s in the Modern Age, but he’s not Adam-X.

Outside of that, I hesitated to include ROM. Those comics are some of the best Bronze Age material ever produced at Marvel, and I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to convey that it wasn’t anything specific to ROM as a character which made him regrettable. The only thing wrong with ROM is that licensing issues prevent his series from being reprinted or continued, which is genuinely regrettable.

 

 

CA: Your book is divided into three sections, but it seems like it wouldn’t have been too difficult to devote an entire book to any of the three periods — or, in the case of the 1940s or 1990s, a single decade. Why did you choose to sample the entire history of comics, rather than focusing on a single period?

JM: If the book had focused exclusively on any particular era, I think it might’ve run the risk of coming off as a condemnation of an era or a set of creators. If the book had focused solely on the Golden Age — and you’re right, it very easily could have featured much more than a hundred entries from those years alone — I’d be afraid that the takeaway might’ve been to point and laugh at the eccentricities of comics some six decades in the past.

As it is, weird characters are basically the backbone of comics, and I wanted to make sure that the book celebrated the weird and whackadoo running all the way up the seam to the modern day. All superheroes are at least a little weird, or unlikely, or absurd, and I wouldn’t want to diminish the work of the creators of the past by implying that they were some sort of mutant offshoot of successful, popular superheroes.

CA: Reading these sections, it seems like each period had a “boom” of some sort attached to it — the initial gold rush of the superhero concept, the Batman TV show-inspired reinvigoration in the 1960s you cite frequently, the 1990s collector boom. Have you noticed regrettable superheroes tend to cluster around such booms, as publishers are throwing so much more at the wall during such times that it’s more likely that less of them will stick?

JM: In the past, very much so, although I’m not sure that’s happening so often now — at least not at the Big Two companies at present. Marvel and DC seem very happy to dip into their back catalog of delightfully strange characters, often with a great deal of success, but I don’t see them experimenting wildly with new ideas and expressions.

The current Hollywood boom for superheroes should be inspiring a wild array of bizarre, unpredictable and wonderfully head-scratching characters, but it actually seems to have only encouraged the media corporations which own the comics companies to rejigger old ideas until they work for a new audiences.

And, again, that’s actually working pretty well — Howard the Duck, Squirrel Girl, Prez, Bizarro, these are all great old weirdo ideas which are being done very well by their creative teams, and I’m happy to see that. I’m just not sure there’s a premium on creating anything genuinely new at the major publishers, and the small, often fly-by-night publishers who were responsible for the weirdest superheroes in the past have basically been squeezed out of that particular niche.

On the plus side, independent comics are coming up with wild ideas outside of superheroes these days, and those kinds of books should be doubly celebrated.

CA: I believe Maggott of the X-Men is the “youngest” character included, having been created in 1997. Has comics’ post-90s boom produced any truly regrettable characters, on par with those covered in here? Do you read modern comics or scan the shelves on any given Wednesday and think, “Oh yeah, there’s a regrettable hero”…?

JM: I hate to admit it, but between working on the book and my comic blogs (Gone & Forgotten and The Chronological Superman), I spend far more time reading old comics than new. What I have noticed are attempts to revive or revitalize old characters in a fashion which will inevitably be looked back upon as, in the best case scenario, merely notorious. The “Bunny Ear Batman Armor” is going to end up on internet comedy site listicles for the next twenty years, mark my words. Also, sorry that I’ve predicted a world where we still have comedy site listicles two decades in the future.

Hindsight is the greatest tool in picking which heroes have that enchanting near-miss quality, so at least a few years have to go by before you can really stamp a character’s legacy with a big red “regrettable.”

CA: A lot of the more avid superhero fans in this book’s audience will notice characters that have made rather surprising comebacks, like Brother Voodoo or Congorilla, for example. Were you looking at them in their original context, in terms of when they came out, versus what might have occurred after they made their initial debuts?

JM: Sure, even on Gone & Forgotten, my aim is to examine these characters in very specific context. It’s exhausting and somewhat self-defeating to try to craft the all-inclusive, every-appearance-counted-for histories of these characters, particularly as that kind of expansive perspective often dilutes whatever notable quality the character had which was worth talking about in the first place.

I think about one of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing, where he proposes that you should write for one person as opposed to throwing open the windows and trying to make love to the world all at once. I feel that the same rule applies to what you write about. If you write about absolutely every aspect of a character, comic or creator equally, then you’re basically writing about nothing in particular — you’ve evenly paved over the interesting bumps and dips. It’s better to zero in on a particular era, event or theme, and then to see what the rest of the story looks like from the perspective of those peaks and valleys.

 

 

The Blackhawks, for example, are covered in the book only in the sense of their “New Look” era, when Batman’s TV success and the abundance of spy shows on film and television led to the team receiving new wardrobes, codenames and powers — ill-fitting, across the board — and battling effectively identical evil spy networks, all of which was outside of their wheelhouse. This left out a lot about the characters — their wartime adventures, their weird and equally absurd Silver Age adventures with cavemen on flying skis or futuristic Blackhawks riding around on rainbows, the acclaimed revamp in the 80s and the short-lived New 52 relaunch — but to cover all of that would have fatally diluted the genuine absurdity of that very specific “New Look” era.

CA: There are two Fletcher Hanks characters in here, both of whom are probably something close to approaching household names at this point, at least if you ask the right households (Those with Fletcher Hanks books on the bookshelves, I guess). Did obscurity have anything to do with regrettability, as you define it, or is a character never too well-known to not also be regrettable?

Speaking of which, did you have to factor in how representative you were being when you included certain character from certain creators? For example, you stopped at two for Hanks characters, although his others are just as regrettable.

JM: I think with two of Hanks’ creations, you get the general idea. What I was able to discuss with Fantomah and Stardust were slightly different things, although both entries discuss in part the troubling, larger-than-life story of Fletcher Hanks. Stardust is sort-of the Cadillac of Hanks’ alarming, hallucinogenic, gruesome and unpredictable stories, while with Fantomah there was an opportunity to discuss her role as not just one of the earliest superheroines but also how atypical she was among both the superheroine and jungle queen aesthetics.

This was one of the exciting opportunities which developed when the same creators popped up repeatedly in the final list. Addressing, say, four or five Joe Simon creations covering four decades not only provides an interesting fixed-point perspective on changing mores and priorities for a single generation, but it helps build a narrative about the creator himself.

Discussing two Fletcher Hanks creations introduces some ideas which were in apparent opposition, and which might lead to a better understanding of Hanks as a creator (I hope, anyway)…

 

 

CA: Along those lines, Adam-X The X-Treme is probably a good example of a character who represents 1990s excess, although as I mentioned, there could be a whole book — albeit a long, repetitive book — detailing others from his decade. Was how well a particular type of character represented an era a factor in whether or not to include similar ones?

JM: When we first whittled the list down to 100 characters, I balked because I noticed we didn’t have any dead heroes included — you know, there’s a whole subcategory of superheroes whose origins involve them dying first, like the Spectre, Kid Eternity, the Ghost Patrol, etc. That’s such an unfortunate way to get superpowers that I felt it needed to be represented. Then, while trying to pick a single dead superhero to run with, I started noticing small but interesting variations in their individual themes, so where I’d originally only intended to run one post-mortem-powered superhero, there ended up being a handful in the book.

On the other hand, like I mentioned, we didn’t want to run both 711 and the Zebra, because they were too similar or, at the very least, their differences weren’t interesting enough to spin off two distinctly different entries.

So, the selection of characters often had a lot to do with nuances between them. There are a few “spy” characters, more than a few obvious attempts to capitalize on the success of the Batman TV series, and a raft of very cynical selections in the 1980s and 1990s, but the choice to pick one or another had to do with finding the details which distinguished them…

CA: One particularly fascinating thing about this book is how many times you see the names of some of the biggest and most-influential comics creators appear. Joe Simon, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, even Jack Kirby — between them, they’ve created most of the greatest and most popular superheroes, and yet they’ve also filled up the pages of this book. There’s something inspiring about that, I guess, that even the King of Comics can have an off day. What are your thoughts on regrettable characters from great creators?

JM: I feel like the story of famous, popular and successful creators turning out mistimed, tone-deaf or just bizarre characters and stories is wildly compelling. It shows, if nothing else, that their imaginations are working full-time, even if their internal editors aren’t. There’s always a spark of brilliance somewhere in those creations, which maybe ought to encourage us to look more kindly on the creations of up-and-comers and unknowns, never knowing what spark of brilliance might lurk inside them.

It’s my sincere hope, for instance, that folks will come away from reading this book with the same undying love for Joe Simon which I nurture deep in my heart. This is a fella who co-created Captain America and Boy Commandos, top-selling titles of their time and one of which is now a global phenomenon, co-created the Fighting American, which successfully satirized his own creations, and was in part responsible for literally hundreds of comics in dozens of genres across the medium.

Yet, he’s also created some of these baffling characters whom you might never have considered giving a second thought if it weren’t for his pedigree. I adore Simon’s Prez, Green Team, and Brother Power beyond reason, and it’s solely because, knowing his pedigree, I stuck around and dove into the books deeply enough to find that there were genuinely ingenious and compelling elements to these characters, buried under the weird villains and breathless storytelling.

 

 

CA: As inspiring at it may be to know that Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby had some real duds, it’s also somewhat depressing, in regards to just how hard it is to come up with a second Superman, for example. There seem to be several attempts by creators trying and failing to capture earlier success, as is the case with Funnyman and Nature Boy, or Fat Man, The Human Flying Saucer.

JM: The difficulties in getting lightning to strike twice doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the creator’s shortcomings — there are a lot of factors involved, and I’d argue that the vast majority of them are exclusively financial to assorted degrees.

The thing about those specific instances — where important creators were let go from the publishers who’d employed them, for one reason or another, and were unable on their own to replicate the success they’d experienced at a well-financed organization which owned and operated massive distribution networks — is that we have a habit to interpret them as a loss solely for the creators.

It strikes me as unfortunate, for instance, when we look at Siegel’s solo attempts outside of DC and put the burden of the failure of these ideas solely on him. Siegel was obviously a prodigious creator, and a popular one too — besides Superman, he created for National characters like Robotman, Doctor Occult, the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, the Spectre, Slam Bradley and then, later when he returned to DC, the Legion of Super-Heroes. These are all popular characters on one level or another, some of them have turned into franchises for DC’s parent company, so Siegel’s obviously repeatedly displayed his potential to create winners.

So it’s a bit unfair to look at the failures of Funnyman, Mr. Muscles and Nature Boy and think of them as only Jerry Siegel’s losses, when DC missed out as well. If these characters had the same push behind them as even a minor character as Doctor Occult, any one of them might’ve turned into a foundation of the DC Universe. We might think, as modern readers, that it’s absurd to imagine a Teen Titans with Nature Boy on it or Funnyman in the Justice League, but if it hadn’t been for the contentious departure between Siegel and [Jack] Lieobwitz, it might’ve been a reality.

 

 

 

CA: You’re a cartoonist yourself. Having spent so much time with some of these guys, have you found yourself thinking you’d like to take a crack at some character that’s fallen into public domain, or realizing that you had a great idea on how to make Speed Centaur or Rainbow Boy work in today’s comics market?

JM: I don’t want to tip my hand too early, but I’m working on a story featuring two of the public domain characters featured in the book. The current plan is to have them debut in the Halloween anthology I organize via Monkeybrain, Boo! Halloween Stories, which will naturally be available in October of this year via Comixology …

I have no plans for Speed Centaur. Yet.

CA: Have you received any pushback on any of your inclusions? Has the world’s number one Mr. Muscles fan, for example, taken you to task for calling his favorite hero “regrettable,” or do you think it’s pretty clear there’s a great deal of affection in your coverage of these guys?

JM: I counted, and as of this morning I have received my thirtieth email bearing some variation on the sentence, “I like the book but my one complaint is that you included (so and so) who is awesome!”

Everyone’s so-and-so is different, and everyone thinks their so-and-so is equally awesome — and I generally agree, I love almost every character in this book! I just don’t know what they want me to do about it. I suppose I could come over and cross out their favorite guy with a Sharpie, but beyond that… the book’s printed.

But yeah, hopefully folks who pick up the book understand that “regrettable” does not mean the same thing as “bad,” and that there are a lot of reasons characters might end up in the book — misfortune, bad distribution, poor timing, economic realities, changing cultural obsessions, just to name a few. I genuinely did not include a character in this book unless I found something enjoyable about them.

Except for that one anonymous character I mentioned above. What a genuine stinker.

 

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