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‘Manta-Man’ Flips the Script on Superhero Skin [Webcomic]

I realize this is blasphemy, but if I woke up tomorrow with superpowers, I’m not sure if I’d become a superhero. As much as I’d like to think that I’d stand up and fight the good fight, the truth is I’m much more comfortable sitting here hurling judgments from behind my laptop than I would be battling crime. When people ask whether I’d rather have the power to fly or become invisible, I always choose invisibility, which we all know is a superpower best suited to villains and perverts.

The protagonist of Chad Sell’s webcomic Manta-Man has an unusual superpower: he can transform into a giant, flying manta ray. But despite his fishy superpowers, a lesbian roommate who’s a part-time ninja, a second roommate who can make spandex suits to order and a controlling girlfriend who wants nothing more than a heroic boyfriend (unless it’s some villainous powers of her own), Manta-Man can’t figure out how to transform himself into a superhero. He does, however, cut a fine figure as a beefcake pin-up.

From the opening panels of Manta-Man, where our hero reveals his bizarre secret to his girlfriend Ana, you know you’re in for an offbeat superhero story. Ana was about to dump her fishy paramour (something Manta-Man failed to realize), but this new revelation reignites her interest in their relationship. But just as Manta-Man starts wondering if he could actually use his powers to fight crime, he gets caught up a comedy of errors involving mistaken identities, accidental gaybashing, and lots and lots of puns.

Manta-Man isn’t exactly a parody of the superhero genre, although it does certainly comment upon the genre. There are superheroes in the world of Manta-Man. For example, Manta-Man’s roommate, the effortlessly sexy Sachiko, pays the bills with part-time ninja work. But even in a world where masked vigilantes fight for truth, justice and the 99 percent, not every person with powers is going to cut it as a hero. Treating his powers as a terrible curse, Manta-Man instead makes his living as a bartender at the local gay bar, the Man-to-Man (and yes, Sell really loves his wordplay).

Ana pushes him into something close to an acceptance of his power — but not because they’re useful for saving orphans. No, Ana finds flying through the air on a giant manta ray gets her hot. So does watching her boyfriend fight guys dressed as giant bugs — or throwing him a couple of artifact-enhanced punches herself. As Manta-Man begins to peek out of the super powered closet, he starts to wonder is maybe crime fighting wouldn’t be such a terrible gig after all. But he’s only a superhero if being a superhero involves nothing more than partaking in flashy, staged fights with faux supervillains. It gets him media attention, cute fangirls and lots of sexytimes with Ana, but little genuine fulfillment.

Sell also pokes some clever fun at the idea of sexiness in superhero comics. Because Manta-Man (who is given no name outside of his alliterative one) is largely at the mercy of Ana’s shenanigans, when he gets a superhero costume, it’s one designed for the female gaze — with an abs-baring open front that would make Power Girl blush. Plus, the suit doesn’t stretch with his shapeshifting body, forcing him to strip in an alley before he can take manta form. Manta-Man isn’t the only one with an impractical costume (Foolgirl, who spends an awful lot of time hanging outside Manta-Man and Sachiko’s window with her monkey sidekick, is perpetually blindfolded), but he’s the only one showing off that much skin.

But just because much of Manta-Man‘s sexiness is tongue-in-cheek, that doesn’t mean Sell can’t draw a pretty girl (or guy). Even Sachiko’s girlfriend Dixie, whose sole facial feature is a giant pair of lips, has a bizarre aesthetic appeal. And Manta-Man’s other roommate, the perpetually neglected seamstress Alice, has a great uncool kid smolder. Sell may give us vapid characters who think superheroing is mainly about looking good on camera, but damn if they don’t actually look good.

Then tensions within Manta-Men may not be as cataclysmic as in a more traditional superhero comic, but they’re no less dramatic. Manta-Man really does have a deep, dark secret, but it has more to do with his family and his job than his powers. And Manta-Man doesn’t need to outwit an evil genius or lunatic bent on world domination; he just needs to figure out how to get out from under his girlfriend’s thumb. There may well be a hero’s journey in store for Manta-Man, but I suspect he’ll spend it learning how to stand up for himself rather than slaying dragons.

In the meantime, we get to see plenty of Sachiko. Even if she isn’t ninjaing 40 hours a week, her action sequences have style and substance. Or, at the very least, huge amounts of shark blood.

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