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Thursday, August 10, 2006

My hero

My previous response to Bam-Kapow's Top Ten Manliest Superheroes Ever list has provoked a few more thoughts in me.

I admit it frankly; I was rash, and I went in guns blazing, without adequate reflection. What I should have done, prior to refuting a list already drawn up, or attempting to formulate my own, was first, define the terms adequately.

This would mean not only defining 'manliness', but also, well, 'superhero'.

The author of the Bam-Kapow list, Michael McDaniel, defined 'manly' in the following way: "I like to think a ‘manly’ man is best known for his lack of knowledge on fashion, his chauvinist attitude toward feelings (marked by a great emotional dysfunction), and his general willingness to fight at the drop of a hat."

I wouldn't argue with any of this, and in fact, the last point especially seems telling -- a big defining factor for 'manliness', as I understand it, is an aggressive, pugnacious willingness, if not absolute vehement insistence, on resolving any conflict whatsoever with another human being, or at least, another adult male human being, through enthusiastic application of violence.

This last bit, by the way, pretty much eliminates Superman from the contention, as for the enormous majority of Superman's appearances, fisticuffs haven't figured in his problem solving approach. This is largely because Superman is, well, Superman; if his plot problems could be resolved by a punch in the snoot, then none of his stories would run longer than three panels.

While I'm on the subject of eliminating folks, let me mention at this point that I in no way regard 'manly' as being a positive attribute. Testosterone poisoning is never pretty. Drawing up a list of the Manliest Superheroes of All Time should not be confused with assembling a roster of My Favorite Superheroes of All Time. There may be some slight overlap between the two lists, but if there is, it would be despite a favorite character's 'manliness', not because of it.

Anyway. So far, in defining 'manly', we have three factors, according to Bam-Kapow -- lack of fashion sense, emotional disfunction, and an absolute willingness to settle any argument with a hard right cross to the jaw.

Or, at least, these are the criteria set out at the beginning of McDaniel's article. Along the way, however, he slips in a few other standards, like, you know, cigar smoking, beer guzzling, and a willingness to only have sex with either very butch chicks, or emotionally disfunctional ones. I'm not sure on that final one, but if we boil all this down to 'manly vices', and read that to mean, smoking, drinking, and ho chasin', well, that's fine. Throw it on the pile.

In addition, I'd add in a few other factors. First, there's the ride. You can't be manly without an awesome ride... well, you can be, but it's waaaay harder. Certainly, having an awesome ride is going to add mad manliness points.

Beyond this, and growing out of the Will to Violence we've already placed on the list, you have perhaps the most important Manliness Factor of all -- if two contenders for manly stature have a fight, which of them will emerge triumphant? In other words, of all the alpha males in the vast pantheon of superheroics, which is the most dominant of all, said dominance which must inevitably be established by punching, kicking, or using focused particle beams to blast one's opponent through the nearest partition?

This is the definition of manliness I'm willing to accept, going forward, in any attempt to establish any sort of definitive list of The Manliest Superheroes Of All Time. For a superhero to be Manly, they have to be fashion impaired, emotionally disfunctional, violent, willing to indulge in the traditional manly vices, possessed of a unique, fabulous, trademark ride, and last but not least, able to supremely kick the ass of any other manly superhero (or villain) that so much as twitches an eyebrow at them in an even vaguely confrontational manner.

Which isn't to say that a Manly Superhero has to possess all these qualities, but if said Manly Superhero lacks any one (or more) of them, he/she/it is going to have to make up for that lack in some other area in a truly fanatical, nearly deranged fashion.

Coming up with this definition actually wasn't all that hard. The more difficult part is defining the other part of the subject line, which is to say -- what exactly is a superhero?

The easiest thing to do would be to say that a 'superhero' is any 'hero' who is 'super', i.e., is capable of doing things normal human beings cannot.

Unfortunately, purists will immediately protest this, and with some justification. After all, Batman and Captain America have no 'superhuman' powers, and for that matter, Green Lantern and Iron Man have no innate, natural super abilities, either.

Even more treacherous, if we let it get that far, is the furious debate that can spring up around the word 'hero'. And I should know, as I'm one of the folks in the forefront of the 'Wolverine and the Punisher are not heroes, they're goddam psychos' movement. Many Modern Age super-protagonists, especially those created by most of the Alan Moore wannabes like Bendis, Ellis, Millar, Ennis, et al, are in no way, shape or form anything resembling 'heroic'. And we can argue about that all day, but ultimately, if we're going to get any kind of list assembled, we're just going to have to agree (however grudgingly) that the word 'hero' jest ain’t what it used to be, and nowadays, a 'hero' can be anyone who maintains any kind of moral superiority, however thin, nebulous, or occasionally imperceptible, over the bad guys they routinely do battle with.

It's best to just sidestep all such debates entirely, and acknowledge that the phrase 'superhero' has taken on a meaning that transcends its two root words. There are, as mentioned, many superheroes who aren't superhuman; similarly, there are just as many or more who aren't particularly heroic. Still, if we're going to avoid egregious errors such as putting gigantic Japanese robots and/or prehistoric sword wielding savages on a Most Manly Superheroes Ever list, we obviously need to establish some kind of universally agreeable definition.

Here, here, and here I've discussed various specific aspects of the superhero as he/she/it has been consistently presented in comic books, and other media, for the last sixty years or so. Stuff like the cool code name, the costume, the secret identity, the super powers, the simplified morality, the fight scenes, and the heroic motivation.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that while these are all common trappings of superheroics, only one of them is absolutely essential to superheroism. After all, not only are there inarguable members of the superhero community who lack one, or more than one, of these attributes (there are superheroes who don’t wear costumes, there are superheroes who don’t have secret identities, there are superheroes who refuse to adopt a cool code name, there are superheroes who exist in worlds with very realistically complex morality), but there are many characters out there who have nearly all of them, and yet, that I would not consider to be superheroes – Baron and Rude’s Nexus, for example, has the cool code name, the alternate identity, the nifty costume, and the super powers, and he’s certainly the protagonist of his series and he certainly goes up against opponents who are morally much worse than he is. But I wouldn’t call him a superhero, and when I think of why, here’s what I come back to:

His motivation isn’t very heroic. Which is to say, yeah, he kills mass murderers, but he doesn’t do it because he thinks it’s a good idea, or he wants to serve humanity, or justice, or protect the innocent. He does it because the alien entity that gives him his super powers will kill him with ultrapowerful migraines if he doesn’t do it.

Which is to say, he does it for personal, selfish reasons.

So what is a superhero? For my purposes, I’m going to say that a ‘superhero’ is someone who regularly performs feats and demonstrates capacities beyond those of normal humanity as we, the consensus audience, understand the limitations of humanity to be, and who does so in service of some ideal that is larger than his own personal concerns, and which involves the ongoing protection of people they do not personally know or care about.

Within this admittedly broad definition, yeah, we can cram in Frank Castle and Wolverine. They may be nuts, they may do what they do out of personal, unhealthy and sometimes psychotic impulse, but, well, that’s just the Modern Age. Both of them routinely perform feats of derring do impossible to normal humanity, and both of them do so, for the most part, in pursuit of a goal greater than themselves, for no personal reward. They aren’t paid to do it, they aren’t in it for the glory, and as a general rule, while they may get a certain sick satisfaction out of kicking ass and taking names, that isn’t why they do it, either. They’re fighting for something other than their own selfish personal interests, they’re at least slightly morally better than the forces they fight, and while they fight this fight, they are routinely performing actions beyond the capacities of normal humans. Hence… ‘superheroes’.

Having settled all this, it seems I’ll have to revise my list.

In my initial response, my list was enumerated as follows: ”As to my own Manliest Superheroes Ever list, well, I suppose I'd most likely put Batman and Captain America both at Number One, Daredevil at Number Two, throw in Hawkeye and Green Arrow at a tie for 3 (they're both pretty seriously testosterone poisoned), let Hellboy in at 4, make Ben Grimm 5, give Wolverine and the Punisher a tie for 6, the Sub Mariner would swim in at a solid 7, Hawkman gets an 8 just for pummeling his enemies with a frickin' medieval mace, Tom Strong comes in at 9 just because he does, and Power Girl would end up at 10, for obvious reasons.”

Since posting this, I’ve had a few other suggestions for possible additions to the list. Opus suggested Swamp Thing, and Nate chimed in with an urgent perceived need to add Superman to the list. Agnosticuss submitted his own list, which mostly echoed mine, but which also included Luke Cage, Iron Man, Robotman, and Cyclops.

Superman I’ve already addressed up at the start of this thing. Yeah, he’s a superhero – he is, in fact, the first superhero, the very icon of superheroism. But in terms of the parody level ‘manliness’ we are trying to define in this article – a better name for which might be ‘machismo’ or just ‘macho’ -- well, he’s just not very ‘manly’. (Mind you, that’s hardly a bad thing.) Supes may not have much fashion sense, but he’s hardly emotionally dysfunctional, isn’t particularly violent except as an absolute last resort, has no vices we’re aware of, has never had anything remotely resembling a ‘ride’, and while he most likely can kick the ass of anyone else who ends up on the list ahead of him, he wouldn’t really perceive the necessity, which completely invalidates him from any claim whatsoever to being ‘macho’.

Batman, on the other hand – if Green Arrow says he’s more manly than Batman, Green Arrow can look forward to getting his ass kicked in short order. And vice versa; were Batman to ever advise Ollie Queen that he feels he himself is manlier than the Emerald Archer, Ollie is reaching for a boxing glove arrow. So either of them can stay on the list.

Swamp Thing – well, leaving aside the obvious lack of, you know, manly apparatus like spear and magic helmet, still, he’s way too calm to be macho. He’ll kick ass, but he has to have an excellent reason to do it. If Wolverine were to show up in Houma, Louisiana and strut around with a bullhorn calling Swamp Thing a big sissy, Swamp Thing would just ignore the little idiot. Swamp Thing is also a far cry from being emotionally dysfunctional these days, and as far as I can tell, he has no manly vices at all. So, sorry, scratch Swamp Thing off the Manly Superheroes list, too.

As to Luke Cage, Iron Man, Robotman, and Cyclops –

All superheroes are, to some extent or another, lacking in fashion sense. Cage, with his gigantic steel chain around his waist, his bright yellow open silk shirt, his skin tight midnight blue trousers, his banana colored buccaneer boots, his chromium headband, and his huge chrome wristbands, is a prime offender. We’ve seen him smoking cigars and drinking hard liquor, and he’s certainly been a ho chaser in his prime, although I understand that he’s recently gotten married to some appalling Brian Michael Bendis character, so those days are hopefully behind him. And as those of us who saw the knock down drag out fights between Cage and the original Power Man, or Cage and Black Goliath, can attest, he’s willing to fight anyone at any time for any reason until all the surrounding buildings are reduced to rubble and he and/or his opponent are exhausted masses of blood and bruises.

On the other hand, he has no ride, and he’s not particularly emotionally dysfunctional given all the shit he’s been through. Still, I think he more than makes up for this in other areas, and I have no difficulty imagining him picking up the nearest Yellow Cab and clobbering anyone ahead of him on this list over the head with it, just to improve his ranking. So, fine, he’s in the running.


Iron Man – well, he has a drinking problem, and when he’s drunk he tends to have behavior issues. But he’s a damn dapper dresser out of armor, he’s not particularly dysfunctional when he’s sober, he’s currently on the wagon, and he’s no more inclined to throw down at the drop of a cape or cowl than any other Marvel superhero. You could, if you want, count his armor as his ride, and if you do it’s a pretty cool one, but, alas, it’s not exactly a vehicle. So, overall… nah, I wouldn’t put Iron Man on the list.

Robotman – I have no idea. I can’t see how he can smoke, drink, or chase skirts, though; I don’t think he has a ride, and I’ve never heard of him squaring off against, say, Cyborg, for the title of Meanest Chrome Plated Man Machine of All. So I don’t think he measures up. Sorry.

Cyclops – No, sorry, Scott is way too disciplined to be in the running for Manliest Superhero of All Time. He’s cool, calm and collected, and if you don’t believe me, consider for a moment that Wolverine isn’t currently embedded in the lunar surface or spread all over several acres of Connecticut real estate. That should tell you all you need to know about Scott Summers’ compulsive need to settle every conflict with violence. Beyond that, Scott dresses pretty well, doesn’t have much of a ride, and for someone who can break anyone or anything in existence just by looking at it, he’s damn well balanced. He’s manly, sure; you can’t ramrod the X-Men in the field for twenty years and not be. But he’s not crazy ass macho-parody manly.

So how would I revise my own list? Well, first, I’d kick Captain America off it and replace him with USAgent. USAgent is, in every way, a macho parody of Cap. Tell USAgent that Batman is more manly than he is, and USAgent will go ballistic. Say the same thing to Cap, and he’ll shrug.

For similar reasons, I’d have to remove Daredevil. Yeah, he beats the crap out of people he doesn’t like with a club, and that’s pretty macho, and yeah, he once wore the most horrifying costume in the history of comics besides that gross Rocky Horror Picture Show thing Mike Grell once put Cosmic Boy in. But he has no ride, and like Cap, he’s just going to flip you the bird if you tell him someone is manlier than he is; he’s got no time for that nonsense. He’s gone through his psycho stage, to be sure, but he doesn’t smoke, drink, and while his love interests are on the skankier side (Heather, Karen Page, the Black Widow) still, it’s not like he’s out in the pick up bars every night cruising for snatch. So, I’d have to kick him off, too.

Tom Strong I’d take off, too. Tom’s entirely too reasonable to be a macho jerk.

Batman I’d keep on the list, but I’d move him back to Number 2. Hawkeye and Green Arrow would still tie, but this time at 3. Hellboy would come in at 4, with Punisher and Wolverine at 5 (and, again, I still encourage them to fight it out, especially if Frank has a flame thrower or a howitzer). Ben Grimm, Namor, and Hawkman can all stay on it; where doesn’t really matter. I’d keep Power Girl just for laughs, and, well, she deserves it, too. And with my more clarified definition of a superhero, I’d wedge Nick Fury in there somewhere, because, you know, he smokes and drinks and chases a lot of tail, he’ll beat the crap out of anything that moves at the drop of a hat, and he has both that utterly cool flying Lotus as well as the frickin’ SHIELD helicarrier, which are pretty awesome rides. And he’s a real man’s man for emotional disfunction.

And I'd need to add in Luke Cage, too, as Agnosticuss' arguments there are persuasive. He can slug it out with Ben Grimm for whatever spot they both end up at.

But who’s my new Number One? Who, with my new definition of both Manly and Superhero, skates past even the Batman for Most Testosterone Poisoned Superhero of all time?

James.
Tiberius.
Kirk.

YEAH, baby. THAT’s right. Captain frickin’ Kirk, head honcho of the U .S.S. Enterprise, which is in and of itself the biggest, baddest, most tricked out and asskicking superhero ride of all time.

What’s that you say? Captain Kirk is mad cool but dude, he isn’t a superhero? Hell, you even said yourself in your previous entry that he wasn’t a superhero, so what the hell is this now?

Okay. I know. But that was before I gave further reflection to the whole superhero deal.

Jim Kirk has it all. He’s got a costume. Yeah, it’s a military uniform, but so is the Green Lantern outfit; want to tell me Hal Jordan isn’t a superhero? No? Then shut up. Kirk frequently does stuff no mere mortal could possibly do, like survive a transporter accident that divides him into two separate bodies, and beat the crap out of Klingons and Romulans and alien gladiators and all that hoohah with his bare hands. He may not have actual super powers, but he’s got an indomitable will, galaxy class charisma, an invincible left hook, a phaser in his belt, and enough brains and resourcefulness to whip up a primitive mortar out of bamboo and charcoal if he needs to kick a humanoid velociraptor's ass in order to save the entire human race from extinction.

Most important of all, Jim Kirk isn’t out there cruising the galaxy, blowing up alien computers, kicking the shit out of telekinetic deities, rescuing green skinned cuties and beating holy hell out of entire busloads full of renegade genetically engineered supermen for his own personal gratification, or even because it’s his job. He’s an idealist, fighting for truth, justice, and the United Federation of Planets. He’s an explorer, boldly going where no man has gone before, and kicking the snot out of anyone who tries to get in his, or the United Federation of Planet's, way. He’s defending his ship and his crew. He’s fighting for an ideal, something bigger than himself, something he has no personal stake in.

He’s a superhero.

Yeah, I know. He doesn’t SEEM like a superhero, not the same way Batman and Green Arrow and even Hellboy seem like superheroes. I don’t care. He’s an iconic, larger than life character who exhibits superhuman qualities, he behaves in a heroic manner as defined above, and I’m going with it. Your mileage may vary, just as mine did from Michael McDaniel’s on the subject of Conan (and friggin’ Optimus Prime). But this is my list, and on my list, James T. Kirk is a superhero.

(Now, I know, this opens up an inevitable can of worms – if Jim Kirk is a superhero, then why isn’t Luke Skywalker? Or maybe that doesn’t seem inevitable to you, because you’re not as big a geek as I am, and if so, well, god bless and hand me that stack of Silver Age Captain America comics on your way out the door, would you? But if you were thinking that question, or even if you weren’t, my answer would be, Luke Skywalker is a superhero, he’s just a lame ass one who is about as manly as a frickin’ tribble and who probably couldn’t win a fist fight with R2D2, which is sad, since R2 doesn’t even have hands, and is easily toppled in a fracas.)

As for Kirk’s manly qualities, well, he drinks Romulan ale until he passes out and chases everything female from one end of the Milky Way to the other, and generally catches it, too. His most cherished unfulfilled fantasy was to beat the living shit out of some dweeb who pissed him off back in the Academy, and he’s proven himself more than willing to use violence as first, middle, and last resort whenever any kind of problem needs to be solved on his beat. And as to the final requirement of manliness – i.e., can he take anyone else on the Manly Superheroes List in a fight – well, I have six simple words for you:

“Mr. Sulu, lock phasers on target.”

Kind of makes a utility belt look pretty frickin’ lame, eh?

5 Comments:

At 1:27 AM , Anonymous Agnosticuss said...

Given your reasoning, I cannot refute your argument.

We could go back and forth as to some of the points to your reasoning, but feh...I'm too old, and frankly, I like your answer.

 
At 6:29 AM , Blogger Highlander said...

I like my answer, too.

Apparently, in order to refute my arguments, one needs to be young and snotty and pig ignorant of the subject matter, which would seem to let out most of my regular commenters, anyway. I say this because over on Martian Vision I've just picked up a couple of comments from some punk kid who is taking me to task for factual errors I have made in my various articles on DC comics in general, and the Legion of Superheroes in specific, which is, he declares on his own blog, his 'favorite superhero ever'.

And, of course, he also advises his readers there that he's never read a Legion story published before 1980, and never wants to. He took out the SHOWCASE edition of early JLA stories from the library, and after reading it, could only rejoice that he hadn't spent any money on it.

::spreading hands:: What are you going to do?

 
At 12:24 AM , Blogger AaA said...

Captain James T. Kirk.

Yeah, yeah...hell yeah! He may not have his own inborn powers, but he's got technology to make up for that, and like you said, he's got every other angle licked, sealed, and stamped. And he's gotten more tail than Hasbro (Pin the Tail on the Donkey game... look, I needed something, okay? Just shut up.).

 
At 6:47 PM , Anonymous Michael E. McDaniel said...

Hi, I'm amazed to see you spend so much time on my list (as I find my work wholly undeserving of such attention). However, I've always known creating lists of this nature is a combustible enterprise, especially when discussing comic book characters. I read your initial response, perused this one as well, and found them both pretty hilarious. I hope none of this turned you off of my serious work in reviewing comics, I’m not sure if you’ve read any of them but in doing so you might see that when I write those Top Ten’s I’m being silly on purpose.

I must say that my article was satire, as I obviously have no wish to say anything definitive (or anything at all really) about manliness, superheroes, or anything in between. My article prefaces with this statement. I should also note that I write these articles with a specific eye towards getting people riled up. I knew putting Batman at 10 would be shocking—thus encapsulating the whole reason I did it. I also tried to capture a sense of ‘manliness’ that Maddox uses that is a ridiculous concept to be celebrated, yet I did for comedic effect. Any and all lists such as these are for fun, I’m never serious when I write them, so understand that I take liberties with the characters often. That’s all; hope you keep reading our little site. May I suggest my other list: the Top Ten Un-Manliest Superheroes. I’m sure you’ll find it as disagreeable as the first.

 
At 10:01 AM , Blogger Highlander said...

Michael,

Thanks for stopping by.

I had more -- lots more -- but, never mind. I appreciate all my comments, even the condescending ones from people who feel that "I was only kidding" is an excuse for any offense against language and/or art (such as, for example, creating a list of 'superheroes' when one obviously has no clear idea exactly what a 'superhero' may be, or redefining the word 'manly' repeatedly in the course of an article until said word becomes little more than an arbitrary string of letters one is using to evoke limbic responses in one's audience).

Uh... okay, yeah, that was pretty much what I wanted to say.

I appreciate the link to your other articles; I may read them, but probably not today, as this is my day off and I have a great deal of stuff on the list for it.

But, again, thanks for stopping by. Always good to know other people do ego searches, too.

 

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