Confessions of a Comics Junkie: Rooting for the Underdog (or, Characters Marvel Forgot to Love)

23 Sep

Readers of my personal blog will recall that I recently got back into comic books.  And by “got back into” I mean “I now have almost three long boxes full of comics.”[1]  It’s an obsession.  So sue me.

One of the things that has been most interesting to me on this journey back into comics is discovering how much has changed since I was a lax reader in the 90s.  I don’t mean in terms of the narratives, mind you (though those have changed, too), but rather in terms of the characters who have stuck around, moved to the background, or (supposedly) left us for good.[2]  Things have really changed.

The most alarming change for me was the realization that some of the characters I loved as a kid have since taken a sideline to more “popular” folks.  Oh, hell, let’s face it.  The characters I liked as a kid, and the characters I have since started to cling to in the now, will never be as popular as Wolverine or Batman or Captain America or Iron Man or most of the folks gracing our movie screens these days.  They are, and probably always have been or will be, the underdogs.  But they’re also the characters for which I can’t help rooting.

Darkhawk

When I read comics in the 90s, I latched onto folks like Darkhawk (Christopher Powell), an arguably second-tier superhero who got his superpowers from an alien amulet (some pretty cool powers, though).  He had some fun fighting alongside Spider-man, Wolverine, the New Warriors, and a handful of other folks, but by the turn of the century, he had been relegated to the sideline.  Though he had a stint in The Loners in 2005 — basically, it was about a group of superheroes who were addicted to their powers (i.e., AA for superheroes) — and War of Kings in 2009 — a crossover event following the after math of Secret Invasion — he hasn’t had nearly the presence as he did in the 90s, when he had his very own series (of some 50+ issues).  His latest appearance is in Avengers Arena, one of many currently running series sprung out of the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover last year.  Basically, a sociopath named Arcade kidnaps twelve mutants from the Avengers Academy (mostly) and sticks them in a twisted Battle Royale / Hunger Gamesstyle arena where they are supposed to kill one another for his amusement. Oh, and did I mention that Darkhawk might be dead?  Not the amulet side, but Christopher Powell.  He might be dead.  My heart weeps…  It’s not an original plot, sure, but what makes it such a fascinating narrative for me is the characters.

I bring all this up because they are connected.  When I started reading Avengers Arena, I desperately wanted Darkhawk to take center stage.  After all, he’s supposed to be a bit older than all the other characters in the series, so he should have played a sort of messed up version of Captain America.  He deserved the shot, really, and the other characters stuck in Murderland (what Arcade calls it) briefly think that he’s kind of “one of the big guys.”  The entire series is about “the little guys,” though, and the more I read about these characters, the more I love them.  Darkhawk is an underdog, in no small part because he’s sort of been sidelined not just by Marvel[3], but by the characters of the Marvel Universe.  When he gained enough attention to warrant consideration in the Avengers, they only gave him a reserve slot in the short-lived West Coast edition.[4]  He’s been sidelined ever since.  Despite the issues with Powell as a person, the character deserves more attention, if only because he’s a constantly evolving figure (his powers have changed over time) with a conflicted relationship to his powers (addiction and a strange split-personality thing).  There’s also the fact that he’s the only “major” cybernetic character in the current Avengers/X-Men roster who isn’t related to Wolverine or the Cable/Cyclops family by blood or Colossus (who isn’t really cybernetic, but whatever).[5]

Avengers Arena #4

And, of course, I’m rooting for Darkhawk for purely nostalgic reasons.  The science fictional nature of the character has always intrigued me; when I was reading Darkhawk and The Secret Defenders in the 90s, I latched onto Powell, perhaps mostly because his Darkhawk identity looked so darn cool.  These days, I find myself rooting for him precisely because he’s one of the “screwed up” ones, and he shows it.  His recent incarnations are seemingly self-aware in ways that some of the other major characters aren’t.  I’m not sure why this is so; considering that half of the X-Men and Avengers, even the secondary characters, have been around for decades, you’d think their portrayals would always show the conflicts of their past, but so many of them seem to move beyond it, or at least ignore it.  Even if only for a moment.  That’s not so for Darkhawk, and he really deserves a narrative where he can hash out his problems and triumph not only over self, but also over villains.[6]

Avengers Arena also has some other underdog characters who deserve more love, one of whom will only get it if Marvel pulls one of those “ha, fooled you!” things.  Two of my favorite characters from this new batch of young mutants are Mettle (whose red iridium body gives him super strength/durability and a mutant skull monster look) and Hazmat (whose body leaks deadly radiation, which she can use like a weapon, but which also makes it so she constantly has to wear a specialized radiation suit — hence the name).  I won’t get into their origins, because this post is already long enough, but I will say that, like Darkhawk, they elicit an immediate “rooting for them” response from me.  It was pretty obvious to me that these two characters would develop more than a friendship in the series; because Hazmat’s body is dangerous, something that prevents her from creating attachments to others, the pre-Avengers Arena comics have portrayed their relationship as deliberately patient, such that by the first issue of Avengers Arena, their romantic attachment is one of mutual respect — they both understand the pains of being “freaks” even in the mutant world.  So when Mettle gets blasted in that same first issue, a little part of me died.  I’d been rooting for that big, red-skulled weirdo, hoping that he and Hazmat would go off, have a life together, solve some crime, and appear in their very own cartoon sitcom on Cartoon Network.  But that was never to be (maybe)…

Mettle and Hazmat

Mettle and Hazmat are just two of the Avengers Academy lot.  The comic series of the same name is really about teenage underdogs, living in a world where all the adult mutants want to take care of the problems so the new crop of mutants don’t have to be like the adults were “back in the day”:  teenage crime-fighters, trying to do the right thing in a world that hates them, with hormones and rashness nipping at their heels every second of every day.  These younger mutants live in a terrifying, yet slightly more glorious time than their predecessors.  But the students at Avengers Academy (and at the new Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) don’t have the luxury of not fighting for themselves.  No matter how hard the adults try to keep the young ones out of the game, they are all forced into action eventually.  And as underdogs — young, inexperienced, and thought of as “not ready” by their adult teachers — they, like Darkhawk, have to constantly prove themselves over and over and over.  They fail.  They succeed.  They continue fighting.  And underdogs they remain.

These are the characters I am most fascinated by these days.  There’s something about the underdogs — the folks you don’t expect to fight the big fights — that traps me in the comics world; Wolverine and Captain America are great and all, but they aren’t the characters I root for these days.  I know they’re going to win.  Or they’ll die and come back again.  But these “lesser” heroes — the underdogs — have bigger stakes.  They do sometimes die — for good — and they do sometimes lose their battles in ways that affect them for years to come.  To me, the underdogs have a better grasp on the reality around them.  They haven’t got the luxury of thinking that the world will just turn out all right after the battle is over (the big guys and gals don’t necessarily think this either, but as a reader, I can’t help feeling that they’ll probably be alright next week).

Mettle and Hazmat -- Dancing

Dancing like a goof is Hazmat’s thing. She and Mettle = adorable.

And on that note, I’ve got a question:

Who are your favorite underdog super heroes and why?

—————————————————————————–

[1]:  I mostly read Marvel titles, with a handful of DC and indie ones thrown in for good measure.

[2]:  Few people ever really die in the comics world — at least, not in the Marvel or DC canons.  The writers get around it by creating alternate universes, collapsing universes, rebooting, or simply saying, “Surprise! She’s not really dead! Ahahahahaha!”

[3]:  This is likely because Darkhawk just didn’t sell as well as other things.

[4]:  For reasons that might make sense if not for the fact that Wolverine, who most Avengers and X-Men members have to keep from murdering everyone who “crosses the line,” has had an “understanding” with Captain America for a while now.

[5]:  There are so many clones and children from the future in Marvel that it’s really hard to keep track of blood relations.

[6]:  To be fair, I’m biased.  Darkhawk forever!

P.S.:  As Mike Underwood well knows, anything he thinks about comics is completely and utterly wrong.  So if he comments on this post, I will disagree with him on principle alone.  Bring it, Mike!

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