Yesterday marked the halfway point of this yearlong look at cool stuff in comics. It only gets worse from here, folks. Or better. I suppose it depends on your viewpoint. I’m quite pleased with all the good responses this latest theme week has been generating. I love you guys– I definitely couldn’t have made it this far without you. Expect some kind of neat little reader survey sometime soon so I can find out what’s working, what’s not, and where to go from here as we enter the second half of 365 Reasons.
Today is the penultimate DITKO WEEK! entry. It’s back to Marvel as I take a look at a terrifically fun character who is going through a depression. I’m also going to take a more in-depth look at a pattern that’s popped up so far in all these neat Ditko entries. Join me, will you? (You can always catch up with past entries at the archive.)
“How? Why? Who?” By the end of this column, I too will be asking those questions.
Speedball was probably the last Marvel superhero created in the classic fashion– but then, what do you expect when Steve Ditko and Tom DeFalco come up with a character together? But, look– he was a teenager with everyday problems who had cool and funky superpowers that made his life even more complicated. He was in a bunch of fun stories and he was drawn by Steve freakin’ Ditko. He should’ve been the next Spider-Man, right? Right. So what went wrong? Let’s take a look…
Robbie Baldwin was a normal kid until he was caught in a bizarre experiment that gave him the ability to produce a kinetic energy field that lets him bounce all over the place and make other things bounce off him. Characterized by a field of little energy bubbles, it activates whenever he gets hit hard enough– so getting a hearty pat on the back could give away his secret identity!
He first appeared in a back-up story in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 22 (in which Spidey didn’t appear, of course, because Ditko never drew Spidey again) and quickly got his own series, which, sadly, was quickly canceled after ten issues, even though it features some great Ditko art and a cast of crazy characters and villains like Leaper Logan, the Bug-Eyed Voice, and the Harlequin Hitman. There were lots of nice little touches– Speedball’s Connecticut hometown banned superheroes, so he’s labeled a vigilante; he’s not called Speedball by the public, but rather “The Masked Marvel;” he’s got a cat, Niels, with the same powers. It was a very “traditional” sort of series, which I guess didn’t go over well in the late ’80s. It did, however, feature a neat guest appearance by a Chuck Norris imposter named “Chick Harris.” (Fun fact: Steve Ditko drew Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos. Oh yes.)
The demise of his series was not the demise of Speedball, however; co-creator Tom DeFalco introduced the New Warriors, a group of teenaged superheroes, and made sure to put Speedball in the line-up. They got their own series and it lasted quite a while as a fan favorite. Much like Ted Kord was the heart of the JLI, Speedball was, in my opinion, anyway, the heart of the New Warriors. He gladly served in all of its incarnations (until the latest one which has only just debuted, anyway). He also appeared in a regular feature in the quarterly Marvel Super-Heroes anthology series.
(“Speedball Revenge Squad”!?!? Genius.)
So, what happened? Well, it seems a lot of readers and creators thought Speedball was lame. I know, I don’t get it, either. It’s true, though. He fell out of favor, and only got the occasional guest appearance. He showed up in Alias, I believe, as a guinea pig for Mutant Growth Hormone or something. That paled in comparison, however, to what was to come.
After a fun Zeb Wells/Skottie Young New Warriors mini-series, the entire team was offed in the opening issue of Civil War. The entire team, that is, except Speedball, who survived and was blamed for the Stamford disaster (instead of, say, the actual villain who committed the crime. Bah). Apparently, Speedball was just too silly, so they overhauled him and turned him into Penance. Yes, Robbie went totally self-destructive and emo, slapped on a BDSM costume that has a bunch of stabby things that constantly dig into his flesh, and joined the Thunderbolts. My, how the awesome have fallen.
“How? Why? Who?” Did we really need Penance? Did we? No. It’s a dumb idea.– who thought it was a good one? Unfortunately, it’s only the latest in a series of mistreatments of Ditko characters. Let’s see– Spider-Man? Well, they’ve destroyed all the good parts of his concept. The Creeper? He’s constantly rebooted and shoved further into obscurity. Blue Beetle? Killed and replaced. The Question? Killed and replaced. Hawk and Dove? Killed, turned evil, killed some more, replaced. Captain Atom? Almost turned evil, and might be doing so again. Shade the Changing Man? Well, er, I guess he made out okay. And we know no one’s gonna screw with Mr. A.
I understand the need for characters to change and stuff, sure. And I can accept dark storylines. What I can’t accept is dark storylines with no point, or random changes that don’t lead anywhere and don’t improve the character. When they’re killed off for no good reason or tossed into the garbage or transformed into something grim, gritty, and unrecognizable, they lose what made them interesting and special in the first place. I mean, I like the new Blue Beetle and stuff, don’t get me wrong– the new guys don’t deserve any ire. I just hate seeing the old guys treated so poorly.
I love Speedball– the real, original Speedball, who was a true blue Marvel character with a brilliant set of powers and a fantastic costume design. He was a Ditko creation, for cryin’ out loud! There was no need for Penance– none at all. And so here I am, the proverbial old man, shaking my fist at those damn whippersnappers at Marvel, even though everyone who works there is older than me. That doesn’t seem right.
For more on Speedball, check the Wiki. And, hey, here’s something neat: Speedball’s visual appearance seems to share some traits with another Ditko ’80s creation, Static. What do you say– coincidence or no?
Tomorrow will be the stunning conclusion to DITKO WEEK! Only one mainstream Ditko creation has survived character assassination– who is it? Find out on Independence Day.