In my defense, I must point out that I had every intention of ignoring this thing. Normally it's not my sort of entertainment at all... it sneaked up on me.
But nevertheless, Stan Lee's Who Wants To Be A Superhero? has become appointment television for us.
I can't really explain it. It's not that the show's good. Or even hilariously bad. It's just... I guess "hypnotically weird" is as close as I can come to describing its effect on us. Julie and I are fascinated by this bunch of loons that are competing to be... what, exactly? What do they win?
As nearly as I can tell... the prize is to become fictional.
In case you haven't seen the show, it works like this -- ten people compete in various stunts and scenarios meant to show how heroic they are, and then Stan Lee appears on a giant TV screen and judges them, eliminating competitors one at a time, till the one that's left wins. You can't really call it a "reality" show, because too much of it has to be staged -- there are too many camera angles and edits and effects for the shooting of the episodes not to require some kind of multiple takes, at least part of the time. But you can't really dismiss it as just a game show, either, there's too much interpersonal stuff. The participants alternate between hamming it up for the cameras Adam West-style and talking sincerely, almost confessionally, about how desperately important and meaningful it would be for them to be Stan's new superhero. Apparently they think winning that privilege would be on a level with the success of Spider-Man or the X-Men and not, say, Stripperella or Nightcat.
But that last part is what has us staring at the TV in slack-jawed, hypnotized amazement every week. They want to BE the superhero. They talk about themselves as though they have powers, they talk about fighting crime and doing good... and honestly? They come off as deranged. You want to shake them and say, "You know this stuff is all made up, right?"
The freakiest part is when they talk about their miserable personal lives or past failures and then add that they are hoping, with Stan's godlike help, to overcome this adversity and make a fresh start.
As a fictional character. In a comic book.
It's not a new phenomenon in comics, of course; there have been fictional comic books about real people for decades. Roy Rogers, real person, built a career on Roy Rogers, fictional persona.
Hell, even Roy's horse had a fictional-avatar comic for a while.
And there have been lots of others. I have a hunch Bob Hope never even saw the comics based on his fictional persona, but they were classics of weirdness. (You have to wonder if Hope's publicity people demanded any right of approval on this typical example of the book's political incorrectness... but it was a simpler time.)
And later on we got this sort of postmodern ironic take on the whole thing. Steve Gerber wrote the first Kiss comic, which I rather liked, I admit. And Gerber put them squarely in the Marvel Universe, fighting Dr. Doom, no less.
Apparently it did well enough for a sequel, but it wasn't as entertaining. Without Steve Gerber the concept lost a lot of its charm.
The Image version that came a decade or two later lasted a couple of years, so they must have been doing something right. It never did much for me, but mileage varies and all that.
And I see in the latest Previews that Gene Simmons is still fooling around with a line of comics. However, whether it's Roy Rogers or KISS, these are just comic books taking an already-successful fictional public persona as the jumping-off point. They're afterthoughts, tie-in merchandising.
Stan Lee's demented superhero "reality" show is something different... it reminds me more of the Human Fly.
The Human Fly was a stuntman who billed himself as a superhero, secret identity and all. He insisted on remaining masked and was careful to maintain his "secret identity" in all his appearances, never giving a real name. He never really achieved big-time fame, but he did somehow persuade Marvel to do a comic book about him.
The amazing part is that the book wasn't bad. Bill Mantlo and Lee Elias turned in nineteen issues of straight-ahead hero-stuff, planting the Fly in the mainstream Marvel Universe and having him meet all sorts of other super people. Mantlo created a fictional supporting cast and amped up the soap opera same as any other Marvel book of the time. It was okay while it lasted. (There's an interesting sidebar about this project in David Yurkovich's splendid Mantlo: A Life In Comics, which you should all buy.)
But you never got the sense, reading the comic or the Fly's other publicity material, that the guy was demented. However, watching the contestants on Who Wants To Be A Superhero? one is often left with the impression that they're on the express train to Crazy Town.
Sorry to say it, fellow fans, but that's the usual reaction we have out here in the real world to people who dress in spandex and claim to be super. While I was Googling around for pictures of some of the folks mentioned earlier, I found this index to people who've tried it. (God bless the internet -- no matter how deranged your hobby might be, somewhere out there you can probably find a web page reference index for it.) It makes for somewhat alarming reading, especially the entries on people like "Terrifica" who are deadly serious about, well, being a caped vigilante.
Interestingly, there's no entry there for the one guy who could actually have claimed some success in his efforts as a costumed hero.
Richard Pesta billed himself as "Captain Sticky." He was a cheerfully eccentric publicity hound who claimed to be America's Only Practicing Caped Crusader. He was around San Diego for years and though his chief talent seemed to be posing for cameras and huckstering his persona, he did do some crusading for consumer rights and was instrumental in shining a light on the corrupt management of a couple of nursing homes. He often exhorted comics pros to immortalize him in a comic book of his own, thinking this would be the key to fame and fortune. He never persuaded anyone to try it, though I do have a vague memory of Stan Lee teasing the idea in a Soapbox column at some point.
Eventually Pesta gave up his Captain Sticky identity and opened an organic fertilizer business. He passed away in December of 2003 and the San Diego Tribune gave him a nice write-up here.
It's a pity he didn't live to see his dream realized. God knows, never in a million years did I think I'd see Stan Lee hosting a televised competition to find, essentially, the next Captain Sticky.
We used to think the guy was a nut. But maybe the Captain was just ahead of his time. In a world where people like William Hung can become celebrities, maybe becoming fictional isn't such an unrealistic goal after all.
See you next week.