June 2, 2015
The League of Regrettable Superheroes is, if you’ll forgive the joke – and there’s no reason why you should – definitely not a regrettable read.
The book is broken down like this:
Each superhero gets a page-long entry containing their publication history, a summary of their shtick, and rundowns of some standout adventures (which in some cases are their only adventures). These entries are accompanied by a reprint of a cover or full interior comic book page. Entries are organized alphabetically by superhero name, which makes them easy to find.
The book is divided into three parts: the Golden Age, Silver Age, and Modern Age. Of these, the Golden Age is the strongest, since it features sample panels to give the reader a better sense of the superhero in question’s regrettability. Some of these are truly wonderful, and I don’t want to spoil them. All I’ll say is that Fletcher Hanks gets two entries in here – Stardust and Fantomah – and if you like people with tiny heads and bizarre punishments in space, you’re in for a treat.
At times the book can’t seem to decide whether it wants to focus on superheroes who are truly regrettable or those whose publications just had short lifespans. This indecision is clearest in the inclusion of characters such as Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Canada’s first female superhero, who (as Morris notes) has her origins in Inuit myth and the real-life indigenous culture of her Canadian homeland — and who is, conceptually, 100% cool. There are also some stellar ideas from the Golden Age that play with notions of gender and heroism and/or eschew the convention of female superheroes having to appear young and beautiful, which I’ll talk about more in a bit. Maybe The League of Short-Lived Superheroes would have been a more appropriate title.
It also would have worked better if the Modern Age had been broken down further into the 1970s-1990s and the 1990s-now. The regrettable superheroes of the 1970s tended more toward stabs in the dark at misguided “diversity,” whereas those of the 1990s…well, the #PouchComics hashtag on Twitter will tell you most of what you need to know. An example of the latter in The League of Regrettable Superheroes is The Ferret, who started out as a generic cape-and-tights hero in the 1940s and came back in the 1990s looking like this. There’s also Gunfire, whose power is that he can turn anything he picks up into a gun. The book doesn’t confirm whether he was actually created by a 10-year-old boy, but I have my suspicions.
Anyway: the Golden Age. What this book makes clear about the Golden Age — but in a way that allows the reader to draw her own conclusions – is the degree to which many of its superheroes don’t come with what we would consider the standard-issue trappings of comic book heroism. Madam Fatal, for instance, doesn’t have superhuman powers or a multi-billion-dollar bank account. What she does have is old-lady sass, a cane to smack people with, and a knack for disguise; her civilian identity is former actor Richard Stanton. In other words, in order to be a hero, a middle-aged man assumes the appearance and gender pronouns of an elderly woman. It’s pretty boss.
My personal favorite, however, is Mother Hubbard: a witch who fights evil by using the magical ingredients in her cupboard (get it?) to cast spells. When I say “witch,” I mean the whole pointy hat/old and shriveled/hooked nose/flying around on a broom package. The evil she goes up against isn’t the turning-people-into-frogs type, either. In one of her adventures, she prevents a band of gnomes from stealing the souls of children.
I think it’s about time for a Mother Hubbard revival. No extra grittiness needed; she’s hardcore enough on her own.
This, for me, sums up the main selling point of The League of Regrettable Superheroes. It’s not just about laughing at superheroes who didn’t make it, although I do enjoy laughing at misguided ideas from comics. The characters who punch and blast their way through its pages raise important questions about what makes a superhero. What do we really want from our vigilantes, our magical avengers, our terrifying nursery-rhyme witches (seriously, Mother Hubbard is the greatest)? When we crack open a new superhero comic, what are we actually looking for?
Having read the book cover to cover, I’ve now got my own answers to those questions – and I’m guessing everyone else who reads it will have their own unique answers as well. I look forward to finding out what those will be.