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CSBG Archive

365 Reasons to Love Comics #184

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.)

7/3/07

184. Speedball

Speedball 1.jpg

“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.)

Speedball 2.jpgSpeedball 3.jpgSpeedball 4.jpg

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 7.jpgSpeedball 5.jpgSpeedball 6.jpg

(“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.

31 Comments

He made a strange appearance in Bendis’ Alias, too. Very strange.

What gets me is, they thought Speedball as he was was silly, but they DON’T realize that a guy suffering from PTSD and a massive guilt complex putting himself into an Iron Maiden and fighting crime is just as silly, if not more so.

Also, his powers now are far more boring. Wow, *another* guy who shoots energy blasts from his hands!

Tomorrow will be the stunning conclusion to DITKO WEEK! Only one mainstream Ditko creation has survived character assassination– who is it?

SQUIRREL GIRL!!!!!!!

I need to check out the return of Niels the bouncing cat. And bring on the Squirrel Girl (who totally had a crush on Speedball)!

“survived and was blamed for the Stamford disaster (instead of, say, the actual villain who committed the crime. Bah). ”

Are you saying that this is a bad story point because that is what would totally happen in real life.

Oh, and I have no problem with Penance. I don’t feak out over the costume like some and I don’t even think changing the character is a bad idea. I think its interesting to take a character from one extreme to the other and I think the way it was done was really interesting even if it wasn’t executed all that well.

What’s interesting about Penance? Riddled with guilt I get, turned into a S&M emo nutcase I don’t. He was handled far better in that last NW mini drawn by Skottie Young, pity they were only being set up to get killed.

At least Blue Beetle and the Question got decent replacements.

“Are you saying that this is a bad story point because that is what would totally happen in real life.”

Who gives two fucks about real life. This is the Marvel Universe. They have unstable molecules, Asgardian gods, and Captain fucking America. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that it be better than real life once in a while.

Isn’t the name Penance already taken?

I’m going to preface this by making it clear that I am a HUGE Ditko fan- I am about as far away as you can get from him politically, but I don’t care because he’s quite clearly one of the greatest cartoonists of his era. But I really feel like I have to comment on a couple of points…

Firstly:

“So, what happened? Well, it seems a lot of readers and creators thought Speedball was lame. I know, I don’t get it, either.”

…really? You REALLY don’t get how a fun, nay silly, character patently aimed at a younger audience, would be unpopular in the era that gave us Punisher’s Armoury, and made megastars of the Image founders? An era when almost the entire industry was desperately trying to get away from it’s “kid’s stuff” image?

Speedball would have trouble finding an audience NOW, I think, and the audience is far more receptive to that kind of material these days. And to make myself clear: Speedball represents everything I think Superhero comics (or at least the majority of them) SHOULD be; I just have no trouble at all understanding why it didn’t catch on.

Secondly:

I’ve really enjoyed Ditko week because it’s covered some of my all time favourite comics, but the constant bellyaching about how the characters have been “mistreated” has frankly got right on my wick. These are FICTIONAL CHARACTERS. A good comic is a good comic, and no matter what anybody else does later on with characters or ideas from that comic, it’s still a good comic. It doesn’t change. The only thing that can be effected is your perception of it, and that only happens if you let it.

And remember; what consitiutes mistreatment in tour eyes will be percieved very differently be someone else. How do you think Ditko would react to Rorschach, or Dr Manhattan, or O’Neill’s Question, or Milligan’s Shade? So were those horrible mistreatments of the characters?

Or were they just comics?

(And for god’s sake, Blue Beetle was a reworking of an older character too! A completly different concept to the original at that! So Ditko was quite willing to “mistreat” other people’s characters.)

Ian Astheimer

July 4, 2007 at 8:58 am

Isn’t the name Penance already taken?

It was, yeah, but Robbie Baldwin is the eight hundred pound S&M gorilla, so the Generation X Penance is now called Hollow.

Also: I wish I knew more about Ditko’s Static. He’s got a great design, but there seems to be a scarcity of info about the guy.

“What’s interesting about Penance? Riddled with guilt I get, turned into a S&M emo nutcase I don’t. He was handled far better in that last NW mini drawn by Skottie Young, pity they were only being set up to get killed.”

I will certainly agree that Speedball was handled well in that series and that he wasn’t a bad character. I don’t think the series was a set-up to have them killed, I think if it was more succesful he would still be alive and kicking. Yeah thats right, its YOUR fault all you Young haters.

What I find interesting is that he takes guilt (like Peter Parker) and instead of embracing it allows it to consume him. That he is so depressed and so wrapped up in his guilt that he feels he has to torture himself. That he has to pay for what he has done.

As for him being an “emo, S&M freak” I would say your wrong on both counts. Thats not really what S&M is about. He serves his own penance through his self flatulation and personal torture. He gets no sexual joy out of it, he feels its what he has to do. And emo… please. Emo is for suburban kids whose parents fight a lot, calling a character that killed thousands ‘emo’ ignores and belittles the real drama that could be there.

Was Speedball done as a character? No, he had more stories to tell. Could Penance have come out of any other character? No, I don’t think so.

““Are you saying that this is a bad story point because that is what would totally happen in real life.”

Who gives two fucks about real life. This is the Marvel Universe. They have unstable molecules, Asgardian gods, and Captain fucking America. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that it be better than real life once in a while”

You are confusing the fantastic with the dramatic. To abandon the real world entirely leads to thin, two-dimensional stories. Basically DC in the silver-age.

You can be both “better than real life” and take inspiration from the real world.

“You are confusing the fantastic with the dramatic.”

No, I’m advocating mixing them properly. As opposed to gutting the fantastic and replacing it with the melodramatic.

“You can be both “better than real life” and take inspiration from the real world.”

Would that Marvel realized that.

Or, to put it another way: Just because it’s “what would happen in the real world” doesn’t mean it’s not a stupid fucking idea.

Alright, time for replies to the replies.

David Wynne:

…really? You REALLY don’t get how a fun, nay silly, character patently aimed at a younger audience, would be unpopular in the era that gave us Punisher’s Armoury, and made megastars of the Image founders?

Of course I do. I was being a touch sarcastic there, though my point stands. The really silly creations back then were the grim-and-gritty ‘roided-up Image-y beasts that became massively popular. Unfortunately, they were the bad kind of silly.

I’ve really enjoyed Ditko week because it’s covered some of my all time favourite comics, but the constant bellyaching about how the characters have been “mistreated” has frankly got right on my wick. These are FICTIONAL CHARACTERS. A good comic is a good comic, and no matter what anybody else does later on with characters or ideas from that comic, it’s still a good comic. It doesn’t change. The only thing that can be effected is your perception of it, and that only happens if you let it.

Yeah, I know. For years, I fought against the fanboys who bought comics because of the characters, not because of the creators or the story, and who acted like they were real people. And I get that I’m slipped a bit into that mentality with some of these Reason posts, but I kinda have to, because of the format. But the “mistreated the characters” bit is really shorthand for “undermined the core concept and destroyed valuable potential.” There was a storytelling engine, and they broke it in favor of a worse one.

I see potential in so many comics and characters, and it isn’t being realized. Instead, they’re being killed off or suffering from the same story retreaded over and over. That’s not the proper way to handle a comics character that can still give you good stories if done well. The story execution isn’t living up to the inherent potential.

Ian:

Emo is for suburban kids whose parents fight a lot, calling a character that killed thousands ‘emo’ ignores and belittles the real drama that could be there.

You are confusing the fantastic with the dramatic. To abandon the real world entirely leads to thin, two-dimensional stories. Basically DC in the silver-age.

Except, of course, he didn’t kill thousands. Nitro did. He was fighting bad guys, like all heroes, and things went really badly.

You actually explained the concept of Penance in a way that made me see some story potential, but I still like Speedball better. Ha.

And I see “realism” in superhero comics defined as “like the real world in which the readers live,” but that’s not true. Realism would be actually figuring out how the world in which the superheroes works, and treating it as if it were real. Honestly, crazy stuff like superheroes and super-villains and constant alien invasions and nigh-apocalypses and all the mad stuff and weird science that goes on in the Marvel Universe would make it completely unrecognizable to our world. Not only would the entire socio-political and scientific spectrum be changed, but the value system would be different because of the honest goodness of all these heroes. So why can’t some of that be reflected in the stories for once? It’s possible to hold up a mirror to our society and still tell a story set in a world that’s not the same as our own.

The Kirbydotter

July 4, 2007 at 10:43 am

“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.”

Well put!
I hear ya and am with you on this!
One could argue that Vertigo’s Shade has very lttle to do with Ditko’s Shade the Changing Man. So it was a transgression on another of his character in a way.

I too liked Speedball and I too am tired of seeing every fun or silly super-heroes turned dark or murderous or even murdered (!). Are Dan Slott and Jeff Parker the only comic book writers who don’t need to make everything dark and violent to tell a good story?

I am probably just an old fart but I wish Super-heroes could be fun once in a while, and not just in the kid-friendly oriented comic book version of animated series (althought Puckett’s version of animated Batman was the best Batman comic book for the longuest time!). Do you really need to wack a guy (in the most violent way possible of course) or make him gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) to sell comic books?

I have nothing against dark comic books. I liked Millar’s WANTED, Moore’s WATCHMEN, and other dark, serious, mature stories. But I also like variety, in genres and styles.

Can’t DC make a little room a non-homicidal Max Lord, A fun cute couple like Ralph and Sue, a sweet whitebread Mary Marvel, a slightly overweight bwahahaha-sprouting Blue Beetle, a Bart Simpson-inspired Bart Allen/Impulse, etc. among a sea of serious dark and violent characters???

One of Stan Lee’s greatest contribution to the genre was not co-creating most of the Marvel universe. It was the auto-derision of himself and his characters, the sense of humor, the fun and occasional ineptitude of the Marvel Super-heroes (back when every super-heroes at DC were played straight if not stiff). That’s what made Marvel cooler that DC back then, it was that nothing was taken seriously (except continuity!).

Why can’t we have both?

“Why can’t we have both?”

Indeed.

I love the 60’s Batman TV show and I love Batman Begins.
I enjoy some of the silly Batman stories of old, and I loved The Killing Joke.

I still want to see Ditko on the Spectre. After seeing the 8-pager he did with Kevin Nowlan, I realized that they were a perfect match; what character is more about punishing the guilty than the Spectre?

hifidigitalboy

July 4, 2007 at 11:31 am

It seems to me that people who played a significant role in creating major comic book characters (like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) get less attention outside of the comics world. Stan Lee’s role as unofficial spokesman for the entire comics industry is positive and negative at the same time. Sure, he draws more attention, but it also gets old quick. It’s almost as though he stealing the thunder of others, or that he has been canonized by the Church of Marvel. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate such geniuses such as Ditko. It’s a shame that Stan Lee gets all the glory.

Now, when I saw Penance, I thought he looked really cool as a visual concept, and honestly I still feel that way. I don’t like that they turned Speedball into Penance, or that he has those “emo powers.” I think it would have been best if Penance was just some kind of robot, especially since I can’t get over the idea of the helmet having no eyeholes. I would be willing to buy that a robot has super-radar and no need for eyes, you know?

if you want the happy go lucky comic books of old you should check out the “Marvel Adventures” line of comics they are made for kids and it sounds like thats what your looking for. Speedball was a great character and had his time in the spotlight but im sorry if i want to see Robbie Baldwin sell a few comics which is more than he was doing as Speedball. Warren Ellis is doing an amazing job with him and i don’t really understand how you can say that there are no good stories for Penance when they have yet to finish the first story arc. And also i thought this was “365 reasons to love comics” not “365 reasons to love comics in the 90’s”

Danny:

Speedball was a great character and had his time in the spotlight but im sorry if i want to see Robbie Baldwin sell a few comics which is more than he was doing as Speedball. Warren Ellis is doing an amazing job with him and i don’t really understand how you can say that there are no good stories for Penance when they have yet to finish the first story arc. And also i thought this was “365 reasons to love comics” not “365 reasons to love comics in the 90’s”

I’d rather Robbie sell no comics and have good stories written about him than sell a ton of comics and be sucky. Quality has nothing to do with sales.

Ellis’ Thunderbolts is a pretty good comics– it’s the only ongoing I’m buying regularly from Marvel, if that means anything– and he’s clearly doing what he can with Penance, but it’s just a bad concept.

Also, I don’t know where this “in the 90’s” thing is coming from. Care to explain?

And I *do* like Marvel Adventures. Especially the ones written by Jeff Parker. They’re good.

[quote] “Or, to put it another way: Just because it’s “what would happen in the real world” doesn’t mean it’s not a stupid… idea. “[/quote]

I guess I just have to disagree with you there. I think it would make less sense for the people to go “oh, you’re a super-hero, it wasn’t your fault”, and let him go. Of course people are going to blame him, if he didn’t rush in…

Which brings me to the point that someone else made about him not being responsible. Of course you and I know that, but he feels responsible. It doesn’t matter what happened, it matters what the character thinks happened. Granted we’re not used to such skewed perspectives for our heroes, but thats how he feels.

[quote] Not only would the entire socio-political and scientific spectrum be changed, but the value system would be different because of the honest goodness of all these heroes. So why can’t some of that be reflected in the stories for once? It’s possible to hold up a mirror to our society and still tell a story set in a world that’s not the same as our own. [quote]
While I would love to see that in action more than anyone that is something that the Marvel universe is not and never has been. Its a world full of people that are afraid and who are happy to have the government send giant robots after people that are different. Like I said, its basically the real world. And its already a mirror into a world that isn’t our own… I mean what was Stamford and SRA if not commentary on 9/11 and our eroding civil liberties.

(apoligies on my rusty HTML skills)

“Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate such geniuses such as Ditko. It’s a shame that Stan Lee gets all the glory. ”
One thing you have to remember though is that Stan wanted and had the oppurtunity to get the glory. If Jack stayed with Marvel he might have been the art director until the day he died. If Ditko wanted to he could be out there talking about Spider-Man until he was blue in the face.

Which brings me back to Ditko and the same thing I have said pretty much every day this past week. Ditko (Probably) doesn’t care what happened to Speedball. Speedball is a character he created and worked on for a few issues. He then went on to the next thing. Its not HIS characters, its the publishers. Ditko (I think) would be the first to admit that). I think its a testament to and reverence for his skill that his characters are still used at all.

Bill Reed said …
There was a storytelling engine, and they broke it in favor of a worse one.

What WAS Speedball’s storytelling engine, Bill? For me he was all about the silly/midly funny visuals, and not much else. What was so unique about the character, apart from the “he bounces!” thing? Because being bouncy isn’t much of a storytelling engine.

Only one mainstream Ditko creation has survived character assassination

I think, Dr. Strange also has not been character assassinated.

Yet.

But then, seeing that he stars in New Avengers now, we probably find out pretty soon that he is a Skrull, then the real Dr. Strange reappears, turns all grim and gritty about being locked into a closet for the last thirty years and finally joins the Skrull Kill Krew. But not before taking his sweet revenge with the whole MU because nobody came looking for him. My money is on this being a major crossover running for about a year.

Bill-

Others have already covered this, but I’m an opinionated and overly talkative geek, so here we go:

The story-telling angines are not broken. Some people made stiories with them that you didn’t like. The engine is still there. The basic skeleton of Speedball’s engine? Teenager who’s life is already complicated gets superpowers, is thrust into a life of heroism, and just to ice the cake, the locals think he’s a monster (*COUGHspidermanCOUGH*)… that engine still exists, works well and is in regular use. Ironically, I’d suggest Blue Beetle.

Also, what Ian said about whether Ditko could give a monkey’s about what people do with Speedball? I’d like to second that.

And I notice you’re still not prepared to address the issue of whether the reworkings you happen to like were wrong too. Which is the crux of this issue, really: the whole point of these shared-universe-ongoing-serial stories is that people invent toys that other people get to play with. Which is how we end up with brilliant comics like Watchmen, Swamp Thing, DKR, Animal Man, etc, etc… all of which are radical departures from the originals.

I blame Frank Miller for everything the top Marvel brass comes up with these days.

And the Brits! Always blame the Brits!

You joke and you’re half right but I’m not sure comics would still be around with out them.

Without Miller and “the Brits”, the grim and gritty era would have never started and the boom would have been totally different. Also, the creators that are now in comics, who were heavily inspired by those books… who knows where they would be. Probably somewhere else.

HammerHeart said:

“What WAS Speedball’s storytelling engine, Bill? For me he was all about the silly/midly funny visuals, and not much else. What was so unique about the character, apart from the “he bounces!” thing? Because being bouncy isn’t much of a storytelling engine.”

Exactly. Speedball really had nothing to him. He was one of the crappier characters ever IMO. Exactly because he didn’t have any storytelling engine (plus the fact that he’s an annoying kid in a horrible costume and he’s named after a drug coctail…..). Penance (whether you like him or not,and I know you don’t) has a storytelling engine. I don’t like emo, and I don’t like Penance but I can see him for what he is – a better character than Speedball ever was.

And Davidwynne also has a couple very good points.

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