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Committed: The Hidden Life of Non-Super Heroes

There are plenty of superheroes out there who don’t have physical superpowers. They are not strictly speaking “super” in any sense of the word, outside of their courage, hard work and determination. Yet you rarely see them dealing with the harsh realities of their own physical limitations. Is Doctor Strange the secret physical therapist of the non-super-powered superheroes? And if he is, does he use magic to treat pulled hamstrings?

I don’t want to scare you, but horrible things are probably happening to your body right now. I’m not talking about old age or diseases that are going to hit sometime in the future, I’m talking about mundane, everyday unavoidable things like sports injuries, food poisoning and even something called “adult-onset allergies.” The really weird part is that if these things are happening to us, how are they not happening to those superheroes we love who don’t have super-strength, invulnerability or healing powers.

Overnight we go from being perfectly functional to massively hindered by nothing big at all. I once knew a perfectly healthy 22 year old who dislocated her hip by stepping over a box. Not a huge box, a really boring box. She stepped over and next thing she knew she was in a cast from her waist to her foot, followed by a year of physiotherapy. This was my first hint that physical well-being was ridiculously tenuous.

Being forced to do half an hour of daily exercises to build muscle to repair a back injury two years ago still irks me. Doing a lot of special stretches and yoga afterwards to stop the new muscle from pulling other things out of wack is a damn cherry on top. Now pollen makes my eyes dry, dust can make me sneezy and it is more unwanted proof that I am very much in the non-superpowered category of people.  Growing up I had always hoped that I was going to hit puberty and develop mutant superpowers, instead things seem to be going the opposite way.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the body I have, the mind I have, even the life I have… these are all great things and I could easily have done a lot worse. But like most of us, I don’t exactly love paying attention to all of this maintenance. Superpowers be damned, at this point I’ll be fine with jumping into a new body, like something out of Battlestar Gallactica.

For some reason, no matter how often Batman dislocates a shoulder swinging from rooftops, he never moans about how much weaker it is now. You don’t get him hanging out at the physical therapist with Daredevil saying “Ooooh, my lateral muscle spasmed when Catwoman kicked me in and it won’t unspasm.” Daredevil would explain “I’ve got this great massage therapist, you’ve got to try him. His name is Luke Cage, you’ve met him right? He’s got incredibly strong hands.” Okay that conversation isn’t going to happen. But it should, or at least something close to it. I would read that comic, it would be a welcome change to find out how these guys deal with this stuff.

A physical trainer had to show me some stretches to balance out the tension I was creating in my knees by working out. Did you know that working out without stretching is bad for your body? I did not, but I do now because when I didn’t stretch, everything hurt. A chiropractor gave me a foam roller to “roll out” my thighs after I work out, so that the muscle doesn’t become tight and pull the knees out of wack. I never saw Elektra roll out or stretch her muscles after finishing her ninja training, Stick never wagged his finger at her and said “Remember to always take a hot shower after you defeat The Hand, because otherwise your muscles will really hurt tomorrow.” But she must have done something like that, or she would have been bitching to Garret afterwards about how everything ached, and we know she never did (or did they cut out that too?.)

Earlier in the year I met a world champion female weight lifter. To my surprise, she was a small woman, without much visible muscle definition. Turns out that very strong people aren’t generally all sinewy, so that was interesting. Anyway, I immediately asked about this stretching and rolling out muscles. “Oh yes,” she replied enthusiastically, “wait till you get really into it, a tennis ball is even more intense the foam roller. You can really feel those solid muscles give up against the pressure.” So I guess this is a part of how even strong people take care of their bodies, but if this is a universal truth, why don’t our unsuper superheroes do it? Or if they do it, why do we never see them exercising or stretching? Are they only allowed to show us the melodrama of their lives and not the grit? Is these comic books or are they soap operas?

Way back when Frank Miller was doing Daredevil, I was always fascinated by the odd glimpses of the gym. That was all they were, glimpses, but they showed that he had to work physically hard in a structured environment to be who was was. Same as the brief moments of Bruce Wayne with a towel draped around his shoulders as he cooled off with Robin, you knew they’d been working out off panel. One of my favorite devices of the X-Men used to be their danger room. Like the holodeck of the Enterprise, it could be used for far-fetched stories of adventure, but more often it was a mainstay of their daily existence; a way to regroup and reset when they needed a break from fighting evil. I like that, but more frequently now it seems that these depictions of mundane graft have been crowded out, as if there is no room in contemporary comicbooks for the training montage. Personally I like to witness my heroes in their downtime, working on themselves and their craft.

A few years ago I went to hear Robert Towne talking about his work writing films like Chinatown and Shampoo. He said that at the end of the day he always wanted to write about someone doing a job, that people working was fascinating to him. I think that I feel similarly about my favorite stories; I like to read about superheroes as individuals who are doing a job, so acknowledging the personal physical challenges are of as much value as the external challenges they face.

28 Comments

Although we don’t see super-heroes stretching out before going out on patrol or doing a cool down period after leaping roof top to roof top. The superheroes such as Hawkeye or Captain America have often been showed in a danger room style setting working on accuracy with there weapons.

If they did have a training montage its gotta have 80s music score!!

Mike: They should just have someone walk in saying, “‘Eye of the Tiger’? Seriously? How old ARE you?”

Iron fist working out to “your the best around” from karate kid!…. The movie not the Legionnaire.

I love that the ’80s Karate Kid movie credits thanked DC Comics for letting them use the name.

Speaking of The karate kid movie. when i was a kid i often wondered if the Marvel editor Ralph Macchio and the karate kid actor were 1 in the same!!

CautiouslyOptimistic

June 15, 2011 at 11:38 am

I don’t know how interesting it would be to see Spidey do some stretches before he takes down Doc Ock, or to run around Rhino doing some cool down laps.

They also never show superheroes going potty. I can’t see that making it into comic. Besides would you really want to see Hulk’s loaf?

One DOES manage to wonder how Daredevil found time to develop his radar sense, learn all those acrobatics, AND finish law school and pass the NY state bar exam.

Come to think of it, what college did Bruce Wayne get his MBA at? Do you suppose any of those Generation X kids even has their GED?

I think the Avengers mansion does have a sauna, though.

I liked the way that (way back when), Justice League International showed the Blue Beetle struggling with his weight. Here’s a guy that’s a technical genius, built his own company from scratch, and is a trained martial artist… yet he still has a hard time keeping off the pounds.

That was something I could relate to. And the advice he pursued to lose weight — eat less, exercise more, and drink lots of water — is still the best fitness advice I’ve received.

Another reason why Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan’s Question series is the best ever. Vic Sage was constantly stretching, and also constantly in pain.

As an elite weight lifter it really bothers me when an artist draws poor lifting form or the wrong type of lifting equipment. It is similar to showing the Punisher with the wrong type of weapon.
For example, when I watched All-star Superman I got “taken out” of the movie experience when Luthor was doing a clean and jerk. Here’s the deal- watch Olympic weightlifting on YouTube and study the technique of a lift. Don’t just draw some shit up.
And please, pretty please, quit showing super heroes doing curls.
Enjoyable article for comic book meatheads. Thanks.

Sonia, try a PVC pipe instead of your foam roller and a lacrosse ball instead of a tennis ball.

Actually, you get this all the time with Spider-man and actually has superpowers.

Loved this article. I still remember how my mind was blown by that early Spider-man story where he had to save the day even though he had crippling influenza.

One great touch in the Daredevil movie was the scene where we saw Matt aching and bruised and covered with scars. I guess his doctor accepts the “I’m blind, I fall down a lot” story.

I worked for years doing live stunt shows. I’d have never survived it without hot tubs and massages and pot. I’m still paying the price today for the abuse I put my body through. I wonder if any of the heroes light up?

And shouldn’t Bruce Wayne have Post-Concussion Syndrome by now? It’s not as bad today, but in the Silver Age, he used to get knocked unconscious about once an issue. And don’t get me started on Hal Jordan.

“Come to think of it, what college did Bruce Wayne get his MBA at” Ive always thought that Bruce never finished any type of school.College or High School. I think he was home schooled by Alfred after his parents were murderd.As far as colleges go I always assumed he went to each class long enough to become a expert on something and then just dropped out and went to another college to study with another expert.

Well, try jumping from a building and swing from your bat-line attached to a flagpole. I don’t think there is any human alive who wouldn’t at least dislocate both arms.

The athletic feats non-powered superheroes regularly perform are so out there in the first place, that I never stopped to worry about the minor injuries they’d realistically suffer.

@ Rene:

i totally agree with you. i remember in Batman #400 that Steven King writes about being a ‘Batman guy’ rather than a ‘Supes guy’ as you might actually be able to be Bats if you gave enough effort.

What a crock! :-) Football players who get hit in the head once too often have injuries that disable them, as do everyone else who does any type of sports for an extended period. i even have bad wrists from my gymnastics career back in high school!

i don’t think about the ‘realism’ of what can happen in a comic book, just that it is a good story.

Good point about Cap and Hawkeye: Cap was shown training his “Kookie Quartet” in hand-to-hand combat a number of times back then. IIRC, they even had someone like Wanda throwing opponents off who thought her a defenseless woman, proclaiming “You forget *I* have been trained by none other than Captain America!”

One of the amusing things Byrne came up with in the Man of Steel reboot was Clark Kent keeping weights and exercising equipment in his apartment to explain why he was so buff.

I don’t how human beings can go through life without yoga or some similar health discipline. I discovered Iyengar yoga over twenty years ago, and I never miss a day. And it has made all the difference. Everyone else in my entire family is miserable, mentally and physically. Surgeries, diseases, depression, addictions. Some of my younger relatives are already in the grave. What made me different from everyone else in my family? (besides comics!) Yoga.

Yoga built up my immune system, and I went over 15 years without ever getting sick. Learning how to breath properly cured my life-long depression forever, and my allergies disappeared. I look ten years younger than I am and I feel twenty years younger than I am. Whenever I injure myself in daily life, whether it’s my back, knee, or shoulder, I can find just the right yoga posture to fix the problem. And yoga has calmed me down, even to the point of making me a more forgiving driver.

Years ago it occurred to me that since I couldn’t be a super-hero, I subconsciously found yoga. When I’m doing handstands or headstands or the wheel (a huge backbend) I certainly feel like a super-hero.

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I think Spider-Man is the only one I’ve seen suffering from sprains and sore muscles and things of that sort on a regular basis. (Of course, it depends on the writer. Some of them never include those details.)

It’s long bothered me how casually people get knocked unconcious in comic-books and movies. It seems to happen all the time and they rarely seem to suffer any ill-effects. But in real life it would be a very serious injury.

Superman went to Metropolis University, Batman went to Gotham City University, the Flash went to Central City University, etc.

Travis Pelkie

June 16, 2011 at 2:47 am

@Mike Blake, the even better part about that Man of Steel bit is when Lois picks up the weight and wonders how he gets buff with such a wimpy weight — highlighting both the toughness of Lois and the alienness of Superman (oh no, I can’t tell with my super strength how heavy something is!)

Nice article. Highlights one of the things that’s been generally given the shaft in modern superhero comics, the training bit. It’s a good place to infodump, yet still have some sort of action. “Why Nightcrawler, that was a well placed kick!” “Ja, let’s hope I do as well when we face Magneto yet again.”

And I’m sorry, but if Luke Cage was DD’s massage therapist, there’d be a happy ending every time. chick-a-chick-a-bwow.

Maybe I don’t get this column? Is it serious, or meant as a joke?

Batman, Daredevil or other non-powered heroes you mentioned are typically portrayed as superhuman fighting machines, far beyond actual human limitations. What difference does it make they don’t have “powers”

Super-Hero comics require complete suspension of disbelief as a point of entry. Even the supposedly realistic ones.

“Am sorry, but if Luke Cage was DD’s massage therapist, there’d be a happy ending every time. chick-a-chick-a-bwow.”

I was going to say you just launched a thousand erotic fan fics, but then I remembered Rule 34. And they hung out a lot in Bendis’s Daredevil.

Oh, and I dug the column, Sonia.

One of the things that made the Bwa-Ha-Ha Justice League so charming was precisely the fact that you got to see these super-people having to deal with the kind of things that rest of us do. Things like lack of money or dating or eating too many cookies. It also made them more relatable, made us care more for them for when the Big Action moments happened.

But that was just the 80’s, right? All people want to see in comics these days is death and angst, right? :(

Love it! And love/hate that foam roller!

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