Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Best Misunderstood Comics Character Who's Not Actually A Villain.

It was tough to choose which superhero to pretend to be as a kid. You've got to pick carefully because if you choose wrong, your day might as well be over.

You've got to first consider whether your superhero will suck. Who wants to pretend to be Aquaman? Unless all your friends agree that you'll be in the ocean, you're out. It was not likely, either, that we'd be in the ocean because we were at the park where there was sand and a tornado slide and a jungle gym shaped like half a dome made out of metal bars. So is all that stuff underwater? Plus, if you pretend your underwater everyone has to make swimming motions all the time and talk liiiikeee thiiiiiiisssss because that's how your voice sounds underwater.

You also have to pick a superhero whose powers you can in some way emulate without looking dumb. Superman is out because to fly you have to run. For some reason, Spider-Man was in even though we couldn't webswing. But you can, as Spider-Man, climb the jungle gym. You can also use your webbing to get you out of the sand, which inevitably would be quicksand.

As a kid, all sand is quicksand. I'd be interested to see how common quicksand is in real life. I picture all of the jungles of Africa, plus about 98% of the rainforest, being quicksand, based on what I believed as a kid.
There were certain superpowers that were great in comics but not so great in real life. Pick Green Lantern, and spend your day yelling "No, I made a giant green anvil there and a giant hammer and you're on the anvil and my giant green hammer came down on you and killed you." You don't want want to a superhero who has to keep telling other people what to envision.

Finally, I could not pick the guy I really wanted to be because even though his powers were great and he was cool, he was too obscure and all my friends and cousins would question whether I made him up.

The guy I always wanted to be was "Soljer." "Soljer" appeared in only one issue of one comic ever, but it's a comic that I've remembered, and kept, for 33 years now.

"Soljer" appeared in Superboy Starring The Legion Of Super-Heroes #210. His story was one that is all too common among our fighting men and women: he was a guy embroiled in war (World War VI, in this case), who, to save his troop, threw himself on top of a gamma bomb at the exact same time as he was struck by lightning. He was then buried by his compatriots, who lacked the grasp of basic science that they needed to understand that gamma bombs + lightning = still living soldier. That kind of thing happens all the time, I understand.

Later, while practicing superheroing, Lightning Lad misses Superboy -- hence the cover -- and accidentally wakes up Soljer, or reinvigorates him, or something. Soljer is remarkably well-preserved and now also has superpowers -- any weapon he imagines, he can use. So he can pretend he has a rifle, and imagine shooting it, and lasers will shoot out. He has a pistol that can level buildings, too.

Soljer goes on a rampage, completing his mission to destroy Metropolis, shooting it with his imaginary/ultrapowerful guns and bringing down building after building while the Legion and Superboy try in vain to stop him. They realize, just in time, what Soljer really is, and how to stop him by [SPOILER ALERT INVOLVING SUPERHEROES FROM THE FUTURE WHO CAN CHANGE SHAPE] having Chameleon Kid take the shape of Soljer's superior officer and tell him he did a good job.

With that, Soljer salutes, and dies.

No doubt, Bobby Darin has written a jaunty song about this whole story. But beyond that, you can probably see why I liked Soljer so much as a kid. He wrapped up into one storyline all the necessary things you need to pretend to be a superhero.

First, his powers were perfect: they were imaginary, too. So I could have just held out my rifle and shot and I'd be doing exactly what Soljer does.

Second, he was the latest in a long line of misunderstood city-wreckers who we think are wreaking havoc because they're evil, but really they're just misunderstood or not used to being giant-fire-turtles in our world or something like that. I was kind of a clumsy kid and prone to breaking parts of me or parts of our house. I identified with the misunderstood creature of destruction.

Third, Soljer had the perfect tragic storyline. Forget, for a moment, that his job was to destroy Metropolis, which was in America, which means that technically Soljer was an enemy trooper who had invaded America. I never focused on that. What I focused on was that Soljer's lot in life was a terrible, sad one. He had sacrificed everythign for his buddies, and then, when he realized there was a little more to do, went and did that, too, keeping it up until he was done. Or at least until he was tricked into thinking he was done and then died, which is more or less the same thing.

I like to think that I had that same can-do spirit. Not the can-do spirit that would allow me to invade America and try to destroy it singlehandedly; I told you to ignore that part. No, the can-do spirit I had was the kind of can-do spirit that would make me leap on a gamma bomb and then survive underground for centuries and then come back to life and continue to do my job. I did not actually have that kind of can-do spirit; I had the kind of "can-do" spirit that, when I was told to clean my room, would shove things under the bed and pull up the bedspread and run outside and hope for the best and then act indignant when Mom would get mad at me. But in my mind, my can-do spirit was much like Soljer's.

Soljer was an archetype -- he was the misunderstood villain who is not really villainous, and comics were full of those guys back then. The Lizard fought Spider-Man all the time, but he was really not bad; he was Dr. Curt Connors, who only wanted to regrow limbs and couldn't help that he always turned into a horrendous crocodile-manthing. There was Bizarro, who was the "opposite" of Superman but wasn't always evil; he was just misunderstood because he was imperfect. The Hulk was a misunderstood bad guy, for most of his history, who was always getting shot at but would stop to rescue women from under cars. People thought Spider-Man was a criminal. There was, too, "Solomon Grundy," a guy I never quite understood but who was like a white Hulk. I don't mean that in a racial way; he was white. Really white:

and if I recall correctly, he was treated like a bad guy but was really not that bad of a guy or maybe he was bad because he was mistreated. He fought, I think, the Swamp Thing, who himself was a misunderstood hero of sorts because people were always afraid of him. Maybe. I never really read Swamp Thing.

Misunderstood villains are a big part of American culture -- they are the bad guys who are just waiting to be good guys, or good guys who are, unfortunately, bad guys because they don't realize that they're really good guys -- like Bowler Hat Guy in "Meet The Robinsons," for example, a guy who wants to be bad, who thinks he's bad, but he's not really bad, he just hasn't had the opportunity to be good.

Isn't that America, in the end? Haven't we always been that way? Haven't we always been the misunderstood bad guy? We were the unruly problem child of the British Empire, demanding representation with our taxation (200 years later, we don't bother with the "without representation" part; we just demand no taxation) and insisting that the government's power came from the people, not from God. The British Empire looked at us the way we would later look at Godzilla and the way Superboy looked at Soljer -- as a bad guy, as someone who needed to be stopped before we trampled the subway/blew up Metropolis/undid centuries of world history focused on kings.

We won that battle, and have spent the next 232 years trying to convince people that we're not so bad, really. Okay, fine, we made all the Indians move to South Dakota and Canada. Yes, yes, we dug a big ditch in Panama to make it easier for us to dominate the world with our navy. Sure, we blew up some civilians with our atom bombs. Fine, yeah, we should have signed onto the Kyoto Treaty and maybe things would be better if we didn't just invade countries and bomb people whenever our presidents get a little bored or accused of things. We acknowledge all that, but we try to point out all the good we did, too -- we conquered the West! Invented TV! Cured smallpox. Okay, fine, we gave smallpox to natives, but then we cured it! And we're making the world safe for democracy, we think, by blowing up parts of it!

America periodically focuses on guys who seem to be villains but really aren't because that's us. We are the misunderstood villains of world history, and want desperately for the rest of the world to know that the only reason we're blowing up Metropolis is because we're confused after jumping on the gamma bomb and being buried for milennia.

In the comics, Soljer never got the chance to do what America has spent two centuries attempting; he never got the chance to turn from marauding amnesiac supervillain into tragically heroic figure. I could have done that for him, if I could have convinced the other kids that he was a real guy and they should let me be him. I could have made Soljer into a hero, and in doing that I'd have played my small role in advancing America's dream, in forwarding our progress towards that day when the world recognizes how it has always viewed us in the wrong light, and instead of hating us, loves us and realizes how we were good all along. I could have done that for our society.

Plus, I totally could have shot my cousin, who was always Batman. Soljer would have destroyed Batman.

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