The Plight of the Playboy Hero

I’m still at my parents’. This afternoon, we went to visit my aunt at the care home where she lives. She had lots of other visitors during the holidays, so we figured we’d visit her sometime between Christmas and New Year, so she wouldn’t be overwhelmed with too many visitors.

Otherwise, I’m largely staying in. The city is packed with post-Christmas shoppers and even driving past the Ochtum Park outlet mall is a challenge, because the four lane road is always choked with shoppers, many of them from as far away as Oldenburg, Hamburg or Hannover. I live ten minutes from Ochtum Park, but I never ever shop there, because none of the brands interest me. I don’t think I’ve even been there since the Aldi on the premises closed. Now if they were selling discounted books, on the other hand…

Talking of books, one of mine, Hostage to Passion hit a bestseller list today. Head on over to the Pegasus Pulp blog to find out more. Oh yes, and the rumoured post Christmas e-book sales rush definitely exists.

Yesterday evening, Iron Man was on TV and I ended up watching it. I blogged about my impressions of the film last year and most of that still holds. Iron Man is a surprisingly enjoyable film about a character I never much cared about in the comics. It’s probably the best superhero film of the past five years or so (okay, so I also like the Wolverine film), though that’s not saying much given the competition.

What particularly struck me was how different the Iron Man film was from the most recent crop of Batman films starring Christian Bale. Because when you look closely, Iron Man and Batman are basically the same character: Highly intelligent and extremely wealthy young men, both captains of industry and playboys, both born to inherited wealth and orphaned young, both isolated and troubled due to losing their parents so early, both not born with superpowers but nonetheless turning themselves into superheroes with a lot of will and determination and cool toys.

Nor are Iron Man and Batman the only characters of that type, indeed they are only the best remembered in a long line of playboy superheroes. Indeed, the wealthy playboy turned masked avenger is the oldest type of superhero out there. The prototype is probably the Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Orczy in 1905. Zorro, created by Johnston McCulley in 1919, and the pulp avenger The Spider are later examples. The Shadow as well, to some degree, even though wealthy playboy Lamont Cranston was just another fake identity of the Shadow. From the Shadow and the Spider the line goes straight to Batman – indeed, the 1988 Batman movie borrows the plot of the 1934 Spider story. Another 1930s pulp hero, Doc Savage, was a similar character, a very intelligent and very wealthy young man who had turned himself into a superhero, though Doc Savage never pretended to be a playboy. The Phantom started out as a wealthy playboy hero as well. Indeed, the intended playboy alter ego Jimmy Wells appears in the very first Phantom strip (and curiously enough in the most recent film adaption), though he was abandoned, when Lee Falk had a better idea. Nonetheless, the Phantom never had superpowers in the comics, only in the Defenders of the Earth cartoon of the 1980s. Simon from Misfits* is a downmarket take on this stereotype, who is not wealthy (though he does come from a somewhat less disadvantaged background than his friends) and about as far away from a playboy as you can get, but still a very intelligent young man who turns himself into a superhero by sheer willpower, since his power is non-physical.

In fact, my own Silencer is exactly such a character as well – though he bypasses later variations on the theme and goes right back to the 1930s versions. And indeed, in the latest Silencer story The Spiked Death I have a villain rant about “all those damned playboys with too much money and time who bother hard-working folks” like the villain views himself.

As a teenager, I did not like rich guys with costumes and tech toys type superhero – I wanted characters with real superpowers, not pretenders. Or maybe I just didn’t like Batman. Because rewatching the Iron Man film and mentally comparing it to Batman Begins and particularly The Dark Knight, it suddenly struck me very clearly why I liked Iron Man, but can’t stand Batman in any form, including the most recent film adaptions.

Because Tony Stark, both in the film and the comics, is a guy who has a pretty damn good life and enjoys it. Tony Stark parties, he drinks (too much, it later turns out), he drives fast cars, he sleeps with gorgeous women he picks up at parties and press conferences. Yeah, so Tony is something of an arsehole at the beginning, but then a lot of early Marvel superhero comics were basically the tale of a cocky arsehole learning about responsibility the hard way. Besides, early playboy heroes were often arseholes in their civilian identity. If you go back to the original Zorro stories, Don Diego de la Vega is insufferable, an ennui-ridden idiot. And don’t even get me started on Sir Percy Blakeney, anti-semite, classist, elitist and a complete and utter arsehole. Halfway through the novel I started rooting for the French to capture and guillotine Blakeney already, because he was that insufferable.

So quite a few playboy superheroes are arseholes in their civilian identities – and this includes Batman, who is an arsehole most of the time. But what differentiates Iron Man, particularly as he is portrayed in the film, from the rest is that he actually enjoys his life and has fun. Watch the sheer joy with which he tinkers with and tests his suit, watch the fun he has on his first flight (even if it ends in a crash), watch the glee with which he paints his suit red and gold, just because it looks cool.

And now look at Batman. Batman is always sour, always serious, always seems to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Really, has Batman ever had a day of fun in his whole life? With Batman I often want to shake him and say, “What’s your problem? You’re young, you’re rich, you’re handsome, you’re a superhero, you can have anything you ever wanted, so why on Earth are you always so glum?” Yeah, so his parents were killed, but so were Tony Stark’s and indeed every second superhero’s. And unlike other orphans, it’s not as if Bruce Wayne ever had a hard life. Still, he’s permanently unhappy and it’s very telling that his archenemy is a guy who calls himself The Joker.

The rest of the playboy heroes are not necessarily happier people. Don Diego de la Vega and Sir Percy Blakeney pretend to be lazy and full of ennui. They don’t enjoy their civilian lives, indeed Blakeney isn’t even happy with his beautiful young wife. Richard Wentworth a.k.a. The Spider is permanently tortured. The Shadow does not even have an actual civilian identity, buried underneath all of those masks and disguises and false identities is a complete cypher. His trademark laugh is a sound of horror, not joy. Doc Savage is a victim of a frankly deranged father who cannot make normal connections with people, particularly women. The Phantom is another victim of a ruthless family tradition, which puts him under the twin pressure of being forced to become the Phantom and to find a wife, any wife, to bear him a successor. He’s also a tee-totaller who only drinks milk. Simon starts out as a deeply unhappy young man who eventually gets everything he ever wanted, that is good friends, a beautiful girl who loves him and to become a real superhero – only that his superheroics are what threatens and may well destroy the happiness he has found (but then, Simon is what happens when someone has internalized too many superhero narratives and is given the chance to be one).

While watching Iron Man, I remarked to my Mom that I liked the fact that Tony Stark was actually enjoying his life and having fun, whereas Batman never seemed to smile or be happy.

“Well, Batman probably is happy when he’s sleeping with … what was the name of that stupid sidekick again?”, my Mom said.

“Robin”, I replied, “And it’s never actually been revealed that Batman is gay and Robin is his lover, though there are reasons for suspicion.”

“That’s just because it’s written by Americans who don’t want to say it out loud”, Mom said. Yes, my Mom is a Batman/Robin shipper.

Finally, there’s also two celebrity deaths to report. Pop artist James Rizzi, known for his brightly coloured artwork which he left on every surface, from postage stamps to full size planes and cars, died at his studio in New York aged 61. Only last year, there was a big Rizzi retrospective in Bremen to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Furthermore, a chimp presumed to have been Cheeta from the Tarzan films of the 1930s and 1940s died at the presumed biblical age (for a chimp) of eighty. Before he died, Cheeta even got to write his own autobiography, another first for a chimp.

*The remaining Misfits recaps/analysis posts will be coming soon, in case anybody is waiting for them.

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6 Responses to The Plight of the Playboy Hero

  1. Estara says:

    “And don’t even get me started on Sir Percy Blakeney, anti-semite, classist, elitist and a complete and utter arsehole. Halfway through the novel I started rooting for the French to capture and guillotine Blakeney already, because he was that insufferable.”

    This being so you might really enjoy the Blakeney cameo in Rose Lerner’s Lilly among Thorns (SPOILERS!), if you haven’t read that yet.

    • Cora says:

      I’ve heard good things about Rose Lerner, but so far I haven’t read anything by her. If she’s done something mean to that jerk Blakeney, I’m definitely on her side.

      Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of those stories where the concept is much better than the actual book. Though interestingly, I did enjoy the very first Zorro story The Curse of Capistrano, though it would have been very obvious to me that Don Diego was Zorro, even if I hadn’t known.

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  4. Harry Dewulf says:

    awesome article. well thought out and well argued. exactly what I like.

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