17+ Superheroes Who Definitely Could Have Chosen a More Impressive Animal for Their Theme
(This list is dedicated to Zarion, who really ought to know better than to encourage this kind of tomfoolery.)
1. Squirrel Girl
Since the early days of Batman and the Blue Beetle, many comic book heroes and villains have chosen animals as their theme. (Heck, the list of animals that inspired Spider-Man’s villains alone would populate a good-sized zoo.) But while many animals have proven to be good choices for building billion-dollar franchises, others have… well, not. But sometimes the inherent silliness of the concept is precisely the point. Take Squirrel Girl, the mutant hero with the powers and abilities of squirrels. Created in 1992 by Will Murray and Steve Ditko as a deliberate rebuke to that decade’s “grim ‘n’ gritty” superheroes, Squirrel Girl defeated no less than Doctor Doom in her first outing, using methods that probably still make Doom itchy just thinking about it. She and her prehensile tail existed only as a running joke until 2005, when she was revived to join the Great Lakes Avengers (a whole team of you-gotta-be-kidding-me characters with names like Flatman and Dinah Soar) in their first starring series; she later moved into Avengers Mansion to work as Luke Cage’s nanny. Like the nuts she no doubt gorges on between missions, she’s gathered a sizable number of fans over the years, and no wonder: in this crazy world where psychotic and vengeful “heroes” are the norm, what fun-loving fan wouldn’t welcome a great example of how silly comics can get? Squirrel power!
All right, time to address the 90-lb. gorilla in the room. “Robin” as a concept (youthful sidekick added to encourage reader identification and give Batman someone to talk to while he figures out the Riddler’s riddles) is a workable idea; “Robin” as a name just plain sucks. Yes, I’ve heard all the stories behind the name — he’s a junior Robin Hood, it’s a childhood nickname, Batman writer Jerry Robinson was feeling whimsical the day he and Bill Finger came up with the Boy Wonder — heck, even the “they said I soared like a robin” line from Batman Forever is halfway plausible. But let’s face facts. Actual robins are known for having red chests, laying blue eggs and rockin’ in treetops all day long, according to that one song. Many a story has been written about villains not taking Robin seriously as an opponent when he is out crimefighting on his own; the name isn’t the only reason, but it certainly ranks near the top.
3. Red Bee
I tackled this fellow in another list about how bees just can’t get a break in the comics business, but he’s worth bringing up again. Crusading lawyer Rick Raleigh decides to fight crime using more direct methods than subpoenas and affidavits, and so he dons a costume that’s gaudy even by 1940s standards and sics trained bees (yes, bees) on gangsters and Nazis. Put aside any concerns you may have about his wardrobe or dubious choice of weaponry; what in God’s name made him think the name “Red Bee” would elicit anything but hearty and sustained guffaws from the criminal element? Yes, bees can sting, but so do wasps, yellowjackets and hornets — and no one turns them into cereal mascots or the stars of cartoons with lots of unbeelievable puns. DC retired the character in the 2000s and gave his name to his granddaughter, who wears a flying red battle suit and mentally commands two robot bees. That certainly makes the concept… slightly less ridiculous.
Owls are hard to pin down on the terror scale; they’re predators, sure, and they can be vicious little bastards when they want to be, but centuries of children’s stories and public service announcements have rendered them downright cute, and the moving-their-whole-head-to-move-their-eyes shtick doesn’t help dispel that rep. Despite that, at least two Golden Age heroes tried to strike fear in evildoers by calling themselves The Owl: Centaur’s character was a librarian who swooped down on villains at night while wearing a flying owl suit, while Dell’s man was more of an obvious attempt to rip off the much more successful Batman, right down to the wheels (Owlmobile) and sidekick (Owl Girl). And then there’s Nite-Owl, Alan Moore’s substitute for the Blue Beetle when DC wouldn’t let Moore use the latter for his Watchmen series. As the second Nite-Owl to take that name, shlubby Dan Dreiberg doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure — even in the flashback scenes showing him at his fighting prime, his anatomically accurate owl costume makes him look downright rotund. While he succeeds at being the story’s designated Everyman (relatively speaking), it’s hard not to wonder if his, er, performance issues are related to his identifying with small, chubby birds that are downright adorable in classic Disney tales. Now, hawks on the other hand…
7-8. The Moth/Mothman
There’s a reason why Killer Moth is generally regarded as one of Batman’s daffier foes: there is nothing scary about moths. Moths are known for three things: (1) they’re not butterflies (2) they eat clothes and (3) they complete the line “like a (blank) to a flame.” At least bees come with a built-in arsenal; moths just fly around. And that’s exactly all the Moth was seen doing over the course of his very short career. Appearing in Fox Feature’s Mystery Men Comics about a year after Batman’s debut, the Moth received no alter ego, no origin story, and no explanation for how he was able to use his (natural? artificial?) wings to fly. One character said his flying “sounds like a moth flying against a light,” but since this wasn’t accompanied by a phonetically spelled sound effect, it’s anyone’s guess as to what that sound was. He lasted all of four adventures and was never seen again. Like Nite-Owl, Mothman appeared in Moore’s Watchmen; he was one of the “Golden Age” Minutemen who appeared in the 1940s. He, too, fought crime using his sole super-power of flight, but he suffered several accidents while perfecting his wings, and became an alcoholic to cope with the pain before ending up in an insane asylum. Which might also explain the Moth’s short career, come to think.
An international force for justice, the Global Guardians debuted in an issue of the based-on-the-TV-show Super Friends comic in 1977 and eventually found their way into the “official” DC universe. They were heroes from many countries with superhero identities that easily marked them as representatives of their respective countries; the masked man from Ireland was named Jack O’Lantern, the Greek member was called Olympian, and so on. Tuatara hailed from New Zealand, the same land that’s home to his reptilian inspiration; he’s so named because, like the tuatara, he has a “third eye” (which allows him to see into the future); the fast and agile Impala was a South African Zulu named after the swift antelope that race across the African plains. Points for geographical consistency, but if you’re going to take the time and effort to invest in a good animal superhero name, “lizard no one outside Peter Jackson’s homeland has heard of” and “herbivore best known for providing light snacks to the local lion population” are probably not the way to go.
11. Porcupine Pete
Peter Durslin was a 30th-century teenager with a dream: to join the Legion of Super-Heroes. Unfortunately, while his mutant ability to grow and shoot sharp spikes from his skin was certainly unique, his aim left something to be desired, and the Legion pointedly (ha!) rejected his application. Not to worry, though, as the slightly-less-stringent-about-membership Legion of Substitute Heroes was happy to take him in. It’s probably just as well; if he had made it into the Legion, they probably would have given him a dumb name like Lacerate Lad or Spike Boy. “Porcupine Pete,” now that’s a name with pizzazz.
Coining names for shrinking heroes is a tough gig; you want something that emphasizes the hero’s power (the Atom) without drawing too much attention to his diminutive size (Doll Man, fer the luvva Pete). Ant-Man probably falls closer to the cutesy end of the scale; ants aren’t very scary outside the Amazon, and pop culture tends to emphasize their communal natures and love of picnics over their physical strength. But Henry Pym invented shrinking particles and a helmet to communicate with the ants, so “Ant-Man” it was. He had the good luck to make his appearance right around the time Stan Lee needed some warm bodies for his original Avengers lineup, and so Pym has enjoyed steady work ever since because of his status as team founder. But his habit of changing names and costumes suggests that even he never saw much potential in being known as the ant guy, and more recent attempts to give the Ant-Man name a higher profile have fizzled. Shoulda picked spiders when you had the chance, Hank!
Villains adopting dubious animal themes are far more prevalent than heroes doing the same for the simple reason that deadlines happen, and no one cares that much if, say, Spider-Man’s match-up that month is some guy who was bitten by a radioactive gerbil and will never be seen again. Such is the case with Leap-Frog, a failed inventor who thought a pair of spring-loaded legs and a frog costume was enough to begin his criminal career. He hung up the suit after a few embarrassing encounters with the superhero set convinced him to go straight, but his son had other plans. And that, kids, is how a young, slightly-out-of-shape lad became the Fabulous Frog-Man, leaping scourge of the underworld! (Okay, so maybe “scourge” isn’t the right word here…) Despite his laughable origin and appearance, Frog-Man has had a surprisingly durable career, popping up in recent Marvel crossover events with a frequency that verges on alarming, considering how (1) most of his career successes were just dumb luck and (2) no one can dress up like a frog without looking like a complete dork.
14. Baby Wildebeest
As a general rule, going with a herbivore is a risky move in the superhero codename sweepstakes — no one who isn’t a blade of grass cowers in fear of sheep, mountain goats, or (as already mentioned) impalas. Even your larger hoofed animals are problematic; sure, “Moose” or “Ox” works great as the nickname for a musclebound lummox, but super-villains aren’t likely going to cower in fear if you call yourself The Green Gnu. Not unless there’s a whole bunch of you in a stampede, anyway. Such is the conceptual problem — well, one of them — with Baby Wildebeest, an addition to the Teen Titans lineup at a time when no one gave a crap about the franchise. Adding to the awkwardness of trying to make a badass out of what’s essentially wild hamburger meat was the nature of the beast (no pun intended) — a genetic experiment liberated from the evil (snerf) Wildebeest Society, Baby Wildebeest exists as an adorable horned tyke until danger makes him morph into a raging powerhouse. Really, just mentioning this comic-book equivalent of the Cousin Oliver syndrome is too depressing; let’s move on.
15. Green Turtle
The Golden Age was definitely a golden time for comic fans, but it was also a time when no idea was too stupid to make it into print (see also: “the Red Bee”). But even by the standards of those early years, you have to hope something beyond an earnest belief in the character’s potential — bar bet? desperation? sick sense of humor? bar bet? — fueled the creation of the Green Turtle. First appearing in Blazing Comics near the end of the Second World War, the Green Turtle aided the Chinese in guerrilla warfare against Japanese invaders. His distinguishing features include his green cowl, shirtless chest and giant cape with a turtle shell emblazoned on it. If Internet histories can be believed, creator Chu Hing wanted to make him a Chinese hero, but the publisher balked at featuring nonwhite heroes in those more racist times. Anyone expecting the proportional strength and agility of a turtle will be sorely disappointed; the Green Turtle was just a normal guy who had a sidekick (“Burma Boy,” for crying out loud), some mad fighting skills and a plane called, natch, the Turtle Plane (because nothing says “eat my dust, Tojo!” like calling your plane a turtle). Yes, turtles symbolize power in Chinese culture, but so do dragons and tigers — and you don’t see anyone over there making soup out of dragons and tigers, do you?
16. Kangaroo Man
Once, during a trip to our local zoo, I was surprised to learn that visitors were allowed to enter the kangaroo enclosure. I mean, they’re not animals I would consider dangerous, but any animal will attack if it feels threatened, and I’d rather not find out firsthand how hard a kangaroo can kick. But no, they were the most timid creatures you can imagine, and stayed far away from the path that visitors were asked to stay on while moving through their turf. So imagine my surprise to learn of Jack Brian the Kangaroo Man, a Golden Age daredevil and explorer who, together with Bingo the super-smart kangaroo, joins in the fight against “enemy agents who scheme to destroy America.” An Australian ex-pat named “The Dingo Kid” is not to be messed with; “Kangaroo Man” sounds like the sidekick in a Melbourne-based kiddie TV show. Unless those enemy agents were deploying cartoon cats with slobbery lisps, I’m not sure how much help a dude in jodhpurs and his pet are going to be, but God bless ’em for trying.
17+. Half the cast of the Tick’s comic and animated series
Ben Edlund deserves nothing less than obscene riches for coming up with The Tick, a gloriously insane satire of everything great and silly about superhero comics. From the titular character who doesn’t exhibit any tick abilities (though he told one skeptic he can suck blood through a straw)… to Sewer Urchin, an Aquaman parody with the power of stench… to Fish-Boy, who can’t swim… to Portuguese Man-o-War, who wears a jellyfish hat on his head… to the Blowfish Avenger… Captain Lemming… Poodle Girl… suffice to say the Tick’s comics and cartoon series are teeming with examples of heroes with dubious animal themes. But towering above them all has to be Arthur, the Tick’s sidekick who goes into battle (patented battle cry: “Not in the face!”) wearing a special moth suit that enables him to fly — but he’s often mistaken for a bunny because of the ambiguous nature of his costume. I’m not sure what’s more soul-crushing: being an adult who wears an animal costume in public, or being an adult in a homemade animal costume that you constantly have to explain to everyone else.