Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Everyday Superheroes and their Names

When I was a lad, reading X-Men comic books and the like, I was always struck by an odd (or perhaps, in retrospect, not-so-odd) feature of superpowers: there seemed to be an inverse relationship between how cool a superpower was in a comic and how practical it would be in real life.

Take, for instance, Cyclops. He shoots beams of concussive force from his eyes. Very useful, say, in a pitched battle against rampaging super-beings. Not so useful around the house. In fact, I can't think of a single instance in which such an ability would actually be helpful in this, the real world, where supervillains are few and far between.

In contrast, consider Rogue. Her mutant power (the ability to absorb temporarily the knowledge, skills, abilities, etc, of those with whom she has flesh-to-flesh contact*) always seemed decidedly lame to me. It just wasn't that much use, while her colleagues were wailing away on the Mutant Liberation Front or some equivalent group of ne'er-do-wells with one or another type of supernatural energy for her to be able to absorb the powers of her foes. The basic problem, I think, was that evil mutants were tough, and generally paranoid, which made them difficult for Rogue to get close enough to them to actually touch them and absorb their powers. If Rogue could get close enough to take your powers, it probably meant you were weak, and your powers probably weren't worth taking, y'dig?

That said, in the real world, abilities like Rogue's would actually be quite useful. You could, for instance, hire yourself out as an interrogator for the government, discerning the plots of captured al-Qaeda operatives through nothing more than a handshake. Or you could impress your boss with an expert round of golf on your first try, just by high-fiving the course's pro. And so on and so on. I'm not saying it would be perfect for every situation, or that having to wear gloves all the time wouldn't be unpleasant (Rogue's power is reflexive and uncontrollable, so she wore a full-body-suit to avoid unwanted contact). I'm just saying that, unlike Cyclops' optic blasts, there's actually some real-world use for her powers.

There is then, in my estimation, an iron law of superpowers: the impressiveness of a superpower on the comics page is inversely proportional to the practicality of such a superpower in the real world. This is due, no doubt, to the unusual nature of the world of superhero comics. It is a world in which the forces of good and evil, clearly defined, are constantly doing battle, and in which the collateral damage world that results from said battles is essentially swept under the rug. Such a world puts a premium on powers that are able to cause the greatest degree of damage to one's enemies, with little cost (even among the heroes) for abilities that generate substantial negative externalities. Moreover, because the world of comics is a visual one, there is an emphasis on powers that are spectacular as opposed to subtle, even though there is little reason to think that a mutant ability's utility would be meaningfully related to its visibility.

All this is a roundabout way of saying: I think the world needs heroes with useful powers. As such, I've decided to set about, piece-by-piece, creating my own Legion of Everyday Superheroes who'll be possessed of practical superpowers. The first two members:

Fever (a.k.a. Thermamo, the Human Thermostat)
Fever is a seemingly ordinary man, capable of raising his body to slightly higher than normal temperatures, and of passing that excess heat on to inanimate objects and other people with whom he is in direct contact. Though he's not much for fighting crime, no-one's better to snuggle up to on a cold winter's night!

The Canteen
This super-powered lass can really hold her water! Her uncanny ability to go weeks at a time without peeing may not seem impressive, but unlike you she didn't miss a minute of the Lord of the Rings trilogy when they showed all three movies back-to-back-to-back in December '03.

That's all I have for now. More may follow. Contributions, of course, are welcome, though I daresay I don't anticipate any.

*She can also fly and is super-strong, as a result of a permanent melding with another superheroine, Ms. Marvel, but that's a whole 'nother ball of wax.

UPDATE: An old friend, who was also in his day an avid X-Men reader, points out, correctly, that there's no such group as the "New Mutant Front". The group to which I intended to refer, of course, was the Mutant Liberation Front, a PLO-style group of evil mutants who battled the X-Men periodically in the early 90s. In my hurry, I elided them with the New Mutants, a group of teenage mutants that began under Professor Xavier's tutorship in the early 80s. All I can say in my defense is that I was operating on very little sleep, and had just finished a rather long take-home exam about the history of the common law. Anyway, I've made the correction.

Also, Toby Snedecor e-mails to suggest I've got it all wrong:
Au contraire.

Flight. A very common, very cool superpower that would *kick ass* in real life.

Superspeed (with integrated forcefield) - pow, you never need a car again, you can eat whatever the hell you want because your metabolism is ridiculous, and you can pay for your eating by running the Fastest Delivery Service Ever.

Super strength - in one fell swoop, you get Matrix-style superjumps (or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, if you want to be old school) and the ability to move any damned thing you please.

Water control- this one is for guys like Iceman and Aquaman's son (whose name escapes me at the moment.) Control over water/ice? In addition to the formidable potential for pranks, you've got the cool ice-slide method of getting around, you never get cold, and you don't have to get rained on if you don't want to.

And last but not least... Mastery of Magnetism. Want to change the channel on the bar TV? Done. Want to put up a skyscraper? Done. Want to put four thumbtacks in the wall while you're holding the poster perfectly square? Done. Flying on the Earth's magnetic field? Starting cars without a key? Turning off blaring car alarms? Using "the Force" to pull your prop lightsaber to you from across the room? (Or making your own Mjolnir and pulling the same trick as the Mighty Thor?) Carving the turkey while you're passing the gravy? FETCHING A COLD BREW FROM THE FRIDGE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FOURTH QUARTER WITHOUT GETTING UP? Yeah, you can do that.

Tip your hat to Magneto and call him your daddy, because there's iron in your blood.
It would be nice to be able to get a beer from the couch. I can't argue with that.

UPDATE II: Publius emails with some good suggestions of his own:
Instead of feet, he has feet-like hands to walk on. Useless in a fight, but he doesn't have to bend down to pick up dirty laundry on the floor or get someone else to hold a dustpan when he's sweeping.

The Shroom
The top of his head is shaped like the head of a toadstool. It's no good for stopping laser blasts or debris that come flying at him, but it's better than a sombrero for keeping the sun out of his eyes.

He can memorize vast amounts of trivia in short periods of time. He's useless as a fighter, but put him on Jeopardy and he'll clean up. Rumor has it that his secret identity is Ken Jennings, mild mannered Jeopardy champion.

She has the ability to emit beams of light from her fingernails that she can focus and aim at will and each of which is of approximately the same intensity as a Mini Maglite beam. These beams of light are harmless, but darn useful when she gets home after dark and can't find the right key to unlock her front door.
I'd like to team up the Shroom and Garlic-Butter Girl; that'd be an unbeatable combo.