Bendable Heroes

Art by Emily Jayne Weber AKA Zimeta
Plastic Man, Mr. Fantastic, Elastigirl, Elongated Man, E-Man, Stretch Armstrong, Elastic Lad, Dr. Impossible, Thin Man, Rubberduck, Spaghetti Man... The stretching hero is frequently a source of comic relief - after all, the positions and shapes the hero gets into can look ridiculous - but as Mr. Fantastic shows, need not be. The stretching hero is sometimes used to represent the idea of reaching for something, of being malleable and adaptable, of being resilient and flexible. But though it's a rich metaphor from which writers can infer a bendable hero's personality and aspirations, comics are a visual medium, and the visual is rarely anything other than wacky and silly. But isn't that part of their charm?

Comics are a relatively frivolous expense, and comics readers should certainly appreciate the frivolity of many of these characters. We're a bit silly ourselves! It's probably not the power most readers would name as the one they'd like to have, but it is fun to look at and multi-functional. It's a power kids can play at having, by simply stretching their arms out while holding their sleeves. And perhaps short people think of those of us over six feet as having a version of this power we simply can't switch off. I know I've used my powers of Reach to help people before. Often, even.

It's rather unfortunate that gutter-minded fans have had fun imagining or describing the sexual possibilities associated with stretchable heroes (but not surprising). Maybe that's why the archetype is so under-used today. Do writers shy away from characters who invite such ridicule? And yet, Mr. Fantastic is one of the most respected characters in the Marvel Universe. Ralph Dibny has many fans despite his continued non-existence in the New52. Plastic Man, blessed with the greatest longevity, is one of the few heroes to get his own solo cartoon series. And Elastigirl proved the power wasn't too grotesque for a woman, nor did it marginalize her in The Incredibles. So wash your mouth out with soap, Bendies are awesome. They reach for the stars, they're great multi-taskers, and guess what, those stones you throw at them bounce right off. Because they are literally "rubber", and you might just be "glue".

Do YOU have a soft spot for soft taffy heroes? Why or why not?


Austin Gorton said...

Oddly enough, one of my first encounters with superheroes in comics themselves (as opposed to on TV or in books) was a comic strip in a random issue of Boys Life, the magazine published by the Boys Scout. It featured a one-off parody of what I later realized was the Justice League, and for whatever reason, the Plastic Man-esque bendable hero stuck out to me (perhaps because I wasn't aware of his counterpart - the Superman/Batman/Green Lantern/etc. analogue were familiar to me, but I didn't know about Plastic Man yet at that tender age).

At any rate, that stretchy hero stuck out to me, and though it never quite carried over to a ton of love for the likes of Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic (I mean, I like them fine, but they're not my favorite characters or anything), I still think of that random analogue for a moment whenever I read a Plastic Man, etc. story.

Buryak said...

That's the power I want if I could have any. I always loved the stretchy guys, other than Mr. Fantastic. I've come around to him now after years of hating him, because I love the idea that such a dry, serious intellectual has such ridiculous, silly powers and uses them to fight serious cosmic threats. I like Elongated Man because he's a detective, also with such silly powers. Especially since he investigated such crazy silver age mysteries in all seriousness. I used to watch the Plastic Man cartoon as a kid and loved it. I played Dhalsim in Street Fighter 2. Love the bendy characters.

Michael May said...

I likes 'em when they're funny and don't take the powers at all seriously. So, yay for Plastic Man and Mike Allred's Mr. Gum, but I don't care so much for Mr. Fantastic or the Elongated Man.

Siskoid said...

Teebore: I know that when I wrote and drew a team comic in middle school (alas, since lost), it had a stretching hero in it. Well... his tongue stretched if nothing else. He was called Tongue Twister, as you might imagine. Speaking of random analogs.

Buryak: You're a credit to the archetype.

Michael: I never thought of Elongated Man as a serious character, although if that was seriousness, I like the idea that Reed's and Ralph's powers didn't really define them. They were a scientist and a detective who just happened to have stretching powers. They had more to offer the world than long limbs. And yet, I also love the goofy guys.

SallyP said...

I definitely have a soft spot for Ralph Dibny AND for Sue!

Siskoid said...

I think it's interesting that superhero weddings (that last) are so rare, yet at least three bendable heroes on our list are in long-term marriages.

Flexibility and resilience?

Michael May said...

I think my first real intro to Elongated Man was Identity Crisis, so there's that. :) I probably have a loose definition of "serious" anyway. Something like: not completely batshit goofy.

Probably what I'm responding to is the characters' willingness to embrace their powers in really creative and crazy ways; disguise themselves as unlikely objects, etc.

I do like that Reed and Ralph aren't defined by their powers (and Mrs. Incredible too), so I like them just fine for what else they bring to their comics, but it seems like I like them in spite of their powers, not because of them.

American Hawkman said...

Plastic Man DID make a New 52 appearance in Justice League International #1. The UN analyzed him for membership, but decided he was too unstable. Glad he's alive and himself at least.

Always liked Ralph and Sue... I actually cried in Identity Crisis #1, before being filled with insane rage by #2.

Anonymous said...

When Plastic Man was on the JLA, it was my favorite run. He brought just a little comic relief to a sometimes too serious team, seemed to be wildcard for several villians, wasn't always "wacky", I really thought he brought a lot to the table. Plus Batman endorsed him, good enough for me....

Anonymous said...

I have a soft spot for Plastic Man, most of which stems from how much I love Jack Cole's cartooning.

Mr. Fantastic is one of two super-hero whose powers are an almost negligable part of the character (the other is Black Canary). His super-genius is more important and more central to the character than his stretching. Honestly, you could take it away and his adventures would be virtually identical.

- Mike Loughlin


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