Totem Heroes

Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Spider-Man, Animal Man, Falcon, Vixen, Tigra, the Fly, Wolverine, Timber Wolf, Jaguar, Bravestar, Zebraman, Stingray, the Mongoose, Ant-Man and the Wasp... Heroes who not only base their identities around specific animals (or the animal kingdom in general) but have those animals' powers and attitudes. Their appeal for creators is certainly obvious. What's easier than naming a character after some animal and giving it that animal's powers? It's ready-made for superhero comics. What we find when we do a census, however, is that there are many more totemic villains than there are heroes, though the number drops considerably when you remove snake species from the equation. In other words, we as creators and/or audience members project a nobility on certain animals and treachery on others. Why are hawks and tigers heroes, while octopi and hyenas are villains? Is it that obvious? We do seem hard-wired to like cats and dogs, but dislike snakes and bugs.

Except, of course, that one of the most popular superheroes ever has the proportional abilities of a spider! And before him, there were heroes called the Fly and the Tarantula. Irony? Or do the animal's powers trump any squeamish considerations? Spiders have a fun bag of tricks, and once you're contemplating using the spider as a totem animal, you can follow through and make him a bit creepy to the in-universe public.

Many animal heroes (not to be confused with hero animals, we'll do super-pets later if you like) don't have any powers at all, but chose their animal as an emblem, taking on its perceived qualities if not abilities. Batman is the most prominent example, and like spiders, bats don't exactly have the best of reputations. Batman deliberately uses the his totem's ickiness to strike fear into criminals, taking his cue from vampires and pulp hero the Black Bat. The Black Panther is regal and a fierce fighter. The Black Widow is a femme fatale. Slinky cat burglars naturally prefer the cat as their emblem. And some heroes, like the Ted Kord Blue Beetle and the Tick just pick something and make it work for them. One way or another, our understanding of these heroes is filtered through our understanding of the animals they've chosen. Most children are fascinated by the animal kingdom, will be drawn to these characters without much prompting, and may even invent their own heroes based on a selection of Safari cards they have on hand (it's not just me, is it?). Yes, it does mean we get bottom-of-the-barrel concepts like the Kangaroo, but that's still memorable!

What would be YOUR totem animal?


SallyP said...

Naked Mole Rats. I dunno...I just like them.

Siskoid said...

Well, they do have that endearing grin.

Mole Man should have a brother. Or a cross-genetic Moloid clone.

Martin Gray said...

Nice piece, but aren't tigers in the bad camp? Flying Tiger, Bengal, Bronze Tiger (for much of the time at least)?

I suppose we could call Tawky Tawny a hero ...

My animal would be the koala - cute, but not without bite.

Siskoid said...

I guess I was referencing Tigra there, but you're right, animal totems can be both positive and negative, depending on the qualities we focus on.

Swellsman said...

I AM . . . the sloth! Fear my recumbency!

Siskoid said...

I'm a bit luckier (if redundant). My mom always said she had herself three cats, and all the kids in my family have an excellent rapport with them.

Doesn't mean I wouldn't like to try and become the Horny Toad and start spitting blood from my eyes.


Buryak said...

My favorite 30's and 40's pulp hero is the Spider. His animal totem characteristics consist of him acting and aping what a spider who had become a man would be like. He wears a white fright wig, prosthetic nose and fangs. Stage makeup to appear gaunt and skeletal. He wears a false hunchback and deliberately walks with a shuffling, Quasimodo gait. Even his laugh is false, sounding 'metallic'. The only gadget he had, other than over used .45's, was a web gun he used to tie up mobsters. In an era where pulp supermen like Doc Savage and the Shadow did their shtick, the Spider was a grotesque champion of justice. And what puts him apart too was just how psychotic the guy was. He killed evil doers without hesitation and would stamp a permanent calling card on their foreheads with a cigarette lighter. No kidding. If you wanna read some ultraviolent pulp literature, and I mean he makes the Punisher look like a pussy, read the Spider... just the Grant Stockbridge (Norvell Page) stuff. That guy was messed up.

Siskoid said...

I'm a big fan of the Spider, as a concept and in his comic adaptations (the current one isn't grotesque, but the Tim Truman mini was). I'd love to read the original stories, but it's a matter of getting my hands on them. I don't think they're currently in print.

Buryak said...

Go on Amazon, my man. They have reprinted a whole bunch of them. That's where I found them after years of looking in vain.

Siskoid said... offers them to me used at various prices ranging from 10$ to 100$... I'll think about it.

Who can we annoy to collect to re-issue these things new?


Blog Archive


5 Things to Like Activities Advice Alien Nation Aliens Say the Darndest Things Alpha Flight Amalgam Ambush Bug Animal Man anime Aquaman Archetypes Archie Heroes Arrowed Asterix Atom Avengers Awards Babylon 5 Batman Battle Shovel Battlestar Galactica Black Canary BnB 2-in1 Books Booster Gold Buffy Canada Captain America Captain Marvel Cat CCGs Charlton Circles of Hell Class Comics Comics Code Approved Conan Contest Cooking Crisis Daredevil Dating Kara Zor-El Dating Lois Lane Dating Lucy Lane Dating Princess Diana DCAU Deadman Dial H Dice Dinosaur Island Dinosaurs Director Profiles Doctor Who Doom Patrol Down the Rabbit Hole Dr. Strange Encyclopedia Fantastic Four Fashion Nightmares Fiasco Films Within Films Flash Flushpoint Foldees French Friday Night Fights Fun with Covers FW Team-Up Galleries Game design Gaming Geekly roundup Geeks Anonymous Geekwear Gimme That Star Trek Godzilla Golden Age Grant Morrison Great Match-Ups of Science Fiction Green Arrow Green Lantern Hawkman Hero Points Podcast Holidays House of Mystery Hulk Human Target Improv Inspiration Intersect Invasion Invasion Podcast Iron Man Jack Kirby Jimmy Olsen JLA JSA Judge Dredd K9 the Series Kirby Motivationals Krypto Kung Fu Learning to Fly Legion Letters pages Liveblog Lonely Hearts Podcast Lord of the Rings Machine Man Motivationals Man-Thing Marquee Masters of the Universe Memes Memorable Moments Metal Men Metamorpho Micronauts Millennium Mini-Comics Monday Morning Macking Movies Mr. Terrific Music Nelvana of the Northern Lights Nightmare Fuel Number Ones Obituaries oHOTmu OR NOT? Old52 One Panel Outsiders Panels from Sheena Paper Dolls Play Podcast Polls Questionable Fridays Radio Rants Reaganocomics Recollected Red Bee Red Tornado Reign Retro-Comics Reviews Rom RPGs Sandman Sapphire & Steel Sarah Jane Adventures Saturday Morning Cartoons SBG for Girls Seasons of DWAITAS Secret Origins Podcast Secret Wars SF Shut Up Star Boy Silver Age Siskoid as Editor Siskoid's Mailbox Space 1999 Spectre Spider-Man Spring Cleaning ST non-fiction ST novels: DS9 ST novels: S.C.E. ST novels: The Shat ST novels: TNG ST novels: TOS Star Trek Streaky Suicide Squad Supergirl Superman Supershill Swamp Thing Tales from Earth-Prime Team Horrible Teen Titans That Franchise I Never Talk About The Orville The Prisoner The Thing Then and Now Theory Thor Thursdays of Two Worlds Time Capsule Timeslip Tintin Torchwood Tourist Traps of the Forgotten Realms Toys Turnarounds TV V Waking Life Warehouse 13 Websites What If? Who's This? Whoniverse-B Wikileaked Wonder Woman X-Files X-Men Zero Hour Strikes Zine