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?


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