Wednesday, December 17, 2014


One thing folks should understand is that much of my exploration of the superhero genre is directly related to my child (who turns four years old next month). Not that I don't enjoy the superhero genre myself (for reasons of wish fulfillment and punch-in-the-mouth problem solving, if nothing else)...I'm just saying I probably would not be going back and watching these old cartoons, if not for him. Probably...

Anyway...the last day or two he's been really interested in superhero origins, i.e. "how did [insert name] become a superhero." Season two of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends consists of three episodes that tell the (individual) stories of the three heroes on the team. And as with most of the "history" stuff in the show, they're pretty faithful to the original versions found in the comic books (even dealing with the death of Parker's uncle and his feelings of guilt...fairly dark stuff for a Saturday Morning cartoon).

Theme Song: Free Bird
Of course, that can't be said of the origin story for Firestar because her character has no basis in comic books. She was created specifically for the cartoon.

The original concept for the story (from what I read) was to have Spider-Man teamed up with two heroes whose powers were polar opposite (fire and ice), to create a dichotomy and allow for more interesting interaction. The Human Torch would be the natural fit and was the creators' first choice; unfortunately, there was some issues with getting the proper licensing/rights to use the Torch (I believe it was these same issues that prevented him from being included in the 1970s cartoon of The Fantastic Four, requiring the writers of that show to create a humorous robot to round out the team's foursome). Since Johnny Storm wasn't available, Firestar (Angelica Jones) was created: a female mutant with the ability to harness and control ambient microwaves for a variety of stunts, mainly related to heat and fire.

Pedestrian as a "generic fire mutant" may seem, the change makes the show immensely better simply by dint of the character being female. Not only because, hey, it's inclusive and gives a female viewer a character with whom to identify, but because it sets up a far more interesting interplay between the three characters on the screen. There's the back-and-forth banter that comes when friends of opposite sexes interact, as well as a bit of a "relaxed love triangle" that allows everyone a chance to show-off a bit: the guys compete with each other - at times - to look good (or at least not bad) in front of Firestar and it mirrors Firestar's own (very understated) interest in pulling her weight in the Man's World of the comic book genre.

Not that she really needs to worry about pulling her weight: besides being the most measurably powerful of the three heroes, Angelica is a smart, strong, and competent character. She is immensely likable, has interests outside of her friends (and crime-fighting), is responsible, compassionate, and confident. She comes to the rescue of the boys at least as often as they come to hers, and is able to operate solo a lot more effectively than the other two, especially Iceman (who often seems lost without one of the others helping him out).

Interesting as the superheroes are (power wise, story wise), the part that fleshes out their 2D characters is their human interaction. And Firestar provides a much needed female voice...can you imagine if the only female character had been Aunt May? Sure, May provides one facet of the female archetype, but with the addition of Firestar the dynamic of their relationship (young, hip woman and wise, elder)...well, it exceeds the sum of its parts.

Firestar's a great example of what a female superhero can be...note the lack of provocative costume. Yes, that's partly due to being a children's TV show, but there's no need to dress like a stripper when you can melt things with your mind. And she's not a prude: Angelica has an interest in dating (and dating outside her super-buddies), and is not just looking to snag a husband. She knows what she likes and doesn't let her friends' ribbing get in the way (as when she had an initial attraction to Kraven). The story with Sunfire and their romance makes perfect sense, and hits just about every right note, and really shows a strength of the genre: that the real world barriers of culture and ethnicity can be cast aside and ignored, allowing us to see how much we share as human beings. 

But fans of the superhero genre should already get that. Equality is an inherent part of the one's going to refer to females as "the weaker sex" in a world where Carol Danvers can crush Captain America in arm-wrestling. It makes no difference that (black) Luke Cage is married to (white) Jessica's a bit more important that they're both superhumanly strong and durable. 

Objectively speaking, the superhero universe is more diverse than our real world with its aliens and robots and sorcerers and mutants - all of varying powers and power levels. The (imaginary) people of that universe have mostly managed to take it in stride, instead coming back to the more basic question: are you a good guy or a bad guy? Nothing else is a big deal.

[consider the scene from the original Secret Wars where Reed Richards is repairing Iron Man's armor. Asked by then-pilot James Rhodes if he was curious that there was a black man in the armor, Reed replies, "Well, no. I knew there was a man inside the armor." Richards doesn't care what skin color the superhero has]

[and, yes, I realize that comics can be used to parallel real-world prejudice and act as substitute analogies...see "mutant hysteria" and "Superhero Registration Act" as prime examples...but the potential for looking beyond race and culture and sex and sexuality, to a world united by common (hopefully good) purpose is, I think, the strongest in this particular, peculiar genre of fiction. To me, that's pretty neat, and a reason to maintain interest in comics]

*ahem* Back to Firestar...

One last tidbit of interest here for this character...and while it applies to most of these early superhero cartoons, it's especially driven home with a character who has the potential to level a how little damage needs to be inflicted to end a fight. It's not like Firestar just fries bad guys (the Spider-Friends are often found foiling robberies and such, in between fighting superhuman menaces, and so are sometimes simply combatting non-powered "goons"), even though she could. No one is getting incinerated or being set on fire; in gaming terms, there's no HPs being removed by her attacks.

"Well, JB," you say, "That's based on a couple things: one is that it's a children's cartoon, and they don't want to encourage children to fight (i.e. punch people), and the other is the usual 'superhero code' against killing opponents." To which I reply: okay, but consider these two things:
  • Most folks would have a hard time bringing themselves to take a life, regardless of whether their pointed finger is the equivalent of a loaded gun. My understanding of military training (having never been through boot camp) is that at least part of it involves getting recruits to a mental state where it's okay to kill in the line of duty. For a lot of people, it would take a real life-or-death situation (perhaps involving the endangered life of a loved one) to get us to do mortal harm to a person. Very few of us are "natural born killers."
  • Whether you have a "code" against killing or just lack the stomach for it, if your power is one like "microwaving the shit out of things," you are now faced with an interesting challenge: how can I stop these crooks and villains with my seriously lethal superpower? This requires a lot of creative thinking on the part of the player; in a show like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends it requires the writers to constantly think of interesting ideas in order to keep the depictions "fresh" (it can't all be simply "cages of fire," as that would get boringly repetitive). In superhero RPGs that assign a higher value to "lethal" powers over "non-lethal," this is something to think about. Sure that ability to blow shit up is awesome when you're facing a mindless robot, but what about when facing your mind-controlled buddy? 
People that kill bad guys (even in self defense) are still committing murder, and while the law might consider it justifiable homicide, it really depends on how excessive was the forced used by the hero. It's possible a hero might still be wanted for felony jail time, even on a lesser charge (like manslaughter). Just saying.
; )


  1. personally I dig your diversions to superheroes and american football. I've never run a superhero game. The closet I got was trying to make a detective game with the old Batman rpg.

  2. @ Jason:

    Thanks, man...always nice to hear that someone likes my digressions.
    : )

    By the way, take a look at the GUMSHOE products (from Pelgrane Press) if you're really interested in "detective" style gaming. I'd probably start with Esoterrorists (which has a pretty cheap buy-in) and mod it to your needs. Trail of Cthulhu is also good (though hardcover).

  3. There was an old CoH cartoon on Youtube where a hero asks a noob, "So I supposed you just burn them into unconsciousness without hurting them at all?"

    "Yeah. At least, that's what the brochure said." :)

    I too enjoy your digressions into football and supers.

  4. It's too bad that current Marvel editors think that they need to change the sex and skin color of popular heroes in order to work the "diversity" angle rather than create new heroes and villains who are of the correct kind to tell the stories they want to tell. I do not think they need to tell these stories by making changes in such an in your face manner. Firestar is awesome. She was brand new. She helped to tell some of these stories. They could do that again. New characters who are characters first and tools to push an agenda (any agenda) second would make these stories good stories first and message stories second. Which is the best way to tell stories of any kind.

    1. @ Scott:

      Personally, I feel the greater shame is that they keep reloading the same old characters at all, rather than blowing it up or letting the old guys retire. But I guess it's a bit like the constant reboots of D&D...people want to keep buying Spider-Man no matter how old he gets and no matter how twisted the storyline has become over the decades.

      Consider: in a "superhero universe" where people with powers are a small percentage of the overall population, different sex/races should be represented in proportionate numbers, yeah? Even if you just want supers in the USA (it's all the food additives we eat), you should still have a larger percentage of non-white, non-male characters than what has been represented. That's just common sense.

  5. has DC Heroes stats and background information for the Spider friends and their supporting cast - For those not familiar with DC Heroes, the Spider Friends are depicted as less powerful than the comic book versions but still pretty capable. Just thought people might like a look.