Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Does this mean Aunt May could beat me up? “Ordinary” people in comic books

A couple of years back I was reading a comics thread online in which someone posed a question: are even ordinary people in the MU and DCU superhuman by real-world standards?

What led one side of the debate to say “yes” was the Kingpin — canonically non-superhuman — being able to go toe-to-toe with Spider-Man. How is that possible given Spidey has ten times peak human srength? The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe rationalizes it — Spidey pulls his punches when hitting non-supers, he underestimates Fisk — but I don’t find it convincing (and as we all know, Marvel’s ignored the Handbook too often to treat it as authoritative).

There are multiple other examples of non-super people holding their own with metahumans. Man-Mountain Marko has gone toe-to-toe with Spider-Man, though he was retconned later to have undergone genetic engineering. Big Ben Donovan fought Luke Cage and knocked him down and he’s never been retconned into anything beyond being big and tough. I’d think just punching a man with steel hard skin would break Donovan’s strictly human hands, but no.Another point the “yes” side brought up was Karate Kid’s ability to smash through vault doors and girders without any powers. Sure, he’s trained in super-karate, but it’s not physically possible for a human to break steel, no matter what their training. I find this less convincing. I mean, it’s technically true, but DCU scientists routinely display impossible sciencing skills — why not karate masters too? But then again, even ordinary karate masters in the MU are capable of breaking steel, as the Mandarin demonstrates in his first clash with Iron Man. Both he and Iron Man accept that Mandy’s karate skills can smash through Shellhead’s armor, though Iron Man uses his armor’s built-in slide rule to avoid that. In an early issue of Avengers, Zemo shows he can chop through steel too, and asserts this is a common skill for black belts.

I fully realize nobody writing those stories meant to imply ordinary humans were  metas. It’s common in comics for weaker fighters to demonstrate greater strength when the story requires it — Brian Cronin’s got a whole string of columns devoted to that. Stan Lee was far from the only person to treat martial arts as a super-power — karate in the 1960s had the same aura of mysterious power that ninjutsu would have in later decades. So we can ignore it all — but then again, maybe it makes sense. I have no firm opinion on this so I’m curious what y’all think.

The same reasoning might apply, sometimes, to times when law, government and the military don’t work like they do on our Earth. There’s a Bronze Age Huntress story in which the Gotham City DA announces a superhero ban in the city (he’s under the Thinker’s mind-control at the time).  A District Attorney can’t make rules like that in our world: his job is to prosecute crimes, not pass new regulation. But on Earth-Two, where they’ve had years longer to deal with superheroes? Why not?

Of course, this kind of rationalization can only go so far. Some laws may be different in the DCU but it’s hard to believe the Twelfth Amendment, passed in 1804 to revamp presidential election rules, also gives superheroes the right to testify without revealing their identities (post-crisis Flash #135 claims it does). I can accept the Howling Commandos being allowed to ignore militar dress rules — Dum-Dum’s derby, Percy’s beret —but as Commander Benson has written, no way would submarine commander Simon Savage be assigned to a surface vessel, or lead a joint Marine/Navy strike force on land.

So where do we draw the boundary between “even ordinary stuff on Earth-616 and Earth-One isn’t like our world” and “that’s ridiculous!” Or is there a boundary to draw at all? Thoughts?

#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by John Romita, Billy Graham, Jim Shooter/Sheldon Moldoff, Don Heck and Dick Ayers.


  1. Darthratzinger

    A normal person hitting Spidey and having any sort of effect on him is the equivalent of Spidey punching Firelord out. The former only bugged me as a kid, the latter still bugs me today. Whenever Spider-Man fought Doc Ock, Vulture,etc. , the fight should have ended the first time Spidey landed a punch. That´s what I liked when Hobgoblin was introduced and in his first fight with Spidey he barely got away and looked really beat up. Only when he found Osborns Green Goblin formula he became a viable threat (and my favorite Spidey villain).

    1. Then again, I’ve read arguments that being super-strong doesn’t mean they’re super-tough, so a blow to the head should incapacitate Spidey like anyone else. But it doesn’t feel that way.
      I remember when Spider-Man did an MTU with Captain Britain, he tries throwing a girder at his head during the obligatory clash of Titans. When a letter-writer pointed out this would be fatal, the editorial response was that Spidey somehow figured exactly where to throw so it wouldn’t do more than knock Britain cold.

  2. Le Messor

    This article gets at a couple of things that always bug me:

    One is, when ‘ordinary people’ are better at superheroing than actual powered people. Yes, Batman, I’m looking at you.
    It always strikes me as the writers trying to say ‘you can be an ordinary person and still be amazing’, and it comes off trite and try-hard to me.

    Another is that nobody specialises. You’re a scientist? You must know everything about all sciences! (One of the changes the MCU made that I support is Stark creating Ultron, not Pym. That makes a lot more sense.) Or ‘you’re a cellist? You’re creative. We’ll make you an art restorer in the next movie’. Which makes, like, zero sense. (It’s possible, of course, but so unlikely.)

    It doesn’t bug me as much, but insane law things on shows do too. Like in She-Hulk, she’s been using that name as a super for a while, somebody makes a line of beauty products called She-Hulk and tries to trademark-strike her. That fails on so many levels that even I, who know next to nothing about law, know it fails on so many levels.

    1. I really hate that we’ve gone from “Batman has no superpowers — damn, look what he can do though!” to “Batman only defeated 10 Olympians by himself? Is he sick?”)
      And yes, the whole idea geniuses are also polymaths is daft, though it’s such a staple I just roll with it. The cellist thing is a good analogy though.
      The Comic Buyers’ Guide used to have a column “The Law Is An Ass” that looked at legal idiocy. For example (this one stuck because I’ve seen it several times) the hero busts the villain only to be told “Everything I’ve done is perfectly legal — if you take me in, I’ll sue you for false arrest.”
      Does hero call anyone with legal expertise to confirm this? No.
      Is the villain really within the law? No.

      1. Le Messor

        And yes, the whole idea geniuses are also polymaths is daft, though it’s such a staple I just roll with it.
        Oh, yeah, I roll with it too. When I say ‘it bugs me’, I mean ‘it’s a little niggle at the back of my brain’, not ‘I hate this work now’.
        One math is bad enough, but polymaths? Ugh!

        The cellist was Dana Barrett in Ghostbusters I and II.

        Ooh, and also the villain saying ‘everything I’ve done is legal’ always means: ‘everything I’ve done this issue / episode is legal. Let’s forget about all the stuff I’ve done many times in the past.’ So even if it was true – there’s that.

        1. In the particular case “the Law is an Ass” used as an example, it wasn’t even that. In an issue of Marvel’s “Kickers, Inc.” the villain is a college professor who’s been giving his students hallucinogens as part of some kind of cult ritual (what kicks off the investigation is one of them dies as a result). When the protagonist busts him, his defense is “they all signed a waiver” and “it was LEGAL hallucinogens.” The columnist explained in detail why this did not hold up (like, no such thing as legal hallucinogens).

    2. jccalhoun

      My favorite terrible trope is “this super smart person has 5 phds!”
      As someone with a phd, no one would go through the effort of getting two let alone 5 (unless they were a double major which I know someone who did that). There is simply no point unless they are in very different areas like English and Physics and they really want to be able to teach both fields.

        1. Le Messor

          Doctor Doom, of course, started calling himself Doctor when he didn’t have even a BA

          I always used to assume those titles-as-super-identities were just part of the name. It surprised me to learn the Doctor —s were really doctors, and the Captain —s were really captains.

          On some level or another.

          1. Le Messor

            I think they’ve retconned America’s rank so he is a captain, if only honorary.

            I think Monica Rambeau piloted a ship, making her a captain – but not the military rank.

        2. jccalhoun

          My Fanon is Reed Calls Doom “Victor” because he is subtly rubbing it in Doom’s face that he isn’t a Doctor.

          And Shouldn’t Reed Richards be Dr. Fantastic?

          I always thought that a log of the “Doctor” characters were medical doctors. Doctor Midnight and Doctor Strange. I’m sure most aren’t though.

          1. I like that Fanon.
            Maybe Reed decided it sounded cooler.
            I’d guess some are doctors of something, some not doctors at all. Doctor Fate is an odd one — it was simply his nom du adventure at the start, then he went and got an MD later.

  3. My assumption is that super-powers simply don’t operate at a consistent level. Which makes sense, since they’d be tied to the character’s biology. Spider-Man’s strength and resilience probably vary wildly, based on his general health (which is often lousy, since he’s always eating on the go, pulling all-nighters, etc.). He just happens to always run into the Kingpin when he’s having an off-day. If he’d just get some rest and eat his wheatcakes, like Aunt May tells him…!

    On the other side of the equation, yup, it sure looks like martial arts are way, way better in the DC/Marvel universe than they are here. Even Wonder Woman’s powers were originally explained not as divine gifts, but the results of “Amazon training”. Apparently, they’ve unlocked some secret techniques that we here on Earth-Prime just haven’t figured out yet.

    The legal stuff I give more slack to, just owing to the number of patently ridiculous legal shenanigans we see going down in the real world (e.g., the fact that Donald Trump isn’t in prison yet).

    1. They eventually explained Amazon abilities as tapping the 90 percent of the brain we (supposedly) don’t use and turning it into physical stuff.
      I’ll grant them a certain amount of fluctuation from an off day or sheer determination. But not enough to resolve all the bad fights.
      DD #7, with hornhead battling Sub-Mariner is one that did it well. They make no pretense Daredevil can go toe to toe with Namor but by grit he keeps fighting until Subby leaves New York out of respect for his foe.

      1. Spider-Man vs. Doctor Doom in Amazing Spider-Man #5 is similar. It’s taken as a given that Spidey can’t possibly beat Doom; the best he can do is stall him until the Fantastic Four arrive. There’s something to be said for characters having a definite “weight class” they fit into, but it’s also thrilling to see the scrappy underdog score a win against someone they seemed to have no chance against. I guess the eternal challenge of these ongoing franchises is trying to thread that needle between making the hero a hopeless loser and turning them into an unstoppable god.

    2. Le Messor

      Spider-Man’s strength and resilience probably vary wildly, based on his general health

      I seem to remember there was a story (I don’t think I’ve read it) where he lost a fight because he had a cold.

      1. I think it’s been done a few times. Amazing Spider-Man #12 has him trying to fight Doctor Octopus while suffering from a 24-hour virus. He loses badly, and Doc Ock unmasks him, but everyone just assumes Parker was bravely/stupidly trying to impersonate Spidey. No way would the real Spidey do such a lousy job.

          1. There’s a second story where he comes down with a cold while fighting Vulture II, Blackie Drago.
            In the 1970s Gerry Conway gave him an ulcer but forgot about it after a while. I was amused that Alex Segura’s mystery novel “Secret Identity” references “Spider-Man’s weakness is spicy food” as I’m sure most people who read it went “Huh?”

  4. kdu2814

    Has there already been a column about when Captain America became an actual captain? Before 9/11 the Captain just seemed to be his nom du adventure (like Billy Batson and Sam Wilson, or Doctor Fate as mentioned above); or was it the MCU that changed it.
    In the golden age his rank as Steve Rogers was private, now he is Captain Rogers. Was he an actual officer disguised as a private?
    I suppose the retcon is that the golden age stories were just comics or exaggerated retellings of actual events; I tend to be a little more Roy Thomas in how I like to view past stories.

      1. Until someone gives me a definite answer, my guess is a)Captain America has nothing to do with his rank. It’s a codename, like 007, and they picked “Captain” because it sounds better than Colonel America. b)Cap does not have any military rank (as opposed to Steve Rogers). He is outside the chain of command, answering directly to Washington (in WW II) or the Committee (more recently) though his position authorizes him to commandeer a lot of government and military resources.

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