WoQW: Pity the Plight of Poor Penance

The year was 1988. George H. W. Bush was running against Michael Dukakis for the presidency of the United State, comic fans were gasping in horror when it was announced that Michael “Mr. Mom” Keaton was going to be starring in a Batman movie from the director of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and Marvel introduced a new superhero series named Speedball: The Masked Marvel.
Cover of Speedball #1
Robbie Baldwin was first introduced as a superhero in the vein of Spider-Man; a relatively average teenager who gained psychedelic kinetic energy powers after a laboratory accident. From a simple marketability standpoint Robbie’s book had just about everything going against it. For starters his costume was a hideous blue and orange thing that only Steve Ditko could away with designing (and while Ditko was something of a mad genius in his prime, well this wasn’t exactly his best work.) Secondly his title had an aggressive silver-age mentality during the post Watchmen/post Dark Knight returns 80s. Then there was fact that Speedball’s book featured some of the lamest villains to come from the mind of Tom Defalco until he created Spider-Girl ten years later. While Spider-Man got classic villains like Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin, Speedy had to deal with goofs who had names like “Bonehead” and “The Two Legged Rat.” Finally there was the unfortunate fact that name “Speedball” has long referred to a particularly deadly drug cocktail of heroine and cocaine! Not quite the kind of name you’d think would go over on an all ages book when every schoolchild in America had the words “just say no” drummed into their head on a daily basis. Needless to say “Speedball The Masked Marvel” would only last 10 issues.

This would not mark the end of Robbie Baldwin’s superhero career as Speedball would become a regular member of “The New Warriors,” Marvel’s answer to the Teen Titans until it turned out he was replaced by an imposter named Darrion Grobe for many of the team’s adventures. Baldwin would eventually return to the Marvel Universe and stick around on several incarnations of the New Warriors, including the ill-fated reality television version.

So it only seemed natural when Marvel’s next big event crossover storyline came about that Speedball seemed to be one of those characters considered expendable. Yet when Joe Quesada joked about killing off the “bouncing blockbuster” in Newsarama’s weekly Joe Fridays column Marvel fans were outraged! Despite all the things going against him it turns out that Speedy managed to have a passionate little cult following which amassed over the years.

But fortunately Speedball survived the explosion that killed the latest incarnation of New Warriors and now he’s a starring character in a heavily promoted title written by A-list writer Warren Ellis. Heck they even gave him a new name that’s not associated with the illegal substance that killed John Belushi, River Phoenix, and Chris Farley.

So you’d think Robbie Baldwin fans should be rejoicing right?

Guess again…

Now in case you missed Civil War Frontline #10, Robbie decides to give into to the federal government’s demands and views himself as responsible for the Stamford disaster, following a series of abuse that rivals The Passion of the Christ. Baldwin deals with his grief the way that any reasonable person would by putting on a costume containing 612 pointy painfull pointy metal spikes to remind him of everyone who died in Stamford that day. Also instead of bouncing around being trailed by little spheres of energy he now shoots explosive blasts of kinetic energy that are TRIGGERED BY PAIN!

Penance

Uh-huh…

Ok superheroes not are a genre particularly well known for strict adherence to medical science but lets just assume that Robbie somehow doesn’t bleed to death from this. What keeps the 612 wounds from getting infected? I mean it’s hard enough to keep a pair of pierced ears clean how are you supposed to keep 612 piercing antiseptic? Ever heard of a little thing called septicemia? Or how about tetanus for that matter? The human body simply isn’t build to maintain prolonged untreated wounds and barring some kinda Wolverine-esc mutation I have no idea how Robbie is supposed live in this condition.

But even if I’m going to ignore this obvious affront to everything I remember from my high school health class, I can’t help but think that some remarkably wrong-headed thinking went into makeover. It’s as if Joe Quesada looked at the death of Blue Beetle and decided that it’s wrong to simply martyrize a B- or C-list comic relief character… no! The right thing to do is to figure out how to make the character exciting, to make people outside of his circle of fans want to buy a book with him in it.

Then he Warren Ellis, Mark Millar, Paul Jenkins, etc. sat around at a table, pondered possible directions for the character and THIS WAS THE BEST THING THEY COULD THINK OF!

They sincerely seem to think that this is the thing that will make Robbie Baldwin a big hit with fans but well… I just don’t see it. I don’t see a large demand for an internally tortured angst fueled human pin-cushion. If Speedball’s original costume was an absurd Ditko design, it was at least a memorable one. Penance looks like a rejected mid-boss character from the latest Silent Hill game. His motivations call to mind the late 80s/early 90s when tortured tragic characters were all the rage. Though the Penance concept probably could have been a money in the era where Spawn was a top-ten book, today it makes about as much sense as well… releasing a Silver Age throwback book in 1988.

What separates Robbie’s dubious makeover from the great dubious character changes from the past like when DC editor George Kashdan tried to turn the Blackhawks into superheroes or DC turning Billy Batson into a hooded Sephiroth look-a-like is that Speedball even under the best of circumstances isn’t likely to sell too many books on his own. Still his makeover into Penance the Human Pincushion isn’t likely to draw any new fans, just alienate his niche fan base.