My Favorite Comic Book Ever

It was the summer of 1988. We had been living in Greeley for several months - long enough for me to complete the fifth grade and to discover that I was no cooler in Greeley than I had been in Englewood. I had accompanied my Mom to the grocery store one afternoon, as usual. And, as usual, I made a beeline for the comics rack. In those days, there wasn't a convenient comic book store in town, but in those days, grocery, convenience and drug stores still carried comics alongside the magazines. Fortunately, my tastes weren't terribly esoteric, so I could get what I wanted by combing the racks at Safeway, 7-11 and Long's Drugs.

I don't know why, for sure, but this cover caught my eye in the Safeway that afternoon. It was a #1, which was always intriguing, to be sure. I liked the sound of the title: Speedball - The Masked Marvel. I flipped through it and I liked the art - though I had no idea that it was by Steve Ditko, or even why that was interesting or important. I probably picked out another book or two, though I couldn't tell you what they might have been, and went to find my Mom.

When we got home, I devoured Speedball #1 like a junkie getting a fix. I read it again and again over the next few weeks, and haunted the newsstands in search of Speedball #2. I liked Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, and I was beginning to be intrigued by the X-Men...but Speedball, of all characters, just sang to me.

It was the right book at the right time, I suppose. Robbie Baldwin was a high school student, not all that much older than me. He felt lonely and isolated because of his uncontrollable powers. It was a perfect little slice of melodramatic adolescent angst. Back in the '60s, Marvel invented super-heroic melodramatic adolescent angst with Spider-Man, but by the time I was reading comics, Spidey was already an adult and married to a super-model. Spidey was fun, the Thing and the Human Torch were cool, but Speedball was the first super-hero I could really identify with. This wasn't on any conscious level, of course - but somewhere in the back of my head, I could see a bit of myself in Speedball. There was angst, yes, but it was still a ton of fun, too.

Every year shortly after Thanksgiving my Grandmother - Mom's Mom - sent letters to both my brother and me, asking us what we wanted for Christmas. In 1988, I knew exactly what I wanted. I tore a subscription form from the back of a Marvel comic, filled it out with my name and address and the box for Speedball checked, and sent it to Grandma, along with a note explaining what to do with it.

Shortly after Christmas, Speedball #7 arrived in the mail. I was delighted - my favorite comic book, delivered right to my door. It was a little thrill around the same time each month, walking home from the school bus stop and wondering if my new comic would be waiting for me in the mailbox. That lasted for three months. Along with Speedball #10 was a letter from Marvel, telling me that my favorite comic book in the world was being cancelled.

In his introduction to DC's The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told, Roy Thomas tells a great story about the end of his personal "Golden Age of Comics." He relates the story of his subscription to All-Star Comics, home of his beloved Justice Society of America. He tells of how he cried when it became All-Star Western with the second issue of his subscription. I felt the same when that letter from Marvel came, telling me I would have to pick another title to fill out the remainder of the subscription period. I don't think I cried, but I was certainly crushed.

I picked another title - The New Mutants, which I liked a lot and which was filled with even more melodramatic adolescent angst. Still, I read those subscription issues somewhat grudgingly, always knowing as I read them that I wasn't getting what I really wanted.

A year or so later, Speedball was brought back in a new melodramatic adolescent angst team book, The New Warriors. I picked up that #1 - by this time, I was getting my comics from a comic book store that had opened up across the strip mall from the Safeway - solely because of Speedball, but I quickly became a fan, and that one was my favorite book for several years running.

And now the real point of all this...

Over the years, Marvel has made its comics steadily less and less fun. Everything that happens in the Marvel Universe (and in the DC Universe, for that matter) these days is taken very very seriously, and it's all tortured and self-important. As part of this drive for...whatever it is they think they're accomplishing, Marvel recently killed off most of the New Warriors and put Speedball through a transformation during the hoopla of their idiotic Civil War event.

He's not Speedball anymore - he's PENANCE (Ooo, scary!)! He feels guilty over the deaths he believes he caused at the beginning of Civil War, and for some reason he needs to be in pain to use his new-and-improved powers, so he wears an idiotic-looking costume with a bunch of interior spikes that poke him all the time so he can use his powers.

This idiocy is just indicative of why I've given up on nearly all super-hero comics. They're not interested in escapism, or in stories that are fun to read. It's gotta be all gloom-and-doom, all the time. Yeah, the original Speedball series was melodramatic adolescent angst - but it was fun ultimately pretty light and breezy. Robbie Baldwin felt isolated and alone, but he also enjoyed being a super-hero.

Writer Paul Jenkins, who is at least partially responsible for this inanity, told Newsarama, "Penance is much more interesting to me as a character than Speedball. As Speedball, and I don’t mean to disparage him as he was, but all stories, as they say, are about sex and violence, which translates to passion and conflict. There’s very little conflict in the happy-go-lucky guys. It’s difficult to show him conflicted, if he lets things ride. So Penance surely, to me, has far more potential. I think we’ve given him a good start, so we’ll see where he goes from here."

Right. 'Cause mopey Gloomcookie Emo boys are so much more interesting characters than those who are positive and funny. If your hero is essentially a happy-go-lucky guy who has some problems to deal with, that's boring and uninteresting. But if he's tortured and tormented and into self-flagellation, it's dramatic and important and, like, good writing and stuff. Dude's so far up his own ass that I think he's coming back out of his mouth. Wanker.

That's the bottom line - I started reading super-hero comics because they were escapist fun. I'm not saying that's what super-heroes have to be all the time, but it is, to me, a pretty big part of their appeal. And I still like the super-hero stuff that has some of that sense of fun - Jeff Smith's Shazam! and Robert Kirkman's Invincible are two that spring to mind.

If the boys at Marvel ever pull their collective head out and bring back a tiny shred of the silliness and whimsy that made Speedball entertaining in the first place, I'll be the first in line to see it. But as long as Emo Speedball (to borrow a phrase) is Marvel's idea of an "interesting" character, count me out.