In 1980, Michel Lotito ate an airplane.
I don't mean in a comic book, I mean in the real world. Also known as Monsieur Mangetout (Mr. Eat All) Lotito began eating the Cessna 150 light aircraft in 1978. He made a career out of eating unusual items. He ate bicycles, razor blades, a computer, and even a robot. An estimated 9 tons of metal and glass passed through his system before he died in 2007. (Natural causes, nothing he ate.) Lotito consumed things that no human being should eat for fear of massive injury or death and he claimed never to suffer ill effects. He couldn't eat everything; bananas and hard-boiled eggs made him feel sick.
Michel Lotito is often named on sites and videos listing "Real Superhumans" or "People with Real Superpowers." The truth is he had an eating disorder known as pica, characterized by an appetite for substances that are largely non-nutritive, such as drywall, paint, metal, stones, or glass. Sounds bizarre, but it's real. The condition is most often seen in pregnant women and on TLC's "My Strange Addiction." The fact that he took it to such an incredible degree is perhaps superhuman, though.
The word omnivorous literally means "eats all" (from the Latin) but in modern parlance it refers just to food. Panphagia means "eats all" (from the Greek) but it is used as the name of a genus of sauropodomorph dinosaur. Truly eating everything is perhaps better referred by the mixed origin word omniphagia.
Lotito was pretty impressive, and to some he may seem superhuman, but in the world of comic books he's just not good enough. It takes the ultimate omniphagist, someone really special to eat absolutely everything--including bananas--safely. It takes one of the most overlooked and disrespected members of the Legion of Super Heroes. It takes Matter-Eater Lad (MEL to his friends). That codename doesn't beat around the bush; eating matter is what he does. He eats anything.
Yum Yum! This old ray-gun sure tastes good!
Real name Tenzil Kem, MEL comes from a planet called Bismoll. (Get it?) The Bismollian race evolved to be able to eat anything after all of the food on their planet became poisonous (just go with it). He became the fifteenth member of the Legion of Super-Heroes in 1962. With a name like Matter-Eater Lad that, he was sure to be among the oddest of an already fairly odd group.
DC seems embarrassed by Tenzil Kem and wishes he would go away. Jerry Siegel created him, but when interviewed years later, he reportedly had no recollection of the story or the character whatsoever. (Ouch!) He's been drafted away from the team. He's been driven insane and locked up. The LoSH has been rebooted several times. (I don't know, 57? I don't claim to be an expert on LoSH continuity. Who could possibly do that?) In at least three of those reboots, MEL was no longer on the team. How many times does a guy have to save the universe to get some respect?
Trust me. I'm a senator.
Like the boxing glove arrow, as much as people hate him, he still has his fans. Chief amongst them was writer/artist Keith Giffen. Along with Tom and Mary Bierbaum, Giffen rescued MEL from obscurity and reinvigorated him for the Five Years Later (5YL) era. Tenzil was a full fledged senator now and his would-be replacement Calorie Queen was his aide.
In a manner reminiscent of Giffen's lighthearted Justice League International, Tenzil Kem embraced humor. The Bierbaums have admitted that they were inspired by Bill Murray's role of Peter Venkman for the new MEL. Inspiration doesn't get better than that folks. He enjoyed a surge in popularity. A much younger version of Kem was part of the SW6 (no idea what that means) and the levity stayed as an integral part of the character. While some hate the humorous Matter-Eater Lad, he's far and away my favorite Legionnaire.
Despite his charming personality, Matter-Eater Lad appears on practically every list of silly concepts, useless superpowers, and lame super heroes on the internet. "He eats stuff. How is that a power? He's stupid." That is so incredibly short-sighted that it physically hurts me.
Is he silly? Yes, I'll admit that one. His shtick has an inherently humorous component to it. The very image of eating a ray gun or a crescent wrench is innately funny, there's no denying it.
Is he useless? HA! Not by a long shot. In fact, one could argue that they wanted to get rid of him because he was too powerful.
Is he lame? No, you're lame! To so easily dismiss Matter-Eater Lad is short-sighted. You are closing yourself off to a world of possibilities.
Is eating as a power stupid? Eating as a power is comical, not stupid. MEL is not alone in using it. One of the best comics being published right now is Chew. It's a book about a cibopath, someone that gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. Chew has a lot of fun examining the horrifying downside of such an ability. In the pages of The Tick, we meet two dining do-gooders: Crime Cannibal and Man-Eating Cow. (The Tick cartoon also introduced us to The Indigestible Man.) There are a few others, but unless you include Pac Man or Galactus, they're not worth mentioning here.
While eating is almost always presented as a power for comic effect, that doesn't mean Tenzil's power is stupid. Not at his level.
Beware the Silly Ones
Tenzil can eat anything. Not in the way that Andrew Zimmern eats anything. I'm not talking about lutefisk and fermented shark, which is just disgusting. He eats anything. If it exists, he can eat it. When Siegel created the character, I don't think he truly understood the implications of this power.
'Anything' is a broad category. We see him eat everything from metal to rocks, from steam to laser beams. Yeah, I said laser beams. Anything dangerous is rendered harmless when it enters his mouth. Consider this: he can drink lava. He can snack on uranium. When he swallows explosives, they become less dangerous than a gummi bear. Of course, he can still be shot, stabbed, or run over. He's not indestructible.
And in his jaws, neither is anything else, including objects which are otherwise impervious to harm. In his most famous story arc, he ate the Miracle Machine, a device that the combined might of the Legion (including Superboy) could not scratch. And yes, if he were in the Marvel Universe he could eat Captain America's shield. And Mjolnir. He could eat Wolverine (Which I would pay money to see). There might be consequences--eating the Miracle Machine drove him mad, after all--but he could do it.
MEL's gut is a bottomless pit. His metabolism lets him eat any amount of matter. And he does it at an incredible rate of speed. He doesn't possess super-speed, but when he begins eating, his digestion transforms the matter into fuel that increases his speed letting him eat faster and faster. He can eat an entire silo of grain in minutes. He can eat entire tunnels in solid rock. Lotito took two years to eat an airplane. Tenzil could do that in one sitting.
As a byproduct of such a power, his saliva is extremely acidic. In one of my favorite scenes, the LoSH is interrogating someone wearing a battle suit. The detainee is resisting them because he believes he is safe in his armor. They call Tenzil over. He licks the visor on the guy's helmet and dissolves it. The guy talks.
Anything he eats no longer exists. This may seem like an obvious axiom, but consider what that really means. When he eats a tunnel the earth doesn't need to be displaced; it's no longer there. It has been annihilated. He doesn't just eat, he annihileates.
Verb. to reduce to utter ruin or nonexistence; destroy utterly by the act of eating:
I'm so hungry that I could annihileate an entire platter of tacos.
It is beyond me how anyone can consider this power useless. He's not a frontline fighter, true, but power like that surely has a place on the team. The problem, once again, is the visual conjured by eating objects. It's a funny image. So let's alter the image a bit, just as a hypothetical. If a character had the power to annihilate anything he held in his hands, would that be useless? Once you get past the humorous vision you begin to appreciate the power of Matter-Eater Lad.
E = mc 2
When MEL eats, the matter is transformed into energy that harmlessly dissipates from his pores. That is an incredible amount of energy. While some is used for sustenance, most of it pretty much goes to waste. If there were a way to harness that energy, then it would be a fantastic source of power.
Another Bismollian, Calorie Queen, can process that excess energy into super strength. She was created as a commentary on MEL's 'useless' power and was intended to be his replacement. She was also tossed aside though, and came back only as Tenzil's aide.
One of the Mighty Orbots (obscure reference of the day) uses eating as a power source. For those that never got to enjoy this amazing cartoon, Mighty Orbots was a giant robot formed from five smaller robots ala Voltron. The left leg was Crunch, a short, rotund robot with massive jaws that was always eating. Crunch could provide emergency power to the entire gestalt by munching metal and rocks.
You don't want to give me an appetite!
Tenzil is a nice guy, so this incredible power doesn't get used against living beings. Usually. We see him eating a dangerous life form in the cartoon, so it does happen. In another favorite moment, we find that he can be pushed too far. Mekt Ranzz (Lightning Lord) is yelling at Kem and sticks a finger in his face...
Look, Tenzil Kem is a humorous hero with a great personality. There's nothing wrong with being a humorous character, even when the book gets deadly serious. Don't underestimate him. Matter-Eater Lad is fantastic and he deserves your respect. If you want a lame character to disrespect, you can have Maggot. He's fucking worthless.
"On The Other Hand" is a column of unrepentant nostalgia in a superhero world suffering from an overdeveloped sense of maturity. The author deserves credit for the restraint he showed by not making a 'pica-chew' joke.