Saturday, November 25, 2017 • Morning Edition • "Still Kardashian free!"

On The Other Hand #9 ... Speedball

Written by Logan on Thursday, January 26 2017 and posted in Features

On The Other Hand #9 ... Speedball

"Drumroll please, for Speedball--the trademark-trashing, bouncing boy wonder!!"



It's a new year and Marvel just finished their major event Civil War II. As a column of unrepentant nostalgia, it seems that this is a good time to revisit the first Civil War event which finished ten years ago. It won't be pretty, though. I come not to praise Civil War, but to bury it. The event has already been buried by better writers than I dissecting this story and why it was such a piece of trash. From character assassinations to shock murders to plot loopholes large enough swallow the Earth, Civil War had it all. I won't revisit all of that here. I want to focus on one specific, repulsive angle. Civil War contains the single worst character revamp done in the name of maturity and edginess ever. I'm talking, of course, about the destruction of Speedball.

I realize that there are younger readers who will not understand the full scale of what I mean because they don't really know who Speedball was. Or maybe they didn't read this ten year old story arc and the 714 crossover issues. For these reasons, let's take a closer look at Speedball and what we lost before examining the details of his demise.

Ditko's Bouncing Baby Boy

Speedball was already an anachronism when he first appeared in 1988. Marvel was firmly entrenched in the Punisher Age that year. It was a time when the comic book industry was desperate to show how mature they could be. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were fresh in the mind and companies were hastily trying to recreate their success by emulating the violence found in those books. Just like Hollywood, when something works once, everyone will copy it. And just like Hollywood, the copies will always miss what actually made them work and latch on to the most visceral aspect of the story. Grim & Gritty were the buzzwords and characters everywhere were being revamped to be darker and edgier. Superheroes weren't cool; guns were cool.

But I digress.

Along came this skinny teenager with goofy powers and an awkward smile. Speedball The Masked Marvel first appeared in a Spidey book, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #22. This was no accident. He was a product of Spider-Man's legendary and reclusive co-creator, Steve Ditko, who is also famed for creating Doctor Strange and his psychedelic imagery. Visually, Speedball was a hybrid of Spidey and Strange; a skinny teen surrounded by circles of other-dimensional energies. He was a total throwback to a different age.

OTOH-PngBall

Speedball was really teenager Robbie Baldwin, an obvious Peter Parker archetype. There are several notable similarities. For example:

  • Peter Parker was an unpopular high school student
  • Robbie Baldwin was an unpopular high school student
  • Peter was a hard luck case
  • Robbie was a hard luck case
  • Peter accidentally gained powers from a freak science accident
  • Robbie accidentally gained powers from a freak science accident
  • Spider-Man had a great sense of humor
  • Speedball had a great sense of humor
  • Spider-Man begins with SP
  • Speedball begins with SP

The list goes on.

Play Ball!

In many ways, Speedball was created as an attempt to recapture that old school feeling that comics were beginning to lose in the Punisher Age. His powers were colorful and slightly goofy. He didn't kill or maim. The name Baldwin was even an obvious aptronym.

OTOH-CVr3

I still remember seeing the cover to Speedball's first series on the stands and wondering where the hell this 70s book came from. It looked so out of place among the modern books. I'm ashamed to admit my first reaction was, "That looks stupid!" Was it stupid? No, I was stupid! It wasn't until I read the entire ten issue series that I realized just how good it was, how fun it was, and how different it was.

After his mini series, he disappeared for a while. I don't think they could figure out how to fit this goofball into the Marvel mainstream, and didn't really care. He might have disappeared entirely if he had not been rescued from obscurity by Fabian Nicieza & Mark Bagley for the New Warriors in 1990. In Nicieza's hands, Speedball went from reject to fan favorite. He wrote, "I hope everyone has realized that I love Speedball. He's one of the few spandex folks out there that really enjoys what he's doing." That's rare enough today, but was damn scarce in that angst filled era.

What goes pitter-patter pitter-patter bounce meow?

Arguably the best old school element Speedball brought with him was his cat, Niels, a genuine super-pet. When was the last time we saw a new super-pet? This is it. Created in 1988 and it's the most recent new super-pet in the comics. (The Krypto the Superdog cartoon made some new ones, but they didn't hit the page as far as I know.)

Niels was caught in the same freak accident that created Speedball. He developed the same amazing powers as Robbie, but learned how to use them much faster. He was originally the professor's cat, but by the time he was a New Warrior, Niels was officially Speedball's cat.

Robbie spent a lot of time in his first series just trying to catch him. If you've ever tried to corral a cat for a trip to the vet then you can understand. Now imagine trying to capture that same cat when it has super powers. And it's smarter than you.

OTOH-Niels

As a super-pet he had his own heroic career aside from Speedball. He adopted the code-name Hairball (so perfect) and joined the Pet Avengers. Other members of that team included Lockjaw, Lockheed, Redwing, Zabu, and Throg. And Ms. Lion, to Hairball's eternal annoyance. This wasn't your average kids' story about super powered animals. They took on Thanos and went after the Infinity Gems.

Like Speedball in the New Warriors, Hairball was the best part of those stories. Ironically, Hairball's personality is completely different from Speedball's. He isn't the team clown, he's the team grouch. And he looks just like my cat, Dexterity, but I'm almost sure that's just coincidence.

OTOH-stupiddog

 

The Speedball Effect

Speedball's very powers recall a more fun time. He calls Bouncing Boy of the Legion of Super-Heroes to mind. Bouncing Boy was an early victim of the maturation of comics, so the idea that his powers could be recycled in 1988 was risky.

Speedball didn't physically morph into a sphere like Bouncing Boy. Instead he was surrounded by countless force bubbles that absorbed all kinetic energy so the imagery was still there. The bubbles were the visible effect of a force field composed of extra-dimensional energies.

His powers were severely underrated. He looked goofy when using them, so it was hard to take him seriously. Consider though that he could absorb any impact--any impact--without harm. Unlike Superman or the Hulk or any number of nigh indestructible characters, he didn't resist the kinetic force and remain immobile. He absorbed the kinetic energy and refocused it in a perfect elastic collision. Even more physics defying, he could increase the kinetic energy. He absorbed the energy from every bounce and stored a tremendous amount of power. Note that many attacks are kinetic energy based, including heat and fire. He was very difficult to hurt.

OTOH-Powers

 

Another angle that usually went unnoticed is that he wasn't simply immune to kinetic impact, he was immune to inertia. If he were simply a normal human inside a force field, it wouldn't matter if the impact didn't kill him, the sudden deceleration and acceleration his body experienced on bouncing would smash his internal organs and his brain into goo against his skeleton. This is why Iron Man needs to be very careful when he flies. His armor will stop most external damage, but nothing is keeping his brain from sloshing around inside his skull as he makes a hard banking maneuver. (Maybe he has Star Trek's famous inertial dampers in his suit.) Robbie's body undergoes a metamorphosis when he becomes Speedball, so it's safe to assume that his body is becoming adapted appropriately.

Speedball's powers have evolved and changed over the years, but the Speedball Effect that he shares with Hairball is the basis of everything.

The Last Bounce

Almost everything. In Marvel's first Civil War, everything changed. I don't know why Joe Quesada hated Speedball so much that he would gleefully tease, "Oh, and Speedball dies," at conventions. I don't know why Millar hated Speedball so much that he needed to take everything good about the character and warp it beyond recognition. After Civil War we never saw our fun-loving Speedball again. Do I exaggerate? You be the judge.

The event that kicked off Civil War was called the Stamford Incident. I won't go into details because the story is contrived and awful. The important thing to know is that many, many civilians, including children died in an enormous explosion. Speedball was there, and he was the only survivor. He shouldered the blame for the deaths. Even though the incident was not his fault, the guilt he felt was absolutely overwhelming.

Somehow the explosion also changed the way his powers worked. He didn't bounce anymore at all. He fired energy blasts, but only when he felt extreme physical pain. I'm not making this shit up. And it gets worse. He dropped the Speedball identity and became Penance. Penance wore a spiked costume which scarred him and caused him pain to activate his new powers.

OTOH-Penance

Penance was grim. He brooded. He was incapable of even comprehending happiness. It was a case of survivor's guilt like the world has never known. Speedball was happy, he had goofy powers, he liked what he did. Penance was miserable, he had deadly powers, and he hated what he and all heroes did. Speedball was gone in the ultimate WTF? piece of character reconstruction ever devised. As a fan, I would rather they just killed him.

Where was Niels while this was going on?

OTOH-PCat

I don't know whether to laugh or cry at that.

The Balls are Back

Finally, after a long time gone, Robbie dropped the Penance shtick and resumed the Speedball identity. Somehow his bouncy powers were restored. He joined the staff of The Avengers Academy and things were looking up. We were getting Speedball back!

So optimistic, so naive. This is what we got.

OTOH-Pill

And that's where we stand today. He no longer smiles in his pictures; he grimaces.

I would rather they just killed him.

Everything's Better with Monkeys

After Civil War, there was one last gasp for fun Speedball, but it wasn't Speedball. Well, it was Speedball, but it wasn't...it was a monkey.

OTOH-TalkingMonkey

In 2008, Marvel published a four issue mini-series called Marvel Apes. The story is about an alternate universe where all of the characters we know and love are apes. Some of the names are quite clever and fun. We met Dr. Ooktapus, Boomerangutan, and Nick Furry, among others. Alternate Speedball was there, too, as a chimpanzee. His ape name: Speedball. Ok, so not all of them were that clever, but there were monkey vampires, so there's that.

OTOH-Brilliant

At the end of the sprawling epic, chimp Speedball went through a dimensional portal and ended up on Marvel Earth 616. I know that I wasn't the only one happy to see Speedball back, even if he was a chimpanzee. In fact, it seemed fitting that he was a chimp now. I think this series proved that there were writers for Marvel that were not at all happy about Speedball's demise. Of course Speedmonkey didn't stick around, but it sure was fun while it lasted.

Bouncing Back

Speedball is the poster boy for my inspiration in creating this column. The industry goes through these phases every so often where they feel the need to 'grow up' in order to legitimize their product. They reboot entire universes in order to clear away the things they see as frivolous and silly. Stories get more violent, death becomes a regular occurrence, characters swear a lot. Because adults.

Speedbump had (has!) a dedicated fanbase, and we resent the hell out of his Rust Age transformation. There's still a place for fun characters and stories in the mainstream comics universes. Squirrel Girl's book shows fun isn't dead. And she has a crush on Speedball, so who knows?

First Kiss

 

On The Other Hand is a column of unrepentant nostalgia. The author knows that apes are not monkeys, but monkey is a much funnier word.





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