I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years studying heroes, and what our cultural heroes say about society. Much is made of gritty vs. fun, Man of Steel vs. Guardians of the Galaxy. But one thing that is often overlooked is the importance of parody to this discussion—these unsung heroes do as much to dismantle and deflate the superhero archetype as anything Frank Miller wrote. Not to belabor this too much, but clearly the people behind these works were commenting on the pervasive hero-worship of characters like Supes and Cap, and often jabbing at the broodiness of Batman and Punisher. There is also a very real message in many of these books: normal people can be heroes, too.
So here’s a by-no-means exhaustive list of some of the greatest superhero parodies—be sure to join the discussion in the comments!
The first two parodies I found are, appropriately enough, riffs on Superman, but neither of them particularly attack the Man of Steel. Both were made during World War II, and they clearly hold Superman up as an absolute ideal of American bravery, and, best of all, attempt to extend his strength and moral certitude to ordinary people. Or, in the first case, an ordinary mouse…
Super Mouse (1942)
Super Mouse was a cartoon by Paul Terry that eventually morphed into Mighty Mouse, and the main gag was simply that a mouse could do the same things as Superman. He appeared in 1942 and dressed in a familiar blue costume with red trunks and a cape, but Superman wasn’t the only target of this parody; the early cartoons also spoofed both Mario Lanza’s opera work, with the characters singing many of their lines, and old silent serials, by starting action in media res and ending on cliffhangers. Super Mouse/Mighty Mouse had powers including flight, x-ray vision, and even telekinesis, and he fought a wide variety of foes including thinly-veiled Nazis, a super-strong cat, and even a feline Satan, but his usual nemesis was the normal but nefarious kitty named Oil Can Harry.
Less subversive than some of the other parodies, this Superman spoof is a one-off from the series of Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Private Snafu, a WWII soldier—with a voice made more famous by a certain sarcastic rabbit—who sucks at soldiering because he refuses to read his manuals. In the cartoon, he is granted the powers of Superman (who is treated as a real person in the world of the film, so why isn’t he stopping the Nazis?) but even with great power, Snafu doesn’t bother with the great responsibility of learning military tactics.
Not Brand ECHH (1967)
Not Brand Ecchh was Marvel’s in-house parody line, which seemed designed to undercut an outsider’s ability to mock them. They caricature their own guys plus some DC characters for good measure, skewing the names in the snerking manner of MAD Magazine and middle-schoolers everywhere. For instance, in the above issue, Spidey-Man is saved from GnatMan’s prank by obliviously diving after a Merry Marvel Marching Society pin at exactly the right second. Not Brand Echhh! was created by the Marvel bullpen, and it shows in the humor.
This is a gentle parody aimed at kids that will probably make most adults groan and cover their ears. Spider-Ham, the heroic alter ego of average pig Peter Porker, was created by Tom DeFalco, who has returned to the project over the last thirty years. It isn’t quite the satirical grab-bag that Not Brand-Echh is, but instead focuses on direct Spider-Man parody with a cast of funny animals including J. Jonah Jackal (editor in chief of The Daily Beagle), Ducktor Doom, Nagneto the Magnetic Horse, and, my favorite, Goose Rider.
Flaming Carrot (1979)
Created by Bob Burden as a parody of The Fin, Flaming Carrot decided he was a superhero after reading 5,000 comics in one sitting. He has no powers, except a willingness to take ridiculous risks and get hurt a lot. He also has a truly eerie carrot mask which is almost as tall as he is. The top of the carrot is also on fire. Burden published the book himself occasionally during the ’80s, then moved the title over to Dave Sim’s Aardvark Vanaheim publishing outfit, and it’s since been rereleased digitally. His catchphrase, “Ut!” was stolen from George Harrison: when kids swarmed the stage during the Beatles’ Shea Stadium performance in 1965, he apparently yelled “Ut!” in surprise, and Bob Burden thought it was weird enough to work in the world he was creating. Carrot’s only real superhero accessory is a specially designed pogo stick, created by professional Genius and Mad Scientist Dr. Heller, who also appears in…
Mystery Men (1999)
I have a soft spot for Mystery Men. The film certainly isn’t great—it’s too dark and frenetic and skips over world-building to get straight into action scenes. The little bit of context that exists is potentially interesting—superheroes have publicists and corporate sponsorships—but the film doesn’t spend any time mining it. The thing that works, I think, is that each character’s power is rooted in a real emotion or hope, and it gives the whole thing more weight than it should have. The Shoveler is a blue collar hero, and his power—shoveling very well—takes a talent that most people would ignore, and recognizes its dignity; the Bowler was willing to put grad school on hold to help her father get his vengeance from beyond the grave, but she has her own goals in life; and Blue Raja’s mother is excited to learn that her son is a superhero, so much so that she gifts him an old family heirloom to use as weaponry. And Tom Waits can do anything in a film and I’ll watch it. Plus it made me really happy that Captain Amazing is just a dick, and (spoiler alert!) that they inadvertently kill him during their rescue attempt.
Normal Man (1983)
Also coming out of Dave Sim’s Aardvark/Vanaheim Press was Normal Man—a direct subversion of Superman. Norm’s dad, an accountant, believes that his planet is about to blow up, and launches his son into space to save him. (He later realizes he was incorrect in his calculation.) Twenty years later, Norm lands on Levram, where he is the only non-superpowered person—worse still, most of the supers are out to get Norm because he represents a threat to their way of life. This one has a basic inversion of Superman, with digs at Nick Fury, the Fantastic Four and the Justice League throughout. And the lead hero, Captain Everything (what’s with the Captains?), explicitly has the ability to suddenly gain new powers as the plot demands them.
Crimson Bolt/Boltie/Holy Avenger (2010)
James Gunn gave as a particularly dark superhero satire in 2010’s Super. Frank D’Arbo is a fry cook who believes his life is given meaning by his marriage to his wife, Sarah. When she leaves him and returns to a life of drug abuse, he begs God for some sort of sign. What he gets is an encounter with The Holy Avenger, a Christian TV superhero, and some divine tentacles. (This may be a hallucination.) He becomes The Crimson Bolt, a hero in a red patchwork suit, a red hood, and a chestplate with said hood ironed onto it, who compensates for his lack of powers by whacking bad guys with a wrench. He soon acquires a sidekick in Boltie, a bored comic shop employee who enjoys kicking ass a little too much. What begins as a gruesomely funny vigilante parody soon becomes a meditation on superhero culture, the lines between violence and heroism, and the innate eroticism of the super suit. While the Crimson Bolt and Boltie are pastiches, The Holy Avenger is a more direct parody of Bibleman, a Christian superhero who was already a parody of Batman. So many layers! While the original Bibleman is played by Willie Aames of Charles in Charge infamy, Holy Avenger is played by the mighty Nathan Fillion, who also took to superheroing as…
Capain Hammer (2008)
Years before he got his hands on The Avengers, Joss Whedon created comics-style superhero Captain Hammer. Naturally, being a Whedon creation, he’s… a little flawed. Granted, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is told from the villain’s perspective, but still: rather than actually being the courageous and generous hero everyone assumes, he’s actually a petty bully. He doesn’t love Penny, but brags about sleeping with her. He’s gratuitously cruel to Dr. Horrible, and his actions end up pushing the poor Doctor to the true villainy he’d only flirted with before. Possibly worst of all, while Horrible truly grieves for Penny, Captain Hammer makes her death all about him, running to a therapist to complain about his loss of power. He is a cardboard cut-out of a hero, which is why we’re not ending this post with him. Instead, I’ll leave you with the greatest hero of them all…
The Tick (1986)
The genius of Ben Edlund’s Tick is that he’s so adaptable. In Edlund’s original comic he’s actually a fairly dark character, an escapee from a mental institution who has to stay tucked snugly into his delusions so that reality won’t get the upper hand. He inadvertently torments another superhero, Clark Oppenheimer, the Clark Kent/Superman parody. Clark seems to be truly well-intentioned, but the Tick quickly drives him to homicidal ideation. The story then shifts to the Tick assisting an Elektra parody named Oedipus before meeting his own sidekick, the former accountant Arthur. The comic, like many of the indie comics of the time, feels aggressive. It sounds ridiculous to say that about The Tick, but there it is. I feel like it only becomes The Tick in its final issue, where Tick is goofy, dumb, and extremely resilient, while Arthur is sensible and tries to make people adhere to a strategy.
The mid-90s animated series takes the parody and runs with it, with a few direct satires, like Die Fliedermaus and American Maid, as well as more whimsical characters like Sewer Urchin and (my favorite) Man-Eating Cow. The iteration danced between child-friendly silliness and double entendre for the older members of the audience. Plus it introduced the two greatest of all the ridiculous catchphrases: “Spooon!” and “Not in the face!” As far as I’m concerned it’s perfect.
The 2001 live action version is a bit darker, and much more adult, with the Tick as the lone doofy classical superhero parody, surrounded by normal people who have taken up superheroing to add some excitement to their lives, or to work out some of their emotional shit. It is as much Arthur’s story as the Tick’s, and follows his arc as he leaves his accounting firm, fights with his family over his new career, and attempts to be more confident in romance. The other two main characters, Batmanuel and Captain Liberty, are vain, shallow, and obsessed with their images.
So, those are my picks! Let me know if I forgot any of your favorites!
This article was originally published in February 2015.