Maggott, Maggott, burning bright: 18-plus superheroes with unflattering animal themes
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Batman famously decided to use the image of one of nature’s eeriest creatures to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Many others, from Black Panther to Wolverine, have followed suit. But some superheroes are inspired by animals far more likely to afflict evildoers with revulsion or laughter. Case in point: Maggott. Granted, Maggott doesn’t entirely have a choice in the matter. A mutant who joins the X-Men (and later Generation X) for about a minute, the young man known as Japheth is genetically cursed with two slug-like, semi-sentient organs that leave his body, eat through matter, and return bearing impressive amounts of energy for him to draw from. As disgusting as his slugs are—in essence, they’re external intestines—Japheth is a deeply moral person whose nobility is equal to his hideousness.
Like Batman, Spider-Man knows how to co-opt the image of a bloodcurdling creature. But in the pages of Marvel’s alternate-history series What If, Peter Parker ends up in a parallel universe where he’s been bitten by an animal a little less intimidating than a spider: a radioactive sheep. Dubbing himself Sheep-Boy, he apparently gets caught up in something called The Sheep Clone Saga and battles a nemesis known as, naturally enough, The Wolf. Sadly, Sheep-Boy’s lone appearance takes the form of a single-page pinup, so our world may never know the true extent of his heroic, wool-slinging exploits.
3. Midnight Mink
Garth Ennis’ graphic, grotesque series The Boys has earned a lot of attention for the way it recasts superheroes as smug super-assholes, supremely conscious of their power, and ready to abuse it to acquire everything from coercive sex to fat bank accounts. But Ennis is just echoing what Rick Veitch did in 1990 with his equally grotesque, equally cynical miniseries Brat Pack, which follows how a group of eager young sidekicks are used and abused by their violent, fascistic, vice-soaked associated heroes. The least-appealing of the entire ugly bunch: Midnight Mink, a rich, sadistic Batman type who, in a scenario straight out of Fredric Wertham, adopts boys as sidekicks in order to sexually prey on them. (“Did you find the right type?” he oozes at the priest he’s forced to recruit his replacement sidekick Chippy, after the old Chippy is killed. “You know what I like!”) Maybe there’s a reason the superhero world doesn’t have other mink-related heroes: Minks are basically only known for having luxuriant pelts and being horny, vicious little buggers.
4. Porcupine Pete
With a name like The Legion Of Substitute Heroes, it’s no wonder The Legion Of Super-Heroes’ auxiliary team attracts members like Porcupine Pete. Born Peter Dursin, he develops the power to shoot quill-like projectiles that grow from his skin. As Pete himself understatedly admits, though, his power has “one slight drawback”: He can’t aim them very well. Rejected by the Legion proper as being “more of a hindrance than a help,” Porcupine Pete joins the substitute team and embarks on adventures of his own—all while dreaming that he’ll one day learn to control his quills and qualify for the big leagues.
5. The Badger
Writer Mike Baron is responsible for Nexus, one of the ’90s most vibrant, complex superheroes. Almost as if to keep it real, he also created The Badger. Spastic, offbeat, and ultra-violent, Vietnam vet and mental patient Norbert Sykes decides to don tights and fight crime—and sanity itself—as The Badger. As it turns out, The Badger is just one the many personalities Sykes switches to, which only adds to Sykes’ puzzling method of crimefighting. In a way, The Badger can be seen as a loose parody of the near-feral superheroes who gained new heights of popularity in the ’90s—particularly Wolverine. Mostly, though, he’s just Baron’s shaggy pet psychopath.
6. Squirrel Girl
Co-created by writer Will Murray and artist Steve Ditko (who must have been in an uncharacteristically whimsical mood when he took the assignment), Squirrel Girl debuted in 1992, and in her first appearance, impressed Iron Man by defeating Dr. Doom via her ability to control squirrels. But her powers don’t end there: She also has some squirrel-like abilities and attributes, including a prehensile tail. Then she, and her squirrel sidekick, more or less disappeared until getting revived in 2005 as a member of the none-too-impressive Midwest superhero team known as the Great Lakes Avengers. Since then, she’s proven unexpectedly durable, if not always on the frontlines of Marvel’s superhero ranks: She currently serves as a nanny for Avengers Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.
7. Weasel Guy
Another character who proves that the rodent kingdom can be an unending source of laughable heroes is Weasel Guy, who first appeared in Steve Buccaellato’s self-published comics in the ’80s before resurfacing in the late ’90s in a crossover comic with Witchblade. Drawing on the tried-and-true Peter Parker formula, 16-year-old Dweasel Ravenwood is bitten by a 50-foot-tall, radioactive weasel—quite a coincidence, that—and becomes a self-styled “slacker superhero.” In spite of the ridiculous inspiration for his costume and persona, he winds up as a fairly successful hero. Then again, he technically has the physical prowess of a weasel—a 50-foot one, that is.
8. The Red Bee
Most people recoil from bees, so surely any superhero taking his name from that particular insect should have a similar effect on criminals. Not so The Red Bee—secret identity: Rick Raleigh, assistant D.A. in Superior City, Oregon—whose credibility problems begin with a costume consisting of red and yellow striped pants, a red tunic with puffy translucent sleeves, and green or blue boots. Additionally damaging: He has no actual superpowers. He fights crime with his so-called “stinger gun” and a cadre of trained bees, including his favorite, Michael. The Red Bee nonetheless managed to earn a certain degree of credibility in recent years, first from the revelation in All-Star Squadron that he died while trying to kill Hitler, then as a result of appearances in James Robinson’s Starman (as a ghost) and Grant Morrison’s Animal Man (in a limbo populated by canceled characters). But in 2006, DC Comics finally gave up any pretense that the character might be salvageable, and created an all-new Red Bee—the original’s granddaughter—who wears an armored battle suit and has two robotic bees that help her fight crime. That certainly makes her at least slightly less ridiculous than her predecessor.
After turning Beast into an overgrown housecat, Grant Morrison introduced Barnell “Beak” Bohusk, a gaunt chicken-boy who becomes Beast’s pet project. With no eyelids or nose, and a head that’s bald except for a flimsy coat of feathers, Beak has the terrifying mutant ability to fly a few feet off the ground and look completely pitiful in the process. When Beak is possessed by Professor Xavier’s twin sister and beats his favorite teacher with a titanium bat, he finds comfort in fellow outcast Angel Salvadore, and the two become the proud parents of six bug-bird-babies five days after Beak loses his virginity. After a brief stint with the dimension-hopping Exiles, Beak returns to his girlfriend just in time for Scarlet Witch to take away their mutant powers on M-Day, revealing a handsome young man hiding underneath the poultry. These days, he’s starring with Angel in Joe Casey’s Vengeance miniseries as a member of a new Teen Brigade.
10. Angel Salvadore
The other half of Grant Morrison’s loveable X-losers duo, Angel Salvadore grew up in a trailer until her mutant powers manifested as bubbling sores that spread across her body, encasing her in a cocoon. Emerging from stasis with the traits of a housefly, Angel is rescued by Wolverine and becomes a crude, aggressive addition at Xavier’s school, making up for her lousy power set with attitude. X-Men: First Class brought Angel to the big screen, but Zoë Kravitz’s lifeless portrayal lacks the spice that makes Angel’s comic-book iteration more than just a vomiting bug-girl. Underneath the tough-girl exterior is a damaged teen trying to fit into a world she doesn’t understand, and she becomes attracted to the vulnerability of her classmate Beak. Her accelerated reproductive system makes her a mother to a brood of Beak’s babies, but she doesn’t seem to have trouble adjusting to the role of parent.
11. Nite Owl
On the whole, owls are kind of neutral on the imposing/non-imposing scale. As the second hero known as Nite Owl in Watchmen, though, Dan Dreiberg definitely plays up the bird’s rotund-and-fuzzy side. A meek, mild-mannered hero rendered impotent—in more ways than one—by the onrushing apocalyptic events of Watchmen, Dreiberg has grown so chubby by the time the book starts that he can barely cram himself into his suit: a homemade, begoggled, brown-and-gray costume that looks like he picked it up on Etsy.com. Granted, his persona isn’t that much more noble than that of Blue Beetle, the Charleston Comics hero (later revamped and integrated into the DC Universe) whom Nite Owl was loosely based on. But where Blue Beetle somehow makes the whole bug thing kind of cool, Nite Owl remains a hopelessly—though sympathetically—schlubby adventurer.
A trucker by trade who takes his name and image from a wild boar, Razorback is more revolting than terrifying. But villains laugh at him at their peril; his ludicrous, snout-cowled costume is wired with a powerful electric charge that can incapacitate most of his foes. Razorback’s main superpower, though, bumps him back into the realm of the semi-comical; he was born with the mutant ability to intuitively pilot any vehicle—from big rig to starship—without any prior training. What that has to do with the whole pig theme is anyone’s guess.
13. Dumb Bunny
As a charter member of the Inferior Five, a satirical DC comics team described on the cover of their inaugural appearance in 1966 as “the greatest group of rejects in comics history,” Dumb Bunny was never intended to be taken seriously, but she warrants mention for the mere fact that she’s a double threat, giving both bunnies and women a bad name. The aforementioned cover dubs Dumb Bunny “stronger than an ox… and almost as smart,” resulting in a character who knowingly resembles Wonder Woman if she had to pick up a side gig as a waitress at the Playboy Club.
Ant-Man has been a star—albeit a dim one—in the Marvel firmament for so long, it’s sometimes easy to forget how fundamentally goofy he is. The original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, is a founding member of The Avengers, but even his late wife, The Wasp, was more intrinsically threatening. Pym himself seemed to realize the lameness of his shrinking-man persona and went the opposite direction with subsequent alter egos such as Giant-Man and Goliath. Not that this stopped other people from later adopting the Ant-Man alias, with various degrees of success. After all, unless you’re a supervillain named Picnic Man, it’s a little hard to get worried about him.
15. The Canterbury Cricket
DC Comics’ latest mega-crossover event, Flashpoint, has heroes of the DC Universe such as Batman and Aquaman turned corrupt and antiheroic. And then there’s The Canterbury Cricket. An original creation cranked out specifically for the alternate-reality storyline, The Cricket is a young man named Jeramey Chriqui who fights for the liberation of England—while wearing a grotesque, vaguely cricket-like suit of high-tech armor. As silly and thoroughly non-awe-inspiring as his bug motif is, his origin story is tragic: Once a vain, handsome university student, he wound up near death after an campus attack by Amazonian invaders. Seeking refuge in a church, he stumbles across a relic unearthed by the attack: a skull with a cricket crawling on it. Jeramey then blacks out, wakes up, and inexplicably possesses the armor that allows him to begin atoning for his shallow, self-centered, pre-cricketized life. Okay, so it’s tragic and hilarious.
There has to be a better way to honor thy father than this: The son of Daredevil villain Leap-Frog, Eugene Patillo dons his father’s frog-suit to fight crime as the Fabulous Frog-Man, leaping great distances and bouncing off buildings as he captures villains with minimal skill and lots of luck. Trying his hand at the super-team game, Frog-Man teams up with Spider-Kid and Toad to create the Misfits, the group that disbands once they realize they’re a team made up of Frog-Man, Spider-Kid, and Toad. Replaced with a Skrull during the recent Secret Invasion, Eugene is now working to salvage his father’s reputation and his own, currently by fighting alongside ex-members of the Initiative in Fear Itself. Frog-Man joins a group of Avengers infiltrating Spider-Island for the upcoming Spider-Man crossover, but Eugene needs to learn that if he’s standing next to Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel, he's going to look like a massive loser until he gets a new costume.
17. Baby Wildebeest
The result of genetic experiments by the villainous Wildebeest Society, Teen Titan Baby Wildebeest is the superhero equivalent of the desperate “add-a-baby syndrome” television trope. Normally an adorable horned critter, Baby Wildebeest morphs into the hulking Wildebeest when in danger, filling both the role of animal sidekick and team powerhouse in one herbivorous package. Of all the animals to inspire an evil organization, why wildebeests? Sure, the horns can be dangerous, and the threat of a stampede makes them deadly, but it isn’t like Wildebeests are the badasses of the animal kingdom. They just hang out and eat grass all day. When Baby Wildebeest’s adopted parents, Red Star and Pantha, leave the Titans, the three of them move to Russia to live an ordinary life, only to be used as cannon fodder in Infinite Crisis, with Wildebeest getting his guts blasted out by a raging Superboy-Prime.
18-plus. Half the cast of The Tick
Ben Edlund’s original ’80s comic The Tick was mostly just sheer goofiness, but it was also a broad satire of superhero comics, set in a world desperately overcrowded with overeager, generally lame heroes and villains. And when creating lame heroes, what better well to draw from than the easy, often visually entertaining animal-theme well? The beloved ’90s cartoon version packed them in, with heroes like Sewer Urchin, a mentally challenged Aquaman parody with the speech patterns of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, spiky sea-urchin-esque armor, and a mandate to protect the sewers from evil. (Down there, though, it turns out he’s “the apotheosis of cool.”) Or Die Fledermaus, a smug but ineffectual Batman parody whose costume boasts creepily realistic fleshy bat nostrils, giant ears, and claws. Or Poodle Girl, whose power is apparently the “poodle gun” she carries around. Or Bipolar Bear, a one-shot joke who struggles to get out of bed when trouble’s afoot. Or the Caped Chameleon, who can change colors. Or Flying Squirrel, whose power is that she likes squirrels. And so forth and so on, right down to the titular Tick himself. Apart from his costume antenna, he doesn’t have much of a tick theme or tick abilities—though when challenged by a skeptic, he does say he can suck blood through a straw—but he is surprisingly hard to squash. Meanwhile, his moth-themed sidekick Arthur does have collapsible wings that let him fly, but his costume is indistinct enough that he tends to get mistaken for a “bunny-man” on a regular basis. There isn’t much dignity in being an adult in an animal costume at the best of times; having to explain your theme to a baffled villain just makes it worse.