A Cheery Ball of Sunshine and Pain

 

Since the very beginning comic books about superheroes have always been drastically tailored to fit their audience at that time. At the start of superhero comics, the end of the Great Depression, the desire was just for light hearted stories where good always won out over evil. It was very in-line with all of pop culture at the time. The genre as a whole has gone through many changes throughout the years though and very recently had a pretty dramatic change of tone as a result of 9/11. No longer are over the top unbelievable stories interesting but instead the desire is for more lifelike and modern battles. Superman would not get away with flying around the world to reverse rotation and turn back time because it would not satisfy our urge for a ‘realistic’, multi-dimensional fight between characters that are not black and white but are often in the gray area. No character represents the sudden shift in superhero culture than Robbie Baldwin.

Robbie Baldwin was originally created in the late 80’s and went by the name Speedball. Speedball’s powers are strange but essentially he has an energy force field around him that when struck with kinetic energy will push back with twice the energy. He also could not be harmed while his force field was activated and a few other more minor elements to his powers. He was named Speedball because of the combination of his happy-go-lucky, cheerful personality and he commonly used his force field to jump onto walls and be accelerated off them at a high speed. The kid was basically Flubber.

(c) 1988. Steve Ditko and Tom DeFalco. Marvel Comics
(c) 1988. Steve Ditko and Tom DeFalco. Marvel Comics

 

He was very much a child of the 80’s and early 90’s; He was always smiling, overly optimistic, and energetic (not to mention the drug reference in his name). In the 2000’s superhero comics began to turn darker and started exploring the psychology of the stories.  Post 9/11 people did not want stories about happy crime fighters but were far more interested on the effects these battles were having. It was no longer believable to see a hero un-phased by death and destruction, in fact many began to feel put off by characters who weren’t troubled by it in some way. In this climate Speedball could not survive as a character. Instead of just exiling Robbie to the Marvel vault they instead revamped him and Speedball became Penance.

Penance

After a battle that resulted in the death of 612 people including six of his fellow heroes and 60 children Speedball discovered his powers had evolved. He isn’t protected by kinetic energy anymore but now attacks with it by shooting out blasts of energy, but more important is the fact that his powers can only be accessed when he is in pain. Robbie dawns a suit embedded with 612 razor blades, 60 of which are larger in size, so that every time he moves he is cut and can thus use his abilities. Robbie goes from a goofy, ball of sunshine to a depressed, masochistic, joyless victim of survivor’s guilt.

The concept of penance in the 80’s would have been too much for people to digest unless he was the villain but for people in the 2000’s it fit right in with the culture. Robbie’s change from Speedball to Penance shows how in short time the genre as a whole flipped how it was handling its stories. People wanted something real and believable. The nation was grieving and they wanted to see their pain mirrored in super hero stories. We’ve seen good win over evil plenty of times, but now we need to see good win against the after effect of evil.

  6 comments for “A Cheery Ball of Sunshine and Pain

  1. Dana Wallace
    September 8, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    This was a very interesting article. I knew that the superhero stories had gotten darker but Speedball compared to Penance just makes the distance from old and the new seem so much farther (and a lot darker).

    • ksanborn
      September 13, 2015 at 5:21 pm

      What’s most interesting to me is how his powers changed. He went from being protected by a shield to having a very powerful and violent offensive attack. As corny as it sounds, before he used to not feel pain and now he’s forced to always feel pain and the more I think about the character of Penance the darker he gets.

  2. katechiz8
    September 11, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your article! Your title was what pulled me in. I was excited to see that someone else had written an article on the evolution of superhero characters throughout time. Your concept of the character changing for psychological purposes was something I had not though about before and really makes a commentary on today’s society. I was wondering why Speedball was created in the first place, considering his mental and physical transformation into a fallen hero.

    • ksanborn
      September 13, 2015 at 5:21 pm

      He wasn’t initially created with this change in mind, at least I’m pretty sure of that. I just wonder why they chose to change him instead of creating an all new character. I guess it was just to make it more emotional. I also wonder how his original writers feel about his transformation. They created him to be this happy character and he eventually became the exact opposite. I’m curious how much say they had in that decision.

  3. Bronze Knight
    September 11, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    I suppose one could argue that they are not the same character given how drastic the change is. But my question is if this effect is limited to america. Or can such changes be noticed in other countries with a strong graphic novel tradition?

    • ksanborn
      September 13, 2015 at 5:10 pm

      I would agree that they seem too different to say they’re the same but he changes within the storyline instead of just being revamped and starting as Penance in a new story arc. It’s really very bizarre and I’m not sure any other character has ever had such a drastic change. I’d also be interested to know about the changes in other countries but I’m not as familiar with that. From what I know it doesn’t seem like countries like Japan and Korea are focusing on realistic stories but more fantastical heroes. But they do also have plenty of stories focusing on the psychological aspects and trauma of these stories. I just don’t know what the actual trend is, how it’s shifted over time, or what has caused this shift.

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