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.
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.
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.