Have you ever noticed how attractive, successful, and intelligent superheroes tend to be? Marvel and DC’s rosters are a sea of super geniuses, wealthy families, and models who have haphazardly stumbled into accidents involving experimental chemicals, gamma rays, and radioactive spiders. They make for adequate power fantasies, but don’t relate to life as we understand it.
The most compelling thing comics can do is shine a spotlight on how awkward life is for the vast majority of us. The reason why we like Spider-Man as a character is not that he can shoot webbing, climb walls, or his (frankly unnecessary) super-intellect — it’s his life as a gangly teenager that balances heroism with secrets and a social life. On the surface, Peter and Miles’ respective social shortcomings are unappealing, however, the romantic tribulations of a teenage do-gooder are more engaging than seeing Superman save a cat from a tree.
The superheroes with the most baked-in weirdness and relatable social challenges tend to be Mutants. I have already waxed poetic on the mutant metaphor, but above pure representation the real meat to the X-Men is the willingness to do good when you are treated like a freak. And to be fair, many members of mutantkind look like freaks or have unorthodox abilities.
Storm’s beauty matches the ferocity of her weather manipulation, but for every combat-ready mutant with a sexy mohawk there are a handful of mutants who would be called “fun at parties.” One of such is Cypher or Doug Ramsey.
Doug’s mutant ability was the translation of any language written or spoken, human or alien. This power was not only practical but also good foil for character development. As a member of the New Mutants, he was often sidelined due to his non-combative abilities. It was the eagerness to be useful in a fight which was ultimately his undoing, acting as a cautionary tale and arguably one of the best arcs of the era. I doubt many children play pretend as Google Translate, although fewer still would make believe as a disgusting superhero.
Among mutants those who can’t pass for human have had to find community with the Morlocks in the sewers of New York. If not for Caliban, a particularly hideous Morlock, Kitty Pryde would have died after being infected by a virus. He had a fondness for her and she promised to stay by his side, but Kitty’s heart belonged to a 7’5” painter with the body of a Greek God. Fellow mutant or no, it wasn’t terribly surprising to see her blow off the deal. Proof positive that mutual marginalization doesn’t make teenagers any less superficial.
Inhumans also have a history of unsightly genetic transformations. Ms. Marvel, Medusa, Black Bolt, or Lockjaw probably come to mind, but they are downright common next to the giant head-shaped teleporter who used to be a career politician. Eldrac looks like a piece of otherworldly architecture and is the premier form of interdimensional transport for his entire species. A few years back he played a crucial role in saving thousands of Inhuman lives during the Thanos invasion of Attilan and the reverence the Inhumans show to his ongoing service is endearing to say the least.
Outside of mutantkind and the Inhumans it becomes harder to pinpoint superheroes who aren’t attractive, successful, or incredibly intelligent. In fact, many Marvel and DC metahumans who lack one or two of these traits are characterized as supervillains.
Red Skull, Two-Face, Killer Croc, Bizzaro, Mole Man, Modok, The Skrulls, and Thanos are all unsightly men who play into the time-honored trope of evil equating ugly. That visual shorthand may be right at home in a Disney children’s movie but what is the underlying message being presented?
Perhaps in an attempt to amplify the visual impact of villains, artists over the years have fallen into the habit of making them gross or disturbing. As if to say looking monstrous is inevitably tied to being menacing. This would complement superheroes as handsome playboys whose IQ is as impressive as their cache of tax havens. It has and will continue to send the kids who read comics the wrong message.
The most iconic superhero to actively subvert this trope is Ben Grimm, The Thing. When cosmic rays radiated the would-be Fantastic Four on their maiden voyage only one team member was left looking monstrous. Ben has had to accept a public that largely feared him and a personal life fraught with unfair superficiality. Victim of circumstance though he may be Ben didn’t become a villain. It just wasn’t in his character. As a teammate and a solo hero he has saved Earth on countless occasions and continues to demonstrate that orange rock men deserve both your respect and admiration.
Unappealing superheros are important additions to the greater comics landscape. Ugly heroes in particular have the natural building blocks to be compelling characters given that they must contend with struggles of societal- and self-acceptance. I hope that in the future new heroes from every publisher will feature an atypical approach to character design. There are too many handsome rich guys and it’s about time we embraced the ugly.