We’ve reached the final installment of this year’s Decembric delving of unsung underdogs near and dear to my heart, urticaria and so I’ve decided to close things out with a character who retains a substantial fan following yet has also acquired a quite vocal chorus of haters in recent years.
I am, website of course, referring to Wonder Man…
…the Superfluous Avenger.
I can understand the rationale behind the “Wondy” hate, even if does tend to come from segments of fandom whose own tastes border on the questionable. The character was introduced in Avengers #9 (October 1964) as a one-use vehicle for Marvel Age melodrama.
Simon Williams, a failed industrialist turned white collar crook (shocking, I know), was approached by an alliance of Asgardian ne’er do wells and Nazi war criminals and offered superhuman “ionic” powers — and a garish green-and-redcostume with embrodiered corset — in exchange for pulling a heel turn against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
While Wonder Man’s super-strength and invulnerability proved more than a match for the Avengers, he was done in by his atrophied conscience and the treachery of his erstwhile allies. Thus Simon died a hero’s death, underscoring a fairly predictable message about free will and moral redemption.
This being the recursive realm of super-hero comics, however, Wondy’s death was only the beginning of his long strange trip in plot mining. After receiving a partial Silver Age resurrection in which it was revealed that his “brain patterns” were used to instill sentience in the Vision’s synthezoidal skull, he was later given a full Lazarian during the mid-1970s when a voodoo priest reanimated Simon’s corpse and sent it to whomp the Avengers.
Y’see, Simon was only technically dead. What the Avengers assumed to be fatal ionic poisoning turned out to be a state of metamorphic dormancy preceding rebirth as an indestructable energy being with glowing red eyes. (What do you mean “that sounds really stupid?” As if you majored in comic book Nazi super-science, scoffer.)
Having shaken of the hoodoo hex and not really having any other pressing plans, Simon joined the Avengers rather overstuffed Bronze Age roster. This stint with the team represented the high water mark for the Wondy, who traded in his Silver Age togs for his lounge lizardian signature ensemble…
…featuring an uber-Seventies combo of a black turtleneck sweater and fire engine red safari jacket straight out of George Peppard’s Banacek wardrobe.
The period also saw Wondy’s close friendship with the “party animal” incarnation of the Beast as well as the characterization elements that elevated Simon as one of my favorite Avengers.
Though Simon emerged from his long sleep as one of the most powerful beings on the planet, the traumatic nature of his transformation left deep emotional scars. Essentially indestructable, he held an irrational fear of dying. Possessing near limitless strength, he was plagued with feelings of his own limitations. It was a pretty nifty conceit and a clever spin on Marvel’s traditional riffs on power and heroic responsibility, a godlike being throttled by all-too-human human neuroses.
This characterization of Wonder Man worked extremely well in the context of the Avengers (and in the West Coast Avengers spin-off series for a while) because the ensemble cast allowed these elements to be rationed out where they fit the context of a given story. (This was also the era of Claremont ascendant, a time when the X-writer’s “slow burn” approach to character development cast a large inspirational shadow across the superhero genre.)
While Wonder Man made a great supporting character, he was not cut out for a more active role as either a solo character or as a prominent core member of a team book. Placing him in such positions led to writers quickly burning through the rather thin existing material before moving on to the tragic cycle of continuty strip mining which is the bane of the superhero genre — the diminishing returns of multiple deaths and rebirths, a stint as a lavender glob of Kirby crackles, some tragic costume changes…
…and incestual retreads of the interlocking family relationships between the Houses of Williams, Pym, and Magnus…
…which inevitably led to a Billy Ray Cyrus-fied Wondy getting a CCA-approved (implied) handjob from the estranged wife of his sythezoid brother.
Ah, superhero comics, don’t ever change. Oh, right. That’s the problem.
Unfortunate missteps and poor hairstyle choise aside, I still have a soft spot for ol’ Simon. He might not have been center stage material, but he’s a poignant reminder of a time when c-listers could be c-listers and a tac spec leisure suit could be considered proper fighting togs.