Superhero Academy 101: Renaissance Men - Heroes without Powers
“Is Batman a superhero?”
It’s a question that starts knife fights in internet forums. You know the type. There are legions of basement dwellers that spend their days typing furiously at their keyboards arguing this point. If servers could scream they would. There is all this hatred and animosity regarding the technicality of whether a man is a superhero.
I can hear the arguments now.
Geek #1 argues that a man who hasn’t been blessed with a mutant gene or never got around to swimming in a vat of radioactive acid in order to be blessed with meta powers couldn’t possibly be a superhero. They have no powers. Therefore, no “super” in the superhero.
Geek #2 argues that the term “superhero” is a generic term coined to describe a man who goes through extraordinary measures to fight alongside his fellow demigods in the fight for truth, justice, and the American way.
Where do I stand on this? Well, a little of column A and a little of column B. In the end, I sleep better not giving a rat’s ass and leading a life of quiet religious fulfillment.
It drives me crazy. I try not to dwell on these technicalities though. In the end, we look forward to a good story where our non-powered protagonist faces off against a world or city threatening menace. That said, I truly enjoy heroes that live by their physical limits and wits to get the job done.
I would like to talk about a few DC characters who fit this build.
A few years ago I published an article about five heroes who could exist today. In essence, they were men who faced life-changing circumstances. Through these circumstances, they changed. They either went through a profound loss or they saw an immediate need to help those who were part of the downtrodden.
Everyone needs a hobby.
While I am focusing on specifically DC characters, I must step back a bit to talk about heroes who are true renaissance men. I can hear you readers who aren’t familiar with the term. It’s okay. I’m old and keep strange company.
A “renaissance man” is a man who can do all things. Yes, he is strong. Yes, he is an athlete. However, strangely enough, he’s also a genius, and an escape artist, a scientist, and a successful businessman. He’s just great at everything and probably better than most people at doing stuff.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I know who you’re thinking about. Without a doubt, you are thinking about the one hero who just does everything and has no superpowers at all. I am, of course, talking about…
No? No one knows what I’m talking about? Doc Savage, the man of bronze. He’s a rich, adventuring, scientist, body built through the fire of his own will, and inventor of about a bazillion handy gadgets used to fight evil.
Then maybe you’re thinking about Sherlock Holmes. Sure, Holmes was the world’s greatest consulting detective who was part chemist, master of disguise, single sticks player, fencing master, and master of the oriental fighting art of baritsu (or bartitsu). Plus, he also finds time to play the violin and do cocaine. He’s certainly that kind of guy.
Rennaissance men are driven to be the best at what they do. I mentioned Doc Savage before and I know most of you don’t know the character. However, if you’re a fan of The Venture Bros, Doctor Venture (Rusty’s father) is based on that character. He’s the adventurer with a team of fellow adventurers who put all of their well-rounded skills into saving the world time after time.
They do it without powers. They do it without flying. They do it without changing the course of mighty rivers. And they are certainly not faster than a speeding bullet. Plus, they aren’t bulletproof.
They do what they do because they are full of gumption and have a full six-pack of gym-made whupass.
The Brave and the Bold
Okay, sorry… I’m through playing. Of course I’m talking about Batman, the dark knight.
Back when little Bruce Wayne was seven years old (the ages vary from seven to ten), he and his parents left the Monarch Theatre after an awesome viewing of The Mark of Zorro. While walking through Park Row (later to be renamed “Crime Alley”), they were accosted by a petty thug who wanted Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace. The criminal shot Thomas and Martha Wayne (some accounts say Martha Wayne died immediately of a weak heart) and fled, leaving young Bruce in anguish.
Most of us know this story.
From that point onward, young Bruce Wayne dedicated himself on his one man war on crime. He pushed himself to physical perfection. He learned everything he could about criminal and forensic science as well as man-hunting. He traveled and learned everything he could about fighting and escapology from old masters in Tibet as well as the criminal underworld. In addition to all of this, he learned what he could from his butler (and former stage actor) Alfred about acting and being a master of disguise.
Understanding that criminals were a superstitious cowardly lot, he would prey on their fears and become… a bat.
It takes all kinds of people to become a vigilante. However, what we learn from Batman is his unrelenting determination and focus toward a cause or goal. That objective is simply for no other person to ever go through what he went through as a boy. The same thing could be said about his first protégé, Dick Grayson – the first Robin and (later) Nightwing as well as his third protégé, Tim Drake, the third Robin.
We don’t talk about Jason Todd.
While I’m talking about bat-protégés, I cannot forget Batwoman, Catwoman, Batgirl, Cassandra Cain, the Huntress, and even the Black Canary (sans sonic scream). Vigilantism is an equal opportunity non-employer. Seriously, these women will f*** you up.
Each has gone through their own personal catharses. Each is steel, forged and tempered through their own brand of discipline. Each will make you sorry you ever thought crime would pay.
It’s the precursor to the Gotham Renaissance Man program. When you lose your parents through crime-made tragedy, you can go on the Batman-Extreme-Makeover-Tour and fight the forces of evil.
However, not all kick-ass garden variety hero vigilantes fight from Gotham. We also have the one from Star City (DC’s equivalent of San Francisco).
When billionaire playboy and social piece of crap, Oliver Queen, fell overboard from his yacht, he just had to do something to survive. He washed up on Star Island – a dangerous hellhole where the weak get eaten and spat out. In order to get food, water, and keep sane, he created his own bow and arrows from the raw materials on the island. Eventually, he became an expert with those weapons, where he could trap and hunt for his own food.
He had been on the island for a while when he saw a ship on the horizon. He crept on board and found they were pirates. Disguising himself with some grease from the ship’s anchor, he hid his face. He captured all of the pirates with his new bow and arrow skills.
Once he came back to civilization, he put his skills to work as a masked vigilante and modern-day Robin Hood.
While he may not be one of the great thinkers of the hero community, he has certainly pulled his weight in the Justice League as one of their unexpected weapons.
The Mister Terrifics
Then there are characters like the two Mister Terrifics.
Back in the golden days of World War II, the first Mister Terrific was Terry Sloane who was blessed as a natural athlete as well as being a gifted student. He’d made millions of dollars through his business ventures and had grown terminally bored with his life. He thought he’d essentially hit the end of the road of things to do and became suicidal.
Because that’s what you do when you have everything.
When Terry saw a woman about to jump off a bridge, he used his natural skills to save her. He not only helped the woman, but he also helped save her brother who’d gotten tied up with a gang. He adopted the identity of Mister Terrific. With that new lease on “something to do” it filled him with a sense of accomplishment.
The second modern age version of Mister Terrific was Michael Holt who essentially inherited the title. The multi-degree, four black-belt-holding rich Olympic decathlon winner became the next Mister Terrific after his wife died in an auto accident. The spirit of vengeance known as The Spectre visited Holt and told him the story of Terry Sloane. Using his intellect, skills, financial resources, and inventions he took the name and mantle with the ever-present philosophy of “fair play”.
The concept of fair play has run through both incarnations of Mister Terrific and both would wear that logo proudly on their uniforms as a standard to what they should live up to.
Trench Coat Men and Men for Hire
Where Rick Blaine and Sam Spade became hard-boiled detectives for hire, the DCU has its own brand of trench coat heroes and vigilantes. Heroes who fight crime in both their civilian and secret lives are men like The Question, Slam Bradley, and Christopher Chance (The Human Target)
None of these men have any kind of superpower, however, all of these men are taking names and kicking ass.
The Question (Vic Sage – a pun on the French word visage meaning “face”) is a hard-hitting journalist who seeks out criminals and mobsters through his newscasting identity as well as his alter ego. When he releases his gas compound, it changes the color of the chemically treated suit he wears along with his hair color instantly. With that, he uses a mask that hides every detail of his face making it look like he has no features at all.
Rene Montoya of the Gotham PD later took the Question's mantle when he'd discovered he was terminally ill.
Christopher Chance, The Human Target, is a bodyguard for hire. It is his job to impersonate his client to such an amazing degree of disguise that he often gets lost in the role he plays. He sometimes suffers from some personality disorders from going too deep into his part. The purpose of all this is to distract and capture whatever assassin is hunting his client.
“Slam” Bradley was a creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster before they came up with that other guy in the blue suit, red cape, and big red “S” on his chest. He is one of the old gumshoe detectives who got his nickname “Slam” by slamming bad guys together in a fight. He’s a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, tough private eye who gets his pay with whatever expenses he can get.
While we’re on the subjects of trench coat heroes, let’s talk about the Sandman.
No, the other guy.
Before Neil Gaiman began to write on the title of The Sandman – the story of an immortal character (one of the seven “endless”) named Dream, the Sandman was Wesley Dodds. Dodds was “The Grainy Gladiator” who used to fight crime wearing an ordinary suit and disguised his face with a gas mask. His main weapon was his “gas gun” that he used to compel criminals to tell the truth and then it would put them to sleep. He fits the role to some degree of the bored rich socialite who wants to do some good.
Later on, they married the two stories of Gaiman’s Dream character to Dodds by giving Dodds prophetic dreams. It was his one power that could be considered extraordinary. My point is that we all have dreams and very rarely are they prophetic. Just pay attention to the ones that drive you to make clay boxes with squid-gods and describe an island that emerges from the ocean depths. That can only lead to trouble and madness.
In any event, Dodds was certainly one of the early mystery men who found reward in fighting street crime and solving crimes.
While there are other “trench coat” wearing heroes like John Constantine, Doctor Thirteen, Doctor Occult, and The Phantom Stranger, let’s remember they are something more than ordinary. Don’t let their fashion sense fool you.
Honorable Mentions and Final Words
Remember, just because you can’t change the course of mighty rivers or shoot laser beams from your eyes, doesn’t mean you can’t be interesting.
Characters like the Vigilante (Greg Saunders), Jonah Hex, The Silent Knight, The Shining Knight, Adam Strange, The Judomaster, Richard Dragon, the Crimson Avenger, The Losers (entire team), The Seven Soldiers of Victory, Sargent Rock, Firehair, Tomahawk, Wildcat, the entire squadron of The Blackhawks, as well as scores of other DC heroes should not be dismissed.
I should also mention Diana Prince during her exile from Themyscira and her partnership with the mysterious figure known as I-Ching. Stripped of her powers, she had to rely on her badassery in both Amazon training and other “judo” methods.
It’s more than just bullets and bracelets.
A few years back, I had picked up a relaunch of Adam Strange. Now, I really have to underscore this, I hated this character because every single silver age story I’d read with this character was terrible. For those of you who have never heard of him, he has a simple story. He’s an archeologist who gets zapped by an interstellar “zeta beam”. That beam transports him billions of light-years away to planet Rann where he becomes the planet’s champion. When the beam’s charge wears off, he gets zapped back to Earth until he can calculate when the next beam will arrive.
He has no powers. Just a rocket pack, a ray gun, and a great alien wife at his side.
It’s actually a great premise that I think would make a great movie. Although it is eerily similar to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, DC could make something of this on the big screen or even on the CW. The reason why I disliked this so much was that I couldn’t stand any of the Gardner Fox’s stories.
The relaunch was much different. It was full of action and pitfalls on both Earth and on Rann. The writing was so good I couldn’t get enough of the stories. If you come across any from the 2004 series written by Andy Diggle, scoop them up. They’re actually pretty good.
Even if you find yourself reading stories of the original Vigilante (cowboy), Jonah Hex, or other non-powered heroes from other places and times, the thing that makes them great is their limitations. Oh sure, put Superman in a jail cell and he’ll get out of it without breathing hard. But if you chain up Jonah Hex and threaten to cut his face until both sides match, you have real tension.
There has to be a price for each character to pay. If you write about a knight, you should be aware that his armor is heavy. He needs to be strong and he needs to get tired. If you write about a cowboy, you need to remember his gun can only fire seven shots at a time. Characters need to reload. How these characters escape their death traps and the effectiveness of those traps is what keeps comic book buyers coming back to the spin rack.
In the end, the debate is stupid. Heroes whether they’re super or otherwise have to be interesting more than anything else. Who cares if they can juggle Volkswagens? What really matters, as it does with anyone or anything that has character, what do they do when they have nothing.
Whatever it is, it has to entertain us.
© 2020 Christopher Peruzzi