by Max Gladstone
Why does The Sleeper sleep? Why does the Amazing Bubbles blow bubbles, why does Morpho Girl transform, why does Wally Gunderson have iron skin, why does the Understudy mimic other peoples’ powers?
The most basic and irrefutable answer to this question is, because it’s cool. Why can the Amazing Bubbles store incoming energy as adipose tissue, and release it under her own control? Because when Caroline Spector thought of the idea, some lightning jumped around inside her brain, and boom! Or: Pop!
But that’s only a first-order answer. You don’t have to be a toddler to come up with the obvious follow-up. What, then, makes any given superpowered character cool?
This is a trickier question than it would seem at first glance. It would, of course, be cool just to have powers: to transform our bodies or jump into the body of another, to teleport or fly or create forcefields or turn invisible or leap tall buildings in a single bound. But it’s rare that a power itself reaches the level of cool required to make a character stand out from the hosts of myth and pop culture. How many characters in the wide world of comics have some form of super-healing? And yet the one you thought of first was, probably, Wolverine.
For me, that’s the real magic: when power and personality fuse, or exist in creative tension—when a power set strikes against some essential aspect of a character’s identity, to draw sparks. When the conditions are right, form and spirit unite to transform a character from a silhouette to an icon.
Take Wolverine. He might not be the most dangerous of the X-Men in terms of raw power—he hangs out with people who can mind-control cities and make suns go supernova—but he’s the one you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. And what’s his power? Super-healing. Which is to say: he won’t stop coming. No matter how much it hurts. Chop his arms and legs off and he’ll crawl to you with his eyelids and cut your tendons with his teeth. But that’s not all he is. When we combine the healing factor with his mysterious and checkered past, his loner tendencies, his amnesia, his motorcycle and leather jacket, we get a picture of someone who’s been hurt, a lot, and kept going. Who’s carrying more pain than you can see. No matter how gruff and fierce he seems, he’s still vulnerable. There’s an honest brokenness to Wolverine. Things don’t bounce off him the way they bounce off Superman. The knife goes in, it hurts, and he keeps going.
Also: he’s loyal. He’s the friend who shows up.
This can be what sets a great run on a character apart from a perfectly passable one: the extent to which the writer find an angle that makes the character and their powers spark. I say an because there isn’t just one—the same charater/power relationship can produce a wide range of fascinating takes. My guy the Incredible Hulk is a fantastic one for this. Peter David’s Hulk is not The Immortal Hulk, but they’re both deep and true.
Or, to put it another way: the same power set can be used in radically different ways by different characters. Six different super-strong characters will, if competently written, not be the same character. The question is, what do those powers mean for the character, in this moment, in this story?
Take Robin Ruttiger, for example. The Amazing Rubberband. Robin is my “main character” in Wild Cards, to the extent I have one. I’ve contributed a handful of characters to the world, but Robin is the consistent POV character, the lens through which I view this weird universe.
And Robin is a stretchy guy. He slips through cracks in doors. He catapults himself long distances. He’s really awkward to wrestle. Because this is Wild Cards, I’ve gone into details, more than would ever see print, about how exactly his body works, about what’s going on under the hood. He can spring, he can spread, he can float, he can squish.
It’s an enormously fun power set to write. But it’s also a great example of this concept—precisely because it’s not unique. There are other rubbery characters in comics. (There are even, in the background, a few hyper-flexible characters in the Wild Cards world—though none named, at least that I know of.) But what makes Robin, in particular, so rubbery? Why do those powers fit him? Or, to put it another way, how does he fit in with, or differ from, the parade of other stretchy superpowered characters out there?
Well, to start, let’s look at the competition.
When you start talking about stretchy guys, there’s no escaping Reed Richards. For one thing, he can always extend his arms to catch you! “Cursed Richards” is the brains of the Fantastic Four, an arch-intellect, one of the smartest people in the universe. In the elemental breakdown of the Four, Ben Grimm, the Thing, is Earth; Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman, is Air; Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, is Fire, of course; and that leaves Reed Richards, Mister Fantastic, as water. His power set is a reflection of his intellect: infinitely flexible, extending to grasp even seemingly ungraspable concepts. He’s everywhere at once—in iconic Fantastic Four panels, he weaves around the entire frame, like an animal in Celtic illumination. His body is a brushstroke.
He’s also, and this is important, a stable, strong, family man. He’s a dedicated husband and father. At first glance Reed’s stretchy powers, his water-element identification, would play into the American egghead trope, would set him up as yet another wishy-washy, undependable intellectual, opposed to All-American Male types like the Human Torch and the Thing. But without Reed, the iconic Four fall apart. Ben can’t change. Johnny burns out. Reed, at his best, is the one who can’t be broken, who can’t be stopped. He’s patient, calm—but he can move as quick as a flood when it’s called for. He flows around obstacles. He adapts. When he needs to transform, he transforms. He may be different from day to day—but what human isn’t? He is, always, dependably, himself.
And then there’s this lunatic.
Plastic Man is everything and everywhere. He’s a race car. He’s a duck with a giant rubber mallet. He’s a bouncing ball and a parachute and a rocket ship. He’s chaos. In the (to be honest) rather constrained visual medium of modern American superhero comics, where body types tend toward some slight variant on the ideal, and a costume change—literally a character wearing different clothes—can stand in for a dramatic shift in personality, Plastic Man, after sixty years, remains utter east coast rubber hose animation wackiness. He’s Dumbo’s drunk visions. If Batman is noir, Plastic Man is Toon Town, Jake.
And Plastic Man is funny.
Backstory? Sure, there’s backstory, I guess. I had to look it up on Wikipedia. But Plastic Man doesn’t need backstory, is the thing. He’s limitless, he’s weird, he’s transformative, he’s wacky, he’s boundless. Settle him into a form and he’ll break it, then invent four new forms just to mess with you. He’s possibility. He’s comics.
The Incredibles mirror the Fantastic Four’s elemental structure—Bob’s immense strength and invulnerability represent Earth, Violet’s invisibility and force fields represent Air, and Dash’s super speed is a slightly less literal form of Fire—so you’d expect Helen to serve much the same role as Mister Fantastic, the stretchy, water-aligned one, the salve, the peacemaker. But superpowers in The Incredibles have a little more edge. They’re not so positive—not so kind.
When we meet the Parr family in the “present” of the first film, their powers… aren’t working for them. They are people at war with themselves. Bob has to keep his strength—and his basic sense of decency and virtue—in check to hold onto his insurance company job, and he’s failing. Violet feels invisible, and she is. The world’s too slow for Dash. And Helen… well. She’s stretched. She wants to be the peacemaker, she wants to be everything the family needs. But she can’t be. Trying to give them some sort of normal life strains her to the breaking point. We see her tied in knots around the kitchen table.
But that’s not where it ends. As the family matures and each Parr figures themselves out, they stand in different relationships to their powers. The same abilities that earlier seemed to be issues they were failing to manage, or weaknesses they had to confront, become sources of strength. Helen starts the film strained and miserable, trying too hard, pulled in a million directions at once, but she’s also, and extremely resourceful, resilient, flexible, snappy. She can see what’s needed—and do it.
Which, beneath all the objectivist formalism, is the real heart of the film. The Parr family want to be like everyone else, and it makes them, and everyone around them, miserable. When they try to be themselves, they are happy, they make others happy, and, oh yeah, they save the city. But that’s another essay.
The comparative newcomer of the group, Ms. Marvel’s ‘embiggening’ powers are not so chaotic as Plastic Man’s, nor quite so wiggly as Reed’s. And she doesn’t stretch and snap like Helen. She can shapeshift, but she tends not to. What she does, is change. Her hand becomes the size of a Buick to slap down an adversary. She grows as tall as a house. She can slip through tight spaces, but she’s more likely, at least in her early appearances, to overwhelm than she is to evade.
The easy read here would be that Kamala’s powers are like her identity—flexible, transforming her as she code switches from family to school to the superhero community. Early storylines play into these themes: on the last page of her debut issue, the first moment Kamala manifests her newly-awakened Inhuman powers, she turn into… an idealized version of Ms. Marvel-era Carol Danvers.
But while identity and flexibility are definitely at play in Kamala’s superhero journey, I keep coming back to the word she chooses to describe them: not flexibility, not elasticity, not transformation, but embiggening. It suggests a girl—a person, a teenager—who lives folded in on herself, finding release through fantasy and fanfiction. She’s not small, never that, but she certainly is tightly packed, a being of under pressure, eager to spring—up, out, anywhere! When her powers manifest, they give her a chance to burst up into herself. To show the size of what’s inside her heart. She’s unfolding.
So, where does that leave The Amazing Rubberband?
When the Wild Card virus left Robin with stretchy powers, he found himself wondering what to do with his life, and thought, as many Americans do, that it would be a great idea to go on reality television. He joined the cast of American Hero, and came out of the closet on national TV. His boyfriend at the time was another contestant who used the contest as a springboard to superstardom, and through him Robin tasted that weird life, famous for being famous, for being yourself in public. And, once the buzz wore off, he realized he could not live that way. He didn’t want to be a brand. He didn’t want to be an icon. He didn’t want to be fixed. He just wanted to help people.
So he became a guidance counsellor, at Xavier Desmond High in Jokertown. It’s not as glamorous or as well-compensated as even D-list reality show celebrity—and the change has been hard. He has to budget now. He’s more distant than he’d like from his old friends. But he loves his work. He loves helping kids find a life in the world, a space that will fit them.
The way he sees it, the world is trying to decide what these young people are, before they know themselves. That super-strong rock guy: does he really want to be on the defensive line for the football team? What life ambitions does the young woman with snakes for hair harbor beneath her hissing locks? Robin doesn’t want his students to be afraid of their powers, to run from them—but he doesn’t want them to feel limited by what other people think about their transformation either. He wants his students, in short, to be flexible.
That’s what stretchiness means for Robin. He’s not comfortable in any one form. He’s not an ideologue or a standard bearer. He’s not a strident and indomitable force. He’s a soft-spoken midwestern boy. He believes people are important, and he believes that different situations call for different strategies. He believes in suiting the method to the challenge. Robin Ruttiger stories, in general, are a type of detective story: Robin’s trying to figure out what’s going on with his students, what’s eating them, so he can help, if they need help and would welcome it.
He’s kind, and good. But flexibility isn’t all to his advantage. He’ll bend himself over backwards to help people. He’ll stand up for others naturally, but has a hard time standing up for himself. He has regrets, and he feels that he’s let people down. There’s a bit of the Charlie Brown about Robin Ruttiger: the guy who doesn’t realize quite how much of a difference he makes, quite how much he holds the room together. There’s a tiny touch of the Sad Friend.
But he’s not a pushover. You might, someday, make the mistake of backing Robin Ruttiger or someone like him into a corner. He seems like he’ll give ground. He’s easygoing, enough. But as he backs up, he stretches, just like a rubber band. And when he’s stretched enough, and he slips—he’ll pop right back in your face.
Robin’s core belief and method—that powers don’t determine destiny—cuts, in ways that I find really interesting, against the evidence of his own life. His powers are, in fact, well-suited to his personality. At first glance, that might make him seem like a bit of a hypocrite. But while these two facts seem to be in contradiction, for me they give rise to an interesting and productive tension, a chord that refuses to resolve. Robin’s powers do reflect his inner being, but they do not dictate it. The causal arrow flows the other way. If he had different powers—the ability to project forcefields, or turn invisible, or fly—Robin would still use them in a Robin Ruttiger-ish way, for better and for worse. He’s not Mister Fantastic or Helen Parr or Plastic Man or whatever else the world thinks a stretchy guy is supposed to be. He’s not a stretchy guy first and foremost. He’s Robin Ruttiger, and it turns out that Robin Ruttiger is, among other things, a stretchy guy. The question is: what can he do with that?
And that’s what Robin hopes to pass on to his students—the permission and space to be themselves, whatever their powers, whatever they see when they look in the mirror, and whatever the outside world sees when it looks at them. To determine what their powers and transformations mean inside their own hearts, and to what end they might bend their rare gifts. We all have gifts, Robin believes, at heart. It’s not up to us what we’re given, but it is up to us to decide how we’ll use what we have. And if, sometimes, our gifts don’t seem well suited to the challenges that lie before us…
Well. It’s time to get flexible.
At least, that’s who Robin Ruttiger is now. That’s one reason I love to look at powers and character this way: it allows for growth and transformation. Being stretchy might mean something else for Robin in five years, or twenty—just like our relationships to our genders, our sexualities, our careers and our particular orientations in the world all evolve over time.
In comics there’s a tendency to try to make existing characters cooler by giving them new powers. Gambit becomes a vampire, Superman becomes… electric? It can work, in rare cases—when Beast turns blue in the X-Men, for example—but so often a new-powers development feels like a midlife crisis: a dude hoping that a new car and a brightly colored wardrobe will make him less a balding fortysometing in tech management. The new powers don’t reveal anything new about the character. When new powers do work, they tend to work because they make the character more themselves—they reveal or more precisely express a previously concealed tension. But lasting, powerful change can also come from within—from a character standing in a different relationship to their powers, which is to say, in a different relationship to themselves.
What does the power to leap tall buildings in a single bound mean to a young man, or to an old one? What does it mean to a girl in the big city for the first time? What does it mean to a mother, or to someone recently divorced? How does your own life look, in the light of a new day?
That, for me, is the spark. That’s what make the lightning dance around in my brain. And that, for me, is what makes the plastic man cool.