I remember a Marvel panel at a comics convention in Chicago I attended back in the late ‘80s. I think it was their Assistant Editor’s Panel, mostly a kind of comics pep rally to promote the books Marvel was putting out that year, and it was a bit gimmicky but fun, full of audience participation stunts. They had a group of volunteers from the audience come up on the stage to be a cheering section. Their job was to cheer any time anybody mentioned “SPEEDBALL”, a new title the company was pushing.
At one point, during an audience Q&A session, an editor from the company’s Distinguished Competition stood up and asked: “At our company we’ve had some success recently in taking some of our old, worn-out, boring characters and completely re-vamping them...” He was alluding, of course, the John Byrne MAN OF STEEL Superman reboot. “...Do you suppose a similar approach might work for... say... SPEEDBALL?”
And the peanut gallery on the stage cheered.
Okay, it was a cheap joke; but it reflected the fact that SPEEDBALL really wasn’t terribly popular. The character didn’t fit the Comics Zeitgeist of the late ‘80 - early ‘90s.. I only picked up one or two of his comics myself and although I found him mildly interesting, I wasn’t interested enough to follow him.
The reason Marvel was trying to promote the character was because he represented the return to Marvel Comics of one its legends: Steve Ditko.
As most comics fans probably know, Ditko was the artist who along with Stan Lee created Marvel’s iconic character, the Amazing Spider-Man. He drew, and to a great extent co-plotted AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for the first four years of its run, and also worked on the Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. He also co-created Doctor Strange, and his surreal, otherworldly artwork for Strange became that character’s hallmark.
Ditko often disagreed with Lee, who was more liberal in his politics than Ditko; (although not nearly as liberal as his fellow artist in the Marvel Bullpen, Jack Kirby) . Due to the “Marvel Method” Stan developed to work with his artists, Ditko rarely had to butt heads with him, though. Stan would give his artists a brief plot synopsis, which they would elaborate and draw. Only after the pencils were completed would Stan go back and write dialogue for it. Because he was doing so much of the plotting of the stories he drew, Ditko demanded credit for it -- and got it.
But eventually Ditko left SPIDER-MAN and Marvel. The popular legend is that he objected to a scene in the comic in which Spidey villain Green Goblin was revealed to be Norman Osborne, the father of Peter Parker’s best friend. Ditko wanted the Goblin to be some anonymous guy whom Peter didn’t know. Comics writer and historian Mark Evanier has speculated that the real reason might have been that Marvel had licensed the rights for a Spider-Man cartoon. Previous cartoons Marvel had done for TV, like CAPTAIN AMERICA, THE MIGHTY THOR and IRON MAN, had been done on the cheap, using actual panel art from the comic books and a minimal amount of animation. The artists who drew the original art were neither credited, nor compensated for this use of their work, and Ditko strongly objected to this. His precise reasons for leaving Marvel, however, are unknown. Ditko does not talk a lot about himself and rarely if ever gives interviews, saying he prefers to let his work speak for itself.
During this period, Ditko had also been working for Charlton Comics, and after leaving Marvel, he continued to work there. Charlton was something of an anomaly; it wasn’t exactly a comics company, it was the sideline of a magazine publisher. Unlike many magazines, Charlton owned its own printing company; and its comics line were a way of keeping the presses busy when they might be otherwise idle. The pay rate at Charlton was notoriously low, but they also allowed their creators comparatively more freedom than Marvel and National (DC) Comics. At Charlton, Ditko retooled the Golden Age Blue Beetle character into a modern science-based hero, and created characters such as Captain Atom and the Question. Much later all these characters would be acquired by DC and incorporated into the DC Universe.
He also did a lot of work for little independent publishers, for whom he did some of his most personal work. His best known character of these is Mister A, whose stories usually featured densely-worded polemics on Objectivist philosophy and whose uncompromising vision of moral absolutes inspired the character of Rorschach from Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN.
During the ‘70s, Ditko worked occasionally for DC, creating characters such as The Creeper, Hawk and Dove, and Shade the Changing Man.
So when he returned briefly to Marvel in the late ‘80s, it was something of a celebration for one of their Legends returning to the House of Ideas. Or at least it should have been.
Speedball was created by Ditko and writer Tom DeFalco, originally as part of Marvel’s New Universe line of comics. The New Universe crumbled, and instead the character was moved into the mainline Marvel Universe, appearing first as a guest in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #22, and following that in his own series, which was plotted and penciled by Ditko and scripted by Roger Stern. Which one of them thought that it would be cool to name a super-hero after a street drug is unknown; although to be fair, “Speedball” is also the name of a manufacturer of pen nibs for lettering and inking, which might be where the name came from.
The character was a high school student named Robbie Baldwin who, while working part-time at a research laboratory, becomes accidently exposed to cosmic other-dimensional energy which gives him the ability to generate a kinetic energy field that manifests as a swarm of pink energy bubbles that – stop laughing, now. They’re pink, okay? When he gets hit by anything, he can redirect the kinetic force in various ways, like force-fields, kinetic blasts and, obviously, by bouncing. Yes, he is Marvel’s answer to the old LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES character Bouncing Boy.
Although that might seem kind of doofy, and to a lot of readers at the time did, I can see a reason for it. Ditko liked to build his characters around themes. The Question was driven to seek answers; Hawk and Dove personified America’s division over the Vietnam War; Shade the Changing Man was all about self-perception and illusion. Often. Later writers who took over these characters didn’t quite get what Ditko intended. (Or thought they had a better idea, and some of the revamped characters were fairly good). Under writer and former hippie Denny O’Neil, the Question became a zen philosopher, the very antithesis of Ditko’s Mister A. Where Ditko’s Hawk and Dove represented opposing but valid points of view, illustrating that pacifism and force can both be valid responses to evil based on the situation; later writers made Hawk an irredeemable jerk who is always wrong; (although later still, Barbara and Karl Kessel brought the characters closer to Ditko view by redefining them as avatars of Order and Chaos). And Shade went to Vertigo.
Robbie Baldwin, at least as I read the character, was at heart an optimistic and resilient character, and his powers matched his personality. Not that Robbie was free of Peter Parker-ish angst; he had to hide his powers from his father, a crusading DA opposed to costumed crime-fighters; and his parents ultimately went through a messy divorce. Ultimately, though, Robbie was a Good Kid.
About this time Marvel put out a team book titled NEW WARRIORS featuring a line-up of previously-established teen heroes, such as Firestar, Namorita (The Sub-Mariner’s sort-of kid sister), and Nova; and new ones such as Speedball and the team’s leader, Night Thrasher (a black kid from the streets who fought crime on a skateboard; it made sense, it was the ‘80s). Writer Fabian Nicieza expressed a liking of Speedball and wrote him as cocky and arrogant, although Robbie’s civilian identity in NEW WARRIORS came off as angstful and sullen.
The sad fact is that Robbie was out of synch with his time. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were the Golden Age of Tarnish, when Grim ‘n’ Gritty ruled the comics and when joyful exuberance and playfulness were considered Old School and Hokey. Occasionally, we’d get some whimsical push-back; Dwayne McDuffy’s superb DAMAGE CONTROL, about a construction company that repairs the collateral damage done by super-hero slugfests was one; and Dwayne made Robbie an intern at Damage Control in one of his story arcs, doing a good job with the character.
The nadir – for Robbie, at least; we aren’t nearly out of the Grim ‘n’ Gritty Era yet – came with Marvel’s CIVIL WAR crossover series. The premise of the series was to pit much of the Marvel Universe against itself over a federal law requiring the registration of super-heroes. The intent was to have both sides in this conflict have valid points so that the issue could be seen as a real debate instead of just an excuse for a big punch-out, and to reflect real-life debates over Security vs. Liberties. As it played out, however, the Pro-Registration side was guilty of some horrendous abuses of power that for many readers turned heroes like Tony Stark and Reed Richards into outright villains.
The event was triggered by a horrendous tragedy which prompted the adoption of the Supers Registration Act. The New Warriors, it was established, had become the subjects of a TV Reality Show. During the shooting of this show, a fight with a team of villains went terribly wrong, resulting in an explosion killing over 600 people including an elementary school full of people in Stamford, Connecticut. Speedball was the only member of the Warriors to survive the blast and became the scapegoat for the disaster. Running through the CIVIL WAR series, we get the personal story of Robbie enduring guilt, public objurgation, guilt, loss of powers, guilt, imprisonment in Reed Richard’s Super Gulag in the Negative Zone, guilt, and, oh yes, guilt.
In the end, he designed a new costume for himself featuring spikes on the inside constantly driving themselves into his flesh – one for each victim of the Stamford disaster. And he renamed himself “Pennance”. That’ll teach him to be optimistic and resilient.
I don’t think it was intentional, but you’d almost think the writers hated Ditko’s character so much that they went out of their way to destroy him.
After CIVIL WAR, Robbie bounced around a bit more, and not in a bubbly fun way like before, getting manipulated by various villains, but eventually he was able to kind of center himself. He became a teacher and mentor for young aspiring heroes in AVENGERS ACADEMY and even resumed the name of “Speedball”. More recently, he’s joined a re-formed version of the New Warriors and has even regained some of his old, upbeat personality.
So maybe Ditko did win in the end after all.
I guess that’s the way the ball bounces.