“Welcome, Captain Invincible! It’s a great honour to welcome you to the Special Relationship, the first joint British-American super team.”
“Thank you; it’s a pleasure to be here.”
“I’m sure you already know the American members of our team: Karate Bear, Laserface Pete and the Incredible Blazing Woman. And representing the British side, here are Pip-Pip and his sidekick Cheerio.”
It’s an old story in comics: if you’re an American superhero, you can have any gimmick you like. If you’re not, your gimmick will, more likely than not, have something to do with the country you’re from. There are American patriotic heroes, of course, but there’s nothing definitively American about bats, spiders, or just being super.
Don’t believe me? Quick, name a couple of British Marvel heroes. There’s Captain Britain, of course, and Union Jack. Psylocke isn’t particularly British-themed, but she’s still Captain Britain’s sister (well, Captain Britain’s sister’s mind in someone else’s body, because comics). There’s Spitfire, there’s Excalibur, there’s Lionheart (is there still Lionheart? I have no idea) … you get the picture. What about other countries? France has, er, Guillotine, there’s the Arabian Knight, and even Israel’s national superheroine, Sabra, has a name that means either a species of cactus or a person born in Israel.
(The X-Men are a little bit of an exception; they still have some corny national stereotypes like Banshee or Sunfire, but in general they’re a little better, perhaps because X-Men characters all already have a gimmick. And although there are wolverines in Canada, you could hardly say that being Canadian is Wolverine’s gimmick.)
Over at DC, the situation is much the same. Superhero from Ireland? Jack O’Lantern. Superhero from France? The Musketeer. Superhero from Denmark? The Little Mermaid. Superhero from Argentina? El Gaucho.
That’s not to say that you can’t tell good stories with these characters: Captain Britain has seen some great runs, Grant Morrison did some fun things with the “Club of Heroes” (Batmen from around the world), and there was a great Justice League Confidential story about those second-rate international DC characters by — well, Grant Morrison again, actually.
And it’s easy to understand why national gimmicks stick. Just look at international characters who don’t have them: Blade, for instance. Yes, the vampire hunter made famous by Wesley Snipes is one of the five British characters in that image I showed above (the other is Pete Wisdom, whose head is out of the frame). But only the hardest of hardcore fans know that the badass monster-slayer is from London. Maybe if his name were more British, they would? He could be … how about … Jack the Ripper? Well, maybe not that one. Or how about Bladers and Mash? Hmmm. This national-theme thing is harder than I thought.
The system seems to be changing a little these days, and that’s probably a good thing. We don’t need another French character whose gimmick is just being French (in fact, Marvel has a French character, Le Cowboy, whose gimmick is being American-ish). Writers are learning to incorporate characters’ nationalities without making them the whole story, and of course more and more writers and artists are coming from outside the traditional centers of comics publishing.
But there’s still the chance that when Batman finally visits Croatia he’s going to run into Tuna-man. And while that’s kind of silly, I don’t know that it’s a tradition I’d ever want to give up completely.