Three Terrific Misters
Robert M. Price
I have long beat the drum for the recognition of comic
books as modern mythology. Not just something like myths or merely analogous to
myths, but actually today's authentic mythology. And since that is so, it
should come as no surprise for comic books to be a source of moral guidance and
inspiration. Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces) maintained
that all story plots boil down to, having originated from, the basic hero myth.
All stories began as the texts of puberty rituals in archaic societies, where
they were meant to tell the young man that he had to do for himself what
Gilgamesh or Beowulf or Hercules had done: to choose a life path, to accept
help from others along that path, to endure reversals but to persevere until
one's Grail be secured. That's the DNA of comic books as a literary form. That
said, let's look at what I view as one of the most profound examples of a life
lesson taught in the comics. It is the legend of Mr. Terrific, and we find
three versions of it, each with its point to make.
Mr. Terrific, Terry Sloane, was a back-up feature in Sensation Comics,
created by Chuck Reizenstein. His costume looked kind of medieval, with a red
headman's hood, a green jerkin, red tights. On his chest was embroidered FAIR
PLAY. But let's get back to him in a moment. I want to consider our three
versions according to where they fall in a spectrum of aspiration. Let's
begin with Stanley Beamish, the CBS television character Mr. Terrific
(portrayed by Stephen Strimple), a superhero spoof in 1967, riding the
coattails of the Batman frenzy unleashed by the Adam West TV show over at ABC,
already itself a spoof of the genre. (NBC had its own version, the funniest of
the bunch: Captain Nice. Why, oh why won't they syndicate these gems?)
Stanley Beamish was just what his name suggested, the ultimate nerd, mousy and
neurotic. One might almost think him a human version of Super Chicken,
especially as both of them gained their super powers a la Hourman, by taking a
chemical. Stanley swallowed a horse pill, like Rex Tyler had. (Captain Nice
drank a serum, like Super Chicken.) Once empowered, Stanley was no more buff
than he had been before, though he had, as I remember, superhuman strength and
could fly, hence his silver-sequined shirt had underarm flaps and he wore an
aviator's goggles and scarf.
the meaning of the Stanley Beamish Mr. Terrific? He is a Walter Mitty fantasy,
just like the previous season's spy-spoof starring Red Buttons, The Secret
Life of Henry Phyfe (1966). It was the daydream of what can never be,
except in daydreams: a heroic life starring one who will never actually dare.
Truth to tell, this is probably the case for most of us who enjoy comics. We
are like Stanley Beamish, though our superheroic alter ego stays safely in the
bottle called a comic book.
brings us (back) to Terry Sloane. What a tale! Picture little Terry, a child
prodigy for whom every precocious accomplishment comes almost too easily. A
polymath, Terry masters medicine, scientific invention, athletics, business,
whatnot. So effortlessly does he conquer field after field that inflation sets
in: no accomplishment seems particularly worthwhile, since none costs him any
struggle! He is the opposite of Johnny Thunder. His mystic Thunderbolt genie is
himself! He depends on no one else for his effortless omnipotence. Strangely,
yet logically enough, once he reaches manhood a bored Terry concludes that life
is pointless. What else can there be to do? He determines to throw his life
away, rather than spend the rest of it marking time. But as he is on his way to
kill himself, what does he spot but a young woman about to do the same!
Instinctively, Terry stops and intervenes, saving the would-be suicide. She
tells him she is distraught over her young brother's criminal involvements.
Terry decides to cobble together a disguise and go after the crooks whom the
brother and his naive pals are so impressed with. He easily makes bloodied
fools of them all, and the kids transfer their admiration to him, dubbing him
Mr. Terrific. Needless to say, Terry has found his calling, his meaning. What a
great story! Terry Sloane is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Having achieved all
possible good karma far outweighing his own need for self-justification, he
could leave this world behind but instead resolves to linger for the benefit of
poor mortals. He discovers that the meaning in life is to help others.
"Let the greatest among you be your servant." That is the meaning of
Sloane did eventually go on to Nirvana, murdered by the Spirit King, an enemy
of the JSA. Years later, a new Mr. Terrific, Michael Holt, arose (the creation
of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake). Recognizing his own great talents and the
obligation they gave him (just like Peter Parker: "With great power comes
great responsibility"), Michael had remembered the legend and the legacy
of Terry Sloane. So he aspired to continue that legacy, doing "What I
can." It was a stroke of brilliance to make this third Mr. Terrific an
African American, since his ethnicity spot-lighted a whole new aspect of
succeeding. While gifted like his namesake, he had heavier odds against him, in
a community where, perversely, success is both more difficult and too often
viewed by one's black peers as selling out to Whitey.
But it is
not simply the social commentary of the new Mr. Terrific that gives the
character such significance. The great thing is that Michael stands for the
reader in a particular way. Just as Stanley Beamish was the meek geek, living a
fantasy life through comics, and Terry Sloane embodied the template for
achievement, then self-sacrifice, that alone can give our existence meaning, so
does Michael Holt stand for the challenge that Terry's story poses for the
reader: you could do this, too. At least you could try your best: "What I
can." You could, then, be the next Mr. Terrific.