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The 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.

ááááááááááá The first 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.

ááááááááááá What is 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.

ááááááááááá This 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 Mr. Terrific.

ááááááááááá But Terry 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.

ááááááááááá 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.



Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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