Obesity in Superhero Comics: A Personal Journey

Comic books and obesity have a longstanding history.  I have a longstanding history with both.

He would hit the spa soon.
There were many fat characters in early superhero comics, mostly comic relief characters that owed much to the lineage superheroes had from comic strips and Sunday funnies.  Fat guys were often schmoes like Woozy Winks and Doiby Dickles, who assisted, to varying degrees of success, Plastic Man and Green Lantern.  Etta Candy provided similar aid and a more size-positive attitude as best friend and ally to Wonder Woman, but was still largely treated as a caricature, constantly referencing her love of junk food with exclamations like, "For the love of chocolate!"  Batman's butler Alfred was a bumbling, fat, amateur detective who decided he needed to slim down on holiday if he was ever going to be taken seriously.

When fat characters were promoted to be stars on their own, they continued to feature in comedic stories.  Ma Hunkel donned colorful longjohns and a cooking pot helmet to fight crime in parody fashion, finding herself missing a portion of her pants after her one appearance with the Justice Society.  Bob Daley, decked out in lampshade and curtain and armed with broom, aided Mr. America in multiple Golden Age adventures as Fat Man.

When your superhero name is an epithet.
The end of the Golden Age and the advent of the Silver Age saw fat heroes take on a more subversive yet still comical take.  Herbie Popnecker used his magical lollipops to become nearly godlike.  The Blimp disappointed his super-speedster father and joined the Inferior Five.  CC Beck followed up the end of Captain Marvel by creating Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, whose adventures were as ludicrous as his name would cause you to expect.

I had dad bod before it was cool.
Being fat was always a part of my norm.  My father, despite being a hardworking stiff with a blue collar job, had a bulging stomach for as long as I can remember.  Everyone in my family struggled with their waistline, and I was no different.  Genetics might have had something to do with it.  Surely my diet, which was the meat and potatoes typical of working class Midwesterners and sweetened by a steady supply of soda, played a large role.  And while I was into sports, I also loved lots of sedentary activities, from reading to games to watching television, none of which burn calories at any significant rate.

As a child I wasn't that much overweight.  However, I was larger than everyone else in my class with the exception of one morbidly obese boy.  When you are different as a child, those differences are accentuated in the minds of your peers.  To everyone, I was the fat guy.  The fat nerd.  I heard about it on nearly a daily basis.  Sometimes in jest.  Sometimes in derision.  Sometimes both at the same time.

As a result, being fat became part of my identity.  I never knew what it was like to be skinny.  As such, I didn't put much effort into being skinny.  I'm not sure I thought it was even possible.  To be honest, I'm not sure I thought about it at all.  I was just me, and that me was just fat.

Obese villains could be comical or serious (at least as serious as comic book villains tended to be), with Superman and Batman each collecting multiples.  Both Toyman and the Prankster premiered with prodigious bellies, Prankster eventually losing his while Toyman largely kept his girth until he was retired in favor of a younger model in the 1970s.  Batman faced off against Tweedledum and Tweedledee as well as the Penguin, whose weight would fluctuate over the years.

No lie: those barbs hurt in person.
As comics entered the Silver Age, fat villains took on a more menacing presence.  The Blob laid waste to the X-Men multiple times.  The Kingpin became a top villain for both Spider-Man and Daredevil.  The girth of both men provided them physical power, either by protecting them from harm or multiplying the strength of their blows.  The Owl and Doctor Octopus menaced their rival heroes despite sometimes bulging waistlines.  Even Egghead, a much more cerebral villain, provided a greater threat to Ant-Man than his Golden Age predecessors.

As comics entered the modern era, fat villains embodied a wider diversity.  Modern obese antagonists ranged from frightening to sympathetic.  The Ventriloquist and Professor Pyg reflected the madness of the typical modern Batman villain.  The post-Crisis Lex Luthor premiered as the classic paunchy businessman before slimming down (and de-aging).  Chunk was introduced as an odd new addition to the Flash's rogues gallery before reforming and becoming a member of his supporting cast instead.

Not that she was wrong
in her description.
Fat people occupy an odd space in American society.  There are lots of us, and our numbers grow each year as America fails its battle with its weight problem.  Yet at the same time, we find ourselves a hated group, sometimes hated even by members of our own tribe.  When a fat person boards a bus, train, or plane, you can feel the unease of the other passengers, hoping that she will pass them by and try to sit somewhere else.  The next time you're on an elevator with a fat person, watch the body language of the other people around you, particularly as they give additional space to him, as if accidentally touching him will cause the obesity to rub off on them.  These are commonplace events for the obese, as are the unwanted advice offered up by complete strangers and the screams of epithets from passing cars.  I still vividly remember being followed through a crowded train station by a woman repeatedly screaming, "Look at that fat ass" as I tried to have breakfast.

Much of this vitriol comes from a popular assumption that fat people are lazy and just don't care.  While it's true that many obese people are medically capable of controlling their weight, the roots of the problem run deeper than simple motivation.  I doubt many people relish the physical agony that overweight bodies experience, as joints and back muscles struggle to support mass greater than they are suited for.  Few want to be looked at with disdain by the people around them.  Spending more for things like clothes and health insurance while not being able to do simple physical activities are no one's idea of a benefit.  To inflict this on yourself, something has to be wrong, sometimes medically but often psychologically.  Yet in a world where addiction is now looked at as an illness, obesity is still often looked at as a moral failing, even by medical professionals, who have a tendency to bully the obese.

I experienced all of this as, over the years, I grew fatter.  It was usually gradual enough that I barely noticed, but accelerated both when I reached the age where my youthful metabolism slowed and when I reached a point in my career where I was promoted into a job that I was wholly unhappy doing.  Eventually, it became uncontrollable and I went into a health spiral: I was in pain and turned to food for comfort, which made things worse, which made me turn to food more.  Becoming morbidly obese is like committing suicide in the slowest way possible, and I jumped off that cliff with both swollen feet.

Happens all the time to fat men.
Beginning in the Silver Age, some fat characters exhibited hearts as overgrown as their bodies.  Chuck Taine entered the Legion of Superheroes as a bit of a buffoon with an admittedly asinine origin, but grew to become somewhat of a fan favorite, getting the girl and becoming guardian of the Legion's future.  Big Bertha is a fashion model in her civilian identity, willing herself to super plus-size to go into heroic action.  In Asgard, Volstagg the Voluminous takes on all threats with the power of a Norse god and all the bluster of Falstaff.  At Valiant, Faith provides a body-positive perspective on fat superheroes, with adventures that don't put focus on her weight at all.  For these characters, weight is merely a single dimension to their heroism.

If this were a movie, I would have magically turned my life around the moment I met Eva.  Beautiful, free spirited, and so amazingly complex, she realizes my romantic ideal in almost every way possible.  I was so convinced that someone like her would have no interest in me that there's no way we'd be together today had she not made the first move.  I like to think that I'm the frog she chose to kiss.
This is the point at which
your body wants to stop

Even after we became a couple, I continued my unhealthy habits.  Then a few months into our relationship, after I completely exhausted myself walking with her through the city, she pointed out that if we were to continue on and start a family, I'd need to be in enough shape to properly care for our children.  I was more than willing to make that possible, but I'd tried to diet in the past, and it never stuck.  Don't try to diet, she told me.  Instead, make some sustainable changes and see what happens.  She wanted to get back into the shape she had when she was a model and participate in fitness competitions, and she suggested we could push each other.  I had never thought about it from that perspective, and having someone in it with me was a welcome change.  We outlined several changes I should make, and I was more than willing to give them a try.  I now had a mission.  I was also the heaviest I'd ever been, just shy of 500 pounds.

Time to hit the spa.
Silver Age heroes seemed to find themselves ballooned into epic proportions on a regular basis.  Flash, Superman, and Supergirl (among many others) were transformed through magic, exposure to red kryptonite, or mysterious advanced science-originated rays.  In every case, the hero would muddle through at their larger size and return to normal by the end of their adventure.

Modern heroes at times struggled with more realistic depictions of creeping waistlines.  Blue Beetle ate his way into ineffectiveness and had to improve his regimen to get back to fighting trim.  Years of inactivity added paunches to Nite Owl II and Mr. Incredible, with both heroes lamenting their lost trim physiques.  For these heroes, slimming down wasn't as easy as tricking Mr. Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards.  It required real work.

Like Blue Beetle, I am returning to
proper shape.  Just no one shoot me
in the head.
It's been just over 18 months, and I've lost 180 pounds, putting me about 2/3 of the way to my ideal weight.  I put 5 to 6 kilometers on the treadmill each morning and have developed a love for salad. I've not had a soda in more than a year and a half.  Some weeks, the weight seems to want to drop of its own volition.  Others, my progress plateaus and I have to fight through the disappointment those times bring to keep myself on plan.  It is neither a simple nor an easy battle, but it's one worth waging.  I don't think I ever had a fighting trim, but I still feel like I'm getting back to it nonetheless.  

Sometimes the greatest supervillain is the you that you no longer wish to be.  Fortunately for me, the good guy seems to be winning.

JL Franke is a fan of both hard science fiction and hard fantasy.  He has been collecting comics for over 40 years and has been an on-and-off active member of online fandom for 25.  Those interested can find other writings at his personal blog, NerdlyManor.com.  When not geeking out, you may find him at a baseball park or cheering on his favorite college and pro football teams.  In his spare time, he is chief scientist for a research and development laboratory somewhere in the Washington, DC greater metropolitan area.

Obesity in Superhero Comics: A Personal Journey Obesity in Superhero Comics: A Personal Journey Reviewed by JL Franke on Wednesday, November 29, 2017 Rating: 5
Powered by Blogger.