Best viewed in 1280x1024
The Daily Raider is brought to you by the Project for an Unamerican Century and the Ronnie Gardocki Beard Preservation Society. The Daily Raider accepts donations, but we will only use them for liquor, cocaine and South American prostitutes.
Radioactive Man: The Best Comics Industry Satire Ever
Today I am here to talk to you about an unappreciated gem of a series, Radioactive Man. Yes, Radioactive Man is a character on The Simpsons, a comic book superhero within the show in which a few episodes were centered around. In the 1990's, along with Simpsons Comics, Matt Groening's comic book company Bongo also launched Radioactive Man, which, instead of going in sequential order from #1 to #2 to #3 and so on, would instead jump around to different comic book eras, satirizing the trends of the time. And it was marvelous.
The first issue is the only one that is explicitly based on the Radioactive Man seen in the show, obviously the issue Radioactive Man #1, featured in an episode where Bart, Milhouse and Martin bought it jointly and struggled over ownership. The story is set in the 60's, and is largely a parody of every superhero origin ever. Claude Kane the Third is a typical layabout playboy socialite, that is, until he finds himself in the blast zone of an atomic bomb. With that, a piece of shrapnel is lodged in his head and he also gains superpowers, so thus he has the angst and the power to become a superhero. The issue also introduces Claude's lady love, Gloria Grand, and a bald, bespectacled mad scientist named Dr. Crab, who bears more than a certain resemblance to Captain Marvel foe Dr. Sivana. After the origin, the issue shifts to a story largely parodying the hysteria in the 1950's of Seduction of the Innocent, a famous book about comics being lurid trash that corrupted the minds of children. Specifically, the issue satirizes how EC Comics was run out of the business, charges of corrupting children into lives of crime and murder, an idea which Radioactive Man supports. Radioactive Man even encourages Richard Nixon to use some sort of taping system to keep an eye on people. HUAC rules that the Gaines stand-in is a criminal for consorting with communists [Dr. Crab and his goons] and is arrested, while the Wertham stand-in turns out to actually be a Gaines competitor who only did it to get Gaines out of the industry and increase his share of the market. The issue is a perfect parody of the typical Marvel comics origin [something involving radiation] with the typical DC supporting cast and conservatism [Marvel wrote stories that opposed Wertham's ideas; DC embraced the CCA]. There's even a Charles Atlas parody ad at the end of the book. It's perfect, I tell you. Perfect.
The next issue, #88, detailing the origin of Radioactive Man's sidekick Fallout Boy, parodies both the Avengers and Spider-Man with the introduction of the Superior Squad and, of course, Fallout Boy. There's a mystic, a marine-life themed hero, a bug-themed genius, a shield carrying patriotic hero, a woman with the power of pheromones, and another woman named after a relatively small mammal while being dangerous. Gee, I wonder who those characters are based on...Capt. Squid and Lure Lass even have the unrequited love thing going, where they both love each other in secret because they think the other isn't interested in them, a theme 60's Marvel commonly bludgeoned into the ground in romances like Cyclops/Phoenix, Vision/Scarlet Witch, to name but a few. My favorite character here is Purple Heart, a Captain America/Iron Man melding who makes some ironic commentary about the Vietnam War before it happens and makes allusions to him helping in the JFK assassination. Of course, in later issues we'll see that Purple Heart is the one character that makes great changes between eras, whereas a lot of the other characters, specifically RM, stay static. After becoming acquainted with the Superior Squad, we're introduced to Fallout Boy, modeled after the most successful teen hero of the 60's, Spider-Man. Indeed, Rod Runtledge is a nerd picked on by the popular kids, with an Aunt June who dots on him all the time. He even almost gets bitten by a spider until he swats it away. Through happenstance Rod happens to absorb some of Radioactive Man's powers and thus he joins Radioactive Man's fight as his sidekick Fallout Boy. Again, this issue features a lot of sharp satire about the era of comics it purportedly occurs in. Anti-communist rhetoric, references to radiation being completely safe, and a lot of images cribbed from Lee and Ditko's run of Amazing Spider-Man litter the issue.
#216 is an issue-long parody of the 'socially relevant' comics that started popping up, most notably the Denny O'Neil-Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic series. The cover even parodies Green Arrow's realization that his sidekick has become a junkie, only in this one, Radioactive Man has found out that his sidekick Fallout Boy has become...gasp...a hippie! It deals with Radioactive Man supposedly spotting his ward Rod Runtledge at an anti-war rally, and along the way he runs into Purple Heart, who is now calling himself Bleeding Heart. After throwing away a note intended for Gloria about a break-in at the Democratic Party Headquarters, RM clashes with Bleeding Heart, a former munitions millionaire who has taken to living with the 'hip' kids after losing his fortune. Notice any similarities with Green Arrow's change from Batman ripoff to anarchist liberal? In his words, Bleeding Heart has gone from a "smugly complacent, holier-than-thou archconservative to a smugly complacent hipper-than-thou pseudo-liberal". Nothing's sacred with Bongo; they take on all sides. RM and BH meet up with another 60's parody, superheroine Black Partridge, and go to a free-love event called "Spoon-In", which turns out to be a ruse by one of Radioactive Man's foes, Hypno-Head. And Fallout Boy being a hippie? In a brilliant twist on super-fast resolutions, it turns out that not only is it really Fallout Boy's twin brother Dodd, Dodd also has amnesia and can't remember the last 10 years of his life. This issue uses a lot of Neal Adams-like panel layout, occasionally forgoing the typical 6-grid and going with 'different' layouts, something not done often in that time period.
If you're astute, you'll notice that the psychedelic lines spell out "Hey, a Neal Adams ripoff!"
With Radioactive Man #412 we're onto the 1980's, this issue highlighting the landmark Phoenix Saga from Chris Claremont and John Byrne's similarly landmark run on Uncanny X-Men. After battling with the now Crab-like Dr. Crab, Radioactive Man is hit by the nefarious Commie's particle blast, apparently killing RM. Fallout Boy takes out the one thing Radioactive Man could never do in life - the shrapnel permanently lodged in his head. With Radioactive Man dead, the Superior Squad membership is left to decide who's the new leader, and, of course, X-Men-esque squabbling begins. Dr. Crab is also secretly working for the Bonfire Club, a group of the political and financial elite apparently responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan [William Casey is seen bumping into Claude earlier in the issue]. Just as Dr. Crab is about to finish off the Superior Squad for good, Radioactive Man returns from the dead sans lightning bolt shrapnel. He defeats Dr. Crab easily, but all is not well. He's 'become a living nuclear bomb' and has coincidentally become evil, too! The Superior Squad are no match for him and only until Fallout Boy sticks the shrapnel back in RM's head does he go back to normal. Things still do not bode well, because the Bonfire Club, led by Richard Nixon, promises that this will not be the last time they cross paths...
The fifth issue of the six issue miniseries is perhaps the greatest comic book of all time, because of one thing, its title: "Who Washes The Washmen's Infinite Secrets of Legendary Crossover Knight Wars". Yes, #679 parodies both Crisis on Infinite Earths and The Watchmen, along with DKR thrown in for good measure. It's by far the greatest parody ever. Bleeding Heart has appropriately changed his name to Heart of Darkness and he also appropriately keeps a journal that parodies the first page of Watchmen, down to the smiley face button on the street and the 9-panel grid. Like nearly all dark grim and gritty stories in the 80's, superheroes have been banned with one exception, a government stooge, in this case the stooge being Radioactive Man. The parody zeitgeist then changes to DKR, with talking media heads and the ever-popular pearls dropping during a flashback, and a lightning bolt accidentally striking RM while he's jumping off a rooftop. After this he meets with the, as RM describes it "grim and gritty" Heart of Darkness, a conspiracy theorist/urban avenger very similar to Rorschach and DKR Batman, who tells Radioactive Man of a shadow government operating, in, well, the shadows. "You expect me to believe that?! Next you'll be telling me that the President's been selling weapons to the Ayatollah!" They both decide to meet with the Veidt inspired Bug Boy, but during this meeting it shifts to a Crisis on Infinite Earths parody! Radioactive Man-Beta, Radioactive Ape, Radioactive Boy and Glowy the Radioactive Dog show up from respective parallel universes, showing there's been quite a dimensional rift needing to be fixed. Nega-Pneumatica, a negativeverse version of his robot enemy, is behind it all and wants to reshape the universe in her image. Some hilarity ensues [Radioactive Man tells Radioactive Man-Beta to make a supreme sacrifice because his world was destroyed and he has nothing to live for now; RM-Beta tells him to take a hike, and Congress tries to legislate against parallel universes, with one commentator saying they should be banned and if the free market wants them they can come back] and Glowy finds out the truth: Nega-Pneumatica is piloted by none other than Richard Nixon! Glowy makes the supreme sacrifice and RM tells a grieving Radioactive Boy that "With great power comes great freedom from responsibility". Everything returns to normal like in what happened in comics universes post-grim and gritty, with Radioactive Man determined to 'protect the status quo'. I love this issue. It's so stop-on with the trends and the problems of the 80's it's scary.
The final issue satirizes the excesses of the worst decade of comics ever. Of course I'm speaking of the style-over-substance, Liefeld-over-quality 90's. Yes, it's Radioactive Man #1000, an issue so good it gives "Who Washes the Washmen's Infinite Secrets of Legendary Crossover Knight Wars" a run for its money. The story begins innocently enough but you know things are amiss when Sam and Twitch ripoffs start showing up and Dr. Crab has mutated even further into a creature known only as 'Prawn'. As seen in the last issue where people note how common it is for the universe to be attacked and cities destroyed, the characters comment upon how long they've been superheroes without any effects of aging at all. The comic also follows the business side of the industry during the 90's very well, such as references to the Superior Squad being bought out by a fake eyelash magnate, and the rest of the Superior Squad quitting to form their own 'hero-owned team', and Radioactive Man being replaced by a lumbering, chrome-plated extreme to the max Radioactive Man who is totally not a parody of Azrael-Batman. Radioactive Man even gets an extra-long McFarlane-esque cape! Near the end of the issue, in Prawn's attempt to revert himself back to his Dr. Sivana-like human form, he also reverts Radioactive Man to his original form, Radio Man, a retcon [very appropriate because the 90's were the age of retcons]. The final few pages parody the only thing not previously parodied in this miniseries: the Golden Age. Radio Man, a superhero identity of cub reporter Claude Kane III, is obviously a parody of Captain Marvel, and Radioactive Worm, a worm revealed to have been in the A-bomb's blast radius in RM #1, is also obviously a parody of Captain Marvel foe Mr. Mind. Things are eventually set back to normal and Pneumatica is revealed to be Radioactive Man's mother [another shot at horrible retcons]. The tale ends ominously as Dr. Crab discusses things with a shadowed head. Richard Nixon's shadowed head!
Overall, the series is one of the most enjoyable I've ever read. The satire is surprisingly sharp, the writing and art superb, and even if you don't get all the references to existing comics and industry history the stories are still fairly amusing. Also, this series is the first other than Captain America to show Richard Nixon as the insane would-be despot that he really is. Unfortunately there are no Radioactive Man trades, but you should be able to find the back issues for not extraordinarily high prices. Also note that Radioactive Man is still published, albeit quarterly. It's possibly even better than the first great miniseries, as it's written by Batton "Supernatural Law" Lash, and features such parodies as EC Comics, Kirby's New Gods, Silver Age DC, and even a comic book adaptation of the ill-fated movie starring Rainier Wolfcastle. Do yourself a favor and read some of these issues. You shan't be disappointed.