Brainiac On Banjo #095: Fair Play Is Terrific

Middle fingaz in the air / We gonn make it multiplayer / If the game ain’t fair / Better play it multiplayer — Khontkar and Bixi Blake, Multiplayer, 2017

The first golden age comic book I ever purchased was Sensation Comics #7, 1942. It cover-featured Wonder WomanH.G. Peter and William Marston, of course — and it co-starred features of which I had never heard. I thought Irwin Hasen and Bill Finger’s Wildcat was a great character, and I still do. Shelly Moldoff and Gardner Fox’s Black Pirate was adequate but dramatically drawn. A remarkably bad series from Jon L. Blummer and Bill Finger called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys lived up to the ambiance of its name, and that is a name you do not want to say too quickly. There was some filler material about stamps and things… and, oh yeah, there was a costumed superhero by Hal Sharp and Charles Reizenstein dubbed Mr. Terrific.

That was not exactly the best-named superhero on the block. “Mr. Terrific” smacked of desperation and lazy thinking, as if showrunners Shelly Meyer and Max Gaines said “Oh, screw it, let’s just call him ‘Mr. Terrific’ and hope for the best.” His abilities were negligible, and to draw attention to that his stomach was emblazoned with the legend “Fair Play.” This hardly was “Truth, Justice and the American Way” or “The Weed of Crime Bears Bitter Fruit.” This was just a wee bit better than “Sockamagee.”

Overall, the feature was boring and silly. However, let us not be as dismissive of the phrase “Fair Play.” That phrase endured when Mr. Terrific was revived in the modern age (Contemporary age? Gilded age?) in far better features, starring the world’s more-or-less smartest person. If you dislike his name, that’s on you; he’s smarter than you are, so just accept it. “Fair Play” was, and remains, embellished on the guy’s arm where it is less sermonizing and more matter-of-fact… particularly when there’s a functioning fist at its end.

There’s nothing wrong with fighting for fair play. Personally, I deny the concept of “fair” because that has nothing to with reality, not even in the most utopian terms. Life is neither fair nor unfair. But fair play is different. When he’s beating the shit out of a villain, at least he’s fair about it. I guess that applies to the original Terrific as well; it’s all in the execution.

Superhero comics used to be about fair play, about the triumph of good over evil, of truth and justice. Now, it’s more about superheroes misunderstanding everything they encounter because they’re too obsessed with their Greek chorus-like inner dialogue of self-doubt and personal need (whew!). Those pesky moral concerns have not gone away, they’re just not as important as character development or, more to the point, the endless cycle of character deterioration and subsequent redevelopment.

By and large we speak to an older audience these days, one that is more capable of understanding the zen of cynicism. But a few characters simply are a complete ethical and existential train wreck. Yes, I’m talking to you, Bruce Wayne. You are not a bat. You are not the yin to The Joker’s yang. You’re supposed to be a lot better than that.

I think this is, at least in part, because in the fantasy world of superhero comics the concept of death is utterly meaningless. You’re dead, you’re back, you’re dead again, everybody is dead, entire universes are temporarily dead, and everybody comes back. Rinse with reboot, repeat. When last seen, Aunt May Parker remains with us. If I’m wrong, just wait. She’ll get better. If the reader cannot believe a good, bad, or transitional character really can terminate completely and eternally, the thrill of the chase is entirely irrelevant.

The fact that all of us are living in highly difficult and greatly troubled times should promote the feeling that we’re all in this together — we are — and even in a quarantine we can not survive this apart. Sometimes, fair play comes from working our way out of a horrible situation together.

In these times, that is a good definition of “fair play.”