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Superheroes

For once, Robin made himself useful and built the entire car on his own with a blowtorch

By Novella Carpenter

Since I live about 10 blocks away from the Pixar campus in Emeryville, I sometimes feel obligated to go to their movies. This is how I found myself watching The Incredibles, "starring" a bloated middle-aged superhero, his superhero wife and their three potential superhero kids. Just as the Western was reimagined, there is a trend toward making the superhero an everyday person, of erasing the facade.

One sees it in Jonathan Lethem's novel Fortress of Solitude, where two ghetto kids discover a ring that grants them superhuman abilities, which are of course squandered. Or the bestselling Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which exposes the true superhero: the inventors of comic books.

I also went because my neighbor told me there were cars in the movie. Before The Incredibles began, we were treated to a segment of the much-anticipated Cars, which has the same Pixar/Disney feel as Toy Story or A Bug's Life but with a Nascar theme. Paul Newman, Owen Wilson and Richard Petty all contribute voices to the movie, which features an anthropomorphic race car that gets stuck in a podunk town with some broken-down jalopies. It'll appear in exactly one year, November 2005, and you know I'll be all over it.

When the main feature began, we met Bob Parr, a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, who drives a vehicle called the Incredobile. This vehicle has mapping capabilities, an ejector seat and a rear thruster that gives it speed and power. This struck me as more of a 007 thing, though, and I tried to remember: did superheroes drive? Mostly, they didn't. Superman didn't drive cars, he threw them. Spiderman swung from projected threads of web. Captain America marathoned. The only superhero who drove was Batman.

Batman was the original gadget guy. He had the Batgyro (a kinda plane thingy), the Batboat, the unfortunately named Baterang (modeled after a boomarang) and, yes, the Batmobile. Writing about the genesis of the Batmobile, in DC Comics, Les Daniels notes, "For the first few years of his career, Batman was forced to undergo the ignominy of driving a car that looked pretty much like everybody else's. It was sometimes red and sometimes blue, but only when Bob Kane drew a symbolic hood ornament for it did Bill Finger begin writing captions that called it the Batmobile (February 1941)."

Thus the Batmobile began the slow transition from functional unit to cool accessory. The color went to midnight blue, a scalloped trim winged out from its back, a bat face appeared on the hood. By the early 1950s, this manifestation of the Batmobile was destroyed by B-man's nemesis, Smiley Dix, in an accident that left Batman in traction. Batman looked on the bright side and dreamed of building the ultimate Batmobile, "the one I've been planning for a long time!" For once, Robin made himself useful and built the entire car on his own with a blowtorch, a few scribbled plans from Batman and encouragement yelled from his hospital bed. This is how the bubbly, throbbing lines of the "modern" Batmobile emerged.

Drawing these cars was much easier than building the damn thing for the television series or the later movie version. For the series, king of customizers George Barris tricked out a 1955 Ford Futura in just three weeks. The car had a front end that looked like the face of a bat with the functional headlights hidden behind the bat's ears, four 6-inch flared bulletproof wheel wells and 84-inch rear bat fins. A die-cast model was put out by Corgi in 1966. Thirty years later, Anton Furst built the Batmobile for the movie Batman. This spawned a flurry of toys and replicas, including the Ertl die-cast model of the Batmobile. Just six months ago, Mattel recalled its toy Batmobile because, according to the recall's press release, "The rear tail wings of the Batmobile are made of rigid plastic and come to a point, which pose a potential puncture or laceration hazard to young children." So much for superheroes.


Novella prefers DC over Marvel. Email her at novellacarpenter@yahoo.com.

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From the November 24-December 1, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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