Superheroes are thinly veiled caricatures of our own hopes and insecurities. Finding the right balance between subtly recognizing these deep psychological urges and making the character cool is the entire trick to creating interesting and compelling characters. Think of it like making your first mixed drink: You want enough booze in there to knock your socks off, but put too much in and it will taste like liquorices flavored Scope.
That said you should probably stay away from birds when you’re making up new comic book characters. No one wants to read about birds. Birds ruin everything.
WHY NO BIRDS?
The concept of a super evolved dinosaur with telescopic vision and the power to fly SOUNDS cool until you realize that this is just your average, run-of-the-mill bird. YES, birds can fly, people would like to fly and therefore many people wish they could be birds. Creating a character AROUND a bird theme never seems to embody the freedom we all yearn for, as it underlies poor creativity and too much blatant symbolism; Bird superheroes seem half-baked, tacky and fairly pathetic.
Consider two of the coolest bird Superheroes around: Marvel’s The Falcon and DC’s Robin. The Falcon has the ability to fly, talk to his pet bird and that’s all there is in the shopping cart. Robin is a taught 13-year-old boy in green satin short-shorts. What’s not to love?
BIRD AIN’T THE WORD
“The Falcon only has flight powers?” Kids might say. “Heck, Superman can fly AND he has lasers for eyes. So what if he can fly. Lots of heroes can fly…hasn’t he got anything else?”
“Well, the Falcon can also TALK to birds…or at least a bird.” You might explain.
“Yippee. One freakin’ laser blast from Superman and his pet talkin’ falcon is lunch. The Falcon is stupid.” The child might then, reasonably conclude. They might also add “You are stupid.”
Keep in mind, I LIKE the Falcon. His civilian identity was once a US Senator, he’s best friends and crime-fighting partners with Captain America, he once quit the Avengers to protest “Tokenism” and he has found a place in the contemporary Marvel Universe as the experienced voice of reason to the young and brash heroes of today.
His character is driven, brave and even-handed.
The Marvel Universe, however, has a cavalcade of steel bending bad-asses, characters of such amazing power and strength that they make the Falcon seems like a third stringer. Suddenly having the freedom of a bird seems insignificant next to having the powers of a God.
He doesn’t fly, he doesn’t hang out in “the bird cave” or ride on a “Bird-mobile.” He doesn’t throw “Birdarangs” or have feathers, make a nest or eat worms…. unless he’s on Fear Factor. Like Batman, Robin is just a regular human being…who dresses up like an idiot to punch crime in the throat.
Robin as a name evokes a lighthearted, childlike demeanor, but Robin the character is the most popular bird-named comic book character BECAUSE he has nothing to do with birds.
The original Robin, Dick Grayson, later fights crime under the nom du guerre “Nightwing.” What the heck is a Nightwing? Beats me! It sure sounds like some sort of scary, pissed-off vampire bird thing ready to spill blood…ANY blood. That Dick guy is a genius: Evoke birds but don’t BE a bird.
Other bird heroes need to get it together. DC has more then a few: The Birds of Prey which counts the Black Canary as a member, The Hawkmen and Hawkwomen from planet Hawkulon or whatever it’s called, the horribly costumed Hawk and Dove and the list goes on and on.
No one wants to read about birds in the first place, proof of which is that Ornithology Today would outsell “Amazing Spider-Man” by a mile, but asking people to read about a whiny pacifist dressed in powder blue named “Dove” really is adding insult to injury.
Villains make out a bit better as birds, probably because we get to hate them. The Penguin, much like Robin, is the first bird super villain to spring to mind and outside of his tuxedo the modern penguin has as much to do with birds as McDonalds has to do with nutrition.
The Penguin works well as a crafty thief with ties to high society, but anytime writers try to shoe horn ACTUAL penguins into his plans it seems horribly campy. Danny Devito’s penguin funeral, anyone?
Marvel has a cool bird villain in The Vulture, the leathery old bank robber who hates Spider-Man almost as much as he hates when Matlock isn’t on TV. Again, the bird aspect isn’t what makes the Vulture cool. The Vulture works as an aged foil to the youthful Spidey. Flying is a nifty trick, but without the angst of the aged the Vulture would be as forgotten as Slyde or Frog-Man, just another gimmick foe for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Guy.
BEST FOR LAST
There is one bird hero I DO like, and before you ask the answer is “NO, NOT Harvey Birdman, attorney at law!”
Eric Powell’s The Buzzard combines the best aspects of Spidey’s foil the Vulture with the zombie craze that has swept through comics like the Spanish flu, leaving a trail of the dead in its wake. You see, the Buzzard is an old west sheriff cursed by a voodoo priest to only eat the flesh of the dead…kind of a reverse Zombie if you will.
Part ghost, part gunslinger, the Buzzard has a weird west charm unprecedented outside of Jonah Hex, but the grizzly “Eat the Dead” twist that gives the character his name WORKS so well I can forgive Buzzard-breath his roots in the otherwise uncreative cesspool that is the Aviary of Ideas: Birds.
Birds are pretty and birds are tasty but birds and comic books are like Vaseline and M&M’s: fun in their own particular ways but never meant to be mixed together.
It need not be said that fish are even worse. If one wanted to make the most hated super villain of all time, might I suggest a character called “The Flying Fish?” He could fly, breath underwater and be a creepy freak that every child in America would rather eat broccoli for a weak than read comic books about.