Sometime in 2007 or thereabouts, hemophilia my little brother offloaded a small crate of funnybooks onto me during one of the periodic purges of his enviable collection of Bronze and Silver Age comics. Mixed in with the Jim Starlin Captain Marvel and Warlock books, pills Bob Haney’s Metamorpho and Jack Kirby’s Demon and other essential treasures.
I placed the stack of funnybooks on the end of my coffee table, where they were found my wife’s six year old nephew. After a quick browse of the lot, his attention settled on the issue of Mystery in Space which unleashed the clashing-concept majesty of Ultra the Multi-Alien upon the world. He puzzled over it with rapt intensity, pointing at each quarter of Ultra’s body and then the alien creature which corresponded to its morphology.
The above anecdote illustrate a point that frequently gets lost in “elevated” discussions of superheroes and their core appeal — an intrinsic goofiness which trancends all psuedo-intellectual mythologizing and psychobabble. The goofiness does not preclude quality storytelling, but the best works of the genre have been the ones which acknowledge its existence.
There’s a reason the finest efforts at superheroic revisionism — Watchmen, Brat Pack, Marshal Law — tend towards the darkest, most unsettling end of the satire spectrum while more po’ faced spins on the formula tend to be inertly depressing. The thrill of seeing a chisled superbeing tackling gaudy avatars of oversimplified EEEEEEEEVIL is rooted in a childish suspension of disbelief — in science, legalities, practicalities, and the long-term consequences of getting regularly beaten about the face and head.
“Piecework characters” — like Ultra or Taskmaster or the Super-Adaptoid or Composite Superman — are straight-up pitches to that reflexive sense of childhood wonder. After all, why settle for a monotasked creation when you can mix and match multiple existing components into an amazing amalgam of high-concept absurdity? “He’s not a killer robot — he’s a killer robot who has the power of all the Avengers…and the hideous wardrobe to match!”
These crazy-quilt agglomerations tend to be more commonly on the villainous side of the spectrum, where they serve as a handy all-in-one solution when the “evil counterpart” trope beckons. Such was the case with the magnificent Mimic…
…whose mix-and-match malevolence menaced the Silver Age X-Men.
The Mimic began his life as the ska-tastically named Calvin Rankin, a hot-headed and surly denizen of Westchester County’s teen scene. An explosion at the basement lab of Cal’s scientist father had granted the angry youth the ability to temporarily absorb the attibutes of whichever folks happed to be in his immediate area. Being an otherwise normal (read: “selfish and lazy”) teen, Cal used his powers to become the champion athelete and star student of his high school while developing a reputation for being an obnoxious show-off.
Following a pair of power-leeching brushes with a trio of incognito X-Men, Cal managed to suss out the true nature of Professor Xavier’s school and proceeded to enact his long standing dream to be a winged freak with grossly enlarged hands and feet, the ability to make ice-cubes and move shit with his mind, and capable of shooting uncontrollable concussive beams from behind his swanky bowtie sunglasses.
His confrontation with the mutant teens, however, was only the first step in Cal’s grand plan to liberate himself from the proximity limitation of his copycat powers. Y’see, before his pop met his end at the hands of one of the 1960s Marvel Universe’s many angry mobs, Rankin the Elder had secreted a device to “help” his son at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft.
Unbeknownst to his overeager offspring, Cal’s dad knew what jerk his son had the potential to be. Instead of permanently bestowing the Mimic with his borrowed abilities, the device stripped him of his powers and left him susceptible for one of Xavier’s signature mind-wipes.
Thus was the matter of the Mimic solved…for about a dozen issues, when an other lucky explosion restored both Cal’s powers and memories. After seeking out the X-Men for a second round of beatdowns, Cal was offered a spot on the team by Professor X (who was looking to more warm bodies to fight the dreaded — and absolutely forgotten — Orge). The irritable imitator reign as X-Men’s answer to Dennis Booker ended after Cal underwent a reverse heel turn during a battle with his conceptual kinsman, the Super Adaptoid, in which he (again) “permanently” lost his powers while defeating the robotic menace.
The Mimic popped up again a few years later in the Hulk’s ongoing series, where he sought Beast’s help to cure him of the continental-scale bio-vampirism into which Cal’s powers had subsequently evolved. The healing process was interrupted by a peeved Hulk, whose exposure to the Mimic’s power-leeching effect had manifested as acute gastro-intestinal distress. Lacking faith in the Beast’s ability to whip up a permanent fix, Cal chose to take matters into his own oversized mitts by absorbing a lethal dose of gamma radiation from the Jade Giant…and thus joined the long list of d-listers who briefly exited this plane though Hulkean intervention. (See also. Also this. And this dude. There’s a reason I have a “suicide by Hulk” tag.)
Too uninspired to live yet too tied to the X-franchises to be permanently killed off, poor Cal was restored to hideously rendered life as an incomprehensible mass of muscles and dialogue balloons in the pages of X-Force…
…and has since followed the predictable circuit of deaths, returns, redemptions, and anti-depressants associated with the tangled sprawl of post-1986 X-continuity before he landed a gig with the “Dark” (insert sound of Andrew dry-heaving) X-Men and a teaching job at Xavier’s school.
The Mimic wasn’t a terrible character — at least in his initial high-concept context of combining all the original X-Men’s into one high concept vessel for villainous melodrama. There wasn’t much rationale for his existence, though, after that particular bolt was shot, picked up, and shot again. The unintentionally tragicomic in Hulk should’ve been the end of the road for poor Cal, as his subsequent cycle of appearances and half-hearted bids for relevance have only reinforced the shallowness of the premise while reinforcing the Mimic’s status as an ideal candidate for Nobody’s Favorite.