Top Five Depressed Superheroes
By Jonathan Lethem

1. Black Bolt. Black Bolt isn't allowed to speak, because his voice is so horribly destructive that it might demolish the world. His wings resemble accordians, the most harmless and charming of instruments (apart from the kazoo), mocking the cataclymsic potential of his speaking voice. He never learned sign language, and it can be infuriating waiting for him to scribble a note, or while he attempts to indicate his thoughts with a scowl or pout. In restaurants it takes Black Bolt hours to decide on the simplest order. Ostensibly many other superheroes look up to him for leadership, but if you really pay any attention to his band of followers you perceive immediately that they are all freaks, with lousy powers. His dog is ugly.

2. The Vision. The Vision has red skin, and a synthetic body which oscillates from ethereal to super-dense. Neither state, however, serves as a satisfying expression of the feelings inside him. The Vision is obsessed with his traumatic past: an evil android created him for dark purposes. This sort of hurt can be difficult to get over, and most other superheroes have always steered a respectful berth around The Vision. In 1973 The Vision quite unexpectedly got married, to another superhero, the Scarlet Witch. They were divorced in 1997. In her memoir, published last year, The Scarlet Witch revealed that a substitute android had been created to fulfill a majority of The Vision's requests for public appearances, and claimed that toward the end of the marriage she had found it difficult to tell the two apart. The Scarlet Witch is has recently been linked in British tabloids with Liam Gallagher of Oasis.

3. Deadman. Deadman's problem is worn on the sleeve of his name: he's dead. He handles it pretty gracefully, having been a circus acrobat in his former life. Deadman rarely bothers to dress as a civilian, since his secret identity is a corpse. His skin is red. It probably ought to be green, but The Spectre's skin in green. This is only one of several ways in which The Spectre appears to occupy turf which probably ought to have been Deadman's. In earlier days Deadman regarded himself as The Spectre's protege. However, The Spectre never proposed Deadman for membership in the Justice League of America. Deadman doesn't know how to raise the subject with the Spectre, so he never calls him anymore. Deadman has a nagging feeling that in his trenchcoat he resembles a flasher. At least, this much is true: he feels naked without it.

4. Ragman. Ragman was given his powers by the electrocution of five failed Jewish immigrants who had been sitting in in an alley complaining about their failed businesses - a knife sharpener, a pawnbroker, a hat blocker, a moyel, and a tenement owner who was ruined when the Village Voice listed him as one of the city's Top Ten Slumlords in 1976. All the strength of the five men flowed into the body of a homeless man picking through a garbage can nearby, who became Ragman. Ragman is the poverty superhero, unable to afford a costume other than a big pile of rags. He never fights villains who can afford costumes at all. Instead he rescues starving kittens and breaks up three-card monte games. Ragman keeps himself in White Castle hamburgers by buying cartons of cigarettes and selling singles for a nickel apiece. During the Giuliani mayoralty Ragman was discretely paid off to move to Baltimore, where he remains.

5. Omega The Unknown. Like Black Bolt, he never spoke. Energy beams came out of his hands, not always at his command. He might be considered Superman's depressed cousin, since he'd come from a destroyed planet. Unlike Superboy, Supergirl, or Superdog, Superman has never acknowledged Omega. Omega's priorities were very unclear, and so he had the power to depress others, as well as himself. Omega's comic book was so punishingly dull that Marvel began to put The Hulk and Spiderman on the cover, and once, in a measure of striking desperation, Scrooge McDuck made a guest appearance. After ten issues the title was cancelled anyway. After cancellation, Marvel was contacted by attorneys from Omega's home planet, which turned out not to be destroyed at all. This resulted in the first recall of the entire run of a published comic book in the industry's history. Until a successful appeal of the court's order in 1996, Marvel was still required to refund the full cover price of any issue of Omega The Unknown returned by a consumer, as well as the cost of return postage.

Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of the author. No part of this essay may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.