Spider-Man has been a huge success for Marvel Comics. A regular teenage guy who was suddenly imbued with superpowers and then forced to fight the forces of evil while maintaining a normal life…what’s not to relate for the teenage reader Marvel was hoping to attract? As such, every so often, Marvel tries the basic formula again. In the 70s, that was Nova. In the 90s, it was Darkhawk. Arguably, the current incarnation of this second attempt to hit it big is the latest Ms. Marvel, so the formula could work just as well for a teenage girl.
And in the 80s, there was Speedball. Heck, Steve Ditko drew him first, too.
What was Speedball’s deal? Well, teenage Robbie Baldwin was exposed to weird, extra-dimensional energies in his hometown of Springdale, Connecticut. These energies enveloped him and turned him into a guy who, for all practical purposes, couldn’t get hurt. Instead, he bounced when stuff hit him. Or stuff bounced off him. His body generated this energy field that causes multi-colored bubbles to pop out whenever he was hit by anything, and off he’d go, bouncing long distances and enjoying the life of a crimefighter. His cat, Neils, also got hit and Robbie took to calling him “Hairball” and using him as a sidekick. His father was the local DA and wanted the masked menace brought in until he found out, years later, the masked menace was his son. His mother, to further the Spider-Man connection, was for a period of time a co-star on the same soap opera as Mary-Jane Watson.
The thing is, Speedball wasn’t exactly a popular character as near as I can make out. Let’s face it: his powers are kind of silly at best.
I used to get back issues of some of Marvel’s humor stuff. Speedball was always referred to as the guy who killed a book’s sales.
But eventually, they found a place for the guy. Speedball was a founding member of the New Warriors, a superteam that, when it first appeared, was basically made up of all the forgotten teen heroes in the Marvel stable, including Nova, one of the earlier attempts to replicate Spider-Man’s success. Heck, a later one in the form of Darkhawk would pop up and help the team out on occasion too.
Once there, Robbie would make a new best friend in the form of former Avenger (and Misplaced Hero) Rage, become a much more serious hero, and even eventually give Squirrel Girl her first kiss.
But then the New Warriors basically stopped being a regular comic, and when Speedball appeared anywhere, he was treated like a pathetic joke. I mean, this guy nearly got into the Avengers once.
Maybe one of the low points was when he appeared in Brian Michael Bendis’ mature readers’ Alias, the book where Jessica Jones got to swear heavily and the words weren’t blurred out. Jessica was on a case with Spider-Woman Jessica Drew involving Mutant Growth Hormone and came across the dealers’ address. Going to confront them, she found Speedball had beaten her there, but the crooks weren’t taking him seriously, so when the bubbles started going off, it just looked silly and no one took the poor guy seriously.
That’s just embarrassing. Part of Speedball’s growth on the New Warrior’s team was learning to have really good control of those powers and what they could do. He wasn’t the clumsy screw-up and clown he’d always been up to that point. But it seems no one got that memo. And it turned out forgetting that about Speedball was contagious because soon the New Warriors relaunched as a mini-series where most of the original team reformed to appear on a reality show.
Look, I can accept Speedball might do a stunt like that, but not galactic hero Nova, Atlantean royalty Namorita, or proud multi-millionaire Night Thrasher. That just doesn’t make sense.
That incarnation, by the way, was the one that screwed everything up and caused Marvel’s first comic book Civil War, where the only way I can accept that story could work is if everyone involved in it that wasn’t Ben Grimm was brain damaged. The movie was awesome, though. Really awesome. I should watch it again…
But what happened to Speedball? Well, an exploding supervillain named Nitro blew himself up near a school and killed a lot of people including most of the present New Warriors. Due to the nature of Speedball’s powers, he just bounced away severely injured. As the lone survivor, he got blamed for everything.
Well, technically, Nitro also survived. You know, the guy who did it? Regular people in Marvel Comics are so freakin’ stupid…
With his powers malfunctioning, Speedball was soon so depressed by, oh, everything, he got a new look and name. Now he was Penance.
Now his powers worked differently. He could channel anything that caused him pain into energy blasts. Fighting made him stronger. Still hard to hurt, he had some really bad mental trauma to work through, but I did get to read a bit more in a mini-series dedicated to explaining a few things while Penance managed to deal with Wolverine and Dr. Doom. See, it turned out the Penance look that longtime New Warriors and Speedball fans (rightfully) hated was always meant to be temporary. The suit had a spike in it for every person who died due to Nitro, and as Robbie felt he worked off the “penance” of his actions, he’d take out a spike. His first act that he felt merited a spike removal was tracking down Nitro and putting him in the suit. I guess Robbie had a back-up? And as a member of Norman Osborn’s Thunderbolts, Robbie got the chance to work off some of his perceived guilt for something someone else totally did!
Eventually, Robbie went back to being Speedball. I mean, if working with Norman Osborn’s team of anything isn’t good for anything, I don’t know what is. Well, maybe working with any other superhero team. The handful of legitimate good guys that ended up working with Norman Osborn-led teams often came to bad ends.
Last seen forming yet another New Warriors team with another original member, Justice, Robbie was more or less the same old Speedball. That series didn’t run very long, but there was an intriguing scene when new New Warrior Hummingbird looked inside Robbie’s head and saw he still pictured himself as Penance. What could that mean? Well, nothing, because the series was canceled before that could be worked on, though it led to a wonderful bit of comedy when Hummingbird, a young teenage girl, told another teammate she had a crush on Robbie since he was so dark and angsty.
Said teammate didn’t believe it either.