Posted by Ron Edwards
It’s 1966, in The Amazing Spider-Man #33, co-plotted by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, drawn by Ditko. it’s the third of a three-issue story called “If This Be My Destiny …!” which is so iconic as to have its own detailed Wikipedia page. Aunt May lies helpless in the hospital; the doctors are baffled by an unknown factor in her blood, which Peter knows had been received from him in an earlier blood transfusion. He enlists a biologist he can trust, Curtis Connors, to concoct a serum which will permit her to be treated successfully, and to do that, Connors needs a radioactive thingie.
Now Peter’s trapped under a water tank “the size of a locomotive.” The radioactive thingie-stuff is on the floor, a yard away. Including the final page of #32, no less than six pages of incredible art detail the stages of his struggle to win free. You can find it summarized, blogged, or otherwise referred to all over the internet; it’s one of the most, possibly the most striking physical scene in all of superhero comics. It isn’t only a question of how strong he is, but of whether his fatigue will overwhelm his strength.
I am 5’8″ (1.73 meters) and between 190 lbs (in shape, mostly muscle) and 215 (out of it, mostly not). FYI, at the time of this writing, I’m out of shape due to serious breathing and sleep problems that began in my mid-40s. With those partly corrected, I’m beginning to seek shape again. It’ll be a hard road, because from age 29 through 44, I was in insane good condition … and for the latter half of that period, willing and able to fight anyone, and respected enough to work out in a wide variety of martial arts studios as a guest. I don’t feel comfortable writing about this while still in lamentable condition, but here goes. Plenty of people were able to nail me, and I paid for every advance with pain, but I must say, in that latter half, only professional fighters and real street-survivors were my match. I know exactly what I’m talking about when I say, you win a fight because you’re mean enough, especially in a dispassionate way which resembles psychosis, but you survive a fight at all because your wind and heart are sound enough. And you can’t win unless you survive. And the key is that although everyone has his or her true physiological limits, one must learn to work (and fight) outside one’s own signaled, perceived limits, which are narrower.
Fatigue was remarkably present as a key factor in Spider-Man fights of the 1960s. Again and again, Peter would win or survive a fight by rope-a-dope, and if someone got the drop on him and kept the pressure on, saying, “You can’t keep this up forever,” he would think, “That’s true,” and seek for a reversal or an escape. He got his butt kicked more than once, and not just due to some OMG New Power ™, but usually because he was stressed or tired or both.
Back to #33, that issue was a true story climax for Peter Parker. Never mind beating up crooks. It was the point when he distinguished between those signaled limits, where you just know you can’t go on, and his true limits, where one dangerously matches the genuine frame and energy of the body against reality. That latter match isn’t a joke: even success can be injurious and failure means crippling injury or death. The responsible fighting teacher does not force people there routinely – I knew one who did and literally killed a woman in his class, who had a heart attack during one of his gung-ho drill sessions. Those signaled/perceived limits are there for a reason. But Peter realizes, in a step-by-step, agonizing panel-by-panel process, that he is willing to go there this time.
What follows is my impression based on the comics I read, not on a scholarly survey.
Somehow, by the mid-1970s, it seems to me that hardly any of that routine fight-fatigue was left in the comics. The fights still honored getting stunned from a hard hit and needing a moment to recover, but no one got plain old tired any more, except for female heroes whose powers kept hitting ceilings of use, like the Scarlet Witch, and/or as a prelude to being beaten. It was certainly not taken as a given that any fight situation instantly fatigues everyone involved, and that it proceeds remorselessly. The only male hero who routinely suffered from energy failure was Iron Man, due to his heart condition, and even that got explicitly written out by the end of the decade. Wait – I remember too the same thing for Spider-Man, when Gerry Conway gave him an ulcer. So special medical situations, sure, but again, I’m talking about ordinary fatigue due to sustained physical effort, for anyone, simply because fighting is tiring.
In the 1980s, some hero might get tired all of a sudden, with the classic sweat-beading, but it was weirdly arbitrary, an excuse for him or her to lose this time, and would fail to be a factor in some other fight the hero was supposed to win. Or there’d be some awesome powers-use which automatically wiped the hero out, like the Torch’s Nova Blast or the disturbing power-orgasm + faint of many female heroes. Or, in Miller’s titles and a host which imitated him, a hero would be brought down by age or injury but always break free or fight on to win through Sheer Will ™, in a process which looked more suspiciously canned with each repetition. … or was nightmarishly good, because Miller’s funny that way.
Why this whole thing about default superhero fatigue changed, if indeed it did and isn’t merely my biased reading, I have no idea. I don’t have enough ready data to investigate well, because I haven’t combed the stories to figure out exactly when or with which authors. It’s odd – nothing about Stan Lee suggests he had personal knowledge of fighting, but I tentatively think that no one else quite brought that particular focus to their super-fights as well as he. I don’t think it could have been just Ditko because of the precise verbiage about the issue throughout the sequences; whichever creator initiated it, both had to have been involved. As written by Lee, both Cyclops and the Human Torch generally had to keep on eye on their gas tanks too, if I recall correctly. My image-based knowledge and memory of Lee-Kirby isn’t detailed enough to say anything about it.
Which brings me to Champions the role-playing game, first published in 1981, and examining a crucial rules change for its 1989 fourth edition, written by a different set of authors.
In the earlier editions (1-3), the rule is that for every 5 points of strength or power used, you lose 1 point of Endurance. Granted, that value starts pretty high – typically 40 or more – but consider that one is typically slamming away with 50 or 60 point powers, or as a strength-based fighter, an equivalent amount. Just hammering away like that can drain you, and at 0 Endurance, further effort comes off your more crucial reserves and can knock you right out. There’s a periodic recovery during fights, and one can use actions to do it too, based on a value called Recovery, sensibly enough. In a relatively standard Champions fight of the early days, heroes had to strategize their heaviest hits against their energy reserves, ducking to recover every so often.
Sadly, one of the key skills of the Champions player was borking the rules to get around this very thing, and although the character creation system tried to make it expensive, still, there were ways to become an Energy Bunny. I typically limited or disallowed them over cries of player rage, saying hey, I want you on your knees during a fight unless you are smart or lucky, and I want you to be paying attention to one another’s current energy status and changing the way you fight accordingly. If you put your power on limited-use charges (which cost 0 Endurance), you can only have so many, never mind your stupid “points,” because I expect to see charges used up. We’re not here to grind away at huge reserves – in a game like Champions which, like Tunnels & Trolls, uses huge handfuls of dice for damage, the rolled values are quite predictable and conducting fights by exchanging standard hits is extremely boring in both process and outcome.
The authors of the 4th edition apparently saw things differently, and one of the most significant changes was to drop the basic Endurance formula from 1:5 to 1:10. So a 50 point blast in 3rd edition cost you 10 Endurance, but in 4th edition, only 5. In other words, one didn’t even need the rules-tricks to get through almost any violent encounter well above one’s energy limits, and as I recall, most groups I played in or knew about simply stopped tracking Endurance entirely, and characters’ differences in Recovery became meaningless.
I don’t know what happened with the Endurance rules in either 5th or 6th edition.
For my 1990-1992 game, I switched to using 4th edition Champions myself, for arguably the finest experience I achieved in gaming prior to the late 1990s. But when it came to endurance and recovery, I insisted on retaining the older rules.
For your consideration, here’s my thinking for both the comics and role-playing: human endurance humanizes characters, and superhuman endurance works great if it’s more of the same rather than simply canceling questions of endurance. If there’s an exception, meaning a “tireless” character, that should be outright terrifying, one of those creepy things which let you know that this character lacks humanity in whole or in part. The title character in the original Terminator (1984 film) was a zillion times scarier than any other – because he did fall down or go inert or get stopped by attacks … but always got back up. That let the audience know this guy isn’t human, not in the SF way that most aliens or good-guy androids aren’t human (that’s a matter of fictional ethnicity), but in a visceral way that renders the T-100 a thing, not a person at all. Late in the transition I’m talking about – if it happened – and if it did, was piecemeal and graded – every superhero apparently had become such a thing, for exactly the same reasons … and that’s supposed to be cool? To be what a superhero “is”?
A study in ambiguity: Thor vs. Hulk in Defenders #10, which I owned and loved.
Come on, guys. They sweat and are clearly exerting effort, not merely punching a button to apply SooperStrength Rays ™. Are we to interpret this as an implied ultimate failure of reserve or not? What on earth does “neither shows any sign of tiring” mean, when the art obviously shows they have physiological limits? Would they stay there unto the fall of the heavens and the heat death of the universe? Is it supposed to be cool that these characters’ strength is indeed “limitless” when it’s also cool that each one is the other’s limit? Sput! Fizz! Cognitive dissonance, summon thy geekery to have it both ways!
Thought-experiment: what if you read a story in which the Hulk is just as strong as expected, but he gets tired? After putting out a lot more effort than you or me, I get that, and just so you don’t cry real tears, let’s say he outlasts everyone else – but it happens, right there in the story, as a plot point, as an undeniable feature of the fictional events that affects what happens next. Take it further to characterize the title and the depiction of the character this way, so it’s not a special one-off. Add the implication that he starts burning “fuel” from the start of every fight or other exertions, like anyone else, albeit rarely hitting anything near its limits. Add ordinary indicators like sweat or changes in posture that do indicate potential or near-failure of his effort. Does this bother you? Seem off-canon? Frighten you? Weird you out? Make the Hulk “littler” to you?
‘Cause I think I’d like the Hulk a whole lot more that way.
Next: Second-best villainy
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on May 10, 2015, in Heroics, Supers role-playing and tagged Champions RPG, Daredevil, Defenders, endurance, fatigue, Frank Miller, Hulk, If This Be My Destiny, Spider-Man, Steve Ditko, Terminator 1984 film, Thor. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.