In Praise of M.O.D.O.K: Why Gleefully Goofy Beats Broodingly Brutal M.O.D.O.K. stands for "Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing" - no, seriously - and he's one example of the kind of unapologetically goofy four-color excess that makes superhero comics super.
NPR logo In Praise of M.O.D.O.K: Why Gleefully Goofy Beats Broodingly Brutal

In Praise of M.O.D.O.K: Why Gleefully Goofy Beats Broodingly Brutal

MODOK: His arm's too short to box with Cap. Which is why the monkeys. Marvel Comics hide caption

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Marvel Comics

Let us now praise famous Mental Organisms Designed Only for Killing. One of them, anyway.

...The one that - true fact - began life as a Mental Organism Designed Only for Computing. But then decided that life as a glorified slide-rule was no life at all, and opted for the more "Kneel, puny humans!" kind of rule.

...The one that is, essentially, a giant, mutated head. With teensy arms and legs. Who tootles around in a floating chair equipped with lasers and missiles and whatnot.

...The one that possesses the full complement of psionic abilities that, in comics at least, comes factory equipped with giant-headedness: your mind control, your mental blast, you force field, your I-can-calculate-the-probability-of-millions-of-outcomes-in-milliseconds-so-resistance-is-futile...thing.

Created in 1967 as a foil for Captain America, M.O.D.O.K. is not one of those supervillains that strikes terror into the hearts of heroes -- or readers, for that matter. In fact, unless some horrific nursery-rhyme-related trauma has left said reader a lifelong dumptyphobe, MODOK is not feared - he is loved.

a page from M.O.D.O.K.

He's experiencing a bit of a renaissance, actually - the guy's a mainstay of the Cartoon Network series Marvel Super Hero Squad, where he's voiced by Tom "SpongeBob" Kenny.

He's certainly come in for more than his share of internet love, of late. No, really.

The reason he endures and thrives in the hearts of a specific segment of the comics-reading public is simple, and it speaks to an aspect of comics that, since the rise of such Serious Superhero Fare as Watchmen and Dark Knight, has been shunted roughly aside.

M.O.D.O.K., like much of what is best and brightest about superhero comics, is GOOFY AS HELL.

And goofy? To some of us, at least? Is good.

Children, attend me: There once was a time when those who love superhero comics didn't feel a misguided, hilarious and ultimately doomed need to justify said love.

It was a carefree, Edenic time when writers could simply assert the transformational powers of cosmic rays or radioactive arachnids or white dwarf stars or lightning-spurred chemical baths. Before writers and readers began paying grim and bloody obeisance to the iron will of continuity and verisimilitude. Before long-established origins and power sets were subject to tortured and tortuous ret-cons and exhausting exegeses, all for the purpose of making them seem less childish and more ... wait for it ..."believable." No, seriously.

a page from M.O.D.O.K.

It's no coincidence that this Age of Whimsy, with its Matter-Eater Lads and its Bat-Mites and its Comet the Super-Horses and its Paste-Pot Petes and its Fin Fang Fooms and its... guy whose power is talking to fish came to its end just as the bulk of the comics-reading audience began to age into adulthood.

Sensing this demographic shift, superhero comics grew desperate to keep up with the maturing sensibilities of readers. This desperation took various well-intentioned forms, like the dogged pursuit of "relevance" (read: Green Lantern and Green Arrow tackle racism! And drug addiction! And death cults! BECAUSE DEATH CULTS ARE TOTALLY A THING TROUBLING THE YOUTH OF TODAY).

In the 80s, the dark, brooding hyperviolence of The Dark Knight Returns seeped into superhero titles; characters like Wolverine -- whose whole superheroic schtick, let's remember, is The Disemboweling of Others -- grew ascendant. In the 90s, this Poochie-fication of comics -- wherein many titles grew consistently and thoroughly EXTREEEEME -- reached its zenith.

Suddenly, the blithely nerdy discussion taking place among comics readers darkened in tone. Idle, unself-conscious chatter about flight rings and Ant-Man's helmet was replaced by endless Talmudic dissections of the relative bad-assery of violent characters like Wolverine or The Punisher or Deadpool or, most hilariously, Lobo (who was originally created to parody over-the-top, moronically violent comic book characters, only to be enthusiastically and unironically embraced by readers).

There remains, today, a breed of superhero-comics reader who eagerly embraces characters in the "bad-ass" mode, who prizes heroes given to gut, filet and/or gun down their foes because, in these fans' minds, it proves that the comics they so love aren't (shudder) Just Silly Kid Stuff.

This is adolescent overcompensation at its most wheedling and sad. "No seriously, you guys, The Punisher is AWESOME, because he totally KILLS people and doesn't even care! He's a TOTAL BAD-ASS. Right, guys? Guys?"

There are also comics readers -- we few, we happy few, we band of nerdlings -- who welcome any lingering remnant of the Age of Whimsy, howsoever it manifests.

If forced to choose between grinning-50s-sci-fi-Batman and 80s-one-note-dyspeptic-thug-Batman, we'll take the Bat-rocket, any day. (Happily, it Batman's case at least, we don't have to choose; current Bat-writer Grant Morrison skillfully folds the whimsical into his narrative mix and delights in riffing on some of the goofiest adventures of the Dark Knight's 71 years.)

Which brings me to the awesomeness that is extant in Fantastic Four in ... Ataque Del MODOK, a one-shot comic available today in comic shops. (As that title suggests, the book's written in English and Spanish.)

This comic, in which the Fantastic Four head to Puerto Rico for some downtime and quickly find themselves enmeshed in a sinister plot involving MONKEYS IN JUMPSUITS and a certain despotic, torsoless menace, had me at monkeys in jumpsuits. But it's got M.O.D.O.K., too, and bold, gorgeous art by Juan Doe.

It's written by Tom Beland, author of the indie-darling autobiographical series True Story Swear to God, which is one of those books people like me press into the hands of those who claim not to like comics.

Look, I'm only too happy to dance on the grave of "BIFF! POW! ZAP! COMICS AREN'T JUST FOR KIDS ANYMORE!" media stories. But it's the biffs and pows that make superhero books super, not the bodycounts, and every time I read a book in which some darkly troubled hero goes all grim around the edges, I find myself hankering for a super-intelligent ape to come along and zap the jerk out of his reverie.