Whether it’s the Batmobile, the Invisible Jet or the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty, everyone love’s a superhero car. But what exactly makes a superhero’s car cool? And even worse, what doesn’t? This week, we’ll be taking a look at a few of the high points, and most likely a lot more of the low points, in superhero transportation.
GOOD: The BATMOBILE, circa 1948
The classic Batmobile design for well over a decade or so, it automatically meets what I think is the first rule of a superhero’s car: it’s instantly recognizable. With the giant bat-head on the grille (which naturally doubled as a battering ram) and the enormous bat fin stretching from the roof down to the trunk, there was no mistaking this for anything but the Batmobile.
Plus, it looks like it’s got some juice under the hood. A big American muscle machine, the ’40s Batmobile seems like it’d be tearing up the asphalt all over Gotham. Then there’s the size: not only is there room enough for a mobile crime lab in the back seat, the trunk is roomy enough to hold not one, but two Whirly-Bats, Batman and Robin’s one-seat personal helicopters.
Even with the dozens of Batmobiles DC has wheeled out for the Caped Crusader over the past seven decades, this one is still top of the list.
BAD: The SUPERMOBILE
So you’re Superman, right? Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, tall buildings in a single bound, the whole nine yards. What’s the one thing you probably don’t need? A flying car.
Nevertheless, in 1978, Superman got exactly that, with the introduction of the Supermobile, in ACTION COMICS #481, in “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Supermobile!”, by writer Cary Bates and artist Curt Swan.
Devised to prevent Amazo from absorbing his powers, the Supermobile allowed Kal-El to simulate most his powers from the safety of his car, including flight and strength, particularly with the armlike waldoes in front, seen here giving Amazo a crack to the chin. The timing of the Supermobile’s introduction was admittedly a little suspicious, as not long after its premiere, the following advertisement from toy-car manufacturer Corgi was seen in all of DC’s comics:
I can’t condemn this move too much, as it was certainly effective: I had one of those Corgi Supermobiles myself.
The Supermobile appeared sporadically for the next couple of years, usually whenever Superman had to go somewhere and pick up some Kryptonite that was lying around. It even made an appearance or two on the SUPERFRIENDS cartoon, and was later streamlined and freshened for a new toy in Kenner’s excellent “Super Powers” action-figure series.
Thankfully, when Superman got rebooted with the rest of the DC Universe in 1985, the Supermobile went along with it. Rule of thumb, folks. If your car has giant hands, go back to the drawing board…
GOOD: The Avengers’ QUINJET
With a superhero team, you need transportation for your non-flying members, and the Avengers’ Quinjets provided an appealing real-world manner of getting the Avengers from place to place, rather than depending on the more “science-fictiony” teleportation booths that DC’s Justice League utilized.
With their trademark five jet engines in the rear, a futuristic, streamlined but still plausible fuselage design and the trademark “A” Avengers logo on the rudder, the gleaming silver Quinjets (built by Iron Man’s company, Stark International, and designed by the Wakanda Design Group headed up by the Black Panther) have served as the “troop carriers” for the Avengers for decades.
Usually able to carry a full Avengers team of seven, the Quinjets were also notable for carrying no on-board weaponry, as if to underline the Avengers’ role as peacekeepers. And besides, when you’ve got folks like Iron Man or Thor on board, having a couple of air-to-air rockets seems a little unnecessary…
BAD: The SPIDER-MOBILE
Say what you will about the Supermobile, but at least it served a function, with those giant metal mitts in front to scoop up Kryptonite. But if there’s anyone who needs a car maybe even less than Superman, it’s Spider-Man, best known for web-slinging through the concrete and steel canyons of Manhattan. Nonetheless, Spidey found himself driving the streets of New York in his brand-new Spider-Buggy thanks to the simplest of motivations: cold, hard cash. The marketing wizards at Corona Motors approach Spider-Man with an offer to pay him for an endorsement deal to be seen driving around in a Spider-Mobile. The only catch was, Spidey had to come up with the wheels himself.
With the help of his sometime-friend and all-the-time gearhead Johnny Storm, in the pages of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #130 they soon cobble together the new Spider-Buggy, complete with revolving web-cannons under the headlights and a unique camouflage feature that would allow Spidey to park on the street without passersby knowing Spider-Man was in the neighborhood (as if there’s street parking in New York – that’s harder to believe than the web-cannons…).
Spidey only used the car for about 10 issues (once he learned how to drive, that is — a native New Yorker, he’d never bothered to get his license), before Mysterio tricked him into driving it into the East River. The Spider-Mobile resurfaced one more time about a year and a half later, when Spidey’s old enemy the Tinkerer accepts a contract to kidnap Spider-Man, and elects to use the refurbished Spider-Mobile to carry it out, even adding to the car the ability to drive up walls.
In Spidey’s final battle with the Tinkerer, the Spider-Mobile is totaled, and Spidey dutifully returns the car’s wreckage to the automaker’s advertising geniuses. It’s commonly thought that the Spider-Mobile was created for strictly commercial purposes, so as to market a Spider-Mobile toy. The numbers don’t quite add up, though. The first Spider-Mobile appearance came in 1974, while the Mego Spider-Car toy (shown below) didn’t hit store shelves until 1976, the same year the Spider-Mobile was once and for all relegated to the junkheap in the comics.
Besides, the two don’t even remotely look alike. I’d like to think if it had all been a scheme of master merchandising synergy, it would have been executed a little better.
GOOD: The FANTASTICAR
I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak for this one, but personally, I love the old “flying bathtub” version of the Fantasticar, first seen way back in FANTASTIC FOUR #3.
There’s a real simplicity to it that I love. You’ve got your functionality covered, since three members of the team can’t fly. The design is so sparse and understated — just a white finish with the “4” emblem — that it lets the outlandish visuals of the team itself remain the focus. And the vehicle’s gimmick, that each member’s section can split off and fly independently, remains a classic.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t like the later versions as well. This version, as drawn by George Perez in FANTASTIC FOUR #170, has seemed to have the most longevity after the “flying bathtub.” Retaining the modular design of the original, this Fantasticar has sportier side cars and roomier cabins in the front and back for extra passengers, which makes sense, considering that by this point Reed and Sue had a son to pack around.
Consider this the “minivan” version of the Fantasticar. This version was not only featured in the FANTASTIC FOUR’s 1990s animated series, it made it into plastic form with this excellent action-figure version from Toy Biz, that naturally showcased the car’s, shall we say, divided nature.
REALLY BAD: The ARROWMOBILE
Oliver Queen had a serious case of Bat-envy in the ’40s and ’50s. Not only did he have his own boy sidekick and hang around in the ArrowCave, he also watched the skies for the Arrowsignal from the police, flew around in the Arrowplane, and drove around Star City in this monstrosity: the Arrowmobile.
A garishly bright yellow and vaguely arrow-shaped, the Arrowmobile is just plain hideous. Unlike the Batmobile, which even at its most outlandish retains a certain coolness factor, the Arrowmobile is just godawful ugly, looking more like a parade float than a high-powered sportscar. It’s no wonder Speedy wound up on the smack if he had to be seen by his friends in the passenger seat of this riverboat.
Thankfully, when Green Arrow was redesigned and rethought in the 1970s to make him a bit more relevant, all of the Bat-inspired accoutrements went out the window, the Arrowmobile among them. (There was a surprisingly charming story a few years back in the GREEN ARROW series (GREEN ARROW #33, to be exact) about Ollie Queen bidding on eBay to try and get his Arrowmobile back, mostly out of embarrassment.
GOOD: Hawkeye’s SKY-CYCLE
Created by Mark Grunewald for Hawkeye’s 1983 miniseries, Hawkeye’s sky-cycle passes the first vehicle test, functionality, with flying colors. As one of the Avengers’ few entirely human members, the sky-cycle allowed him to keep up with the team in situations where flight was a necessity.
Its ability to momentarily operate hands-free made perfect sense for use by an archer, as did the very idea of having Hawkeye soaring above the battlefield, continually giving him the high ground. The sky-cycle’s elongated driver’s seat made it possible to carry a single passenger if need be (the best superhero vehicles should always have room for a babe), while the styling is simple and a little retro, but still appealing.
It’s kind of like a flying Segway with a bench seat. The practical notion of Hawkeye’s sky-cycle was so logical that soon they became standard equipment at Hawkeye’s WEST COAST AVENGERS compound with everyone from Mockingbird to Tigra to Benjamin J. Grimm tooling around L.A. on one of these bad boys.
You’d think that when Toy Biz produced a Hawkeye action figure in their top-selling Marvel Legends line, they would have included the sky-cycle, right? (After all, the Reed Richards figure came with his section of the “flying bathtub”…) Not so much, unfortunately. Instead, Hawkeye came packed with the atomic steed that the Black Knight used to ride in the Roger Stern AVENGERS run, and which Hawk borrowed during his stint in THUNDERBOLTS. Still accurate, granted, but a slight disappointment nonetheless. (A shame, too, as I most likely would’ve bought a whole mess of Hawkeyes just to assemble a fleet of sky-cycles…) However, the sky-cycle finally made its first appearance in three dimensions in a series of HeroClix gaming miniatures from Wizkids, with this sweet Hawkeye piece:
LORDY, IT’S AWFUL: The MOON COPTER
So this Moon Knight guy — he’s supposed to be Marvel Comics’ answer to the Shadow, right? The dark, mysterious cloaked avenger type who gets information from the underworld through threats and intimidation? So naturally, since he’s trying to stay shrouded in mystery, he flies around New York in a giant crescent-moon-shaped helicopter.
I know Moon Knight has multiple personalities, but it’s a shame none of ’em had any common sense…