Tuesday, September 27, 2011

There is no Such Thing as a Useless Superpower! ^_^

Back in the 1990s Ookla the Mok made a splash with an interesting song about Aquaman based on their opinion that he was the most useless JLA member of all (Which unfairly ignored the existence of Snapper Carr, say I!). It was a good song and pretty amusing but is it necessarily true? Before answering that it may be useful to take a moment to remember the powers that Aquaman actually had:

1. He could breathe underwater and could with stand oceanic pressures to the point that he could take a stroll at the bottom of the Mariana Trench without hassle. In other words, he had the ability to go places Wonder Woman could not, that Flash couldn't, that few other members of the JLA could even think of. Places that represent 3/4s of the Earth.

Yeah, Superman, Green Lantern and J'onn Jonzz could try that too, but in Green Lantern's case he'd better hope he'd remembered to charge his ring recently before he tried it. The fact that only the heaviest hitters could hope to keep up with Aquaman in that place should be a hint right there that his powers weren't all that negligible.

This matters because if you need someone to take you to the sunken island of R'lyeh to stop a certain Great Old Underwater One then you'd better be grateful that somebody like Aquaman was a part of your expedition. And when it comes to fundraising? All the sunken treasures of the world were Aquaman's to retrieve when he wanted to, weren't they? In theory he could just take a year off, find a few treasure wrecks where the Spanish Treasure Fleets had been and pull up, at his leisure, pounds and pounds and pounds of gold that it would take other people millions of dollars to retrieve even should they find it. That's not a power *I* would turn down! ^-^

This leads us to another reason why he was not at all useless as a superhero...

2. You don't have the ability to survive ocean pressures at depths without a little bit of toughness on the side. As a result there is a certain amount of sense to DC's assigning the Silver Age Aquaman a greater degree of strength, toughness and sgility beyond the norm. In terms of the Champions RPG I would probably say he was a match for 4 or 6 regular agents and easily able to defeat 2 to 3 elite agents. The might not sound like much but when you're trying to punch through to the boss villain whose agents are trying to impede you it's generally good to have somebody on your tram who can play rearguard for you and come back alive and who also can be relied upon to tie up a few of the munchies so that your big sluggers don't have to. So when you stop and think about it he really wasn't all that useless on land.

But even this was secondary compared to one of his most potent powers...

3. If Aquaman ever were to accompany an expedition to the island of R'lyeh he could guarantee himself and his buddies as friendly a reception as they wanted. This is because he had the ability to communicate and command the creatures of the sea. Not just fish, but whales, seabirds such as gulls and ospreys, and plant life such a plankton as well. In addition he could use it to communicate with sophonts who didn't speak his language but who also lived underwater. In other words he was a classic xenotelepath - That is to say he was a telepath whose powers worked only outside his species as opposed to regular telepaths whose powers only worked within their species (Although it should be noted here that most fictional xenopaths that I recall, such as Telzey Amberdon, also had regular telepathy at their command as well even if their author would then go on to suggest that this was not
the norm). I'd consider xenotelepathy fairly potent even when you consider only the noncombat applications.

So let us note that we have established that Aquaman's powers weren't useless. Is there anywhere else we can go in our quest for superpowers? Well, there's always the ones whom the Legion of Superheroes considered useless...

The Legion of Substitute Heroes! ^_^

Why not? After all, this particular team was formed from their determination to demonstrate their powers were *not* useless. So there's really no reason why we shouldn't include them in any essay on the question of whether or not there are useless superpowers, is there? n_n

So let's consider them in this order;

1. Night Girl - Had superstrength in the absence of *direct* sunlight. The powers themselves are undeniably useful and the limitation upon them is barely a limit.

2. Polar Boy - The story involving his rejection makes it clear that it was hardly his *powers* that were useless but seemingly Polar Boy himself. Granting that auditions may be regarded as a stressful situation, the fact is that combat situations are even more stressful. So someone who sprays the field with his area effect attack when under stress is not necessarily someone you want along with you in those situations. Friendly fire is *not* a joke! ^_^;

I sure wouldn't want anybody too prone to that sort of thing along with me on any expedition either. Would you? That sort of thing happens enough in combat without courting it. So when the Legion told Polar Boy that his power was too dangerous to be useful they were being kind and tactful. But note that it was not the power that was useless. (Note also in fairness to Polar Boy that he did redeem himself both by his subsequent leadership of the Substitute Legion and more importantly by his subsequent conduct while on missions. Thus showing that there is really no such thing as a useless human being either, ne? n_n).

3. Fire Boy - Similar to Polar Boy in that his power was rejected as "too dangerous" rather than useless. Not *quite* the same thing when you think about it. In as much as there were no Legion of Substitute heroes stories where his powers did prove particularly dangerous to anyone but his foes it would seem that this was an expression of pyrophobia on the Legion's part instead of a legitimate worry. Not surprising when you consider there wasn't anything his power could do that a good flamethrower couldn't do as well. Perhaps the Legion was still gunshy from Polar Boy's audition? o_O

4. Chlorophyl Lad - Had the power to make plants grow real fast and real big right from the seed. In this case the fact that the Legion rejected him on the grounds that these powers couldn't help on the sort of missions they went on may have shown limited imagination of the part of the Legion audition directors rather than any problems with his power. Disastor relief and rescue was as much a job of the Silver Age Superheroes as crimefighting was and a power like his was something that could easily make a difference when combating the effects of famine. Rare healing plants would easily become "not so rare" around him as well. Overall, I would consider his power to be among the most useful of them all. I might like Brainiac 5's power of super-intelligence even more but this is definitely up there when it comes to being cool.

5. Stone Boy - He has the ability to turn into stone and also to go into suspended animation for 6 months without problem while in stone form. While I can see why the Legion would consider his power of marginal utility in combat situations given their preference for a combat style that emphasized mobility this is still a useful, albeit specialized, power.

6. Color Kid - Even more specialized. Has the power of changing color of objects & people. Given that the Kryptonite he transformed from green to blue in this manner was presumed to no longer be a threat to Superman or Supergirl we may assume that these changes were permanent ones. This does have useful implicatons. I'm willing to be more than one artist could think of applications for a power of this sort. While the combat utility of this power would require some imagination to utilize there may be a few illusion based or psyop based uses for this power as well.

So all in all, it would seem that the powers held by our Legion of Substitute Heroes wasn't that useless after all! ^_^

Now at this point perhaps we should take a step back and ask ourselves, "What do we mean by 'super', what do we mean by 'power', and what do we mean by 'useless'? Now as somebody who's played a bit of Champions my first instinct would be to say "A power is that which you pay points for and a disavantage or weakness is something that you *get* points for." but since I've had players who would try to get me to treat their disads as advanatages both in that game and in GURPS (("Stubborn" and "Bad Temper" mean that I'm immune to mind control attempts, right?") we clearly need to go a step further in defining these things. I suppose we could get all Socratic about this, but while I respect Socrates' *stated* maxim that common meanings to each word that's understood by everybody in the same is important in the search for Truth it just so happens that what I read of what Plato and Xenophon
wrote about Socrates rather than listening to what my high school teachers *said* about Socrates has sometimes left me with the impression that Socrates himself was pretty much a fast talk artist who used dirty tricks to browbeat people into agreeing with any old thing he wanted at the moment and that all his talk of "Truth", "common meaning" and so on was merely a smoke screen for that. I won't go as far as to say that he deserved to be made to drink hemlock (Though I will say that defense speeches that boil down to "Go ahead and do it, I double red dog dare you!" the way his speeches seemed to at times, both in Plato's account as well as Xenophon's, are not the sort of speeches I would select if I were serious about trying to get off the hook! ^_^;), but neither will I say that his death was necessarily the loss to philosophy that so many of his admirers deemed it.

Fortunately, a resort to the Socratic method in order to find a common meaning for those 3 words is completely unneccessary. We have a handy lowtech device that may be used in cases like this. It's called a dictionary. Thus does Noah Webster render Socrates technologically obsolete. ^-^

In turning to the "Scholastic Dictionary of American English (TX 327, copyright page lost) we find the following definitions:

1. super - 'prefix meaning "above", "going beyond", or "greater than others".
2. power - "2 ability to act or do(something)"
3. useless - "1 worthless; of no use:...2 producing no results; vain:..."

Thus a superpower would be an ability to do something that is greater than others and to be useless it would have to be of no use or producing no results in spite of this, which, as a moment's thought reveals, is a rather paradoxical requirement. The ability to wiggle one's ears is a power that might be considered useless (Although some of P.G. Wodehouse's heroes were reported to have used it to good effect in impressing girls at parties) but is hardly likely to be regarded by anyone as "super". Walking, reading and the ability to accurately do basic math inside one's head are all examples of extremely useful powers that we don't need to regard as super. But it would seem that using both these definitions and our previous examples would seem to mean that a power that is both useless and super would be almost impossible to find.

So where else can we go in our quest for a superpower that's truly useless? In Piers Anthony's Xanth series, Xanth is a land of magic-based mutants. They call their mutations magic powers instead of superpower in recognition of the fact that magic is what spawned their power but once you set the semantics aside it becomes evident that, as with Magic Girls, we merely talking about mutant superpowers rather than spellcasting here. Mr. Anthony's first book in the Xanth series, "A Spell for Chameleon" spells this out most explicitly. In that particular novel those who don't manifest such superpowers lose their citizenship and exiled from Xanth. One scene we can discuss here without going into any spoilers is when Humfrey is talking with Bink on page 136 about one person who was able to keep his citizenship without having to publicly demonstrate his superpower because his
power consisted of the ability to make his urine any color he wanted at will. I'd say that our search for a useless superpower stops here because it's hard to imagine anything with fewer applications than that. And yet, even this wasn't useless when you think about it because any superpower that allows you to keep your citizenship when you're in danger of losing it is a very useful superpower indeed.

So I tell thee once,...

I tell thee twice,....

I tell thee three times,...


Mood Music: 'You've Got to Have an Ace in the Hole' by Dennis Adkins, as sung by George Strait.


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