If you have watched TV or been to a movie theater this century, no doubt you are aware of the glut of superhero movies that appear like clockwork every summer. The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, X-Men, all of these teams based in the world of comics have had immense success at the box office. Marvel has had so much success, in fact, that their chief rival, DC, has tried to copy their model and create an equally engaging cinematic universe (tried, they have not been as critically successful). Marvel’s success has emboldened them to the point where they have made movies scheduled for release well into 2019.
But none of these superhero teams have ever spoken to me. The heroes in these movies live in New York. These heroes have elaborate bases of operation. They have high-tech vehicles that transport them to exotic locales around the planet to fight the forces of oppression. The superhero team that does speak to me shares none of these traits. I’d argue that my favorite team is the “realest” superhero team there is in the Marvel Universe: The Great Lakes Avengers.
If you’ve never heard of The Great Lakes Avengers (a.k.a. the Great Lakes Defenders, Great Lakes Initiative, Great Lakes X-Men, Lightning Rods, etc.) you’re not alone. First appearing in 1989’s West Coast Avengers #46 and having mostly scattered appearances in various Marvel books since, The Great Lakes Avengers were initially composed of these heroes:
- Immortal (cannot die)
- Flatman (extremely malleable body that can stretch in 2D)
- Big Bertha (can increase mass and size at will)
- Doorman (can create openings through solid objects by standing next to them)
- Dinah Soar (can fly, possesses sonic powers )
Throughout their years as a team, other obscure members have come and gone, including Leather Boy (pictured at the top) and Grasshopper, who died seconds after joining The Great Lakes Avengers when a thrown sai teleported through Doorman and struck Grasshopper in the head. Some of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe also have ties to The Great Lakes Avengers, including characters who have their own books, like Deadpool (Cable & Deadpool #30, Deadpool #10 and #11, Deadpool / GLI – Summer Fun Spectacular #1) and Squirrel Girl (G.L.A. #2-4, Great Lakes Avengers Special #1, and Deadpool / GLI – Summer Fun Spectacular #1). So why, whenever Mr. Immortal commands, Great Lakes Avengers, Assemble!, does another hero always ask, “Who?”
I want to suggest that part of the reason that The Great Lakes Avengers get little respect from other heroes in the Marvel Universe is because they are tasked with protecting the least glamorous area of the country: The Midwest. With a headquarters located in a former box factory in Milwaukee (they’ve since been reassigned to Detroit with a new headquarters in another factory), there’s little “razzle dazzle” to be had. In Milwaukee, the team would travel to trouble spots in the Quin-Jetta, the team’s answer to The Avenger’s Quinjet. Unfortunately, the Quin-Jetta was destroyed, so upon recent reformation and relocation of the team, Flatman’s Winnebago, dubbed Flatmobile, became the team’s official vehicle.
Besides lacking the massive resources of well-known teams, The Great Lakes Avengers are largely a joke in the Marvel Universe because if you and I were superheroes, we would most likely be one of them. [OK, stick with me here for a moment.] Assuming you lived in the Marvel Universe where there was a sizeable mutant population and given the real complexities of genetics, it just makes sense (don’t scoff!) that not everyone who is a mutant would be able to read minds, have the power to fly, turn invisible, etcetera. There would be a random distribution of powers, some of which would seem “useless” at first glance. That’s part of why The Great Lakes Avengers are seen as less-than-heroes or losers. They try to do good with what they have (not much), which is what people in the real world like you and me try to do. But really, would possessing the powers of a Great Lakes Avenger be that lame?
Recently, perhaps because of the success of Deadpool and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (as editor Tom Brevoort suggests), comics loaded with humor have found their way back into the Marvel mainstream. The Great Lakes Avengers have miraculously been added to this thread; their first ongoing series began in October of last year. A team with one mini-series, scattered appearances throughout other titles, and whose most popular member moved onto her own book doesn’t seem the likeliest to be revived. Zac Gorman, an admitted lover of “C-list characters” who’s writing The Great Lakes Avengers, explains to Dan Casey of Nerdist the obstacles that will face The Great Lakes Avengers in their new series:
I think taking some of those real-world issues that seem like they’d be way too grounded for the Great Lakes Avengers — and they are — like gentrification and underfunded city services, and pairing them with the absurdity of a team like Great Lakes Avengers generates a lot of comedy of the book. […] There’s a lot of Detroit in it, in a way that I think is a relatively accurate depiction of the city. And not just in the RoboCop 1987 version of Detroit.
Tackling important issues isn’t anything new for The Great Lakes Avengers though. Initially (it’s unclear in the new series if this is still the case), to reassume her civilian form in which she’s supermodel Ashley Crawford, Big Bertha has to vomit. In the new Great Lakes Avengers series though, Ashley has legally changed her name to “Bertha” and has restarted her career as a plus-size model. When the partially reassembled team arrives at their new headquarters to find a locked gate, Doorman offers assistance in getting the team in. He’s about to ask Bertha to shrink so she can pass through when she reminds him that it’s 2016. Four issues in and Great Lakes Avengers have touched on some equally important topics, including Flatman’s origin story involving an emotionally abusive relationship, Good Boy, a new team member whose family has been displaced and injured because of a corrupt city councilman, and Mr. Immortal who pays someone to bury him in a coffin so he can get sober.
None of these stories match the scale of what superhero teams face in the movies, but that’s not what The Great Lakes Avengers are about. Given the reality that was thrust upon people in the United States (and the world) on January 20 and the enormous participation in the Women’s March the next day, it’s clear that you don’t need fantastic powers to be a superhero. Many superhero comics emphasize the idea that having a good heart and fighting the good fight is enough…if one also has amazing powers, limitless funds, etc. The Great Lakes Avengers defy these requirements and in so doing are endearing metaphors for us, doing the best they can with what they have. As cheesy as it sounds in today’s world, The Great Lakes Avengers prove that having heart goes a long way, even if you have to keep reminding people of it.
Deadpool / GLI Summer Fun Spectacular #1
G.L.A.: Misassembled (Four issue miniseries)
Great Lakes Avengers (2016 – Present)
Great Lakes Avengers Special #1