Most superheroes have a sort of trigger that activated their powers; a unique item or bizarre event that bestowed amazing abilities to the character. Often in comics, the powers that are granted become a natural extension of the hero, like with Spider-Man or the Invisible Woman. But there are characters whose strength is tied to an object he/she wields, like Iron Man or Madame Mirage. Many video games also present characters who rely on magical items to achieve their goals. By just coming into contact with some floating power-up, these rather ordinary people turn into something larger-than-life. Using this logic, Mario might be one of the most popular superheroes the world has ever known.
Before you cry foul, saying that there is no way the chubby Nintendo mascot is an actual superhero, take a moment to think about the story of Mario. A mild-mannered plumber trying to make a living with his brother in New York, comes into contact with a seemingly normal leaf. Little did he know that this was a Super Leaf, which granted him powers beyond any mere mortal! Able to shatter stones with his mighty tail and take to the skies with a running leap, Raccoon Mario uses his newfound powers to fight against the evil forces of King Koopa and protect the Mushroom Kingdom. In that context, the origin of the Super Mario Brothers sounds like the byline of a dozen popular Marvel and DC comic books, or at the very least the start of a book from the Nintendo Comics System.
Released in 1991, Mario’s Special Powers is a trade paperback made up of previous stories from Valiant Comics. As the title would suggest, the tales within this graphic novel focus on the various powers Mario uses in his adventures through the Mushroom Kingdom. Most of the costumes Mario wears are lifted straight from the third entry in his games, featuring the Raccoon, Frog, and Tanooki Suit. There is a strange fourth outfit that the plucky plumber puts on, but we’ll get to that later.
As with most comics based around a hero’s powers, each one of the stories hinges on enhancing Mario’s abilities to accomplish some goal. In the first entry, “It’s Always Fair Weather,” Mario must use the power of flight granted to him by the Super Leaf to save a handful of Mushroom People in hot air balloons from a Koopa-made cyclone. The second story, “Love Flounders” has Mario being sent by Princess Toadstool to retrieve some chuckberries for her morning cereal (yes, really). The berries only grow in the deepest depths of World 3’s oceans, so Mario dons a Frog Suit to collect the fruit (while battling a lovesick Big Bertha at the same time). The third tale, “Tanooki Suits Me” features our hero in the titular outfit, attending an art gallery for the Mushroom Kingdom. After activating the suit’s secondary ability, Mario is turned into a statue and confused for part of the gallery by some thieving Mousers. When the statuesque hero is about to be sold by Koopa to his dastardly companion Wart, Mario turns back into his tanooki form. Mario tricks the lizards into fighting one another, affording him time to retrieve the stolen art and save the day.
The final story featured in this book falls far outside of the usual Mario canon. In “Bedtime for Drain-Head,” we find a messy-headed Mario lounging in his bed, bleary eyed from reading comic books for the last 72 hours straight (a new record, according to the plumber). Just as he begins to settle down for a not-so-well deserved rest, Luigi bursts in exclaiming that Toad has been kidnapped by King Koopa. Not one to take emergencies lying down, Mario proceeds to fall back asleep. Just as Luigi and Princess Toadstool are about to take drastic measures to wake Mario, they find him in a somnambulistic state. It seems Mario often sleepwalks and imagines himself as the comic book hero Dirk Drain-Head. Before the pair has time to subdue our hero, he is off to save Toad, who Mario now believes to be his teenage sidekick “Snakey.”
The rest of the story is rather bizarre, featuring Mario using a plunger to beat the crap out of any foe who stands in his way. As he smacks down Snifits and Shy Guys, Mario spouts the sort of stuffy monologues from the comic book heroes of old. After spending the day trying to retrieve Mario and coming back empty-handed, Luigi and the Princess are shocked to find Mario and Toad back safely at the Mushroom Palace with King Koopa serving as the royal butler! As Dirk Drain-Head, Mario has terrified the evil king into servitude to the Mushroom Kingdom. Just as all seems well, someone jostles Mario back to waking, thus revealing to Koopa that he was bested by a sleep-walker. Enraged, the loathsome lizard storms out (along with the rest of the cast), leaving a confused Mario alone in the throne room. As a final punch line, Mario makes no effort to investigate his whereabouts for the last 24 hours, opting instead to read a hidden Dirk Drain-Head comic book on the royal throne (cue dopey trombone sound).
In the past, I have discussed the idea that the characters from the Super Mario Brothers games are similar to a cast of actors; each of them taking on different roles depending on the story. In the case of Mario’s Special Powers, most of the characters keep their usual roles in the Mushroom Kingdom. Luigi is the helpful brother, Princess Toadstool is the kindly monarch, and King Koopa is the not-as-evil-as-he-seems antagonist. On the other hand, Mario fluctuates between two roles: his usual super-heroic self, armed with magical suits that grant him amazing powers, and a comedic sleep-walker who is a goofy parody of comic book heroes everywhere. Now just imagine if Mario had stuck with comic books long enough to have a gritty reboot- we would have a scruffy plumber anti-hero who uses hallucinogenic mushrooms to fight against mutant lizard people. Hmm, with the right artist that might not be so bad.
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