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Simpsons Total Recall #3: Who is Radioactive Man?

Image: Frinkiac / 20th Century Studios

Welcome back to Simpsons Total Recall, in which I occasionally challenge myself to write up a classic episode of the series entirely from memory.

I say Radioactive Man! and you say either Jiminy Jillikers! or My eyes, the goggles do nothing!

If memory serves, there are two classic episodes which delve into the boys’ favourite comic book: Three Men and a Comic Book and the eponymous episode, about the benighted production of a live action movie. (It was the latter that I originally sat down to write about before I ended up turning out this more wide-ranging reflection that you’re now reading.) I’m sure there are scattered references to the character throughout the rest of the golden age, but they currently escape my recollection. As it happens, when I was a kid I read a couple of the real-life Radioactive Man comics published by Bongo, but let’s stick to the canon for now. What does the series let on about this irradiated superhero?

Well, much like Alan Moore’s Doctor Manhattan he’s the product of an atomic mishap, and the fellow’s immediate response to his misfortune is also one of the best gags ever made about superhero origins: From now on I shall be Radioactive Man! (He can’t have had much going on in his life.) What’s interesting to me, thinking back on Three Men and a Comic Book, is how the boys didn’t know this about their hero until they got their hands on a copy of Radioactive Man #1. Perhaps the imprint that own the character are less DC and more Marvel, and never reboot their properties. We know the movie is a big deal, and can guess that Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy haven’t graced the screen in any shape or form since the dread camp extravaganza of the seventies biffed, borked, and zonked its way onto televisions nationwide. And here we come to our theme of pop culture and millennial memory: the boys have no Radioactive Wikia to consult. For those unwilling to enter the Android’s Dungeon and haggle over back issues, this sort of knowledge is evanescent and precious.

Image: Frinkiac / 20th Century Studios

Remember when Bart and Milhouse claim to have read every single issue of the comic between them, including the one where Radioactive Man and Fallout Boy die on every page? Well congratulations, you’ve spotted a continuity error. Real genius at work. But theirs is no idle boast but rather an achievement which arrogates to them a sort of cultural authority. In those pre-Internet days there was no shortcut to becoming an expert on pop cultural matters. This was long before that time when I, for some strange reason, sat down to read up on everything there was to know about Babylon 5, from full character arcs to behind-the-scenes drama — and all before I’d watched a single episode. I’m probably too young by about half a generation to speak from first-hand experience here, but I’d venture to say that fandom was a much more harried undertaking in those days because there were no easily available primers. You had to put in the hours and you had to cultivate a network of fellow postulants and brothers superior. I’m sure there was more than a little of the dank and dark of medieval scholasticism about the whole business.

Image: Frinkiac / 20th Century Studios

Modern viewers who can fire up Google and read up on the contents of Action Comics 1 might miss the point of Bart, Milhouse, and Martin’s tussle over their hundred-dollar (!) copy of the first Radioactive Man comic. (Heck, if they’re anything like me they’ll miss the fact that Bart’s whole paranoid shtick is an homage to Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre.) The desire, expressed by Martin, to be the last one alive and thus buried with the artefact has nothing to do with the price. For Bart it’s not about the back-breaking, flesh-tearing labour he put himself through. For all three of them it’s about the promise of knowledge contained within the rare book. So sadly, they shall never know what evil it was that Radioactive Man vanquished during his first adventure. Too bad their youth didn’t coincide with the age of YouTube — but then again, where’s the fun in that?

Between the character’s first appearance in print and his Hollywood debut, I wonder if the black & white and colour series were the same production, Doctor Who-style. I also can’t help thinking: was the star of the latter — dead by the time the movie was in pre-production — the same guy whose ghost might haunt the bordello where his bullet-riddled body was found? Even if the beleaguered and bankrupted film production had made it over the finishing line, Radioactive Man fans’ wait for a definitive screen iteration was probably going to continue.

Image: Frinkiac / 20th Century Studios

Enticing as the prospect of seeing local celebrity Krusty being given the chance to flex his best Peter Sellers and play half a dozen antagonists, the movie was probably going to be bloated with villainy. There’s at least one other clown-themed character that Krusty was passed over for, plus some green aliens, plus some Mongolian-looking heavies — and all this on top of a Fallout Boy origin story! Spider-Man 3 looks lean and mean by comparison.

Radioactive Man — that is, the second episode of the seventh season — first aired on September 24, 1995. This wasn’t this most auspicious of seasons for fandom. Just that summer gone, a nippled Batman franchise hit the buffers under Joel Schumacher’s direction. The Superman films had not just petered out in dismal fashion; attempts over the next few years to resurrect the character would give us nothing but photoshopped images of Nicolas Cage as the man of tomorrow and, if Kevin Smith is to be believed, Wild Wild West. Sam Raimi’s (good) Spider-Man films were a few years off, as were Bryan Singer’s X-Men.

But those of us who were kids at the time were perfectly happy with our lot. With the exception of Supes, pretty much all of those characters were receiving sterling animated treatment on television.

Sure, all the business with Comic Book Guy and his network of fellow nerds is a fun bit on early Internet fandom, but the writers mainly treat the character and the film as a vehicle for a series of great but ultimately offhand gags. Such was the brilliance of early Simpsons that it could evoke superheroes and milk them for gags without overcommitting to the subculture.

Thinking back on Rainier Wolfcastle being swept away by a tide of acid and screaming “My eyes! The goggles do nothing!” or Milhouse being dragged away to film the “Jiminy Jillikers” scene again and again and again. You don’t need to know the first thing about Bob Kane or Jerry Siegel to laugh your ass off at these moments.

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Alexis Forss

Alexis Forss

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.