His powers were an amalgamation of every hero and villain you've ever loved. His costume called upon the legends of the Marvel Universe. And most importantly, he was based off a snack food.
He was Combo Man, and he seemed like a good idea at the time. In this piece, we'll take a look at this goofball promotional idea, and why it's OK that he's a thing that existed.
From head to toe, Combo Man's costume shamelessly brought together characters like Hulk, Cyclops, Iron Man, Magneto, Punisher, Captain America, Wolverine and the Human Torch (and yep, that meant only his knees were aflame). It's an oddly compelling, if not devastatingly simplistic, approach to design. Just look at that chest, a mix of the Punisher and Captain America emblems. It looks like an angry tooth. It wasn't just that he had a mixture of familiar superpowers; from Super-Skrull to Impossible Man, that's been done before. But this guy was literally a combination of mainstream characters divided into horizontal strips. And his name was Combo Man. Because he was a combination of stuff. Like the snack food.
Anyone who collected comics in the early 1990s saw this monstrosity of corporate promotion in Marvel ads. The '90s were a fun time for funnybooks, freewheeling in content and approach. It was like the '60s, but instead of pot, everyone was hooked on shoulder pads and huge guns. The earliest part of the decade saw new publishers and imprints, crossovers and major events. Starting with the Secret Wars of the '80s, toys and cartoons continuously grew in importance. And as the medium moved into the mid-'90s, it also grew in its corporate integration. And that's how we got Combo Man, a product of an era that didn't take itself too seriously.
He certainly wasn't the first hero of his kind, though, and the phenomenon wasn't even an invention of that decade. Campbell Kids (from the soup company) and NFL players have been appearing in comics for years. Other "promotional characters," as they're called, were created to raise awareness of a social issue or cause. Combo Man existed to bring awareness to Combos (and to my 10-year-old self, it worked).
The one issue carrying his name provided your average, superpowered backstory. Teenager Rick Wilder gets caught up in the wrong crowd, and he visits a teacher's second workplace, Danmark Laboratories, to steal a tough midterm key. He learns that his teacher built an incredible machine that grants powers, and AIM agents are trying to acquire it. Creating a distraction, Rick finds himself within the machine, which turns him into Combo Man after his comics spill out and he eats a Combo. This sequence of events grants him those new powers and appearance. Let that one marinate for a bit.
And his tenure as a character — several advertisements and Combo Man #1 — brings us to why I think the guy was OK. He was never supposed to go beyond that small slice of the '90s. No one thought he'd have legs and become the Superman of the future. His didn't evoke worries that this fusion of familiar faces would render all other heroes obsolete. He was simply there and gone, only to be mentioned again as a trivia question or as the subject of a retrospective blog post.
Comics have become serious — that's not necessarily a terrible thing, but it doesn't foster an environment in which Combo Man could live without open ridicule and Internet boycotts. I'm even a member of the cynical chorus at times, recently decrying a celebrity chef making his way into a Marvel book. So, good for Combo Man. He got in while he could, harmlessly promoting a snack that I probably would have purchased anyway.
And if my recent road trip is any indication, he's still doing his job.