...even when one encounters subcombative superheroes, their nature must be seen as a reaction against the audience's expectations of the "combative mode" one normally finds in anything that looks like a superhero story.My first example of a subcombative hero is an 1980s character who's been out of print since 1988, B.C. Boyer's THE MASKED MAN, last seen in the final issue of his own magazine. Though he's not well remembered today, he makes an instructive example of the sort of "reaction against the audience's expectations" I described.
Wikipedia states, "The character and series was very similar to Will Eisner's The Spirit character." This is true only in a superficial manner, though the lines of influence are clear. Even if one did not know that Boyer did a story in which the Masked Man encounters an aged version of his inspiration-- "Phantom Man," drawn substantially to look like Eisner's Spirit-- one need only look at the standard depiction of the Spirit, "costumed" only with the use of a face-mask and compare it with Boyer's hero.
Yet though both heroes go clad largely in street-clothes, the earlier hero alone conforms to the superhero idiom, being of a combative nature, while the later character is subcombative.
THE SPIRIT is instructive because the character's earliest exploits were clearly raucous adventure-tales, in which the hero bounded about battling crooks, spies, mad scientists, voodoo gangsters and a gorilla or two. Like the comic-book superheroes whose model Eisner initially followed, the Spirit was a skilled brawler who could take on a mass of thugs and win. He might be defeated at times, but the basic expectation was that he would triumph. Later versions of THE SPIRIT moved more toward the other three mythoi, and though Eisner never totally abandoned adventure-stories, many individual tales conformed better to drama, comedy, and even (rarely) irony. Just as an educated guess I would say that overall most of the first-run Spirit stories-- including assorted non-Eisner works-- would fall into the dramatic category, and thus the total work would be a "combative drama."
On the surface, Boyer's Masked Man appeared to be from the same mold: a non-powered fellow in shirt-sleeves who decided to fight crime while wearing a mask. Some of his magazine's covers make it look as if the Masked Man is just as formidable as the Spirit:
However, now that I've surveyed the Masked Man stories in my collection-- and I'm missing only a handful of the character's final 12-issue series-- I see no indications that Boyer portrays his hero as an exceptional fighter. He's big and brawny, and he wades into bank-robbers much the same way the Spirit did. But Boyer, attempting a more realistic take, rarely has the Masked Man do anything very impressive, even to the extent of kicking in a door.
Thus, even though both characters are constructed along parallel lines-- "ordinary" guys on the brawny side-- the Spirit is consistently portrayed as possessing exceptional dynamicity, while the Masked Man is at best a "good" fighter. The latter is a reaction against the trope of the ordinary guy who can fight like twenty demons, a scaling-down as it were.
I'll pass on making any comment about other ways in which Boyer failed to emulate Eisner, except to say that while the main focus on the SPIRIT feature was breezy adventure and/or melodrama, with occasional touches of pathos, MASKED MAN is like a cross between a film noir and a "True Confessions" love story, replete with many tedious scenes of characters confessing their true feelings about one another. If MASKED MAN wasn't such a good example of how a superhero-- and Boyer does call his character a superhero-- could fall outside the normative superhero idiom, I'd rather not have thought about the feature ever again.