“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”
That quote is often attributed to the poet T.S. Eliot, and as with many memorable lines, it’s difficult to determine its true origins. Regardless of its roots, it’s a fitting line for Wilbur Day, or Stilt-Man as he’s more commonly known, both as a person whose very identity comes from another’s invention — that’s right! Stilt-Man stole his stilts! that is his actual origin! — and as someone who is constantly in over his own head in pursuit of higher heights.
In many ways, the character has seen a greater, more lasting apex than anyone could have expected. Created in Stan Lee and Wally Wood’s Daredevil #8 in 1965, 1 Stilt-Man has been a constant at Marvel over those 57 years, one in which he’s been everything from a formidable heavy to a joke. He’s the ultimate ‘your mileage may vary’ character from the publisher’s repertoire. I love Stilty simply because he’s the living embodiment of that quote. Stilt-Man is superhero comics’ answer to heat check artists from NBA history like Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson, an irrational confidence guy who thinks he’s undeniably on to something even when most of the time it isn’t working out. 2
More than that, it’s a legacy others looked at and thought, “You know what? That seems like a great idea.” That might be my favorite part of the whole Stilt-Man premise. It’s an undeniably terrible concept for villainy. As The Prowler once asked in Matt Fraction and Mike Deodato, Jr.’s Punisher War Journal #4 — an entire issue dedicated to the funeral of Day! — “Did you ever wonder, ‘Why stilts?’ Are there a lot of banks up on the 30th floor or something?” Its advantages are minimal, at best. There’s a reason he needed a vacuum cleaner to successfully rob people in his first appearance. 3 And yet, at least five others have adopted the mantle for a time, with three living that life for an extended period. That isn’t just foolhardy decision making; that’s hilarious.
Throughout Day’s existence, though, he’s inspired his fellow villains, 4 he’s fought A-listers like Daredevil, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Thor, he’s died at least once, 5 he’s become the leader of a community on another planet, and a whole lot more. The guy has had a heck of a run for a clown in a high-tech circus outfit.
But recently, I had a moment of realization about the character. I was talking with former Daredevil writer D.G. Chichester for a piece, and in our chat, he admitted the main reason he included Stilt-Man in one story was because he thought it’d be hilarious to see a villain on stilts slip on grease. As we chatted, I had a ‘Chazz Palmintieri in The Usual Suspects’-like flood of memories hit: Stilt-Man falls over a lot. More than that, I realized Chichester’s perspective is typical. Stilt-Man isn’t that well-respected amongst the writer’s peers, 6 at least from what I could recall. Do creators have Stilt-Man beef, I wondered? And does that manifest itself in the work? I needed to know.
And as often proves to be the case, what I could recall wasn’t good enough. I read all of Stilt-Man’s appearances, albeit exclusively of the Wilbur Day version, to ensure my memories aren’t fraudulent. This task was task made easier due to there only being 79 official appearances of the character, a shockingly low number, especially considering that some of them aren’t really comics. 7
The first thought I had as I was reading through each appearance was, “How did Douglas Wolk read all of Marvel’s comics and not lose his mind?” After that passed, the second I had was, “Do I really know my guy Stilty at all?” Today, we’ll all get to know Mr. Day a little bit better, as it’s time for a graphical breakdown of Stilt-Man’s life, as generated by my readings of each comic he appeared in.
We’ll start at the top, which, in reality, is the bottom. My path began with Chichester Keyser Söze-ing me into realizing that Stilt-Man falls a lot. But did that actually prove to be true? Is the Marvel universe really filled with the near-constant crashing of stilt-based villains?
The answer was surprising: it doesn’t happen that often! Yes, in 31% of his appearances, Stilt-Man does trip, slip, fall, get knocked over, or just end up on the ground somehow, often in ways that would kill a lesser mortal. There’s a wide variety of the forms these crashes take. One time Doc Ock’s Superior Spider-Man calculated the math it took to ensure Stilt-Man nearly falls to his doom from maximum height, only to stop inches away from the ground. He even was once electrocuted by Thor when the God of Thunder — and I am being serious when I say this — proves unable to defeat Stilty toe-to-toe. That’s on the high end of the “Stilt-Man seeming tough” spectrum. For the most part, though, he simply falls over because he’s getting demolished, or because the writer 8 thinks it’d be funny to see the dude with giant legs trip or get blown up. And you know what?
They’re right! It is funny!
There were a small selection of appearances in which Stilt-Man’s downfall is debatable or perhaps even advantageous, like in Champions #12 when he does fall, but then strategically uses his position to kick both Hercules and Goliath through a wall with his rather robust legs. 9 For the most part, though, Stilt-Man stays upright throughout most of his appearances. 64% is a much higher number than I expected. I’d love to tell you that this is largely because Stilt-Man is a better villain than some might believe. I really would.
I cannot, though.
The real reason my guy Stilty doesn’t fall as often as I expected is because a shocking amount of his appearances are just him in the background somewhere. If there’s an issue where a lot of villains are going to appear, 10 Stilt-Man is almost certain to be somewhere on a page behind the main action. There’s an entire issue from Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run, for example, in which the only part of the character that shows up during a fight are his legs. It’s just endless stomping as a harried Cap battles a sea of more consequential villains! If Stilt-Man isn’t falling, it’s typically because he’s being treated more as recognizable window dressing instead of a full out character. Tough times for Wilbur Day.
That said, some appearances make up for that. One of the best was John Byrne’s Sensational She-Hulk #4, an issue that is a mix of everything Stilt-Man represents, from his surprising competence to the tragic takedown that’s always around the corner. Here’s a quick look at several pages from the issue to give you a feel for what I’m talking about.
Throughout this fight, the highs and lows of Stilt-Man’s existence are perfectly showcased. She-Hulk takes him down with the greatest of ease, knocking the villain on his back without even realizing she was there. When he does, he gets revenge by using his legs to push her so far into the earth that her head rips through the subway. While this sounds like a win for Stilty, it’s quickly reversed when the legal secretary of New York’s District Attorney, Weezi Mason — a supporting character introduced that issue 11 — nearly wipes him out by getting a local chef to throw a “vat of lard” in his path, resulting in a whole mess of legs and his eventual defeat.
It’s an incredible sequence, and something that counts as a “fall” in terms of the data but is so much more than that. The character was a perfect one-issue addition to that title’s cast, as Byrne’s playfulness with the medium resulted in some incredible visuals and genuinely great jokes in the flow of the story — and not necessarily all at Stilt-Man’s expense!
I did want to break down a small subclass of the tripping and falling breakdown from before. There’s one unique “no” answers that doesn’t paint a complete picture.
It’s not a happy story.
This doesn’t happen often, but it happens enough that I wanted to highlight it. On multiple occasions, someone finds Stilt-Man and beats him up explicitly so they can wear his armor. Both appearances are incredible. One was in Daredevil #186, a Frank Miller written, Klaus Janson drawn issue in which Turk — the Kevin Bacon of street level Marvel — follows Day to his home after running into him at Melvin Potter’s costume design shop, where he beats up the villain so he can wear the suit…only to pretty much immediately lose in a fight to Daredevil. It did give us the iconic visual below, 12 though, and a greater appreciation of Turk’s adaptability and natural gifts at walking in stilts.
The other was in the incredibly recent Deadpool Infinity Comic, Invisible Touch. Day never appears, only mentioned as being left in a pool of his own blood 13 by Deadpool so the antihero can go to an auction for desirous materials from the Baxter Building in disguise. It might be the most face time any iteration of Stilt-Man has ever earned in a single comic. The unfortunate reality of it is, it isn’t actually Stilt-Man. It’s Deadpool in Stilt-Man’s armor.
It’s extremely disrespectful, while sort of being par for the course.
That’s because disrespect is baked into the character. This was another core tenet of this study: how much esteem has Stilt-Man gotten over the entirety of his existence? Is he the Rodney Dangerfield of supervillains — in that he gets no respect — or is he blessed with a mix of appropriate (at least in his mind) fear and concern amongst his peers and enemies? Here’s a chart breaking down the percentage of the character’s appearances in which he was (or wasn’t) respected.
I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no: I did not make a mistake on this chart. From my perspective, which admittedly is always seen through a prism of stilt-colored glasses, Stilt-Man is respected in roughly two thirds of his total appearances. That’s a staggering figure!
There were some tiebreakers that generally favored “respect” in the end. As I noted earlier, Stilt-Man had a fair number of appearances in which he’s glorified scenery, an extra for all intents and purposes. However, that spot could have gone to any number of other characters! Paste Pot Pete! The Trapster! Other adhesive-based villains! Instead, it went to Stilt-Man. I’m going to call that respect, even if it’s more akin to “this guy is easier to differentiate visually.”
By far the most respectful, and arguably the most successful, appearance of Stilt-Man’s entire existence came in Roger Stern and Bob Hall’s Amazing Spider-Man #237. In this issue, Stilty and Spider-Man square off. In the process of nearly getting himself killed by automated weapons in a factory, Stilt-Man defeats Spidey (by letting him get blasted by the same guns he almost was ended by). Furthermore, he’s given the opportunity to squash the spider for good, if he so desires.
But in a moment of deep contemplation — and pure ego, because Stilt-Man can’t do anything significant privately 14 — Day decides against it. He carries Spidey’s unconscious body out of the building, delivering him to the authorities, instructing them to tell the hero upon awakening that they are now “even.” And from there, he’s off, with beautiful narration from Stern that sent a single tear streaking down my cheek, perfectly encompassing the glory (and hilarity) of the character in two panels.
Respect to a king.
Unfortunately, one thing I learned during my research is that there’s a significant generational divide to how much Stilt-Man is appreciated. While the character was respected – arguably too much, to be honest – in his early days, there’s a line in the sand where that switch flips and esteem in the character evaporates.
While these numbers are unofficial estimations by yours truly, I’d say Stilt-Man earned a 12 on a 10-point scale of respect between his first appearance and 1990. He was once gunning for a position as the underworld’s #1 assassin! Thor admitted in issue #269 that Stilt-Man’s “rocket pods” would have killed him if he was a mere mortal, and that he was a “mighty foe!” The Falcon was “vindicated” by knocking over the character, per Captain America, in a comic that featured a cover where Stilt-Man enthusiastically claimed he was hired to murder the heroes! It’s actually pretty insane when you read it all. The guy showed up on the regular as a genuine foe.
In 1991, though, everything changed. Why 1991?
That’s when Deadpool was created.
While Stilt-Man was mostly a foil for Daredevil or Spider-Man over his first 25 years — and continues to have memorable appearances with the former in particular — many of his modern era performances have come in Deadpool titles. Given that Deadpool isn’t respectful to anyone and that Stilt-Man is a guy who tries to commit crimes while wearing stilts, it was a natural pairing, one borne of riffing on the latter’s stupidity. 15 It seemed as if Deadpool’s arrival was the moment when the jig was up. Everyone decided then and there that Stilt-Man was, in fact, a punchline. There was even a prose feature in 1993’s Marvel Year-in-Review #4 about Stilt-Man, amongst others, one that was simply titled, “Losers!” He even gets cooked in prose write-ups! 16
It’s tough times these days for the character. Like Wilbur Day himself once said in Amazing Spider-Man #237: No one takes the Stilt-Man seriously anymore!
That’s not universally true, though. Writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Marco Checchetto delivered arguably the scariest Stilt-Man ever in Daredevil (Volume 6) #18 through #20, a whirlwind performance of destruction and devastation in which the character is paired with heavies like Crossbones and Bullseye. Even that comes with a caveat, though. Zdarsky himself came on my podcast, and when asked about the character, he verbally assaulted Stilt-Man’s lack of “legs.” It was heartbreaking.
Thankfully, Christopher Cantwell offered Stilt-Fans like myself 17 a little balm for the wounds Zdarsky inflicted. Cantwell might be the only one who unequivocally respects Stilty, as his recent appearance in Iron Man (Volume 6) #10 and #11 reoriented Day not as a villain, but a leader of a lost people on another planet. The imagination it takes to believe a Stilt-Man can be more than a man, but a Stilt-Leader, is truly astonishing. I respect the hell out of his efforts. They may even surpass his work on Halt and Catch Fire.
Now, did it ultimately prove true that Day was still a villain, one who was creating his own people’s problems, resulting in him being carried off for a beating at best or his doom at worst?
But did Cantwell not also give us a fleeting instant in which we could dream of true heroism for Stilt-Man?
It was a beautiful moment, and one that contained all the multitudes of Marvel’s largest adult son. Thank god for writers like Cantwell, carrying on the legacy of believing in the glory of villains who are endlessly in over their heads, if only to find out how tall they are.
But most of all…thank god for Stilt-Man.
An issue fittingly released on April Fools’ Day.↩
He also throws grenades at people in that debut, which is super intense.↩
The Prowler admitted in that same Punisher War Journal issue that he only became a villain because of Stilt-Man, as he was enamored in Day’s schtick when he was nearly accidentally killed by the villain while working as a window washer on a skyscraper. That’s canon!↩
Don’t worry: he got better. Cloning was involved officially, I believe. That said, he might be dead again. That’s a TBD, as of the 11th issue of the most recent Iron Man run.↩
Perhaps understandably, as I did just describe him as a clown in the previous paragraph.↩
i.e. There’s a breakdown of his armor in a comic called Weapons Locker.↩
Particularly in the 1980s.↩
But also back in 1946, as that’s when she originally debuted.↩
Shouts to Janson for playing with depth in such a way. He makes a meal of Turk-Man being defeated.↩
Off panel, of course.↩
Or publicly, for that matter.↩
Honestly, one of the most respectful beats in the character’s modern history is his aforementioned funeral in Punisher War Journal #4, a story that ends with The Punisher drugging all the villains in The Bar with No Name and then blowing it up. That’s not great!↩
This is the nickname I’ve come up with for Stilt-Man fans. It was either that or ‘Day Baes’ and that was too much of a stretch.↩