“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, 28 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. 29
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. 30 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, 31 he’s fought A-listers like Daredevil, Spider-Man, Captain America, and Thor, he’s died at least once, 32 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, 33 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. 34
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 35 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. 36 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, 37 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.