Stephen Sondheim once said that melodrama and farce are merely two sides of the same coin, and the Red Tornado proves his point.
Almost as soon as the grim, caped avengers appeared in comic books, their inherent absurdity was also parodied there.
“The Red Tornado is … a superheroine in the DC Comics universe, debuting during the Golden Age of Comic Books,” Wikipedia noted. “Created by Sheldon Mayer, she first appeared in her civilian identity as Abigail Mathilda ‘Ma’ Hunkel in All-American Publications’ All-American Comics 3 (June 1939), and became the Red Tornado in All-American Comics 20 (Nov. 1940). As the Red Tornado, she was one of the first superhero parodies, as well as one of the first female superheroes.”
Like the later DC superhero Wildcat, Hunkel was inspired to adopt her costumed identity by Green Lantern, her young son’s hero. Decked out in red long johns, with a cooking pot serving her as both helmet and mask, she used her considerable strength to mop up the urban criminal element.
She was almost a founding member of the Justice Society of America, but had to depart early when her pants split. Her secret identity was rarely in jeopardy, given the fact that the public believed the Red Tornado to be a man.
“(C)riminals found themselves up against a big, brawny, ‘no-nonsense’ superhero — the Red Tornado — no, not, as she frequently found it necessary to point out, ‘tomato,’” comics historian Don Markstein noted. “The Red Tornado wasn’t quite the first female superhero in comics — depending on how you define them, it’s possible she was beaten into print by as many as six (Fantomah, The Woman in Red, Invisible Scarlet O'Neil, Miss X, Lady Luck and the Black Widow, all of whom languish in obscurity). But she was certainly the first to masquerade as male — the other characters in the series all thought she was a man, and she didn’t correct them. She wasn’t, however, the first cross-dressing superhero — that honor, such as it is, goes to Madam Fatal. But she was the first to use red flannel long johns as a prominent costume element, thus paving the way for Supersnipe, Captain Klutz, The Fat Fury and many others who made that fashion statement.”
The Red Tornado was essentially Marie Dressler, a popular film and stage comedic actress of the early 1930s, improbably recast as a superhero.
Like other Golden Age heroes, the Red Tornado was revived in the Silver Age, revamped as an artificial being. At the same time, in another of those parallels between Marvel and DC, the House of Ideas introduced a revived 1940s superhero as a red-faced, caped android — the Vision.