The Shelf Is Half Full

An optimistic geek's blog on comic books, movies and professional wrestling.

Archive for the category “Supervillain Spotlight”

Supervillain Spotlight – The Joker

Gotham City is home to many of the greatest comic book villains ever created, meaning that Batman never has any shortage of bad guys to challenge him or compelling stories to be told about his adventures. But it’s telling that in a list of rogues that is considered by most comic books fans to be the best in the business, there is also one criminal mastermind that stands above them all. The pure antithesis of The Dark Knight has just celebrated his seventy-fifth anniversary this month, and it’s only fitting that the final Supervillain Spotlight of June 2015 is dedicated to The Clown Prince of Crime.

Golden Age

The Joker

Little is known about who The Red Hood was before he fell in a vat of toxic chemicals while confronting Batman at the ACE Chemical factory. Did the chemical bath turn a decent human being into a psychotic killer, or simply reveal the monster that was already there? It matters little: The Joker was permanently changed into a ghoulish figure with sickly green hair, ghastly white skin and blood red lips almost always fixed into a laughing grin. That image has been terrifying Gotham ever since, his obsession with Batman driving him to create chaos and murder wherever he goes. While the city’s greatest hero was a grim, dark symbol of vengeance, the greatest villain would be a brightly colored, smiling clown.

Created by Jim Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, The Joker debuted in June of 1940, as the primary villain of Batman #1, the then bi-monthly companion piece to Detective Comics, the title where Batman had made his debut a year earlier. Joker was based on a combination of the famous playing card jester and Conrad Veidt’s appearance in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. The Joker was a deranged serial killer with a knack for gallows humor, murdering civilians with his trademark “Joker Toxin”, a poison that left the victim’s face in the same horrible grin as the villain. Though he was intended to be killed off by the creative team in the first issue, the DC editing team saw dollar signs on the character and Joker would go on to become Batman’s arch nemesis.

Joker

The Man Who Laughs 

Despite his origins as a monstrous serial killer, The Joker managed to endure the massive shifts in the comic book world brought on by The Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority. Writers had already softened the character to make him more comical and less murderous as a way to make him accessible to their primary audience (young children). But the new standards of the CCA forced writers to make The Joker more of an irritating trickster archetype instead of the monster he had been. This wasn’t completely a bad thing; the Silver Age introduced much of the thematic gadgetry that allows Joker to put up a fight against Batman; electric joybuzzers, acid-spewing flowers and the like. Joker’s sense of humor also became less grim and Joker became as well known for his comedy as his penchant for murder.

Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adams combined the two elements in 1973, setting the tone for how Joker would be portrayed for the next four and a half decades. Joker was able to kill again and often did so in truly gruesome ways. His design was also changed to be more menacing rather than the comical, non-threatening makeover he was given in the sixties. But some of the more appealing aspects of the Silver Age remained intact; his humor and his insanely high-concept crimes. Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers once wrote a story called “The Laughing Fish”, where Joker poisoned all of the fish in Gotham so they carried his famous face… so that Joker could make money by getting a patent on the fish. It was utterly ridiculous yet completely entertaining and served as the basis for my single favorite episode of Batman: The Animated Series. This era also made it clear that Joker was obsessed with Batman, something that become expanded upon more in the 1980’s.

Killing Joke

The Harlequin of Hate

While I am loathe to admit that Frank Miller ever wrote anything good, it’s impossible to deny his impact on the genre in the 1980’s. His extremely popular story The Dark Knight Returns, set in a dystopic future where an aged Bruce Wayne dons the cape and cowl one more time to defend Gotham City does have a very important take on The Joker. When Batman retires, Joker stays in Arkham Asylum and never bothers to get out; there is no challenge anymore. This idea that Joker needs Batman to be who he is not only makes the character more interesting, but also opens up the idea to questions about whether Batman is responsible for creating the villains. After all, would Joker be as much of a menace to Gotham if Batman weren’t around for him to fixate his psychosis on?

The 1980’s also saw The Joker and Batman’s rivalry become a more personal one. Thanks to reader votes (and a bit of controversy), The Joker murdered Jason Todd, the second Robin, in the climactic chapter of A Death in the Family. He also shot Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and daughter of Police Commisioner James Gordon) in The Killing Joke, leaving her paralyzed before he removed her clothes and took pictures of her bleeding, naked body in order to torture Gordon and prove that one bad day could make the sanest man alive lose their mind. This story, often considered the definitive take on the character, shown both the horrible depravity of the character while also bringing up his more tragic side. These horrible crimes left a deep mark on Batman, who has to live with the fact that his refusal to kill The Joker has had terrible consequences.

Bomb

Joker in Other Media

Batman has been adapted into both animated and live-action television as well as film and video games, and unsurprisingly The Joker has followed him everywhere he’s gone. Actors like Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson have made their own marks on the character, though perhaps the most famous version was Heath Ledger’s incredibly dark take on the character in The Dark Knight, a role which earned Ledger a posthumous Oscar award for Best Supporting Actor and has cemented the Joker as one of the great villains of cinema. But many Batman fans consider to be the definitive version of the character to be from Batman: The Animated Series where he was voiced by Mark Hamill. Hamill’s ability to capture everything from the camp silliness to the murderous menace makes him perhaps the most complete interpretation of the character, and he proved that evil laughter can indeed be an art form.

This series also added a new layer to The Joker character by introducing the world to Harleen Quinzel, the perky female sidekick and love interest of The Joker, going by the name of Harley Quinn. This new dynamic of having a love interest for a murdering psychopath allowed the writers to toy with the idea that Joker has a softer side that most of us never see. But it also allowed for exploring abusive relationships; Joker is verbally, emotionally and physically abusive towards Harley, and yet she enables him out of a mad love for him, believing that he really loves her despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Whether it inspires the viewer to see Joker as a misunderstood madman or just a loathsome evil scumbag (guess which camp I fall into!), it certainly makes him a more interesting villain.

Ledger

The Clown Prince of Crime

In my unbiased opinion, Joker is the greatest pure villain in comic book history. To me, he is absolute evil incarnate, wrapping himself up in a colorful package that fools some people, while continuously showing that he is an unrepentant murderer. Chaos, anarchy and madness are all The Joker truly loves, and everything else is just there for his hatred and amusement. He doesn’t need superpowers or gadgets even a gun; his depravity and imagination are the most lethal tools in his arsenal. While some villains have layers that make them more sympathetic or even seem justified, The Joker is simply a madman who wants the world to burn. And I wouldn’t have him any other way.

Advertisements

Supervillain Spotlight – Captain Cold

When the subject of superheroes with great rogues galleries comes up among more casual fans of superheroes, there are usually two or three names that come up: Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Some of that has to do with popularity, but there is also some truth to the fact that iconic heroes like Iron Man and Green Arrow don’t have a great list of memorable, interesting villains. Even Superman and Thor only have about half dozen baddies that can be considered “really good”. My hope is that now, with the success of the TV series, “The Flash” will be one of those names that everyone brings up when talking about a hero with an awesome collection of villains. Today I’m going to be talking about my favorite Flash villain, and one of my favorite bad guys in any comic series.

Captain Cold

Captain Cold

Leonard Snart was little more than a common criminal before reading an article that theorized a cyclotron could possibly slow down The Flash, the supehero defender of Leonard’s hometown of Central City. Knowing that his chosen career path is going to put him at odds with the Scarlet Speedster, he creates a “cold gun” using the cyclotron, dons a blue parka and begins his career as Captain Cold. He becomes the most persistent adversary of The Flash, although the rivalry is not one based in hatred. Snart is not an insane killer; he’s a thief who wants to live life comfortably. He believes the world owes him a good living and if his skills make him a top notch thief, then he’s only doing his job. Cold doesn’t believe in killing civilians or police officers, and really wouldn’t even kill Flash. All he cares about is “The Score”.

Well, The Score and his teammates. Snart is the leader of a group of thieves who call themselves “The Rogues”. They don’t consider themselves to be super villains since they have no plans of world domination and aren’t homicidal lunatics. They share Cold’s ideals of stealing money, living comfortably and not hurting anyone unless they absolutely have to. The Rogues also share a common theme of being normal humans with impressive technological weapons: Heatwave’s flamethrowers, Weather Wizard’s wand that controls the weather, Mirror Master’s insane mirror technology. They are friends and co-workers, and in many ways, a family.

Rogues

Flash’s Perfect Nemesis

Barry Allen was introduced to the world in DC’s Showcase #4 and Leonard Snart debuted eight months and four issues later in Showcase #8 (June 1957). Created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino, Cold was really the perfect enemy for the Flash. Barry Allen was about speed and kinetic movement; ice is slow and generally immovable. Barry had the bright red and yellow costume, so Cold had the softer white and blue costume; they just look good fighting each other. But while Captain Cold was in many ways the polar opposite of Flash (sorry, I couldn’t resist), they share something important in common; they are softer, more kid friendly characters with a code of ethics. And that isn’t a bad thing; if anything, it helps gives Flash comics a unique identity in the comic book world.

Barry is one of the nicest superheroes around, as far away from a brooding anti-hero as one could get. Similarly, Snart is really just a regular guy who happens to like stealing stuff. He’s not a psychotic killer like you would read in a Batman comic. He’s not a power-obsessed megalomaniac that you would find in a Superman comic. He’s a street level criminal who doesn’t want to hurt anyone, battling a hero that is essentially a cop with super speed. They are perfectly suited to each other. So it really isn’t surprising that Captain Cold has managed to follow Flash wherever he goes, from the Superfriends cartoon to the 1990’s TV show to the CW’s take on the character.

Revenge of the Rogues

Modern Takes

I haven’t gotten around to watching The Flash yet, though I intend on buying it as soon as it released on Blu-Ray. Luckily, everything I have seen and read about Wentworth Millar’s portrayal of Captain Cold makes me happy. The glasses are there, the parka is there, the cold gun looks awesome, and Millar comes across as very charismatic in the clips I’ve seen. He’s obviously impressed enough people in charge because he’s going to be in Legends of Tomorrow as a reluctant good guy. It seems like the perfect mix of being faithful to the comics while still presenting a believable character that a more casual audience can appreciate.

My real introduction to Captain Cold was unsurprisingly in The New 52 relaunch, where Leonard was re imagined as meta-human. He essentially kept all of personality and backstory, but his cold gun was turned into ice powers that were more powerful than Cold had ever been. It was later revealed to be the result of experimentation that fused the powers of the Rogues’ weapons to their bodies, and I was happy with the change. Mostly because it helped differentiate Cold from Mr. Freeze, the Batman supervillain who also has a cold gun and who Snart often gets mistaken for. But I was also happy when Snart lost his powers and got his gun back; he was one of the main characters in Forever Evil, one of my favorite recent books, and is currently a member of the Justice League, which works better than I could have imagined.

Leonard Snart

Why Do I Like Captain Cold?

When it comes to villains, my favorites are ones that are either highly entertaining (The Joker, Doctor Doom) or the ones whose motives I can understand and may even be justified (Magneto, Sinestro). Captain Cold qualifies for both of those criteria, but there is also something unique about him that I connect with. He’s honestly just as easy to relate to as The Flash. I don’t relate to psychotic murderers, would-be conquerors, or mindless monsters. But Captain Cold is just a regular guy with some admirable traits and some major flaws. His belief that stealing is just another career option is certainly warped, but aside from that, he’s just a guy that believes in going to work, doing the best he can, and making his way through life without hurting anyone else. That’s not too far from how I live my life.

Snart is proof that you don’t have to be evil to be a villain. And that’s, if you’ll pardon the impression, very, very cool.

Supervillain Spotlight – Doctor Octopus

This week’s villainous feature takes a look at another Spider-Man villain, and definitely one of the greats. Another invention of Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Otto Octavius debuted in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #3 and has become one of the most famous and memorable villains that Webhead has faced. He’s been in comics, TV shows, video games, and was the villain in the best Spider-Man film to date. And other than The Lizard, he’s probably my favorite Spider-Man bad guy. And if you don’t know the name Otto Octavius by heart, you probably know him for his signature four-armed machine and the nickname inspired by it…

Doctor Octopus

Octopus

Otto Octavius was a shy but brilliant young man who grew up with an abusive father and a controlling mother. Often bullied in school for being a teacher’s pet, Otto was often berated by his father, a factory worker who encouraged him to use violence to fight back. Instead, Otto followed the advice of his mother and threw himself into academics, especially physical science. He became a respected nuclear physicist, working as a consultant and lecturer on the subject. In order to help him safely handle the often hazardous materials he worked with, he created four mechanical arms that he could control with his thoughts by having the computer of the device connect to his brain.

Though not the most sociable person, Otto actually found a kindred spirit in fellow researcher Mary Alice Anders, who he would have married if not for the disapproval of his mother. Eventually his mother would die from a heart attack, and with no one else in his life that really mattered, Octavius became both mean-spirited and reckless in his work. This led to a disaster that fused the tentacle-arm apparatus to his body, and Octavius embraced the nickname of “Doctor Octopus”, abandoning his life as a civil scientist to become a criminal mastermind.

Doc Ock

The Sinister and Superior Foe of Spider-Man

Though the short, overweight and near-sighted doctor would normally never be a match for Spider-Man, his tentacled arms give him range, strength and speed to match his superior intellect. Doc Ock beat the Web-Slinger in their first encounter, almost causing Peter Parker to give up the super-hero business. He has proven to be a worthy enemy on his own, but perhaps the most dangerous thing about Otto is that he has the intelligence to realize that working together, Spidey’s rogues have a much better chance of beating him then they do fighting him alone. He brought together Electro, The Sandman, Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter and the Vulture to form the Sinister Six, putting Spider-Man through a gauntlet that he barely survived.

Otto has also interfered in Peter’s life in other ways; he became the tenet to Peter’s aunt May Parker and even pursued a romance with her, albeit for ulterior motives. In recent years, Otto actually became a hero when he and Spider-Man switched bodies (comics are weird) and he became “The Superior” Spider-Man, initially wanting to fight for good but eventually giving into his villainous nature before Parker’s conscience was able to gain control of his body once again.

Molina

“I Will Not Die A Monster”

Doctor Octopus made his film debut in Sam Raimi’s 2004 sequel to the successful Spider-Man movie. Portrayed by Alfred Molina, this version of Doc Ock was a much more sympathetic one, possessing a kinder, gentler personality and shown to be a victim of the artificial intelligence of his tentacles. While it’s a different approach that the comics version, I think the Rami version deserves to be recognized as a good interpretation of the idea. The tentacles were absolutely brilliant CGI for the time, and were Raimi managed to give them a good deal of personality despite the fact they never actually speak. Otto being a man torn between trying to be the good person he was and the slave of the diabolic arms is a compelling story arc in my opinion.

And of course, the fight scenes between Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man raised the bar for action in super-hero films. To this day I still get a rush of adrenaline watching them battle on the side of a skyscraper or on a speeding train; the creativity on display is just excellent and one of many reasons that Spider-Man 2 is considered to be one of the best superhero films of all time.

Octavius

Peter Parker’s Dark Reflection

More than any other Spider-Man villain, Otto Octavius is the evil version of Peter Parker. Stan Lee was very good at creating character concepts, and Doc Ock is one of his best. Like Peter Parker, Otto is bullied and ostracized by those around him for his intelligence and for not being “cool”. They are both outcasts and scientists. They are orphans and unlucky in their love lives, and they get angry about it. For those unfamiliar with the comics, Peter does have a cruel and selfish streak in him, something that is arguably only countered when his uncle dies and he realizes that great responsibility comes with great power.

Doctor Octopus is an example of what Peter could become if he allows the anger and bitterness towards those around him control him and shape him as a person. Otto is bullied, but becomes a worse bully than any of them when he retaliates. He serves as a cautionary tale both to Peter and the reader; any reader than could see themselves in the nerdy social outcast hero could also see themselves in the bullied genius villain. Even the names are a cue: both the octopus and the spider are known for having eight limbs. Even with the names and the visuals, Stan Lee shows that Peter and Otto are different sides of the same coin. And when a hero and villain are similar in every way except for their moral choices, it will always make for compelling storytelling.

Supervillain Spotlight – The Lizard

Other than Batman, the X-Men, and maybe The Flash, I don’t think any major superhero has a list of spectacular villains as long and of such high quality as Spider-Man’s. The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, Venom… I could go on and on. However, my personal favorite adversary of Peter Parker is a man who is usually a civilian and occasionally an ally to Spider-Man: Doctor Curtis Connors. Normally a one-armed genetic biologist specializing in the study of reptiles, his research leads to him creating an experimental serum that turns him into a monster known as…

The Lizard

The Lizard

The Comic Book Origin

Doctor Curt Connors was a surgeon in the U.S. Army, whose right arm was amputated after he suffered a severe injury in his service. He returned home to his wife and young son, and became obsessed with the regenerative abilities of reptiles, some of which could regenerate a lost limb. The serum I alluded to did indeed regenerate his right arm, but also transformed into a savage humanoid lizard, more than a worthy foe for Marvel’s most popular superhero. In addition to his immense strength and agility, Lizard also possessed reptilian weapons; claws and teeth and a heavy tail. With these weapons and a burning hatred for humans, Lizard is one of Spider-Man’s most dangerous enemies.

However, one of the most interesting dimensions of the character is his dual nature. Spider-Man may have to fight Lizard, but he’s not a monster to be killed or a criminal that should be thrown in prison. Curt Connors is a good man, a husband and a father and a friend to Peter Parker. So the battles between Spidey and the Lizard are more about Peter surviving and protecting innocents until he can find some way to counteract the effects of the serum. I’ve always enjoyed this unique dynamic.

Spider-Man #6

The Real Life Origin

Like most of Spider-Man’s supporting cast, Curt Connors and his reptilian alter-ego were created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The Lizard debuted in The Amazing Spider-Man #6 and appeared somewhat sparingly, but he did make a pretty solid impression. Perhaps the best story with the Lizard was actually the debut of The Rhino, a villain with great strength and near impenetrable armor. Spidey gets Curt Connors’ help to develop a chemical that will break the armor down, but exposure to the chemicals turns Curt into The Lizard once again. It’s perhaps the perfect example of how Curt is an ally and the Lizard is this other side of him that hates humanity and will fight Spider-Man to the death.

The Lizard is obviously inspired by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a character who Stan Lee was a fan of and also drew inspiration for when making the famous character of Bruce Banner and The Hulk. In some ways, Lizard is kind of the flip side of this idea, a good person who becomes a monster that isn’t necessarily misunderstood. Lizard has become one of Spider-Man’s most famous bad guys, working his way into almost every form of Spider-Man media. Sam Raimi’s films featured the character in his civilian identity, and the 2012 reboot Amazing Spider-Man elevated him to the primary villain, with mixed results.

Monster

Why Do I Like The Lizard?

This question is something of a loaded question. At the very basest level, I have always been a fan of animals and animal-themed characters; I like Lizardfolk from Dungeons and Dragons for similar reasons. A humanoid fighting lizard is just cool to me in that respect. But I also enjoy the classic horror roots of the character; I like classic horror monsters like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so that aspect of the Lizard also appeals to me.

But I think what it really boils down to is that the Lizard is living inside of a good man. Curt Connors is a great character who has tremendous staying power in Spider-Man comics. Peter Parker was always depicted as a young scientist; Curt is an older, wiser one who can serve as a mentor figure to Peter and help him solve problems. But while his character can be a huge help to Spidey, there’s always the tension that Curt will turn into the Lizard and perhaps finally bring Spider-Man down. He’s a monster that is close to home, and that’s compelling to me. He’s not Spidey’s greatest nemesis by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s the one I enjoy the most.

And considering how disappointing his appearance in Amazing Spider-Man was, I’ll hold out hope that we may eventually get a better version at the movies now that Spider-Man is part of the cinematic universe. A man can dream, right?

Supervillain Spotlight – Darkseid

Jack Kirby is probably the most influential and legendary comic book artist of all time. Most famous for his collaborations with Stan Lee, Kirby created the character designs for most of Marvel’s greatest superheroes and their villains. But he has also given some significant gifts to the DC Universe as well, and none are greater than today’s spotlighted villain…

Darkseid

Darkseid

Darkseid is the tyrannical ruler of the planet Apokolips, one of the famed “New Gods” of the DC Universe. He stands in direct opposition to Highfather and his paradise planet of New Genesis. He is one of the most powerful beings in the DC Universe, possessing near invulnerability and immortality as well godlike power to bend reality to his will. The most iconic power is his Omega Beams, which usually release from his eyes and can destroy all but the most powerful of beings. He seeks to bend the whole universe to his will, hoping to destroy all free will through the Anti-Life Equation. This has put him in direct opposition with the Justice League and other heroes, who have been lucky to stop him.

Despite his destructive goals, Darkseid has an uneasy truce with Highfather and New Genesis which ended their stalemate of a war. This truce is maintained because of an exchange of Highfather and Darkseid’s sons. Darkseid’s second son Orion is raised by Highfather and becomes a hero, one of Darkseid’s greatest enemies. The son he got in exchange doesn’t serve him any better; Scott Free refuses to give into Darkseid’s brainwashing and becomes the master of escape known as Mr. Miracle.

Kirby

The Real Life Origin

Jack Kirby based Darkseid’s personality, ideals and even some of his fashion on Adolf Hitler. He is a heartless, fully evil monster who believes that his worldview is the only valid one; he seeks to destroy all opposition and to control the minds and will of his subjects. While his world of Apokolips is completely ordered, it is a nightmarish dystopia. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the Fuhrer was the inspiration for Jack Kirby’s greatest antagonist; Kirby was Jewish and helped to create Captain America as a way to raise awareness of the atrocities the Nazis were committing in Europe. When you are creating pure evil, it is best to use pure evil for inspiration.

Darkseid was created for Kirby’s “New Gods” comics, originally a universe separate from the DC Universe called “Fourthworld”. However, he debuted in, of all things, in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 and once Kirby finished with DC his ideas were integrated into the DC Universe at large. While this was probably not Kirby’s intention, I do feel that it was for the best overall. His world was too good not to be used, and Darkseid proved to be the ultimate villain that DC needed. He’s a force powerful and evil enough that even Superman feels vulnerable when facing him, and that shouldn’t be put on a shelf and forgotten about.

Uxas

The Most Copied Villain

And if there is any character that can be defined by the phrase “often imitated, but never duplicated”, it is Darkseid. If you’ve been to any Marvel movies lately, you may have heard of this guy called Thanos, Marvel’s ultimate big bad. Probably the biggest Darkseid knockoff ever, but I’m not saying that to knock Marvel; Darkseid is a good idea and it makes sense to have their own version. The X-Men villain Apocalypse is also heavily inspired by Darkseid, possessing a similar appearance and even more similar goals. Were it not for the fact that Apocalypse has vastly different powers and has been defeated far more easily, it would be difficult to tell the difference. And even DC hasn’t been afraid to rip off Darkseid; Mongul is pretty much a carbon copy, though much less powerful.

Despite the imitations, there is only genuine article. Thanos is a great character in his own right and certainly a more complex one; he feels the weight of his actions and has shown to regret them at times. Darkseid would never regret anything. I appreciate that kind of pure evil in the same way I appreciate the pure goodness of Superman; Darkseid stands for something and there is an epic, mythic quality to the character. Apocalypse is a great X-Men villain, but he doesn’t have the scope of Darkseid’s goals. Apocalypse wants to rule Earth and could do it, but Darkseid wants to control the whole universe and bend it to his rule.

Jim Lee

Why Do I Like Darkseid?

Darkseid is, in concept, my favorite villain in all of comic books. He is the quintessentially supervillain. He’s not complex, he isn’t sympathetic. He is pure evil and possesses near infinite power, making him the ultimate threat. Darkseid isn’t a character that should be used often; his stories should be epic and no defeat should come easy. And DC seems to realize that. While is as iconic as any of their villains, DC has never leaned on him as a crutch; when he shows up, it’s a big deal. That is why I love Darkseid; when he’s around, I know I am going to get a superhero story that I am going to love reading.

Supervillain Spotlight – Lex Luthor

Considering his super strength and near invulnerability, Superman would seem like the last person any villain would want to go up against. And indeed, this makes the character a difficult one to create antagonists for. Most of the bad guys in comics featuring the Man of Steel are small-time criminals who are about to have a very bad day, or alien monsters with strength that rivals the Kryptonian hero. But the most prevalent enemy of the Man of Steel does not possess great physical ability, but is instead written as the most brilliant mind in the DC Universe. Driven by an intense hatred for Superman, this criminal mastermind has managed to carve his own place in comics as one of the greatest characters of all time.

Lex Luthor

Luthor for President

The Super Intelligent Mad Scientist

Lex Luthor is a character who’s role has evolved quite a bit over his seventy five or so years of existence. Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced him in Action Comics #23 as a mad scientist planning to take over the world. Or simply to steal money from banks to fund his newest idea for a death machine. Regardless, he was always foiled by Superman and was largely an ineffective villain. He does have the distinction of being the first comic book villain to use nuclear weapons as part of his schemes. Arguably the character’s best interpretation during this time frame was on the Superfriends TV show where he was the leader of The Legion of Doom, which at least put him in an position of importance.

Luthor was also chosen to be a key character in the film adaptations of Superman. Actor Gene Hackman plays the character as the leading antagonist of Superman and reprises the character in a more comedic, supporting role in Superman II. I have to admit to enjoying this interpretation of Luthor a great deal; Hackman’s charisma and the witty comments he makes throughout the film add an extra layer of personality to what was a one-dimensional character.

Hackman

The Even Smarter Corrupt Businessman

When DC Comics rebooted their superhero-filled fictional universe after the events of Crisis On Infinite Earths, Superman wasn’t changed all that much in spirit. The writing had evolved and Clark was a more complex character than he was before, but he was still essentially the same guy he’d always been. But Lex Luthor went through a radical change in John Byrne’s limited series The Man of Steel, where the mad scientist supervillain of the last forty-five years was tossed aside in favor of something that 1980’s America could identity with; a power-hungry businessman with good publicity and no morals. This was not a Lex Luthor who robbed banks or built giant robotic suits in insane attempts to fight Superman in fisticuffs. This was a villain who kept an arms length away from his crimes, using his resources and influence to keep himself at power with little regard to anyone else he is stepping on.

For me, this is the version of Lex that I prefer most, because he is not a simple blackhat criminal who loses all the time. On the contrary, Luthor’s intellect and resources and ability to control criminal activity without actually committing it make it almost impossible for Superman to ever win against Luthor. Lex becomes an effective villain who rarely ever has to face consequences, which makes it all the more satisfying when he does. More importantly, I think it’s important that Luthor is a man in power who abuses it because of how that conflicts with Superman. Clark Kent uses all of his abilities to help others and does not think he is special in any way; Luthor is a narcissist who views himself as being above everyone else and only uses his power to serve himself. The characters work extremely well together, and that’s essentially what a good villain should do; make the hero a more compelling protagonist.

Smallville Lex

Not Simply A Bad Guy

Another important reason why I support Lex Luthor: Corrupt Businessman over Lex Luthor: Mad Scientist is that a mad scientist is very difficult to sympathize with. They are evil and want to take over the world or destroy it; not guys we can relate to or empathize with. I believe that the greatest villains are the ones who have something to like about them, something we can agree upon. Luthor as a businessman wants the public to view him as a hero; it’s a selfish desire, but it also leads to philanthropic efforts that Superman would never be able to do for the city of Metropolis. As evil as Luthor can be, he is often depicted as a necessary one, a crooked, greasy wheel in the machine of society that has to be there to make sure things work.

Luthor also serves as a compelling counterpoint to the “great immigrant story” of Superman. Clark Kent is an alien who comes to Earth and views it as his home, using the special abilities granted by his heritage to defend and better his new home. Luthor is a normal person who grew up on Earth and says, “Hey, can we really trust this alien with godlike powers?” Yes, we can, but it is still important that this point is brought up because it helps keep Superman accountable; he can’t be somebody who abuses his powers because then he is just like Lex Luthor.

Luthor

With these complexities in mind, I view Luthor better as not just a straight-up antagonist, but as a supporting character in the Superman universe. The incredibly sympathetic portrayal of the character on Smallville is an example of how to make Luthor a great, well-rounded character whose goals have clear motivations and justified reasons. He isn’t a great person, but he also had the chance to be and in his heart, probably wants to be the hero that Superman is. That’s a character who is fun to read and to watch. And it’s still possible to throw in the mad scientist with the mech suits once in a while.

Whether you enjoy the Mad Scientist or the Corrupt Businessman more, one thing is definitely true. As long as there is a Superman that stands for truth and justice, there has to be someone opposing him and challenging those values. And that looks like a job for Lex Luthor.

Supervillain Spotlight – Red Skull

Captain America is one of the most popular superheroes in modern times, one of Marvel’s cash cows as part of The Avengers as well as headlining his own series of movies. And while the character’s popularity has somewhat fluctuated with the times, he has been an icon for almost seventy-five years, far longer than any other Marvel character. And he was popular right from the beginning; the first issue of Captain America sold millions of copies when it hit the stands in 1941. It depicted Steve Rogers punching Adolf Hitler a few years before the United States even got involved with World War II, and the comic would be an important propaganda tool to encourage buyers to purchase war bonds. The comic books were also cheap to reproduce and ship overseas to the American troops, where Steve became quite popular as the embodiment of American military might and the ideals of the country at the time.

Punching Hitler

While the image of Captain America dropping Adolf Hitler is iconic, there are numerous reasons that it doesn’t make sense to use Hitler as the actual arch-villain of Captain America comics. For one, Adolf Hitler was a real person, the tyrannical leader of Nazi Germany and generally considered to be one of the most horrible people in human history. While there is a time and place for historical fiction, I do not think the continuing saga of comic books or the world of Marvel superheroes is the place to do it. And since Adolf Hitler committed suicide and the Allied Forces won World War II, it would be in very poor taste to continue to use Hitler in modern comics. There is a reason that Adolf Hitler is never actually depicted in Captain America: The First Avenger, after all, and I think it simply boils down to good taste.

So it’s no surprise that Jim Simon and Jack Kirby created a separate, more fantastic character to serve as Captain America’s greatest enemy. While his birth name is Johann Schmidt, the world knows him by a much more terrifying alias.

The Red Skull

Cosmic Cube

The Comic Book Origin

Johann Schmidt was a German orphan who orchestrated his way into becoming Adolf Hitler’s right hand man. Possessing a ruthless killer instinct and a keen intellect, Schmidt was made the leader of Nazi terrorist activities, specializing in espionage and sabotage. Wishing to inspire fear in his enemies, Hitler had a special mask designed for Schmidt that would be the face of fear to all who opposed the Nazis, and Schmidt became The Red Skull. Though he initially had plans to overthrow Hitler and rule the world himself, the Skull’s plans never came to fruition as the United States countered with their own iconic champion; Captain America. Steve Rogers and Red Skull battled many times but were both presumed to be causalities in the war.

When Marvel Comics brought Captain America back to life to lead The Avengers, it was only fitting that Red Skull would return. Resurrected by A.I.M. scientists, Schmidt’s ambition and charisma made him a powerful leader once again; in his most famous story he used the cosmic cube to try to warp reality to his will, but was eventually defeated by Captain America once again. His body soon aged to it’s true age, leaving him a frail old man who died in one last duel with Rogers. But as it turns out, Red Skull’s mind would later be implanted in a clone of Steve Rogers, making him the Captain’s equal in combat. He has returned several times, always with the goal of world domination in mind.

Simon and Kirby

The Real Life Origin

It is somewhat ironic that one of the most iconic and fearsome images in comics was in fact inspired by melting fudge on a bowl of ice cream. Joe Simon was attempting to create a villain for Captain America in order, and saw fudge melting over half-eaten sundae that vaguely resembled a human figure. Inspired, he created the character’s basic look. Since “Hot Fudge” was hardly a suitable name for a Nazi terrorist, the name “Red Skull” was created, inspired by the cherry on top of the sundae.

While Johann Schimdt is the character most associated with the name “Red Skull”, he was actually the second one introduced to readers. The original version was named George Maxon and was easily defeated by Captain America in the first handful of issues. Schmidt was introduced as being the true Red Skull and was a much more formidable enemy.

Weaving

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Red Skull

While Red Skull in the comics certainly has an important place in history and is one of the greatest designs ever for a supervillain, I think the character’s history is a bit too complicated to put him in the elite class of comic book villains. In fact, I will argue that the version of the character that appears in Captain America: The First Avenger is the best interpretation the character has ever had. The character is still the arch-enemy of Steve Rogers in World War II and works as Hitler’s right hand man, but there are several important tweaks. First off, he is not an ordinary man; he is the benefactor (and victim) of an earlier version of the serum that eventually makes Steve Rogers into the titular hero. This instantly makes him a much more credible threat and is a simpler way to go about this than “his conscience is moved into a clone of Steve Rogers”.

The film also integrates the cosmic cube into his story in the form of The Tesseract, an Infinity Stone that he discovers and uses to fuel his weapons. While the cube is one of the defining aspects of the Red Skull’s character, it was not used in the comics until the 1960’s; using it as part of Red Skull’s story in World War II significantly alters the course of the MCU’s history. Another aspect that wasn’t originally part of Red Skull’s World War II era stories is that he is the creator and leader of the terrorist group Hydra; again, a much more terrifying threat in the MCU than in the comics.

Suspense

From Hitler and Nazis to Red Skull and Hydra

Using the power of the Tesseract, Johann Schmidt and Hydra effectively supplant Hitler and the Nazis as the primary threat of World War II. One could argue that in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Red Skull’s plans for global genocide have probably made him a more reviled historical figure that the fuhrer. And for the record, I think that’s a good thing; comic book movies are fantasy, after all, and using something as serious as Adolf Hitler as part of the often silly world of Marvel doesn’t really work.

Red Skull is a fascinating look at how comic books can take real life threats and turn them into something more colorful, more entertaining and infinitely less threatening. Johann Schmidt is essentially a caricature of Adolf Hitler, a Saturday Morning Cartoon version of one of the most evil men in world history. While more mature stories sometimes use Nazi imagery as part of Red Skull’s character in an attempt to unsettle us, I think it is safe to say that at this point, the Red Skull stands on his own. In the confines of his fictional universe, he’s far worse than the Nazis ever were. Fortunately, that fictional universe has plenty of heroes that will never allow a monster like Schmidt to win.

Supervillain Spotlight – Catwoman

About mid-way through this week I realized that I had barely done anything to highlight comic book bad guys, while doing spotlight features on DC’s “Big Three” heroes. As people like to say, a hero is only as good as his villain. so I think it’s about time for me to give my favorite antagonists their due credit. And I’m starting with somebody who made her name as one of Batman’s most popular enemies, but is arguably more popular as somebody who walks the thin line between hero and villain.

Her real name is Selina Kyle, but Gotham newspapers and the world usually refer to her as…

Catwoman

Catwoman

The Comic Book Origin

Selina Kyle doesn’t really have a definitive origin, which I think is actually a good thing for her character. Various media has portrayed her as a street rat (The Dark Knight Rises and ABC’s Gotham among them) and as a rich socialite and animal rights activist (Batman: The Animated Series). Frank Miller had her work as some kind of sex worker, possibly a prostitute or a dominatrix. I know, Frank Miller is portraying a woman in an overly sexual manner. Shocking. I think it’s interesting that the same character can have so many origins yet still end up as basically the same character. In a city full of vigilantes, dirty cops, murderers and madmen, Selina Kyle is really just a humble thief trying to make the best of things. An extremely good thief, mind you, but it’s worth noting that she is rarely portrayed as being a homicidal maniac. When she is digging her claws into somebody, it’s usually pretty well deserved.

One of the greatest influences on the character of Batman is the United Kingdom’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. If Batman is analogous to the master detective from Baker Street, then Catwoman is certainly inspired by the character of Irene Adler. Both women were just one off characters, but their stories were instantly notable because they were able to get away from the legendary crime fighters. While Irene has certainly enjoyed a presence in Sherlock Holmes adaptations since then, I’d say Catwoman definitely fared better. Her unique dynamics with Batman’s character gave her a platform to break out on her own, and she enjoys almost the same world wide recognition from the general public.

Pfeiffer

The Real Life Origin

Catwoman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger and introduced to comic book audiences in 1940 as the antagonist of one of several stories in Batman #1, although neither her true name nor her more popular alias was used in this first story. She is simply known as “The Cat”, a jewel thief who Batman and Robin stop on a cruise, although their mutual attraction seems to affect Bruce’s judgment as he allows her to escape. Kane and Finger wanted an antagonist who was different from the killers that Batman usually faced, and also wanted a degree of sex appeal for male readers and a character who women might find engaging as well. Her early stories had her occasionally in conflict with Batman but just as often aiding him on some cases when they had mutual goals. This dynamic was well established before 1954, when she disappeared from comics for almost a decade due to worries about the Comic Book Code and if her character could be portrayed at all.

However, Catwoman would return to comics in 1966, just in time to become an iconic character on the popular Batman TV Show starring Adam West where she was most famously played by Julie Newmar. Since then Catwoman has stayed a fairly consistent presence both in comics and in Batman adaptations, being famously portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and by Anne Hathaway in Chris Nolan’s final Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. Most comic books fans consider her to be an important character because she is one of the few morally gray areas in Bruce Wayne’s life; her very presence in comics makes Batman a more rounded and compelling character.

Selina Kyle

Sexuality, Romance and Strong Female Characters

If I may get on my feminist soapbox for a second; there are many writers and artists who probably think they are promoting strong female characters, but honestly have no idea how to do it and usually overcompensate with hideous results. Some think that in order to be a strong and empowered character a woman has to be able to physically be strong and able to hold her own or even dominate in a fight. This idea in and of itself is not a bad thing, but misses the most important aspect, which I will get to momentarily. Others view a woman’s sexuality as the most important issue; a woman cannot be a strong character if she has sexual interest in men, or if she does she must be the controlling partner in that relationship. This of course ignores the fact that the vast majority of the world is made of people who want a satisfying love life and that any relationship where someone is completely in control is abusive, not healthy or empowering.

A strong female character can be someone who takes down her opponents in a fight, and she can be a woman who chooses not to have sex or is more of an aggressor in the bedroom than her partners. But these traits alone do not make a strong female character because they do not make a strong character period. If a male character’s only traits are his ability to fight people and how many people he chooses to have sex with, it’s a very bland and boring caricature that is not interesting. And the same applies to women. Using sexuality and physical prowess as the basis for how strong a character is misses the very nature of writing strong characters.

Regardless of gender, strong characters have a few things in common. They have a well-defined, three-dimensional personality that is a combination of a characters ethics, values, and other variables that you can find on any personality assessment test such as the Myers-Briggs test. Strong characters typically have a clear goal that they are working towards, or at the very least something of extreme importance to them that is worth protecting. Great characters are the ones that remain true to themselves in the face of life-changing experiences that show us who they really are under pressure. And the very best characters are the ones who bring something unique to the world that they exist in, while also providing something for the reader (or viewer) to relate to, empathize with, and cheer for. Or root against, in the case of a good villain.

Cooke

So What Makes Catwoman A Strong Character?

Catwoman’s defining character traits are not her catsuits, her claws or her bullwhip. They aren’t her thieving skills or her love and hate relationship with Batman. Selina is a confident and playful person who lives for adrenaline; whether that’s completing a heist, leaving would be attackers with nasty scars, or getting Batman to chase her on the rooftops of Gotham. It’s her selfish nature and taste for the finer things in life that threaten to make her unlikable, but she has an altruistic streak that often casts her in the role of antihero. This gray morality makes her interesting and unpredictable to a certain extent, but her philosophy basically boils down to “I’ll do whatever makes me happy and safe unless it would endanger innocent lives.” Which is not a common mindset in comics but I do think that it is one many of us can relate to.

Selina’s all of that AND she is a character that isn’t afraid of her sexual appeal, but revels in it. She’s the cat’s meow and she knows it; this is an extension of her confidence and her thrill seeking nature. Sexuality doesn’t define Selina’s character, her character defines her sexuality, which is the key difference. And she’s not just a skilled combatant and master thief for no good reason; she’s had to fight to survive, and is driven to protect the innocent when they are threatened, so being a strong fighter is a necessity. When there is a reason behind a character’s actions, we invest in them more than if there isn’t, no matter how cool those actions are in and of themselves.

In short, the more effort that is put into developing a character’s personality and why they do what they do, the stronger the character is. And Catwoman is one of the most well-thought out, unique and interesting characters in comic books, regardless of company, gender or her status as villain or anti-hero.

Nine Lives

Post Navigation