Bronze Age Supervillains

Enlarge picture
E-Man vol. 1 #3 © 1974 Charlton Comics. COVER ART BY JOE STATON.

Bronze Age Supervillains

(pop culture)
The times, they were a'changin' in the early 1970s, and comics were changing with them. “Relevance” was the buzzword for superheroes, with torn-from-the-headlines social issues inching their way into DC and Marvel stories. As heroes started to tell it like it is, many of the traditional supervillains weren't with it enough to make the scene. One of the new “villains” that appeared was the real-world threat of drugs. In a letter to Marvel Comics' editor in chief Stan Lee, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare “thought it would really be very beneficial if we created a story warning kids about the dangerous effects of drug addiction,” Lee remarked in Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (1991). The result was the three-part The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #96–#98 (1971), in which Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's roommate Harry Osborn (son of Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin) was hospitalized after a pill addiction. Immediately on its heels came DC Comics' Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85–#86, by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams, in which Green Arrow's teenage sidekick Speedy was revealed to be a heroin user. “The Man,” counterculture slang for “the establishment” or corrupt authority figures, was another popular “villain.” In Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (1970), the emerald heroes went headto- head with fatcat Jubal Slade, an oppressive slumlord, and left-winger Green Arrow delivered an impassioned speech about the “hideous moral cancer” eroding the spirit of America. Connected to “the Man” was his “henchman,” pollution, a byproduct of corporate gluttony; heroes from the Justice League to their TV counterparts, the Super Friends, battled environmental degradation. Racial prejudice also became a “villain,” the most landmark example being Marvel's Black Panther taking on the Ku Klux Klan (called “the Clan”) in a 1976 storyline by Don McGregor and Billy Graham. Costumed criminals rarely surfaced in DC's superhero titles during the relevance era, with the exception of The Flash, in which at least one of the Scarlet Speedster's Rogues' Gallery could be counted upon for an appearance every few issues. Although Wonder Woman had lost her superpowers, she managed a catfight with Catwoman in Wonder Woman vol. 1 #201–#202 (1972), and Green Lantern's old enemy Black Hand snuck into a 1971 story. Superman's and Batman's famous foes were at best rarely seen but at worst conspicuously absent. Batman was undergoing a “creature of the night” revamp and mostly encountered ghosts and street-based criminals, with the exceptions of Man-Bat, introduced in 1970, and Ra's al Ghul, first seen in 1971, both of whom fit the hero's new gothic milieu (the Ten-Eyed Man, who “saw” with his fingertips, made the first of a handful of appearances in 1970's Batman #226). Superman's powers were temporarily diminished in 1971, and most of his villains were AWOL except for Lex Luthor, who appeared sporadically (bringing with him the alien energy-beast, the Galactic Golem, in 1972)—in fact, no major Superman villain was depicted on the covers of Action Comics between issues #389 (June 1970) and #416 (September 1972). Interestingly, during this supervillainous dry spell, neo-DC writer/artist/editor Jack Kirby, fresh from Marvel, introduced Darkseid in 1970, the evil god from Apokolips who would become one of the publisher's major antagonists. Marvel dabbled in relevant themes in the early 1970s, but not at the expense of their supervillains. Kang, Magneto, Ultron, Green Goblin, Annihilus, and Dr. Doom were among the sinister old-timers returning to battle the heroes of the Marvel Universe, with Thanos (bowing in 1973), Bullseye (first seen in1976), and Sabretooth (debuting in 1977) among the newcomers joining the pantheon during the decade today known as the Bronze Age of Comics. Three important Bronze Age stories helped shape the future of comic-book supervillainy: the first occurred in writer Gerry Conway and artist Gil Kane's Amazing Spider-Man #121–#122 (June–July 1973), in which Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy was killed during a battle between Spidey and his arch-foe, the Green Goblin; the Goblin himself died in this two-parter's climax (although he has since returned from the dead). Earlier superhero- versus-supervillain battles rarely resulted in the deaths of major characters, and Conway's scripted slaughter of Gwen Stacy even startled Stan Lee. The second was the Joker's return from limbo in Batman #251's “The Joker's Five-Way Revenge” (September 1973), by O'Neil and Adams. Junkheaped was the wacky Clown Prince of Crime of the 1960s; in his place cackled the homicidal psychotic who relished escalating body counts. This darker interpretation of the Joker led to grimmer overhauls of most of Batman's rogues throughout the decade (and they grew darker yet in later years). The third was Conway and artist Ross Andru's introduction of the Punisher in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974). A villain in this initial story, the Punisher was soon portrayed as an anti-hero, killing in the name of justice and blazing a trail for other similar characters (like Wolverine, who followed later that year) … and blurring the formerly unambiguous division between good and evil. By the mid-1970s, the relevance trend had passed and DC readily exploited its costumed criminals, spinning off the Joker and Man-Bat into their own titles and launching the bimonthly The Secret Society of Super-Villains. Marvel countered with Super-Villain Team-Up, joining The Tomb of Dracula, the popular comic starring the inarguably evil vampire protagonist, which had been in print since 1972. Vigorous merchandising—Mego action figures, 7-11 Slurpee cups, and Power Records comics among the mix—made supervillains from Mr. Mxyzptlk to the Lizard favorites among children, and various bad guys stormed onto television in animated series starring Marvel and DC heroes. Not every supervillain seen during the Bronze Age garnered a measure of lasting notoriety. Cultural trends and scientific innovations of the 1970s inspired gaggles of criminals whose careers, like the pet rocks and mood rings of the decade, faded after their fifteen minutes of fame. Consider the motorcycling mayhem-makers Satan's Angels, Stan Lee and Gene Colan's far-from-subtle response to reality's Hell's Angels (as well as the 1969 movie Easy Rider), in Captain America #128 (1970). Stunt cyclist Evel Knievel's acclaim spawned a 1971 biopic (starring George Hamilton) and a 1972 toy line from Ideal, as well as Marvel's hell-on-wheels hero, the flaming-skulled Ghost Rider. Among the Ghost Rider's two-wheeled foes were Big Daddy Dawson, the Stunt-Master, and the Orb, the latter of whom wore a headpiece resembling a large eyeball. Another kind of wheels—skateboards— inspired the career of the Rocket Racer, who blazed into Amazing Spider-Man #172 (1977) on his jetpowered board. A tech-whiz who turned to crime to help his financially strapped family, Robert Farrell later used his Rocket Racer gear to fight, not perpetuate, crime. Before he gave up supervillainy, though, he became entangled with Big Wheel, aka embezzler Jackson Weele, who rolled into issues #182–#183 (1978) in a gargantuan, weaponsladen steel wheel. Big Wheel's appellation was borrowed from the plastic tricycle that had become a household name by the late 1970s. Peggy Fleming, the 1968 Olympic Gold medalist, helped popularize figure skating during the 1970s, prompting the Golden Glider, a former ice princess (and the sister of Captain Cold) who skated through the air and into the life of the Fastest Man Alive in The Flash vol. 1 #250 (1977). After a number of late 1970s appearances, she was killed in the 1980s. By the late 1970s, microwave ovens were a fixture in the modern American kitchen, and DC responded by creating Superman's foe the Microwave Man, a has-been thief from the 1950s who used microwave technology to resuscitate his crime career, as seen in Action #487 (1978). Three years earlier in Action #458 (1975), DC embraced both the TV generation and media fascination with Apollo-retrieved moon rocks with the villain Blackrock, who wielded a “power stone” to channel television airwaves into super-energy, riding those waves through the air and using them to fire concussive blasts at the Man of Steel. The blaxploitation film craze of the 1970s launched the career of Marvel's Shaft-like Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, the first African-American superhero to star in his own magazine. Battling Cage (later dubbed Power Man) were ghettohatched supervillains including mob queen Black Mariah, man-mountain Big Ben, costumed assassin Cottonmouth, gangsta-turned-amphibian Mr. Fish, and sharp-toothed tough-guy Piranha Jones. DC's resident African-American hero, Black Lightning, tussled with the black crimelord Tobias Whale, an albino. Lastly, while there were very few superhero titles published by DC and Marvel's competitors during the Bronze Age, their characters encountered supervillains all their own. Short-lived mid- 1970s publishing house Atlas Comics' villains, like their heroes, imitated better-known characters found elsewhere: Tiger-Man's foe Hypnos mesmerized victims with his monocle, as Ringmaster and the Mad Hatter did with their chapeaus; Doomstalker used Cyclops-like eyebeams to blast the Hulk-esque Brute; and the “burning clutch” of the Destructor's enemy Deathgrip reminded readers of kung-fu fighter Iron Fist. Charlton Comics' witty EMan, by writer Nick Cuti and artist Joe Staton, broke the mold—its villains, like its hero (an energy force turned humanoid hero), were tongue in cheek, from the sibling dangers the Entropy Twins to the power-draining Battery, the latter of whom premiered in a story whose title was inspired by another 1970s “classic”: “The Energy Crisis.”