Modern Age Supervillains

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From The Elementals vol. 1 #2 © 1984 Comico. ART BY BILL WILLINGHAM AND RICH RANKIN.

Modern Age Supervillains

(pop culture)
Early in comics' history, it was much easier to tell the good guys from the bad. Following the tradition of classic Western motion pictures, broad exaggerations of heroes' and villains' characteristics— Boy Scout–like altruism and one-dimensional malevolence—made it as easy to distinguish superhero from supervillain as the cowboy's white hat did from the desperado's black hat. By the dawn of comics' Modern Age (1980–present), Americans had experienced decades of racial disharmony, the bloody and unpopular Vietnam War, and a U.S. president who resigned in disgrace. The conventional “to the rescue” superhero was now passé to Americans who had buttressed themselves behind a wall of cynicism. To better relate to changing mores and become more believable in a dystopian world, the crime fighter took on traits of the criminal. Two Marvel Comics characters introduced in the mid-1970s became prototypes for this new wave of anti-hero: the take-no-prisoners vigilante Punisher, who began his career as a Spider-Man villain, and the X-Men's Wolverine, the mutant superhero who struggled to keep his bloodlust in check. Elekra premiered in late 1980 in writer/artist Frank Miller's Daredevil; this sympathetic assassin butchered the type of no-good street scum one might find in a Charles Bronson Death Wish movie. From “independent” publishers came hard-edged, killer-protagonists like Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, a cosmic executioner, and Matt Wagner's Grendel, the personification of vengeance. By the time writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons deconstructed the good-guy model in their twelveissue DC Comics masterpiece Watchmen (1986–1987), featuring the genocidal superhero Ozymandias, “grim and gritty” heroes had so crossed the line that formerly separated them from their opponents that supervillains had no choice but to become grimmer and grittier. The Joker is a prime example. Frank Miller cast the Clown Prince of Crime as a homoerotic maniac in the futuristic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986). Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland's graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) depicted the villain shooting, debasing, and voyeuristically photographing Barbara (then the former Batgirl, now Oracle) Gordon and torturing a nude, doggie-collared Commissioner James Gordon. And the “Death in the Family” Batman story arc (1989) had the Joker kill the second Robin by the decree of thousands of comics readers who gave the Boy Wonder a thumbsdown via a phone-in live-or-die poll. Not all comic-book supervillains stooped to such depravity during the 1980s. For many, it remained business as usual, although audiences easily distracted by a burgeoning number of entertainment choices required bigger, bolder, and noisier gestures to maintain their attention. For Marvel and DC readers, the old-fashioned hero-versus-villain story seemed less satisfying. Each company unveiled multi-issue crossovers featuring cosmic threats requiring mass gatherings of superheroes: Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars (1984–1985) took Marvel's mightiest heroes and villains off-planet to Battleworld at the behest of the godlike Beyonder, and DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–1986) assembled heroes and villains from multiple Earths to stand against the Anti-Monitor, an omnipotent being powerful enough to erase reality. Earthbound machinations of supervillains assumed harsher connotations, reflecting real-life wickedness at an unprecedented level. Mobrelated crimes became more graphically depicted, as in the case of Kingpin's bloody war against Daredevil. Corporate corruption was now a common story element, with Lex Luthor's 1986 revamping into a white-collar criminal a famous example. And long before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Middle Eastern terrorists replaced the “Yellow Peril” Asian villains of previous generations as the new threat to democracy in comics' pages, with fictionalized nations such as DC's Qurac conspiring to destroy major American cities. In the 1980s, the sale of comic books shifted from their long-time principal outlet, the newsstand, to the comics or “specialty” shop. New publishers and new titles cropped up during the advent of this “direct sales” marketing, and with those series came a nastier breed of supervillain. Grendel's nemesis was the werewolf Argent, while the DNAgents encountered the monster-maker Verminus and the displaced nineteenth-century rogue Cadaver. Bill Willingham's superteam the Elementals fought such vicious menaces as Ratman, Shapeshifter, the vampire Captain Cadaver (who wore a fanged smiley face on his shirt), Holocaust, and a scripture-obsessed team called the Rapture, including Genesis 6:4 and Exodus 10:21. Lord Weterlackus, empowered by blood sacrifices, and the neo-Nazi ex–Green Beret Hodag, tackled the psycho-hero Badger. John Gaunt, the city of Cynosure's sword for hire called Grimjack, clashed with gladiators like MacCabre. Following this trend, “extreme” became the buzzword for comic books of the 1990s. Loose cannons like Wolverine were no longer the fringe— they had become the superhero template. Comics shops were awash in a sea of blood spilled by gung-ho, ultra-violent heroes like Cable, Lobo, Spawn, Bloodshot, Firearm, and Barb Wire. Two highly publicized DC storylines in the early 1990s involving almost-unstoppable supervillains turned the bloodbath up a notch: the death of Superman, at the hands of the killing machine called Doomsday, and the breaking of Batman's back, snapped by the drug-enhanced crimelord Bane. Those events, plus the emergence of superstar artists including Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee (who blossomed in the late 1980s on high-profile Marvel series and then, along with several other hot talents, formed Image Comics in 1992), produced record-setting sales, triggering a speculators' boom that dominated the early to mid-1990s. Upstart and established publishers rushed new and in some cases revived superheroes into print, each with its own universes populated with ultra-gruesome rogues: Master Darque (from Acclaim Comics' Valiant Universe); Mace Blitzkrieg, Dr. October, and Deathcard (from Dark Horse's Comics' Greatest World); and Primevil, Dr. Vincent Gross, and Maxi- Man (from Malibu's Ultraverse) were among the supervillains who enjoyed a brief shelf life but wandered into extinction after a few years. DC imprint Milestone, featuring the culturally diverse “Dakota Universe,” also produced its share of villains, such as Oblivion and Rift, but it is best known for its superhero Static, star of the animated TV series Static Shock! (2000–2004). Driven by star power, many of Image's titles bowing during this period remain in print in the 2000s. Spawn's arch-foe the Violator (the Clown) is the most famous supervillain originating in the line, jumping to film in 1997, portrayed by actor John Leguizamo. Big-budget superhero motion pictures aimed the spotlight on high-profile megastars as supervillains, beginning with Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker in Batman (1989). Nicholson's Joker wasn't your father's Clown Prince of Crime, the garish giggler some viewers remembered from the swinging sixties in the pasty-faced form of aging Latin lover Cesar Romero (on TV's Batman, 1966–1968). He was a killer, like the homicidal comics version, snickering while slaying, and abruptly turning on his goons at a whim, as he did when he shot point-blank his closest aid Bob the Goon (actor Tracey Walter). The nightmarish Penguin (Danny DeVito) and whacked-out Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) stole the film's sequel, Batman Returns (1992), killing enemies and destroying property with wild abandon. These blockbusters cemented the supervillain's stature alongside the superhero. Beginning with Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995), superheroes and supervillains once again aired their grievances on the tube, and shows starring, among others, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Superman, and the Fantastic Four—and with them, Dr. Octopus, Magneto, Lex Luthor, and Dr. Doom—soon filled cable network schedules. Comics-character merchandising became big business, with villains joining heroes on video games, T-shirts, action figures, and breakfast-cereal boxes. Venom also starred in his own comic-book series, as did Eclipso, Catwoman, Magneto, and others. Writer Mark Waid and illustrator Alex Ross explored the concept of rogue superheroes with supervillain-like disregard for order in their 1996 DC miniseries Kingdom Come. Neo-Man of Steel Magog, the Harlequin (aka Joker's Daughter II), and the brute Von Bach were among the superpowered anarchists whose recklessness inspired the reunion of retired old-school superheroes to rout this dangerous new breed, with a messianic Superman appropriately leading the way. The hope offered by Superman's “second coming” in Waid and Ross' epic seems lost upon the comic-book world of the mid-2000s. While optimistic superhero series have been published since Kingdom Come, they have been the minority, and as the long-standing superhero-versus-supervillain struggle steamrolls forward, the body count escalates. “Our audience is much smarter, much more sophisticated, and not necessarily because it's older,” crime novelist-turned-comics author Greg Rucka told the New York Times in October 2005, adding, “A 12-year-old 20 years ago and a 12-yearold today are reading at very different levels.” His comments were in regard to DC's ongoing revitalization of its characters, most of which were created in the 1940s through the 1960s, and possessing, in the words of DC's executive editor Dan DiDio, “a lot of elements where we've had a disconnect with the reader base of today.” To reconnect, DC's mid-2000s storylines featured supervillains who commit rape and superheroes who brainwash their foes. In 2005, DC's supervillains assaulted heroes en masse in the pages of the miniseries Villains United and Infinite Crisis, and throughout related tie-ins. One controversial tale featured Wonder Woman executing mastermind Maxwell Lord to end his mental control over Superman, prompting a “Should Heroes Kill?” debate among readers. Also in the mid-2000s, Marvel's superhero the Scarlet Witch went mad, “disassembling” (i.e., wounding or killing) her fellow Avengers, and the Marvel Universe's reality was reconstructed into a Magneto-ruled, mutant-dominated society in its House of M crossover (which led to a related event titled “Decimation”). Amid this climate of mayhem-minded supervillain ubiquity, one must ponder, With supervillains going to such extremes, how can superheroes remain altruistic in their struggles against them? That question will be answered by the writers and artists of the new millennium, and the pop-culture historians who will one day examine their efforts.