Reinvented Supervillains

Reinvented Supervillains

(pop culture)
In the early twenty-first century, Marvel and DC Comics still utilize classic supervillains who have been created as long ago as 1940, when the Joker and Lex Luthor first appeared. How can comics creators keep these characters vital after so many years and previous stories? In many cases, editors, writers, and artists have felt it necessary to give the villains a conceptual makeover. That process can take different forms. From the 1930s into the early 1960s, neither creators nor readers cared about continuity, and changes could be made without explanation. Hence, when Superman first encountered Luthor in 1940, the latter had a full head of red hair, but in 1941 Luthor abruptly became bald. Moreover, in the early 1960s editor Mort Weisinger established that their enmity began when they were adolescents, ignoring the stories from 1940. Sometimes an earlier villain's name is recycled for a different character. The 1940 version of Clayface (Detective Comics #40) was Basil Karlo, a horror movie actor who was adept at makeup. But in 1961 (Detective #298), the name Clayface was reused for Matt Hagen, who could actually change shape. An old villain can be killed off, and a new character will subsequently take his place. The original Mirror Master, a foe of the Silver Age (1956–1969) Flash, perished in Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–1986). A Scots mercenary named Evan McCulloch adopted the deceased rogue's costume and mirror weaponry (in Animal Man #8, 1989) and has been the new Mirror Master ever since. Frequently the dead villain's successor is his own son. After the apparent demise of Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, his son Harry took over his costumed identity (starting in Amazing Spider-Man #136, 1974). In strange story twists in the comics, Harry himself later died, and ultimately Norman turned up alive, succeeding his own son as the Green Goblin! The original Captain Boomerang was killed in Identity Crisis (2004–2005), and his son has taken over his title. The son is an “improved” version, since, unlike his father, he can throw boomerangs at superspeed. A new villain can represent a variation on the concept underlying an older one. Realizing that much of the Green Goblin's original appeal lay in the mystery of his true identity, writer Roger Stern co-created the Hobgoblin (in Amazing Spider-Man #238, 1983), who modified Norman Osborn's costume and equipment but was a wholly different character, whose identity remained secret for years. In some cases a forgotten supervillain simply needs an editor and writer to return him to the spotlight. The Riddler made two comics appearances in 1948 and then vanished until new Batman editor Julius Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox brought him back in 1965 (Batman #171). The next year the Riddler was the first villain featured on the Batman television show, which made him enduringly famous. Introduced by writer Mike Friedrich and artist Neal Adams in Justice League of America #94 (1971), Merlyn the Archer (not to be confused with the Arthurian wizard) was a rival of Green Arrow and, as a member of the League of Assassins, an enemy of Batman. Thereafter Merlyn rarely appeared until 2004, when he achieved high visibility in DC's Identity Crisis. Similarly, the Batman villain Cat-Man (from Detective #311, 1963), once a pale imitation of Catwoman, suddenly became a leading character as a member of the new Secret Six in DC's Villains United (2005). Writers may also update a veteran villain's costume and modus operandi. The Calculator (introduced in Detective #463, 1976) began as a thief whose costume contained a gimmick that was ahead of its time: a personal computer. In Identity Crisis novelist Brad Meltzer remodeled the Calculator into a plain-clothes information broker for other villains, a role tailored to the new Internet Age. Having updated Deadshot in Detective #474 (1977), writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers gave a makeover to another forgotten villain in the miniseries Batman: Dark Detective (2005): Dr. X, who was created by writer Dave Wood and artist Sheldon Moldoff in Detective #261 (1958) but had not been featured in a story since 1963. In his first stories this criminal scientist had created a powerful duplicate of himself out of pure energy, called Dr. Double X. In Englehart's updated version, the scientist calls himself Dr. Double X, and has found a new outlet in contemporary science for his interest in duality: he creates clones. Writers can also update a villain from more innocent times by remodeling his personality to fit the “grim and gritty” mode of contemporary comics. Created by writer Bill Finger and artist Sheldon Moldoff in Detective #259 (1958), the Calendar Man was a thief named Julian Day who patterned his crimes on the theme of dates or times of the year. For example, in his initial appearance Day based each of his crimes on a different season, such as summer or winter, wearing a different costume to symbolize each one. In Batman: The Long Halloween (1996–1997) writer Jeph Loeb turned Day into a madman like Hannibal Lecter, doling out clues from his asylum cell to Batman about the “Holiday” killer. Later, in Batman 80-Page Giant #3 (2000), writer Chuck Dixon portrayed the Calendar Man as an insane terrorist who caused a jet plane to crash and tried to blow up a nuclear power plant. The most popular contemporary method of making over supervillains and superheroes is by rebooting their series: all past continuity is declared null and void, and the series starts over from the beginning. The pattern was set when DC Comics hired writer/artist John Byrne to reboot Superman in the comics miniseries The Man of Steel (1986). Although Marvel has traditionally attempted to keep its continuity intact since 1961, reboots have become common at DC. The Superman reboot produced perhaps the best example of rebooting a villain. Traditionally Lex Luthor was portrayed as a criminal scientific genius who was continually breaking out of jail to battle Superman. Working from a suggestion by Marv Wolfman, in Man of Steel, Byrne reintroduced Luthor as the widely respected but secretly unscrupulous billionaire head of LexCorp. Byrne and Wolfman's Luthor has been nearly universally accepted, including by the television series Lois and Clark (1993–1997), the animated Superman (1997–2000), and Smallville (2001–present). The makers of movies and television series almost never adhere to the strict letter of comics continuity, and hence they are continually rebooting characters from the comics. For example, Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995) combined two comics versions of Clayface into one, introducing the shapeshifting Matt Hagen as a former movie star. The later animated series The Batman (2004–present) went further, making an entirely different person, policeman Ethan Bennett, into Clayface. Finally, sometimes revitalizing a classic supervillain requires no more than realizing what made the character work in the first place. In the first Joker story (Batman #1, 1940), writer Bill Finger portrayed this villain as a sinister serial killer. Over the next three decades, though the Joker tried to kill Batman, his life of crime otherwise consisted of robbing banks and pulling pranks. In their landmark story “The Joker's Five-Way Revenge” (Batman #251, 1973), writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams returned the Joker to his roots, making him a murderer once more. Virtually everyone who has used the Joker since in comics, television, and film has followed their lead. Thus through the different paths they have taken to reinvention, Lex Luthor and the Joker, two of comics' oldest villains, remain vital and contemporary even in the early twenty-first century.