Silver Age Supervillains

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Byth. The Brave and the Bold #34 © 1961 DC Comics. COVER ART BY JOE KUBERT.

Silver Age Supervillains

(pop culture)
Asking which came first, the superhero or the supervillain, is like asking the same question about the chicken and the egg. The fact remains that every superhero whose career is of any duration has earned the enmity of a stable of do-badders who (to quote another supervillain, Hugo Drax from the film Moonraker) “appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” In the Golden and early Silver ages of comics, the supervillain generally adhered to a pattern: escape from the prison where his nemesis had placed him, establish a variation on the motif around which his villainy was themed (for the Penguin, birds; for the Mirror Master, reflective surfaces; etc.), capture the hero and place him in a deathtrap, then be defeated by the hero and returned to jail. It was a pas de deux as intricate and polished as a Kabuki performance. The villain might try to kill the hero, but he would never succeed, and ancillary performers—the hero's girlfriend, sidekick, or police contact—in the play might be endangered, but would rarely die. In fact one of the greatest of all supervillains, the Joker, debuted as a killer in Batman #1 (1940), but soon eschewed murder, at the command of DC Comics editor Whitney Ellsworth—and became a much more interesting character as a result. The Turtle Man has the honor of being the first supervillain of the Silver Age, having been the first costumed foe of the revived Flash, in a story by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino for the Scarlet Speedster's debut in Showcase #4 (1956). Naturally slow and stolid, the Turtle Man was the natural contrast to a super-speedster. He returned in later years, using super-scientific devices against his nemesis. The Turtle Man, like the Flash, was also a revision of a Golden Age character. Another difference between the Golden and Silver ages can be seen in the methods by which superheroes and villains received their unique skills. Though science and magic have always played a part in such origins, magic is much more likely to be found in the origin of a Golden Age character, whether hero or villain. The use of the atomic bomb to end World War II—and America's dual fascination with and repulsion by that device—triggered the supremacy of science as a method for creating super-powered characters; the first generation of Marvel superheroes would not exist were it not for that handy, all-encompassing excuse, atomic radiation. (Of course, it can be argued that the “science” used in most superhero comic books is not much different from magic, but the trappings and the mood of such methods are unquestionably different.) DC editor Julius Schwartz, a former science-fiction agent, used super-science almost exclusively as a venue for Silver Age characters. He retooled Green Lantern from a lone wielder of a mystic power battery to one of 3,600 uniformed cops armed with “power rings” patrolling the galaxy (in a nod, it must be acknowledged, to the Lensman series by E. E. “Doc” Smith), and repositioned the Atom from a guy who was simply short and strong to a scientist who discovered a method to shrink to subatomic sizes and travel through telephone wires. This method also worked when fashioning supervillains. Byth, who fled from his native planet Thanagar to Earth, was pursued by Thanagarian police officers Katar and Shayera Hol. They had to use all their resources to defeat him—Byth had taken a pill that enabled him to change his shape at will, as seen in The Brave and the Bold #34 (1961). After capturing him, the Hols stayed on Earth to study law enforcement techniques, battling crime under the names of Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Byth later broke out of jail and matched wits with the Hawks again. Schwartz's fascination with science is obvious from the many other science- based supervillains introduced in his titles during the Silver Age, including the Justice League of America enemies Xotar the Weapons Master and the Lord of Time, and Green Lantern's foes Sinestro and Black Hand. The Outsider is a good example of another source of villainy, a friend going bad. Alfred Pennyworth was the trusted butler and confidant of Bruce Wayne, and one of the few who knew Wayne was secretly Batman. Alfred sacrificed his life to save Batman from death at the hands of gangsters in Detective Comics #328 (1964, in a story by Bill Finger and Bob Kane), but was later revived by a scientist whose identity remains unknown. The revival effort gave Alfred white skin with odd bumps, as well as superhuman abilities and, for some reason, a virulent hatred of Batman and Robin, according to Detective #334 (1964). Calling himself the Outsider, as he regarded himself outside the human race, he attacked Batman and Robin at odd intervals until he was defeated and restored to his true identity, at which point he resumed his duties at Wayne Manor, despite the occasional relapse into Batman's dreaded foe. (The true story of the Outsider's origin is far more mundane. After Schwartz was appointed editor of the Batman titles, he decided to kill Alfred to shake up the status quo. But when the Batman television show debuted two years later, Alfred was a part of the cast. To make the comics better reflect the television show, Alfred was restored to life. It is not known—and was probably never decided—who the Outsider would have been had not higher powers dictated Alfred's return to life.) Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee somewhat altered the role the villain played in the superhero comic, as he altered much else in the genre. The Marvel supervillain sprang from an allegedly more naturalistic source, such as human frustration, envy, or misguided love, rather than greed and/or the desire to engage the hero in a battle of wits. This led to many intriguing variations on the classic supervillain, arguably the best of these being Dr. Doom, a supervillain who was so cool he was the king of an entire country! Although he boasted a flair for innovation, Lee, like Schwartz, found science fiction a rich source for new supervillains, such as Ronan the Accuser. For centuries, the alien race called the Kree thought Earth to be a minor planet of no galactic importance. Then the Kree's robotic monitor on Earth, Sentry 459, was defeated by the Fantastic Four (FF). Ronan was dispatched to Earth by the Kree's Supreme Intelligence to force the FF to answer for their actions, as witnessed in Fantastic Four vol. 1 #65 (1967) by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Despite his highly technological armor and “universal weapon,” which “has the potential to create and destroy all physical matter,” the FF was also able to repel Ronan, which led to ever-greater Kree monitoring of and interference in affairs on the planet Earth. Eventually, Ronan and an ally named Zarek were able to overthrow the Supreme Intelligence, but the Supreme Intelligence was able to regain its position of power. The Swordsman is an excellent example of how the nature of the supervillain changed in the late Silver Age (or what a certain company called “the Marvel Age of Comics”). Demonstrably a villain, though not without his own, often labyrinthine, code of ethics, the Swordsman— whose real name may or may not be Jacques Duquesne—was a bundle of contradictions from his first appearance in The Avengers vol. 1 #19 (1965). Created by Stan Lee and Don Heck, Duquesne turned out to be the man who had taught a fledging circus performer named Clint Barton everything he knew about edged weapons, then tried to kill the lad when Barton tried to stop him from fleeing with the circus' payroll. It would have taken a lot to stop the Swordsman: his own sword contained a number of offensive weapons such as knockout gas, lightning, and a disintegration beam. These gimmicks, with his purple costume trimmed in magenta, made him as amazing a performer as he was a combatant. Years later, after Barton had grown up to become the archer Hawkeye, the Swordsman reappeared, applying for Avengers membership, despite a long criminal history in Europe. His request was denied, leading to a long series of conflicts with the Avengers, and an on-again off-again romance with the Scarlet Witch. Eventually, the Swordsman—on the run, unable to find employment, and in the grips of alcoholism—fell in love with a woman named Mantis, who restored his faith in himself and convinced him to reform and make a successful second try at joining the Avengers (though Mantis did not return the Swordsman's affections). It was not until the Swordsman sacrificed himself to save Mantis that she realized she did love him. The Swordsman's body was later restored to life by a member of an alien race called the Cotati; he later married Mantis and departed with her to another plane of existence. The supervillains from the smaller comics companies hewed to neither the DC nor the Marvel template, but took a little from Column A, and a little from Column B. A good example of this is Gore, the Man-Ape, an adversary faced by Thunderbolt, the superhero identity of journalist Peter Cannon in Thunderbolt #52 (1966), published by Charlton Comics. Eric Gore, a bald, monocled scientist, transplanted the right hand of an ape onto his own arm when his own right hand was destroyed in a lab explosion. But the operation had an effect unforeseen by Gore—though probably not by the readers. Gore packs up and travels to an island, determined “ … that the humanity I had sacrificed for, to serve … would one day serve me!” Eventually the wandering Peter Cannon stumbles across Gore's lair and is forced to thwart his plans as Thunderbolt by first facing an arena full of apes, then facing down Gore. When T-Bolt and Gore are trapped in a burning laboratory, Gore's right-hand ape, chooses to save Thunderbolt instead of his evil master. None of this is particularly original, but the handling of the materiel, by creator, writer and artist Pete A. Morisi, under the pseudonym of P.A.M., added a certain quiet conviction to the story, making it more than just another saga hacked out to meet a deadline. Gore himself is more a Marvel villain than a DC villain, the scientist who tried to master nature and got his comeuppance. Adding to Gore's appeal is the fact that Morisi had the sense to restrict the character to only one appearance, doubtless aware that he had rung every possible change on the villain in this single appearance. Keep in mind that Charlton Comics also gave us the charmingly wacky Punch and Jewelee, a totally contrived pair of villains whose mood and execution were polar opposites from Gore. But the story's ending is classic DC— Cannon, after his harrowing adventure, tries to spend a quiet night watching television, only to find himself watching King Kong. Another Charlton supervillain, the Ghost, crossed paths with Captain Atom and Nightshade, as well as Punch and Jewelee, his civilian identity being one of P&J's first kidnap victims. In a story by Dave Kaler and Steve Ditko (Captain Atom #82, 1966), Alec Rois' studies to escape his childhood poverty led to his discovery of teleportation technology. He donned an all-white costume with a cape and full-face mask and began a career of crime, calling himself the Ghost. In their civilian identities, the Ghost, Captain Atom, and Nightshade were friends, unaware of each others' double identities. In comics today, the slogan “once a villain, always a villain” is no longer true—if it ever was. After all, most villains would argue that villainy— and heroism—are only a point of view, though their victims might beg to differ.