Supervillain Prisons

Supervillain Prisons

(pop culture)
One of the most difficult dilemmas in superhero comics is what to do with superpowered criminals once they have been caught. Most supervillain prisons are specifically designed to hold superpowered felons, but supervillains by nature are designed and determined to break out of any conceivable holding facility. This paradox seems to present a hopeless, demoralizing struggle for superheroes, but it actually proves to be a useful and familiar device for readers who expect to see superheroes fighting significant villains on a regular basis. Hence, the prisons' design and security flaws are as variable (and inevitable) as the villains they contain. Marvel Comics has provided perhaps the most fluid, continuous series of supervillain prisons in superhero comics. Marvel's first supervillain prison was Ryker's Island Prison, a jail patterned after the real Riker's Island in New York City. Like the actual Riker's, Ryker's Prison is situated in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. For many years, prison officials designated one wing of Ryker's as the supervillain wing. Because the prison wasn't designed to accommodate superpowered criminals, it experienced repeated jailbreaks and extensive destruction to the entire facility. U.S. government officials and non-superhuman prisoners who feared for their lives put so much pressure on prison administrators that the superhuman wing was eventually shut down. The superhuman criminals who had been at Ryker's were then moved to a government research facility called Project: Pegasus, the Marvel equivalent of DC Comics' S.T.A.R. Labs. Many of the inmates were studied at a wing of the Project called “the Compound,” which was dedicated to superhuman research. The Project didn't last long, but the information gathered from metahuman research there allowed the government to design a more effective facility dedicated solely to the incarceration of superhuman criminals. The Vault, the United States government's next and most extensive superhuman prison, was constructed entirely underground in the Rocky Mountain range in Colorado. The compound was heavily fortified and guarded, but supervillains inevitably escaped despite the fact that each cell was customized to neutralize the occupant's super-power. A successor to the Vault is the Raft, a supervillain prison relocated on Ryker's Island. The Raft was built to rectify many of the Vault's weaknesses, but this prison has proven to be just another in a series of porous containment facilities. A major jailbreak at the Vault (New Avengers #1–#6, 2004–2005) led the dismantled Avengers to reassemble and pursue a slew of highly dangerous escaped convicts across the planet. Yet another facility for incarcerating Marvel supervillains, the Big House (She-Hulk #5, 2004), employed former Ant-Man Hank Pym's shrinking technology to miniaturize felons to action-figure height. A breakout resulted in a stampede of dollsized villains. The Slabside Island Maximum Security Facility, located in Antarctica, is the DC Universe's equivalent of Marvel's Raft, Astro City's Biro Island Correctional Facility, and the real world's Alcatraz Island. Designed specifically for metahumans, “the Slab” can hold up to 205 of the most dangerous superhuman criminals on Earth. Like other prisons, the Slab was designed to be escape-proof, but (like other prisons) the Slab has been breached on several occasions—most notably by the intergalactic warlord Mongul, who released a number of supervillains when he escaped (Green Lantern vol. 3 #51–#53, 1994). A similar maximum security facility is located at Belle Reve Prison in Terrebonne Parrish, Louisiana. Located on the edge of a swamp, Belle Reve serves both as a prison for many of DC's high-profile villains and as the headquarters for the Suicide Squad—a covert government- organized team of semi-reformed villains trying to earn their freedom. Besides the Slab and Belle Reve, DC villains are held (however briefly) in several other prisons tied to more specific characters, times, and locations. Many of Superman's superpowered villains are taken to Stryker's Island, a maximum security prison off the shore of Metropolis. Superman also frequently uses the Phantom Zone, an extradimensional abyss, to imprison many of his most dangerous foes. Iron Heights Prison, situated just three miles outside Keystone City, Kansas, is home to many of the Flash's Rogues' Gallery. The one notable escapee from Iron Heights, the Pied Piper, eventually reformed, but he initiated a security (and civil rights) crackdown that led the Flash into frequent conflict with the prison's administration. After the Piper's escape, all superpowered inmates were moved underground to an isolated dungeon-like area called “the Pipeline.” One thousand years in the future, the Legion of Super- Heroes uses the prison planet Takron-Galtos to incarcerate intergalactic threats. Another notable DC prison is the Gulag, a prison stronghold built by a number of superheroes in the 1996 Elseworlds series Kingdom Come. Intended to lock up out-of-control and dangerous metahumans, the Gulag is a clever visual reflection of the Hall of Doom, the supervillain headquarters in the 1970s animated series Super Friends. While many supervillain prisons are intended to contain and neutralize superpowered criminals, several notable facilities are designed more for mental rehabilitation than incarceration. Unfortunately, this project rarely fares any better than prison containment. Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, probably the most recognizable, distinctive facility in superhero comics, is home to most of the Batman's psychologically troubled rogues. Appropriately, writer Dennis O'Neal named Arkham after a fictional gothic Massachusetts town in H. P. Lovecraft's 1933 story “The Thing On the Doorstep.” Arkham's history has been rewritten numerous times, but mid-2000s continuity has the asylum founded in 1921 by Dr. Amadeus Arkham. Amadeus experienced delusions after the death of his mother, but the murder of his wife and daughter pushed him completely over the edge into insanity. He was eventually confined to a cell in his own asylum, where he scratched messages into the walls and floor with his fingernails for the rest of his life. Arkham Asylum was founded in the midst of psychosis and remains a place of severe psychological trauma for all who go in or near it. As Batman says in the 1989 graphic novel Arkham Asylum, “I'm afraid that when I walk through those asylum gates … when I walk into Arkham and the doors close behind me … it'll be just like coming home.” Even Arkham's employees are susceptible to the ghosts that haunt the building. Former therapist Dr. Harleen Quinzel gradually descended into madness, adopted the name Harley Quinn, and became the Joker's accomplice in crime. Similar rehabilitative failures are experienced frequently at Marvel's equivalent of Arkham, the Ravencroft Institute for the Criminally Insane, where many of Spider-Man's rogues are taken for incarceration and treatment. Supervillain prisons are familiar and necessary in mainstream comic books, but the conventions associated with them reach into other literary forms as well. One of the most notable prisons in popular literature is Azkaban Prison from the Harry Potter novel series. Located on an island in the middle of the North Sea, Azkaban is the holding place for only the very worst offenders of wizard law. The prison is guarded by frightening creatures called Dementors who inflict punishment on prisoners by forcing them to continually relive all of their worst memories. Azkaban is a place of no hope—a place where punishment is valued more than rehabilitation, and where nightmares are used as weapons. The prison also exhibits many recognizable features, from the seclusion of the Slab to the gothic atmosphere of Arkham Asylum.
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