Golden Age Supervillains

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Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Detective Comics #74 ©1943 DC Comics. COVER ART BY BOB KANE AND GEORGE ROUSSOS.

Golden Age Supervillains

(pop culture)
Comic-book superheroes first burst onto the stage of American popular culture in the “Golden Age of Comics,” starting with the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1 (1938) and closing with the disappearance of most superhero titles in 1951. (Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman evaded cancellation, so their Golden Age continued into the mid-1950s.) This was also the period in which the comics supervillain first emerged. But though it may now seem strange, there were surprisingly few supervillains during the Golden Age. The superheroes usually battled more conventional opponents, ranging from bank robbers to Nazi spies or mad scientists. For example, in Action Comics #1, Superman contended with a wife-beater, thugs menacing Lois Lane, and a war-mongering political lobbyist. Yet the appearance of a superhero seems to inspire supervillains to arise to oppose him. A number of Superman's classic foes debuted in the Golden Age, including Lex Luthor, Mr. Mxyzptlk (who then spelled his name “Mxyztplk”), the Toyman, and the Prankster. Superman's first costumed adversary was the Archer (from Superman #13, 1941), a former big-game hunter who extorted money from his victims and used his bow and arrow to kill those who refused to pay. Soon afterward, Superman clashed with the Lightning Master, a hooded scientist who threatened to destroy the city of Metropolis with his “lightning machine” (in Superman #14, 1942). In other cases, including that of Luthor, even Superman's supervillains wore conventional clothes rather than costumes. One example is the Puzzler (who debuted in Action #49, 1942), a ruthless master criminal who was an expert in puzzles, card games, checkers, and other parlor games. One of Superman's most frequent Golden Age adversaries, con man J. Wilbur Wolfingham (who first appeared in Superman #26, 1944), was bald and wore a monocle but otherwise was the spitting image of W. C. Fields. Thanks to Superman's interventions, Wolfingham's elaborate swindles continually backfired, making his victims rich instead. Superman's strangest Golden Age enemy was Funnyface (from Superman #19, 1942), a cartoonist who used a strange ray to bring villains from comic strips to life to commit crimes for him. Some of the best remembered Golden Age Superman villains never appeared in the comics. The title villains of Max Fleischer's animated Superman cartoon “The Bulleteers” (1942) terrorized Metropolis by ramming rocket-powered flying “bullet cars” into buildings at high speed, demolishing them. Atom Man was a super-strong Nazi who gave off Kryptonite radiation in a memorable storyline on the Superman radio show in 1945. (Atom Man was belatedly introduced into comics in World's Finest #271, 1981.) More enduring supervillains were created for Batman than for other Golden Age series. Batman co-creator Bob Kane admired Chester Gould's comic strip Dick Tracy, which was famous for its villains with their outsized personalities and distinctive, grotesque looks, such as Flattop and Pruneface. Perhaps Kane wanted to give Batman a similar kind of rogues' gallery. (The Penguin's face even resembles that of a minor Tracy villain, Broadway Bates.) Many of Batman's most famous enemies originated in the 1940s, including the Joker and Catwoman. The first supervillain to menace Batman was Dr. Death (from Detective Comics #29, 1939), a criminal scientist who developed a lethal “pollen extract” with which to murder his victims. Identical cousins Deever and Dumfree Tweed, both short, fat, and cherubic-looking, matched wits with Batman as the criminal team of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, starting in Detective #74 (1943). Gotham City playboy Mortimer Drake became the Cavalier (in Detective Comics #81, 1943), a swashbuckling thief who is costumed as a seventeenth-century musketeer and wields a sword that shoots electrical bolts. Underworld figures plotting crimes would consulted Dr. Matthew Thorne, “the Crime Surgeon” (starting in Batman #18, 1943), who would “prescribed” his recommendations in exchange for a share of the ill-gotten goods. Ironically, Thorne still felt bound by the Hippocratic oath and even once operated on Robin to save his life. Though the original Crime Surgeon died, DC later introduced the modern version, Dr. Bradford Thorne, the Crime Doctor, practicing in the twenty-first century in the miniseries Villains United (2005). Floyd Ventris, alias Mirror-Man, employed mirrors in his robberies, starting in Detective #213 (1954). Using an “X-ray mirror” Mirror-Man saw through Batman's mask, but Batman ultimately succeeded in persuading Ventris he was not Bruce Wayne. Criminal Phil Cobb adopted two different costumed identities: first, he became the Signalman, who took signs and signals as his theme (in Batman #112, 1957), and later he became the Blue Bowman, who utilized an array of trick arrows (in Batman #139, 1961). “The Terrible Trio” were a triumvirate of criminal scientists, disguised by animal masks, who invented extraordinary vehicles and advanced weapons with which to commit spectacular robberies, beginning in Detective #253 (1958). The Fox created devices to be used on land, the Shark specialized in marine vessels, and the Vulture designed advanced aircraft. During World War II, Wonder Woman frequently battled the Nazis, most notably the ruthless Gestapo agent, Baroness Paula von Gunther (who debuted in Sensation Comics #4, 1942). The Nazis were aided by the war god Mars and his subordinate, the Duke of Deception (introduced in Wonder Woman #2, 1942), a minor deity who used his powers of illusion to spread deceit. There was a wackiness to the 1940s Wonder Woman comics that manifested itself in some of her villains. Giganta (who debuted in Wonder Woman #9, 1944) was originally a large ape who was transformed into a super-strong, savage woman. The oddly titled Minister Blizzard, introduced in Wonder Woman #29 (1948), employed cold as a weapon, like the Golden Age Green Lantern's nemesis, the Icicle. Another of Wonder Woman's recurring enemies, the Angle Man (who first appeared in Wonder Woman #70, 1954), was a criminal mastermind who always came up with an “angle” to his robberies that made his schemes extraordinary. The Angle Man later acquired a costume and a device called the Angler that enabled him to teleport himself. He perished in Crisis on Infinite Earths #10 (1986). Besides the Fiddler and the Shade, the Golden Age's Flash's most notorious enemy was the Thinker, a district attorney who turned into a brilliant criminal mastermind in All-Flash #12 (1943). When he returned in the 1960s, the Thinker had acquired his “thinking cap,” which endowed him with telekinetic powers. Yet another Flash adversary was the Rag Doll (introduced in Flash Comics #36, 1942), a contortionist with a “triple-jointed skeleton.” His son had artificial joints implanted in his body to duplicate his powers, and thus became the Rag Doll who joined the new Secret Six in DC's Villains United. Another opponent for the Golden Age Flash was the Turtle (from All-Flash #21, 1946), a criminal who moved and talked with excruciating slowness. (A second “Turtle Man” was the first adversary of the Silver Age Flash.) Besides the monstrous Solomon Grundy, the Golden Age Green Lantern repeatedly battled “Crusher” Crock, a professional athlete turned criminal (who debuted in All-American Comics #85, 1947) who later became known as the Sportsmaster, a costumed thief who turns sports equipment into weapons. Other Green Lantern nemeses were the Gambler, a master of disguise (from Green Lantern #12, 1944), the Sky Pirate, who used an aircraft to plunder his victims (from Green Lantern #27, 1947), and Knodar, a time traveler from the twenty-fifth century (introduced in Green Lantern #28, 1947). Beginning in Sensation Comics #68 (1947), the original Huntress attempted to hunt down the costumed crime fighter Wildcat to make him a captive in her private zoo. By the mid-1960s the Huntress had married the Sportsmaster. Wildcat's other leading nemesis was the Yellow Wasp (starting in Sensation Comics #20, 1943), a costumed criminal who attacked people with swarms of wasps and even drove a “Waspmobile.” The modern supervillain, Killer Wasp, first seen in JSA #9 (2000), claims to be the Yellow Wasp's son. The sorcerer Dr. Fate counted among his leading enemies Ian Karkull, a scientist who turned himself into a living shadow (in More Fun Comics #69, 1941) and Mr. Who (from More Fun Comics #73, 1941), who used his “Solution Z” to transform himself into a super-strong giant. Though the Vigilante was a Western gunslinger fighting crime in New York City, his unlikely archenemy was the Dummy (introduced in Leading Comics #1, 1941), a diminutive mastermind who looked and dressed like Charlie McCarthy, the famous dummy of 1940s ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Boy Commandos were not superheroes, but they encountered a supervillain, Crazy-Quilt, in Boy Commandos #15 (1946). After being blinded, Crazy-Quilt underwent an operation that enabled him to see bright colors, and adopted color as the theme of his robberies. He later became an enemy of Batman and Robin. Simon and Kirby created the mysterious Agent Axis as the Boy Commandos' foe (Boy Commandos #1, 1942), but decades later Kirby, perhaps forgetfully, reintroduced him at Marvel as a wartime enemy of Captain America (in Tales of Suspense #82, 1966)! As well as Dr. Sivana, Mr. Mind, and Captain Nazi, Fawcett Publications' Captain Marvel also tangled with the robot Mr. Atom (from Captain Marvel Adventures #78, 1947) and the barbarian King Kull (from Captain Marvel Adventures #125, 1951, and named after Robert E. Howard's hero). In Captain Marvel Adventures #8 (1942), small-time crook “Stinky” Printwhistle made a deal with the devil, enabling him to turn into the super-strong IBAC, empowered by the evil spirits of Ivan the Terrible, Cesare Borgia, Attila the Hun, and Caligula. Fawcett hero Bulletman counted among his enemies Dr. Riddle (from Bulletman #5, 1942), a hunchbacked killer who left riddle clues like the Batman's more famous foe, the Riddler, and the Weeper (from Master Comics #23, 1942), a murderer whose characteristic mood was the opposite of the Joker's. Quality Comics' Plastic Man often battled villains who were as unusual as he was. Among his many one-shot adversaries were “Gargantua, the Phi Beta Gorilla” (from Police Comics #81, 1948), a predecessor of Grodd and other super-intelligent apes in comics. Plastic Man also clashed with the Spider, a costumed thief who wore a mask that looked like an actual spider's head and wielded a gun that fired “webbing” made of wire that was stronger than steel. The Spider appeared in Plastic Man #46 (1954), only eight years before the debut of Marvel's Spider-Man. One of the most iconic Golden Age villains was the Claw, artist Jack Cole's variation on Fu Manchu, who debuted in his own series in Silver Streak Comics #1 (1939), later published by Lev Gleason Publications, and was repeatedly opposed by the Golden Age Daredevil.
Timely supervillain shortage by cocreating some of his own for The Invaders (1975–1979), a modern Marvel series set during World War II, notably the super-strong Master Man (Giant-Size Invaders #1, 1975) and the Nazi vampire Baron Blood (The Invaders #7, 1976). Two alluring women who starred in their own Golden Age series were operatives of the devil. Timely's original Black Widow (who debuted in Mystic Comics #4, 1940) killed evildoers to send their souls to her master Satan. Similarly, Madame Satan (who first appeared in MLJ's Pep Comics #17, 1941) attempted to seduce men in order to lead them into sin. Madame Satan could kill a man simply by kissing him; the Black Widow needed only to touch her victim's head to slay him. Finally, another character called the Spider, a costumed archer who first appeared in Quality Comics' Crack Comics #1 (1940), was portrayed in the Golden Age as a superhero. But revisionist DC Comics stories have revealed that the Spider actually posed as a superhero to conceal his own activities as a murderer and kidnapper. So one of the earliest superheroes was also one of the first comics supervillains!
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