A few times a year I’ll visit elementary schools and do a history of comic books presentation for a class of grade 5 or grade 6 students. I know what they like, I’m light on the actual history and heavy into the ‘get them involved’ stuff. The jist of my class is that superheroes are usually creations of the times, important issues of the age spawn heroes that can deal with those issues, Captain America fighting WWII being a glorious and obvious example. I’ll ask the class what the issues of the day are and the answers range from socially sensitive topics to utterly hilarious topics. I then split the kids up into small groups and ask them to create a superhero that is able to fight against what ails the world today.
One world wide concern that always seems to lead the pack is the environment. Kids are very aware of global warming and environmental issues and they have every right to be concerned as to what kind of world is waiting for them when they grow up. The kids are very excited when they present to me EnviroWoman, Captain Nature etc, we even have some fun with how the costumes will look.
Nice little lesson right? Well I’ve only just begun, the excitement they show me at the thought of creating a hero pales in comparison to the reaction they give me when I tell them they now have to create some villains. Villains!!! This is where the teacher looks at me and I do a mic drop.
I’ll state the obvious, villains can make or break a superhero. Name me the two most collected heroes in our hobby and I’ll name you the two heroes with the best and the deepest rogues gallery of villains.
What sparked me onto villains this week was a discussion I had with my pal Mike, I was trying to pawn off a run of early Daredevil on him and he said no, he said nobody wants to collect the early run of Daredevil because there are not enough good villain introductions. Well we have the Owl in #3, Stiltman in #8 and the Gladiator in #18, B listers at best and when compared to the villains the Amazing Spider-Man title was churning out… never mind the Vulture in #2, how about Doc Oc in #3, Sandman in #4, Lizard in #6, Electro in #9 and then the unmatched string of Mysterio #13, Green Goblin #14 and Kraven #15 with the first 20 issues capped off with Scorpion at #20. No wonder amazing Spider-Man is the most collected title in comics.
Batman of course is the other hero with the hall of fame cast of villains. I’ve known a couple of guys that have had a collecting focus on Batman villains, these collections were mouth watering.
What comes first though, the chicken or the egg? Are these heroes better because they have the best villains or do they have the best villains because they are the best heroes? I tend to think the former, I think great characters like Superman suffer because of a lack of a deep stable of A list villains.
Collecting villains has been one of the most profitable collecting strains in the past decade, today even the most insignificant villain introduction (at the time of publication) gets market attention, you never know if that villain will be the next to get attention from other media like TV, films or video games.
Much like how movies turned Guardians of the Galaxy, a C list team (in the comic book world) into an A list team in the mass market pop culture world, movies have changed the desirability of villain first appearances, a good example is Thanos in the Avengers films. Though we are deep into villain mining I do think there are some underappreciated and undervalued first appearances still out there.
Who’s the greatest comic book villain of all time? I will call the Joker the greatest comic book villain creation ever but I can’t seem to peg down who should be in second place. Is it Magneto? Lex Luthor? Doctor Doom?
Hey Walt, great post. I have had many discussions with you and other comic nerds about this topic. The only point I’m going to add to your theory is The Flash. Silver age of course. Here is a guy that has a power that really isn’t all that interesting, he runs fast. He has no Flashmobile or Flash Cave. He certainly can’t swing from flash webs from building to building (or if the 60s cartoon taught us anything, cloud to cloud). So what made the Flash interesting was his villains. Mirror Master. Captain Cold. Reverse Flash. Etc… A great villain can make a lame character great too!
Great point Chris ans so true, the Flash has a great rogues gallery and they make the character so much better.
Yes, Chris…those early Flash villains were brilliant. The (also) Julius Schwartz edited Green Lanterns were not quite so good, but there also were a unique new list of baddies. Sinestro and GL’s own girlfriend, as Star Sapphire, are the only ones leaping to mind. But I like the attempt to create new villains there, as they did so beautifully in The Flash.
But right on, that run of baddies in Spidey, that was amazing. #13 was my very first issue, bought off a comics spinner. It hooked me. Spidey under Ditko (for me Romita was ok, but never the same) and Fantastic Four, they were my guys when I was 12, 13, 14 in the mid-sixties.
Doc Doom, never got tired of him. His Latvian diplomatic immunity keeping him out of prison was a good early twist. He’d the Darth Vader of FF, obviously, but pitted against a better set of heroes than, in my mind, Luke, Leia, and Han, who early on lacked much character depth. Stan really explored each of our heroes, and some villains, far deeper, in those issues before #100.
Honestly, I long ago hit burn out on The Joker. And Luthor. I just don’t care anymore, too much already. Though I really liked young Luthor in the Smallville series, that was brilliant characterization there.
And The Joker makes those early Batman and Detective issues I am still missing too darned expensive!
Greatest villain? I can’t grasp it. But if you consider Darth being spawned by Doc Doom, then you’d have to pick Doom because his influence created the modern ages’s best known baddie in Darth Vader….
Whoa, hold the phone! The greatest comics villain is clearly…Paste Pot Pete. I’m guessing less than a minute given to his creation by Kirby.
Closely followed by Batroc the Leaper. I was completely shocked to see Batroc make such an appearance in the Marvel cinematic universe.
This was a topic on our long missing Comic Culture ( I keep waiting for the speaker phone version in this age of Covid-19)… especially pointing out Flash’s villains being his selling point! I agree he had a lot if great villains who were also rendered exceptionally well by Carmine Infantino…which helped a lot as well! However, Flash doesn’t just run fast… he can time travel and create friction heat…in his defense!
Now, as far as great villains…yes on the Joker! Luthor not so much… his heinous acts could have been preformed by anyone…he may have been an enduring villain but I think it wasn’t until Brainiac that Superman had a great villain! Not only is Brainiac super smart… he comes from Krypton, and he even took a Krypton city hostage!
Doctor Doom is arguably Marvels greatest villain! His look, his psychology, his being leader if a country… so well done! Red Skull could have been as good but he was never really, forgive the pun, fleshed out enough!
There is also Green Goblin… but I will discount the maniacal flier because he was depicted by more then one person!
Paste Pot Pete? I always thought it was Piss Pot Pete. Lame nonetheless! And Gerald I agree on Luthor, never liked him, didn’t even like Gene Hackman when he played him.
Bud, I completely agree on the Joker. He IS a great villain for Batman. But is he the greatest villain? AND I too am completely done with him. So over done. Almost too easy now. Lex Luthor. So tiresome. But yes! Paste Pot Pete! Didn’t he realize his name was so lame he changed it to the Trapster? Ahh good ol’ Pete… But interestingly enough, it just takes a really good writer to take a lame villain to make him or her into an amazing one. Tom King did it with Kite Man. James Robinson did it with Ragdoll on his run on Starman.
Personally I am still waiting for Meli to put in his vote fir Egg Fu….
Gerald, does Egg Fu have big hands?
Gerald’s No-Prize is in the mail, I can’t say the Master of the Mustache Trap would have come to mind, but apropos. I will toot my own horn and point you back to Undervalued Spotlight #371 for a classic treatise on the topic of “Character Introduction: Villains”. I also have a soft spot (doesn’t everybody) for The Fearsome Foot-Fighters, but I guess these disqualified from the solo event.
Yes of course the villain is always the star, in the same way that Buck Jones’s nameless companion always steals the scene. The hero pursues the single path of painlessness, while the villain is free to pursue the infinite varieties of pain. The hero is symmetry, the villain the infinite varieties of asymmetry. The hero the quantum standing wave, the villain the random collapse of the wave function. The hero is the taco, the villain the infinite varieties of hot sauce. Are you writing this down?
I am not “so done” with The Joker, because he is the nightmare. The others have stated goals, even as terrible as wiping out the universe, while The Joker’s goal remains fundamentally unknown. Yes of course he torments his creator, and for a myriad of stated reasons, but in the end there is no fathomable “why” – he is truly The Alien. Many of the other heavyweights – Luthor, Sinestro, and of course Doom – have been rehabilitated at some point. The Joker is untouchable.
I still won’t call him the greatest. I think it is inescapable that that title belongs to Superman. An invincible being of almost limitless power, he devotes himself to protecting the human race. And yet – he could do more. Just tonight I saw Civil War for the second time, and was struck by Peter Parker’s line: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.” With infinite power comes infinite responsibility, and Superman has shirked this for eighty years. What does he tell himself? How does he justify his inaction? He is the apotheosis of the villain in each of us.
Of course, if you want to argue for The Polka Dot Man, I’ll give you a listen.
Hang on… I’m still writing down the tacos and hot sauce part….
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