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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Panel Vision - Super Villain Comics

An odd subsection of comic books that’s gaining quite a bit of notoriety in recent years are villain comics.  Partially this is due to the build up for things like the Suicide Squad movie but overall there have just been more villain comics in the works nowadays.  Just the week we’ve seen installments of Sinestro and Magneto comics as well as the ongoing Secret Wars: Future Imperfect comic which follows the villain Maestro’s point of view.  Villain titles are hardly anything new for superhero comics so I thought it’d be cool to go through the plethora of previous books about the bad guys.  This won’t be touching on every villainous ongoing, one-shot, graphic novel, and mini-series ever because we really don’t have the time, just the ones I think are worthy of checking out for the curious.  What’s more I won’t be touching on comics that feature reformed villains like Thunderbolts, Superior Spider-man, or the Flash Thompson Venom comic.  This is just comics about villains doing their villain thing, with that said let’s look at the comic that arguably started this whole trend with…

Tomb of Dracula was part of a concerted push by Marvel in the early ‘70s to continue expanding the scope of their universe in genre terms.  Tomb of Dracula was part of a push for more supernatural and horror characters in the Marvel universe, the same push that gave us cult classics like Michael Morbius, Moon Knight, and Ghost Rider.  At the time there were other monster books like Manthing or Werewolf by Night but Tomb of Dracula was the only one where the monster at hand was truly villainous rather than just sort of misunderstood.  Dracula is a true cosmic level villain in his comic, scheming and plotting and often battling other Marvel heroes like the X-men or Spider-man.  This might be why Tomb of Dracula proved the most popular of Marvel’s horror comics, lasting for nearly the entire ‘70s and even getting an anime adaptation.  Tomb of Dracula is a great intro the concept of villain comics for just how amazingly well written it is.  That’s most likely owed to the murders row of talent the book sported with comic Gods like Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin, Marv Wolfman, and Gardner Fox, one of the most influential scifi authors of all time.  Tomb of Dracula is also noticeable for partially inventing popular vampire slayer Blade. 

The success of Tomb of Dracula inspired Marvel to forge a second villain comic 3 years later: Super Villain Team-Up.  Despite the name the comic is mostly focused on the misadventures of Dr. Doom with a particular eye aimed towards his rivalry with Namor the Submariner.  Super Villain Team-up is a more inconsistent comic than Tomb of Dracula owing to its odd scheduling nature but still holds a lot of good elements.  The central thing that helps elevate the series is Dr. Doom himself.  Dr. Doom, even more than Dracula, is the perfect villain to fill the role of a protagonist.  He’s a master of science, strategy, and magic as well as a self made man who clawed his way up from nothing.  Super Villain Team-Up emphasizes Doom’s identity as a megalomaniacal lunatic most of all but that’s still a fun component of his character to explore.  Like a lot of egomaniac villains Doom’s self confidence, legitimate skill, and unbreakable tenacity in the face of defeat make him actually pretty sympathetic. 

DOOM 2099
What Super Villain Team-Up started Doom 2099 finished, perfecting Dr. Doom’s transition into more of an anti-villain than anything else.  Doom 2099 actually paired a lot of key ideas together to really change the concept of a villain comic.  From Tomb of Dracula it took the emphasis on the villain trying to adapt to a new world as that comic had dropped the classic Dracula into the middle of the 1970s.  What it really brings to the fore is the idea of Dr. Doom as a legitimate protector and ruler of his subjects, with the books main focus on Doom trying to reclaim control of his country after 100 years of absence.  It’s a good comic and really laid the groundwork for a lot of key villain books going forward, especially the idea of a villain as someone willing to take any action to protect people he deems his subjects.  It’s a real reversal of the standard betrayal approach that informed Super Villain Team-Up and its sister comic at DC.

The Joker comic came out the same year as Super Villain Team-Up and took a similar if slightly different tract.  Written by Batman maven Denny O’Neil, The Joker was more of a straight ahead ongoing series that just happened to feature a main character who committed crimes.  Everything about the structure of the stories at hand is classic Bronze Age superhero storytelling from DC just with the morality inverted.  The main thesis of the comic seems to be an attempt to recreate DC’s monster success with Brave and the Bold and DC Comics Presents, comics that paired Batman and Superman respectively with other heroes for one-off adventures.  Consequently The Joker does feature a guest star character for every issue but it’s a bit iffy on the team-up sections.  Sometimes it’s a rivalry, sometimes it’s a team-up, sometimes it’s just a hero the Joker happens to be fighting.  The highlight of the comic is a body swap issue where Lex Luthor and Joker switch personalities.  The Joker’s had a plethora of comic spotlights over the years since this but the 1975 comic is the only time the Joker was non-violent enough to be a character that’s kind of sympathetic to the audience.  This was still before a even Death in the Family so most of the stories just revolve around Joker trying to steal money and being playful but still dangerous.  The only other great Joker comic didn’t even really feature him in it.

Joker’s Asylum was an anthology mini-series from DC that surprisingly predated the very popular Arkham Asylum video games.  Each issue spotlighted a different Batman villain with a unique author/artist team for the issues.  They’re a great collection of tales and tragedies that really delve into the psychological core of the villains they spotlight without resorting to a lot of the disappointing cheap tricks that populate a lot of slick, modern Batman villain focuses.  Overall the second series of one-shots is better than the first with the Clayface, Mad Hatter, and Killer Croc comics as serious standouts.  The unique blend of horror, crime, and tragedy makes the whole series deeply reminiscent of Batman the animated series which also gave a major focus to the bad guys.  The best issue though is the Penguin one-shot which stands as a truly chilling rendition of this character and the horrific brutality he’s capable of.  It’s all a great exploration of character psychology and I might need to come back to it in future.

Speaking of comics worthy of a full review Thanos Quest is almost definitely something I’ll be looking at next time a Marvel film rolls around with a predominant part for the Mad Titan.  Thanos Quest was a 2-issue prestige comic by cosmic comic king Jim Starlin that served to set-up the events of The Infinity Gauntlet.  The plot follows Thanos as he goes about collecting the Infinity Gems from their previous guardians: the elders of the universe.  It’s most similar to Super Villain Team-Up but the limited format and quest focus really crystallizes the concept’s best elements.  Thanos’ cunning and clever approach to his enemies is instantly endearing and the fact that his quest is motivated by a kind of love is actually pretty sympathetic.  Despite his morbid obsessions Thanos comes off as more of an unfortunately obtuse protagonist than anything else, like you get the sense he just doesn’t graps how relationships work more than anything else.  It also helps that this is one of the few villain comics where the villain totally wins. 

Another quest based villains story that owes a lot of inspiration to Thanos Quest.  In the last days before the New 52 relaunch DC was in a very weird place.  Most of their major events like New Krypton and Black Night were wrapped up and the individuals authors were in a weird limbo zone of complete creative freedom while knowing their stories wouldn’t really matter.  It was in this weird morass of factors that Action Comics decided to shift gears and make Lex Luthor the main character.  The story is a direct follow up to the events of Blackest Night in which Luthor received an orange lantern ring.  In Action Comics Luthor was involved hunting down several anomalies in search of some ultimate power.  Action Comics uses the set-up much like Thanos Quest: a chance to globe trot through the craziness of the DC universe while also exploring Lex Luthor’s identity.  The big difference is that Luthor is a more versatile and unique character than Thanos with less of a locked in identity and motivation.  It’s a very well written comic that features a lot of cool villain appearances like Gorilla Grodd and Mr. Mind.  

As I stated earlier this week I’m an unapologetic fan of ‘90s comic books and that includes the ‘90s obsession with Venom.  Venom: Lethal Protector isn’t exactly a great comic book but it’s one of those unique pieces of ‘90s ephemera that remain very satisfying in a manner beyond the simple bounds of nostalgia.  It’s even more surprising given that Venom: Lethal Protector is incredibly formless without much focus, working its way through a ton of weird elements and story plot points with very little cohesion.  In a lot of ways the disconnected nature of the comic is what makes it so enjoyable, a hodgepodge of genre elements drawn from across the range of scifi, action, and blockbuster all welded together by the ‘90s favorite narrative focal point: base indulgence.  It’s a great comic to read through for the pictures and visual plotting rather than narration or characters.

The Superior Foes of Spider-man is like the polar opposite of Venom: Lethal Protector, a comic that rises completely on character more than anything else.  Set during the Superior Spider-man era the book revolves around 5 D-list Spider-man villains trying to survive as costumed criminals in Manhattan.  The main hero is Boomerang, an obscure Spider-man villain who was already a bit of a rip-off when he was first invented.  It’s a brilliant superhero comedy with a major emphasis on the idiosyncrasies of depicting real, grounded humans caught up in the madness of superheroes and supervillains.  It’s very similar in that regard to comics like Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye or the ongoing Ant-Man.  It’s a lot like if prime Guy Ritchie had directed a Netflix series for Marvel.  Oozing in personality and comedy it’s a really great exploration of the idea that just because characters are criminals doesn’t mean they aren’t people with stories to be told. 

The most recent entry on this list Magneto arose out of the slew of villainous X-Men comics that spun out of Avengers vs. X-Men.  Avengers vs. X-Men had the impact of basically turning Cyclops into classic Magneto, a genocidal egomaniac with a cultish terrorist strike force of mutants at his disposal.  As a result of this Magneto has had to carve out a new identity for himself as sort of a street level defender of mutant kind and splinter group from Cyclops’ forces.  His comic is basically The Punisher but with a bent towards anti-Mutant crime and starring a holocaust survivor.  It also does a great job keeping Magneto firmly in the villain camp, doing a lot of really horrible and unforgiving things to people that fall firmly in the category of wrong or evil.  It’s hard to tell how much more of this comic we’ll get with the oncoming Marvel reboot rumbling towards us so this is a good one to check out before it goes the way of the dodo.  

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