BONUS POST: Thanks to Larry Lade and his May pledge at the Doctor Xaos Patreon! Let’s have some fun today. I got to thinking about how much I liked some of the secondary villains when I was a kid, especially those poor orphans who showed up in Marvel Team-Up or for a half-issue beatdown in the Avengers. I figure now that at least three-quarters of the reason they appeared at all was to maintain IP, compounded with the creators’ knowledge that they wouldn’t own anything they invented. “Can’t own it? Fuck you then, here’s Whiplash again, ‘back for pulse-pounding excitement.'” I mean, what if you had invented Thanos? Or Nightcrawler? Planning on doing that again for these people any time soon? Better to dust off the ol’ Whipperoo, the paycheck’s the same.
They’re like jobbers in pro wrestling, aren’t they? There to lose, to make the hero look good, to be bad enough for us to want to see the hero kick his ass, but not bad enough to be interesting.
From a kid’s point of view, though, some of these rather shopworn villains seemed like opportunities begging to happen and I developed a few favorites. Back-stories that might be learned (granted, invented whole cloth), or dramas that might be their own unique arcs. Besides, like I wrote in Doctor Xaos, there’s something inherently rational in supervillainy-for-profit (or ego, or ideology), and there’s also the interesting problem of not really wanting to be a minion. You can get new stories out of that stuff, and sometimes, the lamer a villain was on the surface, the more likely it seemed, in potential.
When I “stepped back into the river” in 1985, I found that others had felt the same way, whether because they figured they might as well not waste their time or out of genuine creative interest, whichever. I always did like the Gladiator – back in 1976, there was no hero with slicey things on the backs of his hands yet. Frank Miller’s Daredevil did well in re-introducing the character in a successful going-straight story and similarly, horrifically, re-introduced Bullseye and turned him up to 11. It’s hard to fathom now that even his Kingpin was a restoration for a previously undeniably beta-level villain, with the added brilliance of not having to change a thing about the original character.
As a former pre-teen reader of the Secret Empire story in Captain America, I was pleased to find that someone thought Moonstone might be fun, and the new person under the mask retained the original’s appealing cynicism. I kind of wish that the 80s Moonstone might have jumped into her own whole title, relationships, schemes, adventures, and all. In most of these cases, it was a matter of getting a good idea for a new villain and simply pasting it under the existing mask, either by introducing stuff never heretofore hinted at for the same person (Gladiator’s Roman fixation) or by shifting the costume and name onto a new person (Moonstone, including gender switch). And in at least these cases, the villain was straightforwardly menacing and quirky enough to make me believe that their specific presence might matter to the current story – “I’m not the fill-in villain of the month, asshole, this is me, and you better believe it.”
The first Moonstone was Lloyd Bloch from Captain America #169-175, the Secret Empire story (1974). The second was Karla Sophen, lifting a minor character from a later Captain America story and retconning her into a psychiatrist who’s stolen the gem, in The Incredible Hulk #228 (1978). This Moonstone had an illustrious career as an 80s Marvel villain, appearing across four or five titles more-or-less steadily through the decade, effectively becoming an Avengers villain, including the infamous “Jarvis torture” mansion battle story in 1987, until her final appearance in this particular costume and theme in 1990. The last bit pitted her against Bloch re-defined as a new villain, Nefarius (she won).
(Please note that I did not provide the above information as an in-universe, fictional account. Those are the years of publication, not “when” this or that “happened.”)
I realize that Moonstone has since undergone many changes in the Marvel ‘Verse and that’s fine, it’s not to my point – or maybe it is a little, in that this character still merited the effort to do something with her. But in this post, I’m mostly interested in re-introductions, revamps, and coloring-in to the villain as such, rather than what amounts to a whole new character. In other words, I’m interested in how Moonstone was refilled by a new person, but not in how that person switched from being Moonstone to Captain Marvel.
Perhaps there’s s a little challenge as well: if the naked silver guy on a surfboard isn’t too silly to work, then maybe [insert unbelievably lame idea here] isn’t either. I could be wrong but it seems to me that people keep trying out Princess Python over and over because something’s interesting about her, apparently almost working, so maybe this time. Think about it people, we just hit fifty years of comics trying to see what to do with this character, never especially well.
Think you might do something with the Looter? Why not? All he ever wanted to do was rob banks. Maybe he got good at it and moved to some city without superheroes. A story about the Looter completely and successfully enjoying his criminal career would be a lot of fun, including whatever sort of personal hassles might arise, and the travails of the police dealing with it without Spidey or whoever zooming in to stop him. Maybe he’s an interesting person. Maybe some decent, non-simplistic politics concerning police or banks could get going. Hey – he reads William K. Black’s The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One. What might a guy like that do then?
If you’re thinking that Batman: The Animated Series did some good work along these lines, then yes, that’s exactly where my head is at. Paul Dini is clearly a deep fan of venal or disturbed, yet often sympathetic villainy, and rescued a round dozen completely faded DC villains into stunning new visions, especially Poison Ivy. The series, or this aspect of it, was limited by the formula of Batman having to win, though, as well as keeping the focus on him – the latter only occasionally relaxed as in “Harley and Ivy.” What might happen without these constraints?
Oh yeah, one last thing is going on here which can’t be ignored: corporate history. Some villains never or hardly ever got anywhere, but keep showing up in more and more distorted and outright insulting forms. For example, the permutations of the Unicorn seem to be less of the creative work I’m describing, and more of a creepy manifestation of each phase of Marvel ownership and oversight.
Marvel under Goodman Publications alone
- 1964-1969, Tales of Suspense/Iron Man and also in the FF: begins with flanged helmet, soon changed to the muffin-ears + nozzle-head design; the latter part of this phase, he becomes irrecoverably ill
Marvel/Goodman under Cadence Industries, somewhere in the transition between Lee as nominal president (no “suit” in charge) and Al Landau (“suit” definitely in charge)
- 1973, Iron Man: gets into Steve Gerber’s hands and God Knows What ensues, then placed in stasis by Mike Friedrich – this is when the character also becomes irrecoverably crazy
Marvel under Cadence Industries, firmly under the hand of “suit” Jim Galton
- 1978, Iron Man: Bill Mantlo transitions him from stasis! to … coma!
- 1982, Iron Man: Dave Michelinie drowns him, possibly as a mercy killing
Marvel under Cadence Industries after privatization (probably gearing up for sale to New World Entertainment)
- 1985, Secret Wars II (?): possibly by Jim Shooter, he’s dug up by the Beyonder and equipped with a third eye on a stalk (references for this are vague)
Marvel under the Andrews Group (Ron Perelman), with “suit” Terry Stewart in charge
- 1992, Soviet Super Soldiers: written by Fabian Nicieza, this is a completely different guy, also Russian, also with an eye on a stalk (although I’m not sure, because internet sources are starting to contradict each other here)
Marvel in the midst of ridiculous four-way litigation, “suits” in and out the door representing various claimants to ownership
- 1996, Iron Man: Terry Kavanaugh brings in a third guy with an actual horn and a costumed mane (!), with the same costume as the first guy but no evident connection
Marvel under Toy Biz or the larger name Marvel Enterprises, owned and directly managed by Avi Arad
- 2007 Thunderbolts & 2010, Hulk: Winter Guard: the second guy re-appears, still with his stalk
Marvel under Disney
- 2013, Infinity: Heist: written by Frank Tieri, I believe this is the first guy
- 2014, Superior Spider-Man: Dan Slott pulls a full reboot with a fourth guy, who continues to appear
That whole sequence weirds me out. It’s not even “continuity.” It’s … some kind of abomination wrought from IP + varying competence + filling pages to keep your job.
Anyway, getting back to some semblance of content, my hope is that this post can be a community project. Give me the dates and details much as I’ve done for your favorite familiar, maybe-not-lame villain, through changes and revamps. Or name one who never got any and who you think might not have been a waste of time. Not the ones you really think are terrible! This isn’t a joke or snark fest; I’m interested in the those villains which tickle your own creative inspiration or your hope to see them again some day, because maybe this time.
Posted on May 12, 2015, in Lesser is still great and tagged Batman: The Animated Series, Bullseye, Daredevil, Frank Miller, Gladiator, jobber, Kingpin, Looter, Moonstone, Paul Dini, Poison Ivy, Princess Python, Serpent Squad, snake fetish, The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One, Unicorn, William K. Black. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.
I can’t do timelines and issues but reading this makes me think of The Ventriloquist. I love that guy when he shows up. How exactly does a guy end up with Stockholm Syndrome from a puppet!? I want a Batman movie that’s shot more like a horror film where it’s completely ambiguous if the puppet is alive or not.
If you haven’t read the novel or seen the film Magic (1978), you really should do both. The Batman version may be found in the Animated Series, in the 1993 episode Read My Lips.
The film has Anthony Hopkins in it right? I have seen that, though not since I was a teenager. I didn’t know it was a book. I should track down a copy.
I read a lot of Iron Man in the 80s and there was a lot of these kinds of guys. I remember the series generally doing better with the 2nd rate villains primarily by either tying them into a larger theme (“Armor Wars”) or by giving them a little edge or insight on their personality you didn’t see before.
For example, I only first encountered Spymaster to have him killed off by the Ghost an issue later – but it was pretty much like seeing into an 80s version of later Guy Ritchie movies – a bunch of so-so criminals playing for the highest stakes they can get, and willing to off each other if they have to, because they’re not quite up to really hanging with the big dogs.
This also made it particularly fun when I was reading Heroes for Hire, since they fought a LOT of these guys and it made me realize they were in that same sort of two-bit struggling circle of desperate folks.
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Bankuei, that’s a good insight into that chunk of Iron Man comics. He was kind of a dull B-List hero, who fought a bunch of B-List villains.
Curiously, the Ghost is one of those dudes who went through a big change. Initially, he’s just some disgruntled spy dude with intangibility-type armor. Apparently sometime in the mid-2000’s he became this extremely obsessive cryptography/techno-libertarian type, and showed up as an anti-villain in some of the Thunderbolts comics. Had no clue they were the same guy; the look is totally different.
Mid to late 80s, Iron Man actually became this really interesting character – he basically wrecks every relationship through his alcoholism and hero-ing demands, and he also ends up having to ask what he’s responsible for in terms of the weapons he’s sold. It was great.
The villains mostly served as a secondary pressure to his life falling apart, which was fine, because his usual nemesis characters were usually packaged American xenophobia about asians or Russians which… yeah, better left behind.
He had an interesting blip in the 70s too, when Starlin and Gerber did their best to covertly junk the arms-developer schtick entirely and switch him into an ecological innovator. I fondly remember the solar-powered armor, constantly named and identified as such in the captions – it corresponded almost exactly with the installation and removal of the solar panels on the White House.
Wow, let me see if this dummy account works for commenting.
M0therfuck1n’ Stilt-Man. Dead serious. He keeps getting referenced as a pathetic joke, but somehow to me it always seems like the writer is trying too hard–like the guy in high school who’s always making homophobic jokes and then you see him twenty years later getting gay-married in a feather boa. Don’t keep your Stilt-love in the closet, Marvel! Dude is a fantastic visual presence who shifts entire panels around him, he’s delightfully absurd, and he is as old-school as they get.
Whirlwind, a/k/a the Human Top. It takes a little something extra to make Hank Pym look well-adjusted. The deal where he becomes Janet’s chauffeur just to be next to her is creepy as hell, and his second costume & chainmail variation is a great look. Plus: easy to draw as a scribble.
The Circus of Crime. I have never read a good Circus of Crime story, but Jesus Christ these sons of bitches are ballsy. First time out: versus the HULK. They tangle with THOR. They aren’t a super circus: just a regular circus. Couple years later they crash the Wasp’s wedding which is attended by every hero ever. You give the Clown a 2×4 with a nail in it, and he will fight Galactus for you and make it last 22 pages. I imagine they faded because nobody gives a shit about circuses anymore, but again, great visuals, completely nonsensical Möbius Alibi, and utterly fearless.
Radioactive Man. Chinese dude without Kung-Fu powers, magic, or fractured English. Genius scientist, ardent nationalist, incredibly deadly, gone to to toe with Thor, has kooky hypnosis power and god knows what else. Plus he is chubby and bald and wears a… diaper? what is that? This is a guy who must have Opinions, but he’s always been second banana.
Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super Apes. Mainly for the indescribable super apes.
Maximus. The way you do the Inhumans is superhuman Game of Thrones: no best-buddy royal family; everyone plotting against everyone. Blood Opera. Lockjaw as Tyrion. The Inhumans have been a snooze for fifty years; this can’t suck worse than anything else already has.
Ulik. This guy… How is he not in everything?? Ethnic minority with legitimate grievance, hell of a fighter, awesome look. Again: troll with Opinions.
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Oh, spot on. Especially the Clown – you ain’t lyin’ a bit, I remember in the very early days when they kept infesting The Amazing Spider-Man, and when the Clown took over the Circus from the Ringmaster, I thought, oh no, now it’s going to get ugly.
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Here is the thing about the Clown: he is not a robot-clown. He is not a magic-clown. He is a CLOWN-clown. As in, when someone says, “Knock it off, you clown,” the Clown actually turns around to make sure you aren’t talking to him. Like, how many pies to the face do you have to take, before you’re like, “Pffff, this guy has the proportional whatever of a spider, but I have perfectly normal grease paint and floppy shoes, so come at me bitch.”
The whole Circus of Crime is like that, just to a slightly lesser degree. There’s a fine line between “Skills Hero” such as Hawkeye and circus act, but that line does exist, and the Circus of Crime is on the wrong side of it.
The other guy like this is the Scarecrow (Marvel version). I never read any Bronze Age appearances, but he actually goes against Silver Age Iron Man a few times. The guy’s power is that he’s highly, but not superhumanly, flexible, and he has some trained crows. Sure, Iron Man is not in his Superman Manque armor yet, but Lord have mercy, Scarecrow, that is just suicide! You can’t get Iron Man in a leg lock, and what are crows gonna do against a guy wearing metal?
It’s so preposterous that you really want to make it work somehow. Obviously it doesn’t, though. Apparently he got a 1990’s remake into a supernatural horror character, which sort of takes away the appeal as far as I’m concerned. There are a lot of grim, creepy half-demon dudes. But only one rubber-man gutsy enough to face the Golden Avenger.
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Do you remember Paste Pot Pete? A guy in a funny suit and with A BUCKET OF GLUE! And he went against the Human Torch!
(I know that these days he’s called the Trapster, but he’s still a guy with a glue gun…)
Spider-Man had a lot of these guys during the Ditko run… the Enforcerers are three normal guys, one’s “power” is that he has a rope! And even the Green Goblin at the beginning was a normal guy who flew in a silly rocket….
But the one that takes the prize it’s a Daredevil villain… the MATADOR!
His power? He’s a …matador. He is skilled iin bullfighting.
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