Weekly Geeky Question #28: Favorite Comic Book Villains

Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #28, and this week’s question is a pretty straightforward one.

Who are my favorite comic book villains?

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It’s  straightforward question, but it took a while for me to think of my answers, simply because I’m far more of a “hero” guy than a “villain” guy.  I know people often say that the hero is only as good as the villain, but I don’t think that’s completely true.  I mean, you want a good villain in your movie, but a hero is more than just a reaction to a villain–he or she is a character in their own right and need to be treated as such.  To wit, Batman Begins is probably my favorite Batman movie because I think it’s the one that does the best job showcasing Bruce Wayne as a character…even though The Dark Knight has the clearly more memorable villain.

But after thinking about it, there were some villains that come to mind, and so I’m here to talk about why I like them, as Rod as asked.  Sorry, no time for individual images this time around.  So, in no particular order…,

Two-Face

Created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, first appearing in Detective Comics #66 in August 1942

Speaking of The Dark Knight, here is the first villain that I thought of…Two-Face.  Two-Face is Harvey Dent (originally Harvey Kent, actually), a courageous though mentally challenged district attorney of Gotham City, who was physically scarred in an attack by a criminal.  The disfiguring of one half of his face broke his fragile psyche and turned him into a gangster obsessed with duality, chance and, quite simply, the number Two. His trademark is his double-headed coin, with one side scarred to represent his darker self, and his commitment to allow the flip of the coin determine whether he allows those evil impulses to reign.

I like Two-Face for his peculiar modus operandi and striking visual look, but really the thing that is so interesting is the fact that he was once Batman’s trusted friend and ally.  Indeed, in the famous Batman Year One story, Dent is treated as Batman’s supporter even before Jim Gordon was.  And yet, here is a man whose obsession for law and order actually worked against him, and led to the mental breakdown that turned him into a master criminal.

Many of the best villains have something about them which represents a particular and personal challenge for the hero they are often running afoul of, and in Two-Face’s case it’s this issue of duality.   Batman is himself a creature of duality–he hides behind a “face” that he puts on in the daytime, that of the rich playboy Bruce Wayne.  But as Batman, the dark knight who uses fear as a weapon, he discovers his “true” self.  But with this double-sided nature of his existence, Batman often teeters on the edge of madness.  Two-Face represents what Batman could easily become if he gave into the darkness within and around him. Combine with the nobility of who he was earlier in his life, and you get the pathos that makes Two-Face my favorite Batman villain.

Emerald Empress

Created by Jim Shooter and Curt Swan in Adventure Comics #352, published January 1967

The Legion of Super-Heroes is traditional my favorite mainstream comic, so when I was posed this question of course I thought of them and tried to figure out which of their many foes is my favorite.  As I said, I’m more of a “hero” guy so it took me a bit, but eventually I settled on the Emerald Empress.

The Emerald Empress first appeared when the Legion was shorthanded in the face of the Sun-Eater, a monstrous cloud that threatened multiple solar systems.  They recruited the greatest criminals in the galaxy to help fight it, inadvertently turning them into the Fatal Five, possibly their greatest enemies.  The Emerald Empress herself is really Sarya from the planet Venegar, possibly a genuine Empress who controlled the mystical Emerald Eye of Ekron, a large floating eyeball that wielded a powerful green energy which could do all sorts of things, include fire powerful energy blasts and allow Sarya to fly in space.

The Emerald Empress has a cool look (she’s got a giant eyeball floating nearby her!) and regal bearing that I liked, and she stood out against the rest of the Fatal Five by being the only female member.  But I really grew interested in the character when she appeared in a couple of significant arcs by Paul Levitz in the 1980’s.  There, she led a new iteration of the Fatal Five (as two of the old members were unavailable and a third one, Mano, was treated as just being a bit too disgusting for her to have around) and really came into her own as a ruthless criminal leader.

Later, Levitz (with long-time collaborator Keith Giffen) had Sarya return again, and once again face off with Projectra.  On this occasion, her “royal” quality was played up more, and the battle became one that was between two people of royal standing.  It was also revealed that the Empress was actually a prisoner of sorts to the Eye, and in the end she was able to convince Projectra to use her powers to set her free, which resulted in her instantly crumbling into dust.

There have been other versions of the Emerald Empress since then, including a full reboot of Sarya herself (and in the animated series she was the leader of the Fatal Five from the outset) but it is this version of the character, under Paul Levitz and the artists who worked with him, that became a favorite of mine.

Braniac

Created by Otto Binder and Al Plastino in Action Comics #242, published July 1958

Since I’m not by nature a fan of a lot of villains, I find that pondering my “favorites” often leads me to particular stories that I consider to be “classic” or “definitive”.  They are a favorite because of those one or two particular tales, which is the case with the Emerald Empress, above.  It’s also the case for Brainiac, though certainly the character has had no shortage of appearances.  He’s generally considered to be Superman’s second most important foe, and has menaced earth and Superman lots of times.  Some of those have been good stories, like his complete revamping into a more overt computerized form, by Marv Wolfman and Gil Kane in the 1980’s, or like the Panic in the Sky! invasion story in the 1990’s.

But my favorite is the story which has been collected as Superman: Brainiac by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, which came out in the 2000’s.  That tale capitalized on everything that is cool about the concept of Brainiac, putting it all into solid story with lots of action, a tight plot, and good characterization.  But though it’s that one story that makes me really pay attention to the character, the reasons I like him are things that have been in place since the beginning:  namely, his incredibly cool core concept.  Simply put, Brainiac is an evil computerized android who collects shrunken cities in bottles (and has a Kryptonian city in his collection, to boot!)  This is exactly the sort of thing Superman should be fighting:  cosmic threats that are waaaay too dangerous for anyone else to face, who threaten everything the Man of Steel stands for, and whose actions he has no choice but to take personally.

That’s what the character has always been about, it’s just that Geoff Johns’ took advantage of that concept better than any other story I’ve read, using the character perfectly to bring out everything that there is to like about Superman:  his values, his power, his heroism. Like others, I’ve been hanging out for Brainiac’s cinematic debut, as he’s basically the perfect villain for a big budget blockbuster sort of movie.  He appeared in Smallville but really the best depiction we’ve had so far was in the recent TV series Krypton. 

As an aside, another character who I like for almost exactly the same reasons, but who hasn’t appeared nearly as often as Brainiac, is Solaris, who debuted in Grant Morrison’s DC One Million crossover.  He’s a sentient star who desires to replace the sun as the center of the solar system, which is the sort of lunatic awesomeness one expects from Grant Morrison.

Lex Luthor

Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in Action Comics #23, published April 1940

Now, in a lot of ways, Lex Luthor is exactly what I don’t like in a lot of popular villains:  the endless repeat appearances, the complete inability of the hero to every permanently defeat them, the constant “getting away with it.”  Luthor has appeared innumerable times in the 75+ years he’s been around, and he has been in some great stories.  But like a lot of characters on this list, there is a particular creative team’s work which came a lot later than the the character’s original inventors that earns Luthor a spot on this list.  The difference is that this particular bit of comic book history wasn’t just one arc long, but went on for years.

I’m talking about what’s known as the “Post-Crisis” Superman, which started in John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries in 1986.  It was further developed by Marv Wolfman and then a whooooole lot of other writers and artists, but Byrne got it down on paper first.  See, before Man of Steel, Luthor was usually a disgruntled scientist who was constantly trying to kill Superman, getting caught, getting put in jail, escaping, and then trying to kill Superman again.  Rinse, repeat.

Byrne turned Luthor into an incredibly rich and successful businessman, someone who owned a huge portion of Metropolis and had his fingers in every part of that vast financial pie.  But of course he’s actually incredibly cruel and corrupt, out for his own power and gratification, and uncaring of everyone but himself…while all the while ever growing his hatred and disdain for Superman.  The characterization was so strong that nearly every version of the character since (and there have been many) has made use of the idea of Luthor being a legitimate figure in the public’s eyes.

Later writers gave Luthor a particular motivation for his hatred of Superman, and his ongoing fixation upon him.  They said that Luthor sees himself as a hero, trying to stop the alien being who makes all human achievement illegitimate, and who impedes human progress by his very presence.

That’s interesting, but I prefer the take that Byrne had, which is that Luthor hates Superman simply because unlike everything else in his life, he cannot be bought.  In one of the Man of Steel issues, Luthor purposely allows a terrorist attack on his ocean liner in order to draw Superman out and test his power levels.  Suitably impressed by what he sees, he attempts to hire Superman to work for him, but of course the hero not only refuses, but actually arrests Luthor for his role in endangering people.  Though he is released from prison within hours and never truly suffers for the accusation, the utter humiliation he experiences at having to go to prison at all makes him Superman’s enemy for life.

Lex Luthor goes on to be on the of most important supporting characters in the Superman books, outpaced only by Lois Lane and maybe Jimmy Olsen.  His prominent role in the ongoing continuity that was created by (eventually) four monthly titles gave the character a rare opportunity for development.  He was forever attempting to get revenge upon Superman, and Superman was forever trying to prove to the world Luthor’s villainy, with neither ever able to succeed.  One of my favorite bits was when Luthor started wearing a kryptonite ring to symbolize how Superman was unable to touch him…only for that ring to give him cancer and necessitate the amputation of his hand.

The writing, by Byrne and his successors (Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, and many more) was strong enough to make this ongoing dynamic believable and compelling.

Dark Phoenix

Created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in X-Men #134, published June 1980

I was going to put Captain Cold here, as depicted in Geoff Johns’ run on The Flash, or maybe Darkseid from Paul Levitz’ The Great Darkness Saga during his Legion of Super-Heroes run.  But then I noticed Dark Phoenix on a list of great villains, and I knew I had to include her.

Dark Phoenix was, of course, Jean Grey (or so we thought at the time), who was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in the 1960’s.  She had been turned into the significantly more powerful Phoenix by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum some 30+ issues earlier.  But still it was Claremont and Byrne who crafted The Dark Phoenix Saga, where Jean Grey’s psyche was severely damaged by an enemy, leading to a sudden and massive outbreak of evil hunger from the great power that lived within her.  Later, with Professor X’s interference, Jean Grey’s proper personality was able to reassert itself, but when Dark Phoenix began to break free again, she committed suicide to prevent what would have been massive destruction.

What makes Dark Phoenix so memorable is the combination of a few basic elements.  First, it’s the fact that she’s Jean Grey–a founding member of the X-Men and Scott Summer’s true love (and indeed, the significant crush of at least two other X-Men).  Long before it became a cliche to do so, with Dark Phoenix, you had the X-Men just not being able to believe that they were being forced to fight a dear friend.

Second, it’s that she’s so insanely powerful.  Really, the X-Men don’t have a chance of defeating her, so the stakes are even higher.

Third, it’s that she’s so casually cruel and evil.  These are not traits I admire, of course, but the transformation of the beloved Jean into this monster is complete that it just adds to the disbelief about it all.  She mocks her former friends as she defeats them, and when she gets hungry she eats an entire star system full of aliens.  So that’s some full-on evil there.

All those things add up to some powerful drama, and ultimately great storytelling.

Plus, John Byrne does an amazing job with the design of the character.  Dave Cockrum had given Jean a nifty costume upgrade when she became Phoenix in the first place, but with Dark Phoenix, Byrne is able to keep the same basic structure of her outfit (the  boots, the sash, etc) while giving it striking and memorable makeover.

Various iterations of the Phoenix have appeared since, but for the most part of none of them matter to me at all, except maybe for Dark Phoenix’s reappearance in the neat X-Men / Teen Titans intercompany crossover written by Claremont and drawn by Walt Simonson.

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