The Twelve All-Time Coolest DC Comics Super-Villains
by Kent "Cheeks" Orlando
"... we're going to ruuuuule the world, Pinky!"
This is another archived article from Unca Cheeks' Silver Age web site. The introduction, which has been removed, simply stated (well, Kent doesn't simply state anything, but you know what we mean) that this was written as a response to a challenge when Cheeks bravely stated that most of Marvel's villains (with the exceptions of Dr. Doom, Red Skull and Kingpin) were L-A-M-E.
This single statement has occasioned just about as much e-mail, hereabouts -- long months after its initial posting, mind -- as has just about anything concomitantly offered up, article-of-faith-wise, before or since. My goodness, but you Marvel Comics partisans are a "touchy" lot. ;-))
In any event: having been summarily "challenged" by more than one adherent to The Gospel According To Stan and Jack (i.e., "... yeah... well... so... just try naming any waycool DC super-baddies, then, whydon'cha, huh...?"); and given that regular correspondent "Big" Bill Brackeen has made a courteous request for entries concerning "the classic DC villains of the Silver Age"...
... tah-dah. This: a paean of praise for as deliciously detestable an assemblage of amoralists and anti-socials as have ever graced the pages of any comic book, anywhere.
Come See the Paradise. ;-))
Of course... one must begin with the first (and still Da Bestest, after all these years) truly classic DC Comics super- stinker: the Clown Caliph of Crime, his own bad self --
What makes this particular uberrotter so immortal in storytelling stature, I think, is a combination of two conceptual "strengths":
1.) No other comic book bete noire has ever ever served as so perfectly crafted a "mirror image" of his (or her) own arch- nemesis.
Whereas The Batman is all about Ruthlessly Controlled (Self-)Repression... the Joker is gleeful anarchism made flesh; wanton self-indulgence run riot. The Batman's ultimate goal (i.e., the "civilizing" of a hopelessly corrupted urban milieu) runs forever counter-clockwise to the Joker's own insatiable impulse for chaos, and social entropy.
2.) Alan Moore's masterful THE KILLING JOKE aside: the Joker has no 'known' True Identity. (DC has -- wisely, I think -- declared all "origin story" aspects of Moore's aforementioned work, in this instance, as being "non-canonical.")
Serving, as he does, as a larger-than-life somatotype... the Joker is one of those vanishingly comics rara avis who would end up being diminished in stature, once we (as readers) were able to affix to him a name; a childhood; and/or any long-term "goal" more concrete than that of "Torment the Holy Living @#$% Out Of the Batman."
The Joker is -- in the final analysis -- best explicated as a primal force of nature; as unrelenting and inhuman as a freak lightning storm, or a tsunami. He is a natural disaster, on two legs.
... and: speaking of primal forces of nature... ;-))
Gorilla Grodd has always fascinated me, right from the git-go. There's something in the sheer, dichotomous admixture of Big, Mean, Ugly Primate and Reigning King of the Evolutionary "Hill" that -- for my money, at any rate -- that elevates this particular meta-stinker above the rest of the Silver Age Flash's gaggle of gimmick-laden foemen, overall.
Grodd has always been treated as being one of the "big guns," stature- wise, within the villainous "pecking order" of the DC Universe. His tres formidable psionic abilities -- yoked in efficacious tandem alongside his prodigious physical prowess -- once enabled him to pretty much swab the decks with an extremely startled Superman; he led the dominant faction within the short-lived Secret Society of Super-Villains; and has repeatedly been shown to be one of the only two members of the Flash's criminal "Rogues Gallery" (the other being the completely insane Abra-Kadabra) who can give all the others a bad case of The Screaming Fits, simply by striding into the midst of an assemblage of same. One of the undisputed Main Bad Boys, within the annals of DC continuity. ;-))
Poison Ivy, on the other hand, occasions an entirely different sort of response altogether, whenever she sashays her shapely way through a crowd. ;-))
I can still remember the afternoon I plucked the issue of BATMAN containing the initial Poison Ivy appearance (issue #181; 1966) from the local drugstore's comics "spinner" rack; took it home; and promptly read, re-read, and re-re-read the thing eight or ten times over the ensuing weekend. There was an indefinable... something in the explication of this coquettish Verdant Vixen; a slow, steamy, sweat-drenched sense of sensual menace that worked on an inarticulate, visceral level.
Whatever it was, in this instance -- the palpably ravenous, Garbo- esque undercurrent of sexual "challenge" with which the character would regularly whipsaw Our Hapless Hero, or what-have-you -- I'll tell you this much: it made the silly, parlor leather fetishist games of (say) the Catwoman seem downright innocuous, by way of comparison. ;-))
For sheer, amoral cunning, however... it was (and remains) a damned tough job on the part of any costumed contender to beat out the Reflective Rogue known to (and fondly remembered by) all good Silver Age aficionados as "Samuel Scudder"... a.k.a. ...
The Mirror Master
This guy was -- no ifs, ands or buts about it -- the very last DC super-villain you ever wanted to screw around with, push come to shove. Other baddies (such as, say, the aforementioned Grodd) were infinitely more powerful, to be sure...
... but: no other spandexed recidivist anywhere ever demonstrated -- over the course of so many years; in such a stupefying number of ways -- an equivalent level of calculation and brute intelligence in his criminal cavortings, either.
The man was, quite simply, too bloody dangerous to make for a comfortable jousting opponent. Unlike practically every other working member of DC's costumed criminal caste... Mirror Master was a firm (and practiced) adherent to the principle of Taking the Long View, re: the inevitability of super-hero confrontations (in general), and dust-ups with longtime nemesis The Flash (in particular).
He used mirrors to scry the future; to explore bizarre, alternate "mirror realities'; and to befuddle, rather than bludgeon.
Whenever this guy came up with some particularly nefarious "master plan"... you always came away the sinking, gut-level feeling that -- with just the faintest trace element of luck on his side -- it might actually work, dammit.
I always granted the Flash full "props" for having to deal with this Mirror Machiavelli, over the years. God alone knows, I'd have steered well clear of him... nifty super-powers or no. ;-))
It wasn't the Mirror Master, however, who engendered the only actual comics-inspired nightmares I ever experienced, as a child.
No, no; that particular distinction falls to the mad, gaunt (and bloody terrifying, so far as this wide-eyed pre-adolescent was concerned) "Jonathan Crane"... a.k.a. ...
In this case, it was a case of Too Much Empathy With a Comics Character. Even as a friggin' kid, I could connect the conceptual "dots" well enough:
College professor Jonathan Crane was gaunt, and bespectacled; I was gaunt and bespectacled.
Crane committed unspeakable crimes in pursuit of books, books and more books, in order to slake an all-consuming thirst for Reading. I harbored (and still do, to this day) the same unholy fixation with the written word... although I always managed to stop just short of, y'know, knocking over the occasional bank, in so doing. (I was only, like, ten at the time; I had a curfew.) ;-))
Crane enjoyed tarting himself up in rags, stuffed with stray bits of straw and whatnot, and training flock after flock of lethal ravens to do his crazed bidding. I --
... well... okay. The analogy isn't a perfect one, granted. I did have a puppy, however. ;-))
Seriously, though: this guy gave me the whim-whams so darned badly, as a child. Honest to God. You just have no idea.
No one else ever agrees with me on this next guy... but: I always felt that The Black Manta was a serious contender in the Most Complex (and Loathsome) DC Super-Villain Sweepstakes.
Two reasons, chiefly:
1.) The Black Manta was an unregenerate, no foolin' kid killer, having engineered the scheme during which the infant son of Aquaman died a slow, agonizing death by means of asphyxiation.
Even in the over-heated four-color world of the mainstream American adventure comic... actual (and intentional) infanticide is -- I trust we're all agreed -- a pretty heavy "black mark" to carry around upon the ol' "rap sheet" ledger.
2.) The Manta's primary motivation for undersea rapine and pillaging was (so far as I'm aware, at any rate) pretty much unique within the comics canon, overall: to garner enough ill-gotten lucre to establish an underwater separatist "home land" for "his people."
Oh... did I forget to mention it? The Black Manta was... ummm... you know...
"Minority" status; one of the most blood-curdling crimes imaginable to his "credit"; and a genuine (if bizarre) socio-political dimension to his motivations.
The Manta was one of DC's most complex and fascinating two-legged monsters.
The Manta was so cool. ;-))
Ra's al Ghul
Call me old-fashioned, if you like... but: I've always been a stone, outright sucker for "... And Then I'm Gonna Ruuuuuuuule the World" -type super-villains.
Crazed, frothing Nazi soldiers, in World War Two-era comics; Sax Rohmer's sly and imperturbable Fu Manchu; Marvel Comics' rendition of Vlad Dracul, as explicated within the pages of THE TOMB OF DRACULA. You get the picture. ;-))
DC's most relentlessly intriguing entry in the Would-Be World Conquerors Soapbox Derby was the staggeringly monomaniacal Ra's al Ghul.
The Messianic Meta-Stinker (created by the all-time bestest BATMAN team of Dennis O'Neil [writer] and Neal Adams [artist]) had so many things going right for him, conceptually, that the real shocker would have been if he hadn't vaulted to the tip-topmost of the "Bat- Baddies" hierarchy in short order. First and foremost of these was his primary motivation for striving after Ultimate Rule: he wanted to take over the world... in order to save it.
(It seemed that Mama al Ghul's onliest child had determined -- after long decades of careful studying, re: Why the World Is So Gosh-Darned Fouled Up, Anyways -- that the baseline underlying "cause" for all the world's problems was, quite simply, an over-abundance of seriously unnecessary people. This, of course, is not an altogether unreasonable assumption to hold dear and true, for anyone who's spent more than fifteen consecutive minutes in any AOL "chat room." I'm just sayin', is all.) ;-))
(Being a devout believer in the principle of Occam's Razor -- i.e., "the simplest solution is, all things being equal, the best solution" -- he figured that a worldwide population of three billion (give or take) could readily stand to be pared down to a lean, mean one-third of that. Just for starters, mind.)
Too: Ol' Ra's had himself a daughter -- the curvaceous Talia al Ghul -- who (you should only pardon the expression) put the voom in va-va-voom -- and had her own ideas and agenda, re: I Wonder Why They Call It "the Bat-Pole," Anyway. That always lent the storytelling proceedings a fair amount of oomph, as well. ;-))
Yet another "fun" world-conquering type was the chill and implacable Kobra.
This guy adored himself so thoroughly and unrelentingly, his high school prom date was a hand mirror. ;-)) This, however, was only to be expected, as his early childhood had consisted of being hailed by similarly snakeskin-suited (and doggedly servile) goons the world over as "the Lord Naja-Naga"... which (translated roughly) parses into: "He Who Is Predestined By All the Gods To Step On My Head Whenever He Jolly Well Feels Like It." So: you have to make some allowances, here. ;-))
The neat little conceptual "twist" to this character was this: he was actually one sibling out of a pair of twins...
... and: the two of them -- slavering ubertyrant-to-be and wholly unsuspecting college student demi-"slacker" -- were psionically linked to one another.
In other words: whatever injury or malady one of the brothers felt... they both felt.
Series scripter (and co-creator) Marty Pasko had all sorts of fun riffing with this clever little conceit, as both Kobra and his (quasi-)hapless sibling each kept attempting to (*kaff*kaff) "neutralize" one another... without actually taking things That One Little Step Too Far, in so doing.
This is a villain who needs to be utilized and seen far, far more frequently than he is, within the DC universe proper.
I've already covered this next character, somewhat, [in other articles on the Cheeks website] ... I'm always willing to talk about Jack "King" Kirby's ultimate villain -- the craggy, calculating cosmic monstrosity known as Darkseid -- just a little bit more. ;-))
Darkseid's overriding motivation, back in the day, was his single-minded pursuit of something called "the Anti-Life Equation." Full possession (and accompanying comprehension) of this mega-concept would enable anyone utilizing same to Wipe Out Everything, Everywhere... which is pretty much the way I always end up feeling, whenever I happen to espy people in big, ugly hats and checkered flannel shirts "line dancing" across my television screen, come to think.
The very cool-cooler-coolest thing about Ol' Purple Puss was this: he was meaner and tougher than anybody else in the entire UNIVERSE. DC allowed the character to pretty much run roughshod all over the various heroes (and heroines) in their collective storytelling stables.
Superman...? Kicked his red-and-blue butt for him... and made him like it, by golly!
Green Lantern...? Folded him up like a Sears lawn chair.
Darkseid was The Baddest of the Bad. That's it. That's all. ;-))
Moving into the final quarter, here: we have the frigid femme fatale known as Killer Frost.
Created by longtime comics scribe Gerry Conway (anybody know whatever happened to that guy, incidentally...?), The Sub-Zero Slattern had it all, dream date-wise: brainy; beautiful; and, boy, could she ever whip up one mean muthah of a Baked Alaska. ;-))
Just one little, itsy-bitsy, teensy-tiny el problemo, here:
"Killer Frost" earned her especial sobriquet by dint of her peculiar ideological idee fixe: Death, Death and More Death To Anything That Even Looks Like It Might Be Male.
Yup. You got it: a flash-frozen Andrea Dworkin. ;-))
Given that most comic book super-villainesses generally spend an inordinate amount of their time sulkily obsessing over the masculine charms of their respective super-hero foemen ("We shouldn't be fighting, you and I; we should be rutting like crazed minks, is what we SHOULD be doing.") ... the notion that one of these might actually assume so diametrically opposite a stance was as much sheer fun, story-wise, as it was (ultimately) innovative and refreshing.
Besides: Frost's regular sparring partner was the adolescent Firestorm... and he had a flaming, firey head, for cryin' out loud. That's just gotta be one mondo "turn-off"... y'know? ;-))
For sheer, horrifying inhumanity -- an alien sense of cold, clinically dispassionate "other"-ness -- The Floronic Man (as interpreted, chiefly, by SWAMP THING scribe Alan Moore) will give you your money's worth, and then some.
This haughty plant/human hybrid has never been used to more brilliant storytelling effect than by the aforementioned Moore, in a jaw-droppingly powerful tale detailing the Floronic Man's one-man (or one-thing) takeover of a small Louisiana town (SWAMP THING #23-24). Here, the character was finally promoted from the pallid rank-and-file of the super- villainous "also-rans" of the DCU, and straightaway exalted into the rarefied strata of Indisputably Classic Comic Book Nasties.
(It should be noted, here, that Alan Moore had a positive genius for drilling beneath the conceptual surface of pre-existing "B"-list baddies, and investing them with new and potent motivations and cachet. He performed equally impressive feats of interpretive legerdemain, at various stops along the way, with Clayface III; Mr. Mxyzptlk; and a host of other all-but-forgotten characters, as well. His unique "takes" on these characters -- as well as others -- remain definitive ones.)
Last batter up: the tortured, emotionally conflicted sociopath known (and still fondly remembered) by all true connoisseurs of the crazed as Deadshot... and SUICIDE SQUAD scrivener John Ostrander's brilliant (re-)interpretation of same.
As brilliantly adduced by the good Mr. Ostrander (he of GRIMJACK fame; may he only live to pen yet another thousand or so comics stories, in the years to come), the character of Floyd Lawton -- a shockingly amoral assassin- for-hire with a powerful streak of self-loathing (as well as a concomitant "death wish") -- was hag-ridden by emotional demons so unspeakable and unrelenting, he actually came off as being (ultimately) more sympathetic to the reader than most of the super-heroes with whom he regularly found himself in cold-blooded contention.
Of particular interest to any reader(s) intrigued enough to investigate further are the (still massively undervalued) four issues of the DEADSHOT limited series, written (with characteristic craft and intelligence) by Ostrander and solidly, sensibly rendered by the little-appreciated Luke McDonnell. A self-contained "stand alone" saga, said series plumbs every last conceivable emotional nook and cranny of the black, awful "dead zone" that is Floyd Lawton's inner landscape: a wasteland wherein the word "family" is the ultimate epithet, and "love"
You need these comics, in particular. My solemn oath on it. ;-))
Kent G. Orlando a/k/a "Uncle Cheeks", had one of the most acclaimed comics-analysis sites on the web until he lost his free webspace. Several mirror sites are still online, and Fanzing is proud to help preserve some of his essays.
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This piece is © 2002 by Kent "Cheeks" Orlando
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