Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Archenemies who weren't! 8 villains who could have been contenders:

  Some villains are born great, some achieve greatness and others have had greatness retconned upon them. There have been quite a few villains that were introduced early on in various series and built up to be the archenemy of the hero, but then ended up being sidelined for whatever reason. Some just had squandered potential. Some only stood out because they were the first supervillain a hero fought. Still, I thought I’d look at some villains who could have been or were meant to be big-time villains. I don’t necessarily even like some of these characters or think they should have been made into “big-bads”, but I felt they all deserved a shout-out (I’m also going to skip characters that are still used as major villains, like the Ultra-Humanite). Are the respective series that these villains have appeared in the poorer for not using them? You decide.
 1) The Owl:
 Poor Daredevil. During the 60s, he had perhaps the worst rogues’ gallery of all the Marvel heroes, precisely because, well, he really didn’t have one. Few if any of Daredevil’s foes returned unless the story was a two-parter. Those who did could take literally dozens of issues to return, sometimes hundreds. Having such losers like Stilt-Man and Leap-Frog number among those few foes to come back for seconds wasn’t exactly a great consolation; neither was having the rest of the rogues be second-string villains from other comics like The Ox (from Spiderman), Eel (from the Human Torch solo series) and Electro(also from Spiderman). One foe of Daredevil’s who certainly had potential was The Owl, who debuted in Daredevil’s third issue and was the first supervillain unique to Daredevil’s own comics. 

 The Owl’s first grand scheme was pretty silly and improbable, with him hiring two hit men (one of whom was a fairly good shot, the other of whom was fairly strong), and intimidating them into obeying him by demonstrating that…he could glide on air, sorta. It’s also hard to deny his similarity to Batman's foe the Penguin. Nevertheless, Stan Lee did a good job making him a sinister presence (he is described as “A merciless man…a man with no friends…no loved ones…nothing to connect him to the human race save the fact of his birth!” Now that’s how you introduce a villain!) He began his first appearence by framing his lawyer and driving the poor guy to suicide.
Darkest Silver-Age panel ever.

 HOLY CRAP! Dr. Doom never did anything like that.
 Clearly, the idea of having a corrupt, fat businessman who hires assassins as Daredevil’s archenemy was a good one. The Owl just proves that they didn’t necessarily have to use a Spiderman character to fill such a role.

 2) Mr. Element/Dr. Alchemy:
 This poor fucker gets no respect, not even a Wikipedia article. What makes this guy cool is something that comics’ writers rarely consider: Madmen with access to super weapons are scary, but they are much scarier when they’re actually competent. Other villains just attempted crimes and hoped that no superheroes would show up, or would lay a trap for a superhero by issuing a challenge to the hero and basically setting himself up for defeat, and thus not really doing anything that he could potentially profit off of. This guy commits robberies, but also has everything set up in case he meets a superhero, specifically The Flash.
Now, that is flippancy.

 Mr. Element debuted in Showcase #13, and made it clear he was a guy who had thought up every possible outcome; keep that in mind, possible. Even when he does issue a challenge to The Flash to lure him into a death-trap, he makes sure it works. No faulty wiring, no leaving the trap running with his back turned so the Flash can think of a solution, no he sticks around throughout the whole thing. The only reason Flash escapes is through the most improbable mangling of science possible, and even then it was because the death trap had worked so well that Mr. Element couldn’t keep his eye on him. The only thing that defeated Element in the end was that he just wasn’t crazy enough to count on a coincidence saving his adversary.
 Also, I just love how obsessed the guy is with, well, elements. He names his henchmen after the periodic table, and finds ways to work elements into casual conversation, just not all the time, like say, some of Two-Face’s “two” puns. He’s believably obsessed.
 In his second appearance (the next issue), he meets an inmate who owns the Philosopher’s Stone (what are the odds?) and breaks out of prison like it’s no big deal, implying he could have escaped whenever he wanted and was just biding his time. After accquiring the stone, he changes his name to “Dr. Alchemy” and dons a vaguely medieval costume. “The Alchemist” would have been a better name, and the costume is pretty silly, but I can’t hate a guy who knows how to adapt and evolve.
 Interestingly, Element/Alchemy is referred to as Flash’s “archenemy” twice in both appearances. Considering that the first story took place over the course of weeks, he probably was the most persistent foe that the Flash had ever encountered at that point.
Obviously, Element/Alchemy was raring to go as Barry Allen’s archenemy, but ended up getting pushed aside for these two cheesy fuckwits,
then ultimately by this cheesier fuckwit when he killed Iris West.
 There was also an attempt to make Alchemy into Flash’s equivalent to Two-Face or The Lizard, by having him reform and switch back and forth between his good persona and his evil one. Whaa? The logic behind this was that, because of the inconsistency of his costumes and names, he had schizophrenia. That seems a little much, I was always willing to accept that his name and costume changes were simply because he adapted himself to fit his new gimmick. Making him schizo just ruined everything. Oh well.
 Still, as Barry Allen’s first recurrent villain, as well as the fact that all he really needs is a more menacing medieval-style costume, I really do think Flash comics are poorer for never building the not-so-good doctor up. Some say the character doesn’t work because his name changes are too confusing, but are they really any worse than Eobard Thawne/Zoom/Reverse Flash or whatever the hell he’s called? I’m sorry, but I won’t buy a guy as a deadly serious archenemy if one of his aliases is “Professor Zoom”, no matter how many girlfriends he offs.
3) The Monk:
 I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Batman’s series had been a flop and been cancelled early on, or at least before Robin was introduced, and Batman was forevermore an obscure character whose only use was the occasional cameo in All-Star Squadron or something. I find it amusing, because if that had happened, then whenever some historian would recall Batman, all the core elements of the mythos would still be in place: Batman would still be recalled as a brooding creature of the night who was traumatized by his parents death, lives in a shadowy city, has a shaky working relationship with Commissioner Gordon, and most importantly of all, battles bizarre villains.

 Such a pity then that so many early Bat-foes, such as Dr. Death, Hugo Strange, the Duc D' Orterre and The Monk have fallen into obscurity.
 Live journal user John Hefner has done a fine job chronicling Professor Hugo Strange, but as much as I love Hugo (and as much as he deserves a spot on this list) I thought I’d focus on a villain who not only predates Hugo, but gets even less attention; The Monk.
 The Monk is a vampire. Or werewolf, or Shadmock, whatever. What has stayed consistent is that he’s some sort of supernatural being who dresses like a monk and has a female assistant named Dala.
 While Batman encountered a mad scientist named Dr. Death twice before The Monk, the not-so-good doctor still pops up (in a radically different form) from time to time. The Monk has the distinction of having never appeared in a story that wasn’t a retelling of the original. In the 1980s, Gerry Conway and Gene Colan created a multi-parter where Dick Grayson became seduced by Dala, and in the course of events, Batman became a vampire himself. The Monk took a backseat to Dala in this story, which portrayed them as brother and sister. The explanation for his attire was that he attempted and failed to cure himself of his vampirism through prayer or something. The Monk’s next appearance was a joke cameo in Legends of The Dark Knight #94, in a sequence which was a pastiche of the earliest Batman stories.
 His most recent (and prominent) appearance was in Matt Wagner’s tedious ‘Mad Monk” mini-series (wildly inferior to his ‘Monster Men” mini-series), which set the story in Gotham and set the Monk up as a cult leader.
 Fairly unimpressive resume there, Monk.
 But it doesn’t have to be. DC could do so much with this character. He could have been used in Dracula’s role in Red Rain, he could be DC’s answer to Dracula since Marvel already has it's own version. He could also have easily been used in place of Ras Al Ghul too, being an immortal villain with a female accomplice and a mountain retreat. There are tons of possibilities. When I read Grant Morrison’s Gothic arc in Legends of The Dark Knight back when it first came out, I speculated that Mr. Whisper (the main villain of Gothic), who was a monk who had made a deal with the devil and had a castle in Europe, was going to be revealed in a twist-ending to have made a second deal with the devil and would become The Monk. Nothing happened. How ‘bout that? The one time that Morrison’s fan-boyish use of an obscure character would have actually worked, and he disappoints.
 Anyway, if he does not become an archenemy to Batman, or even a major villain to anyone, the Monk needs to make a return soon, and hopefully not in another goddamn retelling. Batman’s first costumed and super-powered villain deserves that much.
4) The Vulture:
 For a guy who is mostly used nowadays as the target of senility jokes in Twisted Toyfare Theater, it’s hard to remember that, for a time, Vulch was actually Spiderman’s most prominent villain.
 I’m serious.
The Vulture has the distinction of being the first genuinely super-powered foe Spidey fought (appearing in Amazing Spiderman #2), when previously he had only fought crooks and spies (okay, I guess, the Chameleon counts as a super-villain). For a long-while, Spidey’s battle with the Vulture was considered his “baptism of fire” and this was played up in things like the first annual. It’s also worth mentioning that The Vulture was the first Spiderman villain to come back for a second round, making him Spidey’s first recurring villain.
 There was also this little moment in issue #8: A computer called “The Living Brain” is asked to decode Spiderman’s identity and Peter is struck with horror at the prospect, and envisions how it will affect the most important people in his life. Guess who the only villain depicted is?
  So, if Amazing Spiderman had been cancelled with issue #10, this means that The Vulture would be considered the main candidate for Spidey’s archenemy.
 Now personally, while I like the character (there was a great storyline in the 90s where he attempts to regain his youth) I don’t think he should be Spiderman’s archenemy. I’m fine with Doctor Octopus and The Green Goblin. Still, since this is the day of the obscure villain, I couldn’t resist letting him have a moment in the sun.
 Also, for a senile old man, he’s a better strategist than so-called “genius” Doc Ock.

 5) Cyrus Smythe:
 Go ahead. Name one Plastic Man villain. Yeah, it’s pretty hard to think of any for your average reader who isn’t too familiar with Plastic Man. It’s not much easier for those of us who are fans of the character.
 For all of his boundless imagination, Jack Cole preferred to make most of Plas’s foes ordinary (well, fairly ordinary, they were still very much of the Dick Tracy school of nicknamed and deformed weirdos) gangsters who stumbled onto some weird gimmick, or he would introduce the occasional supervillain, but almost all of Plas's foes were done in one. This is funny, because Jack Cole created one of the iconic bad-guys of early comics in The Claw for Lev Gleason publications. In Police Comics #4-5, Cole introduced Madam Brawn; the butchy headmistress of a girl’s school for crime. Madam Brawn had potential, being a fairly atypical villainess for comics, even though if she had been continually used she would probably have been the target of fat jokes by later writers. Still, Plas had no real recurring villains after that, the most prominent exception being an incredibly stupid attempt at a Bond villain parody called “Dr. Dome” in the 60s, whose gimmick was that…he wore a dome on his head. This was supposed to be funny. Dome does deserve credit for having the most appearances of all Plastic Man villains, even appearing in the Ruby Spears cartoon.
 However, in one of the most infamous stories of the early run (Police Comics #11), Jack Cole created a villain who was obviously meant to be the archenemy for his amorphous hero, and he seemed to recognize this. This character, my friends, was Cyrus Smythe. Who was Cyrus Smythe? Go get some earmuffs, because the plot of this story is so bat-shit crazy your brains will leak out your ears. Now, it’s partially because I don’t want to damage my archive editions of Plastic Man (my preciousssss) that I won’t scan the craziest parts of this story for proof, but also partially because envisioning this story in your head will keep you from fully comprehending its insanity. I swear I’m not making any of it up.
 “Many years ago when London was in its infancy, there lived a doctor by the name of Smythe who loved to experiment”. Smythe, a man who resembles Woozy Winks in a powdered wig, has created a growth serum, but his test subject (a giant ape) kills him (“Thou art breaking my neck”) and trashes the place, causing an explosion. Somehow, the chemicals in the lab keep Smythe’s brain alive even though his body is dead. His body is buried in a pauper’s grave and his body rots, leaving him with no possible way of communicating(“And I’ve so much to tell the world”). The loneliness drives him (it?) mad and the brain vows that if ever freed, it will kill every man alive.
We cut to the present day (1942), where an American soldier named Tad Wilkins reports for duty over in Britain, leaving behind his parents and fiancée. During a bombing raid in London, his head gets partially blown off and someone finds Smythe’s brain and assumes that it’s Tad’s. Somehow, the doctors are able to put the brain into Tad's body (??) and Smythe is re-born, although the surgery has crippled him. Everyone writes off Tad/Smythe’s behavior as amnesia, so he decides to play along with everyone, except for Tad’s fiancée, whom he instantly loathes (“Indecently clad modern wench!”). He recreates his growth serum, grows to giant size and squishes both of Tad's parents flat. His fiancée’s response to all of this? “He’s gone mad! He may hurt someone!” 
 Plastic Man investigates and runs into the now giant-sized Wilkins/Smythe, who walks around on his hands with his dead legs dangling in the air (picture that, a giant cripple walking around on his hands speaking in Ye Olde English, slaughtering people for fun). Plas and the villain then tangle. Literally.
Note Cole's use of chiaroscuro.

 A local mobster makes a deal with Smythe and they plan to take over the world. Eel ‘O Brian (Plastic Mna's alter-ego) is a member of the mob, overhears this, and then when he sees Smythe violently rebuff a gun moll (who is attracted to the villain, despite having a gazillion stitches in his head and being paralyzed from the waist down) he formulates a scheme as Plastic Man. He gets Tad’s fiancée to dress like an 1800’s woman (in a dress which is actually more revealing than any modern clothes we see women wear in the story) and Smythe falls in love with her instantly. They go to get married, but the preacher turns out to be Plastic Man in disguise, who attacks him. Smythe grows to giant-size and attempts to eat Plas. But inside his stomach, Plas crawls down (into what could only be his colon) and plugs it up. Smythe suffocates to death and returns to normal size. Once again, Tad’s fiancée writes Tad’s inexplicable scientific knowledge off as the result of brain-damage.
 But that’s not the end. The last panel shows the brain inside the coffin, plotting revenge ‘They’ve got me now, but someday, somehow, the Brain of Cyrus Smythe will rise again to plague all mankind!”. Then, Father Time himself, scythe and all, points to the reader and says “Mark my words, he will!”
 Probably a true story.
 Fortunately for mankind in Plastic Man’s universe, but unfortunately for readers whose jaws had hit the pavement from reading this craziness and wanted more, Smythe’s brain never returned despite that promise. A good reason he was never brought back is quite possibly because even Jack Cole himself couldn’t top that kind of craziness. Still, any story that bat-shit crazy deserves to be followed up somehow, and having Smythe come back, however improbably, with his brain ending up in new bodies (a’la Baxter Stockman and the Ultra-Humanite) would make for a wonderfully twisted counterpart to Plastic Man’s shape-shifting.
 Hey, you know what? Maybe Dr. Dome could be made into a cool villain; maybe it could be revealed that he wears that dome for a reason, to hide his surgery scars, because his head is where the brain of Cyrus Smythe now resides!
 6) Leapo aka Bulls Eye
 Like Plastic Man, Green Arrow has never really had an archenemy. He’s had a few memorable and well-known villains, notably Clock King and Count Vertigo. However, most of these villains have been appropriated for other heroes. There were attempts to set up Justice League villain Merlyn the Archer as an arch-foe for Green Arrow, but so far it’s been a case of being told, not shown. Merlyn hasn’t even appeared in any of Green Arrow’s own titles!
 Still, I’ll take any of these guys over the first attempt to give Green Arrow an archenemy...
 It should be remembered that Green Arrow was conceived as a sort of second-rate Batman, thus it would make sense for him to have his own Joker. But still, even though by the time Leapo had debuted the Joker was no longer the homicidal maniac he had initially been, any attempts to take Leapo seriously were dead from the start, and that bulls-eye symbol just makes him look like a target.
 A literal circus clown, Leapo managed to last more than a dozen appearances (despite what Comicvine says) before calling it quits. Should he be brought back? Not everything old is gold.
 7) The Weaponers of Qward:
 Imagine if Bizarro world was played straight, and you’d have a good idea who these guys are. The Qwardians were a race of aliens who lived in a “negative dimension” parallel to earth, they considered evil to be good and good to be evil, thus criminals are heroes and heroes are criminals. These guys are most famous for being Sinestro’s henchmen in his early appearances (they were the ones who developed a yellow ring for him), but what you may not know is that they were the first recurring villains Hal Jordan fought. The Weaponers debuted in Green Lantern #2 and appeared almost consecutively thereafter until the writers realized Sinestro and Hector Hammond made for more compelling villains, as those two would be GL’s most frequent foes for the rest of the 1960s. The Qwardians still appear today, with most of their good-evil philosophy abandoned, thankfully. Anyway, it’s tough to do stories where an entire people are the enemies of a hero. I’d say that ditching them was no big loss.
8) The Black Queen:
 Will Eisner was never one for actual supervillains in The Spirit, mostly preferring to use either Dick Tracy-esque nicknamed crooks or femme fatales. The Black Queen was something of a trial run for both types of character, boasting a nickname and a gimmick, as well as ending up in cheesecakey situations like having the Spirit walk in on her while undressing.
 While Dr. Cobra (from the first Spirit story) was the first Spirit foe to return, Black Queen outclassed him in both scope and number of appearances.
 In her first appearance she was little more than a crooked lawyer, and got blackmailed by The Spirit (this was when he was a more Robin Hood-ish character) along with the rest of the city council into staging a re-trial for a murderer whom she had gotten off named Slot Grogan. Thing is, the Queen’s gimmick wasn't merely that she was a lawyer, but that she was the best lawyer in the world, able to talk her client’s way out of virtually anything. However, Grogan ended up giving himself away and confessing to the murder. After a brutal beating, the Spirit then forced Grogan and the Queen to give their stolen money to a school lunch fund. At the official re-trial, however, (and this shows how ahead of the curve Eisner was, because there’s no way The Spirit’s method of getting Slot to confess would have held up in court), the Queen used her skills to make Grogan out to be the victim because of the way he had been brutalized by the Spirit, and passed off his donation to the schools as proof of his repentance (he still got life in prison).
 It’s kind of a silly story, but it marks the first time Eisner used humor, social satire and played around with conventions. It also marked the first use of Ebony as the Spirit’s sidekick, and like I said before, the Queen can be considered Eisner’s first great femme fatale. I guess, in a way, I’d argue that the first Black Queen story was also the first “true” Spirit story as well. It’s quite funny too, in hindsight, to compare the Queen with real-life lawyers like Roy Cohn & Johnny Cochran, who really were no less outlandish than she was!
Eisner's skills at drawing girls were still developing.

 Despite the satirical possibilities of having a ridiculously good lawyer as an arch villain(ess), her next two appearances used the Queen as a more standard supervillain, plotting to hold the entire city of New York for ransom, and then returning with a “kiss of death” while wearing an actual costume.
 She was killed off shortly thereafter. Still, she deserves credit for being the template for all of the other Spirit villains: The hidden crime boss with elaborate schemes (The Octopus), the various femme fatales (P’Gel, Satin, and god knows how many others) and corrupt politicians (Ward Healy).
 So there you have it; the arch-villains that weren’t. Do they have potential, or should we be glad some of them have rarely seen the light of day in years?

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, I agree many of these finks were under-utilized, particularly Mister Element. With the Owl I can see why he flopped; he just doesn't look imposing as a big, bulky figure gliding around. I even like the Matador better.

    Cole's Plastic Man villains have a great eccentric feel to them, but like a lot of Dick Tracy foes, the bad guys tend to be so extreme that they burn themselves out by story's end. Whether they die or not, usually it doesn't seem like there's anything more to be done with them.

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