Sunday, May 13, 2012

The First Supervillain Team: A Comic Book Mystery solved!

  A short while ago, I was trying to sell my Monster Society of Evil hardcover from 1989, so I went online to see if it was true that the book had had a limited print run. I found out what I needed to and sold the book, but I found out an obscure fact on Wikipedia’s page about the Monster Society of Evil. Apparently they were:

 The footnote linked to a book called 500 Comic Book Villains by Mike Conroy, which I’ve seen in several comic shops. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I hate Captain Marvel and anything related to him with a passion (the reason I owned that MSOE hardcover was because a friend of mine gave it to me as a joke/present after he found it at a flea market for five bucks) and have seen a lot of things falsely attributed to the Big Red Cheese’s titles, but this was the first time I’d heard this particular claim.

 Oh, I’d heard some historians who were fans of Captain Marvel call the JSA’s Injustice Society and Wonder Woman’s Villainy Inc. rip-offs of the Monster Society, and while I wouldn’t call them rip-offs per se, the timeline and the fact that the Captain Marvel titles were the industry’s best-selling books during the era does support the idea of the MSOE being the first. The Injustice Society debuted in October/November of 1947, while Villainy Inc. debuted in 1948. The Monster Society of Evil debuted in 1943.
 It seemed like a clear cut case.
 But what did it really prove?
 All it proved was that the Monster Society predated the Injustice Society and Villainy Inc. It didn’t prove that they were the first supervillain team. Given the “tell don’t show” mentality of a lot of Golden Age comics, there probably is a lot of truth to the statement that previous supervillain teams were made up of one-shot villains who had never previously appeared. Nevertheless, the criteria establishes that the villains had to have appeared previously for a group to count, and I could think of several supervillain team-ups that predated the Monster Society and fit that description.
 Off the top of my head, I knew that the first time two villains appeared in the same story was in Batman #2, the villains in question being none other than Joker and Catwoman, both of whom had debuted in the previous issue. This issue was published on June 1st, 1940 as the Summer issue (Batman’s own solo title was a quarterly then). However, it doesn’t really count, since not only does Catwoman play a heroic role in the storyline, but the Joker spends most of the story unconscious. It’s certainly the first time two villains met, but can’t really be considered a “team-up” at all, despite several websites erroneously saying so.
 Much later of course, in Batman #25, the Joker would team up with the Penguin. That issue however, came out in 1944.
 The first time two established villains actually joined forces was in More Fun Comics #70 dated August 1st 1941. Here, Doctor Fate’s foes Wotan (who had appeared in More Fun #55-56) and Ian Karkull (who had debuted in the previous issue) created a “city” in the arctic.
 Interestingly enough, both of the two villains seemed to get along fine, something most supervillains are notorious for not doing.
 Later, in September 1942; Captain America’s foes The Black Talon and The Black Toad teamed up in the story “Tomb of Horror” from Captain America Comics #18 (which I actually recall being posted online a few years ago but can’t find for the life of me). Black Talon had previously appeared in Captain America Comics #9 and Young Allies #2. Black Toad had appeared in Captain America Comics #7, and still remains mildly infamous due to the fact that he looked nothing like a toad whatsoever. Unfortunately, the whole story turned out to be a dream.

 That same year, Frankenstein’s Monster, who had his own series in Prize Comics drawn by Dick Briefer, teamed up with The Black Owl’s enemy Doctor Devil, who had appeared previously in Prize Comics #15.
 This was the first time villains from two different series (albeit in the same anthology book) would team up. This happened in Prize Comics #22.
No comment

 1942 was a record year for villain team-ups. In Hangman Comics #3, villains Captain Swastika (who had debuted in the previous issue) and The Executioner (who debuted in issue #3 but in a separate story, it was an anthology book) also teamed up. This was notable as the first time two villains who had teamed up turned against one another.
 All of these stories predate the Monster Society.
 “But wait!” cry the Captain Marvel fans. “Those stories don’t count either because they only involve two villains, hardly qualifying as a group!”
 Perhaps so. However, going by those rules, there was still one supervillain group consisting of several (going by the definition of several as more than two) previously established adversaries that predated the Monster Society. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the story of comicdom’s first true supervillain group.
 It began with a broken man.
 Arch-criminal The Hand (who resembled the unholy love-child of Boris Karloff and Terry Thomas) found out that he was terminally ill:

 Wanting to go out with a blaze of glory, The Hand gathered several of the nation’s most dangerous criminals:
 The Red Dragon,
 The Needle,
 Professor Merlin,
 and The Dummy.
 However, like all good supervillains, The Hand felt it just wouldn’t be as fun without challenging some super heroes to thwart his crimes. He put an ad in the paper contacting The Green Arrow and Speedy, Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, The Vigilante, The Shining Knight and The Crimson Avenger.
 Yes folks, this was the story which introduced the Seven Soldiers of Victory to the world, although they weren’t called that yet. The comic was Leading Comics #1. The issue was released on December 1st 1941 as the “Winter” issue.
 ‘But wait!” cry the fanboys again. “The Hand was a completely original character who had never appeared before! He doesn’t count, and clearly he is the most important part of the group!” True. But the same could be said of Mister Mind, who also had never appeared before the Monster Society of Evil was formed, and who also was clearly the most important member of the group, in fact, the big overriding plot element of the whole arc was the mystery over what Mr. Mind was.
 “So who cares!” shout the fanboys “None of the other villains in the Hand’s gang were previously established foes either! I’ve read a million Golden Age comics, and I’ve never heard of any of these bozos”.
 Well, it just so happens that the members of The Hand’s gang had indeed appeared prior to this story. Just because they’ve all fallen into obscurity doesn’t mean they never existed. Also, if you've never heard of the Dummy, then clearly you aren't as familiar with Golden Age villains as you think you are.
 Professor Merlin had previously appeared in More Fun Comics #75, in the third Green Arrow story.
 Arguably the first supervillain that the Emerald Archer ever encountered, I’m genuinely surprised that the not-so-good professor has fallen into obscurity, considering that both in name and physical appearance, he resembles the later villain Merlyn the Dark Archer (whom DC has been trying to push as being Green Arrow’s archenemy in one of the biggest failings at 'show don’t tell' in comics history).
 The Needle, whose gimmick was that he was so skinny he could slink in and out of places, had previously appeared in Star-Spangled Comics #4 and #7 and after this story, would continue to be a recurring foe of the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy.
 Interestingly enough, the Needle was not SSK’s most prominent foe. That honor would go to a fellow named Doctor Weerd.

............

 Star-Spangled Kid didn’t have much luck when it came to rogues.
 Most interesting of the villains was Shining Knight’s adversary The Red Dragon, who had previously appeared in Adventure Comics #69. Born deformed, he hid his face behind a red mask but wore a tuxedo and top hat. A pretty striking look for a villain, you must admit. At the same time, he was also extremely incorrigible, manipulating a group of Native Americans and indiscriminately killing them when they no longer served a purpose. One has to wonder if he was an inspiration for Thomas Harris’s character Francis Dolarhyde, who was also born deformed, and referred to his split personality as “The Red Dragon”.
 The most famous villain in The Hand’s gang was The Dummy, a ventriloquist’s dummy whom it was unclear as to whether he was an ordinary dummy used by a cunning criminal, or somehow alive. He was almost certainly the inspiration for the later Batman villain Scarface, who has also been portrayed as ambiguously supernatural. Folks, I’ve had a lifelong fear of ventriloquist’s dummies, and let me tell you, if I’d read this comic as a kid, I’d probably have crapped myself. As for all the other great, creepy Golden Age villains? Iron Jaw, Red Skull, Solomon Grundy, Two-Face and The Claw probably have nightmares about this character.
Wanna know what just disappeared after looking at this? Your soul.

 However, effectively scary as he may have been, The Dummy wasn’t a previous foe of any of the heroes. That said, he soon would be, becoming Vigilante’s personal archenemy and making several appearances in Vigilante’s strip in Action Comics. He even returned in Leading Comics #8. He’s one of the most well-known secondary villains of the Golden Age.
 There was also a villain in the gang named Big Caesar, who, to my knowledge, had never appeared anywhere prior to this story, and never did afterwards. I can see why, as he was just an ordinary thug.
 Still, The Hand’s gang was the first team of villains in comic books to feature several established adversaries (and would spawn a major villain for one of it’s heroes), and predates the Monster Society by two years. I’d say that it’s cut and dry that these folks count as the first true supervillain group.
 Only problem? They didn’t have a name for their organization.
 Not that something as simple as that should disqualify them, but if one insists on a villain group only counting if they have a name, then there was also The Revenge Syndicate, who appeared in Bulletman #7.
 This group was made up of recurring Bulletman villains The Weeper (who recently appeared on Batman: The Brave and the Bold), Black Rat and Murder Prophet. Bulletman #7 hit the stands in 1942, a full year before the Monster Society.
 So, even if you disagree as to whether the Hand’s gang from Leading Comics #1 or the Revenge Syndicate should count, I hope that this post has made it clear that the Monster Society was not the first supervillain group in comics. Not by a long shot.

 By the way, check out this creepy coincidence on the DC Wiki where I swiped borrowed the image of Professor Merlin from:

2 comments:

  1. Hmm, interesting. I was actually the one who put that in Wikipedia, but I was trusting the 500 Villains book. Thanks for correcting my error.

    ReplyDelete
  2. At nearly the exact same time as The Hand story, over in 'America's Greatest Comics'#1(1941, in a Mr. Scarlet story, "The Death-Battalion" was formed.
    It was a team founded by The Brain, and comprised of six deadly super criminals! ...The Horned Hood, The Black Thorn, The Black Clown, The Laughing Skull, Dr. Death and The Ghost.

    I don't have the exact release date, but it was certainly late 1941.

    ReplyDelete