Entry updated 6 March 2023. Tagged: Theme.
Supervillains (see Villains) were an inevitable consequence of the emergence of Superheroes in Comics and other media, since it quickly became apparent that the pioneering superhero Superman (see DC Comics) and his similarly powerful counterparts could as a rule encounter no meaningful opposition from ordinary criminals to create suspenseful stories. Since each successful superhero will usually encounter several supervillains, if not dozens or hundreds of them, they are undoubtedly more numerous than superheroes, rendering any sort of comprehensive survey impossible, although Jeff Rovin attempted to perform this task in The Encyclopedia of Super Villains (1987).
Unlike superheroes, supervillains have few equivalents in ancient times, though one could cite among others the sorceress Circe and giant cyclops of Homer's The Odyssey (circa 800-700 BCE), King Arthur's magical adversary Morgan le Fay, and the Devil himself and his minions, featured in numerous texts better described as Fantasies; more recently, Lucifer is encountered as one of the characters created by the human imagination in Clifford D Simak's Out of Their Minds (1971). One could also expand the definition of supervillains, perhaps not productively, to include notably formidable sf adversaries in the realm of outer space such as the Scientist Marc "Blackie" DuQuesne of E E "Doc" Smith's Skylark series; the Mutant Mule of Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire (April and November-December 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; vt The Man Who Upset the Universe 1955) (see Foundation); Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless; Star Trek's Khan Noonien Singh; and Star Wars's Darth Vader.
In the early comics a pattern arguably emerged, with numerous exceptions: superheroes tended to have innate powers, bestowed by their very nature, such as the Alien Superman or the evolved water-breathers who descended from survivors of the sunken continent Atlantis, DC's Aquaman and Timely Comics's (see Marvel Comics) Sub-Mariner; by Magic, like Fawcett Comics's original Captain Marvel and Ibis the Invincible, and DC's Wonder Woman; or by miraculous science like Timely's Captain America, given super-strength by American scientists, or DC's original The Flash (see The Flash) and Timely's Whizzer, improbably given super-speed respectively by the fumes from heavy water and an injection of mongoose blood. In contrast, supervillains were frequently Mad Scientists who depended on their ingenious inventions to wreak havoc on the world (see Weapons).
This was certainly the case with two of the major supervillains who emerged in the 1940s (both for some reason bald men), Superman's scientist foe Lex Luthor (later reimagined less memorably as an unscrupulous tycoon) and Captain Marvel's equally inventive adversary Dr Sivana. Luthor also appeared in the serial Atom Man Vs. Superman (1950), making him one of the first comic book supervillains to appear on film (though he was preceded by a supervillain invented for film, the Wizard, in the serial Batman and Robin (1949) [see Batman Films]). Another cerebral villain from the 1940s was DC's the Thinker, who later appeared in various versions in comics and films. One prototype for such adversaries was Sax Rohmer's Asian villain Fu Manchu and similar Yellow Peril figures like The Mysterious Wu Fang, Dr Yen Sin, and James Bond's adversary Dr No (see Dr No). Thus, superheroes tended to embody the virtues of the natural world while supervillains illustrated the evils of applied Technology, reflecting an anti-science bias that has been all too common in media outside the literature of Genre SF.
To be sure, some early superheroes heavily depended on gadgetry, such as Batman with his tricky Batarangs and various advanced means of Transportation; a later story, "The Amazing Inventions of Batman" (1957) by Edmond Hamilton and Dick Sprang, highlighted his numerous other inventions, such as a "flying spy eye". Fawcett's Bulletman used chemicals to make himself super-strong and invented an Antigravity helmet that enabled him to fly, and DC's original Sandman used a gas gun to put criminals to sleep. And some supervillains had inborn powers, like this whimsical Mr Mxyzptlk from the fifth dimension (see Dimensions) who bedevilled Superman with his magical antics, and Fawcett's genetically engineered Superman Captain Nazi (see Genetic Engineering). There were also hybrid supervillains who combined innate abilities with scientific acumen, like Fawcett's alien caterpillar Mr Mind, a genius whose abilities included Telepathy, and DC's Vandal Savage, an ancient man rendered immortal (see Immortality) by radiation from a meteorite. Given the proliferation of comics at the time, and the constant pressure to produce entertaining stories on a monthly basis, it is not surprising that almost every conceivable variety of superhero and supervillain was developed during the comics' "Golden Era" of the 1940s, explaining exceptional cases. These circumstances have remained in later decades, though with fewer comics and more in films, Television programs, and Videogames.
Still, mechanical gimmicks were the trademarks of early supervillains like Superman's recurring opponents Toyman and the Prankster and Batman's adversaries the Penguin and the Joker (see Joker), the latter being perhaps the most famous supervillain to emerge from the comics. In the 1950s, a major new supervillain appeared to oppose Superman, the alien Brainiac (later revealed to actually be a Computer), who devised ways to shrink cities into bottles (see Miniaturization) and to protect himself with an invincible Force Field, while DC's new version of the Flash spent most of his time battling various villains who used their trademark devices to commit crimes, such as Captain Cold, Mirror Master, the Trickster, and Weather Wizard. It was also standard to create supervillains who duplicated the abilities of the superheroes they confronted, such as DC's Super-Menace, the Reverse-Flash, and Sinestro, who fought against Green Lantern with his own power ring.
In the 1960s, the new superheroes introduced by Marvel also faced many foes who employed their scientific innovations for evil, such as Dr Doom, the Vulture, the Green Goblin, and the Mandarin, though they also encountered supervillains with innate abilities such as the Norse god Loki and the Sandman, transformed by radiation to have the ability to turn into sand. The television series Batman (1966-1968) brought supervillains to a wider audience, as every episode featured both familiar villains from Batman's past like Catwoman, the Joker, the Mad Hatter, the Penguin, and the Riddler as well as new characters employing scientific gadgets like Egghead and the Bookworm. The mad scientist Dr Loveless was a regular opponent of the heroes of the television series The Wild, Wild West (1965-1969); he also appeared in the 1999 film adaptation.
The 1960s also introduced a trend, that would become more prominent later, of regarding supervillains more sympathetically. In a series of DC stories, Lex Luthor became an esteemed superhero on an alien world, and a regular feature of glimpses into the future at the time featured a reformed Luthor as the mayor of Metropolis. Marvel featured two combative heroes, the Incredible Hulk and the Sub-Mariner, who sometimes functioned as supervillains in other superheroes' adventures, foreshadowing other Marvel superheroes who sometime seemed more villainous than heroic, such as the Punisher (see Antiheroes).
The first villain to achieve his own comic book series was Eclipso, featured in House of Secrets (1956-1966) beginning in 1963, a virtuous man periodically transformed by supernatural means into an evil being; the character has been repeatedly reimagined in a variety of fashions. The Joker briefly starred in his own comic book (1975-1976); another villain who had his own DC comic was the criminal mastermind Kobra (1976); and a comic featured other DC supervillains who were part of The Secret Society of Super-Villains (1976-1978). Marvel's Magneto, the mutant with magnetic powers who was the first foe faced by the X-Men, was later revealed to be a Holocaust survivor and a man with noble but twisted motives who was once a close friend of the X-Men's Professor Xavier; he eventually reformed and joined the former adversaries the X-Men. A strange series of stories in the 1990s transformed a disturbed Green Lantern into a supervillain who murdered his colleagues in the Green Lantern Corps, though he was later forgiven for his sins and rehabilitated.
Perhaps the ultimate sign of the apotheosis of once-reviled supervillains is Todd Phillips's film Joker (2019), inspired by Alan Moore's and Brian Bolland's Graphic Novel The Killing Joke (graph 1988), which won Joaquin Phoenix an Academy Award for portraying the Joker as a tormented soul unfortunately driven into madness. And even the Devil has been portrayed more positively, as he is a rather amiable figure in Out of Their Minds and, tiring of presiding over Hell, relocated to Los Angeles as a crusader for justice in the television series Lucifer (2016-2021), based on the version of this character who originally appeared in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (graph 1988-1996) and was developed in Mike Carey's spinoff Lucifer (graph 2001-2007). (Marvel also created the Son of Satan, Daimon Hellstorm, as a superhero in the 1970s.) Smith's DuQuesne reformed and became heroic in the final Skylark novel, Skylark DuQuesne (June-October 1965 If; 1966). Other comic book supervillains who have more recently seen the light and given up evil include Lex Luthor, Black Adam, and Dr Doom – but one can never be sure about such conversions, since other supervillains like DC's Catwoman and Poison Ivy and Marvel's Sandman have fluctuated between being heroes and villains. Still, this tendency to romanticize and validate supervillains may reflect the fact that familiarity does not really breed contempt, but rather affection, as readers and audiences gradually grow fond of the villains they have so frequently encountered and prefer to view them as heroic figures. [GW]
- Jeff Rovin. The Encyclopedia of Super Villains (New York: Facts on File, 1987) [nonfiction: hb/Ernie Colón]
- Lois H Gresh and with Robert E Weinberg. The Science of Supervillains (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2004) [nonfiction: pb/]
- Gina Misiroglu and Michael Eury, editors. The Supervillain Book: The Evil Side of Comics and Hollywood (Canton, Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 2006) [nonfiction: pb/Mike and Laura Allred]
- Jon Morris. The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2017) [nonfiction: hb/various artists]
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