A Brief History of the Comic Book Villain

There is a reoccurring theme in comic book lore, one that thins the ethical line between what we deem to be good and what we perceive as being evil.  What, in fact, good are our costumed heroes without the twisted villains? It is indeed true that most of the iconic characters to come out of the comic book genre are not considered heroes, but the chaotic opposites of the hero formula. Would The Joker even exist without The Caped Crusader? Would the symbiotic Venom even have bonded with Eddy Brock if it weren’t for their mutual hatred of Spider Man?

More often than not, the comic book balance is one of cause and effect. I firmly believe that the super hero genre would not have nearly as much appeal if it weren’t for its dark and devilish counterparts. But how did it all start? How did we get from 1842’s  “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck” to the epic that is the Best Damn Nerd Show’s Fantasy Villain Draft? Let’s take a walk down the dark side.

There is much debate over who is indeed the first comic book villain, most if it gravitates around the question of what exactly constitutes being a villain. If a villain were nothing but a storied antagonist, well then the Japanese have been kicking out comic book bad guys on wooden blocks since the 1700’s. What we’re here to loom over is the invention of the Super Villain. The over the top, costumed, fantasy character specifically designed to go toe-to-toe with the powered hero. This leaves out the dozens of murder mystery, cowboy, gangster, bank robbing villains that were popular in the golden age.

There will be no lunchboxes with Bea Caroll on them from Action Comics #1.

Instead we have give the award for first super villain to The Ultra-Humanite, The super smart, white gorilla looking monstrosity who was obsessed with Superman and bent on world domination. Fresh from the pages of 1939’s Action Comics #13, Ultra-Humanite is widely considered to be the first reoccurring Super Villain, created to be the exact opposite of Superman, having no real special physical qualities (besides yknow…being an albino gorilla), but relying only on his mental prowess to best the man of steel. The concept of heroes battling their opposites is one that is still carried forward today, the dramatic re-enactment of Order vs. Chaos, Brain vs. Brawn, and the everyday day man vs. the tyrant.

DC Comics really set the tone for the modern day super villain, then still going by the title of National Allied Publications, DC published many of its notable villains in the golden age. We can give most of our thanks to the development of the villain from the creative team of Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Joel Schuster, and Jerry Siegel. Stan Lee may get a lot of credit for revolutionizing the Super Hero, but these guys were truly the godfathers of the Super Villain. Together, they created in the 30’s and 40’s alone: Catwoman, Clayface, Hugo Strange, The Joker, Lex Luthor, Penguin, Scarecrow, Two Face, Mad hatter, The Riddler, and many a henchman. So what was Marvel’s significant super villain contribution to the golden age? Red Skull, and that’s about it…maybe some Nazi’s.  That’s just how Timely Comics got its start, war propaganda. Yeah it was an important part of American History and sold a shit load of war bonds, but while Captain A was out fighting the war to end all wars, Gotham City and Metropolis stocked up big time.

The Silver Age is when shit got tight. DC and Marvel started having a pissing contest, and the world of comics and super heroes changed forever. DC would launch the Justice League and the Legion of Super Heroes, so Marvel would kick out the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. So was the same with super villains, the silver age brought with it some raw talent that really delivered some of the best characters ever to get inked, and Marvel really kicked it into high gear. The names of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, would become three of the biggest legends in comic history. Even with the Comic Code of Authority now in effect and weighing down the industry, we saw the creation of some of the baddest of the bad: Magneto, Dr. Doom, Braniac, Mr Freeze, Loki, The Sinister Six, Sinestro, Hydra, Skrulls, Poison ivy, Green Goblin, fuckin’ Fing Fang Foom. Now go ahead and name some other random villain not already mentioned off the top of your head, and odds are it came out during the silver age of comics. DC set the pace by scoring early with Batman villains and Marvel took that concept and ran touchdown after touchdown with it. Things wouldn’t be this good for years.

The Bronze Age is when shit got bad….and then good again. Remember that comic book code I brought up earlier, well now it was really taking a toll on comic books. Near the beginning of the age is a period when comics were censored like crazy, the list of things you couldn’t put in comics was a mile long and often ridiculous. It forbade the idea that the reader could have any kind sympathy at all for the villain, and that evil cannot be in any way alluring to the reader. It was also when comic publishers stopped giving a shit about it. This was the time when many of the veterans of the golden age called it quits for one reason or another, and then young blood writers wanted to take everything you loved about your favourite childhood comics and twist some kind of harsh social reality into it. Tony Stark is now a slobbering drunk and not the fun kind, Gwen Stacy gets tossed off a bridge by The Green Goblin, Lois lane becomes African American for a day, Green Lantern is a hobo, heroes like the Punisher and Wolverine are tortured souls who can’t seem to stop killing people, Jean Grey becomes the Dark Phoenix, and Alan Moore releases The Watchmen. We also really got introduced to the victorious super villain; the idea that villains could not only be bad, but they could actually win. In DC, The Joker shoots and rapes Barbara Gordon and then beats the life out of Jason Todd with a crow bar. In Marvel, Thanos puts on the Infinity Gauntlet and almost shatters the entire universe, all for love. The ethical line between good and evil got thinner and thinner.

The 90’s brought the modern age of villains, things aren’t black and white anymore, and it is no longer a DC and Marvel comic universe. We’ve successfully kicked the comic code out on its skinny censoring ass and have opened wide the door for many independent publishers to create their own take on the modern Villain. Most of the classics are still around, but most have been rebooted, creatively interpreted, and polished to something more readers can relate too. Some call this recycled use of heroes and villains a creative crime, while I like to think of it as just painting new pictures with your favourite colours. Now more than ever we treasure the anti-hero like Deadpool, and the modern heroes really have to bring their “A” game to the table in order to even compete with the modern villain. There will always be a Norman Osborn to rebuild the Dark Avengers so that even the gods won’t stand a chance. The Joker no longer robs banks, but blows up hospitals and is the Gotham symbol for chaos. Oh and look! Here comes Galactus to eat the friggin’ planet again. We all know that given a chance, Bane would gladly break the rest of Batman, and guaranteed Doomsday would kill Superman all over again.

In any case, we’ve come a long way since Bea Caroll shot some guy.

See the Difference?