Time for part two of our countdown of the Greatest Funnybook Super-Bastards of All Time. You can go here for part one, or just jump right in below…
20. Anton Arcane
As created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson in 1972, Anton Arcane’s big villain obsession was immortality. But that’s not what makes him one of the greatest super-bastards of all time. No, he’s here because he is completely batshit-crazy.
Both a scientific genius and a sorcerer, Arcane has already created the Un-Men when we first see him. What are the Un-Men, you ask? Oh, just a collection of freaky monsters who seem to have been tossed together out of random body parts. That head growing out the back of a hand in the picture above? He’s their leader. Or at least, I always thought of him as such, since he’s the one Un-Man that’s always there. That’s probably just because he’s awesome, of course, but in my head… LEADER.
Anyway. Arcane also resurrects his brother in a Frankenstein-style patchwork body. Then he tries swapping bodies with Swamp Thing, dies and is brought back to life in a twisted monster form (also seen above), steals the body of his niece’s husband, and eventually makes himself into a cyborg with the monster torso and a spider-legged robotic lower half. Along the way, he goes to Hell, becomes a demon, gains god-like power over reality itself, loses it, and is just generally a never-say-die thorn in Swamp Thing’s side, a tenacious evil bastard and all-around great pulpy villain.
That all this bizarre ridiculousness takes place in some of the best-written and downright scariest mainstream comics ever is kind of amazing. The original Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing comics are a high water mark for their decade, and Alan Moore and Steve Bissette’s run on the 1980s revival of the character is even better. I mean, you’d think that “Monster Demon Spider-Cyborg” would be the trainwreck moment, the point when the character jumped the proverbial shark, but until I actually sat down to describe it so baldly, it had never struck me as anything other than really creepy. So thank you once again, Alan Moore, for making the ridiculous work.
“The Fantastic Four fight God.”
That’s rumored to have been the only plot summary Stan Lee gave Jack Kirby for the original Galactus saga, planned to celebrate their flagship title’s 50th issue. What Kirby delivered was the tale of a planet-eating space giant and his conflicted herald, a powerful minion with the thankless job of announcing his boss’ impending arrival at the cosmic dinner table.
It doesn’t get much more high-concept than that, and Galactus has allowed many writers to ponder weighty matters of mortality, religion, moral imperatives, and cosmic Darwinism. Attempts have been made to humanize Galactus, to examine what it’s like for a sentient being to become a force of nature, from Lee and Kirby’s Galactus: the Origin to John Byrne’s Trial of Galactus. That’s interesting ground to cover, certainly, but I think he’s at his best when he’s just a towering, impassive presence, a plot device useful in defining the heroes at their darkest hour. In other words…
When Galactus shows up, shit gets real. And that’s interesting.
18. Dr. Sivana
Created in 1940 by Bill Parker and CC Beck, Sivana is the arch-enemy of Captain Marvel and the quintessential funnybook Mad Scientist. And… you know… There’s not much more to say, really. He is silly and awesome, as you can discover by reading just about any of the great Golden Age Captain Marvel stories he’s featured in. As with the good Captain himself, Sivana hasn’t been served well by the more “adult” comics of the modern era, but that doesn’t change what a great children’s character he is, nor how good the comics themselves were.
17. The Red Skull
Vicious unrepentant Nazi.
Genocidal mastermind bent on world domination.
Skull for a head.
Yeah. Yeah, the Red Skull just works. I mean, look at this guy:
No, really! LOOK at this guy:
No no, seriously… LOOK AT THIS GUY!
What more is there to say, really? Nazis are the best funnybook villains ever, and the Skull is the best of that vile lot. I can’t even point to any really spectacular Red Skull stories, but it doesn’t matter. He’s the freaking Red Skull! He rocks automatically.
Few funnybook villains have been as well-developed as Magneto, and few of those that have started from such humble beginnings. Sure, he was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby near the dawn of the Marvel age, but… Like most things that came out of the early X-Men comics, he was kinda half-assed. Sure, “mutant master of magnetism” is a pretty good base concept, but as written, Magneto was kind of unimpressive. Conniving, weaselly, and haughty all at once, he was an okay villain, but one that lacked real grandeur.
So what happened? Chris Claremont, mainly. Over the course of 100 issues, Claremont took this one-dimensional super-bastard and turned him into Malcolm X. It wasn’t a straight path, or a clear one, but once Claremont got rolling, it was really kind of magnificent. He got into Magneto’s background as a victim of the Nazi concentration camps, showing us how and why the character came to his anti-human stance, and making Magneto’s War an understandable (if wrong-headed) alternative to Xavier’s Dream. Before we knew it, Magneto had become a Noble Villain of the first order, and eventually a Bad Guy Gone Good who decided to not only lay down his arms and make peace, but to take his arch-enemy’s place as mentor to the next generation of mutant good guys.
It was all undone later, of course, with Claremont himself scripting Magneto’s unconvincing return to villainy over a Jim Lee plot. But that doesn’t erase the earlier work that played out intermittently between Uncanny X-Men 100 and 200. That wide spread of issues makes it hard to gather and read, but it’s one of the all-time-great funnybook character arcs, and it still lands Magneto a spot amongst the greats.
15. Mr. Freeze
Next up, we find Mr. Freeze, an all-too-human bad guy who best-represents the Sympathetic Villain archetype. It wasn’t always that way, though. In fact, it’s taken two different TV incarnations of Batman to show the funnybooks how it’s done, and to raise Mr. Freeze to his lofty position on our list.
Created in 1959 by David Wood and Sheldon Moldoff as “Mr. Zero,” this character was renamed Mr. Freeze for the 1966 Adam West Batman show, where he was memorably played by three different actors over the show’s three seasons. Generally seen as a fourth-tier joke villain in the comics, he had actually been killed off until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm revived him for the 1980s Batman animated series, which is where things get interesting.
In Dini and Timm’s version, Mr. Freeze is scientist Victor Fries, who commits crimes to fund research into his wife Nora’s terminal illness. Outwardly emotionless and “cold,” Freeze is nonetheless completely at the mercy of his love for Nora, who he’s placed in cryogenic freeze until he can find a cure. Their plight is further complicated by a lab accident that renders him unable to survive in temperatures above freezing. So even if he cures his wife, they still won’t be together.
This version of the character’s got everything: cool look, neat powers, and a backstory with pathos. There’s even subtlety to the proceedings. Batman’s attempts to reason with Freeze often delve into the value of letting go (something Bats himself ain’t real good at), and how Freeze is turning himself into a moral monster that Nora couldn’t love even if he does save her life. Animated Freeze also has a tragic character arc over time, becoming less and less human until, in the final season, he’s just a head with a robotic spider-leg body:
Monstrous and cool. It’s no wonder they adopted the animated series version of Freeze as Bat-Canon not long after he first appeared. Unfortunately, though, he was never given as nuanced a treatment in the comics as he was on TV. All the pieces were there, but the Bat-Comics of that era were starting their descent into self-parody grimness, and sympathetic villains were out of vogue (though I do think that Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle might have done some nice things with him). That lack of funnybook goodness is the only thing keeping Freeze out of the top ten, I think. But enough of Animated Freeze remained to keep him in the running. He was still a tragic figure, after all, and it’s really the tragedy that makes Freeze work. Anyone who’s ever been in love can sympathize with him. And that makes him a great villain.
14. Dr. Psycho
Created in 1943 by William Moulton Marsten and Harry G. Peter, Dr. Psycho is another one of those characters that just works. I mean, really. A twisted misogynist dwarf with mind control powers. I don’t think you could come up with a better arch-enemy for Golden Age Wonder Woman than that. Seriously, just read this:
That’s wrong ten ways to Sunday. You’ve got the usual Wonder Woman bondage action going on, of course, but here it’s coupled with a forced marriage, occult experiments accompanied by MORE bondage (this time with blindfolds!), and finally the bringing forth of ectoplasmic goo in some kind of weird psychic money shot. Gah! Comics really don’t get much creepier. They’ve tried, of course….
…and sometimes succeeded. That image is taken from the 1980s version of the character by George Perez and Jill Thompson, who played him as a total horrorshow nightmare. There’s an almost feral quality about him in those stories, and he’s graduated from hypnosis and the use of mediums to full-blown telepathy and mind control. That’s less ornate and interesting, I think, but it still works.
I’m more impressed with that original Golden Age take on him, though. As with most of Marston’s Wonder Woman kink, there’s a sense of playfulness to the original Dr. Psycho that keeps him from being entirely off-putting. As sick and wrong as he is, he’s also a physical coward who might just get his ass kicked by Etta Candy if he’s not careful. That alleviates some of the awfulness, and makes him an entertaining villain instead of an unrelenting bastard you don’t want to read about (a line the modern version of the character crosses with alarming regularity).
Aaaannndd… That’s all for tonight. We’re more or less at the halfway point of our villain marathon now, with 12 super-bastards knocked down and a lucky 13 left to go.
Continue reading here, with Part Three.