Hello, and welcome back to our countdown of the 25 Greatest Funnybook Super-Bastards Ever!
What’s that? This is your first visit? You didn’t know we were counting down super-bastards? Well, hell! Why didn’t you say so?
Or you can just jump in below to see if all that clicking is worth it. We start today with lucky number 13, and then on into the lofty heights of the Top Ten. So, without further ado, let’s get to bastardizin’!
Who better to fill our thirteenth slot than the Lord of the Undead? Created by Bram Stoker in 1898, Dracula is one of the greatest villains in literary history. Stoker’s original novel has inspired stage productions, movies, books, TV shows… and of course funnybooks. He’s here amongst the super-bastards, in fact, because of one funnybook in particular:
Tomb of Dracula launched in 1972, and was created for most of its 70-issue run by the team of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan. Dracula is very much the villain in this series, but make no mistake: he’s also the real protagonist. Though readers are meant to root for the vampire-hunting good guys, Dracula himself gets just as much face-time.
The hunters really aren’t the biggest threat to him, either. He often finds himself tangling with other villains: mad scientist types, Satanic cults, rival vampire lords, and even his own vampiric offspring. Seriously, once it really gets going, Tomb of Dracula just positively drips with bastardry. It’s probably the best (and definitely the longest-lived) villain comic ever. But that said… It ain’t Shakespeare. While he comes up with some great pulpy ideas, Wolfman’s prose is often hysterically purple:
It’s kinda fun if you’re in the right frame of mind, but even then… there are large swaths of text I just have to skip. Still, Gene Colan’s artwork is never less than stellar, so the book’s at least pretty to look at even when it’s unreadable. And then, of course, there are the moments when both Wolfman and Colan are firing on all cylinders, and it’s just evil magic…
12. Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime!
Forgive my excitement. I just really love the Kingpin. Why? Well, this was one of the first comics I ever read as a kid:
My tiny mind was blown by the idea of this towering fat man bringing Spider-Man to his knees just by squeezing his wrist! How great is that?! Of course, most people know the character more from comics published over a decade later…
…and those are great, too. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Kingpin was created in 1967 by Stan Lee and John Romita, the latest in a string of crime lords for Spider-Man to face off against. Unlike the previous gangsters, though, the Kingpin wasn’t a mystery man. We knew his real name right from the start, because by day he masqueraded as a legitimate businessman, a charity-loving millionaire named Wilson Fisk. Fisk kept his secret so successfully, in fact, that his own family didn’t know he was a gangster. They find out, of course, and therein lies the thing that makes the Kingpin such a great villain: though utterly ruthless otherwise, he’s willing to give it all up for the love of his wife Vanessa.
That made for epic gangster soap opera in Lee’s hands, but it was just the right kind of noir hook to attract the attention of Frank Miller when he started writing Daredevil. And that’s where the character goes from “something I loved as a kid” to “great super-bastard.” Because Miller takes that devotion to Vanessa and twists it around, sending the retired Fisk back into his role as the Kingpin to get revenge on rivals who kidnap her. She’s lost in the ensuing bloodshed, and presumed dead. But Daredevil finds her a few issues later, and (in order to stop Fisk from installing a puppet in the New York City mayor’s office) does something rather despicable:
It’s a turning point for both characters. The Kingpin has provoked Daredevil by hiring the hero’s former lover as his new assassin, but Fisk doesn’t know that. From his perspective, Daredevil’s just stooped to his level, crossing the line from crime-puncher to blackmailer. That makes their rivalry personal, and sparks a blood feud between them that survives to this day. These two have destroyed each other’s lives twice over by now, most notably in Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Born Again, in which the Kingpin discovers his arch-enemy’s secret identity and systematically sets about making Matt Murdock’s life a living hell. Ann Nocenti, Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker also added their own twists and turns to the feud in their respective runs on the title, making Daredevil vs the Kingpin a contender for Best Spandex Rivalry (yet another list!), and vaulting the Kingpin high in the annals of super-bastardry.
11. The Green Goblin
Another “Best Rivalry” contender would have to be Spider-Man vs the Green Goblin. Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the Goblin (real name: Norman Osborn) is the last of the classic Spider-Man villains to be introduced, but he’s by far the best. Even on a pure gimmick level, he’s hard to beat: with his leering green face, pumpkin bombs, and bat-shaped Goblin Glider…
…he’s essentially Halloween personified. But it doesn’t stop there. He fills the roles of Criminal Mastermind, Homicidal Lunatic, and even, for a while, Sympathetic Villain. What else? Well… He knows Spider-Man’s secret identity, he’s the father of Peter Parker’s best friend Harry, and he killed Pete’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. Their rivalry didn’t even stop when Norman died, because Spider-Man wound up wanted for the murder. So the Goblin ruined his arch-enemy’s life from beyond the freaking grave!
And it just goes on and on. Harry later went nuts and became the Goblin himself, another member of the Spider-Man supporting cast stumbled upon Osborn’s notes and equipment to become the Hobgoblin (maybe the only good carbon copy super-bastard ever), and to top it all off, Norman later came back from the dead to start whole new rounds of his feud with Our Hero. At one point, he even found himself a hero of the Skrull War, and replaced Nick Fury as the world’s top cop. He was still crazy as a shit-house rat, though, so… That didn’t go so well.
All in all, the Green Goblin is a top-flight super-bastard. The only thing keeping him out of the Top Ten is the fact that, like Spider-Man himself, he’s never inspired that many really great stories. Stan Lee and Gil Kane’s “Green Goblin Reborn” (aka the Spider-Man drug story) is interesting, I suppose, and “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane (that guy again!), is far better reading than it has any right to be. But otherwise, it’s all just standard super heroics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it takes that little something extra to make it into the Top Ten.
Speaking of which… We’re here!
10. Dark Phoenix
Maybe the ultimate Good Guy Gone Bad. Jean Grey was a founding member of the X-Men and all-around lily-white good girl. Due to [funnybook bullshit science], Jean finds her mental super powers expanded to god-like levels and becomes the cosmic entity Dark Phoenix. She flies to a distant part of the galaxy and, finding that she’s drained her power dry, sucks all the energy out of a nearby star, killing the billions of people living on the planets circling it. No spoilers, but… Things go downhill for her from there.
This is generally discussed as a meditation on the corrupting nature of power, and it’s certainly that. What I don’t see discussed as often (and what ultimately puts Jean in the Top Ten) is the fact that it’s also a rape narrative. Because she doesn’t go evil all by herself, you understand. She spends the better part of a year being psychically manipulated by the villain Mastermind, who projects elaborate fantasy illusions into her mind, making her think that she’s reliving the life of an ancestor who was married to Jason Wyngarde (a role filled by Mastermind himself, naturally), and who served as the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club, an insanely kinky establishment for the entertainment of rich weirdos.
No, no! It’s more like… Some kind of historical romance novel, crossed with 50 Shades of Gray.
Anyway… The whole thing is played as a seduction, with Wyngarde appealing to Jean’s dark side through the distancing agent of the ancestor. After all, it’s not Jean who’s a cruel, arrogant, slave-owning dominatrix. It’s her great-great-grandmother or whatever. So she’s slowly drawn into these illusions until they eventually take over her mind completely and she becomes the ancestor full-time, living at the real Hellfire Club with Wyngarde. As husband and wife.
Which… yeah, that’s rape. Not only does he mentally rape her, he also undoubtedly does so physically, through the use of what amounts to psychic ruffies. That’s horrible, but it’s also fascinating as a story element, adding an interesting layer to the story of a woman corrupted by power. Now, I’m not saying that rape is a valid excuse for cosmic genocide, but it’s certainly a factor in Jean’s actions. Mastermind forcibly coaxes out the negative aspects of her personality. Some part of her enjoys being so deliciously evil, even though it’s a part she doesn’t like. We’ve all got to wrestle with our darker urges at some point in our lives, of course, and most of us hopefully make peace with them. But we don’t have to deal with that while simultaneously transforming into a god. It’s Jean’s bad luck that she does, and as I said above, she doesn’t handle it all that well.
But, hey. At least it places her in pretty rarefied company as a super-bastard.
(An aside: Yes, yes. I know it was all retconned later. It was “the Phoenix Force” who did these terrible things, rather than Jean. But that’s not how the original story reads, and the original story is better than the follow-up. So for our purposes here today… Claremont and Byrne’s Dark Phoenix Saga is the only story that matters.)
(Another aside: I’m not at all comfortable with the fact that the first female super villain on our list gets there because she was raped. That’s sick, and it probably says something horrible about super hero comics in general. But that’s an essay for another day.)
While Watchmen didn’t make the Top Ten of the heroes list, I really felt like its villain needed to. Why? A single line of dialogue:
“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.” HEH. I still remember the sinking feeling I got when I read that line. Hell, I even remember where I was when I read it: the second floor of a two-story Burger King in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I’d stopped there for lunch after picking up my comics, and couldn’t wait til I got home to read the new Watchmen. I hit that page, my eyes got big, and I put my burger down to stop for a moment in awe. I was a college freshman then, relatively unsophisticated as a reader. Super hero comics hadn’t yet descended into pointless grim slaughter, and the conscious breaking of genre tropes hadn’t become a dork fiction sub-genre unto itself. And I was blown away.
It wasn’t the breaking of the trope itself that impressed me so much, though. I appreciated that for what it was, certainly; with that “Republic serial villain” line, it was hard not to. But what stopped me in my tracks as a reader was the sheer horror of what had just happened: Ozymandias had killed a city. For the good of the world.
Even more chillingly, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of insanity or overblown egomania behind his actions. Usually, in these Good Guy Gone Bad situations, some sort of petty character flaw is used to explain why a hero’s gone over to the dark side. But not Ozymandias. He’s calm and rational, acting out of the same motivations and using the same techniques he’d used as an active super hero. Just, you know… taken to the next level. Or… maybe the next five or ten levels. That’s a pretty massive plan.
It’s still wrong, of course, a genuine step over the line into super-villainy. And a ridiculous one, at that. Which is the other thing that lands Ozymandias so high on the list. Because designing and engineering a fake psychic alien, and using it to fool the world into thinking it’s the bulwark of an unstoppable invasion from outer space… That’s some insane funnybook bullshit right there. Some have complained that it’s too “unrealistic” for a book as “real” as Watchmen. But honestly… If you’ve accepted the naked blue super-god running around, “fake alien invasion” can’t be that much more of a stretch.
Oh, and uh… Ozymandias was created in 1986 by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for their groundbreaking spandex classic Watchmen. If you haven’t read it… Heh. Sorry. I’ve… just ruined the ending. But on the other hand… What the hell’s wrong with ya?! Why are you on a site like this when you haven’t even read Watchmen?! And you call yourself a fanboy…
Ahem. I’m sorry. Don’t know what came over me there. Obviously, it’s time to end this for tonight. I’ll try to be a little less “git offen my propitty” later this week, when we’ll have a comparatively short entry to count us down to the top five. Where I’ll no doubt get REALLY long-winded…