Super-Bastards. Top 25. Countin’ ’em down.
And now here we are at Part Four. I was planning on a short entry tonight, just three villains. But it’s turning out even shorter than I thought. Because two of these bastards just work, and even though the third doesn’t work as well as he should… Well, you’ll see. You’ll see right now, in fact, because he’s next…
8. Lex Luthor
Being Superman’s arch-enemy has its benefits. Like, landing you in the top ten super-bastards ever even though, for most of your career, you were kinda… meh. That’s not a word I use lightly, understand. For one thing, I think it’s lazy. And for another, it smacks of the kind of fan arrogance that drives me most insane. There’s a sense of “been there, done that, bought the comic” to that word, which… Look. If you feel that way about your funnybooks… and far too many fans do… then you should read different funnybooks. Better funnybooks. Or you should just go and find something else to do with your time and interest. I’d say don’t get me started, but it appears I already have.
ANYway… Luthor. Meh. I use the hated word in this instance because it’s the best description possible for my reaction to the vast majority of Luthor stories published before 1986. Granted, the pedigree ain’t bad: he was created in 1940 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and in his first appearance, he commanded a floating city held aloft by a dirigible!
Craziness! And I’m all for the idea of Superman’s worst enemy being not a man strong of body, but strong of mind. It’s the classic “brains vs brawn” conflict, a rivalry that just works. But taken purely on that level, Luthor’s not as good a villain as Captain Marvel’s Dr. Sivana, who we’ve already covered at a far less lofty position. And that’s because, while Sivana has a strong personality, the classic Luthor just doesn’t. He’s kind of a generic evil scientist type, defined primarily by his hatred of Superman. He quickly settled into a rut of unimaginative mad science, and stayed there for about 40 years. Even Jerry Siegel’s whacky Luthor retcon origin from 1960 only makes him slightly more interesting:
That’s right: Luthor is evil because of BALDNESS! But brilliant as that is, it still didn’t make the adult Luthor any more interesting. Neither did his purple-and-green leotard, or the matching suit of power armor he started wearing in the 1980s.
So why’s he in the Top Ten, then? To start with, John Byrne. Hired to revamp the Superman franchise from the ground-up in 1986, Byrne reinvented Luthor as an untouchable corrupt businessman. The character went from leotards and armor to sharp black suits, his enmity toward the Man of Steel based as much on mistrust and jealousy of this powerful alien in humanity’s midst as on Superman’s attempts to stop his illegal enterprises. They layered the mad scientist back in later, establishing that Luthor’s fortune is based on his scientific prowess, but it was Byrne’s take on the character that gave him a personality for the first time, and it’s stuck.
Capping Luthor off, though, and making him a lock for the Top Ten, is Grant Morrison’s take on the character from All-Star Superman. This is a late-career Luthor, one whose villainy has been exposed to the world, and who’s been consumed by his hatred of Superman. Unlike the pre-1986 Luthor, however, Morrison’s Luthor is anything but dull. He’s calm, scheming, arrogant, and quite clearly insane. He has a sharp sense of humor, though, and revels in his own badness. And he’s quietly orchestrated the slow murder of the Man of Steel.
Morrison hits another important note in his depiction of the Superman/Luthor relationship there: in a better world, they could have been friends. Lex is brilliant and funny, and had he devoted his genius to helping mankind… But, no. He’s too arrogant, too concerned with his own aggrandizement, ultimately just too much of a bastard. And that… lands him in the Top Ten.
Free spirit. Thrill-seeker. Cat burglar. Femme Fatale. As I said earlier, Catwoman just works, and she always has. In spite of numerous costume changes…
…she’s changed relatively little since her creation in 1940 by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. She’s always been the most lighthearted of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, the least likely to kill, the most likely to… not go straight, exactly, but… sometimes play the hero. She’s also the only one of the classic Bat-villains the Caped Crusader’s ever slept with.
(I mean, I’m sure there’s Batman/Penguin slash fiction out there somewhere, but I really don’t wanna know about it…)
Just about any Catwoman is good (Halle Berry being the exception that proves the rule), but the versions that have worked best are probably Julie Newmar’s portrayal of her on the Adam West Batman TV show…
…and the Ed Brubaker/Darwyn Cooke/Cam Stewart relaunch from the late 1990s:
While Newmar best-captured Catwoman as a villain, this series is by far the best portrayal ever done of Catwoman as hero. In it, she becomes the protector of Gotham City’s East End, never quite giving up burglary, but becoming far more concerned about the well-being of her community. It’s good reading from comics’ current masters of crime pulp. Check it out, and see what all the fuss is about.
Created in 1942 by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Two-Face has one of the best gimmicks in all super-bastardry: a gangster throws acid in the face of Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent, leaving one side of Dent’s face horribly scarred while the other is still movie-star handsome. That deformity drives Dent mad. He becomes obsessed with duality, and now makes all his important decisions on the basis of a coin toss. If his silver dollar, scarred on one side, lands clean side up, Dent does good. But if it lands scarred side up, he does bad.
Simple, effective, and visually stunning. A great super-bastard, and no denying it. Plus, as district attorney, he was once one of Batman’s strongest allies. So Our Hero can’t face him without feeling a mix of regret, sympathy, and even misplaced guilt over not stopping the acid attack in the first place. The personal touch goes a long way.
But Two-Face is kind of fascinating all by himself, and that’s why he’s here amongst the greats. Modern writers have used him to really dig into the concept of duality, that mix of good and bad that’s in all of us. Flashbacks and “Year One” stories have shown us a Harvey Dent who clearly had some demons even before the acid attack. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, for instance, did an extended arc with Harvey in the 1990s Batman Animated Series that showed his dark side rather well in the run-up to his becoming Two-Face. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween is probably the best “Harvey Dent: District Attorney” story in the comics, though, weaving Dent’s descent into madness into the story of how Batman, Gordon, and Dent cleaned up Gotham’s mobs only to trade them in for costumed madmen.
There have also been multiple attempts to cure Dent of his madness through plastic surgery. Frank Miller toyed with it in Dark Knight Returns, with a fully-handsome Dent who instead saw himself as fully-scarred whenever he looked in the mirror. The best Two-Face plastic surgery story ever, though, came from Bruce Timm in the Batman Black and White series. Called “Two of a Kind,” it’s a noirish tale of madness and bloody business that captures Two-Face better in 8 pages than most writers have managed in year-long arcs. I don’t normally like to link out to full scans of funnybook stories, but this one’s so short, and so relatively difficult to find, that just this once…
And that’s it for tonight. Next week, we’ll finally arrive at the Top Five Super-Bastards Ever, and you can all deride my taste in evil.