So here we are at last. The Top Five, and the end of our countdown of the 25 Greatest Super-Bastards of All Time (click here to check out the whole list).
I’m not gonna lie, this has been an exhausting blogging experience. It’s completely eaten my life, or at least the portion of it I set aside for entertainment. I haven’t read a book or watched a movie since I started this thing, and I’m crazy behind on new comics, too. But that’s okay, because it’s been kinda fun. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read classic funnybooks I’d never read before, revisited old favorites, and just generally increased my dork knowledge by leaps and bounds.
Still, I’m glad it’s over. Or… Almost. I’m considering a “Best of the Rest” list as a follow-up to the Top 25, showcasing a few villains who maybe should have made the list but didn’t. And, of course, we’ve still got the Top Five ahead of us. So, without further ado…
The Five Best Super-Bastards EVER!
Something of a dark horse candidate, I admit. I find lots of people who are aware that Grendel exists, but very few who’ve ever actually read the comic. So bear with me while I explain who and what Grendel is, and why it’s made the list. Created in 1982 by Matt Wagner, Grendel was initially Hunter Rose, a Master Criminal / Cat Burglar type, opposed by a heroic werewolf character called Argent. The viciousness of their conflict is leavened by the way Wagner chooses to tell the story: as an illustrated prose “adaptation” of a Hunter Rose biography written by his adoptive granddaughter, Christine Spar. That story ran as a back-up in Wagner’s breakthrough series Mage, and is collected under the title Devil by the Deed.
Hunter Rose is the character who’s most familiar to casual readers, and who provides the best imagery (that’s him up above). But when Grendel launched as an on-going series in its own right, it was Christine Spar who took center stage. You see, Hunter Rose dies at the end of Devil by the Deed (spoilers!), and a generation later Spar takes up the Grendel identity to recover her son, who’s been kidnapped by a Japanese vampire.
Which… Number one, that’s some great crazy-ass pulp bullshit. And number two… If you think that turns the tables and makes this second Grendel into a good guy… Heh. Yeah, sure. That’s certainly how it sounds. It’s even how it plays early on. But this is where the series transcends the early “criminal mastermind” Grendel and moves on to something far more interesting. Because Grendel isn’t a person, or even a series of people taking up the mask (though that does happen). No, Grendel is, as Wagner put it, the spirit of aggression. It’s the monster of Beowulf, cut loose from the flesh and free to possess anyone who lets it in. This is mostly subtext, you understand; there’s no literal scenes of a monster entering anyone’s body. But the possession is real nonetheless, and Grendel affects the actions of its hosts in ways they don’t understand.
So when Christine Spar takes up the mask, even in a good cause, it’s not necessarily a good thing. It leads her into cruelty and, ultimately, her own destruction. As the series progresses, centuries pass, and the Grendel spirit expands, becoming a cultural icon through the legacy of Hunter Rose, and eventually a new name for the Devil.
That brings a corrupt future Catholic Church into conflict with Grendel, in the person of Eppy Thatcher, an insane sewer-dwelling factory worker who takes it upon himself to bring the church down. Their evil plans are exposed, and that brings about a cultural reversal: Christianity becomes vilified, and Grendel is hailed as society’s savior. Politician/military leader Orion Assante seizes on the fervor to become the world-conquering Grendel-Khan, and through his actions, Grendel comes to possess all of human society.
So that’s why Grendel makes it into the Top Five: it not only conquers the world, it becomes the world. You’ve gotta admit: as super-bastard plans go, that’s about as successful as it gets.
4. Kid Marvelman
Now we move on to a better-known character, but one whose appearances even fewer present-day comics fans have actually read because they’ve been out of print for 20 years. Going all the way back to the beginning, though…
Created in 1955 by Mick Anglo, Kid Marvelman is Johnny Bates, a pretty typical wholesome kid sidekick for the British super hero Marvelman. Like Captain Marvel (of whom he was a sanctioned knock-off), Marvelman and his cohorts were normal people who turned into super-powered heroes when they said a magic word. Those characters ceased publication in 1963, but were revived in 1982 by Alan Moore and Garry Leach, which is where things get interesting for super-bastard purposes.
(An aside: The history and rights to Marvelman are long, tangled, and fascinating, but have only tangential bearing on what I’ll be discussing today. If you want to know more, including why the character’s better-known as Miracleman in America, Padraig O Mealoid has written an exhaustive history of it all for The Beat, which can be read here: http://comicsbeat.com/category/comics/poisoned-chalice-comics/ .)
In the original 1950s stories, Kid Marvelman is just that: a kid, and the farthest thing in the world from a high-quality super-bastard. Picking the story up 20 years later, however, Moore writes about an adult Johnny Bates, who’s a different animal altogether. The series’ premise is that, following a nuclear attack, Marvelman has suffered amnesia, and settled down to a life of middle-aged domesticity in his human body. Bates, on the other hand, has remained in his super-powered form all that time, and risen to great heights as the CEO of his own corporation. And, in a classic case of absolute power corrupting absolutely…
…he’s become a twisted, evil cunt. The reunion goes downhill from there, as Bates’ paranoia and resentment of his former mentor puts him on the attack. And suddenly, he’s terrifying. Surrounded by a glowing green electric aura, he murders his secretary just to show off, and proceeds to wipe the floor with Marvelman. Bates has had 20 years to develop his powers, you see, so Our Hero is no match for him. Ultimately, he defeats himself: in the midst of a psychotic victory rant, he unthinkingly says his magic word, leaving a 13-year-old Johnny Bates in his place. Traumatized by his own actions as Kid Marvelman, Johnny’s gone catatonic, and is unable to change back.
What makes all this so interesting to me is the psychology of it. While Jean Grey was lead down a dark path on her way to becoming a god, Johnny Bates walks that path on his own. He’s so superior to everyone around him that he respects no one, casually killing and manipulating his way to the top. But he still keeps his true nature secret. He’s content to slowly build financial and political power on his way to world domination. Why? Presumably because he’s afraid they’ll hit him with another nuke if he tries anything flashier. So there he is, supremely powerful and yet scared shitless of the inferior humans he holds in such disdain. It’s no wonder he’s got issues with authority, and likewise no wonder that he resents Marvelman so very much.
What cements Kid Marvelman’s place in the top five, though, is what he does on his inevitable return. Because, yes, young Johnny Bates (suffering constant psychic abuse from his adult counterpart) eventually relents and lets the monster loose again. In an attempt to get Marvelman’s attention, he goes out into London and just starts killing people. He’s at it for hours, and when he gets bored, he comes up with ever more inventive ways to kill them. There are people wrapped in barbed wire and hung from lampposts, the skins of people flayed alive are hung on clotheslines, there’s a rain of severed hands and feet… It’s like something out of Hieronymous Bosch.
Now, sure. We’ve seen mass murder amongst the super-bastards before: Galactus eats planets, and Dark Phoenix killed an entire solar system. But those are distant, impersonal killings. The most we see in those cases is maybe some crowds fleeing in terror from their impending doom. But nothing, not even Watchmen‘s six-page splash of the carnage following Ozymandias’ attack on New York, can match this. Kid Marvelman brings home the real cost of super villain mass murder, and he does it by repeatedly punching the reader in the gut with sickening displays of destruction. This is the face of evil.
3. DOCTOR DOOM!
And so we move from disturbing, Holocaust-style evil to grand, noble evil! The evil… THAT IS DOOM!!!
If any men could be said to have created DOOM, it would be Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and they did so in 1962. Truly, this was their greatest working. For DOOM is indomitable! DOOM is unstoppable! DOOM is… DOOM! When common peasants think of world-conquering super villainy, it is DOOM they see! And DOOM they fear! For who else devises such fiendish traps, such outlandish machinery, such grandiose speeches?! Who else can match wits with the accursed Reed Richards, beat the simple-minded Thing into submission, extinguish the flames of the Human Torch, and kidnap the Invisible Woman… all at once?! Who else has his own cooking blog?!
But incredibly, all is not well for DOOM. Due to the interference of the treacherous Richards, DOOM’s face was destroyed in a lab explosion when he was but a young man. And now he must hide his face behind a metal mask.
True, it is but a small scar marring DOOM’s beauty. But do not call DOOM vain! For even the slightest imperfection cannot be tolerated… when you are DOOM! For DOOM is indomitable! DOOM is– Oh, wait. DOOM… already covered that. DOOM apologizes, for repetition is beneath the glory that is DOOM!
Truly, no other villain is more deserving of the honor of being the number one super-bastard of all time, and so DOOM gladly accepts your laurels, paltry though they may be, and– WHAT?! DOOM is only number THREE?! What trickery is this?! You will pay for this slight, and pay dearly!
Curse you, Richards! You’ll not confuse DOOM’s math again!
Created by Jack Kirby in 1970, Darkseid is the first and best of The King’s Fourth World characters. The premise of the Fourth World is simple but powerful: two planets of gods, one peace-loving and good, the other an evil totalitarian hell, live under an uneasy truce. Darkseid, ruler of the evil planet Apokolips, brings their conflict to Earth because he seeks The Anti-Life Equation, a cosmic formula that will destroy free will throughout the universe. He believes that the secret of the Equation is hidden in the minds of mankind, and he’ll stop at nothing to rip it free. So he conducts experiments on us through a variety of agents, such as the evil geneticists Makkari and Simian; the glad-handing con artist god Glorious Godfrey; and the sadistic master of fear and pain, Desaad.
Could he just send in his shock troops and conquer us? Of course. But he doesn’t, and that’s what makes Darkseid such a magnificent villain. Merely crushing the Earth beneath his boot heel won’t get him what he wants. And so he works in the shadows instead, trying to coax Anti-Life out of us however he can. Sometimes that’s by causing chaos and destruction…
…but he might just as likely build an amusement park…
…that’s actually a secret torture factory.
Because that’s just how he rolls. In some ways, this makes Darkseid a bit of a throw-back as a villain, engaging in elaborate, nonsensical schemes rather than going after objectives directly, or by using brute force. But direct shows of brute force are, frankly, boring. They make things blow up real good, sure, but there’s only so many explosions you can see before you need something more interesting. A little bacon to go along with the eggs, as it were.
(Did I really just call Darkseid the bacon of funnybook super-bastards? I did, didn’t I? Well, if the pig product fits…)
At any rate. Anti-Life’s not the only reason Darkseid operates so cautiously. He also has to maintain that fragile truce with the gods of New Genesis. So he weasels around, knowing that all-out war will destroy him just as surely as it will his hated enemies. Which is a Cold War metaphor, admittedly, but that sort of stalemate is timeless from a dramatic perspective. The mistake too many later writers have made is in getting rid of the caution it necessitates, and reducing Darkseid and his allies to just another set of alien conqueror-assholes. In Kirby’s conception, they were actual gods, living metaphors who stood for greater cosmic truths. Or, as Darkseid himself puts it…
Is that Kirby’s best-ever bit of sloganeering dialogue? Quite probably. It’s only topped, in fact, by this:
Oh, c’mon! You didn’t think I was going to talk about Darkseid and NOT bring up Grant Morrison, did you? Morrison’s take on the New Gods is more baldly metaphysical than Kirby’s, but he takes all the substance of it directly from the King. If Darkseid can be said to be the god anything specific, I think he would be the god of totalitarianism. His goal, through Anti-Life, is not just for control of everything in the universe. It’s for everything in the universe to BE him. In Morrison’s Rock of Ages, we see a future in which he achieves just that. Thus: Darkseid IS.
Hmm. I feel as if I’m not explaining this well enough. Perhaps a Darkseid religious tract would be helpful:
The full story (a parody of the fundamentalist Christian comics tracts produced by Jack Chick) can be found here: http://foo.ca/wp/chick-tract-satire/darkseid/ It’s kinda brilliant, both a pitch-perfect send-up of Chick and a good summation of Darkseid’s philosophies. If you really wanna understand Anti-Life, check it out.
But back to Morrison. He reveals the actual formula for the Anti-Life Equation in his much-maligned Final Crisis:
I like that. It’s not unfamiliar territory for anyone who’s read the author’s Invisibles or Seven Soldiers, of course; shame, guilt, and the eradication of free will are frequent tools of Morrisonian evil.
(Did I just call something “Morrisonian”? Holy crap, I did. Well, color me pretentious! Hopefully, it’s off-set by the “bacon” thing.)
Anyway… Where was I? Ah, yes! Shame, guilt, eradication of free will. Those are themes that tie Morrison’s work to Kirby’s in ways I’d never considered until I read Final Crisis, and that warms the cockles of my withered old fanboy heart. But the revelation of Anti-Life is not why Final Crisis catches so much flack. That happens because… Well, for one thing, the narrative shakes itself apart in the later chapters (purposefully, I think, but it still rubs some folks the wrong way). And then there’s the last thing I want to talk about in relation to Darkseid: his demise.
Yes, yes. Death by singing. I love that shit, though. At this point, Batman’s already destroyed Darkseid’s body by shooting him with the god-bullet (long story), but here Superman destroys what’s left of him, the malevolent god-essence, by singing the all-inclusive notes of the universal harmonic, the opposite of Darkseid’s Anti-Life singularity. In other words, the Life Equation.
That’s one of those grand, elegant, just-slightly-idiotic bits of poetry that crops up unexpectedly in Kirby’s work…
…and which Morrison trades in all the time. It’s weird, it’s cosmic, it’s great, and yes, it’s just a bit silly. But for the super-bastard who brought us Happyland… I think it’s an appropriate end.
And now… drumroll please… The Number One Funnybook Super-Bastard Ever is…
After that Darkseid essay, I feel like I should wax just as eloquent on the one super-bastard who beat him out. But let’s face it: the Joker just works. Whether he’s cast as a murderous clown…
…a giggling psychotic…
…or just a flamboyant bank robber with a playing card fetish…
…you really can’t beat The Clown Prince of Crime, and there’s not really a lot more to say than that. But, hey. Let me have a go at being a wordy bastard, anyway.
The Joker was created in 1940 by… Well, it’s a matter of some dispute who created the Joker. Bob Kane took the credit, of course, as he did for all things Batman. But it’s probably more true to say that it was writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson, with Kane providing one key piece of art direction. Everyone’s story varies just a bit…
…but the best one comes from Bob Kane. He said that, though the Joker’s name was taken from the playing card, his distinctive look was taken from actor Conrad Veidt in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. And it’s kind of hard to dispute him when you take even a glance at that film’s most famous publicity still:
Yeah. JOKER. Don’t even pretend.
So. Do I have a favorite Joker, or Joker story? Whoosh. That’s tough. One of the things that makes the Joker the best super-bastard ever is that there are so very many good Joker stories. It might be easier, in fact, to list the bad Joker stories than it would be to list the good. But that’s not why we’re here. So maybe I’ll just list my favorites.
Let’s see… Where to begin? Pretty much any Joker episode from the 1990s Batman Animated Series is worth watching, with the Christmas ones being particularly good. And that same team’s Batman Beyond movie Return of the Joker features one of the most gripping and demented Joker schemes ever. The very first Joker story from Batman #1, in which he predicts a series of murders that happen even right under the noses of the police, is also pretty great. Then there’s Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ The Laughing Fish, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Mad Love, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, the stealth Joker story that is Grant Morrison’s entire Batman and Robin run (in which the Joker plays a game of secret identities with Dick Grayson before upstaging the devil with the threat of a nuclear bomb)…
And then, of course, there’s the 500 pound gorilla in any Joker room these days:
Heath Ledger’s performance as the crazed anarchist Joker from The Dark Knight. More than enough’s been written about Ledger’s Joker, so I won’t go into detail here. It’s probably not my favorite. But I liked it.
So, yes. Joker good. Number One Bad Guy good.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
And that’s all she wrote for the Dork Forty’s list of the 25 Greatest Super Villains of All Time. Now I think I’m gonna go crawl under my bed and not think about funnybooks for a little while. Brain… throbbing…
Thank you for reading, and good night.