Bring on the Bad Guys

By way of marking the release of Avengers Assemble, I decided that the weekend just gone should be a celebration of all things superheroic, and as part of that I opted to read Bring on the Bad Guys: Origins of the Marvel Comics Villains, a rather splendiferous tome reprising first appearances of some of the nastiest pieces of work to ever don lycra. And each of these classic comic book narratives is introduced by the wonderful Stan Lee in his own, ebullient style, a style that, reading this, I realise has played a significant part in shaping the way I myself write, at least when I’m trying to sound convincing, enthusiastic and sincere, which I rarely do, at least all three together. You can see similiar trademark Lee patter in, for instance, the PS Publishing bulletins sent out by Pete Crowther, the same blend of amiable boosterism and self-deprecation.

Anyway, first up in the book is a double bill of the diabolical Doctor Doom, including the very first story in which he appeared, an issue of The Fantastic Four in which time travel, Blackbeard’s treasure and the magic of Merlin are entwined in a hideously contrived concoction, but one that doesn’t quite take itself seriously (with hindsight, it seemed rather like an episode of Charmed). Much better is the second story, an origin piece in which Doom’s character is shaped as a child by the persecution he experienced as a gipsy (a similar scenario to the events that brought Magneto into being), the story recording his early encounter with Reed Richards and showing that, while the rest of the world may abhor his actions, to the people of his native Latveria Doom is a hero, and it was subtle distinctions like this, those grey areas, that so endeared the Marvel product to my adolescent mind way back when. While Lee tells the story, Jack Kirby provides the artwork, creating a truly memorable look for one of my favourite Marvel characters, the two strips showing how his work has progressed.

Next up is the Dread Dormammu, the nemesis of master magician Doctor Strange, whose adventures were appearing in the back of Strange Tales when I first read them. Dormammu is a somewhat simpler creation, a purer distillation of evil, and yet he too is a hero of sorts to the inhabitants of the Dark Realm over which he rules, preserving them from the omnipresent threat of the Mindless Ones, which presents Strange with a moral dilemma, in that he cannot overcome Dormammu without sentencing the people of the Dark Dimension to extinction. The joy of this strip is in Steve Ditko’s artwork, his striking vision of an alien dimension and all its wonders, so that every single page presents something new for the eye to linger over. Dormammu, when I first encountered him, was a leaner, muscular version of the one in this strip, with a blazing head in lieu of a helmet, and he and Strange were involved in a dimension shattering three way fight with the being known as Eternity.

The origins of Loki, Thor’s step-brother and sworn enemy, are revealed in three brief strips from the ‘Tales of Asgard’ feature that used to run in the back of Journey into Mystery followed by a more current tale in which Loki uses the Absorbing Man as his cat’s paw to alienate Thor from Odin. Again illustrated by Kirby, these stories have an epic scale and grandeur, Marvel taking an age old mythology and giving it a thoroughly modern spin. While the characters are gods, the situation is one that we can all recognise, the familiar sibling rivalry, with Loki as the one who feels himself always to be in the shadow of his brother and so willing to do anything to assert himself, even turn against those who bear him no ill, and of course the love that they feel for this erring child is the Achilles heel that undoes them and paves the way for Ragnorak itself.

Originally published by Timely Comics, Captain America was revived for the Marvel Age and strutted his stuff in the back section of Tales of Suspense. He was one Marvel character I could never quite get into, mostly because even as a kid I wasn’t big on the whole super-patriot act. Arch-nemesis the Red Skull also predates Marvel, and here he is shown as an innocent bell boy who has the bad luck to fall under the spell of Adolf Hitler (perhaps the same bell boy of Teutonic origin who put in an appearance in Stephen Volk’s marvellous story ‘After the Ape’), who turns him into a monster, to such an extent that even the Fuhrer comes to fear him. And yet although it’s produced by the team of Lee and Kirby, this account lacks the subtlety of the other origin stories, with a stereotypical Hitler raging without restraint and talking about ‘his evil’. I doubt if Hitler, or so many of the other people we now regard as monsters, ever thought of themselves as evil or characterised their actions in such a way. It adds a false note to the proceedings.

I’m not sure that I’d class the Green Goblin as Spider-Man’s greatest foe, but then it’s a hard call to make as the webslinger had such a wonderful rogues gallery in his early days, including Kraken, the Vulture, Sandman, Electro, the Lizard and Doctor Octopus. The Goblin is, however, a more interesting case study, with a split personality that sees him veer from costumed arch criminal to businessman and loving father Norman Osbourne, and this in turn causes problems for Spider-Man, as the Goblin knows his identity, but killing him isn’t an option, not least because of the effect on his friend Harry, Osbourne’s son. The dilemma is resolved by a convenient bout of amnesia, one that lays the foundation for more ‘is the Goblin back’ stories in Spider-Man’s future. Stan Lee writes the script and John Romita is on pencils, providing a more muscular version of the character than was seen in the day of co-creator Ditko.

Like that of the Red Skull, the origin of the Abomination is pretty straightforward, one might even say simplistic. A bad guy stands in front of the same gamma ray machine that transformed Bruce Banner into the Hulk, but he does so for a longer period of time and so becomes even stronger and more ugly, setting the stage for a slug fest between the rival green behemoths. There are a couple of twists, in that the military, who have hounded the Hulk relentlessly, now need his help against the Abomination, with the life of General Ross’ daughter Betsy in the balance, and finally there’s the influence of the Stranger, one of those galaxy travelling and omnipotent beings that Marvel was forever trotting in from stage left. All the same, it lacked the complexity and interest of the earlier origin stories. Nice artwork from Gil Kane though.

And in the case of Mephisto we don’t get an origin story at all, only an account of his attempt to sway the Silver Surfer from the path of righteousness by exploiting his love for Shalla Bal. Lee incorporates themes of sacrifice and nobility into his story, with a subtext about the immaturity of the human race juxtaposed with a genuine yearning for it to fulfil its unique potential, while John Buscema rises to the occasion with some awesome artwork, taking us from the familiarity of a hospital room out into the depths of space and down into the hell dimensions. All the same, we don’t get an origin story for Mephisto. I guess the moral is the Devil has always been there.

So, who are your favourite Marvel villains?

No DC candidates please, as we’ll keep them for when the new Batman movie comes out.

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2 Responses to Bring on the Bad Guys

  1. Super post. There’s a bit of Stan Lee in every exclamation mark I use!

    I’m very fond of Batroc the Leaper, who I think is mainly a Captain America villain. He comes in for much mockery over ze French accent, but his power – jumping very hard on things – is so primal.

    • petertennant says:

      Yeah, Stan Lee’s influence is pervasive. When I was writing the Whispers of Wickedness newsletter I quite deliberately followed the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins format and style, and some of that has carried over into White Noise (and probably some of these blog posts).

      I remember Batroc the Leaper, and in fact I believe I had the very first comic in which he appeared, a savate master as I recall. A more realistic foe for Captain America than some of the super powered baddies he’s tackled since. Another one I remember from that period was the Tumbler, who was a circus performer gone bad (it’s not just the clowns you have to watch out for).

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