Everyone knows that villains have to be evil but some villains are more evil than others. Some, for instance, just want to rob banks, or get revenge on the hero, or steal state secrets, force his attentions on a woman, or just get the better of his peers. All negative qualities to be sure, and all involving to one degree or another, a choice: the conscious choice by the villain to do something he knows to be wrong. Which will be the criteria for those top super-villains included on the following list. All must be in a position to understand the difference between right and wrong and still choose to do wrong. Those who are insane (Joker) or robotic (Ultron) need not apply…for now!
And what is the nature of evil? Of course, our churches have helped define good from bad and so have our civic laws, or at least the laws of democratic societies. Laws under authoritarian governments, mostly designed to oppress the ruled and prevent any challenge to the established order, don’t count. Western civic laws based on say, Roman civil law or even Canon law, presuppose certain universal beliefs about the nature of man; that no matter a person’s background, thou shalt not steal or covet thy neighbor’s wife or take another life can safely be considered common ground no matter a person’s religious beliefs or political persuasion. It follows then, that true evil must knowingly and willingly threaten both the fundamental moral order held in common by all men as well as the very root of civilization itself. And to do so on a grand scale makes for the most vile of villains or in our case, not necessarily the best villains, but the Top 10 Most Evil Villains in Comics!
10) Mr. Mind
One of the most evil super-villains in comics history was also one of its smallest. But don’t be fooled by Mr. Mind’s glasses or old time radio looking voice box hanging around his neck, or even the fact that he looks like a worm! In fact, Mr. Mind possessed one of the most powerful brains of all and used it to try and concur the universe until stumbling over the inconsequential seeming Earth. There, in a lengthy serial that ran in Captain Marvel Adventures #22-46, he assembled a Monster Society of Evil and battled the Marvel family to a fare thee well. Although defeated, tried, and convicted for the deaths of 186,744 people, Mr. Mind survived the electric chair and has remained a threat to the Earth ever since.
Is there a difference between a hero and a heroine? Should there be any difference? Comics more than any other form of media have presented the widest set of examples in the way of female heroes (as the politically correct term goes) from the demure to the overly aggressive. But in such creations as Power Girl, Wonder Woman, Thundra, and She-Hulk, all attempts at kowtowing to the feminist ideal, the industry might as well have made them male characters for all their busty bosoms and flashing legs. In fact, by powering up these females in the way of physical strength, male writers have done a disservice to women, falling into the feminist trap of equating men with women, in effect merging the two as if they were interchangeable.
Why do women need to be defined by such male qualities as physical strength? Why not have them defined through their own particular strengths and play up to that? Aren’t their own unique qualities as valuable as those of men? Women are no less courageous than their male counterparts of course, but where men are likely to be aggressive and bombastic, women are kind, caring, protective. Because they are not as physically strong, they frequently have the advantage of being able to hold back and think a situation through before barging ahead. In reality, men are physically stronger than women so giving them super-strength for instance, is a believable extension of an existing condition. Not so for women. For them, powers that are more passive in nature such as invisibility, telekinesis, or probability altering fit their more reserved natures better. As such, the heroes and heroines that work best are those whose super attributes are extensions of their basic masculine and feminine gifts. Not that super-heroines cannot have super-strength, but those that have that power ought to use it in different ways than a man would.
Many have seen the various Marvel Studios films starring the Black Widow character. Her ability to lay low dozens of male combatants crosses the line and snaps our ability to suspend belief for the duration of a two hour movie. With her around, who needs Captain America and his apparently useless super soldier serum? But in overdoing the Widow’s physical abilities, the producers have robbed her of her essential femininity (her physical appearance not withstanding!) She’s essentially just one of the boys: serious, tough, distant. Her polar opposite, and the perfect reconciliation between physically capable and retention of feminine qualities is the Emma Peel character from the 1960s-era Avengers television show. There, Mrs. Peel is totally capable in any number of areas including physical ability and yet nothing about the use of her skills detracts in any way from her femininity. Unlike the movie Widow–or current depictions of Wonder Woman or She-Hulk–she could never be mistaken for a man!
In that spirit, the following list includes the most successful examples of the super-heroine ideal. Heroines who rely less on aping their male counterparts than exercising power in ways that allow them to succeed while retaining their feminine qualities.
(Caveat: This survey of super-heroines does not take into account changes in the characters instituted in the post-1980s dark age)
Ever since the earliest comic books appeared on newsstands in 1933 they followed many of the precepts laid down by comic strips: square bordered panels arranged in a left to right pattern, use of onomatopoeia for sound effects, different shaped borders dialogue balloons indicating thoughts or words spoken aloud or whispered, captions to set a scene, and a down to earth realism even for such fantastic characters as Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers.
With minor exceptions, comic book publishers kept to these tropes for many decades making an exception early on for the newly invented super-heroes whose outsized antics needed bigger and bolder presentations. Enter such figures as Jack Kirby who used tricks of foreshortening, full and half page panels, and breaking panel borders to convey a sense of furious action.
For almost thirty years, little changed until the advent of artists Neal Adams and Jim Steranko both of whom entered comics from outside the field bringing with them new ideas about how to tell stories visually. In the 1970s, though many of Adams and Steranko’s tricks were abandoned, the idea of breaking open the comics page remained with artists like Gene Colan, Rich Buckler, and Frank Brunner who continued to experiment with page layout.
In the 1980s, artist Frank Miller did the same with his work on Daredevil but now adding a new attitude to the storytelling to match the radical inclinations of his art. Influenced by film noir and later Japanese manga, he built an atmosphere of oppression and brutality to DD that only grew more intense issue by issue. No one realized it at the time, but Miller was leading the industry into uncharted territory, one that in time would become completely divorced from the strictures of the Comics Code Authority.
At the same time, across town at the offices of Marvel competitor DC, a British writer named Alan Moore was also doing his part to shake up the status quo. There, taking over the Swamp Thing comic, Moore immediately began to explore the dark side of the human psyche with tales that were increasingly unsuitable for young readers. Other writers from across the water would soon follow Moore’s example including Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman. Together with Miller at Marvel, they would succeed in transforming ground level comics into an adult oriented playground where children were not welcome.
It was a transformation that the comics industry perhaps needed as prices climbed and readership shrunk with children abandoning comics (and reading in general) for other pursuits. With a fan base now comprised mostly of adolescents and young adults, the industry could proceed full speed ahead with a program of increasing violence, sex, and darkness. The line between heroes and villains became blurred so that by the end of the 1980s when Marvel and DC found themselves challenged by a host of upstart companies with no allegiance to the Comics Code, they were forced to adapt to the new sensibilities or continue to lose ground.
The following is a list of the top 10 most influential comics or series that acted as sign posts in this transitory period between the last years when comics were accessible to readers of every age and their current form appealing to an extremely narrow band of young adult fans who often require stories that feature the extremes of human behavior in order to be entertained.
10) Punisher Limited Series
Created by writer Gerry Conway in 1974, the Punisher was inspired by similar characters that had been appearing regularly in paperback for years including the Executioner, the Destroyer, and the Avenger. All derived their popularity in part from the Dirty Harry films of the early to mid-70s which capitalized on the frustrations of Americans with the apparent inadequacy of the law in dealing with criminals. By the 80s, such sentiments had trickled down to the younger set who soon took a shine to the Punisher who really began to take off after writer/artist Frank Miller featured him in one of his Daredevil stories. A limited series by writer Steven Grant and artist Mike Zeck followed which proved to be a huge sales success. In succeeding years, the Punisher would star in numerous series, each more violent than the last helping to redefine what it meant to be a comic book hero all the while pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable in comics.
Howard the Duck is back!
Does Howard’s appearance (in a speaking role no less!) suggest a bigger part for the malicious mallard in the next film? (There was a “Guardians of the Galaxy will return” consumer warning at the end of the movie…) If so, there will likely be many happy fans who hold fond memories of Howard from comics of the 1970s and ’80s, when the character was riding high and didn’t mind pointing out the absurdities of human behavior in general and skewering establishmentarianism in particular. What rich pickings he’d have in the Guardians’ corner of the universe with its amalgam of alien civilizations, warring empires, and mashed-up values! (Imagine Howard face to face with the self-important Thanos!) He might even find his way to the Earth of the Avengers where audiences can be treated to the spectacle of Captain America debating the finer points of the Constitution with him! (Howard would likely get along better with the more cynical Tony Stark.)
But first, Howard will need to convince audiences to accept him.
Which may be easier than some might believe. With today’s moviegoers mostly being under the age of 30, they have no direct knowledge of Howard’s last disastrous brush with movie stardom. And though they may feel some instinctive negativity toward the character, they likely have no idea that it has been inculcated into them by the overwhelming condemnation that had been aimed at George Lucas’ original Howard the Duck film. Over the years since, the poison has long since filtered into the public consciousness. Howard the Duck has become synonymous with camp, junk, and the worst kind of movie making.
But a lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1986 and there’s definitely a sense that audiences are ready to move on with the subject of Howard the Duck. The electricity felt in theaters over the tag scenes at the end of the new Guardians film was palpable. Thus, it’s perhaps time to review a bit of Howard’s checkered history and find out if the madcap mallard is really ready for a comeback…
10) Howard the Duck, movie star
It’s been 27 years now since Howard the Duck crashed Hollywood in a big way starring in his very own big-budget movie produced by Star Wars super genius George Lucas. At the time, following his breakout film American Graffiti and then the worldwide phenomenon that was Star Wars, it was widely accepted that Lucas, like his contemporary Steven Spielberg, could do no wrong. That belief was quickly dispelled with the release of Howard the Duck in 1986, a film roundly savaged by critics and filmgoers alike. It not only proved to be a Waterloo for Howard, but Lucas as well, as the myth of his infallibility was burst forever. For the maligned mallard however, things would be a little different. Although his comic book career continued to be much admired by fans, to the general public he was at his lowest ebb, reduced to a laughingstock and a tinseltown untouchable seemingly for good.
The early twentieth century was a time when the daily newspaper reigned as the number one source of public information; magazines such as Time, Look, and Newsweek were huge; pulp magazines were the prime source of affordable reading entertainment; movies were becoming a national pastime; and radio dominated the airwaves.
It was a time that saw the rise of a mass media that in turn created a rich environment for the entrepreneur, the advertiser, and the promoter to reach a national, even international audience. It wasn’t coincidence that a showman like Harry Houdini — who made it a practice to advertise escapes from straitjackets while hanging upside down from flagpoles or to challenge local law enforcement that he could escape from their jails, or survive being thrown into a river while locked in a trunk — became an international celebrity. Advertising stunts like that turned Houdini’s shows into SRO events and his success wasn’t lost on anyone. And so was born the advertising stunt, a contrived event designed to draw attention to a person or product.
But for the comics industry, advertising had always been something that publishers spent little money on. Considered mostly a children’s entertainment venue, money would have been considered wasted if spent on ads in Time or the local newspaper. Instead, publishers have traditionally concentrated their efforts on point of sale advertising such as store spinner racks with signs affixed to the top of them reading “Hey kids! Comics!” And if some comics characters like Superman or Batman made it onto radio or the movies, so much the better.
And so comics mostly flew under the radar except in rare instances when the larger media took notice. Those times, the spotlight was often unwelcome as it usually meant criticism of comics and questions about their suitability for children. Likely it was one of the reasons why publishers for the most part, avoided drawing too much attention to themselves.
All of the preceding then, makes the recent phenomenon of coverage of comics news by the mass media all the more surprising. But when looked at more closely, maybe it shouldn’t be. Since the 1960s, pop culture has risen to the point where today it dominates the culture and reporting on entertainment news (including whole television programs devoted to the subject) has become overheated, even hysterical at times. (Witness the mania surrounding the annual San Diego Comics Con). Add to that, the rise of social media, the proliferation of internet news sites, apps, tweets, and hits and you have an environment ripe for exploitation.
Enter savvy, young, and usually left leaning comics industry publishers, editors, and “creative consultants” who know how the world of internet news dissemination and just plain ole gossip can be spread hither and yon in a matter of hours or days. Add to that a real politik understanding of mob mentality and the inclination of human beings to follow the fad of the moment and you have a formula for the comics somewhat unique take on the marketing stunt.
Unique in that unlike other entertainment media, the comics industry thrives on continuing characters, many with long and storied histories going back decades into antediluvian times before the current wave of political correctness so to speak. Thus, events that see characters being killed off, changing genders, or embracing radical beliefs strike at the heart of readers’ comfort zones.
But such stunts, designed to catch readers’ attention and hopefully boost sales are nothing new in comics. Way back in 1983, Walter Simonson replaced Thor as the thunder god with an alien named Beta Ray Bill revitalizing the character’s title. In 1984, John Byrne replaced the Thing with the She-Hulk on the Fantastic Four. In 1974, Steve Englehart had Steve Rogers quit being Captain America to become a hero without a country called Nomad. And in 1988, DC held a poll in which fans could phone in and vote whether the Robin of the time should be killed off and replaced.
The difference with what is happening today is that in those instances, the stunt resonated only within the small pond of comics fans. The larger media had no interest in such small time shenanigans.
But today, all that has changed and the comics stunt often means a big boost in sales for an otherwise dying industry. The value of the properly handled stunt first became apparent to comics companies in 1992 when DC concocted the “death of Superman” event which grabbed the attention of the mainstream media and had gullible customers lining up outside comics specialty stores to get a copy of Superman #75 that they were sure would be a collectors item some day.
The sales and attention generated by the death of Superman was not lost on the industry and other such stunts were planned including DC’s next involving Batman having his back broken by super-villain Bane. As the years passed, marketing stunts became more frequent with the overall pace picking up substantially in recent years with new earth shaking announcements coming from Marvel and DC on an almost weekly basis. Each surely generates comment wherever the stories about them are posted but it’s questionable that they make much difference in sales anymore, the specialness of such stunts having worn off over the years.
Further dulling the edge of the latest stunts is the fact that the status quo ante is almost always restored at some point: a hero is brought back to life or never died in the first place, the event took place in a different dimension or different continuity, or the original character returns from retirement.
But all that hasn’t stopped the companies from coming up with new marketing ploys, most related to politically correct themes which perhaps explains some of the fervor with which these stunts keep coming. As with most of those harboring left leaning ideas, ideology trumps everything else even sales, the risk of public rejection, or damage to their iconic brands.
Note: The following list is ordered roughly in terms of least to the most successful stunt (in terms of marketing) with that of the position of the new female Thor admittedly an informed guess on the writer’s part.
10) Thor becomes a woman
The latest news from the “house of ideas” is that long time male hero Thor (who’s been around like, since the Vikings sailed the seas around 1,000 AD) will become unworthy of wielding mjolnir (his uru hammer, natch) and a woman, as yet unidentified, will take his place. The stated reason for the change is to attract more female readers to Marvel (we’re told they comprise a significant part of its readership already… yeah, right) but aside from the bump in sales usual with these kinds of stunts (clueless consumers of mainstream news rushing to invest in the latest collectible), there’s no money to be made here. Look for sales of Thor to remain low until Don Blake returns in a couple years (with writers likely finding some way to keep his female counterpart around so as not to have to admit complete defeat).
Ever wonder why some things are shoved at you from every direction while others are virtually ignored? Why some things seem to dominate the pop culture scene and you feel almost guilty for not embracing them like everyone else…even though no one you know likes them either? Why, for the life of you, you can’t figure out the reason for a character’s popularity when nothing about him is terribly interesting?
If all those things have occurred to you after running into a TV show, movie, celebrity of the moment, novel, or…in this case, super-heroes, you’ve likely discovered something that’s overrated. Something that might have little demand or is largely uninteresting in and of itself but keeps getting pushed before the public, viewing audience, or readers by the powers that be for reasons unknown or simply inscrutable.
In the field of comic book heroes in particular, there could be any number of reasons including sales figures (once, in the 1960s, sales figures indicated that having apes on the covers of their comics improved sales, so editors at DC made sure covers featured an ape or two every few months), political correctness (by the 1990s, ideology trumped common sense in editorial offices), or simply to create a buzz (Dazzler anyone?).
Of course, some comics characters such as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man may have appeared to be overrated at different points in their careers, but time has proven that to be untrue as they have demonstrated their staying power over the decades. Truly original characters can overcome the threat of becoming overrated through overexposure from the sheer inspiration they offer to creators in succeeding generations.
Such, however, cannot be said of most other characters. Surprisingly, few of the thousands that have been invented in comics over the years have been so overexposed as to render them overrated, that is, reaching a point of over-saturation based on a false hysteria whipped up by an overheated media.
But can anyone really blame comics publishers or their editors for promoting any character in their stable that displays even the slightest amount of heat? After all, do they have any other choice than treating the shrinking pond of comic book buyers as an indicator of what the larger public might go for? (On the other hand, how reliable is the enthusiasm of a few thousand comics readers in gauging the tastes of the larger public?) Be that as it may, publishers must justify their existence now that the movies have become the tail that wags the dog of the comics industry. How else to explain the mutual spectacle of multiple reboots of hundred plus million dollar film franchises or their equivalent in comics shops where their featured heroes star in a dozen different titles at once?
The danger of course, is that the requirements of the film industry feed into a narrative that sometimes only exists, not in the minds of the public, but in those of editors, marketing consultants, and comic shop sales representatives making for a toxic mix that grant some comic book heroes a false cachet to the point where they inevitably become: overrated.
10) Lex Luthor
Okay, so most of you are going to say “No fair! He’s a villain!” And for the most part, that’s true. On the other hand, there have been enough scenarios in the comics (as well as in other media), especially lately, where Lex is portrayed as a super-hero (complete with Iron Man style armor) and even President of the United States, that there’s some justification for his inclusion on this list. His overrated index which has been pumped up over the years by a much ballyhooed John Byrne comics reboot in the 80s, a Superman cartoon show in the 90s, and various movies (including one made in 2006 ) that he’s become synonymous with Superman himself. And why? Well he’s a millionaire tycoon! He can buy and sell mad geniuses to invent stuff for him! And…and…he’s bald! Exactly why does Lex deserve all the attention he’s gotten over the years? Why? Is Superman’s rogues gallery cupboard as bare as all that?
Pop culture has become as much of a religious powerhouse as Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or any other faith. Don’t believe me? Sit in a college classroom. Better yet, attend a fan convention or simply rent the film Trekkies. Films, shows, bands, comic books and their like have become, for some, sources of spiritual nourishment. Do you feel the power?
12. What was once DVR-able is now weekly appointment television.
“Appointment TV” doesn’t begin to describe your weekly ritual. All pressing engagements are pushed aside, phones are silenced, and ritual food is laid out on the coffee table to be partaken in as the ceremony commences. You still DVR the show for good measure, being sure to re-watch at least once, if not multiple times in deep study so that you may discuss the meanings of both text and subtext with fellow fans.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken a lot of flak, even before it premiered. PJM’s own Scott Ott declared “no interest” in the series despite loving its source material. I confess to holding my own doubts regarding a superhero show without superheroes. However, unlike Ott, I was willing to give the series a chance. After watching the first season in its entirety, I’m glad I did. Here are 10 reasons to take a look at Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
10. Cinematic Action
Certain shows have come along in recent years to demonstrate that the small screen can nonetheless explode with cinematic action. Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica comes to mind, a genre show which looked better than many films from past years.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes a similar case for the possibilities of televised entertainment. In essence, it’s an international spy thriller, much of which takes place in the enormous aircraft our heroes call home. The special effects, while lackluster here and there, largely do justice to their Marvel cinematic pedigree.
Now if we can just get a live-action Star Wars series, life will be good.
Can there ever be a more incendiary topic than asking who are the best super-heroes of all time? Bar fights have been started and wars have been fought over lesser topics! Nevertheless, this writer will attempt to answer the question and then immediately duck to avoid the inevitable brickbats.
First, how to pick from among the hundreds, nay perhaps thousands, of super-heroes that have paraded across the four color page since that fateful day when Superman first sent bad guys running on the cover of Action Comics #1? I say “since” because before the debut of Superman, comics had hosted many other heroes including such stalwarts as Speed Saunders and Slam Bradley. The difference was twofold (one which we shall use subsequently to help define what is meant by the term “super-hero”): Superman had super powers and a colorful costume that couldn’t be mistaken for street clothes.
Indeed, in retrospect, it seems that it was those two points, powers and costuming, that made all the difference; not only placing Superman at the top of the super-hero heap and initiating an avalanche of colorful imitators, but granting to the lowly comic book its raison d’etre. For better or worse, the super-hero would become synonymous with comics and by the 21st century, have eliminated all other genres for dominance of the industry.
That said, what to do with all those Superman imitators? How to sort the wheat from the chaff and pick out the very best of the lot? Aside from the basics of powers and costuming, something more is needed to differentiate the best from the rest. Metes and bounds need to be established to lend some legitimacy to those choice few that’ll make the cut (and cut down on the brickbats). For that, I suggest staying power, a hero who, decade after decade, comes on and off his own title, shows up steadily in other characters’ books and adventures, and continues to capture the imagination of readers over the years; originality, qualities in the creation of the super-hero that differentiate him from all others; and iconic status, a position captured over the years above and beyond the often insular world of comics readers.
With those parameters in mind, let the brawling begin!
Sure, there were other Thors in comics before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up with their own version in Journey Into Mystery #83, but none of those others had the sheer durability of Marvel’s own god of thunder. What set the character apart from those others? Like them, he had super strength, a magic hammer, and connections to Asgard. He was better looking too: gone were the traditional scraggly red hair and beard. But Marvel’s Thor had one thing more: personality. Making this otherworldly being with godlike powers the alter ego of a lame physician who couldn’t make it with his pretty office nurse granted him a sympathy to readers absent in other versions. Together, it all added up to staying power and blockbuster movie status!
What’s a superhero without a secret identity? A common sense question because they can’t be super-heroes all the time, right? Well, if you go by what you see at the local cineplex, you could be excused for thinking that super-heroing is the only thing super-heroes do. Granted, the possession of a secret ID seems to be divided along Marvel/DC lines with Superman and Batman upholding the tradition (flimsy as it seems to be what with any of the heroes’ girlfriends able to penetrate it at a the drop of a hat) and Marvel’s characters abstaining. (Although there too, if one of their characters has an alter ego, he’s more likely to give the secret away to a female admirer than not).
So with the vast number of people now familiar with these characters via the big and small screens now trained not to think of the necessity of a secret identity, it behooves us to revisit just why super-heroes needed secret identities to begin with. And beginning with means going back to the beginning, namely the golden age of pulp heroes, the prose universe of superheroes that preceded the four color comics page with characters like The Shadow, The Spider, and the Phantom Detective all of whom operated outside the law or feared for loved ones who might become targets of the super-villains and gangsters they warred against.
That tradition, like many others from the pulp era, was transferred lock, stock, and barrel to comics when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first introduced Superman to a waiting world and instantly created an archetype that endless numbers of similarly caped heroes would be patterned after. And although they would take from Supes the idea of a secret identity, ironically it was reversed for the Man of Steel whose real identity was that of Superman not the invented Clark Kent!
Be that as it may, secret identities became a staple of comics heroes if only as a springboard for endless complications involving its protection against discovery often with the seeming object of making any connection between the hero and the man as unlikely as possible. In addition, unlike the aforementioned pulp heroes whose occupations were simply being independently wealthy, our beleaguered comic book heroes usually had to earn a living when out of costume. Thus, our list of the top ten most interesting occupations/alter egos/private lives in the four color world (secret or otherwise)!
Consumer warning: The following list is based on traditional versions of the heroes, the versions that comics companies have returned to time and again and more often than not television and film have used as well. Editorial upheavals at Marvel (reboots and alternate versions of its continuity) and DC (the New 52) in recent years have made characters’ current back stories uncertain to say the least.
Over the course of comics’ 70 plus year history there have been many hundreds of writers toiling in the four color medium with many who were just punching the clock waiting for that great American novel to hit the bestseller lists or for Hollywood to come calling. It wasn’t until fans began to replace professionals in the early 1970s that comics writing began to be considered as a career in itself.
Not that comics writing lacked craft. Before the revolution in comics scripting begun by Stan Lee, writing for comics was far more labor intensive than it later became. Before the dawn of the Marvel Age of Comics, the writer, generally speaking, was the guiding force in the creation of a typical comic book. Oh, sure, the editor had a big role to play in the early stages of a script, conferencing with the writer, working through a plot (if not coming up with the story idea himself), and approving the story. But outside the guiding role, the writer took over: putting words to paper (and before the Marvel Age, there were plenty of words… just take a look at any EC Comic to find out), orchestrating the action, describing to the artist exactly what he was to depict in every single panel of the story. Written in the style of a movie script, there was little left out of a comics script for an artist to exercise his own imagination.
That changed when Stan Lee, long time editor for Marvel Comics, found himself with little time to write all the books in his fledgeling line of super-hero titles. To do it, while also finding the time to fulfill his editorial and art director duties, he began giving his artists synopses of stories, leaving much of the decision making in how the stories unfolded to the artists. When the completed art was returned, Lee would write the dialogue. To be known ever afterward as the Marvel Method, the formula saved much time, divided creative responsibilities between the writer and artist, and made for a less intense work experience for the scripter.
That said, for much of comics history, the medium was considered kiddie fare, the bottom rung of the pop media ladder. For that reason, with few exceptions such as the aforementioned EC Comics, not much energy was expended by writers to create sophisticated fare, at least until the dawn of the Marvel Age. Some might argue that the establishment of the Comics Code was a setback to the acceptance of comics as entertainment for adults but that is a canard. With the end of the Comics Code in the 1990s, the medium has shown little improvement compared to what came before. In fact, an argument can be made that the medium has devolved in that time.
In any case, the foregoing is by way of helping to better tease out the greatest comic book writers of all time from the hundreds who have worked in the field. To make even finer distinctions, the best writers would have to possess longevity, have worked in a wide array of different genres, and display a high level of craft peculiar to the comics medium, not only in coming up with original story ideas but telling those stories in an understandable manner critical to clear and concise storytelling.
10) Alan Moore
A Johnny-come-lately compared to others on this list, Moore was recruited from the British comics scene by DC execs and made an immediate splash with his inventive take on the sluggish Swamp Thing feature. There, the writer immediately challenged Comics Code rules and regs writing entertaining stories with a touch of brilliance. Due to the uncompromising nature of much of his work, DC decided to create a new line of “mature” comics rather than tone down Moore’s work under the Code. Moore went on to many more off-Code projects including The Killing Joke and Watchmen before striking out on his own with such titles as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. Over a long career beginning in 1978, Moore’s popularity among fans grew but his own dark interests in pornography, violence, and paganism undercut his reputation as one of the best comics writers of later years.
As the new movie X-Men: Days of Future Past and its expanded cast of super-powered characters thunders through local cineplexes earning its way to summer blockbuster status, it behooves fans of the franchise to wonder if anybody is being left out.
Not that the producers of the various X-films have been lax in introducing as many new characters as they could without having scripts collapse under their own weight. Entries such as X-Men: Last Stand; First Class; and Days of Future Past have each featured a wide range of heroes and villains. Unfortunately, for all the delight fans have in spotting their obscure favorites, a few minutes of exposure is all they usually get. That’s because such characters as Prof. X, Magneto, Mystique, and especially Wolverine have been taking up most of the valuable screen time. For instance, as in the comics, Wolverine has so completely dominated the X-movie franchise that the X-movies have not been enough for him with two solo films having been released between main events. As a result, there has barely been enough oxygen left in the room to keep other characters on life support.
That, however, may change.
With the end of Days of Future Past, time has been reset with the events of the first three films in the X-franchise and with the newest being erased from reality, there is an opportunity for the studio to reboot the series. Of course, the dream reboot would be for a younger Prof. X to gather the comics’ original X-team; that’s a given. But what about the villains they’ll have to fight? A reboot could be an opportunity to introduce a whole line of new characters culled from 50 years of the comic’s history. Thus, purely as a public service, allow this writer to suggest the top 10 heroes and villains from the X-verse (in reverse order), as yet unseen on celluloid, who could really make things exciting for a rebooted franchise:
Peter Parker’s life hasn’t been easy and as everyone knows, it wasn’t made any easier after he received the proportionate strength of a spider in Amazing Adult Fantasy #15 (reprised in Amazing Spider-Man #1). When we first meet him on the opening splash page of his origin, Peter is in the process of being mocked by his peers including long time scourge Flash Thompson. Walking away in tears, Peter’s shoulders are slumped in dejection as he makes his way to the science hall for an exhibition that’s destined to change his fortunes forever. But being granted super powers does Peter no good as he soon discovers. They only complicate his life as he’s forced to hide his identity beneath a full face mask and becomes the object of fear and suspicion by the general public.
Thus is launched an exciting secret life as a super-hero but one that further alienates the lonely teenager from the rest of society. Unable to share his secret with anyone and fearful that if his identity as Spider-Man were ever revealed, it would be too much for his Aunt May’s weak heart, Peter lives a life apart, his powers at once cutting him off from others while granting him a kind of personal freedom that only anonymity can provide.
Created in 1962 for Marvel Comics by writer/editor Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Steve Ditko, the Spider-Man character was imbued with fully human feelings and failings right from the start. Lee had begun the trend with the Fantastic Four the year before but really turned up the heat with Spider-Man as he and Ditko turned Peter Parker into a real hard luck charlie whose shoulders often seemed too narrow to bear up under the weight of the problems he was given.
But it was those problems that proved to be the key to the character’s popularity and one that has driven a string of recent films to huge monetary success. But those films have been a mixed blessing for fans of the comics. While managing to endear Spidey to general audiences, their jumbled continuity has only served to rob the original stories of the power of those special moments. So, as a special service to PJ Media visitors, here are the most significant, life altering events in Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s life, events that over the years have served to enrich the character while keeping his life from becoming too ordinary. Some have been featured in the movies while some still wait their chance at being adapted:
A graphic edition of the Amity Shlaes instant classic, The Forgotten Man, and it’s only 12 bucks? No brainer. I’ll have my boys reading it by age 10 or 12 — at the latest.
BONUS: Ed Driscoll interviewed Amity about the new edition. Lots of good stuff, so click on over.
In partnership with the new fiction publishing platform Liberty Island, PJ Lifestyle is going to begin promoting and co-hosting a series of debates and discussions about popular culture. The goal is to figure out what works and what doesn’t so that in the future we can promote and create better fiction and culture of our own. These are public brainstorming sessions for writers and culture advocates interested in developing a more vibrant popular culture. You’re invited to submit your answers to any of these questions — or a related one of your own! — that interests you:
A) in the comments
C) at your blog, then let us know in the comments or via email.
The most interesting answers may be linked, cross-posted, or published at PJ Lifestyle.
Also check out Monday’s question: “Which Science Fiction Novels Should Be Made into Films and TV Miniseries?,” Tuesday’s question:Lord of the Rings Vs. Harry Potter: Which Film Series Better Captured their Books’ Spirit? the previous weeks’ writing prompts and email in your thoughts on any questions that strike your fancy: 5 Questions So We Can Figure Out the Cream of the Crop In Popular Music Genres, 5 Geek Questions To Provoke Debates About the Future of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, 5 Controversial Questions To Inspire Spirited Debates About Music.
This week we’ll begin a discussion about the best — and worst — ways to adapt stories from one medium to another. Your ideas and suggestions are always appreciated.
This week we’ll begin a discussion about the best — and worst — ways to adapt stories from one medium to another. Your ideas and suggestions are always appreciated.
This week Walter Hudson joined the pop culture debate and expressed his concerns about DC’s attempt to catch up with Marvel on the movie front, concluding in “DC Vs. Marvel: Why This DC Fanboy Believes Marvel Already Won“:
After Man of Steel’s 143 minute run time, I’m left with little idea of who any of these people are or why I should care. The project rarely stops for breath, has scant humor, and takes itself far too seriously. The Nolan narrative style, skipping back and forth through time, works better when utilized by Nolan himself than by the frantic and unfocused Zack Snyder.
If that’s how we’re going to get introduced to all these characters, to Batman and Wonder Woman and Cyborg, than I fear a Justice League adventure will never be as fun as The Avengers. And that’s sad. Because it easily could be. DC has a rich history to draw from with decades of stories to mine and refresh. These characters deserve the same focused, nuanced, yet lighthearted treatment that Marvel Studios has given its mightiest heroes.
Hannah Sternberg also joined the discussion, declaring her allegiances in the pop culture debate to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly as superior franchises to Star Trek and Star Wars in her post “The Bible of Buffy“:
I’m going to bounce this one back to the committee. Dave, Walter, other PJ Lifestyle and Liberty Island writers, — did Joss Whedon change your life, or simply stunt it?
Perhaps this wasn’t the answer that Hannah was anticipating but Whedon’s impact on my life is very different from hers. I never “got into” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, or Serenity. While recognizing their significance to geek culture and respecting the fact that Whedon operates at a level of sophistication well above most creators in the sci-fi/fantasy world, it was another of the writer-director’s works that resonated with me.
Back in January of 2013 I published “10 Secret Reasons Why The Avengers Is the Best Superhero Film.” In the piece — which I’ve decided to republish today — I argued that the movie’s success came from its ability to reinvent classic mythological themes and archetypes.
What do you think? Is The Avengers as good as I claim it is? Should it stand as a model for those aspiring to make big, bold, profitable, mainstream popular culture infused with good values? Would DC striving for a Justice League film end up just a pale imitation of what Whedon already mastered?
Will the Justice League film be able to compete with The Avengers? That was the tagline for this post, inviting readers and contributors to debate whether DC or Marvel has created the more compelling fictional universe. The formally proposed question was:
Who will ultimately triumph in the superhero battles to define the genre? Does Marvel with Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men set the standard? Or does DC with Batman and Superman provide a better model for aspiring comic and superhero creators?
As a lifelong rabid fan of both Superman and Batman, I want those properties to succeed. However, if I am going to be objective about it, I have to concede that Marvel not only will win the battle to define the comic book film genre – they already have.
Some say imitation is the highest form of flattery. If we make our assessment based upon who imitates who, then Marvel leads the day. DC seeks desperately to clone the achievements of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. It can be seen in the rush to cram as many characters as possible into the forthcoming Batman vs. Superman, ramping up quickly toward the debut of the Justice League. Would DC be so eager were it not for the massive success of The Avengers? In a business where there’s one Deep Impact for every Armageddon, probably not.
This modern relationship is ironic considering that DC predates Marvel and retains the oldest characters with some of the most tried and true narrative conventions. Spider-Man creator Stan Lee has confessed that he was inspired by Superman. But today, the Man of Steel seems to follow where Lee’s creations lead.
A decent popcorn flick, Man of Steel was certainly the most entertaining Superman film in decades. But that’s not saying much. Once the comic book king of the silver screen, Superman graces scant few films on any “best of” list. Batman has fared much better, but has remained largely sequestered from other heroes. Particularly in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman works because he could be anybody.
Dave challenged us to debate which fandoms contribute the most, and least, to our spiritual well-being, as individuals and as a culture. His two examples were Star Wars and Star Trek, but I have to admit, despite being raised by a Trekkie, neither of those fandoms resonated with me the way the shows of Joss Whedon did, growing up. But did Whedon’s shows nurture my spiritual and intellectual growth? Or were they my form of “pop culture polytheism,” as Dave calls it, a form of escapism and adoration bordering on idolatry?
My adoration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly definitely gets intense. But I’d argue, Dave, that there are two ways to participate in the fandom of franchises like Star Wars and Firefly – the idolatrous, and the perceptive. A lot of fandom definitely turns into a form of worship; but alongside that tendency is another way to fangirl shows and movies, which combines admiration and enthusiasm with a dose of skepticism and spiritual seeking.
Worshipful fandom is the sort we’re used to talking about. But perceptive fandom is a good description of the behavior of fans who may (or may not!) participate in the worshipful aspects of fandom, but who also see their favorite TV shows and movies as texts that can be studied like literature. That includes a healthy dose of skepticism toward the creators of those texts, too. Some fandoms are better set up for perceptive fandom than others. Star Wars practically exists to be worshipped — its larger than life figures and the hyperbolic distinctions between the bad guys and the good guys sets us up easily to adore one, and revile the other, almost unquestioningly. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other Whedon creations are different because their good guys, and bad guys, are flawed and relatable without sliding the shows into moral relativism.
What is Gotham anyway? That’s been the question surrounding the upcoming FOX series set in Batman’s hometown.
Early reports indicated the show might be a police procedural centered on the exploits of police detective and future commissioner Jim Gordon. Then came news that producers had secured the rights to the entire rogues gallery of Batman villains, everyone from Catwoman to the Penguin. Those latter reports fueled concern that Gotham may be going for a Smallville vibe where all these characters somehow know each other as kids and attend the same high school.
Now we get an “extended” trailer for the show, our first look at what we will actually get come this fall. At first glance, the producers seem to be threading the needle between a hard-nosed cop drama and comic-flavored tween soap opera. Indeed, there will be an adolescent Bruce Wayne, a teenage Catwoman, and a young adult Penguin. The future Riddler and Poison Ivy also appear in a roll call. But the focus seems to remain on Jim Gordon and his introduction to the festering corruption of Gotham City.
One thing the trailer doesn’t make clear is whether or not all these characters will necessarily interact. It may prove better if most of them do not, and we get parallel narratives showing diverse experiences of the city. Given the age range of the rogues gallery, that at least seems plausible.
What say you? Will you give Gotham a chance? How will this series fit with the new DC cinematic universe?
More spandex. More stunts. More destruction. More incredible powers. More yawns. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wouldn’t live up to its billing even if it were called The Adequate Spider-Man. Thanks to phoned-in, factory-produced efforts like this one, with each new superhero movie, super-fatigue threatens to become a super-serious problem. Here’s a look at the five most superfluous, extraneous, unnecessary superhero movies of the last five years.
1. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Andrew Garfield’s cockiness makes you long for the sweetness of Tobey Maguire, and the script doesn’t help him at all by having Spidey issue jocular, punny one-liners as he’s battling goofy villains like Rhino (Paul Giamatti, giving a Nicolas Cage-level tutorial in how to overact), Green Goblin (a completely unscary Dane DeHaan) and the soon-to-be-notorious Electro (Jamie Foxx), a shockingly low-voltage clown who fires electricity out his fingertips. The romance between Peter Park and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone, who has the brisk cuteness of a stage brat without ever making the audience fall in love with her) seems forced, and the gigantic special-effects sequences are all bluster and boom, no genuine drama. You’ve seen everything in this movie before.
While growing up, I had the good fortune to live in two consecutive homes that were each a block away from their town’s respective libraries. From fourth grade through junior high, I had easy access to books, tapes, videos, and even video games available for check out. I spent a lot of time in the library, browsing and grazing, checking out volumes piled higher than I could ever read in the time allotted.
Among those many books were the Star Wars novels of Timothy Zahn. Now known as “the Thrawn trilogy,” they began with 1991′s Heir to the Empire. Set several years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy continued the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo as they fought the remnant of a collapsing Empire and confronted a new disturbance in the Force.
Zahn’s novels triggered an explosion of new Star Wars fiction spanning books, comics, video games, and more. In 1996, collaborators went so far as to develop a “movie without the movie” called Shadows of the Empire. The idea was to create merchandise around a story as if promoting a film. There was a Shadows novel, a video game, and even a fully orchestrated soundtrack for a film which was never actually produced. The story connected the events of The Empire Strikes Back with Return of the Jedi.
In later years, the timeline of this Expanded Universe became jam packed with stories detailing the fates of “the Big Three” along with their friends and offspring. Jacen and Jaina Solo, twin children of Han and Leia, joined their brother Anakin and their nephew Ben Skywalker on perilous and transformative adventures which spanned several stories across many mediums.
So when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand in 2012 and announced plans to produce Episodes VII, VIII, and IX set in a time period well covered by the Expanded Universe, obvious questions emerged. How would they work around the existing stories? How would they present the offspring of Luke, Han, and Leia? How would they tell consequential new stories without trampling upon established lore?
Lucasfilm has finally provided an answer, and it comes in the form of a soft-reboot. Precedent can be found (perhaps not coincidentally) in J.J. Abrams previous major sci-fi refurbish – Star Trek.
With Trek, Abrams and his writing team devised a way to have their cake and eat it too. They used the plot devices of time-travel and parallel universes to effectively reset the Star Trek universe, enabling future stories to take creative new directions without adhering religiously to established canon.
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of interviews and story excerpts spotlighting some of the most innovative fiction writers at the recently-launched new media publishing platform Liberty Island. Please check out this interview Sarah Hoyt conducted with CEO Adam Bellow here to learn more: “It also has a unique mission: to serve as the platform and gathering-place for the new right-of-center counterculture.”
Mike Baron is the creator of Nexus (with artist Steve Rude) and Badger two of the longest lasting independent superhero comics. Nexus, about a cosmic avenger 500 years in the future, appears monthly in Dark Horse Presents. There are twelve hardbound volumes from Dark Horse. Badger, about a multiple personality, one of whom is an animal rights champion, will appear in 2014 from a resurgent First Comics. Baron has written The Punisher, Flash, Deadman and Star Wars among many other titles. He also writes novels. You can find them on Amazon.
1. Who are some of your favorite writers, books, movies, and intellectual influences?
Uncle Scrooge, John D. MacDonald, Philip Jose Farmer. You cannot imagine the impact LAWRENCE OF ARABIA had on me when I first saw it at age fourteen. Today I admire and try to emulate, at least in so far as moral fiction, David Mamet and Andrew Klavan. My mind is a fever swamp of monster movies, comic books and rock and roll.
2. How do you describe yourself ideologically?
Conservative with libertarian leanings.
3. Which thinkers/commentators have influenced you?
Cicero, Epictetus, David Mamet, Thomas Sowell, Ayn Rand.
4. Where are you from/currently reside?
I am from the leftist sinkhole Madison, Wisconsin. I live in Colorado.
5. What are your writing goals?
“You make ‘em laugh a little bit, you make ‘em cry a little bit, you scare the hell out of them and that’s entertainment!”
6. Where can people find/follow you online?
7. What’s your craziest hobby/pastime/interest?
You now, it’s best I not discuss those.
Check out Mike Baron’s On the Trail of the Loathsome Swine
They got some big wild hogs in Beauchamp County. The one that ‘et my sister weighed 998 pounds. Lord strike me if I’m lyin’. Rose Marie weighed 95. She was twelve when that hog ‘et her. She was out behind the shed planting violets when that hog charged out the brush like a runaway truck and snapped her neck and dragged her off.
Ma and Pa had gone to Morrisonville for seed and victuals, and my older brothers Ned and Ethan were helping Uncle Lamar shingle his barn. I was in the kitchen oiling my catcher’s mitt when I heard Rose Marie yip once and then what sounded like a roto-rooter. It was a bad sound filled with pops and rips. I ran back behind the shed just in time to see that hog drag little Rose Marie into the brush.
I stood there shakin’ and cryin’ for awhile. Then I went in the house and called everyone I could think of. I called Ma and Pa. I called Uncle Lamar. I called Sheriff Dougherty. They all come back at the same time and the sheriff come with lights flashin’. Ned and Ethan drove their 150s. Uncle Lamar drove his Jeep. Ma and Pa were in the Magnum. There was a lot of dust. Everybody was screaming and crying.
“This is a public safety issue,” Sheriff said. “I’m going to round up some good ol’ boys and find thet hog and string it up.”
Pa sidled up to Sheriff and poured quiet strength down on him. “We’ll take care of this killer hog, Simon. We got thet right.”
Those boys played gin rummy with each other every Saturday for the past twenty years. Sheriff looked away first. “I reckon that’s your right, Joe Lee. But you’d better hop right on it before thet hog decides to eat somebody else’s little girl.”
Lamar pulled his thirty-ought-six from the cab rack and fed it some cartridges. Ned and Ethan ran up to the house and came back with an SKS and an AK-47. Pa got his Smith & Wesson .357. And I got my Desert Eagle .50. My grandpa Jeb Lee got me thet gun for my fourteenth birthday and I could think of no more fitting use for it than killing the hog thet ‘et my sister. …
Love it or hate it, The AMC channel hit series The Walking Dead is a mirror of our culture. The show is nominally an apocalyptic zombie series but it is really about how people deal with a total societal collapse.
The answer is: Badly. Usually very badly.
Episode #14 of season 4, “The Grove,” is a thoughtful and tragic examination of what a society should or can do with a psychopath. (Spoilers!) Set in the woodlands of the American south after a zombie apocalypse, in this episode a group of five refugees find a cabin to stop and rest for a few days. There, disturbed young Lizzie goes homicidal. She stabs another little girl to death. Her mother-figure, Carol, then asks her to “look at the flowers” while she prepares to execute her, the only solution possible in their terrible new world.
The clues were all there, laid out carefully in past episodes. The girl had an obsession with capturing and cutting up live rats. She had sudden outbreaks of violent rage and anger. She was fascinated with zombies and couldn’t distinguish between the living and the dead.
The clues are all here in the real world as well, and we are no better at preventing the slaughter when a mentally disturbed person decides to kill. The Sandy Hook killer, the Aurora theater killer, the murderer at Virginia Tech, the killers at Columbine High School, all exhibited distinct indicators of violence and psychosis. All of these killers were under psychiatric care and on medically prescribed drugs. Each of them showed signs like little Lizzie on The Walking Dead, and her path ended the same as theirs, in blood.
In “The Grove,” just as in America today, we wait until a disturbed person becomes a killer and only then do we do something about them. Only then do they receive the confines of a cell or a grave. We can do better than this. Unlike Carol on The Walking Dead, we have options.
In the heartbreaking and frightening essay “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” the mother of a mentally disturbed boy explains how she cannot find care for him. “With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill.” This mother doesn’t want to put her innocent (but violent and disturbed) twelve-year-old boy in prison. Would you like to live in a world where people are jailed for crimes they might commit? Instead, we need to re-build our mental health care system in this country and that includes treatment centers and hospitals. If we don’t, we will continue to endure the slaughter of innocents at the hands of the mentally ill.
The Fantastic Four returns to theaters in 2015 with a new and controversial cast. The New York Daily News reports:
Within minutes of the bombshell reports that Fox has found its titular superheroes in the Fantastic Four reboot, naysayers flamed on social media to pick apart the reported selections of actors Miles Teller (Mr. Fantastic), Kate Mara (Invisible Woman), Michael B. Jordan (Human Torch) and Jamie Bell (The Thing) .
Complaints ranged from the good points (Teller’s track record of one-liner spewing parts is a poor fit for the super-serious Reed Richards) to the bad (Mara isn’t blonde) to the ugly (Jordan is not Caucasian like the character in the comics).
The author leaves unclear what makes that last compliant “ugly.”
Changing the racial identity of an established character in order to cast the best actor for the job works in many situations. The Avengers‘ Nick Fury was Irish in the comics long before Samuel L. Jackson portrayed him onscreen.
The offbeat casting choices in Zack Synder’s Man of Steel worked despite diverging wildly from past iterations. Laurence Fishburne starred as Perry White. Photographer Jimmy Olsen became a Latina intern named Jenny. And red-head Amy Adams portrayed the traditionally brunette Lois Lane.
However, there are times when a character’s physical characteristics or racial identity serve a narrative purpose. When Idris Elba, a black actor, was cast as the Norse god Heimdall in Marvel Studios’ Thor, it seemed like a gratuitous bit of multiculturalism. Then again, the Marvel version of Asgardians prove more alien than divine, so perhaps racial diversity makes sense in that context.
But casting a black man to play Human Torch makes no sense whatsoever. The character’s given name is Johnny Storm, biological full-brother to sister Sue, the Invisible Woman played by the decisively Caucasian Kate Mara. Unless this turns out to be some kind of artsy color-blind thing like you might see in a stage play, the relationship between these characters which has been integral to past narratives will have to be changed.
Will one of them be adopted? Will they be related at all? I suppose it could be handled in any number of ways which would not necessarily throw off the story, but for what purpose? Why do this? The only answer I can come up with is gratuitous multiculturalism, which this black author regards as an insulting bit of pandering.