Warner Bros. recently announced an aggressive slate of films based upon DC Comics properties which will share a single cinematic universe, an answer to the successful franchise which Marvel Studios has built since 2008’s Iron Man. The DC slate opens with 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and will continue the same year with Suicide Squad, which director David Ayer recently described as “The Dirty Dozen with supervillains.”
In the comics, the Suicide Squad boasts DC’s B-list villains, characters like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang. However, if rumors now circulating prove true, the cinematic interpretation of Suicide Squad may boast A-list villains like Lex Luthor and the Joker. Reports claim that bombshell actress Margot Robbie has been cast as Harley Quinn, and that Oscar-winner Jared Leto is in talks to play Joker.
In any case, the roster of DC Comics villains portrayed in live-action film is about to explode. Before that happens, let’s consider where the existing rogues gallery ranks. Here are the top 10 cinematic portrayals of DC Comics villains.
#10. Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow
When it was announced that Christopher Nolan would be rebooting the Batman franchise years after Joel Schumacher piloted it into the ground, no one could have predicted how definitive the result would become. Among the bold moves made in re-imagining the property was featuring lesser known villains, including the Scarecrow.
Actor Cillian Murphy took what could have easily been a camp character and grounded him in a believable reality. Dr. Jonathan Crane served a vital narrative purpose befitting his nature as a criminal psychologist obsessed with fear. Fear stood as the dominant theme in Batman Begins, as Bruce Wayne turned his fear against the criminals holding an unholy grip upon Gotham City.
Let’s you and him fight! That has been the time-honored cry of comic-book fans for decades now, ever since Marvel launched the tradition of super-heroes clashing with one another almost as often as they did with super-villains. And what fans haven’t engaged in the favorite pastime of arguing about whose favorite hero was the stronger?
The hero vs. hero sub-genre began with the classic Torch vs. Sub-Mariner fight way back in comics’ golden age — not coincidentally at Timely Comics, ancestor to Marvel Comics. But aside from that instance, hero vs hero fights didn’t seem to catch fire and languished through the 1950s until Marvel started running super-heroes in its books again beginning with Fantastic Four #1.
Early encounters between the FF and hero/villain Sub-Mariner proved popular so it wasn’t long before Marvel began to regularly feature clashes between its super-heroes, a formula competitors tried to duplicate but never with such soul-satisfying results. The reason? Marvel’s secret weapon was artist Jack Kirby who could choreograph bludgeoning battle scenes better than anybody!
By comparison, competitors like DC were as sedate as a ladies’ sewing circle!
Anticipation following the first Avengers movie was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
That anticipation was dimmed somewhat when it was learned that Thanos, who appeared for all but two seconds at the very end, was not slated as the villain for Avengers 2. Instead, he appeared next in the surprise blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy helping to underscore one of the exciting things about Marvel Studios films (as opposed to Marvel films from other studios): their interconnectivity, the ingredient that catapulted tiny Marvel Comics ahead of giant competitor DC Comics in the early 1960s.
Where will Thanos appear next? Who can tell?
The point is, the Marvel movie universe isn’t dependent on any single ingredient. Not Thanos, not Tony Stark, not Captain America, not SHIELD. Something to keep in mind as Avengers 2 rolls around along with rumors that major characters (driven by the expiration of standing contracts of the actors who play them) are soon to fall by the wayside.
Tony Stark may go off into the sunset, Cap may be killed off, Thor may end up in Valhalla leading to a possible reorganized and reconstituted Avengers team much like the epochal events that took place in Avengers #16 when Iron Man, Giant-Man, and Thor quit and were replaced by Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch, the latter two perhaps not coincidentally, set to be introduced in Avengers 2.
Which brings us to the new, recently released Avengers 2 trailer which, if it accurately presages the events in the film, raises the bar as well as the stakes for the new film, one that promises to meet if not exceed the colossal earnings of the first.
With so much riding on the new film, not least of which is the expectation that its content tops the first, the trailer hints at less than perfection. Yeah, there seems to be plenty to like in the sample footage, but there’s also stuff that makes discerning viewers stop and wonder. Thus, in the interests of keeping fans fully informed (in no particular order) here are some reasons why they should look forward to Avengers 2 as well as a few to inspire doubt.
Fox’s Gotham has been running for a few weeks now, and it’s off to a bittersweet start. The Batman show without Batman serves as a prequel to the mythology we know.
There’s a lot to like in Gotham. It looks great, shot in New York and enhanced with seamless visual effects. The performances are solid, often transcending weak scripts.
But overall, Gotham suffers from an identity crisis. This show can’t decide what it’s trying to be. One scene evokes the grounded tone of The Dark Knight. The next evokes the camp of 1966. Here are 10 hits and misses in Gotham’s first five episodes.
5. Miss: Fish Mooney
The Portrayal: Jada Pinkett Smith lends the series its greatest star power. Her character, underworld player Fish Mooney, was conceived for the series as a new addition to the Batman mythology. Mooney serves as a lieutenant in the Falcone crime family. She despises her boss and aspires to replace him as the dominant figure in Gotham’s underworld.
Why It’s a Miss: It’s fitting that Fish Mooney was created uniquely for this show, because she personifies its tonal inconsistency. It’s unclear whether we’re meant to root for her or against her. In one scene, she’s ordering the brutal torture and execution of police officers, as if it’s no big deal. In the next, she’s helplessly browbeat by Falcone and proven largely impotent. Pinkett Smith chews the scenery, evoking the camp of the 1960s television show. Her portrayal has been described as an “Eartha Kitt impersonation.”
Seven years ago, the pages of Marvel Comics’ universe were rocked by a sweeping story arc across dozens of books, culminating in the death of the iconic American hero Captain America. Recently, the popular Marvel Cinematic line of films, also produced by Marvel Studios, announced that the “Civil War” arc will be the foundation upon which the next Captain America film will be based.
“Civil War,” a “crossover” series which began in 2006 under the pen of Scottish comic book writer Mark Millar, starts with an induced public panic over the supposed unaccountability of individuals with superpowers.
In-universe, the world was just beginning to recover from the aftershocks of United States government agent Nick Fury’s actions — think of the agency he runs, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (SHIELD), as a sort of Department of Homeland Security, hopped up on the drug known as “Kick” — including sparking multiple violent intergalactic and inter-dimensional incidents such as the “Secret War.”
The American public, we’re told, has become tired of their cities being trashed by the battles between gods and demigods such as Thor, Apocalypse, or the Beyonder. The final straw, we’re told, is what is referred to as the “Stamford Incident,” in which a team of inexperienced supers, the New Warriors, are, effectively, egged on by their reality-show handlers to surprise a band of villains hiding out in a quiet New York town.
In the chaos of the televised ambush, Nitro — a villain whose exactly-what-it-says-on-the-can power is “blowing himself up” — detonates himself, taking 600 civilians with him… 60 of whom are school children.
See more of my friend Bosch’s great art work at his blog and follow him on Twitter. Also check out my article “10 Badass Moments from Bosch Fawstin’s The Infidel #2.”
Comic books that circulated from the 1950s to the 1970s were jam-packed with ads that promised everything from fame and fortune to live miniature puppies. You could buy a shrunken head, print your own money, or grow 3″ taller, all for 99 cents, C.O.D. (which meant you paid the mail carrier cash on delivery). Most of the items were junk and for many of us, it was the first buzzkill of our idyllic young lives. Millions of boys were disappointed that they didn’t end up with bodies like Charles Atlas and millions more were devastated when the x-ray specs didn’t allow them to see under the dresses of the girls at school. It was probably a good thing that the FTC eventually stepped in and put some regulations in place so kids could find more productive uses for their allowances, like Wacky Packages and Bubble Yum. Nevertheless, it was fun to dream about what might arrive in the mail after you filled out the coupon from the back of the comic book and waited 4-6 weeks for delivery. Because you never knew…
Here are 10 comic book ads that destroyed your faith in mankind before you hit puberty…
By most accounts, modern science fiction had its start with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells but didn’t really take hold in the public consciousness until it filtered down from hard cover books into more popular media affordable to a mass audience. At that point, stories by Verne and Wells, but especially Wells, began to be reprinted in cheaply produced pulp magazines until new stories by other authors inspired by their example began to explore the genre as well and eventually pushed out the reprints in favor of their own material.
The original catalyst for the rise of what was first known as “scientifiction” and then science fiction, was Amazing Stories, first published by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Interested in invention and electronics, Gernsback conceived of the magazine as a place where inventors and what a later age would call engineers could publish fictional tales centered around a technological gadget or machine… as if today’s Popular Mechanics were to publish its articles as fiction.
Gernsback’s idea proved so successful that it inspired a host of imitators in the following decades until science fiction magazines became a staple of newsstands in years of rapid invention leading into the atomic age and the rise of transistors and integrated circuits.
But alongside the pulp magazines, beginning in the late 1930s, was the comic book which in many ways might have been considered illustrated pulp stories, as indeed many were. Magazines such as Planet Comics and Exciting Comics either took their names and subjects directly from pulp antecedents or simply transferred characters lock, stock, and barrel from the pulps.
But there began the rub.
In the pulps, science fiction didn’t stand still. It began to evolve almost from the start with space opera by the likes of Doc Smith, Jack Williamson, and Edmond Hamilton soon supplanting Verne and Wells and later, more serious hard SF replacing space opera with the Astounding Science Fiction generation of writers. Later, the Astounding writers themselves would fade to be replaced by soft SF concentrating on the social sciences, psychology, and the drug culture.
Meanwhile, many SF elements were adopted as a natural fit by the rising super-heroes of the 1940s with characters like Superman given a spacefaring background and rocket ships and death rays figuring mightily in many stories. Later, in the ’50s, such elements would prove even more integral to super-heroes as former SF fans, writers, and agents working for DC Comics used them as the basis for revamping a number of the company’s characters including Green Lantern and the Flash. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics would adapt SF elements with a vengeance in such titles as Thor and Fantastic Four.
But stories of purely a science fictional bent were often told in short 6-8 page formats usually with an unexpected or ironic twist ending. A format that fell out of favor in SF magazines but sharpened to a point by EC Comics; a format that climaxed in the justifiably famous “Judgment Day” which appeared in Weird Fantasy #18 (1956). And as fun and entertaining though the format could be, it also froze in place, with few exceptions, the presentation of science fiction in comics until the genre vanished along with westerns, romance, and funny animals in a rising tide of super-heroes.
That said, even with its failure to evolve, there was still a lot to be said about science fiction in comics as the following list will prove!
The twist in Gold Key’s Magnus Robot Fighter (1963) is that the people living in the year 4,000 AD think that they’re living in a paradise when they’re actually trapped in a dystopia where many of their individual freedoms have been traded away for easy living and few personal responsibilities. Ironically, the world’s only free man has been trained by a robot to swim against the tide and attack the problem at the point where reality met hardware: the millions of robots who actually run the day-to-day affairs of Earth, some of whom have begun to acquire self-awareness and a sense of superiority over their hapless human masters. Created by artist Russ Manning, the Magnus strip, like many of the publisher’s titles, moved forward in fits and starts (read: original material alternating with reprints) over many years until eventually canceled. It was licensed to Valiant Comics in the 1990s and given new life by writer Jim Shooter who pursued the themes inherent in the original comic but ended up reversing the premise with Magnus fighting instead for robot rights!
Like the rest of us, super-heroes have places to go, the only difference being they absolutely need to get there or the world will be destroyed, a country taken over, or women will suffer fates worse than death. For super-heroes then, it’s far more important for them to have reliable transportation than the average citizen and luckily for us, they’ve always managed to get their hands on just the vehicles they need.
Another lucky thing is that most super-heroes seem to be independently wealthy or own high tech companies or even secret treasures so they can afford “all those wonderful toys” as one of their opponents said in the first serious attempt at depicting super-heroes on film. And not coincidentally, that first Batman movie by director Tim Burton, featured just the sort of super-hero transportation devices that concerns us on this list: an up-armored batmobile and high-tech flying batplane.
But specialized super-hero transportation didn’t start with Batman (a Batmobile of sorts made its original appearance in 1939 along with Batman himself in Detective Comics #27); they can be traced at least as far back as the pulp magazine adventures of the Shadow who often used an autogyro to get around outside the confines of New York City.
Not long after, in 1933, Doc Savage debuted in a companion magazine complete with his own “batcave” so to speak in the form of a run down seeming warehouse on New York’s waterfront that contained a fleet of transportation vehicles including an armored blimp, an autogyro, speed planes, an amphibious heavy transport plane, even a mini-submarine. The only difference from Batman was that Doc never had the ego to prefix his vehicles after himself.
And if some enterprising readers wanted to go even farther back than Doc or the Shadow, they need look no farther than any number of masked western heroes with such wonder horses as Thunder, Trigger, or Silver!
So as anyone can see, transportation, specialized or not, is a must for the well-equipped hero, super or otherwise and comic book heroes have been more energetic than any other kind to fill out that line in their resumes. Almost all of them have had some kind of transportation and although many would settle for the latest automobile to get around, others couldn’t seem to do without all the bells and whistles that come with specialized equipment. That said, some of the latter could well have used better judgment in choosing their modes of transportation and it’s those choices that we’ve used to compile the following list of the worst ideas for super-hero conveyances.
10) Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill
Who says that super-hero transportation needs to have wheels or wings? Not writer John Broome who came up with the cosmic treadmill for Flash #125 (1961). It seems just running super fast wasn’t enough to break the time barrier. A booster was needed so to speak. Enter the cosmic treadmill upon which the scarlet speedster would run, generating power to the point where he could break the time barrier and travel to the past or future. Don’t ask how, just accept it!
The Salt Lake Comic Con is more than just a chance to parade around in costumes and squeal over the chance to see your favorite star. The panels cover some interesting and serious topics. This year, Batton Lash, Steve Kent, Chad Hardin, Steven Grant and Joey Majdali discussed free speech, censorship and the Comics Code of 1954. The code for decades reinforced the impression that comics were for kids. It died a quiet death in 2011, but is an important part of the genre’s history. If you love comics, here are ten things you should know:
1. It wasn’t government censorship.
The Comics Code was developed by the major publishers of the time in response to societal — and governmental — pressure. In the 1930s, teachers claimed comic books decreased literacy. They were joined by those who worried about the morality of the illustrations. Finally, the mental health industry threw in its hat, claiming that comic books led to desensitization to violence and a desire to imitate the characters. (Sound familiar?) The comic book companies determined 41 areas, covering nudity as well as the depiction of violence and horror.
For decades, the comics industry proceeded at a relatively sedate pace when it came to pushing the envelope of good taste. To be sure, comics were considered mostly entertainment for children and low brows (soldiers serving during WWII don’t count as they were more or less a captive audience), never achieving the status that its newspaper comic strip cousin had. Although, there too, early strips more often than not, featured more slapstick material than intellectual. But it was regular comics’ lowly status that initially allowed the industry to fly beneath the public radar so that when Lev Gleason Publications published Crime Does Not Pay in 1942 followed by Avon Publications’ Eerie Comics #1 in 1947, the first horror comic, no one but readers took notice. It didn’t take long however, before other publishers took notice too and soon, magazine racks became crowded with violence and gore culminating in EC Comics’ various early to mid-1950s titles such as Crime Suspenstories and Crypt of Horror.
Following numerous local attempts by public crusaders to draw attention to comics they deemed unhealthy for youngsters to read, the industry attempted to regulate itself but early attempts failed when the larger publishers refused to associate with the smaller, more disreputable companies. Finally, the outcry against violence in comics became so great that Congress took notice and held hearings on the subject. That was enough to scare the publishers more than any story they ran in their comics and they ended up forming the Comics Code Authority whose strictures against horror and violence were finally accepted.
Such was where things stood in the late 1960s when Marvel editor Stan Lee published an issue of Amazing Spider-Man dealing with drug abuse (a subject banned by the Code) without the Authority’s stamp of approval. That event led to a loosening of the Code that would eventually unwind the whole ball of yarn.
Fast forward to the 1980s. Comics had grown into a major mass medium through the early 1960s and then began a steady retreat as first television and later, video/computer games dominated more of children’s time. Soon, youngsters became all but absent from comics fandom leaving only a small but hardened coterie of young adult enthusiasts. Comics mostly disappeared from public view, abandoning local newsstands and drugstores for the comics specialty store, usually tucked away in forgotten storefronts in empty downtowns or open air shopping plazas. Recognizing the shift in readership, the few remaining publishers changed their marketing tactics and began to concentrate on direct sales to comics shops. There, away from the prying eyes of the general public as well as impulse-buying youngsters, decades of caution was pushed aside and adult content was reintroduced to comics.
Of course, such content had always been present in underground comics cranked out by driven creators with a beef against the prevailing culture, but now it began to creep into mainstream comics and when there was no real backlash, the pace increased. By the new century, Marvel and DC had publicly broken with the Code Authority and the Authority itself was finally disbanded in 2011 leaving the door wide open for publishers to do whatever they wanted in their comics.
Companies adopted their own ratings systems for comics (largely useless for the discerning parent) as figleaves for the widespread inclusion of material that even the most sanguine of 1940s publishers would ever dream of putting between two primary colored covers. But for the purposes of this list, we’ll divide the kinds of adult material being presented today into two categories: material that is simply shocking and subject matter that goes beyond shock to downright disturbing on a deeper, psychological level. A level that perhaps says more about the creators’ psyche than the tastes of the readers who buy such material.
It happened in Marvel Premiere #14. In that issue, Dr. Strange pursues a wizard from the future who has discovered that there’s only a finite amount of magical energy in the universe and that there wasn’t enough to go around in the future age where he lived. So, traveling back in time when there were progressively fewer and fewer users of magic, Sise-Neg would accrue more of the energy to himself becoming more and more powerful until finally, arriving at the end of time, he destroys the universe. But being a god, his ego demands that he create a new universe in its place.
That’s when he discovers that the former universe had already been a perfect creation and so decides to recreate it just as it was declaring himself the God of Creation…Genesis…in the process. A pretty shocking ending for a comic published in 1974, and disturbing as well for the average reader who likely held basic Christian beliefs about God and the universe. It was an ending that held certain meaning for the state of the Marvel Universe that many readers preferred not to contemplate as well. From its very start, the MU had always been presented as a realistic milieu whose inhabitants looked and acted pretty much like people did in the real world. But in a way, the Sise-Neg story pointed in a direction that the comics industry would eventually follow, one that would eventually hold its own most cherished creations in contempt.
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, or 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 to 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, and protective. Because they are not as physically strong, women 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 the 70-plus year history of comics, 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: