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Batman Villains


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Showcase 94 #1 © 1994 DC Comics. COVER ART BY KEVIN NOWLAN.

Since his debut in Detective Comics #29 (1939), Batman has battled the most infamous and imaginative rogues' gallery in comics. It didn't begin that way, however. In the Dark Knight's initial outings, creator/artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger accentuated the cowled hero, not his adversaries, pitting him against generic gangsters, clichéd evil masterminds, and vampires. Near the end of Batman's inaugural year of publication, in Detective Comics #36 (1940), the hero encountered his first scoundrel of note: Professor Hugo Strange. In his early appearances, Strange smothered Gotham City with fog, mutated mental patients into monsters, and even lashed Batman with a bullwhip, his sinister antics raising the badness bar for all Bat-villains to come.

Batman #1 (Spring 1940) introduced The Cat, soon to be re-dubbed Catwoman, the slinky princess of plunder who would soon become one of Batman's greatest foes, and the Joker. With his pallid pigmentation, green hair, and baleful smile, the Joker's frightfulness extended beyond his ghastly looks: This homicidal harlequin exterminated foes and associates alike with a poison that froze his victims' faces in hideous grins. Also debuting in 1940, horror-movie star Basil Karlo (a thinly disguised homage to Boris Karloff) embarked upon a career of serial killings in the guise that made him famous on film: Clayface. As the readers' world became gripped by a war that produced real-life genocidal menaces, Batman's creators were challenged to envision larger-than-life villains: Jonathan Crane was so scarred by childhood taunts over his gangly appearance that he adopted the guise of a cornfield Scarecrow and made Batman quake in his boots with his terror-inducing gas. The impeccably dressed racketeer the Penguin waddled into Gotham abetted by a flock of feathered fiends and an armada of deadly umbrellas. Half of district attorney Harvey Dent's visage was so gruesomely deformed by a gangster's acid attack that he became Jekyll and Hyde in one man, and as the schizoid Two-Face unleashed a crime career in which each action was predicated on the flip of a coin. The Riddler compulsively taunted Batman and his junior partner Robin the Boy Wonder with conundrums that contained clues to his forthcoming crimes. Jervis Tetch fancied himself the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and nearly toppled the Dynamic Duo with hypnotic devices concealed within his chapeau. Other villains bowing in the 1940s, like the rotund Tweedledee and Tweedledum and seafaring Tiger Shark, didn't fare as well and soon vanished from view.

In the 1950s, U.S. Senate hearings over comics' graphic story content, and the ensuing comics industry–created Comics Code that mandated what comics publishers could and couldn't publish, forced Batman to stray from his dark roots into silliness, and his villains followed suit. The grisly Joker was sanitized into the Clown Prince of Crime, the Penguin was similarly softened for comic relief, and Catwoman temporarily sheathed her claws and slinked into inactivity, as did Two-Face. Villains premiering during that decade were uninspired and gimmick-ridden, like Killer Moth, Firefly, the Terrible Trio (the Fox, the Shark, and the Vulture, thugs wearing Mardi Gras-like animal heads), and Calendar Man. Only the icy Mr. Freeze, called Mr. Zero in his 1959 debut, proved chilling enough to develop staying power with readers.

By the early 1960s, the Batman franchise was in sad shape, and the Dynamic Duo's rogues' gallery appeared infrequently, with alien invaders, lampoons of movie monsters, and, once again, mundane mobsters becoming the norm. Yet one memorable new villain managed to ooze out of this mire: ne'er-do-well Matt Hagen became the new Clayface, a formidable shape-shifter, after wading in a shimmering pool of an unexplained liquid. In 1964, sagging sales led DC Comics to give Batman a much-needed facelift in a movement called the New Look, orchestrated by editor Julius Schwartz. Artist Carmine Infantino provided a sleeker, more stylized interpretation of Batman and Robin, and the stories incorporated more crime-detection and scientific elements. Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, and Scarecrow returned to active duty, joined by a heinous host of new foes: the brutish Blockbuster, whose rage could only be quelled by the face of Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego; the psychedelic Spellbinder; the captivating Poison Ivy, whose intoxicating allure divided the Dynamic Duo; and international crimelord Dr. Tzin-Tzin.

During the heyday of ABC's Batman television show (1966–1968), being cast as a guest Bat-villain was a coveted Hollywood gig, and Tinseltown's luminaries vied for roles. Mainstay menaces from the comic books were present—the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin and, temporarily, John Astin), and the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), among others—and new antagonists were created, including Egghead (Vincent Price), King Tut (Victor Buono), and the Siren (Joan Collins).

Batman experienced a comic-book renaissance in the 1970s. Writers Frank Robbins and Denny O'Neil returned the hero to his original creature of the night status, and the villains became more startling as well. Man-Bat, a biologist whose goal of emulating Batman bore freakish results, first flapped his wings in 1970. Ra's al Ghul, a global terrorist empowered with immortality from regular dips in the Lazurus Pit, deduced the hero's Wayne identity and chose the Detective (as he called Batman) as his successor. Batman refused, of course, despite the temptation of al Ghul's fetching daughter Talia. And the ominous old guard got nastier: The Joker resumed murdering victims with a smile and Two-Face, more demented than ever, returned from limbo.

By the 1980s, Batman's rogues were no longer mere costumed thieves: They were now full-fledged psychopaths, incarcerated at (and systematically escaping from) Arkham Asylum, an institution for the criminally insane. Newer villains were introduced—including the shocking Electrocutioner, devilish siblings Night-Slayer and Nocturna, a female Clayface (who later joined her predecessors as the Mudpack), and the vigilante Anarky—but they lacked the longevity of two new threats: the reptilian-skinned Killer Croc and the mousy mobster Ventriloquist (who voiced crime commands through his dummy Scarface). Still, no Bat-villain better epitomized the grim-and-gritty 1980s than the good old Joker, who ended the decade by shooting and paralyzing Barbara (Batgirl) Gordon, murdering the second Robin, and usurping the screen from the title star (in a tour de force by actor Jack Nicholson) in Tim Burton's hit film Batman (1989).

By the 1990s, the traditional superhero—in comics and in other media—was no more. In his place stood the anti-hero, the dark avenger whose methods for apprehending adversaries were often as violent as his foes'. Batman had jumpstarted this movement twenty years prior and continued the trend through that decade and into the 2000s, differentiated from other anti-heroes by his pledge to preserve human life. His contemporary enemies share no such vow—newer foes often leave a trail of bodies in their wake. Witness Bane (whose Venom-enhanced strength enabled him to break Batman's back); Nicholas Scratch, Orca, and assassins Brutale and Cain; retreads like Charaxes (a mutated Killer Moth); the new Spellbinder; and yet another Clayface. The breakthrough Bat-baddie of the 1990s was the Joker's girlfriend Harley Quinn, originally created for television's Batman: The Animated Series (1992). Quinn proved so popular she was added to DC Comics continuity, even receiving her own monthly series in 2000.

That long-running Batman cartoon series included a legion of Bat-villains, the most popular of which was the Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill. On the big screen, the continuation of the Batman franchise lured box-office giants to the roles of Bat-rogues: Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992); Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Jim Carrey as the Riddler in Batman Forever (1995); and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin (1997). The Dark Knight's foes, particularly the Joker, have been heavily merchandized since the mid-1960s in everything from action figures to children's underwear. —ME

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