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At the advent of comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), readers were dazzled by the audacious exploits and flashy ensembles of the first wave of superheroes. Very quickly, however, the novelty of these men and women of steel became endangered from battles with generic gunmen and mouthy mobsters, menaces borrowed from the pages of newspapers of the day. Comic-book editors, writers, and artists were challenged to create supervillains against whom their heroes could maintain their mythic status.

Some comics creators looked to the movies for inspiration. Mad scientists, a staple of popular cinema of the 1930s, soon unleashed their diabolical machinations against many of the first superheroes. Dr. Death, a run-of-the-mill evil genius, posed a minor threat to Batman, but Professor Hugo Strange proved a deadlier menace: He terrorized the hero's home of Gotham City with mutated monsters and noxious gas. The first two major foes to challenge Superman boasted tremendous intellects: the Ultra-Humanite, who could transfer his mind into other bodies; and Lex Luthor, a mastermind who took on Superman with a destructive arsenal and became so popular with readers that he has endured to this day. Captain Marvel, the World's Mightiest Mortal of Fawcett (and later DC) Comics fame, was habitually harassed by the dastardly Dr. Sivana. Similarly, Professor Torture bedeviled the Angel (no relation to the popular X-Men member), Dr. Psycho confronted Wonder Woman, the Thinker challenged the Flash, Brainwave tried to outsmart the Justice Society of America, Dr. Riddle took on Bulletman and Bulletgirl, and Mr. Who used his Z solution to annoy Dr. Fate. Many of these characters apparently patronized the same tailor, given their preference for lab coats.

Movie monsters scared up big box office receipts during this era, and inspired ghoulish supervillains in comic books. In one of his earliest tales, Batman fought—and killed!—vampires, then later met Clayface, a serial killer patterned after horror star Boris Karloff, and Two-Face, a grotesquely scarred Jekyll-Hyde gangster. The undead Solomon Grundy lumbered out of the swamps to become a foe of Green Lantern; Captain America and Bucky battled the walking dead called the Hollow Men; and the serpentine saboteur Cobra put the squeeze on Magno, the Magnetic Man.

Another early supervillain trend—costumed criminals—netted mixed results. Bad guys with colorful garb did not always make enduring adversaries: Doll Man's pint-sized pest Tom Thumb and Bulletman's nemesis the Black Rodent (whose uniform included a rat's-head mask and a tail) are remembered today only by the most dedicated historians. Superman's first enemy to don a disguise, the Archer, also failed to strike a bull's eye with readers. Most of the menacing masqueraders added to Batman's rogues' gallery, however, combined compelling modus operandi with garish attire to imprint themselves upon comics readers: The ghastly, grinning Joker's shock of green hair and pasty-white face frightened fans, as did his penchant for inducing a smile upon murdered victims; the fetching Catwoman's sexy purple gown and flowing ebon locks belied her wicked fluency with her cat-o'-nine-tails whip; and the pillaging Penguin's portly waddle made him look comical, but his deadly bumbershoots were no laughing matter.

World War II produced real-life supervillains who shocked the world. Despicable acts of bloodshed, torture, and conquest perpetrated by the Axis powers filled the papers and newsreels, proving too sinisterly seductive for the comics to ignore. In the early 1940s, German and Japanese soldiers, spies, and saboteurs were regularly depicted as comic-book menaces: Superman tackled Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin in a 1940 Look magazine supplement, and Marvel's own Captain America, who bowed in March 1941, owes his very origin to the advent of Nazi spies. Once the December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor drew the United States into this global conflict, the anti-Axis sentiment became even more overt. Actual comic-book supervillains swathed in Swastika cloth set their diabolical sights on superheroes: The Red Skull became Captain America's principal adversary; Captain Marvel Jr. squared off against Captain Nazi; MLJ Publications' Steel Sterling battled Baron Gestapo, and its dark hero the Hangman was the sworn enemy of Captain Swastika; and a cretin called Satan, decked out in a robe decorated with a Swastika, fought Harvey Comics' Spirit of 76. Japanese villain Captain Nippon took on Captain Marvel Jr.; the yellow-skinned, fang-toothed Claw, an Oriental supremacist who could grow to humongous proportions, fought the Golden Age Daredevil (not to be confused with the Marvel Comics hero of the same name); and the Shield and his sidekick Dusty wrangled with the heinous Hun. Hitler himself appeared regularly in comics and on comics covers of the era, including Gleason Publications' 1941 classic, Daredevil Battles Hitler #1.

Golden Age superhero comics did not exclusively rely upon the Axis threat for villainous fodder, however: Each publisher consistently churned out a bevy of bad guys (and gals) to fight their superheroes. Noteworthy no-goodniks of the era include Captain Marvel's (and the Marvel Family's) foe Mr. Mind (a brainy worm wearing thick-lensed eyeglasses), the robotic Mr. Atom, the savage Ibac, and the problematic Monster Society of Evil (a villainous superteam led by Mr. Mind); Green Lantern's enemies the Icicle, the Gambler, the Sportsman, the Huntress, and the Harlequin; the Shark, who swam into the pages of Amazing-Man Comics; Dr. Fate's mystical menace Wotan; and the Riddler, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Mad Hatter, and the Scarecrow, yet more hazardous threats to Batman and Robin.

Other memorable Golden Age supervillains include the Hangman's foe, the Executioner (who wielded an icepick as an artificial hand); Flash rogues Star Sapphire, the Fiddler, and Thorn; Magno, the Magnetic Man's pesky Clown; the villainous Valkyrie, who was a thorn in Airboy's side; the armored God of War Mars and the spotted pest the Cheetah, who made life tough for Wonder Woman; the sentient ventriloquist's puppet called the Dummy, arch foe of DC Comics' Western superhero the Vigilante; Hawkman's dastardly dapper nemesis the Gentleman Ghost; Superman's headaches the Puzzler, the Prankster, the Toyman, and Mr. Mxyztplk (later Mr. Myyzptlk); the cloudy criminal called the Mist, who mystified Starman; a different villain calling himself the Mist, who clashed with MLJ's Black Hood, as did Panther Man, the Skull, and the Crow; and a handful of enemies of DC Comics' Justice Society of America—Vandal Savage, Per Degaton, the Psycho-Pirate, and the evil assemblage the Injustice Gang of the World. Most of these supervillains were content to use their powers or weapons to plunder, or just to irritate their enemies, but a few—including Mars, Vandal Savage, and the Claw—were true tyrants, bent on domination.

Once the most popular superheroes jumped from comic books to other media, their rogues usually failed to accompany them. Sivana was nowhere to be seen in the movie serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), nor did the Red Skull join his foe in Captain America (1944). Likewise, the Man of Steel's enemies from the comics were absent from the seventeen Superman animated theatrical shorts produced by the Fleischer Studios (1941–1943), but Luthor appeared on screen in the live-action serial Atom Man vs. Superman (1950). In their two movie serials, Batman and Robin tangled with villains specially tailored for the limited budgets of the medium, but in their daily and Sunday newspaper strips, arch-nemeses Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman were menacing mainstays.

While World War II was a boon for superhero comics, the war's conclusion proved disastrous for the genre, and most superheroes and supervillains were systematically retired. For the handful of superheroes who remained in print, their adversaries continued to reflect the headlines of contemporary newspapers. Readers predisposed toward believing the Roswell alien-landing story appreciated Captain Midnight's 1947 struggles with Jagga the Space Raider and Xog the Evil Lord of Saturn; in 1948 the Fighting Yank clobbered Ku Klux Klan–like robed foes; and the Fighting American, one of the few superheroes (albeit a parody of the medium) to premiere in the 1950s, fought Communist adversaries like Poison Ivan and Hotsky Trotsky.

By the mid-1950s, almost all superheroes had hung up their capes, save DC's Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who tangled with alien invaders, a handful of watered-down versions of their Golden Age foes, and a few new additions to their rosters of enemies—Angle Man took on Wonder Woman, and a new, morphing Clayface mucked up Batman's life, as did minor-league menaces Doctor Double-X, Calendar Man, and Signalman. When the Man of Steel flew onto the small screen in the live-action syndicated television series The Adventures of Superman (1953–1957), he corralled hoodlums and petty thieves, with nary a supervillain in sight.

One major supervillain did surface to plague comic-book superheroes in the 1950s: Dr. Frederic Wertham. This well-intentioned, real-life psychiatrist linked juvenile delinquency to comics reading in his book Seduction of the Innocent (1954), inciting U.S. Senate hearings that inflicted upon the industry a censorship board (the Comics Code Authority, or CCA). The few post-code supervillains that still appeared in print were nonthreatening—and boring.

The introduction of the all-new Flash in DC Comics' Showcase #4 (1956) heralded a superhero comeback. The Flash over time garnered one of the most imaginative rogues' galleries in comics, felons each employing technological gadgets or scientific weapons to take on the Fastest Man Alive: The Mirror Master teleported and created illusions with trick mirrors, Heat Wave melted the pavement under the Flash's feet with his heat ray, Captain Cold put the Flash on ice with his freeze gun, and the Weather Wizard manipulated blizzards and winds with his weather wand. Other Flash foes of the era include Captain Boomerang, the Top, the Trickster, Pied Piper, Abra Kababra, Professor Zoom (a.k.a. the Reverse-Flash), Dr. Alchemy (a baddie who sometimes appeared in a different guise, as Mr. Element), and the telepathic, super-intelligent simian, Gorilla Grodd.

Green Lantern followed the Flash with his Showcase #22 (1959) reinvention, and likewise attracted science-spawned adversaries: Sinestro, Doctor Polaris, the Shark, Sonar, the Black Hand, Hector Hammond, the Tattooed Man, and a new Star Sapphire (who happened to be the hero's girlfriend under her pink mask). DC continued to rework its Golden Age heroes into Silver Age incarnations, and added ultramodern (for the time) menaces to the mix: The Atom fought Chronos and Plant-Master; the Shadow Thief challenged Hawkman; Ocean Master, Black Manta, and the Fisherman splashed into the pages of Aquaman; and the Justice League of America was plagued by Starro the Conqueror, the Queen Bee, Amazo, Felix Faust, Doctor Light, Doctor Destiny, Despero, the Key, the Shaggy Man, and Kanjar Ro. Eclipso, deemed hero and villain in one man, temporarily became the star of the anthology series House of Secrets. The Teen Titans tumbled with the tousle-haired Mad Mod, whose Carnaby Street fashions foreshadowed the coming of the movies' Austin Powers; and Chemo, a giant that spewed toxic chemicals, was a recurring threat to the robot heroes the Metal Men.

Science-based menaces were also introduced into the Superman comics, including the android Brainiac, who used his reducing ray to shrink and collect cities from across the universe; Titano the Super-Ape, a King Kong pastiche, who paralyzed Superman with kryptonite vision; Metallo, the man with the robotic body powered by a kryptonite heart; Bizarro, a superpowerful but dimwitted duplicate of the Man of Steel; the multipowered Composite Superman, who nearly eliminated the Man of Steel and Batman; and the Parasite, who could siphon Superman's energy. The Legion of Super-Heroes—the team of super-teenagers living one thousand years in the future—also developed an impressively insidious roster of enemies including Computo, Doctor Regulus, the Fatal Five, the Time Trapper, Mordru the Merciless, Universo, and the Legion's dishonorable doppelgängers, the Legion of Super-Villains (Cosmic King, Saturn Queen, and Lightning Lord).

While Batman encountered a few science-based opponents—like the chilling Mr. Freeze (called Mr. Zero in his initial 1959 appearance), the dizzying Spellbinder, and the aforementioned Composite Superman—most of his new foes emerging during the Silver Age were more down to earth: The sultry Poison Ivy seduced Batman and Robin into conflict, the hulking Blockbuster's rage could only be quelled by a glimpse of the face of Bruce Wayne (Batman's alter ego), and Batman discovered the existence of a vast international crime network called the League of Assassins. The Caped Crusader's rogues' gallery became television stars in the live-action Batman (1966–1968), which featured Hollywood's hottest (and a few has-beens) as villainous guest stars. Some examples: Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Frank Gorshin (temporarily replaced by John Astin) as the Riddler, Vincent Price as Egghead, Roddy McDowell as the Bookworm, Milton Berle as Louie the Lilac, and Victor Buono as King Tut. On Saturday morning TV, Brainiac, Luthor, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and the Prankster fought Superman on his cartoon show, while, conversely, most of the other animated episodes featuring DC superheroes pitted them against stereotyped extraterrestrials.

DC's supervillains of the Silver Age shared more in common than flamboyant costumes and scientific weaponry. Most were motivated by greed, and their rivalry with their superheroes was a byproduct of their thievery. Few DC villains of this era could be categorized as inherently evil. Exceptions include Grodd, who held no regard for humans, and Luthor, whose hatred of Superman had intensified to such a boiling point that he was no longer content with matching minds with the Man of Steel; He wanted Superman dead.

Marvel Comics approached both superheroes and supervillains differently from competitor DC. Marvel's heroes possessed traits previously considered anti-heroic, such as selfishness and narcissism, and its villains went even further, many being despicable despots or egomaniacal enslavers.

The Fantastic Four (FF), the originators of the Marvel universe, protected New York City from an onslaught of menaces including the hideous subterranean dictator called the Mole Man; the Super Skrull, an alien commanding each of the FF's abilities; and the emotion-manipulating Hate Monger; plus Blastarr, Diablo, Dragon Man, Psycho-Man, the Molecule Man, Puppet Master, and Annihilus. The FF's most challenging adversaries were Galactus, a skyscraper-sized alien who consumed the lifeforce of planets, and Doctor Doom, the collegiate rival of the FF's leader Reed Richards (a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic), whose machinations nearly toppled the Four time and time again. Even the Sub-Mariner, Marvel's popular anti-hero from the Golden Age, resurfaced as a villain in early Fantastic Four issues, although his motivation for striking against humankind—retribution for surface dwellers' encroachment upon his undersea kingdom—made him a sympathetic foe.

Some Marvel menaces' names unambiguously conveyed a thirst for domination, or an evocation of terror: the Avengers' antagonists Kang the Conqueror and Ultron; the Incredible Hulk's bitter enemies the Leader, the Abomination, and the Absorbing Man; Captain America's foe Baron Zemo; the armored adversaries of Iron Man, the Titanium Man and the Crimson Dynamo, plus the insidious instigator the Mandarin; the god of thunder Thor's powerful enemies the High Evolutionary, Grey Gargoyle, and Ulik; and Dormammu and Baron Mordo, the sinister sorcerers casting evil spells on the Master of the Mystic Arts, Doctor Strange. The Silver Surfer battled the lord of the underworld, Mephisto, and when not warring against pummeling powerhouses, Thor matched wits with his evil half-brother Loki. Daredevil's rogues' gallery lacked the omnipotence of some of Marvel's other 1960s villains, but still, the Beetle, the Owl, the Stilt-Man, and the Gladiator were no pushovers (actually, pushing over the Stilt-Man was one way to defeat him ).

In the mid- to late 1960s, many of Marvel's characters were translated to television cartoons, and their villains joined them, wreaking terror on the tube. These translations were truly literal in the case of TV's Marvel Super Heroes (1966–1968) and Fantastic Four (1967–1970), with the former's limited-animation episodes being shot directly from the Marvel comics and the latter's scripts closely based on them.

The popularity of superheroes during the 1960s triggered an upsurge of costumed crime fighters from a variety of comic-book publishers and television producers. Moltar, Zorak, the Black Widow, and Brak were among the foes of the Saturday-morning TV superhero Space Ghost, and Captain Action of Ideal Toys (and DC Comics) fame clashed with the otherworldly scientist Dr. Evil. While Charlton Comics' Action Heroes were inventive alternatives to DC and Marvel superheroes, their supervillains ranged from unique (the Madmen, who battled the Blue Beetle, plus the Ghost, Punch and Jewelee, and Dr. Spectro, foes of Captain Atom) to derivative (Peacemaker's flaming foe Mr. Blaze, Judomaster's agile adversary the Acrobat, and Son of Vulcan's egotistical enemy King Midas).

Supervillains became bolder, blacker, and bleaker in the 1970s. So did superheroes. The anti-hero—the hero with personality flaws, or with questionable motivations—was popularized during the decade, in response to a youth culture desensitized over an unpopular war, civil unrest, and dishonest politicians.

In 1970, Jack Kirby, the artist for many of Marvel's most popular characters of the 1960s, jumped ship to DC, producing four interlocking Fourth World titles that shared one central villain: Darkseid (pronounced Dark-side), a genocidal demigod who subjugated the dismal planet Apokolips. Darkseid craved the elusive Anti-Life Equation, and with malevolent minions like his brutish offspring Kalibak, the duplicitous Desaad, and the sadistic Granny Goodness, Darkseid brought a new depth to DC villainy. Had Kirby introduced Darkseid into the Marvel universe, the villain's impact may have been weakened by the publisher's other omnipotent warlords. But at DC, Darkseid was truly unique, and singularly vile. His machinations ultimately spread beyond Kirby's Fourth World, and over the decades he has challenged everyone from Superman to the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Another daringly different DC villain that originated in the early 1970s was Batman's adversary, the immortal Ra's al Ghul, an international terrorist spreading global chaos long before anyone in the real world had heard of Osama bin Laden. Also in the 1970s, one of Batman's most enduring enemies, the Joker, reverted from his mischievous Clown Prince of Crime persona to his original murderous ways, leaving grinning corpses in his wake. The Joker became so popular during the decade that, he was awarded his own magazine, albeit one in which restrictions imposed by the CCA censorship board made his portrayal more comical than homicidal.

Another chilling Batman foe to debut during the 1970s was Man-Bat, a chemically mutated scientist who sprouted powerful batwings. The CCA eased its limitations that formerly prohibited the depiction of the undead in comics, and monster villains (and some heroes) soon crept forth. Morbius, the Living Vampire and Man-Wolf fought Spider-Man, and Batman tangled with the muck-monster Swamp Thing.

Urban violence intensified in the real world of the 1970s, and comics supervillains reflected that trend. The street smart Hero for Hire, Luke Cage (later called Powerman), got shafted by superpowered enforcers Diamondback, Mace, Lionfang, and Big Ben; hired gun Deadshot took aim at Batman; and by decade's end, Bullseye was hired by the Kingpin to take down Daredevil. The most famous assassin of the decade, Marvel's Punisher, began his career in 1974 as a Spider-Man villain, then segued into his own solo adventures, as well as two live-action movies (in 1989 and 2004). The bestial Wolverine, added to a revamped version of the X-Men in 1974, so embodied violent anti-heroics that the X-Men's villains grew more savage in response, like the feral Sabretooth (who, for the record, first surfaced in conflict with the martial-arts superhero Iron Fist). Even the most traditional of superheroes, Superman, witnessed a darkening of some of his rogues' gallery during the 1970s: Luthor amped himself in battle armor, the killer cowboy called Terra-Man flew (on a winged horse!) into Metropolis to take down the Man of Steel, and the Atomic Skull and the Sand-Superman made life difficult for the hero.

Comic-book villains discovered that there was safety in numbers during the 1970s: Doctor Doom and Sub-Mariner joined forces in Super-Villain Team-Up (1975–1980), and DC combined Captain Cold, Sinestro, Grodd, and other scalawags in its Secret Society of Super-Villains series (1976–1978). On television, more DC villains (Luthor, Grodd, Black Manta, the Scarecrow, and others) united as the Legion of Doom in the animated Challenge of the Super Friends (1978–1979) and the Riddler, Mordru, Dr. Sivana, and several other DC bad guys were brought to life—and lampooned—by comedians in two campy 1979 live-action Legends of the Super-Heroes TV specials. However, in the dramatic, primetime adaptations of superheroes airing during the 1970s—ABC's Wonder Woman and CBS's The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man—none of the heroes' supervillains appeared.

Starting in the 1980s and continuing into the 2000s, real-world street gangstas, serial killers, and international terrorists have made the comic book's costumed bank robber of yesterday seem ludicrous by comparison. The fictional world of superheroes has darkened, and supervillains have slipped even further into evil and depravity.

Old-time menaces have become more contemptible—Lex Luthor was reinvented into an egomaniacal corporate executive who executed a power play to the U.S. presidency; the Joker crippled Batgirl and massacred the second Robin the Boy Wonder in 1988, then killed Gotham City police Commissioner Gordon's wife in 1999; and readers were shocked by the intensity of Doctor Doom's hatred of Reed Richards when Doom disfigured the hero's face in 2003—and newer villains accomplished previously unthinkable acts: Doomsday beat Superman to death in 1992 (although he rose from the dead), and Bane broke Batman's back in 1993.

Even the very names of supervillains introduced since the 1980s invoke a more dystopian worldview. Examples include Typhoid Mary and Shotgun, foes of Daredevil; Spider-Man rogues Venom (a talking Venom action figure actually spoke, I want to eat your brains!), Carnage, Carrion, and Hobgoblin; X-Men enemies Dark Phoenix (formerly founding team member Marvel Girl), Stryfe, X-Cutioner, Mr. Sinister, Deadpool, and Apocalypse; Fatality, killer of intergalactic Green Lanterns; Brother Blood, who has terrorized the Teen Titans and the Outsiders; Justice League menaces Mageddon (a.k.a. the Primordial Annihilator), Neron, and Soultaker; Spawn's nemesis the Violator; Superman rogues Dominus, Imperiex, Massacre, and Kancer; and Batman villains Killer Croc, Anarky, Brutale, and Cain.

Many of these villains, particularly the rogues' galleries of superstars Spider-Man, Batman, the X-Men, Superman, and the Justice League, have joined their adversaries on television and in the movies. Blockbuster superhero films, however, tend to spice their villains with camp humor—as one of many examples, consider Jim Carrey's over-the-top take on the Riddler in director Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever (1995). Willem Dafoe's unsettling interpretation of the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002), however, signaled the arrival of sinister supervillains in Hollywood, a dark trend that has continued with Nick Nolte's abusive David Banner in The Hulk (2003).

Superheroes, the contemporary counterparts of the ancient gods, traditionally represented the lofty ideals to which humankind aspired. As society slipped more into violence, so did its heroes. Consequently, supervillains have continued their descent into the darkest recesses of the human soul, with little hope for rehabilitation. But such is villainy. As the editors of Marvel's trade paperback Bring Back the Bad Guys (1998) pondered, What is good without evil? —ME 

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