Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Discarding characters to die in the gutter

One of the things that annoys me about 21st century comics is that along with the impulse to get back to the Silver (or at least the Bronze) Age versions of characters (Barbara Gordon must be Batgirl, not Oracle! Spider-Man must be young and single! Only Barry Allen can be the Flash!), DC and Marvel seem to look on characters created in subsequent decades as a waste of ink.

Not all later characters; Harley Quinn and Ms. Marvel have clearly made the grade. But where DC will try over and over to do something interesting with Hawk and Dove (they’ve only succeeded once) or the Creeper, most later creations seemingly exist only to be cannon fodder. Villains who’ll clearly never amount to anything, so why not have some vigilante waste them? Heroes who show up after their series is cancelled solely to underline what losers they were: the bad guys beats them up or kills them, then the real classic heroes step in to save the day.

Don’t get me wrong, lots of characters suck. But C-listers have risen to become stars before; there’s no reason some of the discarded characters couldn’t have done the same.

The Riddler is a classic case. He made two appearances in 1948, then vanished until 1965 and Batman’s New Look period. Unusually, the story implies he’s been in prison that long, as the Dynamic Duo don’t even recognize him.

The Riddler was nowhere near the status of Joker, Penguin or Catwoman; even the Cavalier, a much duller character, saw more action (the Cavalier is an example of the reverse phenomenon, a villain who can’t make the A-list no matter how much they push him). But after Edward Nigma’s Silver Age return, the creators of the Batman TV show read one of his appearances and blammo, he’s suddenly at the top tier of the Rogue’s Gallery. Much as the 21st century has warped his character (as we’ve discussed recently), he remains an A-lister.

The Scarecrow is an even more striking example. The Riddler was at least an enjoyable, colorful Golden Age villain; the Scarecow was anything but. In this first appearance he’s simply an extortionist, intimidating people with threats of violence to get money. In his second, he’s an ordinary crook who happens to walk around in burlap. When Gardner Fox and Sheldon Moldoff brought him back in Batman #189, they fixed that by making fear central this MO, using fear gases and other tech to instill terror. It worked, making him a major villain. But y’all probably knew that.

Last but not least, we have the Shade. He was a one-shot Flash villain in the Golden Age, with no gimmick beyond creating artificial darkness. When Flash #123 came out, he teamed up with the more prominent Thinker and Fiddler to give Barry and Jay three villains to go against. He still didn’t have any abilities beyond what Dr. Midnite could do with a blackout bomb.Flash #151, “Invader From the Dark Dimension.” changed that. This was one I didn’t read until years after it came out, and it’s another of the comics covers that fascinated me for years. The smirking dark figure (I hadn’t read “Flash of Two Worlds” yet so I had no idea who the guy was), standing on top of his loot. Jay Garrick, helpless! My favorite hero, powerless to lay a glove on the villain.

The story, when I read it, turned out to be worth the wait. A series of unstoppable shadow creatures loot Central City, including stealing the engagement ring Iris has her heart on. Barry fails to capture the creatures or recover the loot so he hits on the idea of looking for a counterpart ring on Earth-Two. He finds it … on Joan Garrick’s finger, so bringing it back to Earth-One is a non-starter.

The two Flashes discovers the same energy the Shade uses to create darkness accidentally led him into a dark dimension between their Earths. Mastering the creatures there, he’s sent them to rob on Earth-One while keeping his nose clean on Earth-Two. It’s the perfect crime — except, of course, it turns out slightly imperfect.

The Shade’s next few appearances were in JLA/JSA crossovers which did nothing with his new power set. In 1981, Cary Bates remembered it for a two-part story in Flash #298 and 299. The real payoff from the Shade’s upgrade came down the road when James Robinson turned him into an antihero and supporting character in Starman, making him popular enough to earn two spinoff miniseries.

I’m not saying nobody should ever kill off or dispose of a second string or seemingly unimpressive character. If the Shade had remained a Golden Age one-shot, I’m sure Robinson would have come up with someone to fit the same role. But just because a character hasn’t been successful yet doesn’t mean they don’t have potential.

#SFWApro. Shade cover by Tony Harris, all others by Carmine Infanino.


  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Well, that shows the general level of creativity in an industry where each successive generation of talent has grown up with no other influence than comics. Talking the general field, not everyone. Robinson was a big exception of his peers, though it has to be said the British writers and artists who came over to work for DC and other American publishers brought in different influences, by default, since British comics featured other stories and characters, and almost all had a steady diet of British comics and differing levels of American and European.

    Add corporate pressure to stick with known successes, rather than take a chance on something different and you have an environment that doesn’t push boundaries. DC is a reflection of current and recent management. Under Jenette Kahn, creators were given incentive and opportunity to play with things, since she was out to shake things up….and it worked! Problem is, once those characters became high profile in other “more important” media, the corporate pressure to not mess with things caused stagnation to set back in. I mostly stopped reading the modern DC and Marvel wares, with some exceptions, 20 years ago, because it felt like a retread of what I read the previous 20 years. The ones I did read tried something new or came from a voice with a fresh and interesting take on things, or knew how to mix histories of characters into an interesting whole (like Robinson).

    Robinson was just about the only guy to mine the unused 1st Issue Special characters, apart from Karl Kesel.

    1. I’m reminded of a quote from Jack Kirby: having devoted his life to doing new things nobody had seen before, it dismayed him that creators who cited him as an inspiration meant “I’m going to work on Fantastic Four or New Gods” rather than “I’m going to do something new and original!”

  2. Darthratzinger

    Yes, James Robinson made the Shade a really interesting character but on the other hand he was also guilty of using newer C-listers as cannon fodder in Starman issue 38. He wasted 4 characters of which 2 or 3 even remained dead. I´m not complaining though, it was a good story and I didn´t like any of them (nope, don´t like Blue Devil).

    1. I’d forgotten that but you’re right, it’s precisely the thing I was thinking about. And I was a Blue Devil fan.
      Also any variation of My Character Is So Awesome They Can Just Run So Many Rings Around the Stupid Characters Other People Made Up (which is how it came off to me) gets my back up.

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