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.