Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Once was enough

Rereading old comics, I’m often surprised how frequently writers would create great villains, then stop using them.

Not always, of course. The Joker has seen lots of use in every decade of Batman. But Two-Face debuted in 1942 (the Jerry Robinson cover is from his second appearance), wrapped up his original three-part story in 1943, then didn’t return to crime until 1954. A couple of impersonators cropped up in the intervening years but that doesn’t change my point.

While I don’t object to reusing villains — having a regular Rogue’s Gallery is a good thing — there are some villains who really shouldn’t have been used more than once. But the nature of comics these days is that if a criminal works in one story, someone figures they can make magic strike twice. Sometimes they can, sometimes it’s a mistake that retroactively spoils the original story.

Consider the Wrath. Mike Barr created him as a great one-shot villain in 1984’s “The Player on the Other Side.” Orphaned when a cop gunned down his criminal parents, a small boy vows revenge. As an adult he’s the Wrath, an assassin specializing in killing cops. Now, though, he’s fallen in love and he’s ready to retire but first he has to avenge his parents by killing their killer — former beat cop James W. Gordon.

Pitting Batman against his mirror image, as captured on that Michael Golden cover, worked beautifully … once. But inevitably someone revived the Wrath and spoiler, it sucked.

Then there’s Pluto. When the Olympian deity debuts in Thor #127, he’s pissed off at the Lord of the Underworld gig Zeus stuck him with. Pluto wants out of the netherworld but that requires finding someone to replace him. Fortunately Hercules, having just defeated Thor (Odin contributed by halving Thor’s powers in one of his snits), is swaggering around drunk on his own awesomeness. Pluto easily tricks him into signing a binding contract to take over as lord of the dead; the only out is if someone is willing to fight as his champion against Pluto’s forces. Herc being a royal jackass in those days, nobody likes him enough to accept the challenge. Except, of course, Thor.

What follows is an all-out wall-to-wall Jack Kirby-style battle as Thor descends into the netherworld (as seen on the Kirby cover) but it ends unexpectedly. Seeing Thor reduce his kingdom to a shambles, Pluto can’t take it — he built this realm, dammit! It’s his work, his … his home. Realizing he’s proud of his role in the cosmos, he sets Hercules free of the deal, choosing to remain in his godly position.

That’s a nice twist, and I wish they’d left it there. Instead Pluto shows up again in Thor #163 and he’s Generic Evil Deity. That’s all he’s been ever since.

Finally, there’s Galactus. No, I wouldn’t suggest that Marvel should never have used Galactus after the original trilogy but bringing him back as a threat to Earth was a mistake.

At the climax of the original Galactus story, the Watcher helps the Fantastic Four secure the Ultimate Nullifier, a weapon so terrible it makes even Big G wet his pants. In return for Reed not playing around with it, Galactus gives his word never to threaten Earth again. The Watcher assures the FF that’s a win: Galactus’ word is sacred.

Oops. Barely two years later, Galactus can’t find any planets to eat so he targets Earth again. His explanation? Well, yes, he did give his sacred and inviolable word, but he’s really, really hungry. And it wasn’t the last time he’d break that promise, either.

In other words, Galactus is honest when convenient. That gives the lie to all the later babble about how he’s above good and evil and only doing what he must. It also makes Reed a prize chump for not zapping him with the nullifier because there’s no other way to keep Earth safe. It was also really stupid of Reed to save Galactus during Byrne’s FF run — if Galactus had gotten hungry enough, gratitude’s no more likely to stop him than his promise did.

I can understand the appeal of using a great villain again and again. But sometimes writers should just say no.

Any villains y’all would like to add to the list?



  1. Greg Burgas

    Speaking of Batman, I loved Cornelius Stirk in his first appearance, but don’t think he should have come back. Part of his appeal lay in the fact that his powers were surprising – once Batman knew what he was about, he’s just a punk, whom our hero can defeat easily. I know he hasn’t been used too often since his first appearance, but it’s still too many times!

  2. Peter

    Galactus is of course a great character, and his later appearance in Thor showed he definitely had legs… but I agree that it’s a bit silly to bring him back to Earth so frequently. I’m one of those folks who really likes the Lee/Buscema Silver Surfer series (regardless of how far it strayed from Kirby’s initial character idea) and I liked how Galactus only appeared in the first origin issue and Lee/Buscema quickly established Mephisto as a recurring villain. Of course, Lee would eventually go back to the well and prominently feature Galactus in his graphic novel with Kirby and his miniseries with Moebius… and now every Surfer story has to feature Galactus somehow. Tsk.

  3. Le Messor

    I’ve only run across the Wrath in Batman: Year 2. Until now, I’d thought he was original to that story. Of course, I’ve always read his name as Wraith, so what do I know?

    I’ve always found it a frustration when a writer crafts a story, an actual story with a full arc and beginning-middle-end, and it’s so good that somebody decides to continue it – by turning the characters into generic fights-of-the-week. (I like those, but they don’t suit every character. Which is the point of this article, of course.)

  4. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, the Wrath was a great villain in that one story, who I think really only works in that one story. I was a bit disappointed when I learned he was brought back – and I have zero interest in reading any of his subsequent appearances. (And I can see the ‘opposite Batman’ concept being taken to a ridiculous extreme: I hope he doesn’t have a Wrathcave and a teen sidekick named Hateboy.)

    Another villain who worked great in a single story but who has – as I understand it – been brought back is Carrion, the rancid clone of Miles Warren, from Spectacular Spider-man (first appeared in #25 and the story went on for about 6 issues).

    There’s actually one instance of a villain being used once and only once (as far as I know) in a pretty good story, but who probably could have been successfully reused: the Superman adversary Microwave Man from Action Comics 487-488.

    1. That was the point of Tony Bedard’s “Wrath Child” in Batman Confidential (I read it collected with the original) — The Wrath did indeed have a teen sidekick, who shows up avenging his mentor. It turns out the Wrath deliberately set out to become a Batman imitator right down to getting a sidekick; making him a copycat rather than a mirror image was much less interesting, plus the story was generally feeble.
      I enjoyed Carrion (if only for the title “Carrion, My Wayward Son”) but yes, the half-dead clone of the Jackal was better not returning.
      Microwave Man was a fun foe. As he had a complete arc, I’d have sooner seen a Microwave Man too — I kicked around a fanfic to that effect many years ago.

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