In case you missed it, September was Supervillains Month, four glorious weeks in which DC celebrated 52 of its most colorful baddies by giving each their own one-shot. Following the events of Trinity War that saw Earth’s greatest heroes defeated at the hands of Earth-3’s nefarious Crime Syndicate, massive jailbreaks and irresistible opportunity resulted in these villains taking over the pages of DC’s regular titles. And, being a big fan of the bad guys, how could I resist?
Like any story collection, there were highs and lows. When all was said and done, I enjoyed the majority, disliked about a dozen, but absolutely loved a handful.
Counting down my Top 10 Titles of DC’s Supervillains Month…
#10. RA’S AL GHUL AND THE LEAGUE OF ASSASSINS (James Tynion IV – writer, Jeremy Haum – artist)
It’s 1285. Crusaders descend upon a dark tower in the east, demanding to see its master, a reputed demon. As it turns out, he turns out to be neither man nor demon. He is Ra’s Al Ghul, and he is their death.
We flashforward to the present day where, after the events of Trinity War, Ra’s Al Ghul is paid a visit by a representative of The Society, the new world order. Rather than accept The Society’s offer, Ra’s Al Ghul engages their agent in a sword duel. As they battle, we flashback to Ra’s Al Ghul’s rise – his adventures from the ancient East through the Orient, 17th century London, 18th century China, 19th century America, and 20th century Eastern Europe – and the loss he experiences at the hands of Batman. It’s a fascinating journey that informs us on the man, his attitude and intelligence, something The Society’s agent doesn’t seem to comprehend until it’s too late. But by book’s end, WE understand: Ra’s Al Ghul is a force to be reckoned with.
#9. OCEAN MASTER (Geoff Johns & Tony Bedard – plot, Tony Beard – words, Geraldo Borges – pencils)
Being a somewhat sporadic comic book reader, I wasn’t familiar with a number of these villains. Take Ocean Master for one. Given the deep sea motif, I assumed he was an Aquaman adversary. Other than that – well, I don’t know much. And, after reading this issue, I still don’t know all that much about his background. Unlike quite a few of the other titles, Ocean Master #1 eschews an origin story (or, frankly, any backstory) in favor of a character study of the self-proclaimed “King of Atlantis”. We find him, quite literally, a fish out of water, cooling his gills at Belle Reve Penitentiary in Louisiana. His imperious manner and dismissive attitude toward his court-appointed lawyer is undercut by the fact that he is beholden to a kindly prison guard for the regular water allowance that keeps him alive.
When the prison is crashed by unknown forces, the lawyer is killed. The guard, grievously wounded, asks for help. Ocean Master repays the man’s kindness by doing him a kindness in turn, killing him to end his suffering. What’s interesting here is that he’s not motivated by cruelty but pity for a lesser being, ending his life as easily as one might uproot a sick plant.
On his journey back to the sea, he happens upon two escaped convicts threatening a woman at a diner. He takes them down for disrespecting him. The fact that he saves their victim is incidental – and that becomes clear when the woman pleads with him to help protect her boy. He’s only eight. “Then he should know how to defend himself,”Ocean Master responds. “It was what I had to do. It was what I was forced to do to prepare myself for the responsibilities I have.” The mother races home to save her son from a group of thugs and, as her anguished cries rise up, Ocean Master walks away and into ocean.
He disappears beneath the waves but then, suddenly, breaks the surface. “Eight,”he says, casting his gaze out toward land. “Eight is too young.” Is he going back to save the boy? Is he simply demonstrating sympathy for the kid? Or are his final words really only meant for himself? I love the ambiguity of the ending and the ambiguity of the character, a villain with depth and purpose. While I may not be anymore familiar with Ocean Master’s background after reading this issue, I certainly know more about his character than that of the many other DC villains.
#8. ZOD (written by George Pak, with art by Ken Lashley)
Outside of his banishment to the Phantom Zone at the beginning of the first Superman movie, General Zod is another character I’m not all that familiar with. Unlike Ocean Master’s outing, here we’re presented with a backstory as well as a nuanced character, although one perhaps not quite as interesting as the “King of Atlantis”.
As a youth, Zod demonstrates unease, even fear, at the prospect of dissecting an alien specimen his father, a scientist, has been experimenting on. What at first we take for weakness actually ends up proven prescience when the aliens escape, sending young Zod and his parents on the run into the thick jungle surrounding the lab. Sometime later, a rescue party arrives on the scene led by Jor-El (aka Superman’s dad). They discover Zod, the sole survivor.
Years later, Zod is General Zod, a ruthless warrior with a deep-seeded hatred for the char, the aliens that killed his parents. The humorless Zod is ridiculed by many of his fellow Kryptonians, his warnings of an impending char attack falling on deaf ears until – he is proven correct. The char launch a devastating attack, but they are defeated by Zod who saves the day. Celebrated and empowered, Zod launches an attack on the char homeworld, massacring the species. But it’s a victory far more bitter than sweet because Jor-El has made a shocking discovery. It turns out the char that attacked Krypton, killing thousands of its citizens, were actually a hybrid created by Zod.
Zod is banished and, as the Phantom Zone claims him, we are treated to a final flashback of young Zod’s first encounter with the char. As he and his father flee into the jungle, they stop to catch their breath. Escape seems futile and, in what could be their last moments, father apologizes to son. “It’s alright, father,”young Zod forgives his dad – before driving a branch into his eye. As his father collapses, his screams attracting the pursuing char, Zod makes good his escape. Not so much a twist but a gruesome little Machiavellian beat that adds an interesting touch to this driven villain.
#7. TWO FACE (Peter J. Tomasi – writer, Guillem March – artist)
I like my villains ambiguous and unpredictable and, in both cases, you’ll be hard-pressed to find better than Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face, a man motivated not by benevolence or self-interest but the flip of a coin. At the beginning of this tale, we discover Harvey on a rooftop, in mid coin flip. As Gotham burns, he must decide what to do: help or hurt. But before the decision can be made for him, the coin is snatched out of mid-air by a fellow rogue, the Scarecrow. He has come bearing an invitation to join the new evil order, and it is offered in the form of a unique coin. Harvey accepts the invitation, but reminds Scarecrow what he and The Secret Society should already know: “It doesn’t matter which one I flip. The coin’s answer is always final.”
And he promptly proves the point, resuming his earlier coin flip. Heads, he saves Gotham. Tails, he lets it bleed. It comes up heads – and so he embarks on a vigilante campaign, eliminating threats with extreme prejudice. At the Gotham City Courthouse, he presides over various criminals, meting out the death penalty as punishment for various crimes. The courthouse is crashed by a group representing the Secret Society who have taken exception to Two Face’s brand of justice. They murder some of Harvey’s associates. Harvey responds in kind, gunning them down and killing the deal he made with their employers. “Give my regards to the ferryman,”he says, slipping the Society’s invitation coin into their dead agent’s mouth before returning to the rooftop for another tough decision. Heads he saves Gotham; tails he makes it bleed.
A quintessential Two Face tale and another example of a story that tells us all we need to know about a character through his actions rather than his origins.
#6: MR. FREEZE (Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti – writers, Jason Masters – artist)
Our story begins thirty years ago in Gotham city where, on a snowy winter’s night, a young Victor Fries watches from his bedroom window as his father walks out on his family. Young Victor finds solace in his doting mother but, a year later, even that small comfort is denied him after a tragic accident claims her life. The rest of the story unfolds as a character study of the adult Victor Fries, now a supervillain incarcerated at Arkham Asylum. He is obsessed with the second life his father has built for himself and wants to reach out to his new family. And the opportunity presents itself when Arkham Asylum is crashed by outside forces. Finally free, Victor resassumes his Mr. Freeze identity but, rather than flee Gotham, he elects to stay. As he puts it: “I had grudges which needed to be dealt with.”
He enlists some cannibalistic thugs to his cause, but when they prove unruly (which is, I suppose, is something to be expected from cannibals), he “ices” them, along the way demonstrating small mercy for a nurse who once helped him. He is a man on a mission but, apparently, not one without some compassion. And, as he forges ahead, we are offered a glimpse of his past and the tragic events that led to his cryogenic condition.
When all is said and done, we bear witness to a family reunion of sorts as Mr. Freeze finally dines with his step-mother, step-brother, and step-sister in a final tableau: he raising a glass in toast while they, frozen solid at the dinner table, enjoy their final meal. You may see it coming but even that doesn’t lessen the impact of that final, horrifying panel.
A solid tale with a remarkably chilling atmosphere compliments of Dave McCaig’s cool blue coloring.
#5. KILLER CROC (Tim Seeley – writer, Francis Portela – arist)
This one took me by surprise. It starts off as a fairly straightforward cops versus bad guy story but, along the way, subverts our preconceived notions of good and evil, painting the titular villain in a sympathetic, albeit shadowy, light.
A group of Gotham’s finest are making their way through the city’s sewer system when they are ambushed by Killer Croc. As the survivors attempt to stay one step ahead of their inhuman pursuer and his minions, we flashback to the events that shaped our reptilian antagonist. As a kid, Waylon Jones was afflicted with a condition that gave him a lizard-skinned appearance. Eventually, despite his best efforts, the condition spread to the point that he became a pariah, a freak forced to make ends meet by joining a circus. But when his employer attempted to take advantage of him, Waylon bit the hand that fed him – literally – and embarked on a life of crime.
It’s another case of being presented with a tragic backstory that makes us, if not sympathetic to Waylon (aka Killer Croc), then at least cognizant of why he is the way he is. Of course, mitigating any compassion we may feel for him is his cold-blooded hunt of the clearly outmatched police officers. One by one, they fall until only one remains. He opens a door to what he assumes is freedom but, instead of escape, discovers the body of a fellow officer. But here’s the twist: this fellow officer did not die at the hands of Killer Croc…
We flashback again and the truth is revealed. The cops Killer Croc has been pursuing are dirty. They killed a fellow officer, a man who refused their offer to play ball, a man, it turns out, who once did a kindness to a young boy with a horrible skin condition…
A nice double twist and an unexpectedly touching story.
#4. CLAYFACE (written by John Layman, art by Cliff Richards)
Clayface leads a group of criminals through the sewer system enroute to a bank heist. But a disagreement with his cohorts brings back painful memories, a pain he is all too quick to share with them. The heist scuttled, Clayface makes his way to the surface where chaos now reigns and grabs a drink at a local bar peopled by fellow villains. He’s not quite sure what’s going on but luckily television, as always, has the answers. The Secret Society has taken over and are actively recruiting talent, however a resistance has formed to fight this new order. Unfortunately, before Clayface can learn more, a fellow customer puts a bottle through the t.v. screen, dismissing the so-called resistance as little more than “a minor annoyance”. Clayface dimisses the fellow customer – with a fist to the face that lays him out cold – then heads off.
His plan is quite simple: infiltrate the resistance and destroy it, thereby currying favor with The Secret Society. As it turns out, two out of three IS bad – especially when “the resistance” you infiltrate and destroy is actually a front created by The Secret Society to capture potential dissenters. “This organized resistance,” Clayface is informed, “was organized by us.” You idiot.
It’s back to the bar for Clayface who, having survived the base’s self-destruct and come out smelling like
flowers charcoal, knocks back some more drinks. But it’s not long before he is approached by another group of criminals with yet another plan. They need muscle for a gold heist. Is he interested? Is he! We leave Clayface in the company of his new partners, looking forward to one more shot at getting back on top.
#3. COUNT VERTIGO (writer – Jeff Lemire, artist – Andrea Sorrentino)
Count Zytle arrives in Vancouver, Canada under the pretense of attending a charity fundraiser, but the true reasons for his visit are of a highly personal nature. It has been nineteen years since his father died, protecting his birthright; nineteen years since rebels forced him and his mother to flee Vlatavia for the safety of North America’s west coast. Forced into prostitution, his embittered mother placed much of the blame for their circumstances squarely on the young Werner. Death would have been preferable to the life she now leads, but she didn’t have a choice. “I had to run…I had to protect the precious count.”
Things get even worse for young Werner when his mother gives him up to a “special school” for young boys. There, he is experimented upon, then ostracized by his fellow pupils until the day his power finally manifests itself. Ten years later, he decides he has had enough and leaves the school that transformed him into a weapon. When a representative of the institute attempts to stop him, he is dealt with in gruesome fashion.
It’s been many years since, but Count Zytle – aka Count Vertigo – has come back to the school where he was raised. It stands empty now, long-since abandoned, it’s sole occupant the only living link to his painful past: his mother. He has imprisoned her as punishment for abandoning him but, after years of drug abuse, she can barely recognize him, much less her dire situation. In speaking to her son, however, she grows more lucid, apologizing for giving him up. But he is not interested in dwelling on the past. “I think you’ve suffered enough, momma,”he says. “I did come here to set you free.” She assumes this means she is finally going back to Vlatava, but he divests her of the assumption: “Oh, no, momma. You’re not going home. You are a junkie and a whore. You do no deserve to see the homeland ever again.” It’s release of a different kind he has in mind. For both of them. And, after finally putting his past to rest, Count Zytle leaves. His helicopter flies out into the night while, behind him, the school burns.
An incredibly dark, tightly written tale. The artwork, by Andrea Sorrentino, is perfect, lending the whole an unrelenting grimness.
#2. JOKER (Andy Kubert – writer, Andy Clarke – art)
Joker is undoubtedly Batman’s greatest enemy and yet I know so little about the clown prince of darkness beyond his psychotic persona. Yes, he’s crazy, but why? Okay, besides that dip in a chemical bath.
We open on a frightened child, clinging to his monkey doll, cowering in fear, when he is forcibly dragged out of hiding and physically abused by a mother figure. Her face is never glimpsed, but her hands are heavily featured – chalky, withered, claw-like. One grips a brush, the other a bottle of bleach. It’s time for a cleaning. The child’s cries carry off him and over to his abandoned monkey doll lying in a corner of the room…
Flashforward to that child all grown up. The Joker and his colorful cohorts are enjoying an atypical day at the zoo, feeding some poor fellow to a python, but Joker seems distracted, almost mournful. Memories of his Aunt Eunice have put him in a bit of a funk and he wanders off…and over to the gorilla enclosure where he lays eyes on a baby gorilla. And, suddenly, the story shifts into a brilliantly demented version of Bedtime for Bonzo as Joker assumes the role of caregiver to the young primate. The love and affection he demonstrates toward little Jackanapes is contrasted with the abuse the Joker received as a child. And yet, despite the fact that he is a psychotic mass murderer, there’s no denying his love for that young gorilla.
Eventually, Jackanapes grows up and becomes party to Joker’s deranged crimes. It’s a father-son bonding montage except, in lieu of playing catch, these two build bombs, fire bazookas, dump toxic waste, and burn down department stores. And when a newly elected council woman decides to shut down the zoo, another perfect outing presents itself. Jackanapes in tow, Joker attacks a dirigible transporting the council woman over Gotham. Gunfire is exchanged and the bat signal lit, much to the Joker’s delight. “For the past few years I’ve danced with the caped crusader,”he tells Jackanape. “And every time we tussle, it gives me even more respect and admiration for him. Perhaps too much. I don’t think I could exist without him!” An admission that elicits a tear from his young gorilla protege.
But things take a tragic turn when they are forced to abandon the dirigible. The Joker lands on an elevated track but Jackanape ends up in the Gotham river, having failed to pop the wings of his jet pack. “Why, Jack?”wonders the Joker. “Why didn’t you pop your wings?”. Did he panic? Forget? Or was it a conscious decision made? For a split second, we see the Joker react in shockingly uncharacteristic fashion. A single panel conveys a wash of emotions: anguish, loss, sadness. And then, in instant, they’re gone and our manic villain is back to his old self, throwing his head back and laughing. The joke, after all, is on him. He’s going to need a refund for all those swimming lessons.
A tragi-comic masterpiece.
#1. LEX LUTHOR (Charles Soule – writer, Raymund Bermudez – pencils)
This one deftly juggles multiple story elements while offering up a number of great character moments that inform us on Lex Luthor. Right off the top, there’s an exchange between Luthor and a prison guard as Lex prepares to leave the Hypermax Detention Facility, finally a free man. “You want this, George. Don’t you?”says Lex, referring to his former prison uniform. Lex points out that it’s prison property, that George could sell it for a lot of money, money that could go toward his children’s education. George, ever-so-deferential, does not want to presume anything. But Lex persists. He’ll never wear it again. “All you need to do…”he tells George, holding the prison uniform out toward him, “…is walk over here and take it.” What follows are two powerful, wordless panels: the first of George staring longingly at Lex, mere feet away, holding out the prison uniform; the second of George looking on as Lex walks away, his prison uniform slung over his shoulder. It’s an incredibly effective and powerful moment that leaves no doubt. Lex Luthor is an asshole. And an intimidating one at that.
Lex boards his private helicopter and is greeted by his eager new assistant, Casey, who informs him that Superman has, apparently, disappeared. Lex accepts the news with equal parts significance and skepticism. Is his hated enemy truly gone? To find out, he puts a devious plan in motion, launching a manned space shuttle and then orchestrating a malfunction that strands the shuttle in a degrading orbit. Will Superman save the day?
The answer, it turns out, is no. It’s a simple enough point to prove without actually sacrificing the shuttle and its crew, but as Lex tells a horrified Casey: “I didn’t need to save them to get what I wanted.” The world will see the crash as Superman’s failure. Of course, he, Lex, could have saved the shuttle – but there was always the chance, however remote, that he might have failed… “…and the world would blame me for failing to succeed. I learned that lesson years ago. But no one will blame me for failing to try.” Casey attempts to call 911, but Lex expected as much and had the foresight to kill communications. And Casey as well whose green high heeled shoes Lex casually kicks off the rooftop, presumably following their owner’s descent.
It’s back to business for Luthor who has already moved on to his next big scheme. He boards his private helicopter where his eager new assistant, Miranda, awaits. She can barely contain herself at the prospect of working for him. “I can’t tell you how excited I am,”she confides.
“Well, of course you are,”says Lex. “I’m Lex Luthor for God’s sake.” Hell, yeah!
How many did you check out and which were your favorites?