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Off-Color Heroes

Robert M. Price


Recently, looking for good reference pictures for various action figures I wanted to make, I perused a stack of  beloved old Marvel Comics from the mid-sixties. I was on a villains kick and wound up making my own versions (as opposed to the heretical modifications of TV and ToyBiz) of the Unicorn, the Plant Man, the Eel, the Titanium Man, the Crimson Dynamo, the Beetle, the Mandarin, the Gladiator, the Stilt Man, Mr. Fear, Electro, Ape-Man, the Masked Marauder, Mesmero, Baron Mordo, the Cobra, the Tumbler, and the Porcupine (by the way, can you remember which heroes fought these bad guys?). In the process of all this fun-having, I began reflecting on suspicions and inklings I’d long had concerning super-villains, Marvel super-villains in particular.


Evil Superheroes

First, there is the evolution of super-villains. As everyone knows, the earliest foes of Superman, Batman, Captain America, even of Spiderman (the Enforcers) and Daredevil (the Kingpin), were just crooks, thugs. Nothing super about them. At this primitive stage, the gimmick of the superhero was simply that he or she was a moral omnipotence fantasy, a way of seeing to it that the bad guys got what was coming to them. Superheroes were a superior and infallible remedy to crime, better than the plain old police and military, with their many limitations. No cop-killers to worry about when catching those crooks is a job for Superman. Bullet-proof vest? Forget it! Built in! But this approach got repetitive fast. The victories were too easy, and Superman’s costume (or the Flash’s, etc.) got old since it was the only costume you were seeing. For both these reasons, the supervillain was born, and immediately he threatened to steal the show.

            There were and remain various kinds of supervillains. The category least removed from the mere crooks of the first comics was what I call super-crooks. They are just lucky or inventive thugs with powerful gimmicks. Their costumes may be simply distinctive clothing, suits and dresses, or a characteristic look. These include the original Psycho-Pirate, the Silver Age Flash’s enemy the Turtle Man, the Sportsmaster, the Fiddler, the Gambler, the Toyman, the Prankster, and most famously, the Penguin, the Joker, and Two-Face (though with these last two, their faces are their costumes). The Joker shows that a “mere” super-crook can still be a classic villain.

            Super-crooks also included malevolent cranks of one type or another, like Lex Luthor, a guy who bore a grudge for lack of Rogaine, and Mr. Mxyzptlk, a prankster more like the Norse Loki (“I started a joke that started the whole world crying.”) than Marvel’s Loki ever was. These folks might not have costumes, either. Luthor (Silver Age) just wore prison togs, while Mxyzptlk was anticipating hideous Seventies leisure suits. They might be counterparts of real-life fiends like Hitler (Per Degaton) or of movie monsters and villains (Solomon Grundy = Frankenstein), the Yellow Claw and the Mandarin (= Fu Manchu).

            The super-crooks just gave the superhero more of a run for his money. They were Kryptonite personified. By contrast, the true supervillain is more of an exact counterpart to the superhero. This is most obvious in direct match-ups like Iron Man versus the Titanium Man or the Crimson Dynamo. Thor versus Loki. Dr. Strange versus Baron Mordo. Dr. Fate versus Wotan. Spiderman versus the Tarantula or the Scorpion. Dynamo versus Dynavac. But even the ones that do not exactly mirror the heroes (the Human Torch versus the Beetle, the Eel, the Plant Man) still parallel superheroes and their typical origins so closely that I think we ought to consider them “evil superheroes.” The supervillain is usually a scientist or hapless person who stumbles onto some chemical, electrical, radioactive or magical force that transforms him, the Destroyer and the Juggernaut just as much as Thor. He may be a rank-and-file soldier or operative. We have Steve Rogers on the one hand, Eric Josten and Boris Bullski on the other. Radiation shows no favorites, imparting powers to hero (Spiderman, the FF, Daredevil, the Hulk) and villain (Abomination, Leader, Radioactive Man) alike, as does the natural selection of mutation.

            Once accidentally or experimentally endowed, the super-character designs a persona with a stage name and costume to match, and he starts doing exploits. He may strive to outdo his predecessors or to join them. And he will soon test his mettle against a superhero. This is equally true of superheroes and supervillains: conflicts with more established heroes is a vital rite of initiation, so the reader may gauge his power relative to established characters. Daredevil fights Spiderman, who himself fought the Fantastic Four in his first issue. So why does the Beetle challenge the Human Torch? The Tumbler Captain America? The Gladiator Daredevil? Perhaps not primarily because the former in each pair is a villain, but rather just because he is super.


True Colors

Perhaps this equivalence of superheroes with supervillains accounts for the dress code, the color-code, prevalent in Marvel Comics, where heroes are usually clad in primary colors, while super-villains come dressed in secondary colors. Isn’t it so? Primary color characters: Captain America, Spiderman (at first purple, then blue), Dr. Strange, the FF, Iron Man, X-Men, Thor, Daredevil (any costume). Secondary color characters: Green Goblin, Vulture, Sandman, Mysterio, the Wrecker, Mr. Hyde, the Unicorn, Titanium Man, Mr. Fear, Masked Marauder, Mesmero, Frightful Four, Purple Man, Modok, Mad Thinker, Molecule Man, Loki, Dr. Doom, Electro, Dr. Octopus, Kraven, the Lizard, the Scorpion, the Abomination, Merlin, Baron Mordo, Dormammu, Scarecrow, the Super-Adaptoid, Batroc the Leaper, the Impossible Man, the Growing Man, the Mole Man, the Porcupine, the Plant Man, the Radioactive Man, Diablo, the Enchantress, the Living Laser, the Swordsman, the Mandarin, Hydra agents.

            By the way, yellow can go either way, perhaps because though a primary color, it is also commonly associated with cowardice, so take your pick. You see both sides sporting it. I suspect this ambiguity accounts for the early change-over in Daredevil’s costume: the man without fear was dressed in yellow?

            Even apparent anomalies often resolve themselves. The Hulk begins and remains morally ambivalent. In the first issue, his skin is neutrally gray, his pants heroic blue, but his shirt was villainous orange. When he loses the malevolent orange threads, he gains evil purple pants and sinister green skin, still a kind of hero-villain. Magneto is a combination of noble red and ignoble purple because he is a Nietzschean superman. He is not altogether bad, as witnessed by his eventual leadership of the X-Men (without it being an imaginary story). On the cover, Mr. Fear has a goodly dose of primary blue, but on the inside of the comic, he is all maroon and purple. The Eel begins in Strange Tales and continues in X-Men with a mix of good blue and bad purple, but by the time he joins Mr. Fear’s Fellowship of Fear in Daredevil, he is two shades of outlaw green. The Vision has supervillainous green mismatched with heroic primary red, but this is because he starts "life" as a weapon of Ultron 5, hence a villain, and at once becomes a hero). Hercules is dressed in secondary colors, but this fits if we do not lose sight of his origin as Thor’s opponent, thus functionally a villain, at least at first. Quicksilver started out with green when he served among the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, but changed to an appropriate blue after he joined the Avengers.

            Galactus and Thanos (from the Greek thanatos, death) combine good blue with evil purple or orange, because both entities are really beyond good and evil, symbolized by bearing both colors. Thanos is death, while (as Jack Kirby explained) Galactus is simply God. The Crimson Dynamo and the Tumbler have the “wrong” color scheme. But remember the Crimson Dynamo reformed and became Iron Man’s ally, didn’t he? (Besides, as a Commie, what other color could he be? Like the Marxist villain the Red Ghost, for Pyotr's sake.) And one might even rationalize the Tumbler’s crimsonness since he is, for most of the story in which he appears, fighting the Adaptoid, whom he thinks is Captain America; in other words, though a villain himself, he sort of counts as a hero insofar as he is fighting another villain. The Melter fist appears mismatching heroic blue with villainous green, but his costume is later "corrected" to green and orange.

            The second Black Knight (enemy of Giant Man and the Avengers) wore both purple and blue because he was a Silver Age villain based on a Golden Age hero. Once Dane Whitman took over for his late uncle, but as a hero, he eliminated the purple, embracing all three primary colors. Captain Mar-Vell starts out green because he represents the evil Kree (as does the green Ronin the Accuser), though not for long, whereupon he dons red. The Kree Sentry is blue as well as evil purple, because he is a police agent {albeit for the Kree), thus symbolically at least partly good. The same goes for the Executioner: he is blue as well as purple/pink because he is a disbarred justice official in Asgard, hence the vestige of his former service to the good side. The Gladiator sports blue armor (as well as gold and silver), but then he has that green sash around his waist as if to remind us he is a villain after all.

            Count Nefaria originally hid his villainy behind neutral gray morning clothes: casual observers would not know he was a villain. But when he gained superpowers he donned a bold costume lacking any secondary colors. Why? The stark black/white contrast is the first thing to hit the eye, while the use of a superheroic red cape seems to be intended as mockery at the expense of the superheroes, all helpless against him. He outdoes the superheroes, hence he wears a piece of their design as icing on the cake, like a token of the vanquished.

            I realize the pattern doesn’t hold with complete consistency; it’s the large trends that matter. Note that other companies’ heroes and villains do not so closely approximate this code. DC has Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Sandman, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Matter-Eater Lad, Colossal Boy, Shrinking Violet, Robotman, all heroes wearing secondary hues. On the other hand, Darkseid, the Penguin, Captain Cold, Boomerang, etc., would have no business wearing blue if they lived in the Marvel Universe.



And just think of the number of villains! I mentioned how adding super-villains varied the monotony of seeing one costume, the hero’s, all the time. Once the dam broke, the number of meta-humans was in no time heavily weighted to the side of the villains. After all, as lax as the penal systems must have been in Metropolis or Gotham City, you could see the Joker and the Penguin come back only so often! There had to be a great many villains for each hero, just to keep him occupied! Just how darn many bad guys there are becomes apparent only occasionally, as in the villain-besieged wedding of Reed and Sue Richards or the Villain War during the Crisis on Infinite Earths. And then you realize just how well populated Villain Valhalla must be!

            Symbolically, whether intentional or not, this inflation of supervillain ranks changes the underlying assumptions of the comics’ narrative universe. In the earliest days, comics expressed a naive optimism. Sure, there were plenty of crooks, but with a super-police force like Batman and Superman, good had to prevail. And with the Justice Battalion and Captain America on the job, Hitler and his Ratzis didn’t stand a chance. But once the number of super-villains equals and surpasses the superhero population, we pass into a more Manichean vision of things: Good and Evil are both powerful, neither all-powerful, and we have a real struggle on our hands.

            Other developments have implicitly pushed the world picture of comics even further than this into a kind of Lovecraftian pessimism. On the one hand, the endless proliferation of alien races, all interested in adding the earth to their trophy rooms (the Kree, the Skrulls, the Shiar, the Badoon, and their equally numerous DC counterparts) imply an earth that is a favored piece of galactic real estate, fought over by flying saucer competitors, a la Charles Fort, but little more. We would be American Samoa for the Kree if not for the deus-ex-machina rescues of the superheroes, and we get the definite impression, the closer a call it becomes, that one day we will not be so easily bailed out. How can people sleep at night knowing that earth will no doubt soon again be the object of alien invaders--to say nothing of hostile Cosmic Powers like Darkseid, Galactus, Thanos, and the Anti-Monitor?

            I can only venture a guess to explain this evolution of comic book villainy and moral vision. Well, two guesses. First, simple inflation. How can we top last month’s senses-shattering epic? After Dr. Doom, the Mad Thinker seems pretty lame, so how about the Beyonder? Up and up it goes, till Galactus himself, like the Gnostic Demiurge (theologically demoted from Godhood) is made to seem puny in comparison to the Celestials (or is it the Eternals?).

            Second, as we grow up, and of course comic book readership does grow up with the Baby Boomers, we find we can no longer take seriously even fantasies in which the final victory of Good over Evil is assured. We need a cosmos truly at risk, where Superman can be killed by Doomsday, where Galactus might destroy the earth.

            But the most serious mutation of the comics’ moral universe is something I have already anticipated, the near-equivalence of supervillains and superheroes, the villains being in a sense evil superheroes. This similarity has long made possible a swinging door between the two camps, with individual villains becoming heroes: Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, Magneto, Hawkeye, Wonder Man, the Black Widow, the Swordsman, the Thunderbolts. That sort of change is positive, redemptive. The fact that it happens fits my theory that super-villains are really just another kind of superhero. We receive them this way and think they are just as cool as their good guy counterparts. But we feel a little guilty since, after all, they are villains! But if they were to switch sides, all would be well! With enough letters to the editor, it works!

            It gets scary, however, when the door swings the other way. And more scary still when there is so much traffic both ways that we lose direction and the door falls off its hinges. This is when might has made right in the meta-human community, and one can no longer find a relevant difference between the supervillains and the superheroes. This, as you know, was the premise of Kingdom Come. It parodied in general the dark anti-heroics of the Punisher, Rorshach, the Dark Knight, and Miracleman. It parodied in particular the protagonists of Image/Extreme/Maximum Comics in much the same way Alan Moore’s Image mini-series Judgment Day did. “Heroes” had become judge-and-jury killing machines like Supreme, Shadowhawk, etc., or cynical mercenaries (Brigade, Heavy Mettle) and sinister government operatives (Youngblood, Bloodstryke). Moore wanted comics to pull back to at least a Manichean vision where the sides could be differentiated from each other!

            Supervillains have always provided a gauge with which to measure our favorite superheroes. Just as, on the story level, the hero’s power will be tested in battle, so will the very concept of hero be tested and defined by the sort of villain we pit him against. Will it be a push-over thug? Or a mirror-image counterpart who puts up a decent albeit futile fight? Or must the hero go up against hostile gods and titans? Menaces that threaten the world, not just First National Bank of Coast City? Or will the hero have to ask himself his justification (as Superman does in Kingdom Come) for judging the actions of one so much like himself? It is not a bad measuring stick to use on ourselves, to determine the limits of our own strength of character: what does it take to stop us? To define us?.


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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