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Villain Valhalla

The Mythic Dimension of Superman's Foes

Robert M. Price


It should come as no surprise to any comic book fans that our favorite characters are full of mythic symbolism. Indeed, they are modern myths. They are not, mind you, merely modern counterparts to ancient mythology. No, they are true mythology in their own right. Notice how easily superheroes segue over into "crossovers" with ancient mythology: Thor, Hercules, Wonder Woman, Atlas, Son of Vulcan, etc., etc. It is equally true of heroes and villains in the comics. I want to undertake a brief survey of Superman's historic villains, pointing out how they symbolize different aspects of evil. If they didn't, they'd get pretty monotonous fast.

ááááááááááá As for the Man of Steel himself, he is obviously a divine savior figure like Jesus Christ or Gautama Buddha. Other comic figures like him include Thor, the Silver Surfer, and the Spectre. He is a sinless and selfless visitor from outside who exists only to serve humanity, which he rejoices to do. Many of his enemies are opposites of this ideal in various ways. In the old days when Superman fought simple crooks, they were just one-dimensional indices of his power. He demonstrated his power by the number of them he could foil. But then came the Faustian villains, especially the Ultra-Humanite. His name, of course, is synonymous with Superman's! Ultra = Super. Human = Man. But "-ite" implies he is pursuing a cause he has not yet attained. He seeks, by criminal superscience, to attain what was not meant for him. He wants to say, with Henry Frankenstein, "Now I know how it feels to be God!" The futility of his quest is signaled right off the bat by his captivity to a wheelchair--he lacks even the powers of a normal human. So the Ultra-Humanite is the symbol of blasphemous hubris. Superman, by contrast, rejoices in what he is and embraces his duty. He is not proud or arrogant. He is humble in the same way God is humble. He can take his greatness for granted and get on with things.

ááááááááááá Brainiac, on the other hand, is a different sort of "Faust-freak" (Altered States). He is like Victor Frankenstein in the Hammer Films series: he is a genuine scientific pioneer who, however, happens to follow the non-ethical code of Nazi Concentration Camp researchers. He wants knowledge above all things, but he fails to see that one must rise to heights of knowledge through moral perfection, because greater knowledge includes knowledge of one's moral obligations. Brainiac, gathering tokens from planets, then destroying them, holding populations captive, tries to satisfy his curiosity and a collector's instinct most of us can identify with (have you ever thought about your action figure collection as being like the little folks in the bottle city of Kandor?). Brainiac has pursued knowledge as an idol, in Tillich's terms. He wants to consume what he knows rather than be joined to it, as Plato said happens between the knower and the known, the lover and the beloved. Thus it was quite consistent when, already in the sixties, DC decided to retroactively redefine Brainiac as an android! (As I rationalized to my daughter the other day, that's why my Brainiac figure has blue skin, but Brainiac 5 has green skin--they're not actually related!) It was more consistent still when in the 80s they had him shed his "Green Luthor" persona and look like a machine, period.

ááááááááááá Lex Luthor, whom one might first imagine to be a second Ultra-Humanite, has two different roles, one pre-Crisis, the other post. The Silver Age Luther (I don't know enough about his predecessor) was almost incidentally a mad scientist. His motivation was neither wealth nor godhood but (not-so-) simple revenge. Losing his hair in a failed experiment, he scapegoated Superboy for it, and his lust for vengeance (against fate or his own carelessness, perhaps) was transferred to Superboy: "I have given a name to my pain..." Byrne changed him completely. Byrne's Luthor is still not like the Ultra-Humanite, since it is not super-humanity he wants but the glory of humanity, which is usurped by gods like Superman, whom he wants to bring down. Power should be a human game. Superman appears on the scene and by his very existence makes a mockery of the power attainable by men. So he must go! Lex Luthor is like the kind ofá atheist who wants there not to be a god, because he can't stand sharing or yielding the spotlight. This motivation comes through loud and clear in Kingdom Come, where Luthor heads up the Humanity Liberation Front.

ááááááááááá Metallo and Hank Henshaw are variations on the Silver-Age Luthor model. Both have lost something considerably more important than their hair. Luthor is, after all, just Mel Cooley on the warpath. But, like Brainiac, though for much different reasons, Henshaw and Metallo have lost their humanity. Henshaw blames Superman for not being able to save his wife, an all-too-familiar sort of gripe, as absurd as it is. (As when Larry King reproached Superman (Jerry Seinfeld) for not cleaning up all the filth during a Metropolis garbage strike!) Superman is just in Metallo's way as he goes on a rampage of revenge. By the way, it is practically only these various shades of motivational nuance that distinguish the chrome-machine Brainiac, the post-Byrne Metallo, and the Henshaw Cyborg, all apparent refugees from Marvel's Phalanx Covenant.

ááááááááááá The Phantom Zone villains (General Zod, Jax-Ur (who is Luthor with a mustache), etc.) are, like the old-time thugs and crooks, primarily indices of Superman's power and, more importantly, his nobility. They are lessons of how lucky we are that Kryptonian power fell into the hands of the Christlike Kal-el, and not one of these bastards! When they briefly escape the Phantom Zone every now and then, we are given the chance to see what might have been. The same point is made in the series "Superman: The Dark Side."

ááááááááááá Bizarro Superman is another variation on that theme: this time, the point is that it takes a good bit more than raw power to make a Superman. "Gods and monsters"--what's the difference? Whether or not one suffers "the sleep of reason."

ááááááááááá The greatest "index" character of all must be Doomsday, though he is in fact hardly a character at all! Again, he is nothing but a narrative function personified. If we ask the question, "How much does it take to stop Superman?", Doomsday is not so much the answer as he is the question given a form and a name. This is why he is not even provided an origin or narrative motive throughout the whole original "Death of Superman" series. He is there just to kill Superman. To me, the subsequent "Reign of the Supermen" series was infinitely more interesting, with its splitting up of the Superman character into its component parts (see Richard Reynolds's discussion in Super-Heroes: A Modern Mythology).

ááááááááááá The future-based trio, the Legion of Super Villains, Cosmic King, Saturn Queen, and Lightning Lord, are patently the "grown-up" opposite numbers of the nobly teen-aged Legion of Super Heroes! They are villains just because they are "old." They are, implicitly, the future selves of Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad. This is all but admitted when we eventually hear that Lightning Lord is the brother of Lightning Lad, which in mythic terms, means another side of the same character. But that's obvious enough any way you cut it.

ááááááááááá Zha-Vam is one of my all-time favorite Superman villains. Here I think we see Superman as a symbol for humanism, the desire to stand on our own two feet, to let science and critical thinking be our guide, and no longer to let ourselves be captive to the narrow pedagogy of medievalism and superstition. The titan Zha-Vam, the mightiest of Superman's enemies, was created by the Olympian gods who foresaw the day when Superman's exploits would eclipse their own fame, and they decided to prepare a champion to come forth in due season to win back their glory. In a replay of the Pandora myth, all the gods contributed some power to the red-bearded, 8-foot tall giant. His name, in a spoof of Captain Marvel's Shazam, stood for his principle powers and their donors: Zeus, Hercules, Achilles, Vulcan, Apollo, Mercury. He also had a belt with multicolored segments, each with the letter of still more deities whose powers he could call on temporarily. Superman never had a chance. Through three issues (a rarity in the 1960s) he failed again and again till he decided to use brain, not brawn, and snuck into Olympus incognito and negotiated with leftover gods to give him a belt with powers Zha-Vam lacked. With these he beat him. Here, I think, was the victory of humanity, whose powers are the hard-won products of our own research and striving, against the Grand Inquisitor who would keep us under numbing tutelage.

ááááááááááá Another favorite of mine was the pre-Crisis Atomic Skull--can you beat that for a cheesy name? I love it! I understand him as Superman's counterpart to the Joker-- he is a stigma-bearer whose curse has effectively shut him out of humanity, and the only way he knows to react is sociopathy. If he cannot live a normal life, neither will anyone else! He is not seeking revenge. Not even trying to get compensation for what he has lost. And what he has really lost is himself. He is beyond good and evil. But of course we are not, and we cannot leave him at large.

ááááááááááá Mr. Mxyzptlk is beyond good and evil in an entirely different sense. His job is to vex Superman and to test both his wits and his patience. He makes sure that Superman (or should I say "Namrepus"?) doesn't get too big for his britches. As a mythic being, he is most like Loki, the malicious prankster--or even perhaps like Krishna, who embodies the most ingenious explanation of evil ever thought up: God is kidding with you! Alan Moore, in his brilliant "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?," made this clear when he had Mxyzptlk turn into a true villain at the end. He had before that been just a pest, demonstrating that even Superman can be pestered.

ááááááááááá There are other villains who represent neither the human nor the superhuman elements, but the subhuman. The Parasite is pretty much a ravening vampire. He became what he is through no fault of his own, and he seeks no revenge. He seeks only--lunch! And there is no snack as tasty as Superman! And then there is the pre-Byrne Kryptonite Man (previously Kryptonite Kid in Superboy), who is simply Superman's ubiquitous foe: Green Kryptonite itself. Here it is just personified, given lines to say. And it's not aá bad idea.

ááááááááááá But I guess for me the most intriguing Superman villain of all is... Dr. Doom! What a great scene Jim Shooter conjured in the second Superman/Spiderman crossover when Superman confronts Doom in his embassy, and like Satan tempting Jesus, Doom tries to win Superman over to his cause. Of course there is no way Superman is going to give in, and Doom knows that, but he does score a major point. He gives Superman something to think about when he says that the two of them are the most powerful beings on the planet, and that given Superman's vast powers, he is naive to think that he is not, in an important sense, ruling the world already!



Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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