Every story needs a bad guy, and sometimes the stories are about the bad guy. There are many unique, wonderous things about the medium of comics and one of them is its relationship with the antagonist. Comics’ serialized nature have a longstanding tradition of diving deeper into the internal workings of the villain. Often times these stories are so fresh, so unexpected, they end up becoming classics in their own right.
About a year ago I was did a search for the best villain-centric stories and the results were sparse, so I thought, “Eh, what the hell” and decided to come up with my own list. The ten entries below are my opinion of the best stories concentrating on the bad guy from their viewpoint. Since there are a lot of great villain moments in comics I narrowed the criteria to comics told solely from the villain’s perspective with minimal (if any) involvement with a firmly established hero. I also should note that I did consider comics outside of the Big Two, but let’s face it, the best baddies reside in the worlds of superheroes as these environments lend tremendous depth and with that the ability to successfully digress.
Oh yeah, SPOILERS, but not too many.
10 – Forever Evil
Forever Evil #1-7 plus a bunch of tie-ins
If you read comics in the modern times then you should be familiar with “the event”, formally known as “the crossover”, a format stemming from the first time Jim Hammond and Namor McKenzie threw down. Following that legacy lots of events have centered on superheroes fighting other superheroes over sometimes creative, sometimes idiotic, rationale.
Forever Evil flips the script on this cliché by pitting a team of bad guys against a team worse guys. Lex Luthor is the lead here, no stranger to the glorious spotlight, but perhaps never before examined in this manner. Through narration and a shockingly cute relationship with a Superman clone named B-Zero the longtime apex villain discloses his struggles, failures and vulnerabilities while trying to defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe.
The series makes a point in it’s first issue to include just about every notable costumed antagonist in the entire DC universe. This group quickly distills into an “Injustice Gang” led by Luthor and stocked with some premier evildoers like Sinestro and Black Manta. The team is the last bastion against the Crime Syndicate, a doppelganger Justice League that are somehow the least and most inspired characters in all of comicdom.
Written by DC’s Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and penciled by the veteran David Fitch the miniseries will hardly blow you away but does serve aptly as a guilty pleasure for those who enjoy big, bombastic, smashy comics. Forever Evil satisfies the villain craving and leaves you stuffed. It does what an event book should and makes inventive and semi-lasting changes to the publishing line. Look no further than Grayson and Lex Luthor’s inclusion into the Justice League to prove that.
Even more, the September 2013 Villains Month interlude ( where all DC’s regular titles were replaced by one-shots and tie-ins focusing on the heels) gave us a tsunami of stories to indulge in. Although the offerings were mostly fluff some really good comics emerged including the miniseries Rouge’s Rebellion, the floppies on Man-Bat, Deathstroke and Riddler and of special note Johns’ Justice League #25 featuring Owlman.
By their very nature villain comics rarely have very high stakes, however this one firmly breaks the mold by following a group of would-be-conquerors attempting to dethrone newly-crowned rulers. It’s very easy to find fault in the “event” but Forever Evil took the supervillain sub-genre and made it primetime.
9 – Taskmaster: Unthinkable
Taskmaster (v2) #1-4
Never heard of this series? For shame. And I can’t blame you.
One of the first pieces I ever wrote for Comics Bulletin was an entry for a year-end column highlighting 2010’s notable comics. While I certainly hadn’t read everything that year I remember being taken aback by this four issue miniseries featuring Taskmaster, a C-list Avengers villain that essentially had been delegated as the patriarch of cannon fodder. Seriously, in his first appearance (Avengers #195) it’s explained Taskmaster is the bro who trains all the henchmen who the Avengers beat up on a monthly basis. Sometimes being bad at your job also ensures job security.
That’s kind of the beautiful thing about Tasky, he’s the ultimate fill-in villain, a generic choice to insert into a story of any flavor. Since the beginning the skull face swordsman has been decidedly neutral, a man who follows the job and the cash. The character’s true nature is the topic of concentration in this four issue miniseries and the unexpected examination by Fred Van Lente succeeds tremendously on tonal and thematic levels. He blends drama, action and tragedy like a mad scientist with a great sense of humor.
With Jefte Palo commanding the visuals the plot begins when Taskmaster is targeted by all his former employers, like A.I.M and the Midnight Sons, for being an alleged snitch. In an effort to clear his name Tony Masters, that’s Tasky’s real name BTW, and waitress Mercedes travel south of the boarder to unearth the truth: Taskmaster is a snitch. Tony has always been a deep sleeper agent for SHIELD and the hook is that due to the memory-based nature of his powers he’s unable to retain personal memories. The poor fiend is stuck in a perpetual loop of thinking he’s the bad guy, failing to retain a true identity, always molding to the situation.
Taskmaster: Unthinkable is eccentric, flavorful and too short. It effortlessly steps into zones of absurdity while still piecing together a thoughtful narrative for a forgotten and forgetful villain. I should really emphasize how great Palo’s pencils are, fierce, fluid and threaded with surprising humor. The energetic flow, jagged edges and underlying discord fit right into the tone of Taskmaster’s mindset and mission.
The character always had a tight gimmick but this series gave him an origin that enriched everything. It’s a solid, self-contained work on an undercard and represents the essence of what’s great about this type of comic.
8 – “Absolute Zero”
The Flash (v2) #182
Geoff Johns has an impressive body of work for DC, that’s just the numbers. If you’re attempting to chart the career of the company’s most prolific writer The Flash #182 could serve as the cornerstone.
The writer got his first real big break when he took up The Flash in 2000 following Mark Waid’s heralded run. Johns instantly made the title his own, choosing to focus more on the outside elements of the Scarlet Speedster than Wally West himself. Flash #182 zeroes in on the easily dismissed Captain Cold, aka Leonard Snart, a guy in a parka who uses a freeze ray to combat a man who can jog his way through the sound barrier.
Move forward fifteen years and in the Johns-penned Justice League comic you’ll find Captain Cold as a main character. Snart’s slow build to respectability started in “Absolute Zero”, a story both about temperature and the man who manipulates it. It examines his modus operandi, a peculiar moral code and the demons behind it all. The plot follows Snart’s bloodquest to find his sister’s murder, Chillblaine, who is holed up with a big time gangster. Not even five years earlier Geoff Johns’ loss his sister in a tragic accident and the impact is on the page and in the action. This life event certainly has molded Johns writing over his entire career (see #10) and in this issue the sincere writing help push Cold up the ladder of respectability to big dog status.
I can clearly remember how much Wizard raved about this incarnation of The Flash and in particular the awesomeness of the newly ascended Captain Cold. Having read it recently I’m inclined to agree. In the era slightly before the Bendis boon the community was starved for new perspectives on old characters. Johns and frequent collaborator Scott Kolins delivered that in abundance by building the mythology of Flash’s antagonists and setting. Many subsequent issues and solo stories honed in on villains like Pied Piper (#190) and Heat Wave (#218) and overall the run did wonders for what it’s probably the third best rogues gallery.
7 – “Interlude”
Fantastic Four (v1) #258
Back in 1983 Fantastic Four #258 benched all of its titular characters for the first time in order to peek in on the life of Dr. Doom. During a period of resurgence for the title this issue built foundations into its already rich mythology and is certainly one of the first great villain-focused stories.
John Byrne’s grasp of Doom’s disposition is clear when reading this comic and the isolation helps distill him into something even greater. In private moments we see how self-absorbed and wildly confident Doom is, a depth of character that continues to enrich the green cloaked wizard scientist to this day. Sneakily, Byrne gives Latveria a spotlight too, showing how this small European country functions through Doom and his will. Even more to the issue’s credit is the continuity, it’s very much intertwined into the ongoing narrative of grander Fantastic Four run. When Doom plans how to destroy Richards and co. with siphoned power from the Silver Surfer his ward and eventual successor Kristof (who still pops up now and again) suggests Magneto as a vessel due to his comparable might. In response Doom flips his shit:
This “slice of life” tale that demonstrates just why John Byrne was considered one of the absolute premiere talents of the era. He revived Fantastic Four with invigorating plots that paid homage to the Lee/Kirby magic of yesteryear. Many sides of Victor von Doom are presented in this ranging examination of the masked despot. Readers witness his unmitigated pride, the intense desire to be respected, an odd sense of compassion and a twisted vision of justice. While the whole comic is certainly great it’s probably best remembered for the infamous scene where Dr. Doom destroys a Doombot for allowing Arcade to strike a match against its armor in Uncanny X-Men #146. This minor retcon by Byrne reads as an unimportant detail but the nuance of the scene informed Vic’s characterization for decades. In showing Doom’s humanity we also see the ugliness of his soul. Victor is unlike any character in comics, he’s wholly self-absorbed and works to extreme ends to crush his enemies, but somewhere beneath the metal is raw nerve and a sense of honor that makes him the ultimate wild card.
“Interlude” stands as testament to the power of villain stories. Even in the name itself it speaks to their utility as a fun misdirection, a chance to see through the eyes of the other side which in turn enriches the overall narrative.
6 – The Journey of Kid Loki
Journey Into Mystery # 622-645 and a crossover or two
Though one could argue it’s protagonist is marginally villainous it’s impossible to refute fandom’s powerful affection for Kid Loki.
De-aged following Siege one of Marvel’s oldest and most classic villains got young, real young, and gained the inherent innocence associated with childhood. His disposition changed too, from sour and vengeful to snarky and earnest. Loki remained mischievous, but in an adorable way that begs for high adventure.
In Kieron Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery we got a new age Odyssey. Following Kid Loki across the Nine Realms the plot reads like a grandiose enigma filled with prophecies, spells, trickery, oaths and redemption. The series opened in the wake of Fear Itself and eventually proved to be the flat-out best title associated with that crossover. Doug Briathwaite’s art on that initial arc established a deep fantasy feel when paired with Gillen’s wonderfully loquacious and ardent script. The world of Asgard and the neighboring locales are used to great effect as is Thor’s diverse supporting cast. Even auxiliary villains get a spotlight, like Mephisto in Journey Into Mystery #627, a comedic journey that follows the demon as he saunters across the Marvel pantheon and demonic realms.
The plot masterfully balances whimsy and tragedy and this mixture culminates in the run’s final issue. Gillen’s complex storytelling pays off in revealing the true nature of Kid Loki’s existence. He’s a puppet of redemption, a cute face to mask evil deeds! The perpetrator of this scheme? None other than the older Loki, our classic crackling menace. The child version relents his consciousness to the elder, but for all the right reasons, knowing ultimately he must give into fate, a return to his former self, a persona destined for inescapable defeat.
This run truly retooled the character in fascinating ways. Marvel’s Loki was so entrenched in villainy he was practically a caricature for it, a convenient antagonist for a multitude of heroes. A sort of Dr. Doom Lite. Journey into Mystery and Kid Loki proved so popular Tom Hiddleston, the man who would play Loki in the billion dollar Avengers movie, wrote a farewell letter that published in that final issue. Gillen further developed the legacy of Kid Loki in his equally popular Young Avengers work and the thread gained ornate layers in Al Ewing’s Loki: Agent of Asgard. A truly amazing metamorphosis, one that feels like one big trick ready to be revealed at any time.
This comic, right?
Longtime Marvel bad guy Boomerang is not a good dude. Manipulative, two-faced, flippant and conniving Fred Meyers is categorically untrustworthy and even he’d tell you that. His charm gets him through the door and then he’s out the back with your stuff. We all know a Boomerang. The lovable scum. The guy that gets invited to the party despite ruining the last one.
This fifteen issue run reads like a sitcom, a loose plot woven into the lives of shadowy, goofy, and at times, pitiful characters. Writer Nick Spencer was itching to do a comic that peeked in on the everyday life of workingman criminals, a love letter to the underling, since his very first Marvel assignment, and it shows in the craftsmanship.
The series follows the five-member Sinister Six, a team of generally unsuccessful bad guys striving for their big score, a legacy-defining breakthrough moment that leads to top dog status. Told through the lens of Boomerang the comedy dives into both the practicalities and the funkiness of superhero comics.
Yes, the scripting is great but it’d be criminally negligent, a true sin, not to heap bundles of praise onto Steve Lieber. A proven creator with an Eisner in tow, Lieber claimed and cemented his status as a consummate storyteller with his work on Superior Foes. Many artists can adequately, even exquisitely, transform a writer’s vision but Lieber enhanced Spencer’s idea at its base. Each issue of Superior Foes is a festival of visual treats. Whether it’s the slithering Boomerang, the bossy Beetle or the cowering Shocker the emotions and dispositions of the characters transmit perfectly from page to brain. The page serves as a playground with diagrams and pictographs woven into every issue and because of that it’s one of those comics that rewards in the reread. The soft and friendly feel of Lieber’s style encourages accessibility to the abrasive personalities. There’s a certain Riverdale aesthetic that allows you to accept the schemes and scandal as tomfoolery. Rachel Rosenberg’s colors slot right into the Marvel house style but also set an emotional pace to the seedy world of Boomer’s crew. It’s a very warm comic about cold people.
Superior Foes of Spider-Man is a nifty gem with just the right amount of pages to weave together a surprising and thoughtful plot, drive home the main themes and also slip into fun digressions (I love #7, the Beetle spotlight issue illustrated by Rich Ellis). The work sneakily codifies the low tier Spider-Man rogues and gives the hero’s baddie set a sort of hierarchy. As a whole it really celebrates being a bad guy in a way that few other comics could ever attempt.
4 – “Kraven’s Last Hunt”
Web of Spider-Man #31-32, The Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and The Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132.
I almost didn’t admit this classic Marvel story to the list because it sits right at the cusp of my criteria. Told over the span of three ongoings and featuring a mass of arachnid imagery it can be argued that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is firmly a Spider-Man tale, a prolonged glimpse into heroic legacy and how others view a protagonist through an inverted lens. However, given the way the story does big time work to legitimizing the generally ineffectual Kraven the Hunter it became too hard to find a reason to keep it off.
Recently voted the third best Marvel story ever (!) “Kraven’s Last Hunt”, also known as “Fearful Symmetry”, went through numerous drafts by J.M. DeMattetis, (including versions starring Wonder Man and Batman) before it became a six-part story that commandeered the Spider-Man line in 1987. The crux of the plot concerns a troubled Sergei Kravenoff reeling from his outright failure to defeat Spider-Man, a prey that has repeatedly bested him to the point of humiliation. The dark, cleverly framed script has Kraven shoot and bury Peter Parker to usurp his role as wall-crawler in a wonky attempt to regain honor. The odd part? He succeeds.
Well… in twisted way. Kraven, much like Otto Octavious would some 25 years later, takes on the Spider-Man mantle as a crime fighter not realizing what truly defines the hero is the affable goober inside. Featuring an important subplot involving D-lister Vermin a good chunk of the story is told from the villains’ perspective (which ultimately is what made me add it to this top ten). Crackling narration and gorgeous fever dream imagery explains exactly how troubled and tortured the big game hunter actually is. His delusion about the nature of Spider-Man and how it affects his own legacy is masterfully depicted by Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod. Though DeMattetis does splendid work hammering out the themes and structure of the story this also happens to be one of the best looking Spidey stories of all time, and that’s saying something.
Very few superhero comics have touched the poignancy, shock and sheer weight of “Kraven’s Last Hunt”, a story that feels like it could only be told in our beloved medium of choice. While it’s concerned with examining Spider-Man it’s not just a character piece on Peter. Rather, it’s a dissertation on the relationship between hero and antagonist, how they view each other and how one defines personal success in face of repeated failure.
3 – Secret Six
Secret Six (v3) #1-36
There are ton of great one-liners in Secret Six. TONS. And the greatest is: “Scandal Savage, you may have one ice cream of your choice.” Another contender: “Your enemies are our enemies and most of our enemies are dead.” OK, OK, it’s really: “If you must know… I had a burrito.”
Gail Simone’s Secret Six: a succession of great lines encased in great scenes. A populous DC Universe provides the foundation for this story about what happens to the forgotten agents of evil. The storyline relies heavily on character and personality friction to push it forward, sick humor mixed with poignancy mixed with irrelevance. Simone’s seminal work (Birds of who?) delights with dark death, violent offenders, askew romance and buckets of charisma.
Spinning out of Villains United the team consisted of a sextet of minor supervillains forced together by a clandestine boss and a set of undercover missions. The mutual quest for survival, amongst selfishly petty reasons, kept the cast together and the plot rolling. The Secret Six bounced around a little bit before receiving their own ongoing title in 2008, and for all intents and purposes that’s when the fun really starts. The first arc ,”Unhinged”, is a magnificent example of comics glory. Illustrated by Nicola Scott the early parts of the series benefit from expert clarity and veteran art direction. Her work is bloody, sleazy, cute and affable, making you giggle and cringe at the same time.
The big sell is an exquisitely eclectic cast, a great mix of new nobodies and classic lowlifes. Scandal Savage, Jeanette and Black Alice, a trio of Simone-created creations, infuse the story with a commendable amount of angry fem fatales. As a counter fan-fav Deadshot and oft-disrespected Catman represent the boy’s club well. Ragdoll always manages to be a hoot, and Bane, ultra-grave Batman foe, kindles some of the title’s best humor moments.
The comic sways masterfully between subtly serious and slightly absurd, a tone that fabulously contrasts the horrors of villainy with the silliness of wearing costumes. The characters have a synergy very few team titles can sustain, and the personality bursts out on the pages. We follow Thomas Blake’s struggle with honor and vengeance and watch Scandal cope the loss of a lover and an ugly heritage. Bane’s journey through addiction and obsession unfolds with awkward grace and the shockingly cuddly Floyd Lawton is a delight throughout.
The pieces just always seemed to fit with Secret Six, a peculiar patchwork of goth and bounce. It was one the few undisputed bright spots of DC’s line pre-New 52 and remains a testament to how to build a villain comic while not undermining the core tenants of being the bad guy.
2 – Thunderbolts
Thunderbolts #1-174 and plenty of auxiliaries
Boasting the biggest body of work of any supervillain comic Thunderbolts easily lands on this list. No other dedicated work is as prolific in featuring costumed criminals. The awesome hidden power of Thunderbolts is the ability to redefine itself every few years and continuously mine out fantastic plots paired with inspired art. It’s a kooky book, hard to define, but that’s actually an apt reflection of the cannon fodder it champions.
The late 90’s were a wasteland for comics, this is well reported, and as a result of that Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley’s Thunderbolts #1 is fondly remembered as one of the greatest issues of the era. In that debut, a dialogue packed punch-fest, the newly formed Thunderbolts are revealed to be a Baron Zemo-led Masters of Evil squad ready to pounce on the public’s need for a hero team. That’s a helluva hook, but it gets even juicier when the Thunderbolts revolt against Zemo after accepting heroism as a viable career change.
The lynchpin of the Thunderbolts concept is redemption but it’s also a celebration of the rich storytelling potential of the Marvel Universe. The original idea sprung from decades of continuity status quo and subsequent volumes have succeeded most when swirling in concepts from Captain America, Spider-Man, SHIELD and other rich mythologies. The original core cast of Songbird, Moonstone, Atlas, Fixer and Mach-I are just the start, characters like Jolt, Hawkeye, Ghost, Radioactive Man, Troll, the Squadon Sinister, Black Widow, Blizzard, Ant-Man and dozens of others all feature prominently.
After a couple years Fabian Nicizea took the helm from Busiek and enjoyed a lengthy, body swap-obessesed run primarily drawn by Patrick Zircher. In an odd editorial move Thunderbolts was rebranded and place all previous elements with some wrestling thing and series eventually met cancellation. It returned again shortly under Nicizea as New Thunderbolts then received a major tonal reboot by Warren Ellis and Mike Deodato. This 2005 version of the ‘Bolts went super dark, turning the team into a set of high-risk inmates forced to do the government’s bidding through the use of deadly nanites. With a roster rocking some A-list villains the storyline revitalized the brand and later writers Christopher Yost and Chritstos Gage kept the machine in fine working order
In 2012 the team was treated to another revamp by Jeff Parker who appointed Luke Cage as the team leader and kept many of the working parts of the previous eras. The run benefited from a trio of artists that nailed just about every issue assigned. Declan Shalvey burst onto the scene by showcasing his shady style that fit right in with the suspicious side of unsavory acts. Counterpart Kev Walker never failed to stretch the boundaries of weirdness but also excelled at giving you the nuts and bolts of the genre. Finally, colorist Frank Martin set the book apart by recapturing the neon of nineties then anchoring it in modern era sensibilities.
It’s nigh impossible to cover how great Thunderbolts was in this short space. It always managed to update to reflect the demands of its setting. The Busiek/ Bagley/ Nicizea/Zircher days were big-time 90’s style: drama-heavy affairs , simultaneously fun, complicated and draining . The Ellis/Deodato era reflected a post 9/11 culture that accepted the loss of personal freedom in exchange for safety. Parker’s Thunderbolts spoke to the creative freedoms and breakthroughs of the 2010’s, comics that nod respectfully to the past and look to the future.
Thunderbolts was an hell of a experiment in 1997 and it ended up becoming a pillar for Marvel for over fifteen years. For those looking for villains in bulk its worth reading in its entirety.
1 – Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad (v1) #1-66 plus a few tie-ins
As the dust of destroyed universes settled following Crisis on Infinite Earths writer John Ostrander crafted a high-concept idea and ended up tilling the rich soil of a whole new subgenre. The Dirty Dozen meets the Secret Society of Super-Villains is a pretty simple premise and it worked to directly inspire about half the entries on this list. Three decades ago Suicide Squad revolutionized the anti-hero in the medium, and helped inform just how to trick the audience into rooting for murderers, thieves, jesters and the truly damaged.
The comic runs on a deviously simple premise, small-time supervillains can have their jail sentence commuted if they successfully complete dangerous covert missions pursed out by the government. To show their sincerity DC and Ostrander kill a handful of the cast in the first few issues and it creates an alluring precedence that anyone can go at any time. With a cast stocked full of forgotten children from the Golden and Silver Age and a few D-list noobs the sensation that the characters are truly in danger is buttressed by their disposability.
The unit, named Task Force X, is handled by Amanda Waller, arguably the most powerful and lasting result of Suicide Squad. A robust and no-nonsense black woman Waller proves an inspired foil for the white males she is often pit against. In a multitude of ways she represents the devilish appeal of the title — she’s horribly flawed but somehow the reader is bamboozled into siding with her.
This is the twisted case with nearly every character in the book: Deadshot, Rick Flag, Enchantress, the guy who talks to his helicopter, Bronze Tiger, hell, even Captain Boomerang makes a good point every once in awhile. Mixing in a few heroes like Shade the Changing Man, Oracle and Vixen, the cast is an absolute treat, with every personality clashing superbly with each other. The way Ostrander (with assists later in the run by wife Kim Yates) weaves strong and unforgiving stories into every single issue is a work to behold, a lost art that the medium sorely misses.
Primary penciller Luke McDonnell thorough and sturdy contribution gives the series authority and authenticity. His barebones quality enhances the story in so many ways, making it feel like a hardboiled detective story and a big, loud superhero comic at the same time. The use of space is a staple and is countered by the tight panels and workman-like layouts. Suicide Squad came out while DC was publishing classics like Watchmen, The Killing Joke and Justice League International and I would put McConnell’s art up against any one of those comic books.
Issue to issue the creative teams on this series delivered top-notch entertainment through heavy-impact action, weaving subplots, rivalries, shockers and surprisingly poignant social commentary. It also stitched itself to the DC quite adequately, tying into the many crossovers of the late 80’s while still retaining its unique flavor. This functionality eventually bore a franchise that is now the face of the villain subgenre. DC has been extraordinarily stubborn about reprinting this classic so it doesn’t get it’s full due, but trust me, it’s not only a great supervillain comic, its a great comic, period, the end.