Thursday, August 21, 2014

WHY Superman's Rogues Gallery isn't better

The original title of this post was going to be Why Superman's Rogues Gallery Sucks, but bowing to some of the arguments put forth since I proposed the notion earlier this week, I've decided to soften the title. With that said, let's examine how the some of the factors that kept Superman from developing a more formidable rogues gallery (for instance,  why, by issue 299 when illustrating his 9 Deadliest Foes, are the Toy Man and The Prankster on the cover?)

I think the start of this development begins with the Frederic Wertham's campaign against violence and immorality in comics in the 1950's. In his book, Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham made many unfounded accusations against comics at the time, some of which included suggestions that Batman and Robin were a sort of homosexual fairy tale.

Wertham's book caused a bit of a sensation at the time resulting in the comics industry developing the Comics Code Association to mollify some of the public outcry. DC (National Comics) responded by moving away from "fight comics" to more outlandish stories - a strategy that Superman editor  Mort Weisinger  developed which worked well for the Man of Steel...

...but not as well for Batman.

During this era of Superman, Weisinger introduced many of the imaginative concepts that have endured to this day (Kandor, The Phantom Zone, The Legion of Super-heroes, Krypto, ect...) Because of the fantastic nature of Superman's powers and his otherworldly nature, this run of Superman was very successful. Over the years, it was not uncommon for the editors to look at sales of prior issues...
...and then develop stories that echoed the more successful issues.

So what you end up with is a cycle wherein the more imaginative/evocative covers sort of dictated Superman editorial for a while. These were covers that rarely featured Superman in a one on one struggle with a villain, as Red Kryptonite and Imaginary Stories provided a means to present more evocative storylines.

On the rare occasion that Superman was shown battling some worthy foe, it was usually tied to some gimmick.

 And as the target audience was (at the time) a sort of ever replenishing pool of juvenile readers, the use of outlandish ideas worked for many years (decades even)

[ image from Superman in the Bronze Age blog ]

And while Batman got a revamp in the 60's which allowed writers to focus more on adventure/crime stories featuring such intriguing opponents as Ras Al Ghul, Superman never got a similar editorial makeover. The best new villains he got was Terra-Man and Vartox (both of which never really gained a fan following)

Vartox is also symptomatic of another problem Superman had in developing a rogues gallery in that often, the opponent would become an ally at some point. Overall, this period didn't really produce a lot of new nemesis for Kal-El. Instead, we saw a revisioning of old Superman foes:

And while the 80's and 90's produced some great Superman villains (Mongul, Cyborg Superman, Doomsday) the fight comics nature of modern stories has given them a certain sameness. That is to say that new rogues all focus on being a physical superior to Superman. That's how we end up with characters like Wraith in Superman Unchained.

In this modern age of retro navel gazing and intellectual property hoarding, I doubt we will see many new inspiring rogues developed for Superman.

And that's sort of a shame.

- Jim

1 comment:

MattComix said...

I think another issue is that a lot of creators have latched on to the same tired old excuses almost as gospel. "Superman's too powerful, Superman's too good," etc. In other words I think DC has a very myopic view of the character as a result and this is something that effects creating new villains for him as well.

I liked the basic idea Smallville (all its faults aside for a moment) put forth in its 6th season of having "Phantom Wraith's" escapees from the Zone that had no corporeal bodies who could possess people and that body gains any abilities that criminal had in their original form. Clark had to use a crystal bearing the symbol of the House of El to remove them and save the host.

As a concept I think this was a way of using the Phantom Zone that wasn't limited to just having more dudes with Superman's own power set.


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