I was watching this year’s South Carolina/Alabama football game when a moment from 1978’s Superman popped into my head. As South Carolina’s upset bid gradually became a certainty, the shots of coach Steve Spurrier reminded me of Lex Luthor’s classic line:
You were great in your day, Superman. But it just stands to reason, when it came time to cash in your chips, this old … diseased … maniac would be your banker.
See, there are just some people you never count out, no matter how great the odds against them. Regardless of incarnation, Luthor is one of my favorite villains, especially when he can create a perpetual air of menace. If Superman represents humanity’s best impulses (plus the power to back them up), Luthor naturally represents its worst: self-centeredness, ego, avarice, and an overwhelming superiority complex. Twisted though it may be, Luthor’s enduring motivation is spot-on: but for Superman, he’d be the unquestioned ruler of the Earth. Just the news that Luthor is loose should be enough to clear the streets of Metropolis, sending its citizens into well-stocked shelters. Luthor is scary because only Superman can stop him; and Superman is … well, Superman in no small part because only he can stop the likes of Luthor.
Indeed, for all the carnage and gore splattered through the pages of various DC titles over the past several years, I daresay menace — real, sustained menace — has been in short supply. Oh sure, you have your Superboy-Primes, your Shadow Demons, and your Black Lanterns mowing down civilians and obscure Teen Titans like yesterday’s wheat, and don’t get me wrong, they’re all scary — but they’re only scary in the short term. Big-name villains like Luthor, the Joker, and the Rogues’ Gallery are Sword-of-Damocles, mutually-assured-destruction scary. They’re scary full-time, because if you live in Metropolis, Gotham, or Central City, they’re practically your neighbors.
However, the flip side of constant paranoid vigilance is a sort of blasé complacency. Captain Cold causing trouble near your favorite off-ramp? Take that alternate route you mapped out last week. Luthor’s giant robots paralyzing downtown? Sounds like a good day to telecommute.
Still, while all that is fine for street-level perspectives, DC’s books tend to be more interested in the heroes and villains; and — speaking of neighbors — there is nothing like a good villainous community to feed subplots and create that overall sense of dread. In his classic 1977-78 run on Detective Comics, Steve Englehart used Batman’s villains efficiently and effectively. Exposed to Dr. Phosphorus’ radiation in ’Tec #s 469-70, Batman goes to a clinic in #471 that turns out to be Hugo Strange’s hideout. While he’s imprisoned by Hugo in #472, Rupert Thorne engineers a city-council ordinance outlawing the Dynamic Duo. This produces some tension as they thwart the Penguin in #473, but sending the Penguin to jail allows Deadshot to break out in #474. All the while, though, the Joker has been lurking, and in #475-76 he finally makes his move.
Other Bat-writers, and for that matter the writers and editors of the “weekly” Superman titles of the ‘80s and ‘90s, tried similarly to create a feeling of community among their villainous cast. Still, probably the best-known DC super villain community remains the Flash’s Rogues’ Gallery. Mostly the “Rogues” appellation includes Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, Mirror Master, the Trickster, Heat Wave, Weather Wizard, and the Pied Piper, but other Flash villains like the Top, Rainbow Raider, Golden Glider, and Dr. Alchemy have been part of the group from time to time. The Rogues, in various combinations, bedeviled Barry Allen’s Flash for much of his Silver and Bronze Age career. In addition to their common enemy, they shared a common tailor (Paul Gambi) and some internal drama (for example, Captain Cold’s sister Golden Glider blamed the Flash for the death of her lover, the Top). Occasionally a couple might venture outside Central City, whether in the pages of Secret Society of Super-Villains or to fight Batman and Robin, but for the most part they were prominent players in The Flash.
However, when Barry died in 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, DC split up the Rogues. Mirror Master was killed in Crisis #12 (and his successor showed up in Animal Man), Captain Boomerang joined the Suicide Squad, the Trickster started fighting Blue Devil, and the rest retired and/or thought about going straight. This was apparently not much of a stretch, since their relationship with Barry Allen was now seen as something more honorable, like “duels between gentlemen.” Sure they wanted to beat the Flash, but (although the texts may not bear this out) it really wasn’t as sinister as you might think. I can’t remember the nuances, but when they showed up in 1988’s Flash vol. 2 #19, they were pretty friendly to Wally West. Captain Cold and Golden Glider even helped Wally get control of his powers a few issues later. A few years later, Pied Piper became one of Wally’s closest friends, and Heat Wave joined the Superboy cast as a Project Cadmus security consultant.
Apparently, though, the Rogues were too good as bad guys to stay on the straight and narrow. Yadda yadda yadda, Mark Waid (via Abra Kadabra) had them make a deal with the devil which cost them their souls and eventually turned them crooked again; and Geoff Johns sealed the deal when he revealed that the Top was behind their initial “good” impulses. Now the Rogues are criminals once more, looking out only for themselves and contemptuous of the villains who have tried to become their successors.
So I had all that in mind when I read this week’s Flash vol. 3 #7, in which Johns and artist Scott Kolins turn the spotlight on Captain Boomerang. There’s a lot of flashbacks in this issue, mostly tying young Digger Harkness’ childhood trauma to his recruitment as a toy-company mascot, but Johns also reminds those of us who didn’t read the Rogues’ Revenge miniseries that not all the Flash villains are friendly to one another. The Rogues are “at war” with the Reverse-Flash, for instance; and if memory serves they’re not too fond of heavy-hitter Flash foes like Kadabra or Gorilla Grodd. Those sorts of details enrich a super villain community, and I’m eager to see how much Johns explores them in the pages of Flash.
Note the qualification at the end there. In these days of spin-off miniseries, the phrase “the pages of Flash” probably needs to be said. Even with a page count reduced to 20, I’d rather see the Rogues’ feuds play out in Flash than anywhere else. We’ve seen a decent amount of villain-oriented miniseries recently, including various Arkham Asylum and Joker’s Asylum titles, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Luthor, Salvation Run, and the aforementioned Rogues’ Revenge. Of course, there’s also the excellent Secret Six and the current Luthor arc in Action Comics, each of which deliver gleeful doses of anti-heroism every month. Each of these can stand or fall on its own merits, and each is arguably better-suited to being separated out from its “parent” title (Action Comics excepted, naturally).
Nevertheless, it’s never a bad idea to remind a superhero book’s readership that the enemy at hand isn’t always the most dangerous. Ever since Identity Crisis started DC’s whole violence-based “price of heroism” motif, various writers and editors have emphasized the roles the villains play, and the degree to which each bad act “tests” our heroes. If the collective point is to build up the heroes by making the villains more threatening, surely slow-burn subplots are valuable ways to sell such threats. Clearly they’re well-suited to today’s long-form serials. For example, Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern took its time reintroducing old villains like the Manhunters, Hector Hammond, Sinestro, and Mongul, before building on their back stories to create the big-event-friendly “rainbow Lanterns.” If Johns has something similar in mind for the Rogues and the Reverse-Flash, the payoff could be just as rewarding.
By way of wrapping up, let’s go back to Luthor. I’m enjoying the heck out of Paul Cornell’s Action arc, because it’s always a treat to see how Luthor behaves when he doesn’t have to push against Superman. Regardless, it only makes me more eager to see him square off with the Man of Steel. As a nominally-legitimate businessman in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Luthor was a fixture of the “weekly” Superman titles — but his high profile undercut his threat level. Even though he was always plotting to destroy Superman, he couldn’t go all-out without risking his good public image. Once exposed, though, and (most importantly) driven underground (in the inaugural Superman/Batman arc “Public Enemies”), he regained that aura of menace which is so critical to a good super villain.
We may like to see super villains up close and personal, whether in a spotlight issue, their own miniseries, or their own dedicated arc, but when it comes to real suspense — real menace — uncertainty drives the bus. You never pooh-pooh a villain like Luthor, because you never know what he’s capable of. You just know that when the time comes to cash in your chips, you won’t like what comes back.