Throughout comic book history, we have seen many heroes and villains rise to power and control those around them. Some have managed to hold onto that power, while others have gone on to lose it. When the wrong people take control, it can often lead to dire consequences for innocent people.
Titles like “Captain America: Steve Rogers,” by Nick Spencer, Jesus Saiz and Javier Pina, which follows the machinations of Captain America as a Hydra sleeper agent, has shown us what can happen when unexpected characters suddenly rise up to seize power. Following Marvel’s announcement of the nine-issue event series “Secret Empire” that will see Cap’s time with Hydra come to a head, let’s look back at the 15 most insidious rises to power in comic books.
15 SUPERMAN: INJUSTICE
The “Injustice: Gods Among Us” comic book series, written by Tom Taylor, lays the groundwork for the Injustice video game franchise. It shows us how the Joker tricked Superman into killing Lois Lane when a hallucinogen made him believe she was actually Doomsday, subsequently flying her into space. In the fit of rage that followed his awakening, Superman responded by violently murdering the Joker right in front of a shocked Batman. The Man of Steel saw what being soft on criminals had gotten him, so he decided to take things one step further by taking over the world and unifying all governments to form the One-Earth Regime.
As the High Councillor, Superman goes on to recruit heroes and villains alike in order to maintain control of the Earth. He gets the likes of Aquaman, Flash, Shazam, Hal Jordan and Wonder Woman to do his bidding, while actually employing Doomsday, Sinestro, Black Adam and Solomon Grundy as well. In response, Batman forms an Insurgency team that goes up against the Regime, which sets up the premise for the game.
14 THE PLUTONIAN
What would happen if Superman suddenly went bad and decided to take over the world? That’s the concept that Mark Waid embraced when he created the Plutonian in the pages of “Irredeemable.” The series explores the idea that just because someone has amazing powers and good intentions, it doesn’t mean they are mentally equipped for the task. The Plutonian is found to be very unstable, and after a combination of criticism, loss and a series of fatal mistakes, he snaps.
He goes on to lobotomize his former sidekick Samsara and murders his former ally the Hornet and his entire family. The Plutonian also destroys Sky City, the hometown he once protected, and hunts down anyone who would stand in his way, including villains and his former allies in the superhero group, the Paradigm. The series depicts his battle with the heroes he once called friends and their desperate attempts to save the world from his totalitarian rule. Mark Waid is definitely irredeemable for thinking this one up.
13 BLACK ADAM
In the pages of “JSA,” Geoff Johns explores the redemption of the villain known as Black Adam when the long-time enemy of Captain Marvel joins the Justice Society of America to prove he is not defined by the dastardly deeds he has committed in his past. His attempt to reform ultimately proves unsuccessful because his teammates never trust him and he decides a harsher brand of justice is required.
After leaving the JSA, Black Adam sets his sights on his homeland of Kahndaq, which is controlled by a cruel dictator. Together with a team that includes Atom Smasher, Brainwave, Northwind, Nemesis and Alex Montez (the new host of Eclipso), Black Adam leads a hostile takeover of the country, killing those responsible for all the suffering in the land, and setting himself up as Kahndaq’s new ruler. The Justice Society get involved and some serious fighting goes down, but they eventually leave Kahndaq with Black Adam remaining on the throne.
12 THE GOVERNOR
In the world of “The Walking Dead,” one of the most memorable villains seen in the series is the Governor. Rick’s group encountered this wrathful ruler when they were holed up in their prison stronghold. They come into contact with Woodbury, Georgia and the Governor is initially hospitable to them before turning on them to determine the location of their base. He has the distinction of being the character who ruthlessly cut off Rick’s hand.
It wasn’t until Robert Kirkman’s novel “The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor” that we saw the full extent of Phillip Blake’s rise to power. The origin story showed us how a simple man rose up to become the evil Governor in the main series. His group of survivors came across Woodbury when it was under the control of the National Guard before they eventually took over the town. The story also shows how he adopted his zombified niece -- the same one he kept locked up in the closet in one of the creepier scenes in the book (which, frankly, is saying quite a lot).
Perhaps the only Walking Dead character more villainous than the Governor is Negan, the leader of the Saviors. Equipped with Lucille, his infamous baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, Negan has plagued Rick’s group of survivors for nearly 50 issues of “The Walking Dead” and is currently showing off his domineering power on the small screen. After the initial outbreak, Negan and his group of enforcers took power through fear and intimidation, threatening the communities they came across with violence if they didn’t swear fealty and provide them with supplies.
The Saviors take control over the Hilltop Community and soon come after the Alexandria Safe-Zone where Rick and his group of survivors live. Negan murders Glenn and intimidates the rest of them into subservience while the Saviors continually attack and threaten the community. Negan’s rule is one of psychological torment and physical violence, which leads Rick’s group to live in fear. The residents of Alexandria attempt to rebel on more than one occasion, only to be beaten back down by Negan’s almost unstoppable machinations. The conflict eventually plunges both sides into a deadly war for survival.
10 THE SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN
During Dan Slott’s run on “Amazing Spider-Man,” Doctor Octopus is diagnosed with cancer. He is seen slowly dying over time until Otto Octavius enacts his plan to transfer his mind into Peter Parker’s body and secretly take over the role of Spider-Man. As the Superior Spider-Man, Octavius has all the abilities of Spider-Man and the memories of Peter Parker, with the singular goal of becoming an even more effective superhero than his former nemesis ever was.
As Spider-Man, Octavius takes on a far more brutal means of fighting crime. He has no moral compunction against brutally beating his enemies into submission, and even in one case, killing them, thus drawing the suspicion of many of his allies. To become a more efficient superhero, Octavius also creates Spider-Bots to help him patrol New York City. Using Peter Parker’s identity, he establishes Parker Industries and manipulates Peter’s friends and allies around him. It was a storyline that was truly troubling for long-time Spider-Man fans; so much so, in fact, that writer Dan Slott received death threats. Talk about ruthless.
9 DAREDEVIL: SHADOWLAND
In Andy Diggle’s and Billy Tan’s “Shadowland,” Daredevil returns to Hell’s Kitchen as the new leader of the Hand. He attempts to protect the city by building the prison known as Shadowland and uses his team of ninjas as his enforcers for good. The Marvel Universe’s street-level heroes begin to question Matt Murdock’s methods and behavior, but it isn’t until after he kills Bullseye in battle that they know something must be done to stop his reign of terror.
Daredevil begins a campaign against the mafia before he starts targeting his former allies, who happen to get in his way. Around this time, the heroes of the story discover that Matt Murdock is not himself and is actually being possessed by the demonic leader of the Hand known as the Beast. A group of heroes, including Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, the Punisher, Wolverine and Elektra, attempt to stop their former ally, but they discover that Daredevil is now too far gone to reason with anymore.
8 THANOS: THE INFINITY GAUNTLET
Love is the only thing that Thanos has ever wanted, except for power of course. It’s just unfortunate for everyone that he had to go and fall for Mistress Death. In the story “The Infinity Gauntlet,” by Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim, Thanos undertakes his quest to impress Death further than he ever has before. In a story that saw the Mad Titan spanning the known universe, he secretly collects all six of the Infinity Gems and sets them into his gauntlet to wield the ultimate power in the cosmos.
Once the weapon is completed, his first act is to warp reality and kill half of all life in the universe with a simple snap of his fingers. This includes the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Daredevil. When the heroes mount a counterattack, Thanos proves to be far too powerful and kills many of them. It isn’t until he defeats and imprisons the likes of Galactus and Eternity, when he ascends to godhood as the very heart of the universe itself, that he becomes vulnerable, and the gauntlet is stolen from him before he is defeated.
Sinestro might be one of the most power hungry comic book characters ever created. He is motivated purely by his desire to achieve ultimate power, and when he comes into possession of the universe’s ultimate weapon -- a Green Lantern ring -- he uses it to enslave his homeworld. Sinestro mentored Hal Jordan when he first joined the Green Lantern Corps and it is the rookie Lantern who discovers how the planet Korugar has been subjugated into totalitarian rule. According to Sinestro, it was all in the name of law and order.
The Guardians of the Universe strip Sinestro of his green ring, but the villain finds power again in the form of a yellow ring that is able to harness fear, forged in the kilns of the anti-matter universe, a dimension literally on the underbelly of ours. Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver eventually have him clandestinely form his own Sinestro Corps of Yellow Lanterns in the deadly “Sinestro Corps War” for control over the right to "protect" the universe. After Rebirth, Robert Venditti and Rafa Sandoval establish in “Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps” that the Sinestro Corps has taken over the universe, and only Hal Jordan can take his old enemy down once and for all.
6 MAXWELL LORD
The long-time benefactor of the Justice League International proved to be a power hungry metahuman with ties to shadowy government agencies. In “Countdown to Infinite Crisis,” the Blue Beetle discovers that Lord has taken over the government organization known as Checkmate and has secretly been working behind the scenes to undermine the superheroes he once called allies. Because he knows too much, Lord executes his former friend. Lord goes on to take control of the Brother Eye satellite from Batman and uses it to track and surveil all metahumans in the world, as seen in “The OMAC Project” by Greg Rucka and Jesus Saiz.
He uses his latent mind control abilities to take control of Superman, forcing Wonder Woman to kill Lord in order to stop him. The attack is broadcast to the public, destroying Diana’s image to the world. Max Lord has recently returned after DC's recent "Rebirth" with the same desire for power. In “Justice League vs. Suicide Squad” by Josh Williamson, he frees the original Suicide Squad from a secret underground prison and takes control of Eclipso’s Black Diamond (until he, himself, is possessed). Whatever the continuity, you can bet Maxwell Lord be seeking the power necessary to gain control over those who stand in his way.
5 NORMAN OSBORN: DARK REIGN
Following the events of the first “Civil War” by Mark Millar, Norman Osborn is put in charge of the Thunderbolts, where he continues to grab power from within the United States government. In the final moments of the “Secret Invasion” event from Brian Michael Bendis and Leinil Francis Yu, Osborn is seen publicly killing the Skrull queen and uses this high-profile victory to acquire even more power. S.H.I.E.L.D. is shut down and replaced by Osborn’s H.A.M.M.E.R., and he forms the criminal alliance known as the Cabal.
During this period of time, Osborn creates his own superhero team in Bendis’ “Dark Avengers” title, where villains stand in for better known heroes and Osborn himself poses as the Iron Patriot. Osborn’s own instability proves to be his downfall when he has the government invade Asgard and the heroes are ultimately able to prove his insanity during the events of “Siege.” He then goes on to embrace his Green Goblin identity once again.
4 DARKSEID: FINAL CRISIS
In the lead-up to Grant Morrison’s “Final Crisis,” Darkseid is killed in battle with his son Orion. His soul survives, however, and he returns to the living world when he possesses the body of Dan Turpin. Darkseid enacts a plan to distract the superhero community and render several of their most powerful members out of commission in order to make his plan for world domination all the easier.
We then finally see Darkseid harness the power of the Anti-Life Equation that he has wanted for so long. By unleashing the Equation, he is able to enslave most of humanity under his control and forces them to do his bidding and eliminate anyone who still has free will. It takes the combined effort of Batman shooting Darkseid with a poison bullet and the Black Racer attacking him to finally rid the Earth of his evil and free humanity from the effects of the Anti-Life Equation.
3 DOOM: SECRET WARS
Doctor Doom has always had a claim to power. Whether it be superhuman abilities or absolute rule over the country of Latveria, Doom is among the most powerful villains in all of comics. When the multiverse was destroyed after the Marvel 616 Universe and the Ultimate Marvel 1610 Universe collide, Doctor Doom, Dr. Strange and Molecule Man are able to channel the power of the Beyonders to recreate reality into a patchwork of ideas, concepts and realities called Battleworld.
Doom rules over Battleworld like a medieval king and is considered the God Emperor of his domain. Strange acted as his sheriff and many of Marvel’s popular characters were reimagined as lords and barons within his kingdom. There were even legends that exist of how Doom created the universe. Jonathan Hickman’s “Secret Wars” depicts the survivors of Earth-616 and Earth-1610 discovering this new reality and fighting to restore what they once knew. Doom, of course, does not go easy on our heroes, but eventually succumbs to the failings of his own hubris.
2 PRESIDENT LEX
At the turn of the century, DC Comics decided to make Lex Luthor the President of the United States. If you’re wondering how that could happen, just understand that the voters of the DC Universe are fickle people. In-universe, it’s a big deal when you rebuild the earthquake-ravaged Gotham City in a matter of six months. The superhero community is left stunned and leave Luthor with a message to do the right thing... or else. Of course, this is Lex Luthor we’re talking about, so he doesn’t take their advice.
As President, he frames Bruce Wayne for the murder of Vesper Fairchild (as seen in the Ed Brubaker storyline “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive") and leads the country against Imperiex during the “Our Worlds at War” crossover event. It was during this event that we discover he had advanced knowledge of the coming attack and failed to act in time for his own twisted reasons. The opening story of Jeph Loeb’s and Ed McGuinness’ “Superman/Batman” title deals with the end of Luthor’s presidency. Superman and Batman are attacked by heroes and villains alike as they launch an attack on the White House.
1 SECRET EMPIRE
In the fallout of “Avengers: Standoff,” the Red Skull is able to use a sentient Cosmic Cube to alter Steve Roger’s memories and turn Captain America, his long-time adversary, into a secret Hydra sleeper agent. Red Skull soon learns that Rogers is far more capable than he thought, and Cap goes on to enact his own plans to return Hydra to its former glory. He schemes behind the scenes of the Marvel Universe while maintaining his cover as a hero.
As he attempts to enact his plan, he is forced to push Jack Flag from an airplane to his eventual death. He works to discredit Sam Wilson in his role as Captain America and actually instigated the events that transpire during Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez’s “Civil War II.” By the end of the crossover, Steve Rogers gains control over S.H.I.E.L.D., and he is ready to enact the next part of his plan. Whatever Marvel has in store for “Secret Empire,” it is sure to be the most insidious rise to power the comic book world has ever seen.
Which rises to power did you like to see unfold in the comics? Let us know in the comments!
“Secret Empire” #0 will be available in stores in April, 2017.