Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Top Ten Best Superman Villains



One of the most common criticisms of Superman is that his rogues gallery is somewhat lacking. Toyman and Prankster are usually trotted out to back up this point of view, and considering they're essentially just two fat guys, then it's true to say that they don't really compare favourably to the likes of The Joker, Loki or The Green Goblin. But Superman's baddies are far more than two portly gents with bowties and killer pogo sticks. In order to demonstrate that Superman's nemesis's, nemesees, nemesi, whatever, are just as good (or bad) as Batman's or Spidey's, I present to you a list of the Top Ten Greatest Superman villains!

10) Titano


What's better than King Kong? King Kong with deadly Kryptonite vision! This seldom used misunderstood creature has all the tragedy and pathos of King Kong, with the added bonus of green ray beams that shoot out of his eyes. The fact that these ray beams are Kryptonite beams and therefore absolutely useless unless he's fighting Superman just adds to the goofy Silver Age fun. The best thing about Titano was the way he was eventually thwarted. Giant lead glasses!

Essential Storylines

'Titano the Super Ape' Superman #127 (1959)

The great ape's first appearance. Beauty doesn't kill the beast, but she does trick him into getting sucked back in time to a prehistoric age where he can live out his days walloping dinosaurs.

9) Terra-Man


Terra-Man is a space cowboy with alien technology who rides a flying horse. His alien technology includes expanding bullets and killer cigar smoke. Seriously, what's not to love about this guy? Okay granted, he was revamped in the early '90s as a boring eco-terrorist that eventually got ripped in half on live TV by Black Adam, but he was originally envisioned as a space cowboy with alien technology who rides a flying horse, and that's what we should focus on!

Essential Storylines

'The Challenge of Terra Man!' Superman #249 (1972)

Terra-Man's first appearance. Superman has to fight Terra-Man while suffering from hereditary Kryptonian Birthday angst that causes the Man of Steel to fly upside down and use his X-Ray Vision to stare at his own brain. It's just as awesome as it sounds!

8) Doomsday


The unstoppable monster that killed Superman has been somewhat overused in the past ten years. Also, for an unstoppable monster he's started to come across as distinctly stoppable. For example during the 'Our Worlds At War' crossover he was sent up against Imperiex (a Galactus rip off who can crap out smaller versions of himself) and fried within seconds of leaping into combat. This may have made Imperiex look pretty badass, but it was at the cost of seriously undermining Doomsday. Doomsday deserves better. After all, he did kill Superman (spoiler alert: Superman got better). Doomsday is at his best when he's written as he was originally conceived, a relentless, tireless, indestructible, destructive force. He's an uglier version of Hulk without Banner. He's a force of nature, a grey, bony tornado in green cycling shorts. This of course all serves a purpose. If Doomsday comes across as an almost godlike destructive force then the one person who can stop him is bound to come across as pretty damn special too. That person is of course, Superman.

Essential Storylines

'The Death of Superman' (1992)

Doomsday smashes his way across the United States and completely trashes the Justice League in the process. Of course then Superman shows up and eventually stops him but at the cost of his own life. This may be a six part punch up but it's genuinely entertaining. Writer Dan Jurgens focuses just enough on the ordinary people caught up in the destruction to suck us in, but never at the cost of the superhero/monster action.

'Superman/Doomsday: Hunter/Prey' (1994)

A sequel of sorts to the above story. Superman is back from the dead but so is Doomsday. Superman journeys to Apokolips to face him and learns Doomsday's origin in the process. The best thing about this story is that Superman is genuinely terrified at the thought of facing Doomsday again. The fact that he does it anyway highlights the true heroism and courage of the character. Also, Doomsday kicks Darkseid's ass, which is pretty satisfying.

7) Mr Mxyzptlk


He's the imp from the fifth dimension whose sole aim in life is to get on Superman's tits. Less a villain, more of a pain in the arse, Mxyzptlk represents the fun side of Superman comics more than any other Super-baddy. While a lot of the fun comes from his magical pranks, the most fun is to be had from Superman's attempts to trick Mxyzptlk into saying his name backwards, the only thing that'll send him back to the fifth dimension. While most villains received some sort of grim and gritty reboot in the eighties and nineties, the tone of most Mxyzptlk stories have remained much the same, which is good news for those of us who like our comics to be daft on occasion.

Essential Storylines

'The Mysterious Mr Mxyztplk' Superman #30 (1944)

This is Mxy's first appearance and his antics are genuinely hilarious. The bit with McGurk the statue is as funny as any Warner Bros. cartoon.

'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?' Superman#423 and Action Comics #583 (1986)

Just before John Byrne's reboot Alan Moore wrote this legendary two parter to close the book on Superman's Silver age adventures. An unknown villain is attacking Superman more ruthlessly than anyone ever has before. Spoiler alert, turns out it's Mxyzptlk. Apparently as an immortal he spent the first two thousand years of his existence doing nothing, then the next being good. All of his antics throughout Superman's career have been part of his two thousand years of mischief and now he's begun two thousand years of evil! This Mxy is as scary as the original is funny but even without Moore's fresh take on our favourite imp, this is one of the greatest Superman stories ever.

6) The Cyborg Superman


Hank Henshaw was an astronaut caught up in a radiation accident that killed his crew mates, including, ultimately, his wife. While Henshaw's body was destroyed he was given the ability to forge new bodies for himself out of any available technology. He eventually got his hands on Kryptonian technology and knowledge of Superman's genetic make up and made himself the body we all love to hate, that of the Cyborg Superman. Of course his ability to abandon and recreate bodies makes him completely un-killable, and thank goodness for that 'cos he's massive fun. Henshaw's biggest success was the destruction of Green Lantern's home town, Coast City while posing as the resurrected Superman. When I was a lad and I first read 'The Return of Superman' storyline as it came out I was totally convinced that the Cyborg was the real deal (I was eleven, give me a break) and the destruction of Coast City blew me away. Henshaw's such a great villain that he's too good to keep to one hero, so he's also a bit of a Green Lantern villain too. During the brilliant Green Lantern story 'The Sinestro Corps War' Geoff Johns developed the character further and changed Henshaw's indestructibility into his greatest weakness. Henshaw's sick of being a Cyborg killing machine and just wants to die, the one thing he'll never be able to do. It's this potential for great character development that continues to be realised, and the fact that he fooled gullible eleven year old me, that justifies Cyborg Superman's presence on this list.

Essential Storylines

'The Limits of Power' Adventures of Superman #466 (1990)

In his first proper appearance (he pops up in a few panels of an earlier issue) Henshaw and his crew get messed up by radiation big time in a twisted homage to the origin of the Fantastic Four.

'The Return of Superman' (1993)

The story where Henshaw first turned up in Cyborg form and made a big mess of Green Lantern's stomping ground. First rate '90s fun.

'The Sinestro Corps War' (2007)

Even if you don't believe me about the greatness of Cyborg Superman, check out this story anyway. The Cyborg is but one awesome baddie among many.

5) The Parasite


The Parasite was a janitor who peeked into a batch of radioactive waste and was transformed into an energy sucking, purple monster. Since he can absorb his opponent's powers and life force he's always been able to give Superman a run for his money. Originally named Raymond Maxwell Jensen and then updated to Rudy Jones, the Parasite has always been a credible threat to Supes and a character rife with story potential. There was a great 1994 story where Superman became overloaded with power and had to leave himself open to an attack from the Parasite in order to survive. Another great story development occurred in the mid-'90s when the Parasite absorbed the personality of a scientist named Dr. Torval Freeman. Freeman initially seems to be another tragic victim but gradually emerges as a ruthless, cunning and domineering personality that drives Rudy Jones to further villainy. Recently Geoff Johns has updated Rudy's origin further. In 'Superman: Secret Origin' Johns depicts him as the janitor for the Daily Planet, a fat slob who bums money and sandwiches off Clark Kent. Making Rudy a "parasite" by nature even before his accident seems such an obvious idea I'm amazed it's taken this long for a writer to think of it!

Essential Storylines

'Superman and Spider-Man' Marvel Treasury Edition #28 (1981)

Even though the Parasite is just a glorified henchman to Dr. Doom, it's still a real thrill to see Parasite absorb and duplicate Spidey's powers.

'Til Death Do Us Part' (2001)

The Parasite poses as Lois Lane. He then gives Clark Kent the elbow and has sex with Lex Luthor. That's right, you read that correctly, the Parasite has sex with Lex Luthor!  Eeeww!

4) General Zod



Not only is Zod one of Superman's coolest foes, but check it out, he according to artist Pete Woods he also looks like Ian 'Lovejoy' McShane!

These days Zod is one of Superman's most famous baddies, but originally Zod was just one of the many Kryptonian super-criminals who would periodically escape from the Phantom Zone to menace Superman. In fact out of all the Kryptonian baddies, Jax-Ur usually posed the biggest threat, rather than Zod. That was until 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman' II hit the big screen and Terence Stamp made Zod into into the iconic arch-foe we know today!

In 1988 writer/artist John Byrne gave Zod got one of his most memorable comic book stories. This version of Zod hailed from a "pocket universe" and he and his two Kryptonian chums had killed everyone on their Earth and were threatening to do the same to Superman's Earth. Superman felt he had no choice but to execute them with Kryptonite. This sent Superman crazy with guilt, and he vowed never, ever to take a life again. This particular plot point has been forgotten over the years, but I was very fond of it. It made Superman's famous vow against killing seem all the more meaningful since he had experienced what it was like to take a life. 

In 2009 Zod got some intriguing character development in the pages of 'World of New Krypton'. This version of Zod was a complex character who was undoubtedly a would be conqueror and grade A nutbar with a powerful hatred of Superman, but was also a hero to his people and a man who genuinely cared about the safety of Krypton.

Essential Storylines

'Last Son' (2008)

In this story penned by Geoff Johns and 'Superman: The Movie' director Richard Donner, Zod leads an army of Phantom Zone criminals in an invasion of Metropolis while using his own son as a pawn. The world's only defence? A team comprised of Superman, Lex Luthor, Parasite, Bizarro and Metallo! Seriously, this story kicks ass!

3) Bizarro


All the best stories contain both comedy and tragedy and Bizarro is a character capable of both of these at the the same time. He's like Frankenstein's Monster, if Frankenstein's Monster made a big cube shaped planet to live on and wore a huge stone medallion declaring himself Number One. Bizarro is the imperfect duplicate of Superman who's the character of a thousand uses. Much of the goofy Fifties and Sixties stories depicting Bizarro setting up home on Bizarro World with Bizarro Lois are great fun. On the other hand there are stories such as Bizarro's first appearance in 1958, where he tragically sacrifices himself to cure a girl's blindness, that are proper tear jerkers. There's also the scary side to Bizarro, such as when he murders the Human Bomb during 'Infinite Crisis', pummelling the man with the explosive touch to a bloody pulp just so he can see the "pretty lights". It's this versatility that has made Bizarro such an enduring character and the definite number three on my list.

Essential Storylines

'Bizarro, The Super-Creature of Steel' Superboy #68 (1958)

This is Bizarro's first appearance and he's depicted as a real misunderstood monster here. He wanders around saddened and confused by everyone's terrified reaction to his antics. You're kind of rooting for him, to the extent that Superboy, with his efforts to destroy Bizarro, almost seems like the bad guy.

'Escape From Bizarro World' (2008)

With a Bizarro World orbiting a Blue Sun, complete with Bizarro Lois, Bizarro Jimmy, Bizarro Perry White, Bizarro Luthor, a Bizarro Justice League and a Superman with 'Superman Vision' this is the ultimate Bizarro story. It's not just silliness though. There are some touching moments as Bizarro searches for guidance from Pa Kent and Superman remembers the great influence his Pa has had on his life. As well as a great Bizarro story, with amazing art from 'The Goon' artist Eric Powell, this was one of the last great Pa Kent stories before he kicked the bucket.

2) Brainiac


There are quite a lot of different versions of Brainiac out there, and this can put people off the character. Originally he was a green skinned, computer brained alien but in the early Eighties he was given a scary robot body. Scary robot bodied Brainiac was at his best during the 'Crisis on Infinite Earths' in 1986. There's a really awesome bit where an alternate version of Luthor points out that they don't need two Luthors on their bad guy team. Brainiac coldly and logically agrees with this and blasts alternate Luthor to bits. While Brainiac's coldness as he dispatches alternate Luthor is chilling there's also something quite touching about the way he prefers his universe's Luthor to the alternate Luthor. They are old pals after all.

Later that decade he was revamped again, this time as a disembodied alien consciousness that took over the body of a circus mentalist with real psychic powers. While that era's Superman seemed to come up against psychic foes quite a lot, Brainiac was so charismatically evil he still stood out from the psychic herd and he even gained a villainous goatee beard. Then came the upgraded versions of Brainiac from the future such as Brainiac 8, 12 and 13. In one particularly good story Brainiac 13 upgraded all the technology in Metropolis centuries ahead of its time. The current version of Brainiac (Version 2.5) was hiding in the brain of Luthor's infant daughter and the story ends with Luthor giving little Lena Luthor to Brainiac 13 in exchange for the secrets of the upgraded Metropolis. What a bastard! Eventually all these different versions were revealed to be probes sent out by the original Brainiac, who was so badass that he killed Pa Kent!

There are many different versions of Brainiac floating around but he's not really that complicated. All you need to know is that he's a green-skinned invader from space who has a computer brain and shrinks cities in order to put them in bottles. As if that wasn't awesome enough, sometimes he has a pet monkey.

Essential Storylines

'Panic in the Sky' (1992)

Brainiac has taken over Warworld and is coming to take over Earth. Superman teams up with just about every hero active the DC Universe of the early '90s to take him down.

'Brainiac' (2008)

This is the story where we find out that all the previous versions of Brainiac have been probes sent by the ultimate badass version of Brainiac that we meet for the first time here. Brainiac is built up as huge threat to Superman throughout the story, which makes it all the more satisfying when Superman kicks his ass.

1) Lex Luthor



There is only one man who can be described as Superman's ultimate foe. The fact that he manages this despite having no superpowers is just one of the reasons why he's so awesome. He's the Batman of super-villains. He walks among other villains who can grow to giant-size, move at the speed of light or live forever, and yet they all defer to him and they all fear him. Why? Because he's Lex Luthor! The greatest and most dangerous criminal mind of this and any another time.

Lex hates Superman and a character completely driven by hate is easy to relate to. He can become President of the United States, clone himself a new body or travel to the planet Lexor and we still understand him because we all know what its like to feel resentment towards someone who is our superior in some way. As far as Lex is concerned, in a world without superheroes men like him would be the heroes. If he can just get rid of Superman then he'll get everything that he's due.

Reading his stories you get the impression that one of the biggest reasons why Lex hates Superman is because Lex believes that everyone, deep down is as selfish and cruel as him. Along comes Superman, exposing Lex's world view as a lie. Superman does what he does because he wants to inspire the best in the people of Earth. In the words of Jor-El "They are a good people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. It is for this reason above all, their capacity for good, that I've sent them you, my only son." Naturally a man like Lex, who displays only the worst humanity has to offer, greed, cruelty, hate, is going to get on Superman's tits. Lex is the one man who refuses to be inspired by Superman and so he exposes Superman's world view as a lie too. That is why Lex is my (and everybody else's) Number One Superman Villain!

Essential Storylines

Pretty much every story he's been in, but here's two....

'The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman' Superman #164 (1963)

Luthor and a powerless Superman, bare chested and duking it out. What more do you need to know? Despite their sweaty punch up though, this story does show the softer side to Luthor as he becomes a hero to the people of another planet.

'The Secret Revealed' Superman #2 (1987)

In this story Luthor tortures Lana Lang, lords it over Superman with a Kryptonite ring and then finds out that Clark Kent is Superman. Of course he's such an arrogant bastard that he refuses to believe that a man with such power would want to pose as as a mere mortal. This story shows Eighties businessman Luthor at his best, or worst depending how you look at it.

So there we have the Top Ten Best Superman Villains Ever. Disagree? Angry at the absence of Metallo, Darkseid, Atomic Skull, K-Man, Mongul, Bloodsport, Conduit, Gog, Live-Wire, Shrapnel, Maxima, Riot, Black Zero, Silver Banshee or Colonel Future? Leave a comment and let us know!


Thursday, 1 November 2012

Review: Superman – Earth One, Volume Two



While I enjoyed J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis' Superman - Earth One, Vol. One, I couldn't help but feel that it was something of a wasted opportunity. The Earth One line is free from the constraints of the continuity and canon of the monthly Superman comics and therefore should be able to take risks and show us different and unique takes on familiar characters. I felt that Earth One, Vol. One was a good enough story but, aside from a few changes to the history of his home planet Krypton, it offered us no new insights into the character of Superman. Volume Two, I'm happy to say, is quite different. This book offers us a take on Superman that I genuinely feel couldn't have been offered in the main Superman title. As a result it has some uncomfortable moments, but these moments ultimately serve to make the book all the more rewarding. 

Straczynski's Superman, as in Volume One of this series, is very aware of his alien nature and as a result is quite a lonely, isolated figure. But unlike Volume One the tragedy of his isolation is communicated effectively by some very human moments. Clark Kent thinks back on the death of a childhood pet, and grows ever closer to his attractive new neighbour, Lisa Lasalle. These little identifiable insights into Clark's life and personality are far more than we got in Volume One and they make Clark's self imposed distance from the rest of the human race all the more poignant. His powers enable him to give his pet a unique and wonderful final, resting place and yet prevent him from getting too intimate with his new love interest.

The question of whether Clark is able to get intimate with a human is not the only potentially awkward area covered in this book. Straczynski also seeks to address that old question, “Why doesn't Superman end all war?” Towards the end of the book we see Superman interfering in a big way in the affairs of a foreign nation. In the more mainstream comics Superman has traditionally drawn a clear line for himself between being a friend who's here to support and help the human race and being an alien invader who's here to impose his will. He's careful never to cross this line. But this isn't the mainstream Superman. This version of Superman feels that he can't afford to “work within the system” as he puts it. He sees himself as separate from the human race, and even superior to it, and as a result he feels he has a responsibility to blur that afore mentioned line somewhat. It's a take on the character that's bound to feel uncomfortable for a lot of Superman fans, it certainly did for me. But I also feel that it's an aspect of the character that's worth exploring. Could a person with Superman's powers really completely ignore a lot of the suffering that goes on in the world, even in the name of the bigger picture of non-interference in human destiny? The alternate Universe of Earth One provides a perfect opportunity to look into this darker, more uncomfortable aspect of our hero and I applaud Straczynski for doing so.

The main villain of the story, The Parasite has a somewhat clich├ęd back story. The whole "bad seed who's protective of a younger sibling" trope has been used more effectively elsewhere, notably with the character of Captain Cold during Geoff Johns' run on The Flash, and in the recent DC Animated movie, Superman Vs. The Elite. And I can't help but wonder if the Parasite would have been a more compelling villain if he had been less of an irredeemable psychopath before his transformation.

The Parasite does however look fantastic. The decision to cover the Parasite in transparent green pustules was a brilliant one. He looks truly disgusting, a proper monster. I was less impressed however with other aspects of Shane Davis' art. His women all look the same. Lois Lane, Lisa Lasalle, and Parasite's sister Theresa would be indistinguishable from each other were it not for their hair colour. I was also disappointed with the design of a protective armour worn by Superman. It's certainly in keeping with the established look of Kryptonian technology but it's pretty boring to look at.


While Shane Davis' art wasn't completely to my liking I still feel there's a lot to admire about Superman – Earth One, Volume Two. If you're a hardcore Superman fan with a very fixed view of what is acceptable behaviour for a Man of Steel then you probably won't like it. But if you're interested in seeing an exploration of Superman's role on Earth that goes down some uncomfortable but intriguing avenues then you'll probably enjoy this book as much as I did.

I give Superman – Earth One, Volume Two 3/5.

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