Infinite Spider-Man 12.5: The Villains

Posted by Mister Mets 30 July 2012

Spider-Man has the best rogues galley in comics. But two of the most successful runs of Amazing Spider-Man were by writers who chose to eschew the familiar rogues in favor of a new approach. JMS focused mostly on new villains, while.Roger Stern pitted Spider-Man against bad guys from other franchises. It demonstrates a strength of the franchise. There isn't one obvious answer to the question of how to handle the villains.

There are still a few rules, but there's a lot of flexibility within that. Obviously, the villains should be impressive. And the writers should know what they're doing. If Spider-Man is beaten too easily, the character is diminished. If a villain is dispatched with ease, the villain is diminished. Some bad guys aren't meant to be A-listers, but the writers have to figure out what they're saying about the characters in the action sequences. That seems to be the main source of complaints regarding the treatment of villains for fans and critics.

Beyond that, the creative teams can have different approaches. If one writer chooses to introduce entirely new villains, he can do so. If someone wants to limit themselves to the A-list classics, that remains a viable choice. While I suspect that a good mix works best, I'm not sure it matters. If a writer has a particular philosophy for his or her own run, it won't affect the next guys.

There's stuff I might consider doing as a writer that I wouldn't insist on from anyone else. One group that's been ignored recently is the less famous more recent villains. There's something satisfying about using your own villains, and many writers have been fans of Spider-Man for a long time, so there is a desire to pit the wall-crawler against the bad guys from the comics that introduced them to the series in the first place. And those comics were disproportionately likely to feature a handful of villains who have been around for decades. So a creative team might distinguish themselves by focusing on Spider-Man's other villains, the ones whose fans may be too young to write Spider-Man comics, such as Fusion or Massacre. 

However, this may just be the least commercially appealing of the four approaches. Using famous villains makes sense because these guys have a built-in fan base, and Spider-Man fans like seeing their hero pit against his most recognizable enemies. Using villains from other titles could bring in some new fans who don't regularly pick up Spider-Man comics. And with new villains, newer readers and older fans start out on the same page. If obscure characters are used, it could be off-putting for anyone who hadn't read a particular part of the character's back-story. The story has to work for two different groups of readers: those who read the earlier appearance of the villain, and those who are introduced to the new bad guy.

Still, it's something I'd consider. If I was writing the books, the Chameleon could become a major player, as Secret Invasion showed how effective someone disguised as another could be. Doctor Octopus would get all previous charges against him dropped on a technicality, and become a private citizen for a while. There would be some new villains and supporting characters. And I would have big plans for Fusion.
It's worth looking at the many different ways top Spider-Man writers have handled Spider-Man's villains. Brian Michael Bendis reimagined most of the rogues gallery in 170+ issues set in the Ultimate world. He was patient enough to save some of his favorite villains until it made sense for the story, waiting nearly a decade to introduce the Ultimate Mysterio. But he may just deserve the most credit for that period when the best-selling comic book in the country had Norman Osborn as the lead.

Gerry Conway was the first writer to realize that Spider-Man had years of backstory. Revenge was often the motivation for his villains, including the Harry Osborn Green Goblin, the Jackal, the Punisher (who was tricked into thinking Spidey killed his best friend) and Tombstone. He also tied villains to members of the supporting cast, as in the case of the Man-Wolf and the Molten Man, now revealed to be Liz Allen's stepbrother.

Tom Defalco co-created Deliah, the Rose, the Black Fox, Puma and others. And then he went on to give Spider-Man's daughter her own rogues gallery. He also continued the Hobgoblin saga in both Amazing Spider-Man and the MC2 Universe, so he often had at least one "Big Bad" in the series. The one problem with Spider-Girl may just be that it's impossible for writers of the regular Spider-Man titles to implement her rogues gallery. An additional not insignificant accomplishment of Defalco's is how he essentially defined Dr Octopus's origin in two of his Spider-Man Unlimited issues.

Peter David's best work pit Spider-Man against somewhat ordinary bad guys. The Commuter was a thief who lived in the suburbs. The Sin-Eater was a maniac with a shotgun. Then there was MJ's stalker in FNSM. In addition to his quiet intimate stories, Paul Jenkins was also effective at having villains force Spidey to make almost impossible decisions. Joe Kelly's biggest arcs focused on the families of the bad guys, including Norman Osborn, Kraven and Hammerhead.

Stan Lee co-created most of the major Spider-Man bad guys, who generally had mundane motivations, such as making money and becoming New York City's top crime boss. That may actually be one of the biggest differences between Marvel and DC. I once pondered whether Alan Moore or Stan Lee had co-created more great comic book characters. And then I remembered that in addition to all the great superheroes and supporting cast members, Stan Lee had dozens of notable supervillains. That was the moment I realized he was the clear winner in that category, and may remain so .

David Michelinie may have co-created more memorable villains than any writer since Stan Lee, with Venom, Carnage, Cardiac and a few others. He was big on having interactions between villains, with the return of the Sinister Six, and Spider-Man often getting caught in a fight between other bad guys (Scorpion VS the Rhino & Whiplash, Green Goblin VS Hobgoblin). The risk there is that it can make the villains seem less impressive when they all have to work together against Spider-Man, but it ensures that the artist has something cool to draw, and that the hero faces a unique challenge. Sure, Spider-Man had fought the Rhino before, but he hadn't fought the Rhino, the Scorpion and Whiplash at the same time.

Mark Millar's villains were rather brutal, even when realizing their weaknesses, as when the Vulture decided to avoid challenging Spidey until he had all the right tools. Millar was responsible for turning Mac Gargan into Venom, a development I supported. But his main plan seemed to be to pit Spider-Man against villains even casual readers would recognize. Marv Wolfman brought back classic figures who hadn't been seen in a long time, such as the Burglar & Mysterio. He also introduced the Black Cat, and used the death of Spencer Smythe to further Spidey & Jonah's relationship. The stories felt substantial, even if much of it was reversed. Zeb Wells's specialty seems to be epic multi-part stories pitting Spider-Man against one of his greatest foes.

Stern was my favorite writer when it came to the question of Spider-Man's enemies. He may have been the first writer to have a clear philosophy about what villains Spider-Man should face, and why. Hea voided the trap of making Spidey's enemies less impressive through repeated defeat, while coming up with new challenges for the webswinger. But that doesn't matter as much as the awesomeness of the actual stories. And a lot of credit goes to the guys beating up on Spidey. "Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut" is one of the best fights in comic book history, and the best with Spidey. In addition to his focus on villains from other titles, Roger Stern is best known as the co-creator of the Hobgoblin. He also gave an origin to the Vulture, and revealed a secret from Mysterio's past. So he was willing to use the familiar bad guys when there were new wrinkles to explore.

Dematteis may just be my second-favorite. His villains usually had actual arcs in their storylines, while they were putting Spidey through hell. It wasn't just about finding someone for Spidey to beat up. Dematteis is probably the first guy you want for a mini-series about the villain in the next Spider-Man movie. He fleshed out the antagonists, and explored what made them tick. It's impressive what he managed to do with Mysterio and Electro in the space of three issues. He also had a tendency to kill off characters (Kraven, Dr Octopus, Harry Osborn, etc.) which made for effective self-contained arcs, but wasn't the best approach for this kind of serial.

Dan Slott has the potential to surpass either. The co-creator of new villains including Mr. Negative, Paper Doll and others, he's also willing to change the status quo for the villains, with a tendency to upgrade the classic bad guys (Dr Octopus, Scorpion & the Spider-Slayers) or give them new identities (Anti-Venom, Phil Uirch becoming the Hobgoblin.) He makes the classic villains more dangerous, but also managed to tell a good story with the Queen, an obscure opponent from the universally reviled Avengers Disassembled Tie-in. He's willing to consider every option for the sake of the story.

All these writers have succeeded at an important aspect of the series in their own way. But there is one problem with the traditional rogues gallery.

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