Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Rungs of Villainy: Recurring Foe

What could be better than starring as a special guest villain?

Duh! Doing it repeatedly as a

Recurring Foe.

There are lots of one-hit-wonder villains out there (like our friend Blaze from the previous Rung of Villainy). But when you've appeared more than once as "the villain of the piece", that's a difference not just in quantity but in kind. For example, on the Batman TV show, Tullulah Bankhead played the Black Widow, but Burgess Meredith was the Penguin. (Did you know those two slept together once at a Hollywood party? It's best not to think about it, though.)

After you've appeared repeatedly as a villain, you become real. No one questions whether "you still ever existed in current continuity". You go from becoming the answer to a trivia question to an entry in the DC Encyclopedia. One-time villains tend to remain artifacts of their era; as fabulous as the Penny Plunderer was (and trust me he WAS fabulous), he's a product of an era when there were zinc pennies, penny slot machines, coin-operated payphones, and electric chairs. But a repeating villain of any era (like, say, Deadshot or Catman!) become "eligible" for a make-over or a "Transformative Experience" to make them acceptable to current continuity (and tastes).

Even if you trip over some swag and tumble ironically into a nearby vat of acid, the career you began as a Recurring Foe can live on without you. The most valuable commodity in the comic book universe is not novelty but name recognition. No matter how goofy your episodes or gruesome your end, the "Q" value of your name guarantees it won't go to waste. Someone else, at some point, will be tapped to follow in your footsteps.

There may be other Purple Pile-Drivers ... but you'll always have been the first one!

Why, think of all the Recurring Foes from decades past who got a new lease of life.

Or better yet ... name them!


Gordon D said...

You know, the prototype would have to be...the Riddler. One-shot in 1948; had a major comeback in 1965, can't think of Batman without him.

Anonymous said...

Technically the Riddler was a two-shot in 1948, appearing in Detective Comics #140 and 142. But who's counting?

Anonymous said...

The Riddler and the Penguin would qualify, except that their name recognition is heavily influenced by the successful TV series with Adam West and the "batpole".

One great example of what you're takling about is the Prankster. Not a particularly innovative idea, not even really original as a Superman foe – he was always too similar to the Toy Man. But he was a regular Superman villain for decades!

During the long winter that followed the Comics Code's creation, when writers were forbidden to tell stories about SO many subjects that Batman traveling to space every month is bizarre "Flash-Gordonesque" adventures, and Superman devoted 95% his time to foiling Lois Lane's latest attempt to expose his secret identity (the other 5% of his time was spent in the Bottled City of Kandor, fighting crime as the original 'Nightwing', because Lois wouldn't bother him inside the bottle)... During that period of CC-approved silliness, the Prankster experienced his time of greatness. He was Superman's own Riddler, because you could never predict what sort of psychotic (but almost always harmless) large-scale practical jokes the Prankster would come up with. When comics became grim-and-gritty the Prankster suddenly found himself discarded; he stopped getting calls from his agent, the other supervillains stopped inviting him to their evil conspiracies, and now Luthor probably didn't even bother inviting the Prankster to this new Society.

But once upon a time, the Prankster was easily one of Superman's Top Ten villains. You had Luthor, Bizarro, Brainiac, Metallo, Mxyzptlk, Toy-Man, Terra-Man, General Zod, Prankster... and you can complete the set with the silver-age supervillain of your preference. Hey, when Alan Moore wrote the Last silver-age Superman story, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, IIRC the Prankster was there. But nobody's interested in him anymore. Kids these days only want villains called Carnage, Violator or Bloodsport (no wait, Bloodsport is SO lame that not even "kids these days" like him).

Marionette said...

the other 5% of his time was spent in the Bottled City of Kandor, fighting crime as the original 'Nightwing', because Lois wouldn't bother him inside the bottle

Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "hitting the bottle" even if the motivation is similar.

Anonymous said...

The '90s Batman animated series made Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Scarecrow, Ra's Al Ghul, Scarface, Killer Croc, and other B- or C-List Bat villains to the forefront of a new generation.

James Robinson made the Mist (and his brood) and Ragdoll a major part of Starman, while giving nods to nearly forgotten heroes Phantom Lady, Balloon Buster, & Scalphunter.

Anonymous said...

Calculator is an interesting case-- he was designed to be a recurring villain, but a one-shot recurring villain. His run in Detective in the 70's was a limited affair, and I don't think he reappeared until Identity Crisis remade him.

Pity he lost hte purple jumpsuit and the LED visor!

Anonymous said...

Actually, ol' Calky did appear one more time, in an Atom/Air Wave team-up in the back of Action Comics. There's also a small cameo in the first Starman Annual!

Anonymous said...

And he was the villain in the Blue Beetle issue that took place from the viewpoint of a henchman (a disgruntled K.O.R.D. employee who goes back to henching out of disgruntlement). You know, the one that starts at the henchmen's cattle call:
"Let me in, Calculator! I used to work for the Atomic Skull!"
"Did you, now? Too bad for you the Skull is such a loser!"

Anonymous said...

I wasn't going to leave a comment until I finished catching up on this terrific blog, but I just wanted to correct a little something:

The Blue Beetle issue in question- #8 (Jan 1987) is, yes, wonderfully written (by Len Wein) from the perspective of a henchman- Buckley. But he wasn't a disgruntled K.O.R.D. employee.

He had been turned down for a job at K.O.R.D. earlier in the day, due to a lack of open positions. And this is what prompted his return to crime and... The Calculator

At the site of the heist, which was some tech convention, he runs into Kord himself, who tells Buckley that he truly sympathizes with his struggle to make a new life for him and his family as an ex-con, and that they'll find room for him at K.O.R.D., no matter what.

That's the kinda guy Ted was- class all the way.

I would say it's one of the best stories I've ever read and strongly recommend trying to find that particular back issue.

-Citizen Scribbler

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