Monday, November 20, 2006


Nobody ever talks about Copperhead. But, then again, why should they?

Copperhead wasn't created to be a headliner. The A list -- people like the Joker, the Penguin, Two-Face, the Riddler, the Catwoman -- were clearly designed from the get-go to be solid repeating, single-handed foes of the Batman. They are the only villains in their initial stories, they go one on one against Batman, in several rounds. They have gangs; they go uncaptured; they know they're coming back.

Copperhead didn't debut in Batman or Detective; he debuted in Brave & the Bold (that's one strike). If you're going to be a serious member of a hero's rogues gallery, you've got to hold out for one of the hero's own titles, no matter what your agent says.

Copperhead was created as plot device, almost a prop (that's two strikes). The focus in Brave & the Bold was always on the heroes who were teaming up; the situation or opponent they faced together became a mere detail. Oh, sure, Copperhead got nice placement on the cover, because he's got a nice visual; but don't let it fool you, the real focus of the story is Wonder Woman and Batgirl.

This is the story in which Batman asks Wonder Woman and Batgirl to pretend they are in love with him and to compete for his affections; this is to confuse Copperhead. Well ... it certainly confused me.

Naturally, the "girls" get caught up in their romancing and actually do fall for Batman, and their rivalry works to Copperhead's advantage. Don't believe me, but H at the Comic Treadmill would never lie. It's comics like this that make me realize how lucky we are to be living NOW, where the stupidest thing we have to put up with is four issues of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman sitting at a table, looking at photos, and making fan ficish swipes at one another.

In case you don't click on the link to enjoy H's recap of the story, know at least that Copperhead was created in 1968 by Bob Haney (Strike three!). "Zany Haney" is not known for his creation of viable, interesting villains. Anyone remember the Separated Man?

Copperhead's first appearance set the pattern for his later ones; he never hung out with the real Batman villains mentioned above, even in those stories where they all appeared (such as the "Who Killed the Batman?" saga).

No, the Snakey One became more of a "utility player", an all-purpose villain. You know, the kind you have in a group of villians from different rogues gallery without worrying that he'll overshadow the group, or that fans will complain he's being given short shrift. He's villain filler, evil yeast, criminal padding. He's the kind of guy who goes drinking with Cutlass Charlie or the Golden Dart.

Which. of course, made him a natural for the horribly-written-but-eventually-influential Secret Society of Supervillains series (1976). You remember Copperhead; he's the one who got captured. In the first issue. Almost immediately. Copperhead got to relive this honor when he was part of Luthor's Injustice League on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon; that's why he is the one the League captures.

Copperhead is emblematic of the "Dr. Device" villains, bad guys created to further a plot whose center lies with other characters. Many villains began as Drs. Device, for example, the Mad Hatter and Metallo. Some heroes, too; the Legion's Starboy was originally just a plot device in a scheme of Lana Lang's to make Superboy jealous. Only later do other writers latch on to these throwaway characters and, taking them at face value, start to evolve them into central characters.

But such is the mediocrity of Copperheard, that he's managed to avoid that kind of promotion. Oh, he tried to up his ante (as did many villains) in the Underworld Unleashed crossover (1995). Yet his "upgrade" was just another instance of Copperhead exemplifying villainous mediocrity; he was "zoonified" into a snake-man, rather than a man with a snake-themed gimmick.

Ugh. Zoonification is the same clumsy heavy-handed ploy used to ruin several other Batman villains, including Killer Croc and Killer Moth. It never works; try to feed Spider-Man villains to Batman fans and they just spit them back up at you. Attempts to zoonify high-profile villains like the Penguin (immunity to cold, flippers for hands) and Catwoman (Halle Berry, I like the film, no matter what they say!) were doomed to fan rejection and they people responsible for it have been buried in a shallow unmarked mass grave somewhere in rural Bialya.

The serpentified Copperhead did what all third-rate villians eventually do: joined the Suicide Squad. He survived that, but didn't survive his encounter with the Kate Spencer Manhunter; in fact, killing Copperhead pretty much made her super "rep". That's another purpose to villains of Copperhead's ilk; to be killed by someone else, establishing that character's superiority ("I'm not a third-stringer because I kill third-stringers!").

Even in death, Copperhead is an exemplar for other mediocre villains: he's been replaced by someone better, edgier, and female (she appeared recently in 52). The Mist, Spellbinder, et al.; they've got nothing on Copperhead!

So, I guess Copperhead was good at something after all; he's the perfect mediocre villain....


Anonymous said...

I had that comic (or a reprint) as a kid. Quite frankly, I enjoyed it a lot. Yes, it was goofy and illogical, but at the same time it was hilarious as well.

I'll happily take it over melodramataic navel-gazing or grim 'n' gritty.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Ah! A mention of my beloved homeland!

Let us now stand, join hands, and sing a rousing chorus of "Bialya, My Bialya!"

As far as characters like Copperhead, I refer to them as "story starch." They don't add flavor, they don't add nutrition, but they do add filler. They thicken the stew. No shame in that. Hard to get excited over starch, though.

Anonymous said...

He also was an avid collector of antique transistor radios, something we learned in his appearence in the early issues of STARMAN. His appearence there was basically the same as his appearence in MANHUNTER, but I've always thought that this non-snake-related quirk gave him a great amount of charm.

I always hoped that would be referenced in a JLU episode. "Not those radios! Their antiques! Batman, you clod!"

David said...

I thought his appearance in Starman was quite nice - as muscle who is designed to hold off a second-tier hero long enough for the main villian to escape, he was excellent. Also, he got the dandy character development there...

Chance said...

Batman... faked enjoying the attentions of two beautiful females?

For the plan. Yes. The plan.

Bill Reed said...

I dunno, I thought Copperhead was cool.

Anything created by Bob Haney is GOLD, man. GOLD.

rachelle said...

This post was great. I always thought Copperhead looked like a villain a small child would come up with. And you'd look at it and think 'Well, that's just silly.'

It's comics like this that make me realize how lucky we are to be living NOW, where the stupidest thing we have to put up with is four issues of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman sitting at a table, looking at photos, and making fan ficish swipes at one another.

You forgot to say 'sitting at a table, looking at ridiculous photos.' I stand by my belief that those photos are ridiculous. I don't care what robot took them.

rob! said...

hey, Copperhead has his own action figure, so he must be doing SOMETHING right!

Joe - said...

You made me sad for Copperhead.

Anonymous said...

Batman DOESN'T like being in the middle of a Wonder Woman / Batgirl sandwich?!?
Holy sexual dysfunction!!

Scipio said...

"I stand by my belief that those photos are ridiculous."

What, you don't think heroes have portfolios, headshots, and PR agents? C'mon, how do you think they get on these teams?

We need a miniseries on Murray Superstein, agent to the heroes.

SallyP said...

But...but the world NEEDS mediocre vilains!

Captain Great said...

It's comics like this that make me realize how lucky we are to be living NOW, where the stupidest thing we have to put up with is four issues of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman sitting at a table, looking at photos, and making fan ficish swipes at one another.

That's funny.

I think Copperhead is kinda kewl looking.

Anonymous said...

Batman, oh Batman, how spoiled ARE you, Batman? You've got wuh wuh WWWWWonderWoman wearing her wondersuit humping your leg right there on-panel and you're PRETENDING to enjoy it?
Oh my.
Oh dear.