Ok, I think I’ve found the superhero with the best rogues gallery, in my opinion of course. Spider-Man, and not just because I grew up with him and he was my family’s favorite hero.
I think there’s two big reasons.
- A good power set. Spider-Man is in a sweet spot, strength-wise, where you can pit both low-end nominal humans and strong supervillains against him without it seeming too implausible. This isn’t like (and I know I’m using DC here) Superman where his foes have to be either cosmic or kryptonite-based, or a Daredevil/Batman/Punisher where they have to be weaker.
- The lack of an “evil counterpart” for a while. Evil counterparts are tricky. They have to eventually lose, but they’re symmetric so the fights frequently become less than ideal. The Hulk (Abomination) and Iron Man (A parade of power-suited villains) are notorious for this. It took Spider-Man decades to get a direct evil counterpart in the form of Venom, and even he’s better than most.
This, mixed with silver age creativity, makes Spidey’s villains memorable. Sadly (or maybe not sadly), Marvel has had an aversion to making new villains for a while. I’ve heard part of it is a reluctance by writers to create something they won’t have financial or creative control over, but that doesn’t explain all of it. I think it’s just because the comics themselves are doubling down on being niche, while the movies still have decades of material to mine.
So, reading the latest entry in Marvel’s new Elektra series, I began to fill with rage. This was bad-and not the sort of enjoyably bad I can chuckle at, this was-bad bad. Ok, at least I can have fun screaming at it.
I’ll admit the only reason I read it was because it had Arcade in it, making me perhaps the only person to check out comics for that character. And maybe I shouldn’t have. It’s awful. Terrible. Turgid. Has no sense of fun for what should be a zany trip to Murderworld. Arcade is working for the Kingpin and he’s rambling, and Elektra’s rambling, and the whole thing is an unintentional parody of an unintentional parody of Frank Miller’s classic style. It’s eighth-rate noir (suddenly, This Is The Police doesn’t look so bad) interspersed with a deus ex machina-resolved fight against an Arcade-piloted giant robot that only served to remind me of Arcade’s far superior portrayal in Ultimate Alliance.
There’s no reason for this series to be here. And this brings me to the next topic of this post. There is an unmistakable comics diversity problem. It’s just not that kind.
The “Marvel Diversity” controversy is something I’ve tried to bypass. I tend to just ignore it or roll my eyes at either the most ridiculous demands on the internet or the most hamfisted attempts to implement it. I couldn’t even react with the sense of bemused chortling I had with the internet slapstick that ensued when Blizzard made Overwatch star Tracer a lesbian. (My slightly tasteless guffaw was that she would make history–by being someone that fanfic shippers would force with no evidence into being straight.)
I think there is a diversity problem in comics, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what the characters are. No, it involves an excessive diversity of titles that dilute and get tangled in each other. Elektra got involved in a wave of Daredevil spin-offs around the same time. Is there really a need for this? Really? And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
To return, one footnote that shows how twisted and tangled this whole comics mess is that there were multiple recent low-number Elektra titles. It took me a bit of effort, I can’t imagine what it would be like for a comics neophyte.
Like I’ve said before, superheroes are held down by comic books. You could argue they’ve outgrown them. The millions of people who bought Ultimate Alliance saw an Arcade far closer to his original form, and his character concept than the low thousands who bought the 2017 Elektra or his abominable butchering in Avengers Arena. And for that I’m thankful.
Actor Adam West, best known for his role on the 60s Batman TV show, has passed away. RIP.
The show was actually close to the comics of the time. It was the Silver Age, and Batman was collateral damage in DC pushing the Comics Code to eliminate horror comics. So, you probably couldn’t get much “better” in storytelling than what they got. Besides, the show actually helped turn an obscure villain-the Riddler-, into a major foe thanks to Frank Gorshin’s classic portrayal.
I love superheroes. But I generally don’t like the big two superhero comics.
The movies (which are of course, the real deal with superheroes today), I have only polite neglect of. It’s not considering them bad, just not interested. The comics, on the other hand, are inherently limited by their very nature. As talented as individual authors can be, it’s just a Sisyphean task when you’re dealing with a never-ending soap opera with no closure and no limitations. Made worse by the constant super-events where they promise everything will change. Uh-huh.
The economics of it are also pretty interesting-the movies have to be smooth-edged to as big a target audience as possible, while the actual comics are niche and thus disproportionately vulnerable to fringe pressure. There are of course exceptions to both sides, but it leads to the ‘barbel effect’ of pushing to both extremes.
My family is a big superhero family (and a Marvel one, I might add), and I have bought and read comics pretty extensively, so it’s not like I absolutely hate them beyond reason. It’s just-there’s inherent structural problems.
Which is why I’ll admit to liking the stories that embrace the inherent silliness and don’t try to be more than 60s Batman-level fun more than the ones that try to make a silk purse out of the limited, constrained mess.
Arcade, one of the Marvel villains ideal for one story, yet utterly unable to work in anything beyond it.
Arcade, for most of his existence, was/is a normal human in a bad 70s suit and giant bow tie who builds deathtrap amusement parks called Murderworlds and has an inexplicable ability to capture superheroes and plop them in there. Appearing in the second-rate title Marvel Team-Up, by all means he should have been a one-issue wonder who would be “lucky” to be a victim of the Scourge, a character created to eliminate “embarrassing” villains.
Instead, the legendary Chris Claremont liked the character and used him as an X-Men villain, and he became a B/C-list supervillain, even earning a place in Marvel Ultimate Alliance.
There have been multiple attempts to make Arcade a “serious” threat, the largest and most recent being the Hunger Games/Battle Royale ripoff Avengers Arena. None have worked. How could they work? It takes so much effort to force a character whose gimmick is ridiculous even by comic-book standards that one might as well make a new character or use someone more appropriate.
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Thankfully, the version that I call “Classic Arcade” is an ideal ‘filler’ villain that almost any low-mid level superhero can face. The amusement park gimmick can make for some interesting visuals, and Arcade rarely facing the heroes directly means his reappearances aren’t quite as contrived as-well, everything else about him.
The Ultimate Alliance appearance uses Arcade well, with his presence being an excuse to have a carnival level and some extra-hammy voice acting.
Even crossovers can work-there is nary a Marvel crossover I’ve come up with that doesn’t involve the other crossover characters being tossed into Murderworld.
Now, there’s arguably little that’s truly original. This is why, when I make my superhero fantasies, it’s not difference of powers that I focus on so much as difference of character.
But one bizarre coincidence, notable in almost how exact it is, and how coincidential it is, has stood out. See, there’s a character who can manipulate time, using it as de facto teleportation to outmaneuver enemies.
That describes Overwatch’s hero and mascot Tracer. But it also describes a supervillain in a notorious tie-in comic made twenty-five years before. The comic was NFL Superpro, one frequently trotted out as one of the worst of all time. The villain was, with a name fitting the football style, Instant Replay.
Instant Replay appeared twice, the second time also having an oddly coincidental connection to Tracer, as he had been phasing in and out of time uncontrollably, then semi-controllably. In both cases, he was defeated in a few panels (although the second time, the Superpro needed the help of his non-superpowered niece. Really).
So, either this is a massive coincidence, or someone at Blizzard decided to base a prominent figure in their newest flagship game on a throwaway villain in a decades-old throwaway comic. The latter is unlikely, and Instant Replay’s own style bears similarity to GI Joe’s Snake Eyes.
But it’s still an interesting thing to behold.