Rave : 2009 : Spider-Man's Rogue Gallery

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Spider-Man and Batman have a few things in common. They are the most popular individual characters for their respective publishers. They have the most lucrative and well-regarded movie franchises. They've both supported several TV shows, both animated and live-action. They are in the very small group of superheroes instantly familiar to the non-comics-reading population.

And they have the best rogues' galleries. I think the latter goes along way to explaining the former.

Good villains make for good stories. A strong antagonist allows writers more opportunity to showcase the hero's virtues, and gives the hero's struggle against the villain dramatic weight. This is why both Spider-Man and Batman's movie franchises have occasionally produced films that collapse under the weight of all the supervillains featured in the film: movie types recognize that it's the villain who is ultimately the most interesting character. Sometimes they interpret that fact to mean that more villains equals better story, but that's a different rant.

So the depth of a character's rogues gallery is one of the factors that moves a character from the second tier to the top tier of comics stardom. Wonder Woman and Captain America, for all of their Golden Age roots, aren't as popular as you might expect, and one reason is because they have no rogues' gallery to speak of; Superman has a large one, but most members are lame. (Brainiac and Lex Luthor are good foils for the nigh-invincible Man of Steel, but the Prankster? Terra-Man? Villain, please.) All three of these heroes have been around for more than sixty years now, but for all of their cachet they can't compete with their colleagues who have a wider, richer array of antagonists.

In the Brand New Day era of Spider-Man, the character's writers have made a conscious effort to create new supervillains for web-head's rogues gallery, with disappointing results. Overdrive and Screwball are shallow, one-note affairs; Freak's appearance and powers change every time he appears, which deprives the character of the consistency necessary for a long-term recurring villain; and who knows if we'll ever see Paper Doll again. (Or want to.) The most successful new villain is Menace, who is burdened not only with a terrible name, but also with a derivative origin. Menace is just another Green Goblin knock-off, which is already a crowded field.

I can't fault the writers for this, because creative work is hard. Inventing new and exciting characters, motivations, and superpowers isn't easy, which explains why historically writers have leaned so heavily on existing villains who were well-crafted enough to click with the fans. Good villains make lots of return appearances.

They don't always make those return appearances in the same books, however. There's a long-standing tradition, at Marvel at least, of shuttling characters between rogues' galleries if they fit better somewhere else. The Beetle started out as a foe of the Human Torch before he joined the ranks of B-list Spidey villains. The process has gone the other way, too, with Spider-Man donating some of his grittier and more street-level antagonists - Mr. Hyde and the Kingpin, most obviously - to Daredevil.

In light of this, I propose that the powers-that-be at Marvel promote the following supervillains to the category of Spider-Man foe. They all fit two criteria: first, they are interesting enough to be able to support more stories being told about them, and second, they are at present not being used elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, so far as I know. Both features are important. Some characters exhaust all of their potential with one appearance (Overdrive, I'm looking in your direction) while others who have that potential are delivering on that potential for other heroes in other books. If a villain is working in his or her current context, that shouldn't be sabotaged.

So here are several supervillains whom I am nominating for induction into Spider-Man's rogues' gallery.

1) Lorelei. An vain Asgardian sorceress who was attracted to Thor and used her powers to interfere with him in various ways. Lorelei didn't have much to do in Thor's rogues' gallery, as her motivations and powers were too similar to those of her sister, the Enchantress. Not having any real role to play, writer Tom DeFalco killed her off to create a bit of pathos. So far as I know, she's still dead. I agree with DeFalco's decision: for THOR, she was a redundancy. But while the role of Tempter was already filled in Thor's book, it hasn't been filled in Spider-Man's for some time, not since the Black Cat got promoted from "foil" to "ally." Now that Peter Parker is single, the Tempter role would be a good one to fill. What's more, Spider-Man doesn't have too many magic-based foes. Lorelei fills both niches. And given all of the hullabaloo in current issues of THOR, bringing Lorelei back to New York City with an agenda of her own would be simplicity itself.

2) Nekra. A mutant who feeds off of violent emotion, Nekra has battled Spider-Woman, the West Coast Avengers, and others, but has never really belonged to any rogues' gallery. Most of Spider-Man's foes are thieves or gansters of one sort or another, interested mostly in lining their own pockets at the expense of others. Nekra doesn't fit that mold: Nekra is interested in violence and mayhem for the emotional hit it provides to her. This role - the Violent Force of Nature - used to be played by Carnage, but Carnage is pretty much exhausted as a character, I think. So let's let someone else step up to the plate.

3) The Wrecker. A really big, strong guy with a really big, strong crowbar. "Wait a minute," I hear you ask. "The role of the Brute is already filled in Spider-Man's gallery by the Rhino. Why add another?" Good question. The answer is that the Rhino has an extremely limited schtick: he runs into things and breaks them. That's it, I'm afraid. To my mind, he's only been used effectively in his first appearance, and as part of various supervillain teams - the Sinister Syndicate comes to mind. The only depth to his character is his inability to get out of his battlesuit, and we've been through enough pathos on that account already (there's a reason the Scorpion was promoted up to become the new Venom: like the Rhino, his potential as a character in his own right was exhausted). So let the Wrecker - with his intriguing magical background, his ability to go incognito when he wants, his occasional back-up singers in the Wrecking Crew, and his wide-open field of motivation - take the stage. Spidey needs a better Brute than the Rhino, and the Wrecker could be that Brute.

4) The Mad Thinker. Criminal mastermind who spars with the Fantastic Four. If the Wrecker is the Brute, the more physically powerful foe, than the Mad Thinker is the Brain, the more intellectually powerful foe. Spider-Man doesn't have a Brain in his rogues' gallery: Doc Ock and Norman Osborn may be more cunning, and have greater technical knowledge in a given field, but they can't beat Spidey in sheer intellect, or at least their strength as characters doesn't depend on that attribute. But the Mad Thinker, written well, can outthink Spider-Man, putting him in situations where his spider-powers are of little use. With the Awesome Android to provide physical back-up, adding the Thinker to the gallery allows for all sorts of different stories to be told.

5) Diamondback II. One obvious villanious archetype is the Doppelganger - not, in this case, an emotional or mental doppleganger, but a physical one, with a similar array of powers. Venom used to provide the former sort of doppelganger. The latter was provided by the Black Cat in former days, and by Screwball most recently. Spidey needs a foe as agile and quick as he is, who can allow for complicated fight sequences and cross-city chases. While both the Black Cat and Screwball can fill this role, both are essentially non-threatening, as neither is violent or evil; they're simply selfish. Diamondback II, seen only in the Secret War miniseries, seems more amoral and dangerous. And she certainly can be made that way: given how little screen time she's gotten, she's an almost completely blank slate that Spider-Man's writers can draw on as they wish.

6) Toad. Mutant with a variety of powers, notably leaping, but also a prehensile tongue. Another Doppelganger: as fast and agile as Spidey, so a good physical match-up. In terms of character, Toad has a long backstory with Magento and mutant agitation, so he`s a useful way to deal a little bit of X-Men style issues into Spider-Man: identity politics and terrorism, most obviously. This sort of thing is all right in small doses: bringing Toad in as a recurring character might provide an avenue for this kind of story without having to try readers` patience with team-ups and the like.

7) Madcap. Madcap was a creation of the late Mark Gruenwald as a foil for Captain America, but has drifted since then without mooring in any hero's rogues' gallery. Madcap boasts a healing factor Wolverine would envy, but he gained it in an bus accident that killed all of his friends and family, leaving him a nihilist who believes that nothing matters; a perspective he finds liberating and joyous rather than bleak. Clad in motley, he wanders about, spreading mayhem with his mental power to induce goofy madness in people, and totally removed from the consequences of his actions thanks to his physical immunity to pain and injury and his mental immunity to seeing the world as it is. Madcap is an interesting example of yet another villainous archetype, the Mocker, who calls into question the peace and order that superheroes represent. Spider-Man doesn't really have a Mocker in his rogues' gallery, unless one counts the Jackal of the Clone Saga period (and I don't). Madcap would be a good candidate for the role, especially as his character concept is defined by his insistence that great power doesn't bring great responsibility; that in fact no one is responsible for anything at all.

Agree with my nominations? Disagree? Have some better choices? Let me know! I'll try to compile the responses into a future Rave.

~Postscript~

This list used to have nine names on it, but now only has seven: Typhoid Mary and the Ghost were removed in the brief time period between the first and final drafts. Readers of Dark Avengers#1 and Avengers the Initiative #20 will understand why.

I guess Marvel Editorial agrees with me about these characters being too interesting to leave unused!