The History of Comic Book Villains: From Lex Luthor to Thanos

Almost all of us love superheroes, but they would be almost nothing if it weren’t for a foil that tried to hamper their plans of justice and peace. Someone has to be the antagonist in a hero’s story, and for that reason, supervillains are just as important. Even when heroes made their way to the big screen, having a good villain was the difference between a critically-acclaimed film and a panned one.

Today, we’re going to take a look at the history of comic book supervillains and how they came to be what they are today. Some of the fan favorites of today actually came much later than people may have thought, while some of the very first supervillains are completely forgotten about today. 

Humble Beginnings

Superman made his comic book debut with Action Comics #1, but he didn’t have a nemesis for the first dozen issues. In #13, Superman went toe-to-toe with a white gorilla named Ultra-Humanite. Originally, he was supposed to be the main supervillain, but that would change just a few issues later when Alexei Luthor and, of course, Lex Luthor, were introduced. Lex would become the main villain throughout Superman lore.

Ultra-Humanite became the first supervillain overall in June 1939, and the rest of the year saw three more introduced. Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created Ultra-Humanite while Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the next two: Dr. Death and The Monk. The two were Batman villains, with the latter not sticking around for long while the former was revived multiple times.

Continuing the Golden Age

The start of the 1940s was when things really ramped up for supervillains. Batman had four new adversaries in the first year with Hugo Strange, Catwoman, Clayface, and his archvillain, the Joker. Meanwhile, Marvel finally entered the foray of having supervillains with the introduction of Red Skull in 1941. Throughout the rest of World War II, many signature villains including Scarecrow, Two-Face, Solomon Grundy, and Black Adam were introduced.

Later Golden Age supervillains included Deadshot, Red Hood, Brainiac, Bizarro, and the Riddler. All of these, however, were great DC villains who became staples while Marvel still only had one that would land with readers. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Marvel switched from Magazine Management to Marvel Comics and introduced Spider-Man who came with a new slew of great villains.

The Silver Age

In 1963, The Chameleon became the first Spider-Man supervillain, but he wouldn’t receive as much fanfare as the ones who followed. The Vulture, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Lizard, Electro, Mysterio, Green Goblin, and Kraven the Hunter were all introduced in the following months and formed the Sinister Six. The faction, to this day, remains the key cog to the villain puzzle for the web-slinger.

Dr. Doom was also introduced around this time, giving all of the Marvel universe (and especially the Fantastic Four) a prime villain to take on. Loki, the Rhino, the Mandarin, the Scarlet Witch, and many others were introduced over the next couple of years to give Marvel a fantastic catalog of villains to pick from. The 1940s and 1960s proved to be the two best decades for introducing villains as it became hard to build upon after so many were established.

Taking a Step Back

Just because there was already a plethora of characters to use for DC and Marvel doesn’t mean the two publishers stopped adding to the list in the 1970s and 1980s. However, there were very few that resonated with fans during this time. For every Ra’s al Ghul, Thanos, or Sabretooth, there was an Egg Fu, the Matador, or Big Wheel. The 1980s saw the publishers make fewer attempts at new villains, but there were some winners including Killer Croc and Hobgoblin, with Venom being the best one of the decade.

And a Step Forward

After a couple of decades of blunders, comic book villains got back on the right track in the 1990s. The decade started out with the introduction of Deadpool, Carnage, Bane, and Doomsday. Harley Quinn was introduced to the comics, as well, after spending seven years as a cartoon-only character.

When superhero films started making their way to theaters, many of the classic villains were used up rather quickly. With that, DC and Marvel began using newer characters who were freshly introduced. For instance, Gorr the God Butcher was introduced in comics in 2013 and by 2022 was the main villain in “Thor: Love and Thunder”. Each year, we’ll continue to see new villains, but their impact on comics overall will remain to be seen as they’re becoming less frequent.

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