Would the Dark Knight be half as cool as he is without his rogues gallery? This topic is familiar to a lot of people who read Batman, and you might have debated this topic with others yourself. And I think it’s safe to say that we all agree: no, he wouldn’t be. Let’s take a look at what is, in my opinion, the second-greatest rogues gallery in comics: Spider-Man’s. Spidey has a rich and varied group of complex villains that bring as much to the story as any of Peter Parker’s own personal troubles. In the end, the villain has just as much to do with why you read the book as does the hero. Without the villains to push the hero, and give the reader a contrast, a set of moral dilemmas to wrestle with, the story loses a lot of punch.
Superman has an okay rogues gallery, but it drops off sharply after Lex and Brainiac. Sure, there are a lot of others, but none with a depth of interest to match Superman himself. Challenging the hero and making him try harder to win the day is the hallmark of a great villain. Stan Lee once said, “A hero is at their best when confronting a villain that’s stronger than they are.” I think this is sound advice, and one that writers of all genres should remember. While it might be fun to see the hero go up against villains in his or her own, it’s always going to be better when we see them triumph over greater odds.
Having a robust and large rogues gallery also keeps the reader from getting burned out on any one villain in particular through overuse, and it gives the writer a larger range of stories to tell. The motives of Doctor Octopus are far different than those of the Green Goblin, or Electro’s. With each new villain we see things through different eyes, and we find out more about our hero in how he confronts each new problem. In the case of the Lizard, Spidey is driven to help his friend Dr. Connors. A Batman story with the Joker, looks and feels totally different than one with Ra’s al Ghul as the main antagonist.
A good example of a great hero who lacks a good rogues gallery is Captain America. Sure, he has the Red Skull, but who else? Crossbones is a great character, but he’s a mercenary, not the type of villain that is the driving force behind a story. I think this seriously hurts the book. Without a deep pool of good archenemies to draw from, the writers tend to fall back on generic evil organizations, or recycle old story lines. A great villain introduced into the Captain America mythos, but then left to flounder in obscurity, was Inali Redpath, which appeared in Captain America Vol 4 #8. Redpath was a homegrown terrorist who fought to regain what he feels his Native American brothers had been robbed of. This brings in a great dynamic for a hero who ostensibly fights for the American Dream, which encompasses all its citizens. It raises serious questions that Cap needs to face, as he wears a symbol that was offensive to Redpath. This topic is much larger and more complex than the three issues it was wrapped up in. These are the kinds of villains that need to be dreamed up. Villains with the scope and vision to push the hero.
A great example of a writer who understands the importance of villains for a hero, in my opinion, is Geoff Johns. When Johns took over head writing duties for the Flash, he made it a point to build up what at the time had been considered one of the silliest of rogues galleries, into something to be respected. He took characters like the Trickster, Rag Doll, the Fiddler, Mirror Master, and especially Captain Cold and turned them into a respectable group, by giving them more depth and personality. Captain Cold has been forever changed by the blue-collar, no-nonsense sensibility Johns gave him. With a greater depth, the villains become more than just a stand-in for action while we follow the personal lives of the heroes, but a motivator that drives the story itself. In my opinion, the best way to improve any superhero title is to improve and focus on the villains as much as you do the hero. And the more villains you have, the more material for great stories you will have.
So if you ever find yourself at a convention, and you run into the editor for one of your favorite comic books (unlikely I know, because who can name the editor of their favorite books?), be sure to tell them that you want to see more villains for your favorite hero to battle, because nothing says good superhero comics like an evil villain with a great master plan.