Who Are the Best Comic Book Villains?
Life is a balance. Hot vs. cold, up vs. down, and yes, even right vs. wrong/good vs. evil. Because of that balance, we need bad guys to make our good deeds stand out, right? After all, comic-dom would be boring and bleak indeed if the worst thing Superman came up against was a kitten in a tree. But who is the worst? The evilest? Who are the ones that no one ever says “he was such a quiet fellow”? There are a few that come to mind, and to be honest, the ones on this list would never be mistaken for “nice guys”.
Below is a list of each age I have compiled (with a ton of brainstorming help from my buddy FC) from bad to the baddest of them all. Keep in mind, while many of these villains run through the comic ages, I am listing where they got their start. Let’s start counting down!
Who is your favorite comic book villain? Leave a comment below.
Who are the Best Golden Age Comic Book Villains? (1939-1949)
#5 Hitler: Real Life Comics #3 (Nedor Publications, 1941)
While the United States attempted an air of neutrality, it was becoming more and more apparent we were going to be drawn into WWII. A full 9 months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Captain America can be seen taking it directly to Hitler himself in Captain America Comics #1 (more on this later). This opened the floodgates of the propaganda machine and what follows are years of comics depicting Hitler getting his butt kicked both figuratively (Batman #18) and literally (Supersnipe Comics #9). Heck, we even tell him where to go by tossing him in Hell…. Twice! (Supersnipe Comics #8 and Great Comics #3). Even his lackeys weren’t safe from our wrath with Hirohito and Mussolini catching a lot of our ire.
#4 Lex Luthor: Action Comics #23 (DC, 1940)
Lex is really only #4? For a villain with no powers, Lex’s mind is his weapon. His real problem is the same as most criminals. If he put his genius mind towards doing good, think of how better the world would be! Instead, his main goal is to eliminate the one person that does what Lex should be doing. Ironic? Yes. Coincidence? I think not! Action Comics #23 is his first appearance and has been steadily increasing over the last decade as collectors realize his importance to Superman.
#3 The Claw: Silver Streak Comics #1 (Lev Gleason, 1939)
A monstrous villain that only cared about domination, The Claw first appeared in Silver Streak #1 (pictured). In Silver Streak #2, Hitler asks The Claw for help in winning WWII in return for half of Europe. Fortunately for us, Silver Streak tricked them into battling each other and plans for world conquest fell by the wayside. The evil of The Claw remained unabated, but luckily, he always lost. Pictured is his first appearance.
#2 The Red Skull: Captain America Comics #1 (Timely, 1941)
Captain America Comics #1 is a super key book. Not only does it depict a direct attack on Hitler nine months prior to the US entering the war (and the first in comics), but it is also the first appearance of the Red Skull. A foe that still hasn’t been defeated, the Red Skull has been a thorn in Captain America’s side through the decades. While Captain America Comics #74 is his most well-known cover appearance, he mainly worked in the shadows inside the comics, not showing himself on the outside often.
#1 The Joker: Batman #1 (DC, 1940)
What makes The Joker so likable as a villain, but also so evil you really wouldn’t want to meet him in real life? Personally, I believe it is the inability to predict or understand him. The Joker is so mentally gone, that you don’t really know if you are going to get quirky and “fish guns” (Detective Comics #475), or just plain murderous (Batman: The Killing Joke), but that is what makes him so much fun to read. It all started here though, with Batman #1. Coincidentally this also brings another villain in who didn’t make the top 5 but isn’t a slouch either: The Cat, or Catwoman as she was later named. FYI, the finest copy to ever be graded is going up for auction right after this is published so watch carefully, as records may be shattered (just click the picture to see the link).
Who are the Best Comic Book Villains from the Atomic Age – 1950-1959?
#4 The Mob: Underworld Crime #7 (Fawcett Publications, 1953)
There aren’t too many Atomic Age bad guys, primarily because of two reasons: First, the length of the Age is pretty small (I cheated and extended it a few years, but in reality, it only goes to 1955). Second, the comic industry almost completely collapsed by 1955 and almost everyone went out of business with the exception of a handful of publishers. During that time though, many crime books were rife with images of the mob getting their due by hook or crook. While the mob didn’t originate in the 1950s, it sure became the main focus of many a comic.
#3 Communism: Battle Cry #1 (Stanmore, 1952)
Again, while Communism didn’t start in the 1950s, this is the age of McCarthyism and most of the war books at the time were rife with images of knocking out or fighting against it. Battle Cry #1 shows just how brutal war is, and how fast we wanted to stamp out Communism.
#2 Yellow Claw: The Yellow Claw #1 (Atlas, 1956)
The Yellow Claw got his origins in a title named after him in the 1950s. An ancient being of Chinese ancestry, the Yellow Claw has spent his life in pursuit of world domination. He has the power of magic and the ability to reanimate the dead (source: wiki). His grand failure though is through his heir. Shang Chi, the Master of Kung Fu is his direct descendant was to do his bidding and take his rightful place by the Yellow Claw’s side, however, he became a force for good, thwarting the Yellow Claw whenever and wherever he could.
#1 Brainiac: Action Comics #242 (DC, 1958)
As I said earlier, I took a small liberty with the years. While the Silver Age started in DC in 1956 with Showcase #4, the Marvel revolution didn’t really start until 1961 with Fantastic Four #1. Since I am a Marvel guy I tend to go with 1961 when I think “Silver Age”. That, and it allows me to insert Brainiac as the coolest bad guy in the 1950s. I have always loved Brainiac. I don’t know if it is the computer logic, the fits he causes Superman, or the cold arrogance. No clue. But I have always loved him and this book. The deep purples are difficult at best to find in decent grade with no fading. Because the book came out in the 1950s, finding a high-grade copy is all but impossible. How difficult you ask? The highest graded copy is a lone 9.0. Compare that to a 9.8 Captain America Comics #1 that came out a full 17 years earlier, or the highest Batman #1 at 9.4 that came out a full 18 years earlier. You have a better chance at winning the lottery than you have at finding a raw copy that would grade 9.2.
Best Comic Book Villains from the Silver Age: 1960-1969
#5 Sinestro: Green Lantern #7 (DC 1961)
My favorite Silver Age villain comes from the DC Universe in the form of Sinestro. Having been a former Green Lantern himself, Sinestro knew all the tricks of the trade and hated the limitations that the Guardians placed on him, so he went rogue. Causing Hal Jordon many problems through the years, Sinestro wields power through a yellow power ring (the color that a Green Lantern holds no power over), and attempts to eliminate all Green Lantern and Guardians.
#4 The Kingpin of Crime: Amazing Spider-Man #50 (Marvel, 1967)
While a classic cover in its own right, the more important part of this book is the first appearance of the Kingpin. Bullied as a kid for being overweight, he went on to learn to fight and soon started moving up the ranks of organized crime. Once he took over, there was no removing him due to his shrewd scheming, and always being one step ahead of his enemies. While he got his start in Amazing Spider-Man, and has made many appearances through the decades, his longstanding fight has been with Matt Murdock aka Daredevil.
#3 Loki: Journey into Mystery #85 (Marvel, 1962)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe and the portrayal of Loki by Tom Hiddleston on the silver screen made him all the more popular, but Loki has been around for decades wreaking havoc for Thor. With illusion and magic, he tries to dupe and manipulate those around them into doing his bidding. As with many villains, greed and overconfidence tends to be his downfall with the heroes constantly getting the best of him in the end. This doesn’t stop him from trying though!
#2 Green Goblin: Amazing Spider-Man #14 (Marvel, 1964)
The ultimate nemesis of Spider-Man (and believe me, Spider-Man has a lot of foes), Norman Osborn is a brilliant and shrewd businessman who moonlights as the Green Goblin. After he tries out the Goblin Serum, he goes crazy and attempts to destroy Spider-Man through various means at different times. What makes him so great as a villain though, is the intertwined story of knowing Spider-Man’s secret identity of Peter Parker. This knowledge directly leads to the death of Peter’s longstanding love of his life, Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man 121. Balance restores itself the next issue with the death of Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-Man 122.
#1 Dr. Doom: Fantastic Four #5 (Marvel, 1962)
Was there any doubt it was going to be Dr. Doom as the #1 Silver Age villain? Probably not. I told three people I was doing this article and every single one of them told me Dr. Doom needed to be #1 in the Silver Age. This was after I had already picked him so I suppose I am lucky I got it right! Being the rightful ruler of the world… ahem… I mean Latvia, Doom has complete control over his country and demands nothing but strict obedience from his subjects. Doom lusts for power and is always scheming for more (like most villains). The difference is, he sometimes obtains it which can be very frightening. Life as we know it would not exist if he held something as powerful as the Infinity Gauntlet or got a hold of the power of the Beyonder (which actually happens in Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars).
Best Comic Book Villains from the Bronze/Copper Age: (1970-1989)
A fundamental shift happened with this age. With the exception of a few purely evil individuals, 3 of the 5 (#4, #2, #1) on this list have universe-altering powers the likes of nothing seen in prior ages. This is the reason for their inclusion as these villains have power the likes we had never seen before.
#5 Ra’s Al Ghul: Batman #232 (DC, 1971)
A longtime foe of Batman, controller of the League of Assassins, and father of Talia Al Ghul, Ra’s originally came into the picture to find a suitable husband for his daughter. Ra’s uses the Lazarus pits to extend his natural life, and losing a bit of his sanity and humanity every time he does so (not to mention the world domination aspect), is a bit off-putting to the cape crusader and they became bitter enemies.
#4 Dark Phoenix: X-Men #101 (Marvel, 1976)
The fact that I have this on a list of villains is sure to create an argument, but I believe I am totally justified. When Jean Grey is in control, she is a kind, good-natured, loving human being. Behind that visage though lies something evil and is darkness personified. Lest we forget that the Dark Phoenix snuffed out 7 BILLION lives without a second thought. The more time moved on, the more evil the Dark Phoenix persona generated. As a point of contention, I am sure, is the fact that Jean and the Dark Phoenix persona are two separate entities, although this is written into Marvel canon with the real Jean Grey coming back into the universe via X-Force #1.
#3 Carnage: Amazing Spider-Man #361 (Marvel, 1992)
The first appearance of Carnage shows up here, and while it is toying with the Modern Age of comics, I will sneak it in here, not because I need another villain, but because he is so crazy evil that he deserves to make the list. Why not Venom you ask? I tried to avoid characters that were not 100% villain. For example, Venom was only really a villain to Spider-Man, but he was also someone that didn’t go out of their way to be bad all the time. The same cannot be said for Carnage though. Cletus Kasady was already a crazy murderer and his symbiote just increased the lust to do so. What was created, was a monster of epic, evil proportions, and if it ever comes to the big screen, one can only imagine how brutal it will be.
#2 Darkseid: Forever People #1 (DC, 1971)
Make no mistake, this is the first full appearance of Darkseid, with everything else prior being a cameo. More on the cameo vs 1st appearance argument in a different article (it will coincide with when I want rocks thrown at me while walking down the street lol). Created as part of Kirby’s 4th World, Darkseid has proven to be one of the most dangerous foes in the DC Universe. Even worse, his Omega Beams have the ability to wipe almost anything out, and have a serious effect on Superman. Darkseid rules his planet with a steel fist, and will wipe out anything that gets in his way large or small.
#1 Thanos: Iron Man #55 (Marvel, 1973)
Thanos should need no introduction because I honestly believe everyone on the planet has seen Avengers: Infinity War, if not once, but twice. Anyone who decides that half of all life in existence should be wiped out at the snap of his fingers definitely deserves to be in the top 5, but the fact that Thanos did so without pause ranks him up to #1 by a clear margin. After battling Captain Marvel many a time, Thanos pursued the Infinity Gems and putting them into the Infinity Gauntlet where he could control reality at his whim. The only other time someone had this much power as a mortal was when Dr. Doom snatched the power of the Beyonder. Godlike power does not make mortals gods though, and with the help of dozens of heroes, Thanos has been banished to scheme and plot once more.
As I said at the start, balance is what makes the world go around. Without these villains, would our heroes ever really become such? If they didn’t have that defining nemesis, Thor vs. Loki, Batman vs. Joker, Superman vs. Lex Luthor, would they have really understood right from wrong and stayed on that path to being so noble?
I like to think that the villain actually caused the hero to be so great, as, so many times they are thrust into that role unknowingly. It is only in the depths of that villainy we see how amazing those heroes we look up to, actually are. (One more thanks and shout out to FC for brainstorming with me for hours to help come up with this list).
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