In 1997, while we were all mourning Princess Di and Batman and Robin and consoling ourselves with Dunkaroos and the immortal musical legacy of the Spice Girls, Marvel Comics pulled off a brilliant reveal in the pages of Thunderbolts #1. Created by Mark Waid and Mark Bagley, the T-bolts were a new superhero team on the Marvel scene with just a few guest appearances under their belt when they got their own title. Like a film studio paranoid about pre-release spoilers, Marvel had carefully managed their internal and external info chains (much more possible to do in those early days of the internet) so that readers would not have any advance knowledge of the collective “unmasking” on the last page of the comic. There it was revealed that these new “heroes” were, in fact, long established B-string baddies: the Masters of Evil pulling a fast one under the command of Baron Zemo. It was a brilliant story twist with an extended lead-in and has rightfully been tallied as one of mainstream comics’ most memorable moments.
And that clever reveal could’ve easily gone on to produce stock villainy in the subsequent issues but, thanks to the brilliance of writer Waid, instead, we watch as the Thunderbolts’ time of pretend-but-real superheroics begins to affect each team member differently. Doing good, helping others, starts to appeal to some of these former bad guys and the change in their priorities and personal worldviews becomes as thrilling as all the rest of the slam-bang-zap underwear fighting.
But this column isn’t about the Thunderbolts (a team and title that has had highs and lows over the years, but is definitely worth enjoying from the start), but, rather, the history of Marvel’s embrace of the idea of the reformed villain. As a subject, it occurred to me while working on my last column about the Black Widow, one of the most successful and high-profile of Marvel’s rehabilitated (hit the theme!).
Their “distinguished competition,” DC, has a long history of rescuing (or refreshing) their bad guys as well. Take Harley Quinn (please), who is their breakout psychotic-killer’s-psychotic-girlfriend turned oversaturated anti-hero with a plant lady girlfriend and a hit-em-over-the-head-with-a-lead-baseball-bat message of female empowerment. And thus has spawned a million Halloween costumes. And there are others. The Pied Piper went from being one of the Flash’s rogues to being Wally West’s best friend. For a time, the Penguin was a legit businessman and club owner. The Riddler put his amazing brain to use as a private detective. And there are plenty more. But, as a storytelling trope, most of DC’s heel face turns have been relatively recent (20 years or so is recent in that biz) and followed the general trend of “maturation” comics underwent in the mid-80s.
At Marvel, however, this kind of thing is built into their DNA, going all the way back to their beginning. Literally. In 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 from (pre-Marvel) Timely Comics, we are introduced to two of Marvel’s original Big Three. Captain America wouldn’t show up for a couple of years, but here we have the original android Human Torch and, most germane to this column, Namor the Sub-Mariner. Created by Bill Everett, Namor was an unlikely hero - mostly because he wasn’t heroic at all.
This “mutant before it was cool” Atlantean prince had a real chip on his shoulder when it came to the surface dwellers and spent the majority of his early adventures scuttling ships, battling the Torch in superhero comics’ first crossover, and raising tsunamis to drown Manhattan. It wasn’t until Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in the real world that Namor decided that Humanity (well, American Humanity) wasn’t so bad and joined the Human Torch and Captain America to fight on the side of the Allies as the Invaders. Since those heady days of WW2, Namor’s alliances and predispositions have repeatedly flip-flopped depending on the weather or whatever his mood ring dictates. Thus, we have Marvel’s first anti-hero (take that, Frank Castle). And the ranks only swelled from there.
In addition to ex-Soviet spy Natasha Romanoff, we have to include Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye whom she seduced into wrongdoing in his earliest appearances though we knew from the start he was only playing along because A) he was disgruntled that his archery skills aren’t being recognized enough on the carnival circuit (I know) and B) Nat’s hot. Hawkeye pretty quickly decides that being a hero suits him better and takes his rough-hewn Robin Hood act to the Avengers.
Much like Clint, Simon Williams was never really a bad guy. Nonetheless, he went to jail for embezzlement and was released through the manipulations of the Enchantress and Baron Zemo’s Masters of Evil (yep, the future Thunderbolts). Feeling indebted and hopeless, he allowed Zemo to give him experimental ionic powers - powers that would kill him if Williams didn’t receive special weekly treatments. Zemo also gave him a costume and the name Wonder Man (possibly the worst of the sins of which the Baron was guilty). Williams had no choice but to allow himself to be used as a Trojan Horse aimed at the Avengers. In 1964’s The Avengers #9, moved by the loyalty and camaraderie of his new super friends, Williams turns on his evil benefactors and sacrifices himself to save the good guys.*
Speaking of that team, fans of The Avengers comic circa 1965 were dumbstruck when the original lineup departed and Captain America announced to the world press that “the old order changeth” in issue #16. In addition to Hawkeye, the new Avengers team featured another pair of redeemed ne’er-do-wells Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. Scarlet Witch and her twin brother Pietro a.k.a. Quicksilver. Both of those characters, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, had premiered the year before in The X-Men #4 as members of their dad Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Neither really enjoyed the “evil” part of their membership duties, a fact divined by the ever open-hearted Captain America who offered them slots on the new Avengers team as a way of making up for their past misdeeds. They’ve been heroes ever since (unless you count the occasional superpowered, reality warping mental breakdown).
Also in ‘65, in Fantastic Four #36, we first met Medusa, the woman with the living hair (technically, all of our hair is alive until it falls out or we croak. Science!), as a member of the Frightful Four. (For the record, I love Silver Age comics for their full embrace of adjectives in naming groups. Fours can be “fantastic” or “frightful,” fives can be “inferior,” sixes are “sinister,” and I think it’s always helpful when a brotherhood of mutants will let me know if they are good or evil.) We are introduced to this stunning redhead as a criminal whom we later become aware is actually the strong, honorable queen of an entire species of Inhumans. Her short stint as a baddie is later written off as being due to a period of amnesia during which she roamed amongst us normies as a superpowered thief. Don’t worry, folks, she still feels really bad about that.
By now it must have become apparent to you that Stan Lee and his collaborators were leaning hard on this trope in the early days of the Marvel boom; that, during the Silver Age, the Bullpen were tossing out redemption arcs like Mardi Gras beads to girls who may or may not have gone wild. But they’ve never really stopped. In the ‘70s, we met Scott Lang, a former thief who becomes the new Ant-Man (and, eventually, Paul Rudd). In the ‘90s, Spider-Man villain Venom (with Eddie Brock in the goo) made an uneasy turn towards violent do-gooding. Heck, even Magneto and Juggernaut have taken turns on the side of the angels, both, for a time, joining the X-Men, their former nemeses.
What is it about the Marvel universe that allows for such reversals of character and motivation? While DC occasionally redeems a villain, they’re far more likely to do the reverse and explore what happens when their goody two-shoes characters become barefoot baddies (I think that’s the proper term) as you can see reflected in such events as Injustice, DCeased, Blackest Night, and the x-TREME ’90s riff that is Dark Nights: Metal (a.k.a. The Batman That Laughs All the Way To The Bank). Yep, they love them some corruption arcs over at DC. And I believe that’s because of the essential differences in these two fictional universes which have been discussed in and out of comic shops, message boards, online forums ad infinitum. DC is home to the archetypes, the icons, the mythic heroes that appeared at the end of the Great Depression - characters born of a black-and-white moral absolutism that have resisted change and character flaws and, hell, even personalities for the majority of their fictional timespans. And I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool DC fan. There are many reasons Marvel’s new slate of superheroes exploded in the early ‘60s, but the primary reason was they were actual characters. Still simplistic, but they had discernible personalities, flaws, moments of relatable insecurity, arrogance, anger, fear and heartbreak. It’s easier to understand how a Marvel villain, created with more rounded and complex motivations (rather than retconning in some sympathetic back story decades later) could “see the light” or at least the benefits of using their powers and/or abilities to help their fellow person.
Overused by Marvel or not, these redemptions are just interesting story material; it’s a classic trope designed to instill some hope in the reader that we needn’t be slaves to our worst impulses or defined by our pasts. And in Marvel’s traditionally more “real” world, their villains are often built from the ground up with conflicting motivations and human malleability. Although DC has come a long way since the Golden Age in fleshing out their heroes and villains, they still face the challenge, even now, of just how far they can bend their titanium icons before their fans complain. And that’s fine. I doubt anybody is waiting to read about the Joker’s “moment of clarity” and subsequent mini-series where he spends his incarceration knitting socks for the homeless. But there’s always room in the black-and-white world of superheroes for characters that dip and rise amongst the shades of gray.
It’s nice to know that in the Marvel universe, everybody deserves a second chance. Except for Paste-Pot Pete. Fuck that guy!
* But don’t worry, Simon’s “mental patterns” are used to create The Vision and he himself gets resurrected a couple of times - once as a being completely composed of ionic energy. Oh, and he tried really hard to make bright red safari jackets a thing in the ‘80s. Evil!