Monday, July 14, 2008

The Vile Tarot

While I was mired in Memorial Month, Scipio of The Absorbascon presented his natural progression from the Dynastic Centerpiece Model, the Villainous Tarot. Just as I did with the Martian Manhunter Dynasty, the Idol-Head must now chime in on the new archtypical hierarchy amongst the Vile Menagerie. The Absorbascon commentors added a few caregories and clarifications I liked, so I've incorporated them into Scipio's scheme. This is especially helpful, as the Tarot isn't far removed from the "Anti-Dynasty of Supervillainy," but allows for more room to play.

Mocker: Malefic
I considered a number of unusual choices here, including one that could have been fairly controversial. Still, Malefic is a Manhunter-specific foe, a loon, and always ready with a taunt. In fact, his being so clearly in the Joker mold (not to mention Venom) helps explain why I absolutely loathe the character. Beyond the "Ostrander/Mandrake" near-blackout here, I still haven't given him a Vile Menagerie listing. Hey, if you wanna know more, the loser appears in virtually every Martian Manhunter listing on the 'net. Grrr!

Crime Lord: Mr. V/Faceless
What a difference a word makes. In my reply to this section in the Anti-Dynasty of Supervillainy portion of the "Centerpiece" post, I originally listed Vandal Savage. Quite a few characters could lay claim to Savage as a major foe, including (but not limited to) Rip Hunter, Resurrection Man, Immortal Man, and a sizeable portion of the memberships of the JSA and JLA. What made the difference was "unstoppable," as Martian Manhunter fought a lopsided war against Savage for over a year & a half in the 90's, with repeated run-ins for most of that decade.

Mr. V hasn't appeared in a comic for just about forty years, and Martian Manhunter was present for his seeming death (twice!) However, as I recall only Hawkman ever joined Manhunter in facing the forces of VULTURE, and the Martian beat on them throughout the last year or so of his 60's run. Hardly "unstoppable," but Mr. V was certainly tenacious. Also, I like reenforcing the fact that "Faceless" was a crime lord, not the head of a spy/terrorist agency. There's a lot of confusion about that.

Opposite Number: Despero
There are those that would argue that Malefic should be in this role. Well, Malefic wasn't up to the challenge, and lacked both an essential Martian power and weakness.

There are also those who would say Despero is strictly a "Justice League" villain. I would dispute this. Despero certainly started that way, but specifically captured J'Onn J'Onzz in a 1980 story for a game of chess that imperilled the JLA. Then, Manhunter and Batman were the only Leaguers still standing when Despero was reworked in the mid-80's. It was 1990 though that the conflict became personal. J'Onn J'Onzz led the fight against a restored Despero, and was ultimately responsible for his humbling defeat. J'Onzz then bartered Despero to Manga Khan, who's hench-robot L-Ron was used to usurp Despero's mind upon his next return to Earth. J'Onn and L-Ron next used Despero's body to do their bidding for several years, with the sublimated villain seething the whole time. Despero's psychic "ghost" eventually returned the slight by possessing J'Onn J'Onzz's body. Finally, Despero sought out the Martian Manhunter personally as part of his assault on the JLA during "Final Crisis," assigning the Injustice Gang to handle the rest of the team. While Despero remains a League foe, he's more often than not singled the Martian Manhunter out as his personal nemesis for nearly thirty years.

Also, when Despero was "reborn," he became one of the rare few telepaths/telekinetics who are also superior physical combatants. J'Onn J'Onzz is another, allowing Despero to fully utilize his powers on the physical and psychic planes, not to mention shared energy projection. Further, Despero now derived his powers from the same source as Martian Manhunter's greatest weakness, and stands as a nemesis in the truest sense of the word in that he more often than not beats the Alien Atlas one-on-one. Comic books have trained us to believe that guys like Lex Luthor and the Joker are nemeses, which has been more true in later years. Earlier on though, their nemeses were Batman and Superman, not vice versa, as they consistently lost to their foe. A nemesis should be your equal are better to truly qualify for the term.

Twisted One: The Prophet
This is the one category in which the Manhunter excels. It seems like religious fantatics, fascists, and the like are drawn to him like Mr. Moth to a Human Flame. I went with the Prophet, as he was created for the Martian Manhunter Special and held his own. Tybalt Bak'sar, Brimstone, Cabal, Director Bones, and others appearing later could have served as well.

Unhelpful Helper: Triumph
This and the next two suggested categories were similar to "Twisted One," but with just enough nuance, to catch the massive run-off and still remain valid. Clearly, Triumph had the best, though never remotely selfless, intentions. He wanted everything he touched to turn out to the good, for his own personal aggrandizement, and was constantly surprised when he failed epically. I can't think of many super-villains treated as harshly and hatefully by the Martian Manhunter as Triumph, but I can't say he didn't beg for every throttle.

Misguided Idealist: The Master Gardener
A fellow Martian who arrived on Earth first to help lead his adopted planet toward the Great Evolution? That's swell! Doing it by manipulating the media, violently supressing dissent, and binding a fungus that causes spontaneous combustion within the bodies of the populace? Uncool!

Friend-Turned-Foe: Re's Eda
J'Onn J'Onzz became a fugitive from Mars and beat on a slew of innocent super-heroes in the name of poor R’es Eda, the victim of an assassination. Except he wasn't, and instead framed J'Onn J'Onzz in order to lead his people in an invasion against peaceful co-habitants on Mars II. That's forgetting N'or Cott's inglorious death besides...

Mental Challenger: Bette Noir
This is clearly the weakest link in Manhunter's "tarot," and its adverse effect on the hero is extraordinary. Typically, villains who can shut down Manhunter's telepathy are Justice League class threats. Even overlooking that advantage, few of Manhunter's foes are as smart as him, either scientifically or strategically. Dr. Trapp doesn't rate, because he really hasn't manage to take the Sleuth From Outer Space on by himself. Vandal Savage, despite his skill, seemed more a test for early members of the JLA and the JLTF than someone who could plausibly take J'Onn on. Bel Juz pulled the wool over J'Onn's eyes once, and helped install the Marshal, but posed no direct threat. Only Bette Noir has troubled J'Onzz on several occasions, through both telepathy and maneuvers. She's no Despero, but he already has a slot, so she slides into this place.

Physical Challenger: TNTL
If anything, Manhunter has too many of these. Nearly every creature released from the Diabolu Idol-Head qualified, as did most notable VULTURE and Middletown threats.

Gadgeteer: Professor Arnold Hugo
This may seem a demotion from "Mental Challenger," but it's much closer to the truth. Hugo invented one device after another that put the Martian Marvel out, but almost never truly endangered him. He often set circumstances into motion that would occupy the Alien Atlas, but really didn't overwhelm him. I love me some Hugo, and he's undoubtedly formitable, but ultimately more a nuisance than a mastermind.

Sexual Challenger: Scorch
A case could be made for Manhunter getting his freak on right through the Bronze Age, whether it be Diane Meade, J'en , or the plentiful arm candy from the Marco Xavier days. When his status as a widower was revealed, he went through a lengthy dry spell. Around the time of his ongoing series though, he started running buck wild with a number of flings and near misses. All told though, I can think of only one "bad girl," one "villainess" who ever got her hands on the guy mind, body and spirit-- to horrific consequence. While Scorch's intentions were the best, based on her history and the unlikelihood of her remaining "straight" should she return from her coma, Scorch is the only truly qualified selection.

Evil Genius: Darkseid
Another massive weakness of the Martian Manhunter-- his best foes aren't "his." I could have used a number of other gadgeteers and tried to cover by placing Prof. Hugo in this spot, but the truth will out. Most of the villains Manhunter has faced who are remotely at his mental level; Savage, Gorilla Grodd, Professors Ivo and Fortune, Despero; could just as easily be removed as options due to prior or multitudinous committments. Darkseid was the primary villain after Malefic during the "Ostrander/Mandrake" series, which is another reason I freakin' hate that series.

Manipulator: Commander Blanx
The guy managed to bushwhack J'Onn J'Onzz, pass him through a kangaroo court into exile, nearly ruin his Earthly reputation, and slaughter most of Mars-- all for the sake of a real estate deal! I'm still not sure he isn't alive and well, hidden within the Bush Administration. Dick? Karl?

Rival Twin: The Marshal
There's quite a few evil Martian Manhunters out there, from B'rett to The Hyperclan to B’enn B’urnzz and a bunch of prior selections. Maybe it's just that awesome Chuck Patton cover, but there's something about the genetically-engineered military leader who led the first true invasion from Green Martians that still gets me going.

Contingent Foe: Fernus the Burning Martian
Were there no J'Onn J'Onzz in pursuit of a cure for his people's natural(?) weakness, a bunch of White Martians and troops of Vandal Savage would still be alive today. I can't say I like Fernus, but maybe fanboys will think twice the next time they beg for the Manhunter from Mars to "realize his potential."

Personal Foe: N'or Cott
A bit of a cheat, but most anyone else who could have fit this role have been taken up elsewhere. The Manhunter tends to be pretty unambiguously in the right, so beyond occasional lapses into New Age passivism, he doesn't mind blasting most foes overly much.


Luke said...

The Villainous Tarot concept works somewhat better than the Dynastic Centerpiece, I think, because every superhero needs a certain amount of badguys, and not everyone necessarily needs all of the allies; there's something to be said for a guy truly alone in the world from a story standpoint if not a sustainability one. Anyway.

Some of these obviously work better than others. Malefic, Mr. V, Prof. Hugo, and of course DESPERO! Despero is in a lot of senses the perfect foil for J'Onn except for the fact that in the 90s he went all Pink Hulk on us. His look from the Detroit League era is perfect as far as I am concerned. He looks like an evil three-eyed alien conqueror, but he looks... civilized.

And while it is true that the Manhunter cannot fill every slot in either of the models, there is another side to that coin: everything is wide open. Morrison and Millar seemed to understand this in "A Day In The Life," that you could develop all of these aspects of the Martian Manhunter, and that you were not shoehorned into certain archetypes just because they had been there for decades. You can still mine the old stories, but their lack of recognition means you are not beholden to them. And really, isn't that what Ostrander did in the solo series? And can't it still be done now? It's food for thought if nothing else.

Diabolu Frank said...

The thing about Scipio's Theory of Dynastic Centerpiece is that it really is specific to classic brand DC characters. I certainly agree there should be loners amongst super-heroes, and especially that not every hero rates a "Dynasty." If that were the case, dynasties would be like a MySpace network. What I do agree with though is that Martian Manhunter rates a low-key and uncommon "Dynasty," because he needs foils and rates the extended family with his stature in the DCU. The "Villainous Tarot" (hate the name, but the concept's solid) absoltely applies to the majority of super-heroes in a way Dynastic Centerpiece does not.

I think Pink Hulk Despero has run its course. While the look is still in place, Johns and Busiek look to be progressing on. Hopefully a good redesign is forthcoming.

I don't mind creators avoiding the older stories, but contradicting them bugs me. It seems to either betray their disrespect or ignorance, neither being flattering. That said, I can forgive a good story, but felt those were lacking under Ostrander as well.

If you get the chance, I'd like to hear your criticisms of the more imperfect selections on my list. I value perspective.

Luke said...

Malefic as a Mocker makes sense. He is too obvious as the Opposite Number, for one thing, and as you say, he is always quick to try to rub J'Onn's face in his failures. Pretty straightforward. I said previous, Despero is in a lot of ways the perfect Martian Manhunter foil. Alien, weird skin tone, mental powers, physical powers, old school Silver Age, weird foreheads. So he is the best choice for Opposite Number -- if Mars was a warlike planet, J'Onn J'Onzz would have conquered Earth single-handedly in the 50s.

It is hard to get a Mental Challenger to a character with the level of psyhcic powers that Manhunter has. Just look at Charles Xavier. So I wasn't sure who could fill else could fill the role (I am not familiar with Bette Noir other than reading her/its profile). So I was thinking about Professor X and that got me thinking about other psyhcic characters, which of course led to Jean Grey. And when Jean was at her most powerful, as Phoenix, didn't Mastermind cloud her thoughts and attack her mentally by using illusions? Why couldn't an illusionist do the same to the Manhunter? Mirage got killed (and eaten) in 52, but maybe the second Spellbinder or someone similar could be pushed into this slot? I can see a story where Spellbinder casts Manhunter into a complete illusory world where his friends attack him, fire is everywhere, Mars has exploded and litters the heavens, and so forth.

The only alternative I can think of to Scorch as a Sexual Challenger, who won't have the "reformed" baggage, is the DCAU character Volcana, who's powers would be a deadly match for Manhunter, but who is flirty and sexy enough to make a pass at Big, Green, and Handsome. Plus, with no history on the printed page, you can really take her in any direction; similar adaptions have worked with both Harley Quinn and Livewire.

Evil Genius is a very hard one. I'm tempted to be like Scipio and put Hugo in two categores like he did with Lex Luthor, but you make a good point -- Hugo's genius was about making stuff, so he is a Gadgeteer. You'd almost need someone like The Thinker to be an Evil Genius for the Manhunter, someone who can constantly be thinking up news wats to deal with him. But The Thinker will always be a Flash foe to me. Same goes with Brainiac and Superman, although a mad supercomputer might be workable. Howzabout this: Let me steal a page from Fate, and resurrect the demonic computer Grimoire, only to have it's essence taken over by a more powerful entity and be reborn as the 21st Century Idol-Head of Diabolu. Which will be housed secretly in a safehouse of VULTURE and worshipped as a god by their Inner Circle. Since VULTURE's crime syndicate is just a chocolate coating for their chewy doomsday cult center. I'd better stop before Geoff Johns finds this.

Personal foe... I don't know that I can even think of one. Sorry!

Diabolu Frank said...

I'm a little confused, so just to clarify, all my selections were confirmed Manhunter foes. Some (like Vandal Savage) aren't remotely "owned" by Manhunter, but they've had printed encounters.

I was thrown by Spellbinder, for instance, as I don't recall her having fought Manhunter. If she did, cool! If not, I could make a whole wish list of guys I'd love J'Onn to tangle with. That would be a totally different list, and I expect I'll go there eventually, but not just yet. I also haven't seen a cartoon with Volcana in it yet. Did she and MM have an encounter?

On the other hand, if your selections were of the "wish list" variety, cool! This may sound diminishing, but I've always liked the idea of J'Onn picking up the leftover continuity of obscure books. Ostrander tried something along those lines, but he reached for the obvious, like 70's Kirby books. I see J'Onn as a character who quietly binds the DCU, with one of his jobs being the guy who takes care of villains left on the loose when guys like Fate get whacked in JSA. Every comic book hero has dozens of villains that mysteriously cease to be a concern when their books are cancelled, after all...

Luke said...

Yeah, it's more of a "wish list" type of thing. I just don't know the Manhunter's foes as well as you do so I was trying to think of those neglected bad guys who could pair up with him.

I think he tangled briefly with Volcana in an episode of Justice League, although I am not 100% sure since her appearances on that show were pretty short, all told.

Diabolu Frank said...

I'll have to open up the floor for wish lists sometime soon. There's a ton of oddballs I'd like to associate with J'Onn, and it isn't necessarily fun to be restricted to established Manhunter rogues. I posted a Vile Menagerie entry for Wiley Dalbert this week. Nobody wants to know MM foes that well. It's a curse.