Saturday, September 29, 2012

SurVILEvor Island: Vandal Savage

Fernus was created to be an evil Martian Manhunter who fought the JLA in a JLA comic before meeting his defeat at the hands of the Martian Manhunter. He's the apotheosis of the concept of J'Onn J'Onzz as the "Heart and Soul of the Justice League," the most essential team member being the genesis of a most spectacular villain who could wipe the floor with The World's Greatest Super-Heroes and one of their arch-rivals besides. 81% of 16 votes validated The Burning here.

Speaking of that rival though, what of Vandal Savage? Created in 1943 for a Green Lantern story, the immortal caveman returned in 1947 to co-found one of the first great super-villain teams, the Injustice Society of the World. Savage was revived in 1963 for a Flash story that paired the Golden and Silver Age versions of the speedster legacy, and was defined as a foe of the pair through his occasional reappearances into the Bronze Age. The 1970s were when Vandar Adg finally came into his own, battling the Justice Society in a short-lived new run of All-Star Comics, and the Justice League in the newspaper strip The World's Greatest Superheroes. Savage was pitted against Superman a number of times in the early '80s, helping to inspire the formation of the Forgotten Heroes. Mid-decade, Savage was mostly involved with the JSA and their spin-off teams. Post-Crisis, Vandal Savage returned to plague the Scarlet Speedster in the first issues of Wally West's relaunch of Flash, and made numerous reappearances throughout the volume.

The 1990s marked an explosion of Vandal Savage appearances. An increased presence of the Justice Society invited further clashes with the team. His longevity made him a player in period books like the 1920s set Guns of the Dragon mini-series, and he plagued temporally-enhanced heroes in titles like Time Masters and Resurrection Man. Savage also targeted younger heroes like Damage and Arsenal. Writer Christopher Priest embraced the villain as a favorite in most every book he wrote for a time, including Hawkman, The Ray and Justice League Task Force. Despite some similarities in career progression and common circles, it was only at this late point that the immortal became a prominent figure in Martian Manhunter comics.

Mark Waid brought Vandal Savage into JLTF around the time of Zero Hour, a mini-series which inspired a number of cameos for the fiend. Priest continued to use him throughout his year and a half run, in conjunction with other titles he scripted as an overall mastermind for various plots. As the leader of the Task Force and a mentor to the Ray, J'Onn J'Onzz often stared down Savage. The shapeshifter impersonated a daughter of Savage to help the woman and her child escape plans to harvest their organs to sustain the immortal. Retroactive continuity made Savage a central foe of Martian Manhunter's "new" five member super-team in JLA: Year One, including a conspiracy that had painful impact on the Martian. The event DC One Million predicted that this struggle from the early days of the Alien Atlas' public career would continue for hundreds of centuries, as J'Onn J'Onzz was integral to a strategy meant to finally end the threat of the immortal. The Martian Manhunter also had a contemporary battle with Savage that cost the caveman an eye, a handicap that the mini-series inferred would plague him for millions of years.

Moving into the 2000s meant moving away from all of that. Vandal Savage's missing eye returned, and he formed the team Tartarus to fight the Titans. The introduction of a lesbian villainess daughter called Scandal attracted an errant father's attention in Secret Six. Inclusion in The Society led to cameos aplenty, and Vandal Savage even found time to co-author the overarching conspiracy against the replacement Aquaman that wrapped up Sword of Atlantis. The only nods to a past enmity with the Martian Manhunter were his participation in the hero's gang murder at the start of Final Crisis, and a similar but more intimate fatality dealt in the Elseworld Flashpoint. However, Vandal Savage was established as the person who killed Fernus the Burning during his reign of terror on prehistoric Earth, and when J'Onzz unlocked Fernus in the present, the evil Martian cut a bloody swath through Savage's forces. The caveman is without a doubt essential to at least one Martian's history, at least prior to that other far more famous Flashpoint mini-series.

The New 52 seems inclined to treat Vandal Savage as more of an anti-hero, making him a lusty barbarian member of the medieval Demon Knights (which connected to the Manhunter's own Stormwatch,) and giving him a solo serial in DC Universe Presents where he was treated as a quasi-Hannibal Lecter. When Zero Hour solidified J'Onn J'Onzz as having arrived on Earth in 1955, it made perfect sense that one of the few recognizable villains he would encounter between then and the modern age of super-heroes would be Vandal Savage. That connection was never made though, and most of the Martian Manhunter's encounters with the immortal have been filtered through his membership to Justice League teams. As with many other SurVILEvor Island detainees, Vandal Savage cannot truly be "owned" by any one franchise (as evidenced by the sour note of having him begin to fixate on Green Lantern Alan Scott in 2006, after decades with no special acrimony against his debut adversary.)

There was a sweet spot in the late '90s that made Savage's inclusion in the contemporaneous inaugural incarnation of the Vile Menagerie obvious, but the dry spell in the decade since has weathered this position. I could never eject Vandal Savage entirely, but there's little indication that he'll have any further feuding with the Sleuth from Outer Space, so I have to question any need to spotlight him prominently amidst the Martian's rogues gallery. Then again, he did form the first version of the Legion of Doom to include an unquestioned Manhunter villain, Ma'alefa'ak, and did so in the broad medium of animation while voiced by an actor who portrayed John Jones on the live action television show Smallville. Heck, didn't he even battle Young Justice on the cartoon version of the team that included Miss Martian? Who's to say what the next official past or future hold? There remains a poetry in pitting the earliest and most avaricious living human against the last of a neighboring alien species that often demonstrates greater humanity than anyone on his host planet.


will_in_chicago said...

I like Vandal Savage as a villain for J'Onn as both are strategic, long-term thinkers. (I actually liked the fact that J'Onn was instrumental to the defeat of two long term villains in DC One Million, but these days Darkseid is not as impressive as he was in the past. Indeed, one has to wonder if much of his power is in bluffing his foes. Realistically, New Genesis on seeing how easily the Justice League handled Darkseid might conclude that it was time to pay an unfriendly visit to Apokolips for some house cleaning.)

While I think that J'Onn works well with many villains, assuming a competent writer (big assumption), J'Onn and Vandal Savage have very different takes on humanity. Savage sees humanity as a resource to keep him alive and fulfill his ambitions for power. J'Onn sees humanity as a species with much potential that could have a great destiny. I voted for Vandal Savage but I suspect DC will keep him as an anti-hero for some time.

Diabolu Frank said...

Will, Martian Manhunter was a stealth champion in DC One Million, to the point that few readers not focused on the character seemed to notice amidst the folderol surrounding Superman.

I'm waiting for the story where Darkseid comes back from the Source Wall of Universe-2 to deactive all of the inferior clones he had left behind as a distraction and really set about conquering the universe. I don't care how much Waid and Kubert want to build up New 52 B'wana Beast, there's no way that kind of upset could happen.

will_in_chicago said...

I would argue that J'Onn is can be very subtle. From what little I read of the series, J'Onn spent millenia helping Earth while Kal-El was out finding himself.

As for Darkseid, something needs to be done. Honestly, if I was among the New Gods and saw Darkseid being taken defeated with a sword and trident by a bunch of newbies, I would suggest taking over Apokolips immediately and calling Darkseid a guy who was bluffing as he got his keister kicked. (Sorry, but the current Justice League run has left me a bit cold.)

Diabolu Frank said...

I appreciate the attempt to elevate Aquaman and Wonder Woman, but doing both at the same time while introducing a new weakness against pointy objects really throws Darkseid (and Earth-2) under the bus. Bad comics.

Alexi said...

Young Justice didn't actually yield a direct face-off between J'Onn and Vandal, but it is Miss Martian who holds Vandal at bay in the penultimate episode and the series concluded with Vandal Savage arriving on Apokolips after commandeering the War World and shaking hands with Darkseid.

So, I guess the larger point is, between Young Justice and Justice League: Doom, Vandal Savage has been depicted as the Justice League's most important foe in recent DC animation.

Diabolu Frank said...

Gah! Spoilers!