Monday, May 2, 2011

Gallery of supervillains (1)

The supervillain is a most needed asset of any superhero. We know of superheroes without sidekicks, without secret identities or even without superpowers... bu we know of no superhero without supervillain... wonder why.

Supervillains in antiquity

Before Coca-Cola created Santa Claus, some say that there was some sort of barbaric world before that... not just the must fabled Steampunk 19th century or even Dungeons and Dragons era, also called sometimes Middle Ages.

Once upon a time, legend says, there were Romans and Greeks. And they of course had supervillains.

Rubens saturn
Saturn the cannibal
One of the first supervillains was Kronos (left), also known as Saturn, who had some really serious psychological issues: Oedipus complex degenerating in castration of his father, extreme paranoia degenerating in incestuous cannibalism, etc. In those times there were no psycho-meds so his heroic son Zeus (aka Jupiter), who also suffered from Oedipus quite understandably, had to get him killed and vomiting all his siblings.

That was a very bad case of indigestion. Later Zeus and his sidekick, the ambiguous and youthful Hermes (also Mercury), also fought other supervillains like Typhon, Equidna and others. But I have to cut it short less that Homer sues me or something.

Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana, an album painting on paper, c1820
Ravana the kidnapper
In India they also had their supervillains, most famous because of its all times literary success rivaling Shakespeare, is Ravana, who like every other supervillain kidnapped a fair lady, who happened to be the fiancée of Rama. Rama and his sidekick Hanuman of course succeeded in defeating him.

This is represented in the proto-comic to the right (Ravana is the one of the many heads and arms and blue skin: we don't see supervillains like that anymore, sadly enough).

Another super-hero of antiquity was Herakles (aka Hercules). Herakles battled many foes, most of the time without any sidekick, so he could get all the merit undisputed. However his supervillains lack of intensity. I will therefore only mention Geriones because he also had many heads, like Ravana, though only three. As I say this is not a type of supervillain we see anymore.

Hades and Cerberus
Speaking of many heads, we must think of Pluto's dog. No, not a dog named Pluto, mind you, but the dog of a guy so feared that people did not even call him by his real name, Hades, and hence said euphemistically Pluto: the wealthy. He had a three headed-dog named Cerberus. As far as we know Hades had only one head but his main skill was invisibility and stealth and hence we may be missing something.

Hades, as any good classical supervillain also kidnapped a girl. Or two... he was the impersonation of Death, so he really kidnapped everyone eventually. He was never really defeated but two superheroes of Antiquity managed to at least obtain concessions from him: both Demeter (Ceres) and Dyonisos managed to bring back their loved ones from Hades.

They were not the only ones, in Egypt, the first known super-heroine of all times, Isis, defeated the supervillain Set (left), impersonation of Chaos and managed to instill enough life in her lover Osiris as to bear a child from him after death.

Later the Jews would also imitate these stories with their own victor over death, Jesus... but in this case it's not clear who the supervillain is because, mind you, Satan is not really in the Bible, except for the occasional confusing side mention. 

Not all supervillains of antiquity were mythological. Some real people were also at times declared to be most evil. In particular both Romans and Jews were obsessed with claims that Phoenicians, their common enemy, killed children. This has not been satisfactorily proven till present day. 

But maybe the most hated Phoenician ever was Hannibal. Hannibal like any good supervillain had shown the quality of genius and leadership and had even threatened Rome. Upon Roman victory, he was elected leader of Carthage but Romans hated him so much that forced Carthage to exile him. Then he worked as mercenary commander in Asia, where eventually his foes found him, forcing his suicide (considered honorable back then). However, as would happen with Napoleon later on, Hannibal proved too much to be demonized: even his foes admired him - so he really does not reach the level of supervillain, being too ambiguous and even heroic for that. 

We need to wait till the end of the Roman Empire to find any such evil character. That would be Attila, the King of the Huns, of whose horse was said that wherever it stepped on grass would not grow again. The Huns, recently arrived from the Eurasian steppes, with their exotic looks and unusual battle strategies, plus their fame of being merciless, became in their time the epitome of Evil.

Attila presiding over party
After Atilla, the Vandals became some sort of collective supervillains for plundering Rome. But their pillage was so disciplined and organized that many consider that using words as "vandal" and "vandalize" is a misnomer. Regardless of their true merits, they did become eventually a collective supervillain as the very existence of such words in most European languages clearly indicate.

Next: supervillains in the Middle Ages

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