Who are the best comic book villains around?
Everyone knows that a hero is defined by the villains they go up against. Or to put it another way, every great comic book needs an equally great antagonist to truly kick it into high gear.
Scouring through the pages of our favorite print and digital back issues, we've assembled a list of the meanest, the nastiest, and the most compellingly evil four-color baddies to ever walk the face of, well, a flat sheet of paper. We've purposely left out the undisputed greats -- The Joker, Magneto, Lex Luthor, Steve Ballmer -- to make room for a few of the more interesting choices.
Who made the grade? Click through the gallery above to find out.
Mr. Freeze has been an enduringly chilly presence in the Batman universe since his first appearance (as Mr. Zero) in Batman #121, back in February 1959. The most famous take on the character was the one engineered by Paul Dini in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “Heart of Ice.” That story introduced us to Freeze’s terminally ill, cryogenically frozen wife Nora, which both explained Freeze’s obsession with cold and turned him into a tragic character in the process.
But while Dini’s animated version of Freeze was good enough to become the standard portrayal of the character in most forms of media, more recently I’ve been loving the reinvention of Mr. Freeze seen in DC’s New 52. (SPOILERS) You see, in this universe it turns out that Nora was never Freeze's wife at all, but rather a woman born in 1943, who was put into cryogenic stasis at the age of 23 after being diagnosed with an incurable heart condition.
Writing his doctoral thesis on Nora, Freeze fell in love with her, and became obsessed with finding a way to bring her back to life. One cryonic chemical accident later, and the already unhinged Dr. Victor Fries is transformed into Mr. Freeze. It’s a clever re-imagining of Freeze’s origin which makes him less sympathetic, but a whole lot creepier.
The main antagonist of Steve Niles’ tremendous 30 Days of Night, Vicente is an ancient vampire several centuries old, who may or may not be the parent to all vampires.
In a series full of vicious vampires, Vicente takes the (presumably blood-soaked) biscuit: not only torturing, murdering and eating people, but also planning to blow up the Alaskan pipeline — something that would result in a whole lot more slaughter than you’d normally expect from a vamp.
Oh, and his wife Lilith is pretty damn crazy, too.
A once silly comic book villain, Doctor Light was instantly transformed into a perverse and sickening antagonist with DC's 2004 miniseries Identity Crisis — celebrating its tenth birthday this year. Exposed as a serial rapist (most controversially of Sue Dibny, wife of the Elongated Man), Doctor Light was eventually given an equally brutal death: turned into a candle by the Spectre and melted alive.
Post-New 52, Doctor Light has been rethought somewhat, with DC shying away from the more horrific aspects of his character incorporated over the past decade. Why does Doctor Light make this list? Because whatever you thought of Identity Crisis, it marked a high (or low) point for super villain nastiness in comics’ darkest and most nihilistic era.
Unlike a lot of the other villains featured here, Brainiac’s not a sadistic super villain who gets off on being bad, but rather a cold, calculating mind who represents the perfect brainy counter to Superman’s brawn.
An artificial intelligence created by the Computer Tyrants of Colu, an alien world which prizes logic and knowledge above all else, Brainiac has an almost indestructible body and a brain that is constantly hungry for knowledge and power. In a long and storied career, he’s perhaps still best known for taking the Kryptonian city of Kandor — one of the last surviving relics of Superman’s home world — and shrinking it down to the size of a bottle.
Saint of Killers
I’m a massive fan of Preacher, Garth Ennis’ 75-issue Vertigo series, that is equal parts spaghetti western and religious thriller. Picking a most memorable character from that series is a bit like choosing your favorite quip from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
If I had to choose one, however, it would likely be the series’ premier antagonist, the Saint of Killers. Picture Javier Bardem’s cold-blooded character Anton Chigurh from No Country For Old Men, and then take it up several levels of badass. A grim killing machine charged by God to be a killer for hire, the Saint is a murder machine with a mullet: someone so vicious he even manages to kill (SPOILERS) both God and the Devil.
His tragic backstory (his family were killed, which brought about his fall from grace) just makes him a more interesting, multifaceted character.
Having been around just 28 years (hardly a drop in the ocean when you consider that Batman himself has been in print for 75 years) Black Mask has nonetheless risen to become one of the Dark Knight’s greatest foes — with much of that good (?) work having been done over the past decade.
In a grisly inversion of Batman’s origin, Black Mask murdered his own super-wealthy parents by burning down their mansion with them inside. Becoming one of Gotham City’s major crime boss players, Black Mask has proven utterly ruthless and totally sadistic. Oh yes, and he once tortured Catwoman's brother-in-law to death with power tools, and then did some horrible things with the remains. Yum yum!
One of The Walking Dead’s most grotesque characters in a series that’s full of them, the Governor is the ruler of the town of Woodbury. After initially appearing hospitable, the Governor turned out to be bat-guano crazy: a Jim Jones-type leader who keeps his own zombified daughter alive by feeding people from his own town to her — along with the severed hand of protagonist Rick Grimes, which he first lops off.
The Governor does far more than that, too — torturing several characters, while killing the daughter of Rick and Lori. The fact that he does this without any apparent sense of remorse just makes him all the more terrifying. On the plus side, he does find himself on the receiving end of a suitably unpleasant death.
Who would have thought that the nastiest character in Robert Kirkman's zombie epic would turn out to be a flesh-and-blood human?
In the real world, you make a name for yourself by working hard, pursuing goals and steadily gaining recognition among your peers. In super villain land you make a name for yourself by kidnapping 16 super-powered Marvel teenagers and then pitting them against each other in a Hunger Games-style Murderworld. By forcing teen superheroes to kill teen superheroes, Arcade became one of the most reviled villains out there. Even after being beaten, Arcade got the last laugh by uploading footage of the Murderworld battles to YouTube, ruining a few reputations in the process.
To be extra evil he probably upvoted a few Justin Bieber videos while he was there, too.
When your nickname is "The God Butcher" it’s hardly a surprise when you turn out to be a less than upstanding citizen. The newest character on this list, first appearing in January 2013’s Thor: God of Thunder #2, Gorr has wasted no time in establishing his super villain credentials. In his case this meant a genocidal rampage across the cosmos, battling gods left and right like Christopher Hitchens in the body of a super-powered agnostic murderer. After killing literally thousands of gods, Gorr finally faced off with Thor, who barely managed to defeat him.
Tentative excitement about Michael Bay's upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie made me revisit the original comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. Along with a refresher course in just how much I love the art and overall tone of that original series was a reminder of what a great villain Shredder can be.
If you’ve only ever seen one of the Turtles cartoon series, be prepared for a wake-up call at the hands of a razor-gauntleted crime syndicate boss who's got his fingers in everything from drug smuggling to assassinations. Far more revenge-minded than in the cartoon, the comic book Shredder is a highly skilled strategist and master of ninjistu. Oh, and he once bounced back from decapitation by being resurrected as a shark. When did the Joker ever manage that?
Who’s the baddest of the bad?
Got your own favorite underappreciated supervillain? Let us know in the comments below.