The Crappiest Comic Book Villains of All Time, Together at Last
We chat with author Jon Morris about his new book, oddball criminals, and the supervillain made of Nazi bees.
As crate-diggers, collectors, yard-salers, thrifters, and hoarders will tell you, fascination with obscure cultural curios is nothing new. The pursuit of "lost classics" has fueled everything from boutique reissue record label Numero Group to PBS mainstay Antiques Roadshow, the latter proving that these artifacts can be not only interesting, but profitable.
Far more interesting and rare are those collectors who devote their lives to objects or media that may have been forgotten for good reason—think The Shaggs's "hauntingly bad" outsider-rock oddities or Betty Crocker recipes from the 50s that positioned gelatin, mayonnaise, and hot dogs as gourmet delicacies. In the realm of comic books, the undisputed guru of all things ridiculous, forgotten, and regrettable is Jon Morris.
Since 1997, Morris has run Gone & Forgotten, a blog that chronicles comic book characters you've almost certainly never heard of before, and lately, he's taken his unique focus to print. The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains (out today via Quirk Books) is a companion piece to 2015's The League of Regrettable Superheroes, and chronicles such terrifying antagonists as Brickbat, a guy in a bat costume who carries around exploding bricks, or Morris's personal favorite, Swarm, a caped menace whose body is made up of killer bees that also happen to be Nazis.
With Marvel and DC Comics's movie franchises bigger than ever, we're in a curious spot in terms of increased popularity of upper-echelon heroes and simultaneous need for more villains to fill out TV seasons and smaller-scale films. We're also currently in a political moment in which even the most asinine supervillains no longer seem so far-fetched. To get Morris's expert opinion on these matters, I spoke with him over the phone.
VICE: How did you originally get into the world of forgotten and/or regrettable comic book characters?
Jon Morris: Both of my parents collected comics before I was born, so I grew up in this house with whatever was left over from their childhoods. My father taught himself how to speak English from comic books, so he just bought whatever was on the rack. We had dozens of one-off comics that nobody knew about when I started writing about them.
What else attracts you to these forgotten curios?
There are some real gems that you can only find by sifting through a ton of garbage. There was a movie in the 1980s called The Last Star Fighter, and Marvel Comics did a three-issue adaptation of it, which I picked up just thinking of it as a joke, but the pedigree on that book is just enormous. The writer and the artists are all professionals whose careers are marked by these highly respected, critically-acclaimed high points, and here they are working on just kind of this licensed book that they need to whip out and get on the stands while the movie is hot. Also, sometimes it's just hilarious. Some of the characters are genuinely insane.
With Marvel and DC movie franchises bigger than ever, do you think that's shrinking the circle of heroes and villains, or does it mean that we'll eventually arrive at a time when everyone knows, say, Egg Fu or Bloor?
We're probably a long way from seeing 90% of these characters become anything like a household name, even if they're picked back up [by Marvel or DC]. Since the publication of The League of Regrettable Superheroes, six different characters in that book were given relaunches of one type or another, and only one of them survived. Squirrel Girl has become a phenomenon, but Brain Boy was revamped, and he fizzled almost immediately. There's so many tens of thousands of characters, and there's no way for them all to hit the public consciousness—we have an upper limit for how much pop culture we can embrace before it starts to slip out the back.
Did you see Lego Batman yet? They momentarily resurrected Condiment King, The Calculator, and other obscure villains.
I haven't, but I've been told I should. I saw that my favorite, The Eraser—a man who dresses like a pencil—was given a quick shot of him, and I got pretty excited about it.
Do you see that kind of thing happening more in the future?
Yes and no. When you're at a Captain America or Iron Man movie, you're really just gonna see the major villains, because in about two hours, you want to hit all of the notes, so they're kind of limited. But in the background of a scene in Big Hero 6, which is only tangentially involved in the Marvel universe, there's the costume of Black Talon, the evil voodoo chicken man. Guardians of the Galaxy is 100% filled with B, C, and D-list characters. The fact that Ant Man even got a movie is surprising. They're bringing back really obscure characters, so to some degree that media saturation means they have to dig deeper and deeper to find characters they can actually somehow get on the screen.
Did you have more fun writing about the heroes or the villains?
It's very different, because the heroes, even if they were very short-lived, tend to have a few stories under their belts, and so you get a better grasp on who they are and what they're representing. Villains are much more reflexive and reactive—they usually come out of something really specific from the culture at the time, so it's fun to trace them back to whatever it was that inspired them.
There was that brief period in the late 70s, early 80s where America was simultaneously concerned with cloned Nazis living in South America and killer bees, and that ends up creating Swarm, the man made of Nazi bees.
Considering where we are in 2017, if you had to create a "regrettable" villain, what would it be?
I'm afraid the answer is really political.
I mean, how can it not be?
Right? We already have almost perfect supervillains serving in the administration. Steve Bannon could easily be some sort of alcohol-driven garbage man, and you wouldn't have to change a thing about his look—the only thing he needs to complete the transformation is a cape that bunches at the shoulders.
Buy "The Legion of Regrettable Supervillains" on Quirk Books' webstore .
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