While the Joker is clearly at the top of the heap when it comes to Bat-Villains, there are a couple of others almost as closely identified with Batman in the public mind, thanks mostly to frequent appearances in the 1966 ABC television series. Ironically, these two villains are among the least interesting in the lineup, and have probably had the weakest appearances in the comics over the years. Still, when you think Batman, who do you think of besides the Joker? The Penguin and the Riddler.
The Penguin first waddled into the pages of Batman comics in DETECTIVE COMICS #58 (December 1941). Another Bill Finger/Bob Kane collaboration, the origins of the character, like that of the Joker, vary in the telling. Finger said in interviews that the character was inspired by emperor penguins, who reminded him of high-society gentlemen in tuxedos.
Accordingly, the Penguin sported a tux and top hat, a monocle and cigarette holder, and carried around an umbrella. Bob Kane told a different story, claiming the inspiration for the Penguin was an advertising character used by Kool cigarettes, a little penguin used in print and radio ads who would insistently squawk “Smoke Kooools!”
Also like the Joker, in the Penguin’s first appearances he was decidedly more lethal, then later mellowed, becoming a flamboyant thief who based his crimes around one of his two trademarks, penguins or umbrellas.
Usually, the Penguin would be armed with some sort of trick umbrella, be it a machine-gun umbrella, a knockout-gas umbrella, or the ever-popular whirlybird umbrella for quick escapes. While the Penguin (later given the sufficiently foppish-sounding name Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot) remained a popular recurring villain, without any of the psychological underpinnings and dark nature that made so many of the Bat-villains distinctive, he seems a little tame and quaint in comparison. Without any real “hook” to base his actions on, it’s no surprise that so many Penguin stories seem to be re-used over and over in comics, TV and the movies. Think about it: How many times have you seen the Penguin either running for mayor or trying to steal the Batmobile? In fact, were it not for the bravura portrayal of the character by Burgess Meredith on the ABC series, I doubt the Penguin would have been utilized much past the 1960s.
In the 1980s, an attempt was made to darken the character a bit in the pages of SECRET ORIGINS, giving him a revised backstory by Mark Verheiden and Sam Kieth that revealed a tortured childhood thanks to an overprotective, coddling mother (who insisted he take an umbrella everywhere with him, in case it rained -– hence the umbrella fixation) and bullying, abusive schoolmates. Still not exactly the most terrifying or intriguing origin story. I mean, really, who wouldn’t have expected the Penguin to have mother issues? A more recent and successful evolution of the Penguin character has recast him as a notorious Gotham nightclub owner, supposedly rehabilitated from his criminal past, but in actuality one of the criminal underworld’s most influential bosses with a finger in every illegal undertaking. This role, first introduced in the “NO MAN’S LAND” storyline that crossed through all the Bat-Books a few years back, fits the Penguin’s high-society concept to a T, while not undoing any of the character’s colorful history.
The Riddler didn’t make his debut until years after the Joker and The Penguin –- seven years, to be exact, in the October 1948 issue of DETECTIVE COMICS. In “The Riddler,” by writer Bill Finger and artist Dick Sprang, readers were introduced to Edward Nigma, or “E. Nigma,” who grew to become obsessed with puzzles, but made sure to cheat so that he’d always win. Bolstered by his own ego, Nigma decides to use his mastery of puzzles to commit grand crimes, baffling the police and Batman for good measure.
Donning his trademark question-mark-covered costume, Nigma dubs himself the Riddler, and embarks upon a puzzling crime wave, giving Batman clues to the crime he’s about to commit on Gotham’s giant electric crossword-puzzle billboard (always a dead giveaway that the story was written by Bill Finger –- Finger loved to have his characters running around on giant oversized props). The clues mislead Batman, allowing the Riddler to flood a local bank, rob the vault and make off through the sewer system.
Next, the Riddler sends Batman a giant jigsaw puzzle, which Batman assembles at the football stadium with the help of a couple squads of Gotham’s finest. The puzzle leads Batman to the home of millionaire art collector Harrison Eagle, who’s already been robbed and is slowly smothering to death in one of Riddler’s puzzle traps. Finally, the Riddler sends the Dynamic Duo a giant ear of corn (yes, even more giant props), signifying the Indian word for corn, “maize.” Naturally, this leads Batman and Robin to the glass fun maze at Gotham’s Pleasure Pier, where the Riddler is robbing the box office. Cheating as always, the Riddler bolts the exit shut, trapping Batman and Robin in the glass maze with a bomb ticking away inside.
Batman and Robin start a fire inside the maze, with the intense heat expanding the metal frame, allowing them to push through the glass pane and escape. As the bomb goes off, the Riddler, who apparently failed to plan ahead, is trapped at the end of the pier, and is blown into the waters below.
The Riddler only appeared once more in December 1948, then disappeared until 1965, just before the ABC TV series and Frank Gorshin’s unforgettable performance would make the character famous worldwide.
As the character evolved in the 1960s and ’70s, it developed that the Riddler had a compulsion to tip off Batman about his crimes, even when he didn’t want to, and would even do so unconsciously.
As the Batman comics got progressively darker in the ’80s, the more whimsical villains like the Riddler seemed increasingly irrelevant, and this trend was verbalized wonderfully in a Riddler origin story by Neil Gaiman and Bernie Mireault published in the pages of SECRET ORIGINS. Here we see a despondent Riddler reliving the glory days of Gotham crime for a TV news crew in a junkyard, surrounded by the giant Gotham props of yesteryear, lamenting the loss of innocence: “What happened to us? The Joker’s killing people, for God’s sake!”
Like the Penguin, there have been several attempts to make the Riddler more edgy and sinister over the years, including a spin as a demon-possessed madman in the late ’80s, as well as his most recent appearance in Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s “Hush” story arc in the of BATMAN. Still, the character seems to work best when closest to its original conception, for my money, anyway.
One character that never strayed from his original conception is Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face. Making his debut in DETECTIVE COMICS #66 (August 1942), Two-Face was by all accounts the sole creation of Bob Kane, who took inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. (More likely from the Hollywood versions –- the poster for the 1941 Spencer Tracy version in particular showed the actor’s face split down the middle between his two personae; at first glance, anyone familiar with the character would think it was meant to be Two-Face.)
Harvey Dent was Gotham’s district attorney, permanently scarred by gangster “Boss” Maroni, who threw a vial of acid at Dent from the witness stand, horribly disfiguring the left side of Dent’s face. While in the hospital recovering, the traumatized Dent found himself transfixed by Maroni’s two-headed silver dollar, which had been a piece of evidence in the case against him. Scratching out and disfiguring one of the coin’s sides, Dent now considered himself a mere puppet of fate, and relied on a flip of the coin to make all his decisions. In addition, Dent had become obsessed with the concept of duality and the number two, and began plotting his new criminal career as “Two-Face” (sporting a stylish orange-and-purple two-toned suit, custom tailored, no doubt) around these themes.
After only three appearances in the 1940s, BATMAN creators cured Harvey Dent with plastic surgery, but it wasn’t to last: the character returned for good in BATMAN #81 (February/March 1954) in “Two-Face Strikes Again” by David V. Reed and Dick Sprang.
When Dent’s reconstructive surgery is undone by safecrackers’ explosives, he returns to his life of crime as Two-Face, this time victimizing fellow Gothamites who also have two faces: actors, skin divers, clowns, etc. The story’s climax is a classic Two-Face deathtrap, in which Batman and Robin are strapped to a giant replica of Two-Face’s silver dollar, and flipped with a catapult over an enormous bed of spikes: if the coin lands face down, that’s it for the Dynamic Duo. Thanks to a bit of happenstance (Two-Face’s thugs tie them in such a way that their hands can reach their belt-radios), Batman and Robin are able to convert their radios into electromagnets, and create a negative magnetic field, repelling the spikes. I guess all that practice in blindfolded electronics only seems pointless until you need it…
Later writers increased the tension by revealing that Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent had been the best of friends before the accident, making Batman’s later encounters with Two-Face even more troubling for the man behind the cowl.
A villain who really never caught on in the comics was Mr. Freeze, or as he was called in his first appearance, Mr. Zero. In “The Ice Crimes of Mr. Zero!” (Batman #121, February 1959) Batman and Robin first encountered Mr. Zero, a criminal scientist whose research in creating an “ice gun” backfires when he accidentally spills the chemical solution on himself, lowering his core temperature and forcing him to live in a zero-degree environment. With his air-conditioned costume and now-perfected ice gun. Mr. Zero goes on a chilly crime wave in Gotham, even succeeding in freezing Batman and Robin in solid blocks of ice. Batman manages to escape by rocking his ice block into a heating pipe, engulfing the room in hot steam, which coincidentally manages to cure Mr. Zero in the process. (All it took was a steam bath? Maybe next time try going to the hospital, Mr. Zero…)
From this appearance alone, it’s easy to see why the character didn’t catch on. Although the art by Sheldon Moldoff is fine, the costume design for Mr. Zero is pretty awful –- wearing either light green and red tights or a bathrobe and ascot combo doesn’t exactly scream “badass villain,” and the fact that he always seemed to be grinning was just unsettling.
Once again, if it wasn’t for his appearances on the ABC series, Mr. Zero/Freeze would be barely a footnote –- even his TV spots were less than memorable. It wasn’t until Paul Dini and Bruce Timm re-created the character on the animated series in the Emmy-award-winning episode “Heart of Ice” that Mr. Freeze had any meaning whatsoever, but we’ll be getting to that down the road a ways…
Another obscure Batman villain revitalized by the 1992 animated series made his first appearance in December 1961, in DETECTIVE COMICS #298’s “The Challenge of Clay-Face.” Although Batman had encountered an earlier Clayface way back in the early ’40s (that one was Basil Karlo, a disgraced actor who went on a murder spree when one of his famous movies was being remade), the original was a strictly human killer, not at all like the superpowered villain appearing here. Batman and Robin find themselves contending with a completely malleable man, (one of the few super-powered villains in Batman’s rogues gallery) who can reshape his claylike form into nearly anything he can imagine.
As it turns out, the mystifying Clayface is actually skindiver Matt Hagen, who discovered an undersea grotto containing a mysterious pool of protoplasm, which Hagen accidentally stumbled into. When the substance comes in contact with his body, it immediately mutates him into a freakish, clay-covered form.
Hagen soon discovers that he can mentally command his body to take on any shape or color, and proceeds to use his powers to go on a crime spree, stealing charity funds and priceless art. Hagen also learns that his powers only last 48 hours and that he must bathe in the mysterious protoplasm whenever he wants to regain his powers. Eventually, Batman and Robin corner Clayface when he’s just at his power’s ebb, and manage to apprehend the now powerless Matt Hagen.
Clayface appeared sporadically throughout the ’60s, but didn’t get much time in the spotlight at all in the ’70s or ’80s, and was given an ignominious one-panel death scene in 1985’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. The DC Universe wouldn’t be without a Clayface for long, though. A third Clayface was introduced soon after, with different powers, and a fourth, female version appeared not long after that. Most recently, Clayface played an integral if somewhat disappointing part in Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s BATMAN run, although even then, it was unclear which Clayface it was supposed to be.
Some villains seem like a great idea on paper, but never quite make it to the big leagues. Take, for example, the Scarecrow. With his first appearance in WORLD’S FINEST COMICS #3 (Fall 1941), the Scarecrow would seem to have all the makings of a first-rate Bat-villain. Gangly psychology professor Jonathan Crane, an expert in fears and phobias, used his knowledge of psychology and his specialized “fear-gases” in extortion schemes and robberies as the Scarecrow, complete with straw-covered burlap outfit and hood.
The Scarecrow didn’t quite catch on, though, either with the readers or the Batman editors, and made only one more appearance in the ’40s before taking a leave of absence for several decades, resurfacing in the late ’60s. Part of the reason the Scarecrow never seemed to click is that it’s hard to portray hallucinations, phobias and the like in cold, hard newsprint, making much of the character’s menace very difficult to capture. And without the psychological manipulation being made real in the reader’s eyes, you’re left with just a spindly geek standing there in a brown canvas suit. Compared to the genuinely creepy antics of the Joker, it doesn’t make much of an impact.
Catwoman received some long-awaited competition as Batman’s resident femme fatale, in the form of Poison Ivy, courtesy of writer Robert Kanigher and artist Sheldon Moldoff in BATMAN #181 (June 1966). Ivy was initially conceived as little more than a criminal vamp, out to prove herself the queen of crime while snaring one of her two romantic obsessions, Bruce Wayne or Batman.
In later appearances, Ivy would be less interested in affairs of the heart, shifting her devotion to the plant world and the health of the planet, and would even develop superpowers, allowing her the ability to generate poisons and toxins from her body, as well as giving her limited control over vegetation and plant life. Ivy’s new perspective was best crystallized in an excellent origin story by Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham in SECRET ORIGINS #36. In recent years, Ivy has become increasingly plant-like, with her skin now even taking on a green tint.
With the 1970s came a new opponent for Batman, in the monstrous person of Man-Bat, created by Frank Robbins and Neal Adams. DETECTIVE COMICS #400 (June 1970) featured “Challenge of the Man-Bat,” in which Batman first encountered Dr. Kirk Langstrom, a scientist who was studying bats in the hopes of mimicking their sonar abilities to allow the blind to see. Creating an experimental serum derived from bat glands, Langstrom tries the formula on himself (always a good idea), and is soon transformed into the freakish Man-Bat, complete with sonar and enormous and functional bat-wings.
Batman is able to produce an antidote for Langstrom’s formula, but not before Langstrom is able to convince his lovesick fiancee Francine to also take the serum, leaving Batman with two monsters to contend with.
In later appearances, Man-Bat learned to control his monstrous form, and even embarked on a short-lived career as a superhero-for-hire, in both his own comic-book series (lasting only two issues) and in the pages of BATMAN FAMILY and DETECTIVE COMICS throughout the 1970s. More recently, Langstrom has given up his Man-Bat identity, but occasionally lapses back into his monstrous form from time to time. In addition, Langstrom and his wife have had two children, one of whom, Aaron, was born as a man-bat creature due to his parents’ repeated exposure to the formula, and is unable to assume human form. Tough break there, kid.
By far, the best and most significant addition to Batman’s rogues’ gallery in the 1970s came with the introduction of Ra’s al Ghul in BATMAN #232 (June 1971). In “Daughter of the Demon” by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, readers first met Ra’s (his name meaning “the demon’s head” in Arabic), who enlists Batman on a round-the-world wild goose chase in order to determine his worth as a suitor for his daughter, Talia, a beautiful but deadly opponent whom Batman had encountered previously.
Ra’s hoped that Batman would marry Talia and take over his global organization, through which Ra’s is attempting the lofty goal of world conquest, so as to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, making the world a better place in Ra’s’ eyes usually means handling issues like overpopulation by killing off a large percentage of the population –- “a necessary evil.” Repeatedly, Batman has halted Ra’s’ plans from coming to fruition, usually simultaneously increasing his estimation as a suitable heir to Ra’s’ empire. Complicating matters further are several small details: Talia holds genuine feelings for Batman, and the feeling is mutual, with only Talia’s loyalty to her father keeping them apart.
In addition, Ra’s al Ghul, aside from being a master swordsman and a genius-level strategist, is for all intents and purposes an immortal. Ra’s has discovered in various remote locations around the world what he calls “Lazarus Pits,” bubbling natural cauldrons of unknown chemicals which can rejuvenate the dead or near-dying, and restore youth to the aged, but not without side effects: temporary insanity and super-strength.
Thanks to the Lazarus Pits, Ra’s al Ghul has lived much, much longer than normal, having been around for several centuries.
Ra’s al Ghul is the ideal opponent for Batman in ways that many of his other enemies are not; in fact, in many ways Ra’s al Ghul serves as a dark mirror for Bruce Wayne: not only is he as intelligent as Batman (having deduced Batman’s secret identity through his investigative prowess), he also has resources equal or greater to Bruce Wayne through his vast criminal empire. Further, Ra’s al Ghul and Batman are alike in that they both bear an obsession that drives them to push themselves endlessly, that most people can never understand, and which tends to drive away those that matter most to them. In the end, both Ra’s al Ghul and Batman are trying to save the planet: it’s just that Batman is compelled to do it one person at a time.