When you grow up reading DC comics, one of the first truths you encounter is that Batman has the best villains. Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Ra’s al Ghul, Riddler…it’s a deep bench. But here’s the thing: that wasn’t always true.
Baby Boomers who caught the comic bug in the 1950s and ‘60s weren’t impressed by Gotham’s criminals. Following the Senate hearings that drove a lot of the sketchier and grislier publishers out of business, the draconian Comics Code Authority worked tirelessly day and night to prevent kids from seeing anything remotely freakish or scary in the funnybooks — and most of Batman’s villains were too weird for CCA approval and were either blanderized or just…vanished for a while. So which DC hero had the best criminal line-up? Superman? Please. I love Superman, but you don’t even have to take off your shoes to to count Superman’s memorable arch-enemies. Wonder Woman’s villains? Name three, not including (and these are real) Paper-Man and Mouse-Man.
But the Flash…
The editor of Barry Allen’s newsstand adventures, a genius named Julius Schwartz, found a template for Flash’s villains that kept the Comics Code calm because none of them were based on psychoses or sorcery or ghastly evil. They were all simple thieves who were reborn thanks to super-science. Mirror Master accidentally discovered a way to gimmick mirrors to generate energy and travel across space and dimensions. Captain Cold, Weather Wizard, Heat Wave and Pied Piper all used weapons stolen from cutting-edge labs. Kadabra was a bored performer from the far future whose “magic” feats were all 64th century science. Even Gorilla Grodd, the superintelligent ape, relied on the telekinetic powers of his scientifically advanced brain more than he did on sinew and muscle. And so on and so forth. The Flash comics — through editor Schwartz — built up a cast of super-criminals so massive that they officially named themselves the Rogues’ Gallery (the Rogues, for short).
Last night’s Flash episode gave us our first taste of that, and I continue to applaud the producers’ ability to tread that fine line between threatening and cheezy. Mr. Freeze, whose entire motif of frost and snow and ice puns, is borderline camp (just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger). Captain Cold (though, admittedly, suffering a clunkier name) isn’t shtick-driven; he’s just a thief with a badass weapon. If I recall, we were peppered a little bit last night with some throwaway “he was beaten as a kid”-type backstory-motivation cliches regarding Cold, but they were forgettable; being a master thief is backstory enough, isn’t it?
Heroes who are the stars of their own show need to be deep; reoccurring villains who stop by from time to time mostly just need to be colorful. Clearly, judging by the last-scene set-up, Mick Rory (a.k.a. Heat Wave) will be our next Rogue in play, and I’d argue that a pyromaniac armed with the world’s most powerful flamethrower is, in itself, a pretty compelling threat. If Detective West starts telling us some long tale about how Rory’s mom froze to death on an Alaskan expedition mission when he was a kid and thus Rory grew up to swear eternal vengeance on cold things, I promise you it’s going to go in one ear and out the other. Sometimes a Rogue is just a Rogue, and judging by this episode, that’s just fine.
Flash Facts (a.k.a. Easter Eggs):
Captain Cold (created by writer John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino), we already discussed. The costume designers kept his trademark visuals — glare-proof glasses and a parka hood — without making them look costume-y, a nice touch. Also appreciated: the carry-over from the comics that the Rogues have their own code against killing, not because they’re sweethearts, but because a murder rap means these thieves go to jail forever.
Blackhawk Security Systems is a reference to The Blackhawks, comics’ World War Two band of Nazi-busting aviators. Forgotten today and presumably off playing shuffleboard with Betty Boop, Andy Panda and Red Ryder, the Blackhawks so were unbelievably popular internationally in the mid-20th century that multiple publishers in Mexico created and sold their own Blackhawk comics.
The coffee-shop trivia contest was run by Oswald Loomis who, in the comics, is a Superman villain called the Prankster. Remember what I said above about the dearth of good Superman villains? See: Prankster.
The museum curator? Dexter Myles, who (fingers crossed) like his comics counterpart, will later become the overseer of Central City’s Flash Museum.
In addition to a landmark near-100-issue run on The Flash from 1992 to 2000, New York Times bestselling author Mark Waid has written a wider variety of well-known characters than any other American comics creator, from Superman to the Justice League to Spider-Man to Archie and hundreds of others. His award-winning graphic novel with artist Alex Ross, Kingdom Come, is one of the best-selling comics of all time. Currently, he writes Daredevil and S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics and Empire and Insufferable for his own webcomics site, Thrillbent.