Antiheroes or villains being the central protagonists of television series has been a prominent concept throughout the 2000’s. Vic Mackey from The Shield, Hannibal Lecter from Hannibal, Walter White from Breaking Bad, Jack Bauer from 24, and Tony Soprano from The Sopranos are a few characters that commit a variety of violent and ruthless acts to achieve their goals.
Before TV focused on antiheroes and villains being the central protagonists of their stories comic books had beaten them to the punch. In the 90’s many antiheroes and villains were the stars of their own comics. The Punisher, Eric Draven, Venom, Carnage, Wolverine, Lobo, were all thrown into the spotlight. Audiences saw 90’s antiheroes as a natural progression from the comic book code of authority losing more influence.
The comic book code of authority had lost much of its influence in the 80’s. The groundwork of 90’s antiheroes was paved from the 80’s presenting comics as a serious medium to tell stories. In 1981 Frank Miller wrote Daredevil “Born Again” where The Kingpin discovered Daredevil’s secret identity from Daredevil’s drug addicted former girlfriend. The Kingpin used all of his resources to destroy Daredevil’s life. Daredevil was pushed to the edge of his sanity.
In 1988 a one shot graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke” was released from Alan Moore. In “Batman: The Killing Joke” Batman’s greatest enemy The Joker discovered Barbara Gordon was Batgirl. Kidnapping Batgirl’s father Commissioner Gordon The Joker takes him to an abandoned funhouse. The Joker shoots and permanently paralyzes Barbara Gordon. Stripping her nude he takes several pictures of the broken Barbara Gordon. The Joker has his men beat and strip Gordon of his clothes. Taking him through the funhouse The Joker taunts Commissioner Gordon by showing the pictures of his injured daughter.
Before the 80’s comic book stories experimented with a focus on serious subject matter. In the 70’s the comic series “Green Arrow and Green Lantern” both commented on social issues of racism and drug abuse. Green Lantern vol 2. #85 involved a famous story of Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy being a heroin addict. In an iconic moment that allowed writers to apply flaws and give superheroes more depth to explore.
In the 70’s Marvel tried many ideas out on the market. “The Defenders,” “Werewolf By Night” “Godzilla” and “The Champions”. One of the ideas Marvel experimented with was a bimonthly series focusing on the villainous Doctor Doom and the antihero Namor working as partners in “Super Villain Team Up”. After reading “Essential Super Villain Team Up” the book isn’t an obscured hidden gem of the 70’s. Instead the series is an incoherent mess of concepts and a proud showcase of Marvel wasting potential. Published bimonthly “Super Villain Team Up” was two decades before the wide stream success of antiheroes and villains as protagonists but possibly only because Marvel was apprehensive to create a legacy for “Super Villain Team Up”
“Super Villain Team Up” opens with a sixty-eight annual. (Which were apparently all the rage considering “The Defenders,” “Werewolf By Night”, each had several giant-sized annuals published in the 70’s) Namor The Submariner saving Doctor Doom after an encounter where Doom failed against the Fantastic Four. Namor explains he saved Doom since Namor is now a king without a kingdom (or prince I suppose) since his subjects are now in suspended animation from events in Namor’s last ongoing series. Namor asks for Doom to help him but the two start to immediately argue about who’s stronger and why they should team up. The rest of the annual is Doom flashing back to previous issues of Marvel stories where Doom teamed up with Diablo and his last encounter with Namor. (Which Marvel also did for the first “Giant Sized Defenders” annual considering that was largely a flashback of each of “The Defenders” origins before they met)
As soon as Namor explains why Doom was saved the books true premise is revealed. Instead of Doom and Namor fighting against villains of the Marvel Universe it’s a Namor reboot in disguise. After teaming up with Doom against rogue Doombots in a 2nd annual “Super Villain Team Up” confirms my suspicion when Namor fights against his rogue’s gallery of villains Attuma, Dr.Dorcas, and Tiger Shark in the first two issues.
As soon as Doom and Namor team up to defeat Attuma, Dr. Dorcas and Tiger Stark Doom murders a henchman of the villains and Namor immediately turns on him. Namor and Doom fight and Doom crashes onto a ship. The captain of the ship uses Doom’s energy to create a lifeless monster. After Doom and Namor fight it’s implied the captain was successful and the monster will come to life to fight against Doom and Namor. Yet, this plotline is as abandoned as quickly as it’s created (a common trend the bimonthly series creates for itself).
The fifth issue of the series is when the writers address why Doom a villain and Namor an antihero won’t backstab each other the first chance they get. Doom manages to poison Namor and destroy part of Atlantis. Namor agrees to be Doom’s servant to keep him alive and spare his people. It took two giant sized annuals and a miniseries but the repetitive betrayals of Doom and Namor might finally be over. (Or one would hope.)
The first thing Namor does when poisoned is meet with the Fantastic Four and get under Doom’s thumb. The Fantastic Four are unable to permanently cure him. (I guess Namor didn’t just ask The Thing how Reed’s attempts to cure him had been going.) However, Johnny Storm does encounter a mysterious and new superhero The Shroud who plans to murder Doctor Doom.
The Shroud a new superhero with the origin of Batman and The Shadow plans to murder Dr. Doom and free Namor of his control. The Shroud was most likely conceived since actual characters of the Marvel Universe were far too busy doing better things in their own titles. Despite having an interesting appearance The Shroud is devoid of a strong personality and comes across as more of a way to have Doom and Namor fight yet again.
The Shroud appears successful of his attempt to kill Doom. Namor is freed from his word. However, Doom turns out to be alive and captured from Namor’s remaining forces. Namor’s forces explain that with Doom captured he will cure Namor’s subjects or die. (Which after so long is hard to remember as the original point of this series to begin with.) Namor and The Shroud attempt to leave Latveria they run across Doom. It turns out Doom isn’t dead but an imposter replacing Doom to do a revolt against him. It was clear at this point with Namor and Shroud on the run, an imposter Doom, and Doom being captured the bimonthly book was throwing ideas to the wall and seeing what would stick.
After a crossover with The Avengers the book finally lives up to its hype. In “Super Villain Team Up #10” The Red Skull takes over the kingdom of Latveria. Doom teams up with Captain America to invade Latveria at the same time Namor, The Shroud and the imposter Doom also discover The Red Skull is in charge. “Super Villain Team Up” finally starts to live up to its potential with a villain worse than Doom and Namor, and The Red Skull having a clear diabolical and creative plan.
The plotline of the imposter Doom is also wrapped up unceremoniously with Red Skull shooting him through the chest. (I’m not sure if it was the fans or the writers but the angle of the revolution is completely dropped after having been teased for the last several issues) The Red Skull and Doom story arc cultivates in an amazing battle between the two on the moon. The battle has great climatic tension and almost makes the whole series worth it.
After a crossover of Doom and Magneto battling with “The Champions” involved. (Since it was probably the only way anyone would want to pick up “The Champions” to begin with.) After the crossover battle against Magneto “Super Villain Team Up” reaches its conclusion. Doom and Namor fight Krang. Doom cures Namor and releases Namor’s subjects from suspended animation.
The last issues of “Super Villain Team Up” were only made for Marvel to prevent DC from copyrighting the term super-villain. It’s a story of Red Skull, Arnim Zola, and Hate Monger creating a new cosmic cube. The book has an uninteresting end to a largely uninteresting series.
“Super Villain Team Up” was a strong concept. Its cover art and interior art were generally solid. Doom and Namor are kept in character. A cameo by Henry Kissinger and a strong battle against Red Skull on the moon almost make the book an under looked gem. However, instead of Doom and Namor fighting against Hydra, AIM, or Modok, the series comes across as a mess of unorganized ideas, dropped plot points and a Namor ongoing in disguise. Antiheroes and villains being protagonists might have been a cultural phenomenon in the 90’s and the character building was established in the 80’s but it’s clear notes weren’t taken from 70’s “Super Villain Team Up.”