Superman is the most powerful being in all of comic books. You may argue that this is a debatable topic but the end result is simple- Superman always wins. You nay-sayers may want to quote the one time he lost—The Death of Superman—but remember not only did he simultaneously defeat Doomsday, he also returned from the dead. So the collateral damage of that loss is negligible.
Superman is the symbol of American morality combined with a power-set that is simply impossible to comprehend: flight, invulnerability, ice breath, several enhanced visions (x-ray, telescopic, and heat varieties being the most common), super strength, super intellect…the list goes on ad infinitum.
This has often posed a problem for writers. How can you possibly have such a powerful character and keep him challenged? What villain could possibly give Superman—a mortal more powerful than gods (see Superman slugging Darkseid above) a run for his money? Certainly, Lex Luthor has to be given a certain amount of credit in this respect; he is and always will be Superman’s opposite number—but what I am referring to here is blow-for-blow battle. It is very difficult to keep a character interesting when he can literally swat all opposition away like flies if he so chooses.
In rectifying this problem there are generally two solutions writers have come up with over the years:
1) Invent a character with almost no back-story with a mysterious and amazing level of strength
2) Have Superman fight some analogue of Superman.
Neither of these approaches has developed any truly challenging or long lasting adversity for the Man of Steel. To avoid going into the depressingly endless list of Superman rouges that either don’t fit these two solutions or fit the bill for solution one lets just say the cream of the crop is Mr. Mxyzptlk and “kltpzyxm” that whole discussion. (I will discuss Mr. Mxyzptlk one day: how awesome he is, how poorly he has been used, and how sad it is that I didn’t have to look up how to spell his name…but not this time around.)
As far as analogues of Superman go there are three of worthy note: Bizarro, General Zod, and The Cyborg Superman.
In order to explain these characters one has to choose their history well—as it is with all things DC Universe these characters may have origins that have changed drastically over the years, without explanation, and occasionally without reason.
The first I’ll discuss is Bizarro. Bizarro first appeared in an issue of Superboy during the 1950’s in which a scientist used a “duplicating ray” on Superboy. As all advanced technology was composed of rays and tubes in the 50’s this isn’t surprising. The character was devised to be a strange cross breed of Superboy and Frankenstein. He was later packaged and repackaged again during the Silver Age as being an “imperfect copy of Superman” eventually being reduced to his imperfect “Me no am Bizarro” style of speech. Besides having negative-Yoda syntax Bizarro also has “opposite” Superman powers…sorta. He has “freeze vision” instead of “heat vision” and “flame breath” instead of “freeze breath” or “super breath”. This is where Bizarro really starts to lose anything remotely resembling continuity. If he were to have reverse Superman powers the opposite of “flight” is “walking”, the opposite of “super hearing” is “deaf”, and the opposite of “invulnerability” is “weak as a kitten”. Also for some reason the kryptonite that effects Bizarro is blue even though the opposite color of green is red. Maybe this is where “imperfect” comes into play? So as to have the weight of “opposite” removed? There have been really great uses of Bizarro, I’m sure of it. The late 1990’s Superman show is one triumph, where as the Superfriends version is an utter fail. The best use of Bizarro in my opinion has always and will always be in the “Emperor Joker” storyline. While I will hopefully, one day, get to talking about this story in full I have to say it is one of my favorite Superman stories ever; the Joker has gained omnipotence by duping Mr. Mxyzptlk and runs amok with the entire universe. In the end though, Bizarro is a cheap laugh at best. Him is the best villain never. Or, I guess…well you get the drift—his usage is limited, his character development is impossible, and his backward “S” logo is…well that’s about all he’s got.
Next, let’s talk about General Zod. If you’ve ever seen Superman: The Movie and Superman 2 you know all about Zod and to KNEEL BEFORE ZOD. General Zod is a much better anti-Superman than Bizarro for a great variety or reasons. His characterization varies from being a Kryptonian Hitler to being a military leader concerned primarily with the protection of his people. At the end of the day both Superman and Dru-Zod (that’s his name by the way) are both holding an olive branch but while Superman will try to extend it, General Zod will use it as a switch and beat you into pudding. Most fans become familiar with General Zod, as I said before, from the start of Superman: The Movie. “You will bow down before me, Jor-El. I swear it,” these lines are burned in my mind more clearly than the pledge of allegiance, “No matter that it takes an eternity! You will bow down before me! First you! And then one day…YOUR HEIRS!” For me these are the most important lines Mario Puzo ever wrote and could have only been made better if Al Pacino were maniacally shouting them at Brando’s Jor-El. But I could also say that of the pledge of allegiance, or even the Mourner’s Kaddish—everything is better with Pacino maniacally shouting it…but I digress.
General Zod has been portrayed across several media besides the Superman movies. He has appeared in the novel “Last Days of Krypton” and, in some form, on “Smallville”. First and foremost Dru-Zod is a character from the early 1960’s and fell in and out of use. He was released from the Phantom Zone prison by Superboy but was quickly returned after he tried to…y’know…make everyone kneel before him. After the movies and DC entered the “Post-Crisis” era, Zod and his cohorts Ursa and Non were depicted as being from a pocket universe and Superman had to execute them using kryptonite which led to his vow “never to kill again” (except when he does so inadvertently, to protect his own life, or when killing sentient robots).
Recently, Zod was given quite an overhaul in the maxi series “World of New Krypton” in which 100,000 or so Kryptonians were found to be alive in the bottled city of Kandor. After all sorts of goings-on that kept them from living peacefully on Earth these Kryptonians decided to live on a planet they generated or garnered or whatever in a complete opposite orbit to Earth (see Marvel’s Counter-Earth of “Heroes Reborn” for another use of this concept). On “New Krypton” the surviving Kryptonians set up their society as it once was. Superman is drafted into the military guild and is forced to serve under its leader…that’s right Dru-Zod.
In this storyline General Zod was developed from being a one-dimensional character with meaningless and banal megalomania to being a complex and intelligent tactician with a paternal need to protect his people. This was one of the better Superman stories of the past twenty years—but only if you can cope with the fact that there are literally one hundred thousand supermen in it. The central characters are Zod and Superman as well as Superman’s aunt Alura, his cousin Supergirl, among other Kryptonians. I won’t spoil the story here but it is far more interesting to see Superman and Zod have character conflicts and not just super powered ones. By the end of the story you have a sense that Zod is not just Hitler with heat vision but a character with motivations, reason, and room to grow for future stories; but of course at the end of the day he is just an evil Superman…as evidenced as by his “evil twin” beard.
Then of course, there is the ever awesome if not poorly named “CyborgSuperman”. The Cyborg Superman is a big reason for why this article was written…but more about that later. His story starts in the early 1990’s as astronaut Hank Henshaw. Henshaw, his wife, and two compatriots go into space in a rocket ship and are effected by some kind of space radiation and start developing all sorts of abnormal side effects to that energy. If this story sounds familiar it should—its a heavy handed nod to the Fantastic Four. Except in this story things to horribly wrong. Their version of the Human Torch turns radioactive, loses his mind, and commits suicide in the sun. Their version of The Thing discorporates entirely. Henshaw’s wife phases out of this realm of reality and disappears. Henshaw’s body deteriorates and dies…but his mind lives on IN MACHINES!!! Somehow, Henshaw manages to blame the whole ordeal on Superman and vows revenge.
Some years pass and the Hank Henshaw character disappears into the open ended plot galaxy when he escapes into outerspace in some appropraited kryptonian technology. Superman dies in battle with Doomsday and four mysterious replacements show up after the funeral. One of these replacements is The Cyborg Superman who, unbeknownst to all, is actually the now villianous Hank Henshaw. Because of the kryptonian technology he adapted into his physiology all tests show that he is kryptonian. This leads to him being the “offically accepted” Superman for the United States Government.
Henshaw then calls in his alien force from Warworld with his lieutenant, Mongul, to destory Coast City. The Cyborg’s game is then relayed. He wants to tarnish Superman’s name and symbol forever and will kill all of Earth, and turn it into another Warworld at the same time. With millions dead under the banner of the House of El the other three Superman replacements along with the recently ressurrected (yet depowered) true Superman go to war with the Cyborg.
You would think this would be a set up for an amazing Superman villian for years to come but I have neglected to mention one little fact: Coast City was Green Lantern’s town. As a matter of fact the actions of Cyborg Superman in the Reign of the Supermen storyline leads to the fall of Hal Jordan. The Fall of Hal Jordan leads to the destruction of the Green Lantern Corps at the Hands of Hal Jordan, Jordan becoming possessed by the entity Parallex, attempting to destory all of time and rewrite it in his image (see Zero Hour: Crisis in Time), and the eventual undoing of all those things. Without Cyborg Superman the last sixteen years of Green Lantern stories would have NEVER happened while Superman stories would have by-and-large gone off without a hitch. This is what prompted me to write this article.
Cyborg Superman is barley worth mentioning in the Superman mythos outside of the ressurection of Superman. It is, however, arguable that until very recently with The Sinestro Corps War and Blackest Night that Cyborg Superman had the more impact on the course of Green Lantern comics than any other villian. Even including the Sinestro Corps War because Henshaw was a member of the Sinestro Corps.
The success of this analogue of Superman in the arena of another superhero makes one wonder about the success of lesser chracters in Superman’s rogues gallery. Could it be that Atomic Skull is a great villian going up against unfair odds? How would he fair against Blue Beetle or even Green Arrow? Would Mr. Z or Shockwave give Firestorm a run for his money? Maybe Superman has a great rogues gallery that is just not great in comparison to the Pi-times-infinity of awesome that is Superman.
I have no doubt that most of them are not indeed great. Riot, for example, is Madrox the Multiple Man with a bad case of insomnia-induced-mania. He is defeated by sleep. I don’t even know why this character was created. It does however make you think twice about at least some of his villians. Perhaps against other heroes they may have had an impact, or at least a chance to be a quirky c-list favorite like the Mad Hatter.
At the end of the day Batman and Spider-Man have the best rogues gallery hands down— from classics like The Joker to The Green Goblin and The Penguin to Doctor Octopus along with The Riddler, The Kingpin, Bane, Venom, Hush, Sandman, Clayface and undeniably the likes Doctor Doom and Ras Al Ghul. You just can’t top them. (I don’t mention the X-Men because their foes aren’t rogues, they are most often political adversaries…its really a whole different thing with them.) By contrast Superman arguably has the worst; barring those mentioned here plus Lex Luthor, Metallo on a really good day, and Darkseid all of whom are easily derailed if not dispached—easily that is for a mortal that could smack the piss out of Zeus. But maybe they should have just stayed the fuck out of Metropolis and they would have been far more successful.