BY MATT TUCK, BLOGGER SUPREME
FB@ The Comic Blog
Is Superman better as a hero or villain? Judging by these 10 evil Supermen will have you leaning toward the bad guys.
It’s become a trope in itself with many dark versions of the Man of Steel debuting in the 21st Century in particular. Whenever a creator parodies classic superheroes, it’s almost a given that a Superman with a god complex will be the villain.
What is it about Superman that makes writers turn him evil? Since 1938, Superman has been the beckon of justice and hope. He’s the epitome of a boy scout with such a black and white view of right and wrong that he borders on naivety. Much of this dates back to his classic Golden Age roots when he was used as a propaganda tool for the World War II efforts. Actually, Superman’s creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel wanted him to be the Jewish savior who would bring an end to the Nazi regime, which gives his character an interesting messiah level that filmmakers have not ignored over the years.
Even in the modern era, comic writers generally stick to the core concept of Superman being the symbol of American justice, for better or worse. Doomsday Clock flipped the concept on its head when Ozymandias created an international incident that put a target on Superman’s back. That led to the world’s population turning against its once-beloved hero. In the end, that seems to be the writer’s point about Superman. Let’s say a being with godlike powers existed in the real world. Would he be inherently good or evil? As the cliché goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and anyone with that much power would likely instill his/her own brand of justice, which was the idea behind the Regime Superman in the Injustice games and subsequent comics and the animated movie. For that matter, it also spills over to the alternate-reality Knightmare Superman from Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
The result of these ethical questions surrounding the Man of Steel has given rise to many reimaginings of Superman, most of which have been evil. Outside the moral ambiguity that being an all-powerful, invincible being would create, the other part of the puzzle is simply being overpowered. From a storytelling perspective, it’s difficult to keep a character interesting when he has basically no weaknesses. Sure, there’s kryptonite and Superman has been written as susceptible to magic, but there’s only so many times a writer can utilize those plot points. Over time, the character becomes too distanced from everyday problems and issues, and the readers can no longer relate to him. That’s what makes a character like Spider-Man so enduring; he was created to be a superhero with real world problems, and that’s what separates him from the likes of Superman.
What’s the solution to making an interesting story featuring a vastly overpowered being? Make him the antagonist. Audiences love an underdog story, and everyone is an underdog compared to a god. It works even when Superman isn’t necessarily the villain as we saw in Frank Miller’s masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns. As much as the world loves Superman, there’s something inspiring about seeing a god brought down to Earth and humbled by a mortal. It’s also fun to see the extent of Superman’s powers when he lets loose and uses his full abilities. That is how we get these 10 characters.
FIRST APPEARANCE: IRREDEEMABLE #1
To kick off today’s list, let’s start with probably the least known of all the wicked Supermen. Plutonian was created by veteran Superman writer Mark Waid, the man behind one of the most popular alternate Men of Steel, Kingdom Come Superman. Taking a page from Invincible, this world’s all-powerful savior began his career as the good guy.
What will become a recurring theme today is the idea of being physically invulnerable but lacking the emotional intelligence and resilience that should be a job requirement. Not only does being a superhero mean sacrificing relationships and ignoring self care, but comics have shown the trauma heroes endure. In reality, those factors would weigh heavily on a person, no matter how physically strong and tough he or she may be.
It would also be easy for people with the powers of gods to truly believe they are gods. As such, they would view themselves far superior to the laws of man. Thus we have Plutonian.
He and Omni-Man share many similarities. They both have a disdain for the people of the world, though Omni-Man’s bloodlust is built out of allegiance to his home planet. For Plutonian, it comes from the frustration that no matter how much good he did, there were people who still despised him. Under the constant pressure of being a superhero, he reaches a breaking point, which triggers Plutonian’s genocide against his version of Metropolis, Sky City.
FIRST APPEARANCE: AVENGERS #69
Leave it to the rival Marvel Comics to create one of the earliest evil Supermen. Of course, Hyperion would mostly be known as a hero in the Marvel-616, but he was first unveiled as part of the Squadron Sinister, basically the anti-Justice League. The Grandmaster sent them to the Marvel Universe to battle the Avengers in what was more or less the company’s version of Avengers versus JLA.
Roy Thomas and the rest of the Marvel creators weren’t done with Hyperion just yet. Thanks to the character’s popularity, another version of Hyperion was brought to Earth-616. This time, he led the Squadron Supreme, another version of the JLA, but this time they were the good guys. They would eventually get their own comic series in 1985, appropriately titled, Squadron Supreme.
Along with virtually every other character in Marvel Comics, there have been rumors that Hyperion will join the MCU. Although he comes from a separate dimension, he is usually written as a cosmic hero with power levels that can rival Thor. Considering he is Marvel’s representation of Superman, I would imagine a live-action Hyperion would be the villain in a movie or Disney+ show.
JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #29
Fawcett Comics may have copied Superman to create its hero, Captain Marvel, but DC Comics was the first to have a corrupt Man of Steel.
Predating Hyperion by five years, the Justice League discovered an alternate Earth existing in the Multiverse. On this world, Superman and many of his superpowered allies went into business for themselves. Led by Ultraman, the Crime Syndicate of America would produce some of the most famous variants in all of comics. Along with Ultraman, we have Owlman, Super-Woman, Johnny Quick, and Power Ring.
This Superman is less evil and more amoral. He has all the powers and abilities of the Man of Steel, but he puts them to use for personal gain. His end would come during the mega crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths, bringing an end to Ultraman in the process.
7. RED SON SUPERMAN
FIRST APPEARANCE: SUPERMAN: RED SON #1
When DC decides to make its own “What If…” story, they go all out. Instead of wondering what would have happened if someone else took up Captain America’s shield or how stories would have panned out if Wolverine had killed the Hulk, the “what if” DC creators posed was a bit more existential: what if…Superman had been raised in Soviet Russia under the Joseph Stalin regime? The result is a case of a superhero with good intentions but ultimately a slave to political rhetoric.
Taking place during the early days of the Cold War, instead of Kal-El crashing on the Kents’ farm in Kansas, this alternate reality tale sees the alien baby land in Russian Ukraine. He is seized by the USSR government and raised to be its greatest champion. While Superman rises through the communist ranks, Lex Luthor remains in the United States, climbing the political ladder as a scientist bent on defeating the Man of Steel.
At first, Red Son Superman appears to be a true savior of all humanity. Through peaceful means, he expands the USSR into a global empire. Then things take a turn for the worse. Superman condones lobotomizing his citizens to make them more obedient to the will of the communist regime. Because, you know, that always works out well in a dystopian society, right?
The story stretches over many decades and well into the future. That’s where the real twist comes in. As the world is coming to an end thanks to the sun becoming a red giant, Luthor’s distant relative, Jor-L, chooses to send his only son, Kal-L, to the past. He arrives in Ukraine in 1938, bringing the story full circle and revealing Red Son Superman’s secret origin and infinite time loop.
6. CYBORG SUPERMAN
FIRST APPEARANCE: ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #500
Reign of the Supermen is not exactly a fond memory for many comic fans, but it did give us several fan favorite characters. In the aftermath of Death of Superman, four different Men of Steel emerged to claim the Superman title. The big moments were the arrival of Steel, a very ‘90s Superboy, Superman’s black-and-silver recovery suit (which somehow gave Clark Kent a mullet and made him a Van Halen fan), and the best addition to the DC Universe, Cyborg Superman.
The story began years earlier with the introduction of scientist Hank Henshaw. He and his wife, Terri, were part of a LexCorps space mission that went awry…because they always go awry. In what sounds like an alternate Fantastic Four origin, the four crew members suffered ill effects from cosmic radiation. Hank’s body began to decay while his wife began to phase into another dimension. With Superman’s help, Hank’s last act saved Terri, and he died at peace. Or so we thought. His body had passed, but Hank’s consciousness transferred to a LexCorps mainframe. Blaming Superman for all the bad things that happened to the Henshaws, the disembodied Hank went to Mongul’s Warworld to hatch a revenge scheme.
When Hank Henshaw finally returned to Earth, he had crafted a cybernetic body in Superman’s image. During Reign of the Supermen, Cyborg Superman helped Mongul lay waste to Green Lantern’s Coast City. Once Superman regained his powers, he destroyed Henshaw’s robotic body. Like Marvel’s Ultron, there’s no way to truly kill Henshaw, and he transferred his mind off the planet.
Probably the best version of Cyborg Superman would come during The Sinestro Corps War, where he served as one of the Yellow Lanterns’ twisted Guardians. In exchange for joining the Sinestro Corps, he wanted the Anti-Monitor to kill him. Of course, that didn’t happen. At the conclusion of the massive Lantern battle, he was unwillingly revived by the Manhunters.
FIRST APPEARANCE: THE BOYS #3
In classic Garth Ennis style, Homelander is the darkly comedic and ultra-violent Superman from the world of The Boys. Created in a laboratory but given a fake midwestern, all-American upbringing that should sound familiar, Homelander was designed to be the world’s greatest hero. The comics and the television tell two different stories for the character, though they are still fairly similar. In the comics, he was created from the DNA of Stormfront, who served the Third Reich during World War II. Of course, fans of the live-action show know Stormfront as a woman and Homelander’s neo-Nazi, psychotic love interest in season two.
Whether in the comics or on the show, Homelander is the single most powerful force in The Boys universe. Sure, he has all the powers of Superman, and it would seem he’s just as strong. The difference between Homelander and the other entries on today’s list is characterization. Little by little, Homelander’s past is being revealed in the show, and it’s brilliant. Despite the atrocious things he has done, the backstory being told is one of pain and trauma. From birth, he was raised without a family and locked in a cell. Rather than being loved and nurtured, Homelander was observed as an experiment. In essence, Vaught denied Homelander his humanity. What we witness are the actions of a monster created by a soulless corporation, which is clearly a social commentary.
FIRST APPEARANCE: SENTRY #1
The basic reasoning behind the Squadron Supreme was to have the Avengers beat up the rival Justice League of America. Since this was a Marvel story, that inherently made the JLA the villains of those comics. In essence, Superman became the antagonist of Marvel, but with Hyperion serving as his avatar.
That concept gave rise to Marvel’s second version of Superman, and this time he was a more complex character. In 2000, Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee co-created the Sentry, the man with the power of 1,000 exploding suns, whatever that means. Instead of being an alien who crash landed in Kansas, Bob Reynolds was a drug addict looking for a fix. He stumbled into a science laboratory, and apparently sampled any random liquid in a test tube he could find. As luck would have it, Bob took just the right combination of mystery potions to gain unlimited power.
Contrary to Superman, Sentry is emotionally unstable. He suffers from agoraphobia and has symptoms of dissociative-identity disorder, aka multiple personalities, sharing his body with the mysterious Void. Leading into Siege, the Void revealed to Bob’s wife that it is actually Galactus, though not much else happened with that concept.
The result has been one of the most unique versions of Superman ever created. Despite his godly abilities, he can’t save everyone on Earth at every moment, so he has the technological help of CLOC, the Centrally Located Organic Computer. Cloc weighs his options and suggests who he should rescue based on the most good he can do, but that adds another layer of morality to his story. Sentry has to carry the guilt of knowing he could have saved people, which means he let them die.
Although he was manipulated into joining the Dark Avengers, Sentry went full villain during Dark Reign and Siege. As the story moved into its finale, the Void took more control, and Sentry was completely evil when he destroyed Asgard and ripped Ares in half.
FIRST APPEARANCE: INVINCIBLE #1
Omin-Man went from unknown to superstar practically overnight. After Invincible debuted on Amazon Prime, the world discovered Omni-Man, the Superman with a mustache. Only, he is so much more than that.
As we discover later in Invincible’s first season, Omni-Man is a complicated character. His origin story is that Nolan Grayson is from the planet Viltrum. When he first arrived on Earth, he convinced the world’s heroes that he had been sent to aid and protect humanity. The truth was that he was there to prepare Earth for a Viltrumite takeover. On Viltrum, only the strongest and most fit are allowed to survive, and its most loyal subjects are dispatched across the galaxy to groom planets for Viltrum’s expanding empire. Only, Nolan had become more human. While he retained his disdain for “lesser beings,” Omni-Man loved his family and the life they had created. When Mark gains his powers, he is torn between his duty to Viltrum and his love for his family. Despite his mass genocide and speeches, Nolan would become the first Viltrumite to abandon his post when he was moved by Mark’s words.
As far as powers, it doesn’t appear that Omni-Man has quite the abilities of Superman. He has the same speed, strength, and invincibility, but he lacks the heat vision and super breath (which sounds like his breath smells amazing). The biggest difference would be that Omni-Man has a very limited sense of morality, which is clearly overshadowed by his obligation to Viltrum.
FIRST APPEARANCE: SUPERMAN #68
Maybe there have been stronger and more menacing versions of Superman throughout the years, but there’s no discounting Bizarro’s contributions to the Superman lore over the decades. He recently debuted in the latest season of Superman & Lois, which should help expose him to a new generation of viewers.
Although not exactly evil, Bizarro was the first character to flip the idea of Superman on its axis. This was during the prime of the Comics Code Authority, so Bizarro and his entire Bizarro World were meant more as cartoony fun for younger readers. In his mind, he was trying to do good and be like Superman, only his entire existence is the opposite of our world. Whenever Bizarro thought he was helping, he was doing the opposite.
We don’t see as much of Bizarro these days, but when he does appear, he’s portrayed as a sympathetic character. He has a childlike understanding of the world around him, and Superman takes pity on him.
1. SUPERBOY PRIME
FIRST APPEARANCE: DC COMICS PRESENTS #87
Here is a Superman that doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Similar to Sentry and Homelander, Superboy Prime is what happens when you combine Superman’s powers with emotional instability. The result is pure, delightful comic book chaos.
The idea behind Superboy Prime is that, for all intents and purposes, he is the Silver Age Superboy. Only this version comes from the Earth-Prime universe in which there are no superheroes. Superboy Prime had spent his entire life believing he would grow into the mantle of Superman and become the world’s greatest hero. His reality comes crashing down when he discovers that he was merely the figment of a creator’s imagination.
During Crisis on Infinite Earths, Earth-Prime is destroyed along with several other alternate Earths. That world’s Superman, Superboy, Lois Lane, and Alexander Luthor survive in a paradise dimension. Only, it’s not a paradise so much as it is a prison. During Infinite Crisis, Lois is dying, and Superman can’t save her. Meanwhile, Superboy Prime begins to lose his grasp on reality. When Earth-Prime Superman breaks free of the dimension and comes to Earth-One, Superboy follows.
Seeing himself as the only true Superboy, Prime seeks out the Earth-One Superboy, Conner Kent. Prime sees Conner as a lesser version of himself and wages war on his variant. In one of the best moments of Infinite Crisis, the Teen Titans arrive to help Conner. Prime loses all self-control and goes on a rampage. He dismembers and decapitates some lesser Titans, and he blames them for corrupting and ruining him. After that, he is only stopped by the combined efforts of Earth-One and Earth-Prime Supermen with a little help from Mogo.
We wouldn’t see Superboy Prime again until the Sinestro Corps War. After Prime escapes the Green Lanterns, he becomes one of Sinestro’s new guardians of the Yellow Lanterns. Armed with a fresh costume and yellow power rings, the Yellow Lantern Superboy Prime is one of the most powerful Supermen ever created. Of course, he is defeated by the Green Lanterns, and he has made only sporadic appearances since then, which is a travesty.
Matt Tuck is the author of the novel, Lost Bones of the Dead. He is a professional writer, avid comic collector, former teacher, and the Blogger Supreme. You can follow him on his Facebook page, The Comic Blog, or on Instagram at matt.tuck.writer.