Any author would find it difficult to do deep character analysis in such limited space, but the best of DC villains aren’t special characters simply because they do awful things.
It may be a cliché that great heroes need great villains; you don’t get famous by pounding nameless thugs. It’s only natural that Robert Greenberger, after his 100 Greatest Moments books on the Justice League and DC super heroines, would turn to cataloging nemeses. DC Comics Super-Villains: 100 Greatest Moments surveys bad guys from throughout the publisher’s history for a fully flippable coffee table book designed to spark debate and nostalgia. So why isn’t it essential?
The format works well. Greenberger typically includes a brief bio followed by a defining scene. Rogues like the Joker and Lex Luthor naturally get space for more than one evil example. Each section includes pertinent artwork, and Greenberger’s clear and concise prose makes the quick overviews effective. Pick up the book during a commercial break and you’ll get a quick treat; plop down for a longer read and you’ll cover plenty of territory.
Greenberger lists villains in alphabetical order, which is sensible but misses a fun opportunity for ranking. What are their most villainous moments? Doomsday killing Superman? The Joker’s atrocities in The Killing Joke? Or do we scrub that one entirely? This organization also makes for a strange first entry: Adolf Hitler. The Spear of Destiny, with which he was obsessed, has a long run as a legendary artifact as well as a tool in DC comics, but it doesn’t make sense to open this volume with a real-world monstrosity who has had so little interaction with the DC universe.
Half the debate that the book provokes might revolve around inclusions and omissions, and Hitler would only be a small part of that conversation. Most, if not all, of the key players are here, although General Zod, surprisingly, doesn’t get his own entry. Greenberger sticks to the print version of these characters, not only affecting which events are chosen but which characters get listed. For instance, Green Arrow, for years the center of the CW’s superhero universe, won’t find many of his foes here. Batman could probably have a book this size dedicated to his rogues alone, and there’s little to complain about on that front, but the fact that Batgirl has none of her enemies highlighted (unless you count the Joker) feels like a misstep.
100 Greatest Moments skews slightly toward older eras of comics, though that may be just because there’s so much more of it. Greenberger brings in, for example, Tom King’s current Batman run in his discussions of Bane and Catwoman. Long-time comics fans will likely find more here, and the book will probably get more traction among those who want to recall old reads rather than those using the book as an encyclopedic introduction to the characters.
Any author would find it difficult to do deep character analysis in such limited space, but the best of DC villains aren’t special characters simply because they do awful things. They’re engaging because they’re complex. Characters like Captain Cold and Sinestro surprise us with their multi-faceted motivations and exchanges. Captain Cold’s greatest moments might be his team-up with Wonder Woman and the good guys, or maybe just his conversations with Wally West. Sinestro had a remarkable character arc under Geoff Johns, but a list-based book like this one can’t get at the tension between his desire to do the right thing and the rest of the world’s disagreement about what that is.
Greenberger succeeds at creating a big, fun page-turner that reminds us of wonderful comics action and jump-starts geeky arguments. But it rubs up against expected limitations. DC Comics Super-Villains: 100 Greatest Moments provides what we’d expect, and while it’s hard to fault that, it’s also a little disappointing that it doesn’t find something new in its look back.