Every superhero has an archenemy. Spider-Man has Venom, Doctor Strange has Dormammu, and the X-Men have Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. These heroes and villains would often fight multiple times, and some of their battles could last dozens or even hundreds of comic book issues.
However, the hero-villain rivalry was not considered popular during the golden age of comics in the late 1930s to the late 1940s. Most of the time, superheroes would just take down regular foes whose names will never be seen again in the next issue. This formula of criminals taken down forever will soon change for Marvel Comics when comic book artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created a menacing foe for Captain in October 1941, a villain who will appear countless times as a nemesis for one of America’s greatest superheroes.
Here is the story of the first iconic supervillain in Marvel Comics as well as the first set of notorious villains who were created after his appearance.
Rise of the Red Skull
Before making his appearance in comic books, the Red Skull was conceptualized by Joe Simon when he saw a human-like figure forming out of a melted hit fudge sundae. While the ice cream resembled a torso, Simon stated that he imagined the cherry on top to look like a human head that was skinned, exposing the bloody muscles and bones of the skull. Simon then pitched this idea to Jack Kirby, who was trying to figure out who could be the perfect nemesis for Captain America.
After finalizing the look for the Red Skull, Simon and Kirby introduced the supervillain in Captain America Comics #1 as the owner of a company called Maxon Aircraft. George Maxon, the Red Skull’s real name, wanted to overthrow the U.S. government, but seeing that his current budget is not enough for him to become the ruler of the country, he decided to rob banks while wearing a red mask to get more money.
Due to the absurdity of his crimes and his plans, the Red Skull was revamped to have a much darker backstory in Captain America #7, which was released in October 1941. In that issue, it was revealed that George Maxon was just a decoy and was not the real Red Skull, as the original Red Skull was Johann Schmidt, an Oberführer or a leader of a paramilitary unit for the Nazi Party.
After World War II, the Captain America comic book was shelved, but the Red Skull was eventually revived in 1965 when Tales of Suspense #65 was published. Like Captain America, the Red Skull was also in suspended animation after the events of World War II, which allowed him to survive for many years.
Once he was revived, the Red Skull searches for the Cosmic Cube, hoping that it would give him limitless power to conquer the world. His plans will eventually be thwarted by Captain America.
Along with being a Nazi during World War II, the Red Skull is also affiliated with Hydra, a terrorist organization that is considered a rival to S.H.I.E.L.D., the leading law enforcement agency in Marvel Comics’ Earth. Also, because of his grand plans of taking over the world, he has been an archenemy for the Avengers.
Villains After the Red Skull
Marvel did not have any prominent villains for several years after the introduction of Red Skull, as they wanted to focus more on the everyday struggles of their superheroes rather than polishing the motives and backstories of their villains.
It wasn’t until 1954 that a recurring villain appeared again for the Marvel Universe, and this villain was a vicious and menacing foe called Gorilla-Man.
Before the name of the villain was taken by a criminal named Arthur Nagan, Gorilla-Man was first used by Kenneth Hale in Men’s Adventures #26, published in March 1954. In the comic book, Hale was depicted as a thrill-seeker who went to Africa in search of a mysterious gorilla-like creature. This gorilla is said to give immortality to whoever kills it.
Hale was successful in killing the creature, but in exchange for being immortal, he must take the form of a gorilla for the rest of his life. As Gorilla-Man, Hale served as a superhero for S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers, and he also worked as a guide for the X-Men.
After Kenneth Hale, Arthur Nagan assumed the character of Gorilla-Man in Mystery Tales #21, published in September 1954. It was seen during the first panels of Nagan’s story that he is a surgeon who takes organs out of gorillas and use them to experiment onhumans.
The gorillas that were imprisoned by Nagan rebelled and successfully thwarted the surgeon’s plans. To exact revenge on the surgeon, the gorillas took Nagan’s head and transplanted it in a dead gorilla’s body. As the villain Gorilla-Man, Nagan became a member of the Headmen, a group of supervillains who aim to cause destruction in the world. The Headmen have continuously battled with a superhero group called the Defenders over the years.
The Defenders were formed by a number of superheroes who are often seen as loners or outsiders. Seeing that their powers go well together, the Defender’s heroes, such as Namor and The Incredible Hulk, formed a team to fight crime and evil more effectively.
Morgan le Fay
Morgan le Fay is a supervillain introduced in Black Knight #1, a comic book created by writer Stan Lee and artist Joe Maneely in May 1955.
Based on Morgan le Fay in the legends of King Arthur, Morgan le Fay’s back story differs from the original, as in the Marvel universe, she is the half-sister of King Arthur who possessed elven blood. Because of this magical blood, Morgan le Fay is immortal, which enabled her to endlessly learn and master the mystic arts. Like the Red Skull, Morgan le Fay also seeks to conquer the world, but her plans are always foiled by the Avengers.
Besides being proficient in the mystic arts, Morgan le Fay also possesses the power to shapeshift, teleport, warp reality, and time travel.
The Yellow Claw
Created by Al Feldstein and Joe Maneely, Yellow Claw first appeared in October 1956 in Yellow Claw #1. The character was an enemy for Jimmy Woo, Chinese-American F.B.I. agent who is seeking for the notorious Yellow Claw.
Through his criminal organization that has achieved a global presence, the Yellow Claw seeks to take control of the world and become its supreme ruler. All of his plans for world domination were stopped not only by Jimmy Woo but also by the Avengers.
The Yellow Claw was reintroduced as a hero in the comic book series Agents of Altas that ran from 2006 to 2007. In the series, it was discovered that the Yellow Claw’s plans of conquering the world were only created in order for Jimmy Woo to be seen as an important Asian hero in America. However, this did not happen as Jimmy Woo was relegated to a monotonous desk job in the F.B.I.
Saddened by the outcome of his plan, the Yellow Claw founded the Atlas Foundation to help more Asian superheroes build their crime-fighting legacy in the world.