There’s a tendency among super-villains, especially those who have been around for some time, to get stuck in a creative rut. Plan the downfall of your arch-rival. Find your plan foiled. Go to jail, break out of jail, start a new plan. After a certain amount of time, you really need to start asking yourself if what you’re getting out of this is really worth the headache. After all, the more you plot against your nemesis, the more they’ll know to expect you when you’re coming.
Maybe this is why so many of DC’s villains have refocused their endeavors somewhere other than where they began. You can only go toe-to-toe with Batman so many times before he has the jump on you, but what if you targeted, say, Green Arrow or Blue Beetle instead? It’s not unheard of among super-villains looking for a fresh start. In fact, some villains are better known for their secondary rivalries than their original heroic enemies. Don’t believe me? Here are a few successful super-villains with more than a single arch-nemesis.
Original Antagonist: The Teen Titans
Deathstroke the Terminator is feared the world over as perhaps the greatest mercenary in the DC Universe, but his resume didn’t always speak for itself. In his early years, Slade Wilson spent most of his time fighting against super-powered children…and losing. In fact, his greatest successes usually came in enlisting other teenagers to infiltrate the group on his behalf.
Deathstroke, with his unrivaled strategic mind and combat skill, would eventually graduate to becoming a more persistent enemy of Batman—leveling up to the highest tier of super-villainy. After all, once you make it to Batman’s rogues gallery, there’s no shortage of stories open for you to star in.
2) Solomon Grundy
Original Antagonist: Alan Scott
Solomon Grundy’s greatest ability isn’t his super strength and resilience, but his ability to constantly reinvent himself. Every time Grundy falls, he rises anew from Slaughter Swamp as practically a new villain. So, after spending years antagonizing Green Lantern and his cohorts in the Justice Society, what does he do when the JSA closes up shop? He sets his sights on the new big game in town—the Batman.
Sure, matching his powers against the Dark Knight has scaled down his abilities from a team-killer to a Tuesday night complication in Batman’s schedule, but it’s by altering his scale that Solomon Grundy has been able to stay in the game since the Golden Age. Should a new hero ever, someday, eclipse Batman’s signal in the sky, you can be sure Grundy will be among the first to sign up for their enemies list.
3) Clock King
Original Antagonist: Green Arrow
Once again, we see that if you’re a villain in need of new direction, you can’t go wrong by making tracks to Gotham City.
While he humbly began as an enemy of Green Arrow in a World’s Finest backup, Clock King’s profile benefited significantly from that rising tide that lifted many villainous ships in the 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series. At a time when the list of widely known Bat-villains consisted of the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman and Riddler, the popular animated series birthed new complexity into the likes of Poison Ivy, Two-Face, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, Mad Hatter, Man-Bat, Ventriloquist…and, yes, Clock King
Batman: The Animated Series depicted Clock King as an entirely different character with an entirely original aesthetic and identity, but one which would forever link the villain in public consciousness to the enmity of the Dark Knight. That’s the power of a great adaptation.
4) Cyborg Superman
Original Antagonist: Superman
Secondary: Green Lantern
Hank Henshaw is a true inspiration to any villain looking to rebrand. With a face that’s half-Superman, half-Terminator, and a villainous identity that literally has “Superman” in the name, nobody faced as big a challenge breaking out of their box than Hank. All it took was the incineration of another superhero’s hometown in “Reign of the Supermen,” and old Hank had made an enemy of Hal Jordan for life. Which goes to show that, unlike when you want to foster a healthy relationship, grand gestures go a long way in creating arch-enemies. Find yourself typecast? Just build a bigger weapon and aim it somewhere else. That’s the Cyborg Superman way.
5) King Shark
Original Antagonist: Superboy
On the other hand, when you lean into typecasting, it always means you’ve got steady work. Take King Shark. Here’s a villain who began his career, if you will, as a fish out of water. As an enemy of Superboy at a time when he was based in Hawaii, that rivalry was only going to last as long as Connor stayed away from Metropolis. So, who else is there to fight when your arch-nemesis vacates to the mainland? Well, there’s always the king of the sea.
These days, when he’s not making time with the Suicide Squad (always a great villain career move if you can swing it, their fatality rate isn’t even that high), King Shark is making the most of the first half of his sobriquet overseeing the criminal underworld of Atlantis. A bit of a stereotype? Sure. But sometimes you just have to make the moves that make sense.
Original Antagonist: Superman
Secondary: The Justice Society of America
Widely recognized as the first super-villain, Ultra-Humanite may have also gotten the first raw super-villain deal. As the oldest recurring enemy of Superman, you would think this criminal mastermind would have his place made in the firmament of Superman’s rogues gallery. The representative of everything Superman wasn’t, in ability and morality, Ultra-Humanite might have even been Superman’s arch-rival, if the more alluring Lex Luthor had never come along.
With his lunch as a scheming mad scientist-type fully eaten by his successor, Ultra-Humanite was soon relegated to a body-swapping side note in Superman’s history, until he leveraged that pedigree to a place where history is always valued—the Justice Society of America. Now, whenever a story takes us back to the original age of heroism, you’re as likely as not to find Ultra-Humanite behind the whole Injustice Society scheme, even if he never actually fought them in the actual Golden Age.
7) Klarion the Witch Boy
Original Antagonist: Etrigan
Secondary: Young Justice
Did you even know Jack Kirby created Klarion as an enemy for Etrigan in The Demon? When I first started reading comics, I sure didn’t. I thought he was a troublemaking enemy of Young Justice, because that’s where we saw him hanging out in the ’90s.
Sometimes, like King Shark making his way to Atlantis, it’s a matter of finding the rivals who better fit your theme. If you’re a boomerang-themed villain, for example, maybe Green Arrow would make a better match for you than, say, the World’s Fastest Man. You know, just a thought.
Original Antagonist: Jimmy Olsen
Secondary: The New Gods; the Justice League
Here’s the truth that the God of Evil, Lord of Apokolips, Big Bad of the DC Universe doesn’t want you to know: his first appearance was in a Jimmy Olsen comic. Jack Kirby introduced Darkseid as the alien mastermind behind a genetic mutation laboratory in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. Looking at him objectively, he’s a rocky-skinned man in a long purple skirt with the face of a Brooklyn dockworker. His name is almost literally just “Dark Side.” It’s a very simple concept, and it probably shouldn’t have endured much beyond that first appearance. But sometimes, all it takes to push a character from laughable origins to the greatest threat reality has ever known is…well, for some of the greatest and most imaginative writers and artists in the history of comics to think about what it means to take you seriously.
There would be no “Darkseid is” until the 1990s, nor would it be adopted as his rallying cry until 2017. Up through the 1980s, Darkseid’s most notable battles against the Justice League included a toy line tie-in comic and the last season of Super Friends where his main goal was marrying Wonder Woman. Now this one-time Jimmy Olsen enemy is the envy of super-villains everywhere. So, if any comic book baddies find themselves in a creative rut, look to this craggy-faced son of Kirby. After all, Darkseid is…and someday, maybe, they can too.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Bluesky at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Alex Jaffe and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros., nor should they be read as confirmation or denial of future DC plans.