A Villain by Any Other Name

We don't have too many no-name villains in Spider-Man anymore. By that, I don't mean insignificant ones. (We have far too many of those.) I'm referring to the bad guys who are so cloaked in mystery that even their real names are not known.

In the early days of the series, we had plenty of them. Not because Lee, Ditko and Romita couldn't be bothered to give them backgrounds. They created plenty of villains with known pasts and names, such as Dr. Octopus, the Lizard, Electro, the Scorpion, the Looter, and the Molten Man. But for every one of these, we had a nameless character. The Vulture. Mysterio. The Green Goblin. Kraven the Hunter. The Kingpin. And the ultimate nameless villain, The Chameleon. This wasn't laziness but a well-honed knowledge that cloaking the character in mystery could increase his effectiveness and appeal.

Let's look at each of these previously-nameless villains separately...

The Vulture: In his early appearances, he is portrayed almost as a crafty and stealthy force of nature; a bird of prey with human intellect. He can swoop into a window to rob a third floor diamond exchange or fly low to the ground to evade a police helicopter. The more he is presented as a creature rather than a human being, the less we are likely to realize that he is simply an old bald man in a dopey-looking bird suit.

Mysterio: You can't have a name like that without being, well, mysterious. With his fishbowl helmet, epaulets that look like eyes, and mists that surround his body, it wasn't even certain that Mysterio was human much less that his powers were all trickery. Even after it is revealed that his magic is done with special effects, the spookiness of the nameless character remains. But these days, he's just a guy named Quentin Beck with a "Mo Howard" haircut who has abandoned his famous fishbowl because it is somehow no longer cool. How the mighty have fallen.

The Green Goblin: The Goblin is not really nameless in the same way as the others. The mystery of his identity is a central part of his early appearances, replete with shadowy shots of him in street clothes but with his head always hidden from view. As opposed to the others, the Goblin stayed incomplete as long as his identity remained secret but paradoxically he (and the later Jackal and Hobgoblin) was a more compelling character before he was unmasked for us.

Kraven the Hunter: It is the very oddness of this character (who is in many ways, just another "white man in the jungle" comic-book figure) that made it all work for as long as it did. Who is this Hunter? What kind of name is "Kraven"? (It's a misspelling of a word that means "coward", right? What's the point behind that?) Where did he get his strange costume? How did he end up in the jungle? How did he develop his potions? The minute these questions start to be answered, the character loses his punch. (Thankfully, writer JM DeMatteis chose to answer very little of the practical questions... and then killed the character to preserve his mystique.)

The Kingpin: Playing off the two different meanings of his name, the Kingpin is a crime boss who (with his bald head, white suit, and portly figure) resembles a human bowling pin. In the face of that strange concept, it seems perfectly reasonable to then add that all of his weight is actually muscle which makes him a super-humanly strong figure.

The Chameleon: The man who can disguise himself as anyone just has to be nameless and faceless, doesn't he?

Unfortunately, as the years go by and the characters are used and re-used, the mystery inevitably begins to rub away. Eventually, in order to infuse some characterization and create new stories, the mystery is eliminated altogether. As if sensing that the exotic nature of these villains must be preserved, they were each finally given exotic names. The Vulture is Adrian Toomes. The Kingpin is Wilson Fisk. The Chameleon is Dmitri Smerdyakov. Not a John, Bill, or Joe in the bunch.

Was it a bad thing to humanize these characters? With the strength of Roger Stern's Vulture, Frank Miller's Kingpin, and JM DeMatteis' Kraven and Chameleon stories, it is hard to argue that point. Still, it's sad that all the old characters are so familiar now. Even the Ringmaster has an exotic name now! (Maynard Tiboldt.) Who's left who remains a mystery? The Terrible Tinkerer. Montana and Fancy Dan. I can't think of anyone else.

We can, of course, have it both ways. As the old characters are fully explored, it is time to create some mysterious new ones. Howard Mackie recently dropped the ball by revealing Shadrach in his second appearance. Tom DeFalco blew it with the Black Tarantula. So, who else is there? Well, there's Delilah. We don't know anything about her so far. And there's the Ranger, he's had three appearances with no real background yet, that's promising.