As the curtain rises on our traditional heroic narratives, we’re all too familiar with the scenes that play out: The shining heroes, the epic battles, the feats of courage and strength. But what about those who lurk in the shadows, the characters draped in shades of moral grey, often seen as the adversaries in our favourite comic book sagas? What happens when we shift our focus from the noble superhero to the intriguing villain? In this article, we will explore the Top 10 Comic Book Series Featuring Villains as the Protagonists, where villains take the centre stage. These are the stories that challenge our traditional perceptions, and remind us that sometimes, a change in perspective can open up an entirely new world.
Top 10 Comic Book Series Featuring Villains as the Protagonists
Suicide Squad (DC Comics)
The concept of the “Suicide Squad” originated in DC Comics and was first introduced in “The Brave and the Bold” #25 in 1959, but the modern version we’re familiar with debuted in 1987 in “Legends” #3. The squad is a group of villains from various DC stories who are enlisted or forced to participate in dangerous missions by a government organization led by Amanda Waller.
The premise is simple: these villains, many of whom are serving life sentences or are on death row, are offered a deal. In exchange for performing high-risk, often black-ops style missions for the government, they will receive commutations of their sentences. However, these missions are so dangerous that they are often considered suicidal, hence the name “Suicide Squad.”
Venom (Marvel Comics)
The Venom symbiote is from a race of extraterrestrial parasites known as the Klyntar. It originally debuted in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #252 (1984) as a new black costume for Spider-Man. The costume was later revealed to be a living alien creature in “The Amazing Spider-Man” #258.
The character has had multiple solo series and has become popular enough to establish a franchise of its own within the larger Marvel universe, known as the “Venomverse.” These series often delve into the relationship between the symbiote and its host, and explore themes of identity, power, and the struggle to do what’s right in the face of one’s darker impulses.
Secret Six (DC Comics)
The Secret Six consists of six villainous and morally ambiguous characters who find themselves blackmailed into working together by a mysterious figure known as Mockingbird. While the identities of the members have changed over time, the most iconic roster from the series includes Catman, Deadshot, Scandal Savage, Ragdoll, and two others who vary depending on the storyline.
The “Secret Six” series was known for its strong character development, humor, and exploration of moral ambiguity, making it a fan-favorite among readers. It presented an intriguing perspective on villainy and heroism in the DC Universe. Gail Simone’s run on the series, in particular, has been widely praised for its nuanced portrayal of the characters and their relationships.
Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Marvel Comics)
“Superior Foes of Spider-Man” is a comic series published by Marvel Comics that premiered in July 2013. The series was created by Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and it’s known for its humorous and down-to-earth look at some of Spider-Man’s lesser-known villains.
The series focuses on a new incarnation of the Sinister Six (though it only has five members) led by Boomerang, who seeks to become a major player in New York’s criminal underworld. The team, in addition to Boomerang, includes Shocker, Speed Demon, the Beetle (Janice Lincoln), and Overdrive.
One of the unique aspects of “Superior Foes of Spider-Man” is that it is largely a character-driven story. The series gives readers an in-depth look at the personal lives and motivations of these villains, who are usually relegated to the background in other comics. They are portrayed as flawed, relatable, and often humorous characters, who are just as prone to failure as they are to success.
Harley Quinn (DC Comics)
In her early appearances, Harley Quinn is portrayed as the Joker’s love interest and sidekick, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum (Dr. Harleen Quinzel) who falls in love with the Joker and descends into madness. Over time, her character evolves into a more independent figure, often acting as an anti-hero rather than a straightforward villain.
The 2013 “Harley Quinn” series, co-written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, really emphasizes her transition from a villain to an anti-hero. In this series, Harley moves to Coney Island after inheriting a building from an old patient. She takes on multiple jobs, including working as a therapist, and forms her own gang, the “Gang of Harleys.” This series showcases her chaotic and unpredictable nature, coupled with a surprising sense of justice and protective streak towards her new community and friends.
Throughout the series, Harley is portrayed as a complex character with a traumatic past, a sense of humor, and a desire to do right even though her methods are often unorthodox or violent. She’s not afraid to go up against anyone who she believes deserves punishment, whether they are common criminals, corrupt officials, or other supervillains.
Thanos (Marvel Comics)
One of the most significant series focusing on Thanos is “Thanos Quest” (1990), a two-part limited series written by Jim Starlin. In this story, Thanos embarks on a mission to collect the six Infinity Gems (later called Infinity Stones) to gain godlike power and control over the universe. The series is a crucial prelude to “The Infinity Gauntlet” (1991), where Thanos, with the power of the Infinity Gauntlet, becomes the central antagonist in one of Marvel’s most famous crossover events.
“Thanos Rising” (2013), written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Simone Bianchi, is a five-issue limited series that explores the origins and early life of Thanos on Titan. It provides a deep dive into the psyche of Thanos, explaining why he became the nihilistic and power-hungry titan known to the Marvel universe.
Another notable series is “Thanos” (2016-2018), written by Jeff Lemire and later by Donny Cates, which further explores Thanos’s character, his relationship with his family, and his struggle for power.
Deathstroke (DC Comics)
One of the significant standalone series featuring Deathstroke is “Deathstroke the Terminator,” which started in 1991. In this series, readers see Deathstroke taking on various mercenary jobs, battling heroes and other villains, and navigating his complicated personal life. This series delves into Deathstroke’s past, his estranged relationships with his children (Joe, also known as Jericho, and Rose, also known as Ravager), and the moral ambiguities of his work.
Another prominent run is “Deathstroke” (2014-2016) by Tony S. Daniel, which sees Slade battling various enemies while grappling with a crisis of conscience, and “Deathstroke: Rebirth” (2016-2019) by Christopher Priest, which further explores Slade’s morality and relationships with his family.
Despite being a villain, Deathstroke is often portrayed with a certain sense of honor. He lives by a personal code and, while ruthless, often has layers and complexity not typically seen in straightforward villains. He’s a paid assassin, but he’s also a man with a family and personal demons. This complexity has helped make him one of the most enduring and popular villains in the DC universe.
Thunderbolts (Marvel Comics)
“Thunderbolts” is a Marvel Comics series that premiered in 1997. The series introduced a new superhero team, but with a twist: these “heroes” were actually supervillains in disguise. The original Thunderbolts lineup consisted of Baron Zemo, Beetle, Fixer, Moonstone, Goliath, and Screaming Mimi, who took on new identities as Citizen V, Mach-1, Techno, Meteorite, Atlas, and Songbird respectively.
Created by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley, the Thunderbolts were initially villains who posed as superheroes to gain public trust and achieve their own ends. Their ruse was particularly successful because they appeared after the events of the “Onslaught” crossover, where many of the major Marvel superheroes were believed dead, creating a vacuum for new heroes.
Joker (DC Comics)
Joker’s origins are often left intentionally vague and contradictory, adding to his enigmatic and unpredictable nature. The most commonly referenced origin story is in “Batman: The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. This story portrays him as a failed comedian who turns to crime to support his pregnant wife. A disastrous encounter with Batman results in him falling into a vat of chemicals, leading to his transformation into the Joker.
“Joker” (2008) – A graphic novel by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo. This story presents a gritty, grounded interpretation of the Joker, recently released from Arkham Asylum and attempting to regain control of Gotham’s underworld. The narrative is told from the perspective of one of Joker’s henchmen, offering a unique and disturbing look into his world.
“Joker: Killer Smile” (2019-2020) – A three-issue miniseries by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino. This series tells the story of a psychiatrist attempting to treat the Joker, only to find himself being psychologically manipulated by the Clown Prince of Crime.
Magneto (Marvel Comics)
Over the years, Magneto’s character has evolved from a straightforward villain into a complex figure whose methods may be extreme, but whose motivations are grounded in his experiences and beliefs about mutant rights and survival. As a Holocaust survivor, Magneto sees parallels between the treatment of mutants and the atrocities he experienced, leading him to adopt a more militant and separatist stance on mutant-human relations.
Magneto has starred in several of his own comic book series. These series often delve into his past, his complicated relationship with the X-Men (especially with his old friend turned rival, Charles Xavier), and his efforts to protect mutantkind, even if his methods put him at odds with other heroes.
“Magneto” (2014-2015), written by Cullen Bunn, is a notable series that follows Magneto as he takes a proactive and often brutal approach to threats against mutants. In this series, Magneto operates in the shadows, hunting down and punishing those who harm mutants. He is portrayed not as a villain or a hero, but as a man driven by his convictions, prepared to do whatever is necessary to ensure the survival of his species.