Twisted comic book villains with surprisingly tame backstories

From the Riddler to Thanos, some comic book villains have gained cult status for their feared forms of villainy. Whether in comics, movies, or modern TV shows, these enemies have been worthy adversaries with their brains and strength. Yet when comic book nerds dig deep into their origins, they find that some of these villains have relatively sweeter (or even funnier) backstories.

There have been villains who plan to use their best skills and gifts just to be petty thieves while others are willing to destroy half the universe just to win their love. These stories end up showing readers how these otherwise menacing comic book characters have evolved over the years.



Monster Scorpion attacks a science lab

Mac Gargan is the most popular incarnation of Scorpion but the character debuted in Spider Man comics like Monster Scorpion. The origin of the latter is as exaggerated as its name suggests. Monster Scorpion is literally a scorpion that gains the consciousness to mutate and kill the human race, turning them all into scorpions, of course.

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Predictably, this scorpion’s origins can be traced back to a generic “experiment gone wrong” storyline. While Monster Scorpion died after a process of hypnotization, the villain mantle was passed on to humans like Mac Gargan who proved far more terrifying.

The Riddler

The Riddler capturing Batman and Robin in Detective Comics #140 cover art

The Riddler has a bold new character, thanks to recent comics and a stunning portrayal by Paul Dano in The Batman. However, when the character began his time in Detective comics, its origin was much simpler. Instead of being an orphan turned mass murderer, Riddler was just a mischievous kid who liked to solve puzzles.

Having a relatively normal childhood, he undertakes to work in a carnival. Once he fooled enough customers with his puzzles and mental tricks, his insatiable desire to outsmart others drove him to trick Batman. The rest is history and Riddler continued to engage in serious crime, but his origin is still pretty light compared to other classic Batman comic book villains like Bane and the Joker.


The master of mystical illusions was once a man who dreamed of making it in Hollywood. A gifted special effects artist, he soon gave up on his dreams of stardom when he realized his skills could be put to better use if he found an easy way to earn money, i.e. a living. of burglary.

So overall, Mysterio’s greed got the better of him, and his elaborate magic tricks were reduced to traits of flight. In fact, his first encounter with Spider-Man was also in the middle of a museum heist. Obviously, Mysterio went on to play a bigger role in other Spider Man comic book stories, but you wouldn’t imagine the special effects wizard to be just another thief.


Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet in art by George Pérez.

The Mad Titan found new life in pop culture when Josh Brolin lent his raspy voice to the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wielding the weapon known as the Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos’ plans to save the world (at the cost of killing half of humanity) were very twisted.

On the other hand, the Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity War the comics find Thanos as a desperate lover for Madame Death. As he is in love with her, he is ready to destroy the universe with the glove to give her the dead souls as a gift. It’s definitely a surprisingly hilarious story for one of Marvel’s most powerful comic book villains.


Created by powerful Superman villains like Lex Luthor, Bizarro is a real threat to Superman as he is designed to replicate the powers of the Kryptonian. No matter how deadly his powers can be, Bizarro is still a mind-controlled copy of Superman and that’s what adds to his naivety.

In reality, action comics #254–255 details a wholesome origin for Bizarro. Questioning his existence as a flawed clone of Superman, Bizarro even falls in love with Lois Lane. Taking pity on his fate, Lane ends up cloning himself with “a duplicating ray” creating a “Bizarro Lois”. Afterwards, a few more clones are created who plan to leave Earth and find a new planet for themselves.

The leader

The Watcher observes the Leader and Hulk in Marvel Comics.

While the Hulk gained superhuman strength after being exposed to gamma rays, The Leader became something of a “megamind” with an upgraded skull to accommodate a super-brain. The leader would continue to wreak havoc with his calculating methods, but his initial viciousness was quite mean-spirited.

After gaining superhuman intelligence, the Leader’s powers increased unconsciously as he wished to outsmart his brother Philip who worked as a scientist in the same lab as him.


Catwoman learns that she is Selina Kyle in DC Comics.

Introduced as a femme fatale in 1940s Batman comics, Catwoman is just a thief whose skills include agile combat and quick disguises. She outsmarts Batman by posing as an old woman and committing a jewelry heist. Charmed from the first time he met her, Batman also met her once at the Batcave where she reveals that she is an amnesiac flight attendant who was forced to choose a life of crime.

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Batman even buys the story only to be foiled by her yet again as she reveals it was all a ruse. Catwoman’s challenges with Batman and other villains increase, but when it comes to her Golden Age origin, she didn’t stand out much outside of Batman’s romantic interest.


Penguin stealing paints and hiding the canvas in his umbrella in Detective Comics

As far as Detective comics #58, Oswald Cobblepot aka Penguin was a skilled but small thief. He began his criminal career by stealing paintings and rolling the canvases inside the handle of his umbrella. His eventual adventures against Batman and Robin found him stealing statues.

In fact, one of Batman Comic stories from this era find Penguin blaming the very heroic duo for the insurance fraud. It wasn’t until much later that he trained real penguins to follow his orders and unleash terrorist attacks.

Clayface (Basil Karlo)

A Batman comic panel showing Clayface screaming and smiling

Basil Karlo was once a talented B-movie actor who was thrilled when one of his classics was remade. However, when he finds out that the remake wouldn’t put him in the lead, he’s disappointed beyond belief. So, while donning the costume of Clayface (one of the characters he had played in a previous film), he sets out to kill all of his rival actors one by one.

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It wasn’t until the later comics that Clayface got his enhanced shapeshifting powers, but as to his Golden Age origin, that’s a pretty straightforward murder mystery.


Shocker in the Spider-Man comics crouching and raising his fist

New York native Herman Schulz was particularly gifted in his engineering skills, allowing him to build gadgets and gadgets at his own expense. Rather than pursuing a life of science, Shocker took the same path of heist as Mysterio. Other than battling Spider-Man, most of his early exploits were breaking safes, robbing banks, and breaking out of prisons, thanks to his air-blasting gauntlets.

Shocker went on to play a pivotal role in future Spider-Man storylines as well as the 1990s animated series. But there’s no denying that initially he was just another super-powered bank robber.

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About the Author

Daniel K. Denny