The Comics Classroom: On the Tragic Villainy of BLACK ADAM

What makes a villain transition in your mind’s eye from being good to being iconic?

In some ways, the status of being iconic is simply one of textual longevity, i.e. being a character who has remained as part of a mythos despite their flaws, and thus has become enmeshed into the narrative so much that to remove them would actually cause more problems than it would solve. Still, is being a consistent force worthy of being considered a great force?

Being iconic and being great are different things on the surface, but I argue that being iconic means bringing something more to the story, that it means being something other than a staple. Everyone’s mileage will vary on what makes a villain iconic because they’re great, but that is why art, and the subjectivity involved in engaging with it, is so much fun.

It’s a unique thing to talk about: what villains, what forms of depravity and conflict, do we find aids a story more than it harms a story. In the wrong hands, a villain can go too far and become a parody of social issues, or they can be so disconnected from the internal logic of their story that they don’t ‘fit.’

Cover art by Tony Daniel

I might have to say that, perhaps even more so than Doctor Doom, Black Adam is the perfect villain for his mythos, that being the Shazam/Captain Marvel Family cavalcade from Fawcett City.

Doctor Doom is every bit an iconic villain, but he is also now a shared entity within the Marvel Comics fabric. He antagonizes the Fantastic Four, he has time-traveling adventures with Iron Man, and he has become a deity in numerous occasions. In a sense, Doctor Doom is as much a narrative device as he is a character.

Adam has all the charm of Doom, and a tremendous amount of power, yet his stories impact me because of their personal scale and because they touch on something hard to handle: being filled with as much capacity for rage as love, which is a tragic thing. We, normal readers, are more than likely in control of our emotions on some level, i.e. we don’t go off on rage filled tangents when things don’t go our way.

Interior art by Jerry Ordway

Black Adam is a character steeped in a raw, simmering emotional fury which is matched by his love for the family he discovered and even the family he made. Tragically, these components of himself are also part of what makes him so villainous and why he is such a great foil for the child-like Shazam and his companions.

I may not be saying anything new here, but the very origin story of Black Adam, from all the way back in the 40s, was a rather on-the-nose commentary on how power being handed to wrong person could backfire. My own impressions of first appearance of Black Adam has him being cast as a somewhat dubious stand-in for social issues regarding what could happen in too much power were handed to foreign powers that didn’t have the same culture as the United States.

My basis for this is that the Wizard, a very traditional euro/anglo-centric mythological figure reminiscent of Merlin, is granting power to Adam, a character who is drawn in a way to accentuate his non-Anglo-ness. Adam’s being granted the powers of the Wizard in turn leads to his staging a revolution and then demanding the whole world. The Wizard, unable to actually stop Adam, in turn banishes him.

Interior art by Doug Mahnke

The nature of the story lines up with a dire warning about how power being handed to the wrong people can turn to war, a story that was a contemporary issue across the world at the time, but my own readings and critical assessment of this can be separated from what the story of Adam starts out as: he is a physical foil for the Marvels. It wasn’t enough to be a threat, Adam was also an immortal foe who could only be stopped through trickery. He was a physical threat to the whole Marvel family and he was the case-example of why ‘heroes’ needed to behave as such.

One wrong thought about ‘deserving’ power and you’d be in line with Adam. The villainy of Adam was a simple one, as was his nature. He coveted power, sought power, gained power, and then lost it. He was duped into his own death and that should have been the end. He would have been an interesting villain, if not a forgettable one, if that had remained the case.

Cover art by JG Jones

Over time, Adam would escape from the confines of final destruction to again and again return. In fact, in The Power of Shazam from the 90s, this very ‘essence’ of his being was a plot point. Over time, Adam became less a true off-spring of the Wizard’s legacy and more a force in his own right. Sure, he was birthed as Black Adam through the mixture of the Wizard’s power and his own actions, but he became more than that.

By the 2000s, Black Adam had become a character who was much beloved by author Geoff Johns and he went to work including him in aspects of the JSA, Green Lantern, and Brightest Day. Still, despite the many appearances in cross-comic material, the stories which matter the most to Adam come from his love of Isis, Osiris and the tragedy which exists between them.

Interior art by Stephen Sadowski

I am not sure how much of this is true, but I believe every author who has worked with Black Adam has seen him as some kind of mixture of impulsive and emotional. When I say emotional, I don’t exactly mean that he is childish and loud, simply that his emotions, for good or ill, run strong and deep.

He has a powerful friendship with Adam Smasher of the JSA, for example. He commits to those who follow him, and he also has those who view him as liberator and savior. I believe, and this is unprovable, that Johns looked back at the first appearance of Adam and saw his rush to dethrone the Pharaoh as his best and worst feature. In terms of ‘best,’ I mean that it was a trait which would yield a clarity of character. It was evident that Adam wanted with power and he wasn’t going to scheme to get it, he would just walk up and take it.

This would also seem to be a sort of awful trait to have as well because if you then lose the power you seized, should you have been proven not strong enough to keep it?

Well, I would think that Johns built on the nature of Adam from The Power of Shazam series and expanded on the rage Adam’s ancestor, whom his spirit possessed, showed in that series. That comic is actually not one of my personal favorites, however it has strong mythos ties to Adam and some aspects which would become part of his character by the time Johns pushed for him to have a bigger role in the JSA and 52 series. It was once Adam again gains power over the fictional Khandaq, and once he gains a family, that Johns then rips open Adam’s heart for us to see. And, in turn, it helps Adam become an iconic villain.

Interior art by Don Kramer

Adam’s re-calibration from a character who slew the pharaoh in the 40s to one who had flawed motivations for protection come from Goyer and Johns’s JSA comic series, particularly Issues #43 and #44. While by these issues Adam has been trying to reform, the story involved in those two particular issues retcons some aspects of Adam’s character while affirming others. The JSA, including Captain Marvel, travel back in time to Egypt of the 15th Century so that a plan of Vandal Savage can be stopped.

While in the past, Captain Marvel meets a past version of Adam, one who had already lost a wife and two sons to Savage’s stooge, Akh-ton. This sense of loss drives Adam to want to protect the people of Khandaq, so that they won’t suffer. While the past incarnation of Adam is fascinating, Johns and Goyer use this time to show he is still the same person who dethroned a legitimate leader and killed him when he snaps the neck of Akh-ton as he begs for his own life.

Going further in time along the route Johns establishes for Adam, he finds himself the liberator of Khandaq alongside Isis and her brother, Amon, who becomes the counterpart to Captain Marvel Jr called Osiris. To prevent this kind of article from become more summary, I have to point out here that so much good is done for Adam because of Johns up to the start of the 52 series.

Art by Drew Johnson

Having said that, the transition seemed to be turning him into a hero. Captain Marvel officiates the wedding he has to Isis, so whatever he was, he was no longer just a villain. The work Johns put into reforming Adam comes to a head when 52 progresses and here is where I am torn. I want to believe that Johns means more for Adam than to be a commentary on the plight of Palestinians and Persians whose lives were upended by the United States. I want to believe Adam’s fate was to be something more than a rage filled tragedy.

I also want to believe that Adam’s nature isn’t just violence. Despite whatever more Adam could have been, the course of the 52 story, and the World War III story which followed it, established clearly why Adam’s role is a tragic one. He loss of Osiris (an act I still consider among the worst plot-twists in comic history) and Isis ties back to the seeds set up in JSA.

Having already lost his family once, losing them again results in Black Adam’s one-man war against everyone who stands in his way and his eventual obsession with restoring Isis. In the end, Adam’s fate is shouted by a restored Wizard who declares that Adam does not deserve happiness as he and Isis are turned to stone. I am skipping a lot, but the point is that, after everything Adam has been through, the question lingers: does he deserve happiness? At what point can we say a person does not deserve to be happy? There could be an argument made that any happiness Adam once had died along ago.

Interior art by Gary Frank

Comic villains, the best ones, are understood even if they are not pardoned or forgiven. We can understand why they do what they do, even if we, as readers, cannot endorse their actions in reality. Johns helped shift Adam’s character to one of being a plausible strong-man stand in to one who could represent the anguish of those who undergo war and loss.

The obvious political parallels with what was going on during the 2000s in the Middle East are too numerous to recount, and that anguish and rage is palpable in Adam’s actions, even as they reach genocidal levels. Because Adam is a work of art, he is not bound by normal aspects of justice. We cannot ‘judge’ him as we might like to judge a real dictator, so we need to view him in terms of what be brings to his stories. He has always been an effective glimpse at the tragedies of the heart, when one loves so deeply and grieves so strongly that it pushes a person to revenge, to violence, or even to misguided ideas of justice.

Black Adam’s final story before the New 52 period was one of tragedy, but even more tragic was how the Wizard dealt with him yet again. In the first appearance of Black Adam, it was revealed that he was banished for generations, alone in space. Again, in a different way, Adam was banished at the close of the pre-52 era of comic by being turned to stone only feet from his wife.

Cover art by Gary Frank

The pronouncement that Adam should be denied happiness smacks of both a deserved end to a tragic character, yet also one which I cannot condone. Adam’s lack of happiness was what made him what he was. Whatever Adam was in the 40s, he was not content and sought power. In the 2000s, Adam’s familial losses, multiple ones, deprived him of the chance to be a husband and father.

If there is any character who deserves happiness in DC Comics, it is Black Adam. Writers have, from what I can tell based on my knowledge of his new Rebirth incarnation, returned to the idea that he was a powerless figure who, upon gaining power, abused it. In the final pages of the recent Doomsday Clock issue, Adam seems to be leading an impulsive charge to take advantage of a world temporarily without Superman. In a sense, the curse of the Wizard lingers over Black Adam even now as no writer has decided to redeem him fully and restore him to what it seemed like he could once have been.

For now, until that future writer comes along, Adam’s fate is a tragic one, etched in stone to forever be a villain without redemption despite our knowing he is capable of it.


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