15+ Musical Malcontents Whose Existence Suggests Some Kind of Secret War Between Comic Artists and Musicians, Not Unlike the Apparent War Between Vampires and Werewolves That Seems Self-Evident to Everyone But Me
1. The Fiddler (I)
Why is it, he wondered one day, that so many of the musically inclined characters in superhero comics tend to be villains? Surely it can’t be something as simple as an age-old rivalry between graphic artists (most of whom tend to be the introverted sort) and performing artists (which: opposite), is it? Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that it can be a challenge conveying music in a silent medium, making it difficult for comic artists to create heroes with a musical modus operandi (the only musical superhero with her own continuing series that I can recall is Dazzler… and strictly speaking, her mutant power to convert sound into light can be activated by any sound, not just music). In any case, the proud tradition of eeee-vil super-villain musicians goes back as far as this dapper fellow, who first appeared in All Flash Comics in 1948 as an arch-nemesis for the Golden Age Flash. His backstory: he was a thief travelling through India who, while in jail, learned the “mystic art” of spellbinding music from a fakir. After building his own violin from prison materials, he hypnotized the guards into opening his door (resourceful!) and then killed his mentor (ungrateful!). He escaped to Keystone City to start a new life as the music-obsessed Fiddler, where (quoth Wikipedia) “he travels around in his Fiddle Car, which Jay Garrick recognizes by sight.” Um, one would hope so, considering it’s shaped like a violin and flies through the air. That’s the kind of thing that’s hard not to recognize on sight, n’est-ce pas?
2. The Fiddler (II)
Did the producers of the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon know there was an earlier super-villain named the Fiddler when they created their own? Or — as is more likely — did anyone there really not care? Viewers never did learn how this Fiddler came to obtain his deadly violin, which generated sonic booms capable of instantly disintegrating an entire rock band(!) or a billionaire’s prized hi-fi system. All we did know was that, as the arch-criminal in “Fiddler on the Loose” (groan), the villainous violinist is out to extort money from the eccentric Cyrus Flintridge, whom the Fiddler accuses of promoting “rock and roll rubble” at the expense of his precious classical music. Of course, after Spider-Man catches the Fiddler and wraps him up for the police, Flintridge instantly recognizes him as a member of the symphony orchestra… because, in addition to his pop-music philanthropy, Flintridge also happens to be a huge patron of said orchestra. So it’s official: listening to classical music doesn’t make a person smarter.
3. The Minstrel
Granted, with a name like Doll Man, you probably can’t be too picky about the arch-criminals you go up against, but surely even Doll Man deserved better than this fifth-rate Joker rip-off. (How big a rip-off? Right on the splash page, our toothy-grinned and green-and-purple-suited troubadour is referred to as “the clown prince of crime.” For shame, people!) First appearing in 1939, Darrel Dane’s alter ego had a decent run as a minor Golden Age hero despite his dubious superpowers, which can be summed up as “shrinks to six inches in height… and that’s it, really.” In 1949, he first pit his teeny might against the Minstrel, whom it’s safe to assume possessed the only flame-throwing banjo in the history of comics. In his first (and, so far, only) caper, the Minstrel steals rare violins and original Beethoven sheet music before Doll Man susses out the musical connections between the two crimes (hard to put one over on that pint-sized hero) and ambushes the “mad musician of menace” at the location of his next brazen heist. But then the Minstrel clobbers the tiny titan with the business end of his banjo (prompting a stunned Doll Man to utter, “UHHH!”) and leaves him tied to the clapper of a huge church bell. Doll Man then has to choose between one of two fates: leave a doll-sized stain on the inside of the bell or tap the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the bell, hoping that random passersby will recognize the notes as a distress call and come free him. And that, class, is why Doll Man: The Movie will never be appearing at a theatre near you.
4. The Music Meister
“Bullies used to pick on me because I sang in choir/But something very strange occurred when I kept singing higher/The ruffians around me quickly fell into a trance/And it was then with wicked glee I made those puppets dance!” Musicians are often accused of having a hypnotic effect on their listeners (Google “heavy metal suicides” for more on this topic); no surprise, then, that most music-based villains tend to have a knack for entrancing their victims. But while most villainous virtuosos employ magical or super-scientific musical instruments to do their dirty work, the Music Meister stands out by needing only the sound of his singing voice to turn people into his helpless puppets (though his supposedly mutant power to switch outlandish wardrobes mid-chase can’t be discounted, either). Voiced (and sung) by Neil Patrick Harris during a glorious 2009 episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the Music Meister doesn’t get much of a backstory aside from the lyrics above and his claim that he’s “out to settle the score” by using a hijacked satellite to spread his hypnotizing influence across the globe. This appears to place him on the “evil” side of life’s ledger… but then there’s the heart-tugging scene in which he plays the organ Phantom-style for a theatre full of cardboard silhouettes and thanks them heartily for their “applause.” So perhaps all the Music Meister truly wanted was… a hug? Or perhaps a cameo on Glee.
5. The Pied Piper
Far more storied (in the sense that he has starred in far more stories to date) than the Music Meister is the Pied Piper, one of the first foes to go up against the Silver Age Flash. Typical of the Flash’s gallery of rogues, the Piper combines an outlandish costume (polka dots, people!) with an improbable origin story: born deaf to rich parents, young Hartley Rathaway received an experimental cure that caused him to become obsessed with sound and music, knowledge that he put to good use as an arch-criminal after he became bored with his privileged lifestyle. Well, maybe “arch” is too harsh a word — unlike other super-villains, the Piper always seemed more interested in matching wits with the Flash than in causing any actual harm, so it’s no surprise he later reformed and became an advocate for Central City’s underprivileged people. He’s also one of the first mainstream comic characters to come out as openly gay — and if you were planning to make some kind of comment about how it’s ironic that a gay super-villain once went straight, trust me when I say it’s already been done.
6. The Hypno-Hustler
Oy vey. So you know how some people like to poke fun at the goofy 1970s Spider-Man stories, the ones that came out after the legendary Lee/Ditko/Romita run in the ’60s and before Roger Stern’s much underrated writing tenure in the 1980s? Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here. Created at the height of disco-mania, the Hypno-Hustler and his Mercy Killers band perfected the art of mass hypnotism by means of their singing voices and instruments, which they used to relieve concert promoters and audiences of their cash and valuables. Sounds foolproof, right? Well, that’s what they thought, too, until a certain Peter Parker with a case of Saturday Night Fever drops by their latest concert/heist and shuts them down for good with the help of a handy pair of ear plugs. And lest you think the Hustler’s powers are so lame that he can be defeated by strategically placed cottonballs, take note that, in addition to his power to hyp-mo-tize, he also carried knockout gas and retractable blades in his boots for those just-in-case moments. Of course, we’re talking ’70s-era platform boots here, so he could have housed a couple of rabid pit bulls in those things. That he never thought to do so is just one more reason why he’ll never make it to the top of the super-villain charts.
As if Earth-bound musical malcontents weren’t bad enough, sometimes our heroes have to worry about singing visitors from beyond the stars who arrive on our planet to… do something threatening, we’re pretty sure of that. In an early issue of Infinity, Inc., a 1980s book starring the children and protegés of the Justice Society of America, readers met Chroma, a pale, rainbow-clad figure who interrupts a televised concert with his song about apocalyptic events. It’s a song that entrances almost everyone into wanting to hear it again and again, and those who aren’t swayed by his melody (like the dour Infinitor known as Obsidian) are kept away from his personage by those who are. We later learn he is actually one of many similar beings who travel the universe singing their songs for the many different civilizations they encounter. Having sung for humans and judged us worthy (or something like that… writer Roy Thomas is never clear about Chroma’s true motives), he then promises to return with another hit song in about a million years. So: mellow cosmic adventurer or Patty Smyth devotee? You decide!
8. Hamlin Rule
Ye gods, in what alternate dimension does a flute-playing Martin Mull qualify as the hottest rock’n’roll sensation? An obvious take on the Pied Piper legend, Hamlin Rule (geddit?) appeared in precisely one episode of The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (original airdate 10/21/77) — you know, the one where she fought for our rights while wearing satin tights and turned hawks into doves by stopping wars with love. Ahem. Anyway, it seems Mr. Rule is hypnotizing his young fans (including a grown-up Jan Brady) to commit all manners of thefts on his behalf, up to and including his concert receipts (which seems self-defeating as far as super-villain plans go, but let’s just run with it for now). These thefts are committed with the help of a hand-held gizmo that instantly disintegrates locks, bringing up the question of why Rule would even bother with mesmerizing innocent young women in the first place (aside from the obvious reasons). When Wonder Woman finally busts up Rule’s little scheme, he breaks down and bawls so much that the Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion himself would have told him to shut up, already.
9. Punk Rocket
Punk Rocket is a bit of an anomaly in the sense that he’s not a pied piper out to lull the masses with his music; on the contrary, his brand of music is loud, jarring and (as he puts it) “the sound of chaos.” No surprise, then, he talks and dresses like a Brit punk rocker as he preaches his message of musical anarchy. First appearing in an episode of the animated Teen Titans series titled “The Lost Episode,” Punk Rocket uses a customized electric guitar to fly through the air and generate sonic blasts strong enough to knock Beast Boy’s bull elephant form off its feet. Despite the Titans’ best efforts, Punk Rocket handily beats them back until Beast Boy goads him into cranking up the volume, blowing out his sound system and leaving him powerless. The Titans then deliver the final blow and wrap him up for the police, and… come to think of it, what crime do you suppose he would be charged with? Nothing was stolen and he didn’t hurt anybody as far as viewers could tell… so that leaves, what, disturbing the peace? Unauthorized interruption of a musical performance? Destruction of state property in the form of ripping the sleeves off his prison-issue jumpsuit?
During the Silver Age, many middle-aged, cigar-chomping comic writers found inspiration in demonizing the emerging youth movement, creating many stories focusing on (as one infamous cover put it) “the real-life scene of the dangers in hippie-land.” As time marched on and hippies fell out of favor as the go-to reason for What’s Wrong With Kids Today, comic creators found new societal anxieties to exploit — like, say, the 1990s kerfuffle over the supposed satanic influence of shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. In The Titans #3 (05/99), readers were introduced to Goth, a demonic creature that used whatever form was likely to attract youthful followers (no joke, his previous aliases included “Rave” and “Grunge”), whom he exploited to spread his infernal message of social apathy and violence. First appearing as a rock star named Limbo, Goth later morphed into a horror-movie star known to wear his “make-up” 24 hours a day. He lured teenagers to the dimension of Dis, where they would languish for eternity as uncaring spirits (or would have, if not for those meddling kids and their Beast Boy, too). He later sicced an army of wildebeest monsters on the Titans and died while trying to channel dark magic, thus proving one thing: anyone that much into the Manson aesthetic is, at heart, a dork.
11. The Maestro
Ah, Silver Age Justice League stories, you do have the cure for the daily blues. In “The Cavern of the Deadly Spheres” (Justice League of America #16, 12/62), a new arch-criminal named the Maestro is shown orchestrating (sorry) a series of crimes by arming his henchmen with musical instruments that compel all within earshot to dance uncontrollably. While readers were spared images of Green Lantern doing the Mashed Potato or Batman doing the Twist (and asking teammates if “they like it like this”), they did get to see their heroes trapped in indestructible bubbles (with Superman’s made out of Kryptonite, of course). Why a musically themed villain would use bubbles as an offensive weapon is never made clear, though I’m sure an unemployed English Lit grad out there could say plenty about the music of the heavenly spheres and somesuch. Anyway, the team triumphs because they coated Superman with lead ahead of time, anticipating that the Maestro might have access to Superman’s weakness — which was a reasonable assumption, given how the damn stuff was easier to find than pocket lint in those days.
“Chandelle” is the French word for candle, so it’s not surprising that the musical villain played by the candelabra-loving Liberace would go by that name whilst he guest-starred on the Batman TV show. In episodes 49-50 (“The Devil’s Fingers” and “The Dead Ringers,” originally aired Oct. 26-27, 1966), Liberace played both Chandelle and his evil twin brother Harry, a gangster who forces his famous musician brother to use his hypnotic music to aid various criminal schemes until Batman and Robin save the day — but not before they escape from the giant piano death-trap that threatened to crush them both under a deadly tune! Holy arpeggio!
13. The Rock and Roll Space Bandits
Given the fact the Super Friends routinely went up against space cowboys, floating alien brains, and witches with controlling interests in penny arcades, it took a special effort to create memorably daft super-villains for the team to non-violently overcome. But the writers topped themselves with “Rock and Roll Space Bandits,” a segment that appeared during the Super Friends’ 1980 series. As you might have guessed, the titular rock’n’roll bandits — from space! — arrive on Earth and use their instruments to hypnotize Earthlings. Why they would want to do this is never really addressed, but once you start discussing motives in Super Friends you get into a whole debate about why Robin never wore pants and that’s a road you just don’t want to go down. While the Super Friends are temporarily immobilized in space by the evil space music, the Wonder Twins turn into a lobster and a “giant ice reflector” to battle the bandits and their guitars. Though when you think about it, the aliens’ music shouldn’t have overpowered the Super Friends since sound doesn’t travel in space, but… damn, now I’m thinking about Robin’s legs again.
14. Johnny Dune
As one of the young turks who came along in the late ’60s and early ’70s to bring a whiff of “relevance” to superhero comics, Mike Friedrich was a truly inventive plotter, but his actual attempts at dialogue were… well, let’s just say they’re very indicative of a unique time and place. Proof? In “The Private War of Johnny Dune” (Justice League of America #95, 12/71), Friedrich introduces the titular character, a young man recently returned home from a tour of duty in Vietnam. “You had a gift of gentleness,” Friedrich’s caption unironically informs us, “and a piece of wood that sang soothing sounds when you stroked it.” (His guitar, people! He meant his guitar.) Another gift of Dune’s was his mutant ability to control the actions of other people through the power of his voice — a gift that comes in handy when he orders a park full of music fans to pummel the nearby Atom and Green Arrow into submission. Once the rest of the Justice League has been dealt with, Dune leads his mesmerized minions outside the city to… well, it’s never made clear exactly where he wants them to go. What is clear is he starts to lose control of the growing and now-rampaging crowd, which eventually turns on him. Fortunately, the League prevents his demise at their ensorcelled hands, and while recuperating in the hospital he vows to make amends for all the damage he caused by — I kid you not — going into politics. “My mutant power faded away in that final scream,” he tells the heroes, “so I’ll have to win votes the hard way… the clean way.” And if you believe that line about him conveniently losing his persuasive powers when the fuzz was on his tail, then I’ve got a pair of fishnet stockings to sell that will look simply darling on you.
15+. Scare Tactics
Scare Tactics was a mid-’90s DC book that followed the lives of four teenage escapees from R-Complex (think Area 51, but for supernatural monsters instead of aliens). Together with their manager, the super-paranoid and awesomely named Arnold Burnsteel, Fang (werewolf), Scream Queen (vampire), Slither (reptile man) and Gross-Out (boil-encrusted monster) stayed one step ahead of their captors by criss-crossing the country in a Winnebago and posing as a metal band, with their fans assuming the outrageous “costumes” to be just part of the act. While not strictly villainous types, the sullen quartet (teenagers, amiright?) acted as heroes only when necessary, usually in situations when other monsters threatened humans. Writer Len Kaminski created an intriguing story about teenagers with muy serious alienation issues, and a series of one-shots that paired the characters with A-list heroes suggests DC supported the concept, but the book was still cancelled after just 12 issues. Just as well; I mean, honestly, an ongoing story about vampires and werewolves and other monsters living among us? Now that’s far-fetched. (Psst. Irony-impaired TV producers: that’s your cue to get on it.)