It’s very rare in the world of comic books for creators to land upon an appropriate arch-nemesis right out of the gate. It wasn’t until the fifth issue of Fantastic Four when the world was introduced to Doctor Doom. The Joker didn’t show up until Batman #1, which as you may note, was about a year after Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27. Depending on who gets the nod on any given day in Spider-Man, Doctor Octopus didn’t first appear until ASM #3 and it took a whole 13 issues before the Green Goblin made his debut in ASM #14. In other words, outside of maybe X-Men, were Magneto was introduced in its first issue, it’s historically taken comic book creative teams a couple of issues to land upon that perfect complimentary villain for a new superhero.
So with that as my set-up, I thought I’d take a short but closer look at Spider-Man’s “first” villain, the Chameleon – who’s first appearance is in ASM #1 but arguably doesn’t crack the list of Spidey’s “top villains” of all-time.
Of course a list like this is purely subjective, but you can tell pretty quickly that even Marvel didn’t think much of the Chameleon. While there is certainly some potential in a villainous spy who is a master of disguise – especially during the era when James Bond films were first pouring out of Hollywood – after making his debut in ASM’s first issue, Chameleon doesn’t make his second full appearance until years later in ASM #80. During the same time period, a number of villains, who are not only Spider-Man’s greatest, but are some of the most inventive and dastardly characters ever created by Marvel comics, made their appearances with nary a reference to the Chameleon. Despite a Cold War and a “Red Scare,” a spy character that could create real havoc for Spidey through subterfuge never came across as much of a threat with the ASM universe. Instead, Marvel focused on characters with crazy superpowers and technology. When Marvel decided to create a super-team of villains called the Sinister Six – which featured Spidey’s main rivals – the Chameleon doesn’t make the cut.
Fast forward nearly 30 years later, when it looked like Marvel was finally ready to give Chameleon his showpiece storyline, creative eventually pulled a bait and switch and made a more familiar villain the ultimate antagonist. When Peter’s long-lost and thought-to-be-dead parents reappeared in the early 1990s, the reader is led to believe that it was the Chameleon who masterminded the whole plot to build android copies of the Parker’s in order to emotionally torture the Web Slinger. Instead, the last panel of ASM #389 is that of Harry Osborn in Green Goblin garb, a character with far more history torturing Spidey, getting the last laugh, admitting he was the one who put the Chameleon up to this plan.
Now, as Marvel is gearing up for its next significant ASM storyline, Ends of the Earth, the storyline stars the Sinister Six, which in this iteration includes the Chameleon. But has the Chameleon really done anything in his publication history to warrant inclusion in such a high profile storyline? Even when he’s at his worst, he always seems to be working under the thumb of a grander, more ballyhooed evil-doer. And now, he’s part of a super-team of what’s supposed to be Spidey’s great villains, as part of a plan that is being set-up to be Doc Ock’s one last “hurrah” while he’s still alive? Something doesn’t sit well here for me.
Granted, all it takes is one really well-crafted storyline to move a seemingly ordinary villain into the upper echelon, but I sometimes wonder if Marvel had a do-over, if they would have gone with somebody completely different in ASM #1, thereby eliminating the Chameleon completing from existence. It seems as if Marvel has never been truly comfortable shining the spotlight on him without some kind of qualifier, and his appearances over the past 10 or 20 years seem to be about justifying his existence rather than using a character that would create true dramatic tension with our hero. Unless Marvel hits upon that one big moment for the master of the disguise, he continues to be a “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things doesn’t belong” in the Spider-Man super-villain universe.
Do you think that Vince McMahon wrote the storyline where it turned out that he was the head of the Ministry AND the Corporation based off of this storyline with The Green Goblin turning out to be the person turning the Undertaker’s thumb screws?
I do. I think that.
The Chameleon has always been an odd fit to me in a Spidey book since his inception. However, I like him best when he is on a team and can operate at a key moment to pull the rug out from under Spidey. I”ll never forget his appearance during the Grim Hunt as Ezekiel! He is almost the darkest side of Spider-man’s own deception. The idea that your secret identity can almost go too far.
ASM #1 does contain the first appearance of another key antagonist: J. Jonah Jameson, who is possibly Spider-Man’s truest and greatest adversary.
To me, the Chameleon is A-list all the way. You cite his exclusion from Ditko’s Sinister Six as a sign of disregard from the creators. But I think that has a lot to do with the structure of Annual #1, being built upon big splash pages of Spidey duking it out with the villains. It’s hard to make the Chameleon of a piece there, because he’s just a regular guy in disguises. But if you read ASM #16, that’s as much a Chameleon story as it is a Kraven story. It’s not like Stan and Steve forgot the character after issue 1.
I would say, excluding LifeTheft, pretty much all Chameleon stories range from ok to great. My favorite story of the BND era was the one where Chameleon takes over Peter’s life – and manages in some ways to improve it. There have also been great Chameleon entries in the ancillary titles. Remember the J.M.D. classic in Specatcular where Chameleon goes after MJ, having discovered Spidey’s identity? And she smashes his head with a lamp and saves the day herself. So good.
Or have you read the Chameleon’s suicide in Webspinners? In some ways, it backs your thesis, because the story is about how the Chameleon is washed up – he cites the aforementioned lamp attack – and has lost all sense of identity and self-esteem. It may not make him a major threat, but it does enrich his character tremendously.
I know this post was written before then, but you yourself recently discussed a Chameleon storyline which really worked for you in Web Of. The character has a ton of hits under his belt, especially when you venture outside of ASM. He’ll never be the Green Goblin, but no B-lister has been in this many good stories.