I’m not one to often pull the “book was better” card, but I have to admit that I get a little bit snobby when people express their love of John Kramer, the Jigsaw killer of the Saw franchise. Look, I can respect a man who straps heartless bankers to a merry-go-round and force them to beg for their lives (yes, I know who really designed that trap). And he does know his way around a self-righteous maniacal monologue.
But long-time nerds know that death traps have long been the domain of supervillains. And, apologies to the James Bond franchise, supervillains are always best in comic books. A holdover from their pulp magazine predecessors, comic book supervillains love to capture superheroes, put them in an elaborate trap, and then… well, then they give the heroes plenty of time to escape. And they don’t even have to claw out their own eyes to do it, so I guess Jigsaw wins there.
Still, there is a long history of wonderfully odd traps outlandish enough to suit the superheroes they capture. And many of them would make Jigsaw proud. Here are six of my favorites.
1. “The Riddler,” Detective Comics #140 (1948)
As the superhero with the closest ties to pulp heroes like the Shadow and the Spider, Batman has been put through more death traps than any of his comic-book peers. Nearly all of Batman’s greatest foes have put the Caped Crusader into a death trap, from the Penguin’s inescapable birdcages to the Joker’s poison chambers.
But no villain has vexed Batman and Robin like the Riddler. Today, the Riddler is often reduced to a guy who leaves silly clues for Batman to find, but in his earliest appearances, the Riddler was all about his death traps.
In this debut story from writer Bill Finger and artist Dick Sprang, puzzle master Edward Nygma decides to test his intellect by creating “puzzling crimes” for Batman. While these crimes include creating a crossword puzzle on a billboard and flooding the Gotham City Bank to swim out with bags of money, his most ghastly moment comes when he entraps a suffocating man inside a giant metal puzzle. The Riddler will put Batman and Robin in a glass maze later on, but that twisted puzzle is the most frightening.
2. “The Escape of the Fatal Five,” Adventure Comics #365 (1968)
A group of super-powered teens in the 30th century, the Legion of Super-Heroes took their inspiration from Superboy. So even though they fought bad guys from all regions of far space, the Legionnaires often did battle with villains who employed 1000-year-old methods. And that means death traps!
The Legion regularly featured a roster of 10 -16 members, with powers ranging from the mundane (super-strength, lightning bolts) to the absurd (Matter-Eating Lad can eat and digest anything). With such variety, writers had plenty of options for constructing weird death traps for the heroes.
In this story from 1968, seventeen-year-old writer Jim Shooter pits the Legionnaires against a group of villains called the Fatal Five, which includes the cyborg mastermind Tharok. Using his super-computer brain, Tharok places five Legionnaires in specially designed traps, including a box filled with lights to drain the power of Shadow Lass and a diamond entrapment for Karate Kid. The super teens manage to get free pretty easily, but that doesn’t take away from the frightening way artist Curt Swan draws Superboy constrained in a lead ball.
3. “Back From the Dead,” Tales of Suspense #89 – 91 (1967)
In this three-part tale from Stan Lee and Gil Kane, Captain America discovers that his arch-enemy the Red Skull has survived his last defeat to plague America again. Upon revealing himself, the Skull does what supervillains do best: he puts Cap in a death trap. Okay, he gives an evil monologue explaining how he survived, but then he puts Cap in a death trap!
And what a trap it is! It begins with Cap in a giant bubble, which pops just in time for a purple robot to attack. After defeating the robot, Cap must do battle with an evil clone of his teenage sidekick Bucky (still three decades away from becoming the oh-so-dreamy Winter Soldier). After finding the mental and emotional wherewithal to do away with his partner’s double, Cap must contend with one more obstacle – a classic collapsing wall with laser beams overhead.
Cap escapes with the help of his shield and catches up with Red Skull again, only to immediately fall into another death trap, this one with a robot spider!
The story isn’t Steve Rogers’s brightest moment, but Kane’s kinetic artwork keeps the story moving along briskly, straight until the Skull’s final defeat.
4. “The Closing Jaws of Death,” Mister Miracle #4 (1971)
Of course, super escape artist Mr. Miracle needed to show up on this list. One of the most popular characters from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World series, Mister Miracle is Scott Free, son of the benevolent High Father. Sent to the hellish planet Apokolypse to be raised by Darkseid, in the same peace treaty that brought Orion to New Genesis, Scott spent his youth being tortured by Granny Goodness. Honing his escape skills as a matter of survival, Scott eventually made his way to earth, where he became Mister Miracle.
Mister Miracle escapes deadly traps in every issue of his debut series. But the most impressive comes in issue #4, in which he’s attacked by Darkseid’s minion Dr. Bedlam. Scott begins the issue locked in a steel safe being dropped from the roof of a building and he escapes into the throes of a mob driven mad by the paranoid pill, who push him into an iron maiden.
As readers, we know that Mister Miracle will get free, thanks to his Mother Box and the help of his lover Big Barda. But Kirby’s awesome pencils make every panel pulse with energy.
5. “Trapped in Murder World,” Marvel Team-Up #66 (1978)
As comics hurled past the goofiness of the Silver Age to the more “relevant” stories of the Bronze Age, supervillain death traps became passé. Sure, they still showed up from time to time. But heroes were too busy dealing with the drug trade or going on sojourns through the heart of America to be bothered with enclosing walls and shooting spikes. Those sort of things became mere practice for the X-Men, in their training facility the Danger Room.
Thank Galactus for Arcade, a bored rich boy who uses his fortune to torture superheroes. Although he usually targets the X-Men and the Avengers, Arcade got his start by trying to kill Spider-Man and Captain Britain in a Marvel Team-Up story by the seminal team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne.
There’s not much plot to the story, which simply follows Spidey and Captain Britain as they try to survive Arcade’s Murder World. But there doesn’t need to be more shading in a story that begins with the heroes in a giant pinball machine and ends with them trying to escape a giant claw trap. A slight tale, especially compared to Arcade’s more sinister turn in the later Avengers Academy miniseries, but “Trapped in Murder World” introduces a great new villain while signaling back to the early days of the Silver Age.
6. “Herald of Doom,” Fantastic Four #6-9 (2019)
Alas, by the time we reach the modern age of comics, supervillains prefer straight-up murder instead of going to the trouble of constructing a death trap.
But Doom is no mere supervillain.
This four-part story from writer Dan Slott and a team of artists finds Dr. Doom capturing the world-devouring Galactus to gain power for his two favorite things. Doom’s second favorite thing is caring for his country Latveria, and he uses Galactus’s energy to be a renewable power source. But his first favorite thing is torturing the Fantastic Four, and Galactus’s energy allows for some pretty outstanding death traps.
In a room “colder than space,” the flexible Reed Richards has been stretched to the limit. One more movement and his body will shatter forever. His wife Sue, the Invisible Woman, is bombarded with sonic pulses that scramble the part of her brain that creates her forcefields. The Human Torch Johnny Storm sits suspended in a tube of breathable liquid, which immediately douses his flames.
But the worst goes to Benjamin Grimm, the Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing. Although the thing can certainly break the restraints around his arms, each pull increases the intensity of his teammate’s suffering. But as Doom explains to his captive, the real torture comes from the Thing’s faith that the Fantastic Four can still escape. “That’s the trap,” Doom says with haughty disregard.
As I said, Jigsaw knows how to design a deadly trap and he knows how to pen a menacing monologue. But as this story shows, nothing John Kramer (or his many, many, many acolytes) does can hold a candle to Doom.