Six comic book death traps that would be at home in the ‘Saw’ franchise
I’m not the type to pull the ‘book was better’ card often, but I have to admit I’m a bit of a snob when people express their love for John Kramer, the Jigsaw killer of the Seen franchise. Look, I can respect a man who ties heartless bankers to a merry-go-round and forces them to beg for their lives (yes, I know who really designed this trap). And he knows how to work his way through a self-righteous maniacal monologue.
But longtime nerds know that death traps have long been the domain of supervillains. And, apologies to the James Bond franchise, supervillains are always the best in the comics. A holdover from their pulp magazine predecessors, comic book villains love to capture superheroes, put them in an elaborate trap, and then… well, they give heroes plenty of time to escape. And they don’t even have to put their eyes out to do it, so I guess Jigsaw wins there.
Still, there’s a long history of wonderfully weird traps bizarre 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 a superhero with the closest ties to pulp heroes like Shadow and Spider, Batman has been subjected to more death traps than any of his comic book peers. Almost all of Batman’s greatest enemies have put the Caped Crusader in a death trap, from the Penguin’s must-have bird cages to the Joker’s poison chambers.
But no villain has upset Batman and Robin like the Riddler. Today, the Riddler is often reduced to a guy who leaves silly clues at Batman, but in his early appearances, the Riddler was all about his death traps.
In this first story by 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 Gotham City Bank to swim with bags of money, his most horrific moment comes when he imprisons a man. suffocating in a giant metal puzzle. The Riddler will put Batman and Robin in a glass maze later, but this twisted puzzle is the scariest part.
2. “Escape of the Fatal Five”, Adventure comics # 365 (1968)
A group of super powerful teens in the 1930se century, the Legion of Super-Heroes was inspired by Superboy. So even though they were fighting villains from all over deep space, Legionaries would often fight villains who used methods that were 1000 years old. And that means deadly traps!
The Legion regularly featured a 10-16 member roster, with powers ranging from mundane (super strength, lightning bolts) to absurd (Matter-Eating Lad can eat and digest anything). With such variety, writers had many options for constructing bizarre death traps for heroes.
In this 1968 story, seventeen-year-old writer Jim Shooter pits the Legionaries against a group of villains called the Fatal Five, which includes cyborg brain Tharok. Using his supercomputer brain, Tharok places five Legionnaires in specially designed traps, including a box filled with lights to drain Shadow Lass’s power and a diamond trap for the Karate Kid. Super teens manage to break free quite easily, but that doesn’t take away from the creepy way artist Curt Swan draws Superboy forced into a lead bullet.
3. “Back from the dead”, Tales of suspense 89 to 91 (1967)
In this three-part tale from Stan Lee and Gil Kane, Captain America discovers that his nemesis, the Red Skull, survived his latest defeat to strike America again. Upon revealing itself, Skull does what supervillains do best: it puts Cap in a death trap. Okay, he gives an evil monologue about how he survived, but then he puts Cap in a death trap!
And what a trap it is! It starts with Cap in a giant bubble, which appears just in time for a purple robot to attack. After defeating the robot, Cap must fight an evil clone of his teenage sidekick Bucky (another three decades before he becomes the so dreamy Winter Soldier). After finding the mental and emotional ways to eliminate his partner’s double, Cap faces another obstacle: a classic crumbling wall with laser beams above his head.
Cap escapes using his shield and catches up with Red Skull again, to immediately fall into another death trap, this one with a robotic spider!
The story isn’t Steve Rogers’ brightest moment, but Kane’s kinetic work moves the story forward quickly, straight to the final Skull Defeat.
4. “The jaws of death”, Mr. Miracle # 4 (1971)
Of course, the super escape artist, Mr. Miracle, had to appear on this list. One of the most popular characters in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World series, Mister Miracle is Scott Free, son of the benevolent High Father. Sent to the hell 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. Sharpening his escape skills as a matter of survival, Scott eventually made his way to earth, where he became Mister Miracle.
Mister Miracle escapes death traps in every issue of its first series. But the most impressive comes from issue number 4, in which he is attacked by Darkseid’s henchman, Dr. Bedlam. Scott begins the problem locked in a steel safe fallen from the roof of a building and he escapes in the throes of a mob driven mad by the paranoid pill, which pushes him into an iron maiden.
As readers, we know that Mister Miracle will be free, thanks to his Mother Box and the help of his lover Big Barda. But Kirby’s stunning pencils vibrate every energy panel.
5. “Trapped in the world of murder”, Marvel team # 66 (1978)
As the comics shifted from the awkwardness of the Silver Age to the most “relevant” stories of the Bronze Age, the deadly traps of the supervillains became outdated. Of course, they still showed up every now and then. But the heroes were too busy dealing with the drug trade or making stays in the heart of America to be bothered by closed walls and gunshots. This sort of thing has become a simple practice for the X-Men, in their training center, the Danger Room.
Thank you Galactus for Arcade, a bored rich boy who uses his fortune to torture superheroes. Although it typically targets the X-Men and the Avengers, Arcade began with an attempt to kill Spider-Man and Captain Britain in a Marvel Team-Up story by the founding team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne.
There isn’t a whole lot of intrigue in the story, which simply follows Spidey and Captain Britain as they attempt to survive the murder world of Arcade. But there doesn’t have 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 little story, especially compared to Arcade’s more sinister turn in the latest Avengers Academy miniseries, but “Trapped in Murder World” introduces a new villain while also reminiscent of the beginnings of the Silver Age.
6. “Herald of Doom”, The Fantastic Four # 6-9 (2019)
Alas, as we reach the modern era of comics, villains prefer outright murder over bothering to build a death trap.
But Doom is not just a supervillain.
In this four-part story from writer Dan Slott and a team of artists, Dr. Doom captures the world-devouring Galactus to gain power for his two favorite things. Doom’s second favorite thing is to take care of his country, Latveria, and he uses the energy of Galactus to be a source of renewable energy. But his favorite first thing is to torture the Fantastic Four, and Galactus’ energy creates some pretty noticeable death traps.
In a room “cooler than space,” the Reed Richards hose has been stretched to the limit. One more movement and his body will break forever. His wife Sue, the Invisible Woman, is bombarded with impulses of sound that scramble the part of her brain that creates her force fields. The Johnny Storm human torch is suspended in a tube of breathing liquid, which immediately extinguishes its flames.
But the worst goes to Benjamin Grimm, the Ever-Lovin ‘Blue-Eyed Thing. While the thing can certainly break the ties around his arms, each pull increases the intensity of his teammate’s pain. 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 said with haughty contempt.
Like I said, Jigsaw knows how to design a death trap and he knows how to write a menacing monologue. But as this story shows, nothing John Kramer (or his many, many sidekicks) can hold a candle for Doom.