I first heard of The 36 Stratagems when I was working on a comic book story with Bruce Lee in 1974. The story was eventually published in The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #14 (see cover above). Bruce Lee envisioned a story that revolved around stratagem three of the 36 Statagems “Kill with a Borrowed Knife” that entails using the strength of another to defeat your enemies. Bruce knew me from my cinema work in which I played the role of an evil psychologist turning nice Hong Kong girls, among others, into killing machines or worse in the The Evil Dr. Fox series produced by Shaw Brothers Studios. We had tried again and again to make a “Bruce Lee vs. Dr. Fox” movie in Hong Kong without success.
The comic book was definitely a plan B. There was a metafictional aspect to our comic book collaboration since Bruce Lee would more or less be playing himself in the comic book story. I had played heavies in various B films in Hong Kong before the success of the mad psychologist Dr. Fox series. In hindsight, I realize that using my actual last name as that of the character in that series was probably not a good idea. I actually was a professor working as an English teacher in a Hong Kong university language center. I did some acting on the side to earn extra money and because acting was also a lot of fun. I would like to take this opportunity to separate fact from fiction.
The real Dr. Fox cannot do the incredible kung fu stunts that are seen in my movies. I do have some knowledge of martial arts but I am more a theoretician than a practicioner:
The real Dr. Fox knows absolutely nothing about brainwashing. If you want to learn English then give me a call but if you want to brainwash your ex-girlfriend to fall in love with you again then I am the wrong person for that task. Metaschizophrenia, the Bureau of Intelligence Synthesis and corrective reality are all fictions and not real!
A stratagem is often used as a synonym as a strategy and this is an incorrect use of the term. A stratagem is more correctly defined as a ruse. However, I think the term ruse is simplistic when applied to the term stratagem. Based on the historical usage of the word, I would describe a stratagem as a ruse used for military and/or political purposes. Also, a stratagem is a ruse that has been used for purposes other than mere monetary gain unlike a confidence trick. For example, the Spanish prisoner con is basically the same as “7) Create Something Out of Nothing. – Turn something that is not substantial into reality” stratagem in the list of stratagems below at an operational level but the contextual historical background is totally different. Operational similarities aside, the contextual background of the ruse given to the potential user is important for easy applicability. A con man may have trouble understanding an operation given in a military context. A military officer might have trouble applying a con explained within a monetary context to a military situation. One of the recurring plot lines of modern fiction is having cons that are generally used for criminal purposes for government goals as is the case in the popular franchise Mission Impossible. However, translating operations to a different context may not be as easy as the mentioned franchise suggests.
I would also like to contrast a stratagem with a ruse of war. For example moving landmarks to confuse the enemy is clearly a ruse of war but I would not call it a stratagem. Historically, a stratagem has a larger goal than the mere temporary confusion of the enemy. Perhaps a stratagem is a ruse of war with strategic rather than tactical intent. I would define a stratagem as a ruse of war with strategic intent. In short:
1) A con is a ruse for monetary gain.
2) A ruse of war is a ruse for tactical military gain.
3) A stratagem is a ruse for strategic military and/or political gain.
I would like to apply this system of ruse classification to a particular historical example that would have been difficult to classify prior to this article.
In Operation Bernhard, the Nazis counterfeited British pounds in order to destabilize the British economy. Was Operation Bernhard a con, ruse of war or a stratagem? Certainly Operation Bernhard was a ruse. I would argue that Operation Bernhard was not a con since the objective was political and not monetary. If the goal was to supply Nazi agents with local money in Britain then it would be a ruse of war. Since the goal was strategic then I would say Operation Bernhard was a stratagem and specifically: “2) Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao. – Attack their Achilles heel” in the list below.
Feudal Chinese military strategists suggested the study of stratagems as part of basic military education. The 36 Stratagems is an essay that explains stratagems in detail. This essay shows how the 36 stratagems have been portrayed in comic books. The author of this essay doubts the comic book writers were aware of the Chinese text on this subject but learned about the stratagems indirectly and used them largely for plot purposes rather than edification. An essay of how the 36 stratagems have been used in comic books provides an interesting extension of literary criticism and how theories other than literary theory can help us understand modern media such as comic books.
The 36 stratagems are traditionally broken into six categories with six stratagems per category. I find the categories are largely useless and create logical confusion. The rationale for the six categories probably has more to do with Taoist aesthetics than any operational logic. For example, #31, the honey trap is under the category six of “Desperate Stratagems” but this stratagem could just as easily be classified under category two, “Enemy dealing stratagems”. For the purposes of utility, the categories have been deleted and a simple 1-36 list has been used instead.
The Original 36 Stratagems – Contemporary Maxims
1) Cross the Sea by Deceiving the Sky. – Act in the open, but hide your true intentions.
This is the use of a series of false alarms so that when you actually attack then you will have the element of surprise. Supervillains don’t use this stratagem very much since every time they move then they get caught because of the dictates of a media were the good guys always win. However in World’s Finest #88, the Joker and Lex Luthor commit a series of crimes that are actually Mechano-Men stunts and not crimes. In his first appearance in Action Comics V1, #51, the Prankster gives money to banks in apparent bank robberies until he decides to start robbing banks instead when the guard of the banks is let down. The con version of this stratagem is a Kansas City Shuffle.
2) Besiege Wei to Rescue Zhao. – Attack their Achilles heel.
Lex Luthor has used Green Kryptonite to attack Superman at least a hundred times. At this point the idiom Kryptonite to signify an Achilles heel is probably better known than the original antecedent idiom. This only works if the bad guys know the fatal weakness of the super hero. There can be an irony to the Achilles heel of a superhero as a plot device. For example, Daredevil is more vulnerable to sonic attack due to his enhanced hearing but this has been kept secret by Daredevil.
The Achilles heel of most superheroes is their loved ones. The Injustice: Gods Among Us explores a universe in which the Joker has killed Lois Lane, Superman’s unborn son and most of Metropolis. In the comic book, not the video game, that is ongoing, Superman seems to be on the path of creating a dictatorship. In the comic book, the US government attempts but fails to keep Superman’s adopted family, Jonathan and Martha Kent in a Mirror Master dimension but this attempt fails. Superman emerges angrier than ever due to this attempt by the US government. The problem of the loved ones Achilles heel is that once you used up loved ones then your enemy is enraged and stronger than ever. This seems to apply to real life to some extent.
Iron Man had his armor hijacked by a Hypersonic Scan Transmitter. Justin Hammer used the hijacked armor to kill an Ambassador while Iron Man was in the armor and effectively framing Iron Man for murder. Overall, super villains are constantly looking for the weakness of their favorite super hero and will attack such a weakness without mercy.
Green Lantern has a green Power ring that is one of the most powerful weapons in the DC universe but the Power ring has an Achilles heel and that is that the Power ring is unable to affect objects colored yellow. Sinestro had a yellow Power ring which in turn was ineffective with objects colored green! This is cute use of the Achilles heel plot device but does seem a little too much in a modern context. The Earth 2 Green Lantern, Alan Scott, has a Power ring unable to affect wooden objects. Green Lanterns have a weapon of incredible power so the only way a fight with bank robbers could not be totally one sided and interesting was to introduce a ridiculous Achilles heel.
Mon-El is a Daxamite. Daxamites are about as powerful as a race as Superman who is a Kryptonian. However, the Achilles heel of Daxamites is a vulnerability to even small traces of lead. Presumably this plot device prevents the Daxamites from taking over the DC universe. In a similar manner, the Martian Manhunter is more or less as powerful as Superman but is vulnerable to fire! DC first used Kryptonite to allow interesting plots with a being as powerful as Superman and then continued this practice with Green Lantern, Mon-El, and the Martian Manhunter. This use of a very fine tuned Achilles heel is a hallmark of the DC Silver age and seems forced nowadays.
3) Kill with a Borrowed Knife. – Attack using the strength of another person.
In Avengers, Vol1, #1, Loki tries to trick the Hulk into fighting Thor but instead ends up creating the Avengers. Loki bailed out the Cobra and Mr. Hyde and doubled their powers and aimed them at Thor’s Achilles heel, the current love of his life Jane Foster. Loki has created super villains to fight Thor including the Absorbing Man. Loki tricked the Silver Surfer into fighting Thor (Silver Surfer, V1, #4). Loki in Acts of Vengeance attacked the Avengers by creating a team of super villains who in turn used even other super villains to attack the Avengers. Loki’s true goal was to hurt his half-brother Thor.
Daredevil used HYDRA to destroy the Kingpin’s organization in the Last Rites story arc (Daredevil #297-300). The Kingpin nearly destroyed Daredevil in the Born Again story line earlier via a series of stratagems so there is a plot symmetry in Daredevil striking back against the Kingpin using a stratagem.
Darkseid has supplied advanced weaponry to Intergang in order fight Earth’s superheroes and to track down the Anti-Life Equation. Darkseid also created an incarnation of the Secret Society of Supervillains and kept his involvement secret from the supervillains for an extended period of time. Darkseid knew many supervillains are interested in loot rather than the larger strategic goals he had.
Justin Hammer supplied advanced technology to Iron Man’s adversaries in exchange for fifty percent of the loot the supervillains stole. Justin Hammer also used stratagem #2 to attack Iron Man.
The Silver age Lex Luthor joins with Brainiac in the Crisis of Infinite Earths to form an army of supervillains. The Modern age Luthor creates the Parasite, Bizzaro and the cyborg Metallo. The Infinite Crisis Luthor creates the Society of Supervillains.
4) Relax and Wait for the Adversary to Tire Himself Out. Await leisurely the exhausted enemy. – Exercise patience and wear them down
Doctor Octopus unsuccessfully tried to wear Spider-Man down using the newly formed Sinister Six who attacked Spider-Man one by one in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1. Doctor Octopus hoped that the exhausted Spider-Man would be defeated when he attacked Spider-Man last.
In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman uses this stratagem to fight Superman. Batman attacks Superman with an otherworldly Batmobile, followed by cruise missiles and finally has Green Arrow shoot Kryptonite tipped arrows to weaken Superman sufficiently so that Batman with his exoskeleton can give Superman a beating before Batman appears to die of self induced heart attack.
5) Loot a Burning House. - Hit them when they are down.
Attack the enemy when they have internal difficulties. The Kingpin literally blew up Daredevil’s house after framing him for bribery, destroying him financially and overall attacking him as Matt in the Born Again story arc. The Kingpin muses that a destroyed Daredevil might serve him! The Born Again story line also illustrates stratagem #2 and the use of interlocking stratagems, stratagem #35.
Norman Osborn looted Tony Stark’s armory and created the Iron Patriot armor from the loot. Divide and rule! Comic books need fights and fights between super heroes like Thor and the Hulk are always popular. You see a lot of “temporary misunderstandings” between super heroes but after the mandatory six to ten panel fight, the misunderstanding is patched up and the heroes unite to fight the supervillain that created the conflict in the first place.
6) Make a Feint to the East While Attacking in the West. – Fake to the right; attack to the left.
Ozymandias was defeated by the Comedian during their first fight due to a feint. The Prankster in the Modern Age acts as distraction-for-hire for Superman for a fee while criminals commit crimes. Batman has been known to “miss” with his Batarang because he is actually going for a ricochet shot. Daredevil does the same thing as Batman but with his Billy Club not a Batarang.
7) Create Something Out of Nothing. – Turn something that is not substantial into reality.
Vaporware is the modern equivalent of this stratagem. The Prankster copyrights the English language and then charges fees for use of the alphabet! Ozymandias tricks the world with a fake alien in order to unite the world in a war against the aliens and stop WW III from happening.
8) Secretly Utilize the Chen Cang Passage (CNC). Pretend to Advance Down One Path While Taking Another Hidden Path (LB). – Pretend to care about an issue and later give it up to get what you really want.
This stratagem is a more specific version of “6) Make a Feint to the East While Attacking in the West. – Fake to the right; attack to the left”. The difference is that beyond misinformation there is the use of physical baits such as a decoy. Iron Man, Loki and Dr. Strange all have the ability to make mirror images of their own image in order to confuse the enemy. If you try to touch the mirror copy then your hand will go through the copy and the copy cannot interact with the enemy so the illusion only creates temporary confusion. This is a type of illusion whether the origin is holographic science in the case of Iron Man or magic in the case of Dr. Strange and Loki. This power is used in an irregular manner with the characters mentioned.
Mirror Master uses the power in a more consistent manner in order to flee from the Flash who has super speed. The Mirror Master will often make multiple holograms of himself that flee in different directions. Flash is fast enough to chase all the holograms so this rarely works but this doesn’t stop the Mirror Master from using this trick again and again.
A slightly different version of this stratagem is the use of robotic copies. When dealing with Doctor Doom, you never know if you are dealing with Doctor Doom or a robotic copy of Doctor Doom. While you are dealing with the Doctor Doom robot, the real Doctor Doom can be watching from afar and coming up with some other counter plan. Robots that are created by Doctor Doom that are exact replicas of Doctor Doom are called Doombots.
S.H.I.E.L.D makes extensive use of Life Model Decoys (LMDs). Nick Fury LMDs serve a similar function for Nick Fury as Doombots for Doctor Doom. In the case of Doombots and LMDs the problem of controlling the robots has been a plot device. Your robotic copy can try to supplant the original! Max Fury is an LMD that has played a prominent role in the Marvel Universe.
Tony Stark (Iron Man’s secret identity) is probably the second greatest user of LMDs after Nick Fury. Tony Stark was paralyzed and used the Neuromimetic Telepresence Unit 150 (NTU-150) to act as a remote controlled version of Iron Man.
9) Watch the Fire Burning from Across the River. – Allow them to fight your other enemy while you rest and observe. Later, defeat the exhausted survivor.
10) Conceal a Dagger in a Smile. – Befriend them to get their guard down, then attack their weakest point.
The Batman has some very charming enemies. The Joker often smiles and even laughs as he kills his victims. The Joker also likes to make his victims smile while they die as well with his patented Joker venom. The Riddler is another smooth talking rogue that is an enemy of Batman. Ra’s al Ghul treats Batman as a worthy opponent and calls Batman detective out of respect.
Ra’s al Ghul has a daugher, Talia al Ghul, does more than smile for Batman and has given Batman a son! Talia seemingly becomes an ally of Luthor and runs LexCorp while Luthor is President but secretly sells LexCorp to Wayne Enterprises in order to ruin Lex Luthor. However, Talia is a ruthless criminal that will fight Batman.
Ozymandias is very genial even as he battles Rorschach, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre.
11) Sacrifice a Plum Tree to Save a Peach Tree (RM). Let the Plum Tree Wither in Place of the Peach Tree (TF). – Trade up! Take a small loss for a large gain.
Super villains are more than willing to sacrifice henchmen for any sort of advantage or just kill them for fun. Probably the worst super villain boss is the Joker who gets a kick out of shooting, electrocuting and poisoning henchmen left and right.
12) Take Away a Goat in Passing. – Take advantage of every small opportunity.
The Taskmaster is an interesting super villain who decided a lot of small opportunities with small risk is a better idea than the big score. The Taskmaster runs a school for henchmen. In general, super villains do not think small and do pass up small opportunities. The biggest opportunity that super villains pass up is licensing their technology. If the technology is stolen then this makes sense but in the case of criminal masterminds like The Mad Thinker and Egghead, you have to wonder why they don’t focus on being a the next Bill Gates rather than wasting their time on crime.
13) Beat the Grass to Startle the Snake. – Stir things up before beginning to negotiate for your true interests.
Ok, this is the application of stratagems to a type of genre that generally relies on fist fights for plot development. No one said this task would be easy. I am going to revise this as distraction as a tactic or even super power in a comic book. Deadpool has officially been classified as a character with the super power of distraction by a major super villain, Taskmaster. Spider-Man consistently keeps up a line of personal to funny chatter while fighting that unnerves opponents.
14) Raise a Corpse from the Dead (LB). Borrow a Corpse to Return the Soul (TF). - Revive a dead proposal by presenting it again or in a new way.
This stratagem means take something from the past and giving it new relevance. I guess the Chinese knew endless reboots of everything from Spider-Man to Iron Man were going to be part of the future! This may be number #14 in the list of stratagems but in comic terms this stratagems is number #1!
Comic books love updating old weapons! The Atomic Knights use medieval armor after WW III! Hawkman likes to use archaic weaponry. Green Arrow and Hawkeye use trick arrows. Batman uses Batarangs, boomerangs and shurikens, in his utility belt. Captain Boomerang and Boomerang use trick boomerangs. Whiplash uses a technologically enhanced whip. Wonder Woman has her Lasso of Truth. Comic book heroes and villains delight in taking and old weapon and adding new technology to the weapon so a trick version of the weapon is created.
15) Lure the Tiger out of the Mountain. – Seek a neutral location. Negotiate after leading them away from a position of strength.
Super heroes don’t really rely on forts and mazes to take care of their enemies. Batman has the Batcave and Superman has his Fortress of Solitude. However, the last thing super heroes want is supervillains visiting their lairs. Incredibly the opposite happens and super heroes wander into the stronghold of villains all the time. At least once every three years, the Fantastic Four visits Latveria the stronghold of Doctor Doom. This is not just a lair but a whole country that Doctor Doom controls so probably visiting Doctor Doom in Latveria is not a good idea but that doesn’t seem to deter the Fantastic Four in the least.
Doctor Doom may have a nation on his side but Luthor tops that big time by having a whole planet on his side! In the Silver age, In Superman Vol 1, #164, Luthor challenged Superman to a fight on Lexor. Lexor is a planet that has a red sun so Superman has no powers on Lexor! Also, on Lexor, Luthor is a hero and Superman is considered a villain! In Superman, Vol 1, #168, Luthor even manages to find some ancient technology that allows him to temporarily gain super powers on Lexor! Lexor is an extreme example but supervillains are often luring the super heroes into their lairs in order to have them fall into some death trap or another. This is especially the case with Batman.
Arcade is an assassin for hire that uses custom built amusement parks filled with deadly traps named Murderworlds in order to kill superheroes. Arcade has a sporting side and does deliberately leave a small chance for escape from his deathtraps. Arcade at one time or another has tried to kill Adam X , Angel, Apex, Avengers Academy, Chase Stein, Colossus, Courtney Ross , Darkhawk, Dazzler, Deadpool , Doctor Doom, , Excalibur , Gambit , Green Goblin, Hazmat, Hercules, Human Torch , Iceman, Impossible Man., Iron Man, Johnny Blaze, Juston Seyfert and his Sentinel, Kid Briton, Meggan, Mettle, Micronauts, Nara, Nico Minoru, Nightcrawler Northstar,, Red Raven III, Reptil, Shadowcat, Shatterstar, Spider-Man, The Thing, Wolverine, X-23 , X-Factor, X-Force , X-Men and the Young Allies.
Deathtraps are a comic book cliché and part of the cliché is the supervillain’s monologue that allows the super hero time to escape. Why doesn’t the supervillain just shot the capture super hero? The answer is that the super hero needs to escape for plot purposes.
16) Let the Adversary off in order to Snare Him. To Capture the Enemy, First Let It Go (RM). – Do not arouse their spirit to fight back.
In Silver Surfer Vol 1, #5, there is a Tales of the Watcher back story, titled “Run Roco Run”. Roco ends up serving a life sentence in Jupiter but is hypnotized into believing he has escaped and therefore no longer tries to escape! This story is a retelling of “Run, Rocky, Run!” drawn by Bob Forgione in Tales to Astonish (Marvel, 1959 series) #26 (December 1961).
17) Toss out a Brick to Attract a piece of Jade. Toss out a Brick to Attract Jade (RM). -Trade something of minor value for something of major value.
In Irredeemable, the Hornet gives the Vespan aliens a list of other habitable planets that they can conquer in exchange for leaving Earth alone and imprisoning Plutonian, a super hero gone bad. Hornet is ironically a Batman type super hero without super powers but via this stratagem turns an alien invasion around and defeats the Superman type hero Plutonian. With the right stratagem, the weakest member of the team physically can be the most important team member in terms of results.
18) To Catch Bandits, Nab Their Ringleader First. To Catch the Bandits, First Catch Their Ringleader (RM). – Convince the leader and the rest will follow.
Supervillains do love to kidnap the President of the US. Occasionally, supervillains take over the UN in order to blackmail the whole world and not just the US. Overall, the comic book world of super heroes and supervillains is very egalitarian and chaotic. For example, Superman isn’t really the leader of the super heroes but kind of a moral guide. Reed Richards is supposed to be the leader of the Fantastic Four but he definitely has to run things by the other members especially his wife the Invisible Woman. The Avengers has a rotating leadership but Captain America generally acts as an informal leader on the battlefield at the tactical level. The X-Men do have a real leader, Professor X and occasionally Professor X is targeted as a leader.
There is no real leadership structure for the supervillain side either. Norman Osborn did create the Cabal which led to the Dark Reign storyline. The Cabal did effectively control most of the supervillains in the Marvel Universe and Hawkeye did try to assassinate Osborn (Dark Reign: The List – Avengers) and hoped that this would bring the Cabal down but failed. Lex Luthor became the President of the US and during that period could call on an army of supervillains in order to take out Superman and Batman but that didn’t last long. Leadership for both the bad guys and good guys in comic books is a network lacking central nodes that can be removed to take down the whole system.
19) Remove the Fire from under the Cauldron. – Eliminate the source of their strength.
The source of power for some super heroes is certain environmental conditions. If you can’t find any Kryptonite then you can always remove the yellow sun which is the source of Superman’s powers. Lex Luthor does this to Superman twice in Superman Vol 1, #164 and #168. In World’s Finest, Vol 1, #163, the villain Jemphis turns the yellow sun of his planet into a red sun via atomic explosions activated by a button on his person.
DC has Aquaman who will lose his strength and die if he is out of water for extended periods of time. So of course super villains are always trying to dry dock Aquaman! Marvel has Namor the Submariner and has a similar weakness to Aquaman but while Namor’s strength will diminish out of water, Namor will not die out of water.
Green Lantern has a Power ring that is one of the most powerful weapons in the DC universe. However, the power ring needs to be recharged every 24 hours from a battery that looks like an old style lantern. Hide the lantern and you can take out the Green Lantern. Problems with the lantern are a central plot device in Green Lantern V1, #9, #20, #32, #74, and and #116. If you want to take down the whole Green Lantern Corps then take out the Central Power Battery which charges all the other lanterns. When Hal Jordan went mad temporarily, he destroyed the Central Power Battery and effectively destroyed the Green Lantern Corps.
The best article on the internet about comic book weapons at:
20) Muddle the water to catch the fish (TF). Gathering Fish from Troubled Waters (LB). – Do something surprising or unexpected to unnerve them, and then take advantage of that situation.
The Joker does crazy stunts that keep Batman and other supervillains off balance. Deadpool is a Marvel supervillain that does similar stunts. Crazy gives supervillains an advantage in the comic book world.
21) The Cicada Sheds Its Shells. The Golden Cicada Sheds Its Shell. The Cicada Sloughs Its Shell (RM). – When you are in trouble, secretly escape.
The idea is to escape but leave the lights on so the enemy still thinks you are home. In the Young Justice TV series, most of the Justice League and all of the heavy hitters have to appear before an off planet court. In episode #33 titled “Depths”, Young Justice impersonates the Justice League at a Mars satellite launch in order to fool any super villains that might be watching into thinking the Justice League is still on Earth.
22) Fasten the Door to Catch a Thief. – Lock the Door and Catch the Thief (RM). – Completely destroy them by leaving no way for escape.
Prisons are largely ineffective in comic books since jailed supervillains do not make good reading. Arkham Asylum seems to be a place where the Joker rests between bouts with Batman rather than a place of incarceration. An extreme solution to problem of bad guys breaking out of jail in the DC universe was explored in the Salvation Run miniseries. The DC supervillains are imprisoned on a distant planet. The same off planet imprisonment solution was applied to the Hulk but failed spectacularly in the World War Hulk story arc. Over in the Marvel universe, Iron Man decides enough is enough and with Reed Richards creates a prison in the in the Negative Zone labeled Project 42.
23) Befriend a Distant State While Attacking a Neighboring State. Befriend Distant States While Attacking Nearby Ones (RM). – Build strategic alliances with others that will give you the upper hand.
In the TV series, Young Justice, The Light is a group of supervillains that ally themselves with the Reach, aliens, that they plan to betray after they destroy the Justice League and Young Justice i.e. superheroes on Earth.
In Irredeemable, the Hornet makes a deal with Vespan aliens to take out, a super hero gone bad, named Plutonian. Hornet also gives the Vespan a list of other habitable planets that they can conquer in exchange for leaving Earth alone and imprisoning Plutonian.
24) Borrow a Safe Passage to Conquer the Kingdom of Guo (LB). Attack Hu by a Borrowed Path (RM). – Temporarily join forces with a friend against a common enemy.
Spider-Man has had any number of temporary team ups with any number of superheroes in Marvel Team-Up for plot purposes but generally the rationale if any is offered is stratagem 24. Batman basically does the same thing over at DC albeit not as consistently as Spider-Man in The Brave and the Bold comic book series starting in issue #50, volume 1, and more notably in the TV series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. In general, Super heroes are better team players and friends than super villains.
Supervillains are always trying to betray their partner. Marvel had a title named Super-Villain Team-Up and actually generally ended up being the supervillain betrayal of their team member. The Secret Society of Supervillains has always been much more unstable than their counterpart the Justice League. Norman Osborn was very briefly able to unite the Marvel supervillains via the Cabal but that system soon broke down in part due to psychic sabotage of Osborn’s sanity by Loki, a fellow Cabal member. Any favor done by one supervillain to another super villain must be treated with suspicion. For example, in Superman, Vol 1, #167, Luthor increases Brainiac’s intelligence from a 10th level to a 12th level but puts in some hardware in Brainiac’s computer brain that allowed Luthor to control Brainiac!
25) Steal the Dragon and Replace with the Phoenix (CNC). Steal the Beams and Pillars and Replace Them with Rotten Timber (LB). Steal the Beams and Change the Pillars. – Sabotage, incapacitate, or destroy them by removing their key support.
If you take the saying literally which is not necessarily correct then Catwoman has been known to leave a fake jewel in the place of a real jewel she has stolen so the owner doesn’t know they have been robbed. Supervillains love to blow things up. That is kind of what comic book supervillains do and there are too many examples to list here.
26) Point at the Mulberry Tree but Curse the Locust Tree. – Convey your intentions and opinions indirectly.
The Riddler literally talks in riddles. The Etrigan the Demon talks in rhyme and his true message is difficult to understand. These are not so much examples of ruses but aspects of the characters of the villains presumably created to make them more interesting.
27) Feign madness, but keep your balance. Pretend to be a Pig in Order to eat the Tiger (CNC). Play Dumb (LB). Feign Ignorance and Hide One’s Intentions (RM). – Play Dumb, then surprise them. Let them underestimate you.
Superheroes often have secret identities. Clark Kent is the secret identity of Superman and in order to fool Lois Lane, among others, Clark will play the part of the bumbling idiot. Bruce Wayne is the secret identity of Batman. The role of Bruce Wayne is played in such a way as to convince others that Bruce Wayne cannot possibly be Batman. Bruce Wayne often feigns drunkenness in particular. Bruce Wayne has been know to use models who don’t speak English as alibis. Tony Stark is the secret identity of Iron Man but is not feigning drunkenness but actually has a drinking problem and is probably a sex addict problem as well.
My last name is fox and I am going to translate this stratagem as the idioms “clever as a fox” or “crazy like a fox”. Batman’s enemy, the Joker is probably actually crazy rather than pretending to be crazy but do not underestimate the Joker! Batman has a lot of enemies that appear crazy but are actually pretty effective as super villains. Two-Face has some sort of personality disorder that causes him to flip a coin during crucial moments in the struggle with Batman. The Riddler has a compulsion to leave a riddle about his crime before doing the crime. Announcing your crime however cryptically is probably not a good characteristic of a criminal. The list Batman enemies that suffer from criminal insanity just goes on and on and about half his enemies are housed in the Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane and actually belong there rather than faking madness. What we learn from Batman is that being nuts might actually give you an advantage in martial situations. The Batman nutcase situation differs from this stratagem in that his opponents are really crazy rather than feigning craziness.
28) Remove the Ladder after your ascent (LB). Lure the enemy onto the roof, then take away the ladder. Cross the River and Destroy the Bridge (CNC). – Lead them into a trap, then cut off their escape.
Luring Batman into death traps is a Batman cliché at this point. The Batman TV series used a death trap cliffhanger in a formulaic manner that became boring over time. The nemesis of Austin Powers, Dr. Evil has a pathological need to use death traps. The son of Dr. Evil, Scott Evil states the reason he never kills Austin Power is “Because you never kill him when you have the chance and you’re a big dope”.
29) Decorate the Tree with Fake Blossoms. Flowers Bloom in the Tree (RM). – Reframe deceitfully. Expand the pie with objects of little value.
When Doctor Doom was a young and fun loving gypsy, he sold luxury goods that appeared to be of great value to the local nobility using sorcery. When the luxury goods disintegrated then the local Baron was not happy!
30) Turn Yourself into a Host from Being a Guest. Host and Guest Switch Roles (RM). – Turn your defensive and passive position into an offensive and active one.
This is a bit of a stretch but super hero sidekicks start out as the guest of the super hero and then often become super heroes in their own right. However, the original super hero almost never retires. Robin can become Nightwing but Batman isn’t going anywhere! The best article ever written on the topic of comic book sidekicks at:
31) Use a Beauty to Ensnare a Man. – The honey trap. Beauty Trap (RM). Provide alluring distractions.
Obadiah Stane used Indries Momji as a honey trap to destroy Iron Man. Indries Momji causes Stark to fall in love with her and breaks his heart in order to cause him to resume his alcoholic ways leaving Stark Industries and its Iron Man technology easy prey for Stane. Loki used Lorelei in “For the Love of Thor” story line to manipulate Thor. In the 1978 graphic novel by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby titled the Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience, Galactus created a golden clone, Ardina, of his true love Shalla-Bal, with Silver Surfer powers in order to successfully force the Silver Surfer to become his herald again.
32) Open the Gate of an Undefended City. The Empty City Stratagem (RM). – Deliberately displaying your weakness can conceal your vulnerability.
In The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Batman muses how he has a bright yellow target on his chest so the bad guys will aim at his chest where he has a bullet proof vest rather than his difficult to armor head.
33) Use Adversary’s Spies to Sow Discord in Your Adversary’s Camp. Turn the Enemy’s Agents against Him (RM). – Provide inaccurate information to mislead them, especially through informal channels.
In Fantastic Four #2, Reed Richards and the rest of the Fantastic Four pretend to be Skrull spies and trick the Skrull captain with pictures from Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales into believing Earth is defended by monsters.
34) Inflict Pain on Oneself in order to Infiltrate Adversary’s Camp and Win the Confidence of the Enemy. Self-Torture (RM). – Appear to take some hits. Feign weakness while arming yourself.
In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman pretends to die of a self induced heart attack in order to fake his death and get off the radar. This is the third instance of the use of a stratagem in The Dark Knight Returns and perhaps this is one of the reasons among many this work is a masterpiece in the world of comic books.
In researching this stratagem I found out there is a lot more self inflicted pain in comic books than I would have imagined! Captain Carnage pretended to be a super villain in order to get beaten up presumably for masochistic reasons in the Watchmen universe. Etrigan the Demon also presumably has masochistic tendencies. Penance has a superpower that requires pain on his part to work! When the flesh of Penance is raked with one of the 612 internal bolts in his suit, he can project explosive blasts from his body! OMG! Who comes up with these characters? Odin sacrificed his right eye to gain wisdom from Mimir as how to stop Ragnarök (Twilight of the Gods) in Thor #274 (August 1978).
35) Lead Your Adversary to Chain Together Their Warships. Stratagem on Stratagems (RM). – Devise a set of interlocking stratagems to defeat them.
The Kingpin discovered Daredevil’s secret identity (Matt Murdock) in the born Born Again story arc. The Kingpin then launched several lines of attack at the same time. The Kingpin uses his influence to have the IRS freeze Murdock’s accounts. The Kingpin also has the bank foreclose on his apartment. Finally the Kingpin coerces police lieutenant Nicholas Manolis to testify that he saw Murdock pay a witness to perjure himself. The Kingpin overreaches himself when he blows up Daredevil’s house. At that moment Daredevil realizes the Kingpin is behind the attacks on Matt Murdock and must know his secret identity.
36) Retreat is the Best Option. If All Else Fails, Run Away (RM). – Purse your BATNA.
Old Man Logan decides that when faced with a world that the super villains have taken over then it’s time to retreat to a little patch of land rather than get killed. Old Man Logan does eventually get around to fighting another day and killing all the villains! Supervillains run away from super heroes all the time but the reverse is rarely true. Even allowing supervillains the option of retreat is considered an unacceptable stratagem for super heroes. In Thunderstrike Vol 1, #2, the hero Thunderstrike allows the Juggernaut to just go away rather than having the city get destroyed in a fight and is later admonished by Captain America.
What is surprising upon the analysis of stratagems in comic books is how rarely stratagems are used by supervillains. If I was a supervillain fighting the likes of Superman and Thor then I would use every trick in the book. Even the criminal masterminds like Luthor, the Kingpin and Loki do not use stratagems all that much. My theory is that comic books are still largely a visual medium and it’s hard to “draw” a stratagem. A fist fight is more interesting visually than a stratagem. Also, the comic book writers may have a limited knowledge of stratagems. A systematic comparison of cons, ruses of war and stratagems might yield interesting and synergic results conceptually which in turn would have practical value in competitive situations.