Madame Hydra a.k.a. The Viper (Ophelia Sarkissian) is a fairly important Marvel character. She’s primarily associated with Captain America and, later on, with Wolverine.
She appeared in early 1969. This was during Jim Steranko’s highly-regarded run on Captain America, using the striking pop art style he had been developing.
Madame Hydra wasn’t an immediate hit. But she grew in importance over time. Since :
- She could be the boss of practically any terrorist plot for the heroes to foil.
- She had deep ties with Hydra, a can-be-used-in-any-story bad guys organisation.
This first entry covers all of her appearances until 1974. This corresponds to just four issues that were actually published during those years.
The bulk of the material is thus flashbacks. This is a “chronconned” profile.
- Real Name: Ophelia Sarkissian.
- Note: A fine example of comic book naming. “Ophelia” evokes “ophidia” (the zoological suborder of snakes). And the last name was presumably picked as a semi-common family name with “hiss” in it.
- Marital Status: No way.
- Known Relatives: Parents (names unrevealed, deceased) and possibly sisters.
- Group Affiliation: Hydra.
- Base of Operations: Mobile.
- Height: 5’9″ Weight: 140 lbs.
- Eyes: Green Hair: Black
- Other distinguishing features: Damage and scarring along the right side of her face.
Hail Hydra ! Immortal Hydra !
The evil organisation Hydra is central to Madame Hydra’s life. Like, it’s in her name.
Fully explaining what Hydra is takes forever. But here’s the skinny :
- Hydra is *ancient*. At least as old as the Third Dynasty of Egypt (the 2600s BC).
- However, it more or less disappeared during the Renaissance (the 1400s CE).
- It was reborn in the 1940s. As part of a complicated conspiracy to survive the fall of the Axis powers.
- Said conspiracy’s master and architect was a Nazi, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker.
- He was allied with a Japanese far-right secret society. And a ninja demon cult, which is where the continuity with the old Hydra comes. And maybe aliens, though this seems to have been a decoy. And sundry Nazis and Fascists.
- By the 1960s, Hydra was the greatest criminal/Fascist/terrorist conspiracy in the world. It was more powerful than most national governments. Its budget was far into the billions, and it had thousands of operatives and spies.
Don’t yield ! Back S.H.I.E.L.D. !
Hydra was such a threat that it forced the creation of a (seemingly) unprecedented effort in global law enforcement and counter-intelligence. Namely, S.H.I.E.L.D..
In 1967 the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Colonel Nick Fury, exceeded all expectations. He nearly destroyed von Strucker’s Hydra.
Powers & Abilities
She doesn’t have a heroic level of skill. She’s more on a cinematic level , like a movie action hero. On the other fang, she’s right vicious. And she has access to advanced weaponry.
Madame Hydra has significant experience with espionage, terrorism, crime, mercenaries, counter-intelligence, internicine plotting within toxic conspiracies, leadership, and Care Bears lore. Okay, maybe not the last one.
As the name implies, Madame Hydra is normally accompanied by squads of fanatical Hydra stormtroopers. Some of those will have advanced, exotic weapons.
During this era, Madame Hydra personally uses :
- A bullwhip.
- An unidentified handgun. It resembles Hydra handguns seen in other panels, but that doesn’t really help.
- And huh, that’s it. The other stuff I remembered actually comes later.
By this point, she and her troops still have access to a lot of gear, bases, vehicles, weapons, etc. that were left after von Strucker fell.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising strongly evokes 1969, and it fits Madame Hydra to a T.
Instead, we assume that events take place per year of publication. It’s clearer, it doesn’t change much, and it can be “folded” back into a sliding time scale if you prefer those.
For more about those, see our article about ageing in comic books.
For instance we assume that Viper was born circa 1950, so she can be 19 or so when she first appears in a 1969 issue.
Make Mine Magyar !
Secondary sources (the Marvel A-Z hardcovers ) have confirmed that Ms. Sarkissian was born in Hungary. This was long suspected, but not established.
She also stated that her parents were killed during a revolution. Leaving her an orphaned street urchin amidst horrible conditions.
Using our proposed chronology, it writes itself. When Ms. Sarkissian was 6, there was a revolution in Hungary to reject the yoke of the Soviet Union.
The battle of Budapest
A popular former Prime Minister, Imre Nagy , formed a government coalition. He tried to negotiate with Moscow so Hungary could be a democracy.
On the 4th of November, 1956, the Red Army invaded to end this uprising. 3,000+ were slain, and many more fled Westward.
Sarkissian’s parents might have been a couple of university students. Perhaps they were leaders during the student uprising in late October, 1956.
(Radio Free Europe, an American anti-Communist propaganda frequency, had falsely announced that a Hungarian revolution would be supported by the West. This could be used to explain Madame Hydra’s later beef against the US in particular.)
There are discrepancies between captions in Captain America #113, 180 and #282. And in a more recent account in Secret Warriors #15 (2010).
In the History section below I massaged the older accounts to make them compatible with the Hickman version.
The Hickman version also contradicts material that was in secondary sources, including the beloved hardcover Marvel A-Z sourcebooks.
As per our procedure, we assume that Hickman version, which came after the sourcebook, takes precedence over the OHOTMU version.
When Ophelia Sarkissian was a little girl, her parents were murdered during a revolution. She narrowly managed to flee. But she was wounded and disfigured around her right eye.
She survived as a thief and street urchin, with only her smarts to keep her alive. This lasted for months, leaving her traumatised.
She was eventually arrested and transferred to an orphanage.
The great monster of the deeps
By this point — 1957 or so — Hydra was approaching its zenith. One of its most mysterious, feared spymasters was one Daniel Whitehall.
Formerly a British elite asset, Whitehall had procured a strange armour with superhuman powers. He also joined Hydra’s higher-ups under the code name Kraken.
One of his specialities was to develop the potential of special agents. Perhaps his greatest find would be Gorgon (Tomi Shishido).
One of Kraken’s projects involved taking 96 little girls from Hungarian orphanages. He put them all through a gruelling martial arts regimen. Over ten years, they kept training and gradually eliminated each other.
Only the most vicious, determined and ambitious one remained. She was codenamed the Viper.
The next step was a sabbatical of sorts. To spend one year as a freelance mercenary and criminal in Madripoor, an infamous den of scum and villainy.
I am reconciling conflicting accounts by *assuming* that the Viper once mentioning “seeing her sisters defiled” referred to the games of death and betrayal under Kraken. Rather than to literal sisters.
In the Kraken flashbacks, Sarkissian already has dyed her hair green. My sense is that this is not meant to be taken literally.
One suspects that Kraken’s experiment was inspired by a similar, super-secret Soviet program called the Red Room. See the Black Widow (Natalia Romanova) character profile for more.
A “sabbatical” of one year in Madripoor is a *proposed* way to make it all fit together seamlessly. It’s *not* explicitly in the material.
(Well, almost seamlessly. It requires ignoring one caption in Wolverine Vol. 2 #126 stating that Sarkissian wouldn’t become Madame Hydra for years. Use some white-out on that caption and substitute “months”.)
Once upon a time in Madripoor
Viper came to work with a dreaded spymaster and assassin in Madripoor, Seraph.
She thus partnered with an old friend of Seraph, Wolverine (James Howlett). They presumably ran multiple assignments together.
It is possible that Seraph and Wolverine helped further train Viper.
(One could imagine that Kraken had contacts with Romulus, and thus specifically sent the Viper to work under Seraph. But let’s not, since everybody hates Romulus.)
Seraph oddly insisted on joining Viper and Wolverine during one specific mission. The trio clashed with Sabretooth (Victor Creed).
Viper narrowly got Wolverine out, but Seraph seemed mortally wounded. She made Wolverine swear that he would unconditionally agree to one thing Viper would ask of him in the future.
(Seraph returned alive decades later, reinforcing the sense that it was all a deception. Kitty Pryde also hypothesised that Seraph had made Viper swear that the only boon she would ask of Wolverine was marriage.)
Back into the fold
The Viper then rejoined Hydra. Though she was but 18 or so, she was one of Kraken’s protégés. She thus held a high rank, though she wasn’t yet directly under Baron von Strucker.
Predictably, she plotted the elimination of her superiors so as to take over. Since Kraken and von Strucker seemed on good terms, the Baron was presumably cool with this.
In 1967, Colonel Nick Fury pulled an incredible, desperate switcheroo out of his nether regions. This gambit resulted in the detonation of the Death Spore WMD within Hydra’s island base. Which :
- Destroyed the bulk of the organisation.
- Seemingly slew von Strucker.
- Contained the Spore so it wouldn’t devastate Earth.
No mercy no fear
The Viper was away at that point. As Hydra scrambled to assess the damage, she joined a meeting of other high-ranking survivors. But she had rigged the meeting room. At the touch of a button, she slew them all.
Hydra took decades to recover from Fury’s exploit. The Viper’s plot didn’t help.
During those decades, Hydra splintered into a multitude of factions, conspiracies and spin-off organisations. The latter included A.I.M., THEM, parts of the Secret Empire, or the Genesis Coalition.
Start spreading the news
The Viper took over what seemed the largest splinter still operating under the Hydra name. It was the bulk of the surviving personnel and resources in New York. She also changed her code name to Madame Hydra.
Madame Hydra invested in underage recruits, bought from slave trader the Pig. This likely was part of her long-term plans to rebuild Hydra. However, one such transaction was interrupted by the escape of teenager Remy Lebeau, the future Gambit.
Madame Hydra’s leadership also resulted in a more nihilistic, even more callous, more cult-like version of Hydra culture.
However, Jones lacked training and experience. Though her mass murder plot was foiled, this allowed Madame Hydra to flee.
After this clash, Madame Hydra focused on killing Captain America.
- She sent a hit squad after him, but he narrowly escaped.
- She captured Rick Jones, but he narrowly escaped.
- She sent the Mankiller robot after Cap, but he narrowly prevailed.
- At this point, Hydra gunmen seemingly mowed down the exhausted Captain America.
Though the corpse wasn’t found, a funeral ceremony took place.
A funeral for America
However, Madame Hydra’s agents infiltrated the funeral home.
A hidden charge of nerve gas in Cap’s coffin somehow took out the nearby Avengers — Thor (Thor Odison), Hawkeye (Clint Barton), Iron Man (Tony Stark), Black Panther (T’Challa), the Vision (“Victor Shade”) — plus Nick Fury.
The unconscious heroes were smuggled away in coffins. At Madame Hydra’s command, her men started burying them alive in a nearby cemetery.
However, Captain America had faked his death. He came roaring in, riding an explosives-laden motorbike.
Vipers are not what they seem
Back then, unfathomable time manipulator Immortus was plotting against the Avengers. His goal was to avoid the Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) having children, for complex reasons.
Immortus was using his Space Phantom servants for this. One of them attacked Madame Hydra as she rallied her men to attack Captain America in the cemetery.
A Space Phantom attack has two consequences. Thus :
- The Space Phantom replaced Madame Hydra, becoming an exact physical duplicate of her.
- Madame Hydra was shunted into the Limbo dimension .
However, the Space Phantom’s timing had been terrible. The battle was soon lost. “Madame Hydra” was seemingly slain while trying to kill Rogers and Jones with hunter missiles.
The Space Phantom switched to a new form, the masked Supreme Hydra. He took over the leadership of Madame Hydra’s splinter faction.
Do the Limbo, ha ha ha !
What happened to Madame Hydra is unclear. Normally, an individual impersonated by a Space Phantom returns to Earth as soon as the Phantom impersonates somebody else. This doesn’t seem to have been the case here.
Furthermore, time doesn’t pass in Limbo. Still, one gets the impression that her captivity *felt* like years for her, as her personality was different when she returned.
In any case, Madame Hydra did not rejoin her New York troops. They remained under the control of the Space Phantom pretending to be the Supreme Hydra until 1973.
This forced Sarkissian to go underground, until she decided to rise again and fight back.
And thus, in 1974…
Madame Hydra’s hair covers the top right of her face in order to hide her scars. This doesn’t seem to hinder her at all when it comes to visual perception, such as aiming a gun.
One gets the impression that the scars were bad at first, but were gradually fixed over the years through the surgery. This also helps explain frequent art goofs where her face seems pristine all over.
She occasionally smokes, using a cigarette holder.
As Madame Hydra she took to wearing green lipstick, as a reminder that she and her organisation were one.
At this stage, Madame Hydra comes across more like the unhinged leader of a death cult. Most everything she says or does has to do with killing people. Including any Hydra agent who fails her.
However, she acts in a cold and disciplined manner, and is usually seen shouting orders.
She has a tendency to underestimate youths, such as Rick Jones. This may be overcompensation for seeming pretty young herself.
At this point little characterisation is apparent. She’s just the evil leader of evil. The characterisation work appears during the next era, with Steve Englehart .
There’s a vague thing where she seems driven to hatred by her disfigurement (groan — ed.). But it doesn’t even rate as “perfunctory”. And in the accompanying panels her face seems just fine.
“Hail Hydra ! Immortal Hydra ! We shall never be destroyed ! Cut off a limb, and two more shall take its place !”
“You dare speak to *me* of mercy ? Release the ropes ! Let his hands be free ! Now hand him the Hydra warrant of death !”
“Bungler ! Say no more ! He must be found ! The boy himself is of no importance ! But if he should warn Captain America… you pay with your lives !”
DC Universe History
The Steranko-era Madame Hydra isn’t too distinctive, except maybe visually. Simply making her a Kobra officer should suffice.
Game Stats — DC Heroes RPG
Madame Hydra (early 1970s)
|Dex: 06||Str: 03||Bod: 04||Motivation: Power|
|Int: 06||Wil: 06||Min: 06||Occupation: Hydra leader|
|Inf: 06||Aur: 05||Spi: 06||Wealth: 012|
|Init: 020||HP: 025|
Gadgetry (Identify Gadget): 05, Martial artist: 06, Medicine (First aid): 03, Military science (Camouflage, Demolitions, Field Command): 05, Vehicles: 04, Weaponry (Melee): 07, Weaponry (Exotic, Heavy, Firearms, Missile): 06
Expertise (Espionage, Hydra lore, Terrorism), Familiarity (Military equipment and protocols, High-tech weapons/equipment/vehicles), Headquarters (Expansive), Iron Nerves, Langage (Hungarian), Rank (New York Hydra, Captain).
Underworld (Low), Mercenaries (Low), Terrorists (Low).
- Bullwhip [BODY 04, EV 02, Stretching: 01, Limitations : Stretching has No Fine Manipulation].
- Handgun [BODY 04, Projectile weapons: 05, Ammo: 12, R#2]. Stats are arbitrary for lack of material.
She conceivably could speak Armenian and/or Russian. But it’s a long shot.
The stats are speculative. We don’t see her do much during this brief era. Furthermore, the Kraken retcons suggest both highballing her stats and adding Skills she logically should have.
Strictly going by period material would result in markedly sparser Skills, and with most Attributes lower by 1 AP. But this here is a chronconned entry.
Since the stats are a bit highballed, the Hero Points are lowballed. To explain why she doesn’t take much direct action during this era. Her HP score may have been higher early on, for instance back in Madripoor.
Source of Character: Hail Marvel Comics ! Immortal Marvel Comics !
Writeup completed on the 29th of January, 2020.