There were larger-than-life villains in popular literature before comic books: Prof. Moriarty, Dr. Fu Manchu, and, as far back as 1862, Jean Diable. But the character type really took off after American comics created a world of superpowers and colored costumes.
The first supervillain naturally faced off against the first superhero, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. In the thirteenth issue of Action Comics, with a publication date of June 1939, Superman met:
Until then, Superman had been battling natural disasters, economic injustice, and human evildoers who couldn't possibly match his strength. His antagonists in his first year included a wife beater, kidnappers, warmongering munitions dealers and their lobbyists, the owner of an unsafe mine, a hit-and-run driver, gamblers trying to fix a college football game, crooked stock brokers, and a fraudulent licensor of the valuable Superman trademark.
The Ultra-Humanite looked like he could be a real threat. Like Superman, he represented a further stage in human development. But while Superman was physically superior, this villain was physically debilitated--confined to a wheelchair, his hair sparse and white. The Ultra-Humanite claimed intellectual superiority to the rest of humanity. And while Superman was waging a "one-man battle against the forces of evil and oppression," the Ultra-Humanite was out for power.
Yet I can't help but note that Superman tracked down the Ultra-Humanite through a racket called the "Cab Protection League." Was this ultra-genius really expecting to achieve "DOMINATION OF THE WORLD" by forcing one city's independent taxi owners into an association? I imagine him skulking in his lair, boasting to himself:
"Why, soon I'll be taking in $300 or even $400 a week! At that rate, how long could it be before I can finance my death-ray construction plans?
"Let's see...multiply by 52 weeks, carry the 2,...
"That can't be right. I'm an evil genius. Let me do this again...."