A Few Thoughts On Villains and Villiany

As I write this, it is the 30th anniversary of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which many a Class-M planet resident regards as the best of the many Star Trek movies. It’s a solid submarine-chase movie, and is a wonderful example of fan-service (bringing back a key character from the original television series) actually working to help create a great film. One of the many reasons I like the film is because it provides such a fantastic foil to our hero, Captain Kirk — who unwittingly helped create his wily adversary by completely forgetting all about him in the first place. It was only today, really, how much I realized how “comic book-y” Khan’s origin story really was.

One of the expectations about comics that has completely changed as I have gotten older is the importance of some kind of insanely evil “big bad” character. I guess as a kid it was just easier to understand a story when there was a clear “good guy” and “bad guy” (boiled down so wonderfully in “Spy vs. Spy” in Mad Magazine), an old favorite of mine. And, to be clear, a good nemesis does wonders for storytelling, and provides an emotional need and narrative anchor that creators can use in their stories for a variety of uses, whether it be to call back to older stories or to speed up a storyline by not having to go through a lot of character-building exposition to get to the good stuff.

I would imagine that much of the fun of being a comic book creator comes not only from the chance to write the adventures of heroes you grew up with, but, more often than not, try new things with classic villains. Indeed, I would assume that creators would get more leeway to try different things with the bad guys — the good guys really cannot change given the expectations of the fan-base and, increasingly, the responsibilities to shareholders to make money off of these often iconic brands. Villains must change, really, because, well, for the most part, the villains in comic books really tend to suck —they always lose. Even when they really get away with something big, like killing off a hero, the heroes tend to come back!  In the face of unending failure, it is clear that the nefarious mind of a lawbreaker needs to be truly committed, you know? Which makes for pretty compelling characters.

Or do they?

Oh, sure, there are stories when the bad guys have done something that stand out in my comic book reading. Reverse Flash killing Iris. Bullseye killing Elektra. The Joker paralyzing Barbara Gordon and gassing a talk show audience. The Court of Owls driving Batman mad. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

There are more moments— please share your favorites below — but, for the most part…like, so what? Yes, you need to have bad guys manipulate events for our heroes to be, you know, heroes, but to what end? Maybe as a I get older and as I read more comics, the notion of one bad guy or whole group of them causing havoc just seems really uninteresting to me, especially given that, with very little exception, there is literally nothing a villain can do that will have any real consequences in the overall story.

But that’s comic book storytelling, and I get it. You need to have an antagonist, so let’s be clear — it’s the threat that I am talking about more than the concept of “villain”.  I am finding myself much more interested in the villains who deal less in destruction of a hero’s domain (New York, Metropolis, Gotham, etc) and more about tearing down the psyche of that hero. Heck, to be honest, I find the dissolution of the hero, the challenge to his or her resolve, the crumbling of his or her faith — regardless of who or what brings about this challenge — is the kind of story I am drawn to.

I guess that makes sense — life is challenging enough, so I guess you get drawn to stories where it is really not about watching a skyscraper blow up at the hands of some angry monster, it’s about making sure your life doesn’t fall apart when life gets challenging. (That being said, I am down for crazy mid-town battle scenes as anyone.)

But comics will always have villains and the villains, of course, have as much a storied history and legacy and most of the famous heroes. For some reason, when I think about the villains that DC and Marvel have created, it’s interesting to see how they relate to the heroes they fight against. On the Marvel side, the aforementioned Bullseye, with his amazing ability to hit any target (thanks in no small part, I am sure, to his keen (bulls)eye), is a wonderful contrast with the blind Daredevil. His ruthless murder of Elektra is an iconic image, but I find Garth Ennis’ more recent characterizations of him the most haunting, with his painfully casual attitude toward murder revealing his clear disdain for humanity. But when I think about other Marvel villains, I must tell you that I tend to come up short. I have always thought of the Peter Parker vs. Norman Osborn struggle a little forced, existing just to keep up with the movies, and a bit tedious. I think Marvel may have played the Osborn card a bit too often over the years, and honestly I find the character incredibly boring. Dr. Doom, who is as iconic as they come, has never made an emotional impact on me; I never really felt that he was all that dangerous. Galactus…well, he’s just silly (go ahead, please tell me I am wrong).

I think about the villains on the DC side and of course, The Joker comes to mind, as does Lex Luthor. Everyone’s taken great pains to give Lex a chance to sound reasonable, that his quest to bring down Superman comes out of an Ayn Rand-like obsession with the power of the human individual, and, of course, his world-view is threatened by the alien. That being said, there’s a reason that I am not reading Superman these days — you can only read that kind of thing so often. The Joker continues to be beguiling, if only because DC’s creators have taken great pains to use him fairly sparingly these days. (I have a lot more to say about The Joker, but that’s for a future piece).

There are lots of villains to discuss, but in the end, too many of them feel like excuses to kick off action sequences, which is fine and exciting but less and less enjoyable the longer you read comics. Perhaps that is why crime books have been getting so popular, along with anti-heroes like Parker. Same with war books and spy books, with circumstances forcing “good” people to do “bad” things. Those kinds of books make me think of stories like The Killing Joke and remind me of how much I enjoy the origin stories of bad guys. Some pain, some emotional or circumstantial villainy pushed them over the edge and where our heroes used those moments to fight to make sure those experiences never happened to anyone else (Batman with his parents, is an easy example here), others wanted to make people pay for the pain they felt (hello, Joker).

Villains are, too, an expression of the fear and frustration of a generation. We can tell as much about society’s hopes and fears from popular villains as well as popular heroes (if not moreso, do we not learn more about ourselves from our nightmares?). I am curious to see how the experiences of today’s future comic book creators will be informed by what is going on now, with so much chaos and so much uncertainty spilling out of the news.  With so many people feeling like they’ve been forgotten today, I can only imagine the vengeance tomorrow’s Khan will demand.

 


Mike Romo acts in Los Angeles. You can reach him through email, visit his Facebook page, and follow on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Villans have always been more intresting than heros than me just because villians have to have some type of psychological reason to go around and kill or rob and they always have intresting reasons,Like Mr.Freeze and his wife (or in the New 52some women hes infatuated with). Or when Magneto was a villian and Charles and the Xmen where heros Magneto and the brotherhood are like The Black Panthers where Charles is like Martin Luther King but you could sypthize with Magneto cause he’s just trying to protect his race.

    • Plus the Magneto back-story of surviving the Holocaust and seeing how evil people can be really lent his viewpoint some credibility and sympathy. It wasn’t hypothetical for him.

      That’s why I really dislike his being with the X-men right now; he seemed to possess such a fully formed worldview.

    • There is really something wrong with the equation of Magneto with Malcolm X and The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the Black Panthers. I seriously doubt Stan Lee was originally making such parallels and they both show a lack of understanding of Malcolm X/Nation of Islam/Black Panthers.

  2. Mickey Mickey (@GeeksOfChrist) says:

    I’m just finishing reading A Tale of Two Cities, and have been thinking a lot about villains. I think the Defarges are an excellent prototype that we’ve seen versions of over and over. Khan was a type of Defarge. These are villains who start as regular people with a need. And are then given power.

    Simple as that really. Normal people given power. They think they’re the good guys. Khan thought he was. Depending on the version, Luthor thinks he’s the hero, protecting Metropolis from this presumptuous alien.

    I think villains who don’t appear to be villainous, or who have some of our sympathy are the most effective. There is a pretty compelling scene defending the bloodthirst of the Defarges. If you remove it, you see only the crazy villains. With that scene in view, you see how good people became twisted.

    The same with Khan. Ignoring Kirk’s neglect, Khan just seems crazy and evil. With that in mind, you can have some sympathy for him.

  3. I think that is these eye catching moments (Joker and Barbara, Reverse Flash and Iris, Joker and Jason Todd, and who can forgot the resounding snap from the panel in which Bane breaks batmans back) that keeps alot of people reading comics.
    The overall story is lots of time confusing, hard to keep track of, and often times monotonous and boring. But, it is the villains who really drive the story. The villains who stick around and have the best chances of wining in comics are the ones who go beyond what is acceptable for a normal villain.
    And it is also this testing of moral fiber that makes for a good story about superheroes. how many times have batman or superman been on the verge of killing someone, the one thing that they both dont do, only to stop themselves at the last moment? These moments define them, and maybe one day they will kill someone, not alternate reality bullcrap, but full on main story arc. I dout it will happen, but it would be interesting to see who turns out to be the villain in the end.

  4. Excellent piece.

    I think the reason people generally like villains more than heroes, and you touched on it a bit, is that heroes are just going about their day-to-day lives, until something bad happens and they have to deal with it, whereas a villain actually goes out and makes (bad) things happen. Villains, in fiction, have greater control of their environment.

  5. There are few villains as great as Dr. Doom. He’s kind of the poster boy for absolute power corrupting absolutely.

  6. I like it when villains make me question my own sense of right and wrong or the hero’s sense. The Joker living his own version of life without rules and Ozymandias killing in order to create world peace made me ask real philospophical questions. You need a really good villain for that.

  7. A lot the IFanboy writers are really stepping it up recently. Good job, dudes.

  8. Reverse Flash’s actions caused Flashpoint, which was the jumping off point to the new 52, so therefore Reverse Flash caused Stephanie Brown not to be Batgirl and Tim Drake no longer had a solo book for the first time since when? 1993? What did Reverse Flash have against Chuck Dixon???

    Seriously, though – great article. Thought provoking!

  9. Classis Starro from the early JLA title. This was a story arc that really transformed me into liking a villian. not so much as liking as I wanna be Starro but, where I would like to see him again. I mean I read where he sent his little star fish down and there was one in this pond and attached it self to this kid and then it just kinda started getting everyone and soon it started controlling the super heroes I loved and it made for one hell of a story, one like I had never read before!! I believe it lasted like three issues and I could not wait to see that starfish all over the covers!! I do not know if this makes any sense to what you wrote Mike but; this would be my favorite bad guy in the comic book world. The bad thing is before that he was kinda of lame and since then has been potrayed in so many different ways and I am not a big fan of that either!! So in just that one story arc I gained a super villian that I looked forward to my heroes fighting to loosing him all together. Kinda sad….

    K

  10. Actually, the bad guys don’t change.

    This is their fatal flaw and thus they must die.

    Since you don’t want to kill off good characters in comics, all of this gets inverted.

    Now the good guys don’t change and the bad guys do.

    Which is backwards from the usually-recommended ways to tell a story.

    When writing a novel or screenplay, the oft-heard dictum is:

    EVERYONE arcs, EXCEPT the Bad Guy.

    This refusal to change leads to the villain’s downfall, and hopefull, ultimately, cathartically, his death.

    But ya can’t do that in comics, Or can you?

    • Well they can be stopped over and over again, so it really isn’t to different. Ex: Batman. Think of sending them to Arkham as their death.. until their next appearance.

  11. If you enjoy the origin of popular villains, but are not feeling the man in the metal mask…I suggest checking out Ed Brubaker’s “Books of Doom” (mini-series). If you still are not at least a partial fan of Doom…fair enough. You tried.

    http://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Four-Books-Ed-Brubaker/dp/0785122710

    • I liked how Hickman handled Doom in FF/F4, and I enjoyed what Brubaker did in Winter Soldier.

      Classic, yet with an updated feel.

  12. I also think more writers are paying attention to the advice that:

    “Everyone is the hero of their own story.”

    So, to some extent the villains are a bit less broad and a bit more flawed.

    At least in the stuff I’m reading, which is around the edges of Marvel right now.

    The Hickman, Fraction, Brubaker approach renders villains a bit more like antagonists than cardboard cut-outs.

  13. Mike, I also think you may enjoy the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman.

    Great summer beach reading and an excellent exploration of the super-villain mindset.

    http://sooniwillbeinvincible.com/

  14. And to think not a week ago someone on here said my avatar was creepy. I consider Bullseye the Joker of the Marvel U, Can’t wait to see if he will pop up in Waid’s Daredevil.

  15. Mike, very well written. The Joker always stands out to me as one of the must successful villains because he is the dark reflection of the hero. He is what the hero could have been and vice versa, so it sets up a dichotomy where we have two halves of the same whole that are intrinsically linked and in direct conflict because of who they are and what they believe as opposed to simply a villain that wants to blow something up and a hero that merely wants to stop an evil act. There are also, again as mentioned, the tragic villains that strike a chord with me such as Magneto who was formed entirely from the evil acts as others and truly believes that his actions justify the means. I think back also to the Golden Age and the utter lack of Super-Villains. Instead there were corrupt aspects of society, real world problems personified as slumlords, industrialists and petty crooks. In a way, they provided both the smallest of challenges and the largest of challenges. They were representations of great, almost unbeatable challenges-Greed, Corruption, Fear. How can a hero beat Greed, not just the wacky crook, but the feeling of greed that itself is untwined in the fabric of society. Superman fought them by beating the avatars of these evils (slumlords, etc) but then also tried to beat the evils themselves by inspiring people to wipe these ills out of society itself.

    • I enjoyed this reply.

      The dark mirror of the hero is often the role played by his nemesis.

      The Big Evils are so real and so prevalent one can only highlight them by dramatizing them as avatars and analogues in fiction, especially costume drama/action-adventure/hard-boiled/science-fantasy.

      I agree.

  16. The introduction to Justice really changed the way I think about villains: when villains are written right, they think they are doing the right thing. Nobody (okay, almost nobody) sets out to be evil. Good villains (oxymoron?) set out to do what they think is making the world a better place, either for themselves or for some misguided sense of what everyone else needs.

  17. Ha now, I know, I can’t help but nitpick, but why call Wrath of Khan “a solid submarine-chase movie”. Is there a popular niche of submarine-chase movies that Wrath of Khan is derivative of that I don’t know about. Are you a submarine-movie hipster? =P

    Also why submarines specifically, I mean if we’re talking naval in general that’d give a bigger pool to draw from.

    No heh I don’t know why I’m typing this. But hell yes Wrath of Khan is one of the best sci-fi movies ever.

    • Oh right, the content of the subject itself, always interesting stuff. Though to throw another nitpick, I notice this focuses on just Marvel and DC villains (and Khan). You mention how the villains can’t do anything to really change things for the story longterm, well, there are plenty of non Marvel/DC books where that’s not the case. Especially since by that I’m guessing you’re alluding to the ol’ nobody stays dead thing, which only fully applies to Marvel/DC.

      I will say, on a broader subject, not just on villains, but the trappings of the genre itself, I do feel entertainment, especially hero comics and action video games for example, feel like they have to stay within a certain niche. Like there has to be constant violence and mayhem and torment to our protagonists for us to be invested. Personally, I enjoy some downtime to get to know our characters before their lives get ripped apart again.