Time for a new definition of the supervillain

This last couple of weeks have seen a change in the way that many of us receive our international news. Rather than reading it through the filter of international news agencies, we have been reading and watching about the election in Iran via the online posts and videos of individual people actually living there, even major news agencies are getting news items this way. In the past news was delivered primarily by large, corporately-owned news agencies. Right now we, as individuals, have easy, instant access to the direct words and images from individuals who actually live in this war zone, as they send their personal observations and videos to Twitter and YouTube. Even the least politically inclined of us noticed that for a while, the most popular tag on Twitter was #iranelection.

With advances in communication technology the world metaphorically shrinks. The idea that one group of people are evil or alien in some way, simply because they are foreign, becomes harder to swallow. Our unity as humans is increasingly obvious, and the ability to deny that is less reasonable. The increased freedom of communication could be the beginning of a culture where we, as a planet, are one country. We may not always agree with each other, but hopefully we can learn to understand each other, to recognize each other as people, and treat each other humanely, even when we disagree.

With this in mind, it seems to me that it is time that the comics medium rethinks it’s classic super villain formula. The idea of extremes of “good guys” and “bad guys” is as antiquated as it is juvenile. Can anyone be said to be truly “evil”, or is it just that we don’t share their point of view? And even if their point of view seems sick and twisted by our standards, does that really make them “evil”, or just unable to function within the current values of our society? Surely the idea of a purely evil super villain is a concept of the past, a simplistic, two-dimensional idea that can only really be enjoyed by small children. And while comics for small children have their place, it is a relatively small share of the market, and one that is already well catered for.

In life, as in society, people are maturing, and as we do, we’re all forced to understand that there is very little that is purely right and wrong, entirely black and white, instead life is a series of gray areas, things which are mostly right, or mostly wrong. The free publishing that’s going on in Iran and being disseminated to a broad section of the western populace is surely a visible sign of our maturing attitudes. As it leads to a greater understanding of our basic, shared humanity, surely it also will have an effect on the kind of entertainment media we wish to consume. Because of the ease of individual online information dissemination we’re all seeing everyday people dealing with what it’s like to live in a war zone. With that in mind, I think the time has come for comics to mature along with us.

Some of the most lauded comics of recent years are the ones that were created for a “mature audience”, which show a more rounded view of both the “good” and “bad” characters. Comics like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, Ronin, V for Vendetta, Arkham Asylum… these are all books which give voice to every aspect of their lead characters, even the most reprehensible ones are examined. Why are these great and memorable books the exception to the rule, instead of the norm?

Unlike any other form of mainstream entertainment media, the potential turnaround time of a comic, from concept to print, could be incredibly fast. A monthly comic can be written, drawn, and printed in 3 months. It’s a much shorter time than any other form of entertainment media, because of this comics have the ability to quickly react to current events to respond to the zeitgeist, be current and relevant, far more quickly than movies or novels. Because comics have a shorter turnaround time than other forms of popular entertainment, they are uniquely positioned to respond to changing attitudes and social politics. If nothing else, the recent rash of Obama covers are proof of that. But is that the only way we’re going to respond to changes in society? Should we next expect Jon & Kate Plus 8 to guest in a comic? Surely there is more going on in the world which is relevant and exciting to comic readers? It is time that instead of simply dumping a few contemporary guest stars into comics, we begin to rethink the way we represent all characters. In our monthly comics, we’re ready for a more complex exploration of our heroes and our demons, and I believe that in comics, there is space for it.

Sonia Harris is a Londoner, living her relatively lucky and uneventful life in San Francisco. There she designs stuff, writes things, and talks to people. The best way to contact her is probably via email, at sonia@ifanboy.com.


  1. Sonia,

    I strongly second your request for more balanced characters.  The time of the truely evil and truely good never really existed in human history and I don’t want to see them in my comics (he said, as he read a Superman comic).  An excellent recent example of a multifaceted and realistic character (in my opinion) is Chuckles from the incredible G.I. Joe Cobra.  (14 year old me can’t believe I just put G.I.Joe in the same sentence as multifaceted.)

    However, I would prefer it if mainstream comics ignored "real world" politics and situations completely (allowing for a bit of allegory and/or metaphor).  I feel this way not out of some need for escapism for myself, but simply because I am afraid it will alienate some fans and if there is one thing the industry can’t afford it’s a decrease in demand.

  2. excellent article!

  3. Whats the point of having the superhero genre when things aren’t black and white? Should I root for the sort-of-good guy? Should I hate the sort-of-evil guy?

  4. @stuclach: Couldn’t agree with you more; Literally dumping politics (or any other popular culture) into a book is the absolute laziest way to reflect changes in our society. In my clumsy way, I’m trying to say that the changing way we’re getting our information about life and the world shows that people are ready for a more multifaceted approach to characters.

  5. @muddi900 – So you want the silver age again?  The superhero genre can and should be many different things.  There’s no reason you can’t have a grey character like a Vic Mackey in a superhero comic.  He’s sort of evil.  I’m sure there are even current examples from comics, but I can’t think of them, because it’s early, and I’m stupid.

  6. Sonia,

    I apologize if I misinterpreted or misrepresented your piece.  I agree wholeheartedly that the world is ready (or more ready than it has ever been) for truely multifaceted characters.  I am not a fan of Secret Six (I don’t actively dislike it either), but I understand that it is written with the goal of presenting its characters as operating in the metaphorical shades of grey.

  7. Sorry to double post, I am between classes and my prep is done, so I am bored:

    @muddi900 – I understand your desire to find someone to root for, but, in my experience, it is very possible to enjoy a book (comic or otherwise) without someone to actively root for.  I genuinely enjoyed a book called World War Z.  It contains no good guys and no bad guys.  It is essentially an oral history of a fictional war.  It is one of the most entertaining things I have ever read.  Is a mother who kills her children in the midst of a zombie attack to keep them from being eaten alive a hero or a villian?  I find that question entertaining and disturbing.  I don’t mean to imply that either Josh or Sonia want a plethora of zombie books or child killing books to flood the market, but the moral ambiguity we experience in the real world can work as entertainment (in my opinion).

  8. This article is a new definition of complete bollocks.

  9. He got up early for that one.

  10. @josh

    The only difference between the silver age and the modern age is that the heroes are more angsty. And the writing is better. In the end good vanquishes evil, heroes don’t kill and the villians are pure evil.Like that awesome new JSA mini from Eric Trautman.


    I am not talking about whole of comics, but the superhero genre. I would love more varied comics. But there is not point of having a comic book series about Captain Somewhat-of-a-douche fighting Dr. Symphatetic-agenda-but-wrong-way-of-doing-it. Unless its a comedy-musical starring Neil Patrick Harris and NAthan Fillion.

  11. I’m just going to have to disagree with that.

  12. ‘Can anyone be said to be truly "evil", or is it just that we don’t share their point of view?’

    Uh… Hitler… Stalin… serial killers… child rapists… Caligula… The tyrant who inspired the Dracula story… Gilles de Rais…There ARE actually people who by their own admission have relished doing things that they themselves consider evil. Or how about smiling scientists who purposely drug a population’s food to make all the men sterile, in order to breed the lower classes out of existence? Would it be okay to call that evil?…If we’re talking about fictional or mythological characters, gee, might it possibly be okay to say that Satan is "evil"?… Or is it just the case that the concept of "evil" is often overused? I think you’re taking things way too far with these sweeping statements. Do you want the word "evil" to be stricken from the dictionary?

    ‘And even if their point of view seems sick and twisted by our standards, does that really make them "evil", or just unable to function within the current values of our society?’

    When you totally give yourself over to the belief that EVERYTHING is relative and that NO standard can objectively be said to be better or worse than any other, you sort of hamper your reasoning power. Seriously, this way of thinking can lead to some dangerous consequences.

    ‘Surely the idea of a purely evil super villain is a concept of the past, a simplistic, two-dimensional idea that can only really be enjoyed by small children.’

    On the surface, yeah, you’re right in that most villains of children’s stories are simplistic. But that doesn’t mean that the entire concept of villainy, or "pure villainy" or "pure evil", can’t be really interesting. You cite some of the works of Alan Moore: Isn’t the totalitarian regime of V for Vendetta pure evil (even if V himself is a less-than-pure hero)? That dark government is pretty much portrayed as pure evil, at least once you get past the thin excuse of "keeping the people safe", which the higher-ups in the government understand is a lie. Understand that "pure evil" isn’t the same as "simplistic evil". The government of V for Vendetta (like the government portrayed in 1984, on which it’s based) is basically pure evil–but it’s not simplistic. When done right, pure evil can be frighteningly interesting. See the examples of Satan, Hitler, Gilles de Rais–all pure evil, all complex and interesting.

    Frankly, though I’ve enjoyed your writing in the past, I think there are a lot of confusions and misconceptions in this article. I don’t think you know what you’re trying to say or what you’re calling for. "Time for a new definition of the supervillain"–what is this new definition? You didn’t really define it. Why define it anyway? Was there ever a set definition? If it’s a "new" definition, then why are most of your examples of villainy-done-right taken from ’80s comics? Maybe it was just the case that those comics portrayed more interesting personalities, period, villains included. I think basically the whole article is a product of your belief that evil doesn’t exist. I think I think that way too from time to time, so I’m not a stranger to that belief (or lack there of). But if you’re all into respecting other people’s viewpoints as equal to your own, then what about the views of people who believe that evil does exist?

    Evil is a pretty huge concept. Philosophers and two thousand years of biblical scholarship have investigated the subject of whether evil exists or not, or what it means; to just toss off the idea that "Well, evil doesn’t really exist" within an article about contemporary comics that mentions "John and Kate" is just really, really ridiculous.

    I mean, I would have thought you would have talked about Norman Osbourne here or something. Or maybe mentioned Magneto. I would focus more on how evil is portrayed–interestingly or uninterestingly–in comics, rather than base whatever argument you have on some sort of sweeping statement about society and the underlying workings of the universe.

  13. There has been plenty of moral ambiguity in comics as of late and I would have to agree with flapjaxx in regards to V for Vendetta.  The government is the evil and more than that it is an Orwellian nightmare.  A dystopian society thinking itself a utopia ie 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  And those out there that want to read about true evil infiltrating a utopia, read Huxley’s antithesis of BNW, The Island.  I fully realize I have left the world of comic books for literary science fiction but the two have plenty in common.  What about post-apocolyptic fiction?  The Road is creates a landscape of evil where a Father and Son must simply survive.  I have gone way off topic here- far away from the likes of Sinestro and Lex Luthor.  Forgive my digression-

  14. @muddi990 – you root for the flawed superhero that despite wanting to let losoe ans stop worrying about whether it’s good or bad, chooses to do good.

  15. @flapjaxx: In duck society, it’s perfectly acceptable behavior in duck society to kill and then homosexually sodomize a fellow duck, in order to show dominance. This is considered normal by other ducks. Are we to renounce all ducks as "evil" because we find this behavior unacceptable? Or is it that the ducks have difference standards of decency than we do? The same can be said of people we disagree with (i.e. the political figures you mention); while we may not agree with what they did, they had their reasons, and enough people agreed with them to give them the power to do what they did at the time. 

    I mention the comics that I do because I see them as having been around long enough to be established as classics. One thing; I’m afraid that I must respectfully disagree about your example that V for Vendetta shows any pure evil. The government are trying their best to control a populace that they feel is unable to care for themselves. They crave power, and the reasons for that are shown; they’re weak and insecure, sad and self-hating. Does this make them evil? Or misguided and inconsiderate?

    @Apotheosize: See above re: V for Vendetta. The interpretations of the novels you mention are your own, and I do not share them. I cannot speak to The Road, as I haven’t read it, but thank you for mentioning it. If you feel that it’s on a par with Orwell and Huxley then I’ll look out for it.

  16. @flapjaxx and @Apotheosize – I don’t think the entire regime of V for Vendetta is evil or the entire regime of 1984. Maybe the top rulers, but they can be "excused" with being crazy. The society in both works is a society under constant fear and paranoia from outside aggression and from the government, and from the society itself – in 1984 and V for Vendetta you never knew who was with the government or who would be willing to give you up for a better status – for something as insignificant as another piece of chocolate. 

  17. @Apotheosize – I wasn’t a huge fan The Road, but I did like that the landscape wasn’t pure evil.  My understanding of the book was that the world was both literally and figuratively grey.  SPOILER (But not to Apotheosize) There is even a Green Arrow style character that saves (as much as anything in that world can be saved) the boy.

    @muddi990 – I can understand (and partially share) your desire for moral clarity in Superhero comics, but the presence of ambiguous characters has improved those stories immensely (in my opinion).

  18. @soniaharris – we can criticize people for certain actions no matter where they live, because we are humans ourselves and understand them somewhat. Sexually abused children might not understand that it isn’t love but abuse, but as a society we understand that. There are more ambiguous examples like during the holocaust are harder to criticize. I think you gave a really poor example.

    Also back to @flapjaxx and @Apotheosize – the governments in those works (1984 and V) created a love for the current country and a deep hatred for the other, and that made the society itself the evil people somewhat.

  19. Interesting article, although I agree with comments made by some that it was kind of a throwaway execution.

     I’m going to have nightmares about being killed and raped by evil ducks now. Thanks a lot.

  20. I think, and it’s early and I’ve not fully formed this theory, that you’re correct in noting that for many years, comics  have been about the hero’s journey, and as such, they require a stark conrast of good and evil. And in doing so, we have to decide what is good and what is evil. I think in many ways, WWII is a very easily contrastable war, one in which we felt a clear division of good and evil, and many of our comics since then have reflected that contrast. Supervillains are proper villains with clearly evil motivations. They want to take over the world. Reshape it in their own image. Etc., etc.  Comic stories rose from the pulps, but the pulps often had shadier, more nuanced characters. However, I think WWII may have served to change things and increase the contrast to pitch black and brilliant white (this is where you can feel free to poke holes in this theory). 80’s comics shifted things again, recapturing nuance as a reflection of the times we had come through (Vietnam, etc.)

    But… still… at the end of the day… I think there’s still something to be said for the hero’s journey. We’re always going to need to pick aside, after all. No matter how gray and nuanced we feel the real world is, we still choose to live our lives by certain standards, and those standards bring us into conflict with The Opposition. And there’s something about heroic fiction that vindicates us in these choices. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bunch of teenagers fighting to dance in Footloose or Superman fighting Brainiac for the umpteenth time — we can relate to the struggle. We can relate to taking a stand.

    So maybe we don’t think of it as evil, but rather as the opposition to the hero’s goals. It can be anything from classic Evil to another Point of View. I think there are comics that try to capture this.

    But I dunno. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet. And I think I just saw a Twitter that Farah Fawcett died.

  21. @chlop: If you read case studies, many people who abuse their children, were also abused when they were children. My duck analogy is saying that by their own standards, they’re sane and not evil. The same can be said of abusers who learnt that this was normal on some fundamental level and never recieved help to get away from that mode of unhealthy behavior. 

    As an aside, my grandparents were in concentration camps, they lost their entire families there. I’ve done a lot of research on the subject. Hitler wasn’t making it happen on his own, it took the support of an entire government and the support of the populace (which, by the way, is what V for Vendetta decries – the ability of a people to go along with bad ideas, their own culpability in allowing their government to do reprehensible things on their own behalf.) I also lived in Germany for 2 years, and historically, I can understand (if not agree with) how an entire country got swept up in a political movement that was intolerant and persecuted people. It’s exactly the problem I’m talking about; they lost touch with their own empathy and dehumanized a proportion of the population so that it was suddenly okay to "get rid" of them. I’m not saying it’s right, but in their own minds, at the time, it made sense.

    Through fiction, we can encourage people to see each other as individuals and treat each other humanely.

    @2frog: I could have written more, but I wanted to keep this brief as I really only had one point to make, which I can reitterate here in even less words: We as a society are reading and watching communiques directly from our supposed enemies, I believe that this shows our readiness and interest in reading more complex and multidimensional depictions of villains in comic. Sorry about the duck nightmares, I feel the same way.

    @daccampo: Dude! I’m with the adults in Footloose, those pesky kids were too damn loud!

  22. @soniaharris – no dice. We know of people that opposed that wave and did what we consider the right thing. I don’t buy that they thought it was the right thing to do at the time. Maybe you just didn’t elaborate, but there’s knowing it’s wrong and fearing retribution, etc.
    There’s the "crazy" defense which I’m still not sure about, regarding people like Hitler or people that got abused and abused. Saying that they thought it was right seems to me like a new version of a black and white world.

    Also I’m not sure that things were so black and white in comics up to this point, or just in this decade, so a statement that it’s time for a new supervillain seems weird.  

  23. @soniaharris- I can see where you might disagree with my V interpretation and yes "evil" was an incorrect word choice on my part….but is it safe to say they societies in the above mentioned works are the antagonists?  The novella Anthem by Ayn Rand is an example where Collectivism reigns supreme and anyone who even dares think the work "I" is put to death…does that mean that govt/society is simply protecting its people from the crazy notion of independent thought?  And there is no malice behind their actions?

  24. @daccampo – I think WW2 ruined the black and white notions entirely. It showed that no matter how bad the opponent it doesn’t make you good. It ruined all chance for purely good guys, and somewhat ruined the chance of having a totally bad guy.

  25. @sonia

    Another recent example would’ve been the American public jumping up and down and screaming "freedom Fries" and asking for Saddam’s blood. But that’s what people do. I have other examples, but no time.

    I understand, but how can you apply this to superhero story. There are already stories like those in comics, example Unknown Soldier. What interest would anyone have any interest in Superman, if he was hypocrite? what if spider-man was a peeping tom?


  26. @chlop – That’s certainly not a feeling that I grew up with. I feel like most Americans think of WW2 as the last war we really felt like we were clearly doing the right thing and fighting bad guys. Now, maybe that’s not accurate. And maybe some folks look at it slightly differently now (and perhaps more recent films give a more realistic viewpoint), but I think that this was a feeling lingered on for a long time in the US and shaped a lot our views.

  27. @daccampo – maybe. I’m not from the US so I can’t say, but it seems that if there’s a rise in black and white characters it’s because people want it. So much shit happened by everyday folks that you can’t point at them and label them as pure evil. Vietnam seems to me like an extensions of WW2, and WW1 maybe setting up the grounds for WW2.

    I’m not a historian or history buff by any means. It seems that with WW2 the wars  we fight have no winners. Maybe it was always like that, but we never knew because (somewhat) reliable documentation wasn’t available. We want black and white worlds. We turn the iranians into the good guys and their rulers into bad guys, even though it’s clearly not like that.

    It seems that ever since WW2 parents started burying their children, and that it won’t stop anytime soon. Good and evil are gone for good, and I think that’s why we crave them so much. That’s why countries try to teach as little as possible or use propoganda to demonize the enemy. We don’t want to kill children, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters etc. We want to kill blood thirsty people.

  28. As a (relatively) old guy, I feel I can chime in on the WW2 thing.  My grandparents and parents think of WW2 almost as a Holy War.  I also feel we (the US) were as close to "in the right" as anyone can be in war.  However, when you look at the details things get a bit blurred.  I find that blurring as or more interesting than the incredibly heroic story my parents/grandparents used to tell.

  29. don’t want to speak for Sonia, but I suspect she’s more rallying against things like the depiction of [insert generic middle-eastern terrorist here] as a handy "bad guy" whenever a hero needs someone to punch. On this global stage in which we can actually receive messages from other cultures and countries directly, we have a heightened awareness of reality, which means we have to apply that to our fiction. We can’t be lazy. 

    We can still write heroic fiction, and heroes will still meet conflicts. Heroes will stand take a stand on their beliefs. But maybe those beliefs are now depicted more as ONE set of beliefs in a larger landscape. Writers need to always try to make sure the opposition is delineated with as much passion as the hero. I do think both types of stories exist in the current marketplace. I think there are balanced views. I mean, on a simple scale, how about the "bank robber" who is down-and-out and just trying to make money to pay for an operation his daughter needs? I think that’s a plot in Spider-man 3, but that’s kind of a hallmark of Marvel. And that approaches the concept of good and evil with a bit more nuance than white hats and black hats.

  30. @chlop – Stulach put it very nicely. That’s what I’m trying to get across. Not whether or not the global stage views WW2 that way, not whether or not the details are actually that clearly black and white, but how America PERCEIVED that war and how it shaped us in the time since then. That perception filtered into ALL of our media, including our comic books, in the years that followed.

  31. @muddi900 – Spider-Man isn’t the best boyfriend. He chose to hold on to his Mary Jane despite it not really being in her best interest, but because it was in his best interest.

    What is so interesting in perfect people doing perfect things perfectly? A hero needs to struggle but eventually rise above and do the right thing. Also Superman is flawed – he deals with the outcome instead of trying to prevent it. It was dealt with a few years ago – why Superman with all his power doesn’t do anything other than saving people who are naturally afraid of dying? Why doesn’t he volunteer to a help line, why doesn’t he feed the world, why doesn’t he use his powers to do something productive that will last? 

  32. @daccampo – we don’t have a "heightened awareness of reality" – we can have if we resarch the subject/s, because nowadays we have more ways to do so, but the photos from Iran or the tweets from it aren’t "truth". We just feel bad for the iranian people and sympathize and we don’t want to root for people who use questionable means to achieve their goal.

    as for the robber – it’s a nice conflict that is used in many places nowadays, and they almost always seem to ignore that there are other routes, but that people prefer to maintain their "dignity" and get the money by robbing a hated establishment, making it right in their eyes. 

    That is a more elaborate black and white world view, but it’s still black and white, because we want it to be. I don’t know how many media use that notion of gray areas, or how much it is spread in comics, but that robber thing is "fool’s gray" – cheesy but apt in my mind.

  33. @chlop – I don’t disagree with you. I’m talking about perception. It’s not about research and informed opinion. It’s about the fact that we’re now having a larger, more direct conversation. Like any conversation, more research makes it deeper and better understood, but just the dialogue ALONE changes things. If anything maybe "heightened awareness of reality" was a poor choice of words. Hopefully, you get what I’m going for.  

    Same goes for the robber scenario — I’m not talking about whether it’s right or wrong or whether there are other routes. The point of that scenario is that the WRITER has taken the time to create empathy for the character. To let us walk a mile in his shoes. Robbing, cheating, stealing — it IS a means to an end that some people do use. If I writer can show us how "Bank Robber" FELT that this was the only/best course left to him, then we will understand his thought process, and he won’t be a bland "black hat." 


  34. @chlop & daccampo (two of my favorite ifanboys) – With all due respect to chlop (and he deserves much) I have to agree with daccampo on this one.  Our perceptions have been changed.  Our parents and grandparents only had four chanels, one newspaper, and a magazine.  The news they got was all but propaganda in many cases.  Their perceptions were often unavoidably black and white.  We now have a near infinite amount of news sources (which is what Sonia leads this article with), so we now perceive the gray that coats this world.  I think that is what opens up a willingness to accept (and desire for) ambiguous characters.

  35. @stuclach – you rank us? It’s again in my mind a fool’s gray, or as daccmpo put it – a little less bland black. If we talk about people filiming stuff and uploading it or tweeting – it doesn’t make a story. Also photos can be photoshopped and have been and still infiltrated mass media. Photos do not represent the reality, whether photoshopped or not. If you’re talking about established news agencies – they are still (it seems) places for propoganda, but now they serve both sides of the coin, so you get both sides’ propoganda. Depends on the owner/s and ratings. 

    I think we are willing to accept some form of amibuous characters, because we aren’t exactly pristine. We don’t want to be judged or judge ourselves. We don’t want to delve into the implications  of robbing a bank. We hate an establishment and don’t mind if it suffers.

  36. @chlop – I have a spreadsheet and assign a ranking (1 to 100) for each post.  You average in the 80’s.  It certainly isn’t a scientific process (until the journal article comes out), but it works for me.

    I won’t argue that we are afraid of metaphorical mirrors and I won’t argue that some of our media sources (mainstream or otherwise) are biased, but I will argue that all this alternative media (fake or otherwise) affects our perceptions and makes us more accepting of ambiguous characters.  We are more likely now than we have ever been to validly and directly examine the implications of (or motivations for) robbing a bank.

  37. I would love to see Steve Ditko weigh in on this subject…

    Now the call for comics needing to be ‘gray’ in terms of characterization?  Well that would get a bit boring after a while.  Kind of like the ‘gritty’ trend, while fresh when Frank Miller did it with Batman, got VERY tired soon after.  Sure grey is more like real life but not all people read comics for ‘real life’ nor does it belong in every comic.

    Not sure if this pertains to what Sonia said or not but I worry people think that good mature storytelling means ‘Adult’.  I don’t think it does.  You can have the type of characters Sonia is asking for without having to be an R rated flick.   Don’t get me wrong I buy my share of R rated comics.

    Comics are a medium not a genre  so they can be all sorts of characterization for whatever type of story you want so I worry when I see people saying comics should be *Insert set type of storytelling here*.   But having said that I understand and agree somewhat with what Sonia is saying to a point.

  38. @stuclach – I think documentaries are what show us other people and humanizes them – not alternative media. Whether it’s pedophiles, US soldiers in Iraq, Iranians, Israelites, Palestinians, convicts, etc. As for ambiguity in a character – it’s not there, unless you choose to write a character that way. Otherwise it’s a relatable pale black. Pistols at dawn?  

  39. @chlop – I don’t own a pistol.  Water balloons?

  40. Good lord.  That third passage is a pretty spectacular bit of meandering through logical fallacy town.

  41. Fantastic article Sonia.

    It’s easy to think that we’ve moved away from the mustache twirling villain but we haven’t. We’ve just gotten better at disguising him. Cookie cutter villainy is still the norm, especially in the mainstream media.

  42. Good article but there really are true representations of evil in the "real" world.  It would be hard to find balance of character of a person like Hitler, Pol Pot or Ted Bundy.  How much balance could you give to them?  Adolf liked dogs and was a vegetarian but doesn’t make him any less vile.  Pol Pot and Ted Buny were both described as charming but that does not make them gray characters.  I like the fact that some of the best villians like the Red Skull or the Joker are just plain vile and never conflicted. 

  43. @0and18 – with serial killers the conflict can be in their heads as they struggle to fight the urge to kill. Movies about pedophiles usually use that. There’s also the book and TV character of Dexter Morgan.

  44. @chlop-  I love Dexter, season 3 got silly.  But if you have ever read a book on a person life Bundy the scary thing is that there is no conflict in his mind.  I will look the title of the book up but it is by an author that interviewed him dozens of times with thousands of hours of tapes.  Bundy says over and over again that he never once questioned himself or his motives the only conflict was how to get that next "fix" which went from rape, then murder, then sexually defiling corpses, and at last trying cannibalism.  That was all he thought about it consumed him.

     I just like a villian with such a skewed view of themselves that no one can relate and they are so sure they are right or don’t care that they can do whatever they wish.  Maybe i am just corny

  45. Anyone ever read Peter Parker Spider-Man #52 with Shocker and Hydroman?  It was an interesting take on those two villains.

  46. How much more rounded and developed are we looking for? Is this a request for equal time for the protagonist and antagonist in a book? Are we talking about tossing out those ideas entirely and just writing a comic about opposing characters? ‘Cause right now I think our heroes and villains are pretty reflective of the times.

  47. I dont think I understand. I mean I know what u mean be multi faceted, but dont we already have several very mainstream villains and heroes that are ‘gray’?

    Dr Doom, Magneto, Lex Luthor- Tese are not just mustache twirling baddies.

    Punisher, Wolverine, and 97.8% of the ‘heroes’ created in the 90’s .

    I have always agreed with the idea that the best villain in any given story,  thinks that he is the HERO of that story.

    Maybe you could give me a couple more definitive examples of each?

    ps – Good topic for discussion.

  48. Pradon my spleling.

  49. @Unoob: A specific example that someone else mentioned as being purely evil, would beThe Joker. In comics for any age, he’s always depicted in this way. But in The Killing Joke, he is shown as simultaneously completely foul and reprehensible, and also (through flashbacks) as a somewhat decent man who’d been pushed beyond the limit of his own sanity. I always felt that this was a great example of a well-rounded view of the enemy. However, that’s a book for "mature readers", and that saddens me.

    I want the mainstream monthly, affordable (ish) comics that any 8 year old can pick up to also have a well-rounded depiction of the protagonists of their stories. What scares me about popular media is that it becomes a sort of propaganda, and I don’t want to be teaching little kids to think in these kind of extremes. As adults, we need to be able to move through the world and mix with people outside of our culture. You’re right that Dr. Doom, Magneto, and Lex Luthor are sometimes shown to have depth, and reasons for their behavior, but they’re also not always bad guys. These are all characters who’ve sometimes worked with the heroes for the greater good. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong comics, but I wouldn’t class them as outright villains anymore.

    I’m glad that you think this is a good discussion. This is freaking me out somewhat to be honest, so thank you for saying that.

  50. @Sonia:


    First up I believe that the article is a very well written piece of work. Articles like this should show up a lot more on this site as they prove that comics are not "Just for kids" and they can spark interesting debates just like any other medium. As for what you’re trying to say about having more shades of grey in the comic book world I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with you at the same time.

    I realise the irony of that last statement after rambling on about how good your article was 🙂

    I believe as with any other intelligent media comic books should cater to all age groups and tastes. For example i’m not a massive fan of a certain creators work and if I were to explain this to most people in my local shop im seen as some sort of nutter who shouldn’t be allowed to read comic books – but there in lies the whole point doesn’t it? its supposed to be down to opinion of the reader.

    I see a lot of people spouting things like "well Magneto is a shade of grey villian" (thats not a jab at people who have said that as they are right) but I see what your saying. It would be nice to see the motivations of a villian that are a little bit better then "I’M EVIL MAWHAHAHAHAHA!" its nice to see that not all characters are motivated to do evil things for no good reason. What could be argued as going too far in a comic book designed to make people escape the world can also be seen as not treating the reader as a complete moran.

     I think now more then ever with such an influential global media network its a good idea that we catch people at a young age to not just take in what they see as gospel. Its a bloody good idea to make people question things. It’s what seperates a person from a group of people. 

    I’ve been recently treating myself to the starman omnibus’s and i’m just loving it. The character of the shade in particular can be put into the whole idea of "Shades of grey"…..see what I did there with the whole "SHADES of grey" thing…yeah?…you did? just not that funny…I see…I shall just get on with it then.

     Having layered characters is the difference between a good story and just a story in my opinion and I know people can say things like "well I want good guys and bad guys-straight up and simple thats why I read comics" It’s very true and I know people out there would also argue that it would go over most 8 years olds heads to look too much into a villains motivation. HOWEVER what about the moral dialogue and character layers we see in the "Star Wars" films (especially the dynamic at the end of jedi between Luke and Vader) and don’t even get me started on the Batman:animated series (Love what they did with mr.freeze and clay face)

    That said sometimes I just want to read straight up good guy/ bad guy stories to switch off. It doesn’t however mean that there isn’t room for some of the mainstream books to take the time to show both sides of a character and the internal process that makes them do what they do.

     Interesting bit of writing and a nice bit of a debate. That’s what I would call journalism.

    Good job Sonia 🙂

  51. First, I want to say that I think it is awesome that an advanced philosophical debate about ethics is happening on a comic book discussion sight.

    Second, I wanted to way in on the debate.  I personally believe in an absolute right and wrong.  I believe that every action we make can have a moral judgement made over it.  What I don’t believe is that that judgement is always obvious.  I agree that we need more villians that have explaining motivations.  After all, very few people would consider themselves evil.  

     Too me that doesn’t mean we as readers can’t make judgements about their actions.  For example, I want to find out more about why the Red Skull does what he does.  How does he justify his actions?  This doesn’t mean to me that he wouldn’t still be a clearly evil character and Captain America a clearly good character. 

     The fun part is that readers may have different interpretaions over what is evil and what isn’t.  This can only lead to more fun conversations not only about comics but about ethics.  A topic a personally think isn’t talked about enough.

     Finally, I would like to say that I do think their is room for stories with black and white charactes.  They won’t be realistic.  But who decided that realism is the only good style of storytelling.  Stories with clear black and white characters to serve as awesome inspirations for the readers to be better people.  I mean, who doesn’t wish they were as dedicated as Spiderman or self-sacrficing as Superman.  Stories of good vanquishing evil have been important through out history for inspiring us to be better than we are.

  52. Great article, Sonia. One point I disagree with is that the Joker is "evil". Of course he does things that are evil, but he is completely insane, so he can’t be labled evil because he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    PS – Add ducks to the list of things that I am afraid of.


  53. Good guys need bad guys.  To attempt to leave the bad guys motives up for interpretation is fine.  To outright portray the "bad guy" as right in his/her own way though lessens our superheros.  Ambigous roles "bad" guys are for reallityesque books.  Capes (when I say this I speak of Marvel and DC books only) need the bad guy who wants to take over the world or some other such crap.  Superman is well Superman, do we need to see him fighting chechynian freedom fighters or freeing Tibet?

    And yes just because Ducks find it acceptable to kill and rape it’s still wrong for humans or were just animals.

  54. An early issue of JMS’ Thor comes to mind, where he goes to Africa to find the Warriors Three. While over there, not only does he fight those horrible African militas, but also comes up with a solution to end the battle between them and the rebels. That was one of my favorite comic issues, since it had an immensly powerful character fighting a real world evil.

  55. Loved this article Sonia and the discussion that has came from it.  Admittedly I first read your article and thought, " No way, there has to be a clear cut line with good and evil and opposing sides ", but as I started to think about it you are absolutely right, the world is shades of gray, some being lighter, and some darker, thank you for the wonderful read and great discussion.

    @ Poopmonster: Humans are animals, we are part of the animal kingdom.  I know we are at the top of the food chain(debateable) but that doesn’t mean we are above being a classifaction of animal. We humans, myself included on many occasions, tend to forget this very fact and think we are some what above all the instincts the lower animals than us have.  This is actually not true, we still have many of the same instincts our ancestors have, we just tend to tidy them up a bit , but that being said they are still there and very much apart of who we are.

  56. @WadeWilson Yes, he’s definitely not evil in my view. I was using his supposes evilness as an example because someone else attributed evil to him. I think you only need to fear ducks if you are another duck… Does make you thing twice about feeding the little freaks though.

    @Poopmonster: (Excellent username btw) I’m not saying that I want capes to fight actual terrorists or whatever, I’m sort of saying the opposite; That our understanding of our own "enemies" can (hopefully) indicated that we’re ready for a more layered portrayal of our ficticious "bad guys". I still want to see good and bad guys, I LOVE "capes", I just want to see a more textured depiction of the good and bad in everyone.

    I love it that someone called "Poopmonster" is debating whether we are animals or not. This is amazing!

  57. I guess drama is dependent on opposition….if the grays get too close between hero and villian, a writer is probably going to introduce a new opposition to source the drama,which tends to fall into being closer to absolute evil.I think a popular example of it is the Dark Reign storylines….when you make villians more sympathetic they often become antiheroes, a whole bunch of antiheroes have popped up so there is a clearer deliniation that Osborn is far more evil than everyone else.

  58. Great article Sonia.  I think any good supervillian has that capacity to call out a response from the audience and form a connection.  I way to understand the motivations of that character.  The more human, or emotional the motivation, the more we can connect with that character. 

    It’s the relatability.  And the REALLY GREAT villians, don’t think of themselves that way.  Most have an ideology that’s trying to be helpful in some way.  To a greater good, or ideal.  Yet another layer that can create that connection with a viewer and ultimately a character that has tremendous staying power.


  59. @ Sonia:

    Comics like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, Ronin, V for Vendetta, Arkham Asylum… these are all books which give voice to every aspect of their lead characters, even the most reprehensible ones are examined. Why are these great and memorable books the exception to the rule, instead of the norm?

    These books are the exception because they were not conventional superhero comics. For one, they weren”t on-going series. For two, Maus, Ronin, and V are not superhero comics. For three, The Dark Knight and Arkham Asylum are based on characters 99% of the readers could immediately identify as the "Good" and "Bad" guy.

    These examples are over 20 years old. I find it very hard to believe that there haven’t been comics published in this decade that haven’t experimented with this formula.  Thunderbolts and the Secret Six are two examples that come to mind. The current New Krypton storyline is another.

    Keep in mind most of the supervillians in mainstream, big 2 comics have been doing the bad for over 30 years. Their origins were written during "simpler" times for an audience that was mostly under 18 years old. Today’s writers can go back and ret-con the heck out of their backstories but when your name’s Dr. Doom, Kang the Conqueror, Sinestro, Two-Face, the reader already knows which side they’re on.

    This isn’t to say I don’t think superhero comics shouldn’t explore the gradations between good and evil. I just think (a) it’s already being done and (b) there’s enough genres in comics where it can be done better than in superhero books.

  60. @Smasher: I mentioned the comics that I did because I wanted examples that are widely acknowledged to be great, not just ones that appealed only to me. I asked a few friends to name me some outright classic books. Those are the names that came up. I do read books that do this, but they’re unfortunately mraginalized as "for "mature readers" only. For example; I’m reading Ennis’ "The Punisher Max" and I think Ennis does an amazing job of presenting a good guy who’s damn close to a bad guy. But a lot of people haven’t read that, and would consider the character somewhat ridiculous, so it’s not really an appropriate universal example in this instance.

    You’re right; Some comics do create characters with more depth, but only a few. As brattyben said right before you – it’s about relatability. What I’m saying is that it can work as a storytelling technique in any comic, but for some reason it’s still the expection, not the rule. I don’t agree with that; I think that our approach to current events shows that we are all interested in this. Just because a character has been around for 30 years, doesn’t mean that the technique used to depict them can’t evolve. If it couldn’t, we wouldn’t have the new versions of old stories being published.

  61. I think this column might have been more relevant 40 years ago than it is today.

    I’m tired of people judging comics the way I see them judged here, and it’s dispiriting that they’re being judged that way by someone who you would expect to have a broader, more nuanced picture of the output of the comics industry in general.

    Even to say it would have been more relevant 40 years ago is a disservice to many of the comics that were being produced at that time; Spider-man, The Hulk, Green Lantern/Green Arrow were all excellent examples of comics that threw the comfortable formula of wise, all-knowing hero vs maniacal villain into disarray. And even to say that they were the first mainstream comics to do that is to ignore the many visions of sensuously attractive villainy or understandable desperation that peppered Eisner’s Spirit strips for two decades before, or Bill Everett’s decidedly unstraightforward hero in Namor, which predates even that, I think.

    There’s always been shades of moral grey in comics, and there continues to be. If the majority of characters don’t get sufficiently in depth consideration, well… I don’t see why a redefinition accross the medium is necessary, or why comics in that respect should be different from any other medium; TVs in a golden age at the moment, but for every show like The Wire or Battlestar Galactica, there’s a hundred CSIs or Grey’s Anatomy’s. And either of those (IMO) inferior shows will blow the former shows out of the ratings water any night of the week.

    Bendis’s Daredevil or Ennis’s Punisher are popular, mainstream books. And either one has all the shades of moral grey you could hope for.

  62. Why does every generation think they’re the first to discover something?  Gray, nuanced villains and ambiguous characters are present in Shakespeare and Greek lit.  This was a really unnecessary article.

  63. 62 other commenters and discussion beg to differ.

  64. @BrowncoatJedi – Who said they were the "first" to discover anything? First, Sonia was talking about comic books, not greek lit. And not just comic books in general, but (mostly) American superhero comic books which make up the majority of the market. Second, she cited many examples of books that DID have nuanced villains. Hardly a "discovery." I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but what made me jump in and comment was the idea that so many super-hero comic books fall back on "standard bad guy" tropes whenever they need a quick fix of action. It made me think about the rise of super-hero fiction and what happened (in my mind) in post-WW2 America. And that, to me, makes for interesting discussion.

  65. I relate to this article on several different levels Sonia.  Thank you so much for writing it.  I really don’t get to be involved in too many online ethical debates and this one has been a blast. 

    I think our heroes and villians today have to be a little more middle-road because that’s what we as a readership require.  Erik Lensherr is a prime example of this.  You can totally understand where he comes from with his hatred for close-minded violent people.  You can also understand why he wishes to visit violence with violence.  You can look at the civil rights movement.  You had King (Xavier)preaching nonviolence on one side and Malcolm (Magneto) saying "if you don’t listen to him, then you’ll have to deal with me".  X gets a lot of bad press, even today, but he was revolutionary in the idea that he wasn’t going to take things laying down anymore and that sometimes, violence is the only thing that can jar people out of their arm-chairs.  Was Malcolm X evil?  Not at all.  He just realized that things weren’t going to change without some sort of social revolution.    

    Now onto WWII.  WWII had definitive ‘good’ and ‘evil’ on both sides of the propoganda machines.  We were the good guys and they were the bad.  Many of the flagship titles are still focusing on WWII ideas and how f’d up it was to be around back then.  They’ve let us know that life on the front were dramatically different than they were presented.  It was only after WWII that we found out the horrifying realities that existed in Europe and Asia. 

    Things are becoming more ambiguous because so many more people and cultures that have been displaced by either violence or the drive of need has caused them to move to different places other than their homes, predominately America.  We’re all intermingling now and learning lessons from each other.  When we do that, the lines of morality and good and evil become a little more relative.

    I’ve seen a lot of people reference both Fascism and Communism.  The lesson to be learned here, is that their is no political line.  It’s a circle and at the top both extremes meet and are vaguely similar in that they are totalitarian.  Extremism results in violence whether you are far right or far left.  It is the middle road that makes more since to me and helps the greater amount of good.  Utilitarianism rules the day and it has made politics somewhat amoral in the sense that with the numbers that they are dealing with daily, it makes it impossible to say that they’re making moral decisions for good or ill.  Ex. Do we let these 200 people over here die or the 1,000 people over here?  With those kind of decisions, it doesn’t place politicians above the moral plateau, but beside it.  There are no morals in politics and there never were.  Only interests abound in that world.

    Thanks again Sonia.  This was a lot of fun.