This summer we’ve resurrected one of our favorite features, I ♥ Comics, and each Wednesday through Labor Day comics bloggers and creators will discuss the things they love about the medium.
This week, our guest contributor is Mike Thompson, aka Boy of Tomorrow, who helps run the comics section at the gaming site GayGamer.
I am a bad man.
There, I said it.
For, like, the fifth time today. It’s actually become a bit of a personal slogan, to be honest, but I’ve come to realize that honesty is the best policy. I suppose it’s no surprise that I often buy comic books because of the villains that’re appearing in the issue as opposed to the heroes. You see, to me, villains are the characters that actually have the most fun in graphic novels, and it’s the heroes who have to run around cleaning up after them. Seriously, which sounds more enjoyable, robbing Fort Knox or stopping the robbery? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
However, only a few rogues manage to stand out from the seething masses of evildoers and return to the funny pages on a regular basis. So what distinguishes a great villain from the tedious ranks? Oh, good, I’m so glad you asked.
In my opinion, there are four different characteristics that go into creating a character that’s a truly nasty (and thus memorable) piece of work. Four factors, if you will, that need to be blended properly in order to make a truly great character who might just be appreciated enough to return in the near future after they’ve been sent packing. Now, I know that there are a number of other factors which go into the basic construction of a bad guy, but I’ve always felt that the following are the most important:
1. Hey There, Good Lookin’
When a good villain first appears in a comic, they need to make a splashy entrance. Yeah, I know, it sounds dumb, but when we get a good long look at a new villain for the first time, there has to be something dramatic, mysterious, and (of course) a general air of menace thrown in for good measure. Not only that, but they have to keep on looking good afterwards if they are to have any hope of actually retaining our interest. A lot of the big-name antagonists in mainstream comics have gradually evolved in their personal style over the years, but they still keep a strong similarity to their first appearance. Both Dr. Doom and Darkseid come to mind in this case: while their outfits have evolved a bit over the years, their general color schemes and overall looks are pretty close to what they were first wearing as they initially did their little turn on the catwalk. Sometimes you just don’t mess with a classic.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with the classic look; but I’ve always enjoyed villains whose appearance alone is just unnerving. For me, it’s the blending of something completely normal with something totally… well, wrong, for lack of a better term, that makes for a truly disturbing character. The two prime examples of this style (to me, at least) are The Red Skull, who I always thought looked incredible with his crimson visage sitting atop an elegant black business suit, and Doctor October (from Dark Horse’s Ghost), who was a woman with a gorgeous body but had a really creepy mask covering a horrific face. For each reader, though, beauty (even dark, twisted, icky beauty like what I’ve described) is in the eye of the beholder; so I’m sure someone out there thinks that The Vulture looks cool. Hey, to each their own.
2. Is it mysterious in here, or is it just you?
While heroes rarely remain a mystery for long, it sometimes takes years for us to get the full story on their major antagonists. Why is this necessary? Well, look at it this way: With heroes, we’re usually told from the get-go why they behave the way they do. That’s fine, mainly because we aren’t supposed to wonder about their motivations. However, when it comes to their nemeses, it generally helps if there’s a bit of mystery there to keep us fascinated. Why did Sabretooth claim to be Wolverine’s father? What exactly was the connection between Vandal Savage and Resurrection Man? Who exactly was Overlord? OK, perhaps I’m dating myself a little with those questions, but they were all ones I found myself asking during my childhood and trying to answer each time I read the comics they were showing up in.
Probably the most mysterious villain around is, of course, The Joker, since we’re probably never really going to know just what his true origin was (yes, yes, he was the Red Hood, I know; I meant we’re probably never going to know what led up to his criminal career). Even though the character’s been around for almost seventy years, his true origin is still pretty much unknown … even to him. Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke summed it up best when, after we had been presented with a haunting and bittersweet origin for the criminal, Mr. J tells Bats, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
3. A Little Bit Of Believability Goes A Long Way
The road to Hell is so often paved with good intentions. When we get right down to it, there really aren’t too many people who are completely good or evil. During the Golden Age of comics, antagonists didn’t have to be anything more than two-dimensional characters whose bizarre plans were destined to be thwarted by the end of the issue. However, as time has gone by, most comic characters (both good and evil) have become increasingly complex and, as a result, a little more believable in terms of their personalities.
Take Magneto and Black Adam, for example: While both of these characters started out looking like little more than power-mad maniacs, their motives were, ultimately, shown to be based around trying to protect/save those whom they felt needed it. For Magneto, his experiences as a Holocaust survivor motivated him to protect his fellow mutants from persecution by any means necessary; if that means taking out a few hundred thousand flatscans as a preventative measure… well, then, so be it. Meanwhile, Black Adam, who started out as the antithesis to Captain Marvel, has evolved into the semi-extremist protector/ruler of the desert-nation Kahndaq. Sure, he might overreact and slaughter an entire country while searching for one of the Horsemen of Apokolips, but he’s also the guy who healed his girlfriend’s wounded brother by bestowing some of his power on the wounded teen. Next thing you know, he’ll be saving puppies and taking romantic walks on the beach… after he decapitates some guy for eyeballing his woman, of course.
4. Challenge Me, Baby
If readers feel like a hero is going to win all the time, there’s no way they’re going to stay interested in our faithful protagonists’ neverending battles. As a result, a villain has to be capable of delivering a fresh challenge each time they rear their head in a continuity. Hell, sometimes, they might even pull a fast one on whatever goody-two-shoes they’re going up against and emerge victorious.
Remember how Kraven The Hunter humiliated Spider-Man shortly before he committed suicide? Or how Cameron Hodge managed to capture just about every X-team during the X-Tinction Agenda? Oh, and let’s not forget how Bane managed to break Batman’s back and Doomsday was able to (sort of) kill Superman for a little while. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: without the possibility of a plausible defeat, a hero will quickly become dull and repetitive … no matter how witty they are or how badass their costume is; the tests provided by a capable evildoer and how the forces of good overcome them are what keep things interesting.
Ultimately, you know a villain is great because that’s the character who keeps the comic interesting. Sure, they might be egomaniacal psychopaths sometimes, but good villains will never leave us bored with whatever dastardly plan they’re unfolding; they certainly keep the heroes they’re antagonizing on their toes. And that, Dear Readers, is why I (Heart) A Good Villain.