Maggie’s World 037: Villainy
Again and again, comics fans tend to focus on heroics: Which good guy or gal is better, is nicer, has a better costume, is more powerful than which other good guy or gal? The forces against which superheroes struggle (and, in so doing, provide us with entertainment) are varied. The challenge can be the environment, whether the character is looking to survive in a snowstorm or on another planet. Or the individual can be getting involved with keeping a secret (such as a civilian identity). Or competing with another hero (because of a misunderstanding or simply because of a contest). Or dealing with the clumsiness of a sidekick or bad luck or the pursuit of a goal.
But a different sort of story can come from characters who have a sinister goal—or who simply set out to conquer the hero we love.
I’m not talking about the basic self-serving of a murderer who’s getting a victim out of the way. Such folks are usually dealt with speedily in the likes of the E.C. anthologies and other quickly told short tales.
I’m talking about hard-to-deal-with foes, ongoing villains, super-men and super-women who just won’t go away. In those cases, there can be any of a number of motivations at work. They may, for example, be …
Just Looking for a Snack
Li’l Bad Wolf in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories spent much of his time dealing with his dad’s desire to consume the little guy’s buddies. But Big Bad wasn’t the only hungry threat in comics.
After all, there can be a wide variety of appetites. They range from those of characters who consist of an assortment of versions of Dracula to the hunger felt by the Fantastic Four’s Galactus or Fables’ Frau Totenkinder. (Hey, Hansel and Gretel were available and looked tasty, and a witch has to eat, too!) Lovecraftian types of horrific octopus monsters might fit this category, too.
In any case, whether the heroes trying to deal with these characters are coping with such threats as the loss of a pint of blood or with their entire planet heading down a character’s gullet, hunger is at the root of the problem.
Fawcett’s Sivana claimed that he was the Rightful Ruler of the Universe and that Captain Marvel was simply the Big Red Cheese standing in his way. What if he was right? Sivana just wanted to be in charge. (Hey, come to think of it, that was pretty much the motivation of all the Nazis our heroes fought throughout the Golden Age, what with the Third Reich’s global goals. But anyway …)
More recently, Doctor Doom just wanted to be in charge of Latveria. Or maybe he was after more than that. (After all, he really got into trying to crush the Fantastic Four.)
And what about all those alien teams of invaders from other planets? The high-tech Badoon guys couldn’t even get along with the Badoon gals, much less with the Skrulls or the Kree. And all of them wanted to conquer the Earth, right? Moreover, those species involved only a portion of the Marvel universe; there are countless comic-book universes, and lots of their inhabitants want to control our teeny planet. (We must be pretty doggoned desirable.)
If a hero is just looking to take a day off, it’s not going to happen, if there’s a certain kind of villain around. The Joker may be the quintessential nutball; he’s even capable of generating insanity in others.
But he’s hardly alone. There’s the Green Goblin. And Two-Face. And many more. They offer rich territory to be explored in storytelling, because the necessity of dreaming up motivation can be tossed off with the summary judgment: “They’re nuts.”
And, of course, that brings us to a variation of the psycho: Menaces who would like to share a normal, mundane life with the rest of us but who just happen to go wild now and then. Dr. Jekyll might be considered to be responsible for the creation of Mr. Hyde, but the Hulk and Werewolf by Night (to name two) are nice guys who just happen to go out of control occasionally. And some trundle along without even the torment of wanting to be one of us: The Heap, Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, and more.
In the movies (and legend), Loki is all about revenge. In the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby version, it seemed to be more that he felt entitled and that others were standing in the way of his getting what he thought he deserved.
In any case, the problem occurs when it’s the good guys from whom the bad guys are (rightly or wrongly) looking for payback.
Working for a Living
The typical foe for Golden Age heroes was the crook who wanted loot. That motivation certainly held true for a variety of costumed opponents over the decades, from the whip-wielding Catwoman to the shockmaster Electro.
Come to think of it, I suppose this’d be the appropriate category for the countless weapon-wielding “it’s just my job” henchmen populating the backgrounds of story after story, providing back-up service for this or that mastermind. Some never even got names.
Following the Whim of the Storyteller
Or maybe the antagonist is just a variant of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.” He’s bad just because he enjoys being obnoxious. It happens.
Changes can happen. Hey, what if the good guy becomes a bad guy? Tommy Tomorrow was originally an amiable spacegoer, but a graphic novel ensued, when Twilight revamped him as a venal authoritarian in search of eternal life: “If, as the English poets put it, vanity’s name is woman—then psychopathic ego out of control is surely called Tommy Tomorrow!” Why not? (It keeps the trademark and provides a fresh approach to a character who’ll kick up controversy among readers.)
Moreover, just as Tommy Tomorrow can go from kindly space soldier to totalitarian, Frau Totenkinder can end up joining more admirable other Fables folks. And Deadpool can become a fan favorite. And—come to think of it—characters don’t have to change to become fan favorites. I’m looking at you, Harley!
Of course, there are more, more, more antagonists for our protagonists. They provide the yin to the yang, the black to the white, the anti-role model to the ideal. And the problem to be solved. Until next issue, anyway.
Maggie’s World by Maggie Thompson appears the first Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!