Officially announced last week after months of speculation and rumors, DC Comics enters Villains Month in September, an event spinning out of the aftermath of the Justice Leagues-specific “Trinity War.” Replacing most of its regular titles with one-shots starring super villains, the publisher’s first universe-wide event in the New 52 is tied together by writer Geoff Johns and artist David Finch’s “Forever Evil” miniseries. And current “Red Lanterns” and “Swamp Thing” writer Charles Soule is in the thick of things with not one but three one-shots.
Soule teams with artist Alberto Ponticelli for “Green Lantern: Black Hand,” with artist Raymund Bermudez on “Action Comics: Lex Luthor” and artist Jesus Saiz for “Swamp Thing: Arcane,” an issue that takes a deeper look at both Anton Arcane and the Arcane family in general.
With an eye towards September, Soule spoke with CBR about all three one-shots, explaining how he settled on his specific trio of villains while waxing philosophical on the true nature of evil!
CBR News: When it comes to Superman, I can’t think of a more famous villain than Lex Luthor. Did you have to arm wrestle the rest of the Superman and Action Comics guys to get Lex?
Charles Soule: [Laughs] It was absolutely one of those assignments you don’t turn down! I’m very busy right now writing a couple of ongoings, but when Lex was on the table I was like, “I can write the hell out of that!” I pitched on it and was lucky enough to get the assignment. It’s been really, really fun to write; as you point out, it doesn’t really get much bigger in the Superman universe than Lex Luthor.
While everyone knows Lex Luthor is in the New 52, we actually haven’t seen that much of him. In this one-shot, are you getting to define Lex or parts of his back story and how he interacts with the DC Universe?
Well, yes and no. One of the fun things about Villains Month is that it’s focused on the villains and what they do day-to-day when there aren’t heroes around, because that’s part of the way the event’s going to work. In DCU continuity, Lex has been in prison for the last little while, so the issue kind of starts with him getting out of prison, and then it looks at what he would do in a day when Superman isn’t around. How his life works, day-to-day.
I think we’ve seen a lot of Lex Luthor as the evil mastermind and evil genius, and some of that is certainly in the book. But I want to show how a mind like Lex Luthor’s operates. Geniuses, really smart people like that, don’t necessarily advertise, they don’t walk around spouting off mathematical formulas or anything like that. They’re just extraordinary efficient in everything they do and you recognize their genius by their results. That’s the Lex I tried to write. He’s not necessarily a grandstander: He’s incredibly sure of himself because he’s got reason to be. He is the smartest guy around, and when he tries to make something happen, more often than not, it happens exactly the way he wants it to. That’s my approach to this issue, and I had a lot of fun — evil geniuses are fun to write, that’s for sure!
Lex is a character whose nature has been examined a lot, pre-New 52. He’s been a sociopath, an evil genius, a mad man — but we’ve also seen him as a more sympathetic guy who genuinely sees Superman as a threat. While your story is a day without Superman, is Superman still weighing on Lex’s mind?
Absolutely! Lex Luthor sees Superman as his dark shadow in the same way we all see Lex Luthor as Superman’s dark shadow. Superman is the big negative that is keeping Lex from enjoying the many things he feels the world should provide him. But you know, everything you just listed about Lex Luthor makes him sound like an actual person. You and I both have a million sides at any given moment or day in the month. We express one side or another side, depending on what situation we’re in, and Lex Luthor is no different. He’s not just an evil genius. He’s not just a brilliant businessman. He’s not just those other things — he’s all of those things.
It’s one issue with 20 pages, so you do the best you can. I attempted to treat him like a rounded person who’s effective at certain things and has his own Achilles Heel, which is thinking he’s the smartest guy around and being obsessed with Superman. That obsession and those flaws lead him to do things that are, without a doubt, terrible. He thinks he’s above the normal moral compass that other people have to operate by. He does what Lex Luthor thinks is right, which the rest of the world often thinks is just monstrous.
Does this story cross over with what the other writers doing in their “Action Comics” stories?
It’s fairly self-contained. I think the idea of Villains Month is to have “Forever Evil” tying the stories together. The individual issues don’t have to cross over. Lex Luthor’s story is designed to be all about Lex all the time, and I think it works on that level.
Now, let’s talk about “Black Hand,” who is a character who,the last time we saw him, he was dead — well, more dead than he usually is. [Laughter] Why did you want to bring Black Hand back?
Since “Blackest Night,” I’ve always felt Black Hand was a great villain. The way he was written and portrayed as just this weird, strange psychotic individual obsessed with death. I think there’s a lot to work with, and I think the story that I tell delves into that. What it would be like if you would literally prefer everyone in the world be dead? If that was your perfect world, with everyone dead, you view people that are alive with the same disgust we might view a corpse; that’s how Black Hand sees anyone who’s alive. That’s a fun story to tell. Well, maybe “fun” is the wrong word to use.
Sounds like your mad scientist side is coming out! [Laughter] I’ve noticed at conventions that when Black Hand is not currently being used, there are always fans asking for Black Hand to return, and when he is being used, fans ask for even more of him. Why do you think he’s become such a popular Green Lantern villain?
First of all, he’s a conduit to storylines that have been dead and gone; they can kind of come back through Black Hand as we saw in “Blackest Night.” A lot of characters who were out of play can come back, albeit in a gross zombie way, but they can appear again. Whenever Black Hand shows up, you tend to have things happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen, so that’s fun. As far as his specific appeal, it’s interesting because he is essentially a guy who likes zombies. Zombies are hot right now — maybe it’s as simple as that!
When we were talking about Lex, you were saying that he’s got a lot of different facets. How about Black Hand? Does he have as many competing sides as Lex Luthor?
That’s a good question. The way I’m planning to write Black Hand is as someone who is fundamentally damaged. He’s not an evil mastermind, he is not a well-rounded person. He is a damaged person who, as I mentioned, is just obsessed with death and dead things. That’s what makes him happy. But I also feel that this is a mindset that is so alien to anything you or I would think of, so contrary to the way we view existence, that it’s about getting into that perspective and trying to explain what it would be like to be in Black Hand’s head. How he sees the world and the way he’d remake it if he could. Because he’s so damaged, I don’t think he’s as well rounded as someone like Lex Luthor, but that means I can explore the concept of Black Hand’s weird psyche in more depth and detail.
Though they are villains, Lex sounds more complex than evil, and your description of Black Hand as a damaged individual makes it sound like he’s also more complicated than that. That said, how do you define evil as a writer, and do either of these characters really fit that mold?
Evil, to me, is very simple. It’s doing things outside of what the rest of society thinks is acceptable. There’s a spectrum ranging from mildly criminal all the way up to evil. The thing that unites evil people is they, generally speaking, don’t see what they’re doing as evil. They see it in different ways than society does. They’re not self-aware enough to realize that what they’re doing is evil, or they’re lying to themselves, or they simply don’t care. You get into the damaged psyche of psychotic personalities and sociopathic personalities and things like that.
I think evil really is defined by stepping away from what the rest of the world thinks is OK. But then, different cultures around the world have different definitions of what’s allowable and what’s OK. To some, what we do in America every day is considered evil. So to some extent, it depends on your perspective.
Your third villain is Arcane, and while I said Black Hand and Lex Luthor feel more complicated than evil, Anton Arcane has always come off as very overtly evil. We saw him explored rather thoroughly in “Rotworld,” so what’s your take on Anton Arcane?
First off all, the one-shot is set up as a direct sort of coda to “Rotworld” to show where the “Rotworld” characters are today, what they’ve been up to and what they’re doing which is fun. It’s neat to revisit some of Scott Snyder’s storylines a little bit and play with it. He did such a fantastic job, it’s nice to touch on it a little bit.
But Arcane, specifically, you’re right — he’s about as horrible as you can get! He’s been written that way: he is someone who I think knows completely what he’s doing is considered 100% evil by any standard definitions, but he does not care. He luxuriates in it and it makes him happy. He’s bad! He knows if he were brought to trial he’d be found guilty in a second. But you know what? He’s going to do what he does until something stops him.
If you look at the three characters I’m writing, they all have different approaches to what they’re doing. Black Hand, again, is the damaged guy who sees the world differently than everybody else. He’s not able to understand why other people don’t see the world the way he does. Lex Luthor is simply convinced what he’s doing is for the greater good. He feels if he were brought to trial, he would not be convicted. And then there’s Arcane, who is evil for the sake of evil and loves it, loves death and destruction.
How do you, as a writer, get inside the mind of a character like Arcane?
Some of the stuff he does in the story I found uncomfortable to write. The story includes some flashback elements, where you look at Abby Arcane’s childhood and the things he did to his own family. It freaked me out. I ended up finishing the issue kind of late at night, and it creeped me out a little bit. It definitely went to a darker place than I’m used to going! I’ve seen the art for a lot of the pages — Jesus Saiz is drawing it, and he’s bringing the evil to the pages. It’s a little difficult to get into the mindset, but once I was there, it hopefully turned out as a good story.
What was your first exposure to Anton Arcane? Was it “Rotworld” or was it earlier with Alan Moore’s work?
I’m at my writing desk right now, looking at my pile of Alan Moore “Swamp Thing” hardcovers. It was those stories that brought Arcane to my attention in the first place. He’s certainly the biggest member of Swamp Thing’s rogues gallery and it is neat to be able to play with him — in a terrible, gross way! [Laughs]
How much does Abby play into this one-shot? Or is this much more about Anton alone?
Well, the book is titled “Arcane,” and there’s more than one person named Arcane in Swamp Thing storylines, so it’s a story about both Anton and Abby. Anton is very much the villain of the piece — it’s focusing on him and actions he has taken. Through this, you get stories of Abby’s background. Abby shows up in her current incarnation as the Avatar of the Rot, but in keeping with the theme of Villains Month, Swamp Thing does not appear. He is referenced, you get a pretty cool line about him, but he does not personally show up.
Finally, these three aside, who is your favorite DC villain of all time?
I would have said Lex Luthor, but if he’s off the table — God, there’s so many! The fun thing about this event is that there are so many great ones to choose from. You know who I like? I like Vandal Savage! Vandal Savage is fantastic. He’s always been one of my favorites. I hope I get to write him in a book sometime — I just love the idea of an immortal caveman who has literally pulled himself up by his bootstraps over thousands of years to become the person he is today. I think that’s cool!
DC Comics’ Villains Month begins in September; “Lex Luthor,” “Arcane” and “Black Hand” all release September 18.