Friday in the Villain's Lair

Last week we talked a little bit about a way to deconstruct super-hero stories and boil them down to the basics. It occurs to me that there's another exercise that a lot of mainstream superhero writers probably could be doing and aren't... at least, not from what I can see in what's hitting print.

What is it with modern comics and villains? Why can't anybody construct a decent villain any more? Worse yet, why is it apparently now de rigeur to take a perfectly good villain from the old days and 're-imagine' him or her to the point where everything that was once fun about them is gone?

Let's take the example you're probably all sick of hearing about by now, but I don't care because he is the perfect example, damn it. Dr. Light. He is the poster boy for this.

The original story problem? We need a villain with a revenge motive to serve as a red herring suspect in a whodunit story, and we want to make Dr. Light scary again, we're tired of him being a joke. So okay, now he's a rapist with a mad-on for the heroes that tried to brainwash the nastiness out of him. An entire new personality and backstory is suddenly slapped onto the Dr. Light character with all the grace of a clown nose on a marble bust.

Now, this column isn't yet another rant about Identity Crisis -- well, not a big one -- but I just want to walk you all through an alternate solution. A way to get to the same place that I think works better.

Break it down. What's the actual problem you're trying to solve here? Well, you have two. The first one is that you want to divert a bunch of heroes into chasing this villain because he's the most likely suspect for murdering someone, so you need to show why he's the most likely. Fair enough. The second problem is to take a villain that became a joke and turn him scary again. Show readers why this is a guy that is tough enough to take on the whole JLA and make them sweat.

Brad Meltzer's solutions... well, let's not go through all that again. But there's one particular complaint I had with his answer that I never saw brought up anywhere in all the scorching hate-filled essays that set the internet aflame after Identity Crisis #2 came out, and that was: there was absolutely no reason whatsoever that role in the story had to be filled by Dr. Light. It could just as easily been Captain Cold, or the Riddler, or... well, anyone, really. If you're going to use Dr. Light, you should have a real reason. He should serve a specific story function.

This is the part that kind of springboards off last week's column -- ideally, when this comes up you step back and look at the character's construction. What is his function? What kind of a story do you build around Dr. Light? What makes him unique?

Quick answer: "He's a Gardner Fox Silver Age science villain. His gimmick is light. All light, visible, invisible, infrared, ultraviolet, whatever, he's the light guy."

So the next step, amping him up for a modern comics audience, should come from that place. Dr. Light is all about light rays and he is bad enough to throw down with the whole Justice League. Very well, then, let's just turn that up to eleven. Dr. Light is the foremost expert on photons in the DC universe and he's an evil sociopath. That's what makes him scary.

All right, so what does that mean? How can light be a weapon? Lasers, sure, but hell, in the DC universe half the henchmen have lasers. This is a guy that can take out the League. We need him to be a scary badass. How do you do that with light rays?

Well, a great many communications systems around the world are based on light. So maybe Dr. Light can figure out a way to piggyback hypnotic signals onto television transmissions. Maybe he has control of military satellites. Maybe -- light is what makes it possible for human beings to see -- maybe he can actually affect the optic nerves of people and disrupt their function, including the League.

Or maybe all of the above, because after all the JLA is the DC summer-blockbuster book, or anyway it should be. Try this... "I now have control of the United States military satellite network, the Argus system. I have modified these satellites to broadcast a frequency that interferes with human optic nerve function, destroying perception of the visible spectrum. The entire continent of North America is now blinded along with you, Justice League. Right now the effect is temporary and reversible... but if you do not meet my demands within nine hours, I'll change it to a frequency that will not only make the blindness you are currently experiencing permanent, but will also probably cause severe brain damage to everyone under the age of fourteen living in the Western hemisphere. Billions of children -- blind and retarded. Think about that as you stumble around your little space clubhouse in the dark. Nine hours. Tick tock, Justice League."

That's how you make Dr. Light scary. Take what he already does and make it more so. Apply it to the problem, don't run away from it. I don't want to spend the whole column deconstructing Identity Crisis, Lord knows there are already enough comics critics who've done that; I just wanted to make the point that the story could have gotten the same results a better way. Dr. Light is the wrong guy for a story about privacy and principles and personal betrayal, and I thought it was a really bad job of shoe-horning to put him in that one.

I hate to even mention this because frankly this blog spends way too much time singing his praises -- but a classic example of doing this right was the way Grant Morrison built Prometheus into a worthy adversary for the JLA.

What are the attributes a villain would need to beat the League? Okay, why does this guy have them? And why is he using them to whomp on a bunch of costumed heroes when he could just be getting rich or chasing girls or something? You look at the Prometheus New Year's Evil one-shot and the subsequent JLA stories and you can see exactly how Morrison reasoned out the answers to those questions. It's Villain-Building 101.

What annoys me is that this seems like the most basic of basics to apply to telling stories about super people fighting super crimes, and yet I never see it being done. You hear it all the time: "A hero's only as good as his adversaries." Well, if this is common knowledge, why do so many heroes have such crappy adversaries? How hard is it to take a few minutes and think through the necessities you need for a good villain?

I daresay at this point that if you're still with me, you all are coming up with your own checklist -- but here's mine.

First off? Right out of the gate, a supervillain should be super, which is to say he poses a problem that conventional law enforcement can't handle. Frankly, I have yet to see a Riddler story where he was a threat that couldn't have been handled by Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD in an afternoon: He's a robber who compulsively leaves clues about who he's going to rob, he dresses funny and he spends an insane amount of money on custom-made theme costumes and question-mark props. How hard is it to catch THAT guy?

Especially since he's always hiding out at defunct jigsaw-puzzle factories, or someplace like that. Chances are some rookie detective could nail him with ten minutes' worth of Googling local realtors.

Your villain should be harder to nail than that... someone worthy of the hero's attention. Therefore you have to have a good answer for why the cops can't get your guy. This is step one. And yet, how often do you see it addressed? You can't posit a squad like, say the Metropolis Special Crimes Unit without also at some point at least taking a minute to explain why your bad guy's too much for them and it's a job for Superman. (This is, incidentally, probably a big part of the reason why writers complained for decades about how hard it is to write Superman stories. When a guy's that super, you have to really work at coming up with a credible threat for him.)

So. Let's say you have figured out what it is that makes your bad guy a bad-ass threat, at least enough that your superhero needs to get involved. What else? What's next?

Kingsley Amis once remarked about Bond villains, "You need the right motive. Wanting to rule the world's no good if you just want it so you can get girls and whiskey."

In other words, why's your bad guy bad? Why is he dressing like that and committing these heinous crimes? A lot of writers fall back on the old well-he's-CRAZY! dodge, but come on -- if it's not the Joker, crazy's just a cheap excuse. What kind of crazy? It's not enough to just make the generic statement and call it done. You need to establish your particular flavor of insanity if you are going to claim it as a motive.

I keep pulling examples from the DCU but Marvel's got plenty of good ones too. Doctor Doom is a megalomaniac sociopath. Magneto is a fanatical political militant, a terrorist. Dr. Octopus thinks the world owes him for a lifetime of persecution. And so on. Give the guy some semblance of a plausible reason for his bad behavior. Stan Lee knew this way back in the first issue of the Fantastic Four, when he took a couple of panels to establish that the Mole Man had a little bit of an excuse for being pissed off at the human race.

But more often, we see supervillains being evil or crazy... just because. Because they are. Because I say so.

I'm sorry, but that's a bullshit answer. If you want us to believe in your story, you should give us a reason for it to be happening.

Lex Luthor, no matter his various incarnations -- Silver Age, post-Crisis Byrne, Birthright, hell, even Lois & Clark -- he always had a reason to hate Superman.

Even the Weisinger-era "You made me lose my hair!" motive could have resonance if a good writer thought it through, like Elliott Maggin did in his novel Last Son of Krypton.

Luthor is a criminal as a side effect, that's just how he finances his war on super people. What he's really about is hating Superman and anyone else like him. That's where his stories should come from.

So far on our build-a-villain checklist, then, we have ability and motive. He's an A-list threat and he's got a reason to do evil. What else?

There's a school of thought that this is really all you need, and I suppose you can make the case for that, considering we're talking about largely disposable monthly entertainments. But Comics Should Be Good, right? What else do the good villains have? What makes Lex Luthor so much more interesting than, say, the Parasite?

My thinking is that it helps the story enormously if the conflict is somehow personalized. It doesn't have to actually BE personal -- Spider-Man certainly has a personal grudge against the Green Goblin, but there are just as many great Dr. Octopus stories and Otto Octavius doesn't necessarily care all that much about Peter Parker or even about Spider-Man. Nevertheless, there is a resonance there because Dr. Octopus also gained great power through a freak science accident, but unlike Spider-Man, Ock doesn't give a good goddamn about the great responsibility. Paralleling the hero is a great way to give your bad guy that extra personal edge. Sinestro is a failed Green Lantern. Bullseye is a distorted reflection of Daredevil. And so on. One of my five favorite Batman stories ever was Mike Barr's wonderful "The Player on the Other Side," the story of a kid whose criminal parents were killed by cop James Gordon, and as a result that orphaned kid dedicated his life to making war on all decent society... he became the anti-Batman, in other words. That guy could have been an A-lister for sure if Barr hadn't killed him off at the end. Pity.

It doesn't always have to be parallelism. Opposites work too. The Joker is the perfect opposite adversary for Batman -- the insane clown versus the humorless rationalist. Or Dr. Sivana and Captain Marvel. Or whoever. You get the idea.

The point is, though, the villain should BY HIS VERY NATURE force the hero to face something in himself that he otherwise would not; the villain's actions somehow bring some inadequacy on the hero's part into sharp relief. The hero overcomes this and solves his personal problem as well as beating the villain. That's what makes him heroic. Otherwise, he's not a hero, he's just a cop doing his job, punching a clock like any other working stiff. (The hero as a working stiff on crimefighting patrol can be a fun riff to do -- there have been a lot of good Flash stories that started there -- but the better ones always escalated into the personal.)

To recap, then: if you want your villain to really work, he should be...

...a plausible threat

...with a plausible motive

...and somehow presenting a personal difficulty for the hero to overcome.

That's required. The rest comes from the story itself.

This is the part where modern comics absolutely fall flat on their collective ass. Because you should vary the mood of individual stories in an ongoing series as often as you vary the villains themselves. Batman's rogues gallery used to be tailor-made for this. You want something wicked, clever and sexy? A Catwoman heist caper. A dark psychological exploration of evil? Two-Face. A battle of wits between dueling geniuses? Penguin. Absurdist Grand Guignol? The Joker. International intrigue? Ra's Al Ghul.

And so on. Each villain should be tailored to fit each story, and the more variety you can give your stories and villains, the more interesting your hero is, and as a result, your book is better overall.

This is not news to anyone that ever made it through a lit class. This is basic storytelling. And yet it's not what I see taking place in superhero comics.

What I see is a demented effort to jam every villain into the exact same mold. Suddenly every bad guy is Hannibal Lecter. Crazy just because, evil just because, killing people just to rack up a body count.

Look, DC and Marvel guys. It's not 'mature' to arbitrarily decide that all villains are now homicidal psychopaths. That's just lazy, and worse, it's limiting. There are lots of ways to make your villain more... well, villainous, without piling up corpses every which way. The easiest place to start is to figure out who your hero is. Then ask yourself what kind of obstacle you want your hero to overcome -- and who's the guy that's going to make it just hellishly hard for him to do it?

It's not that hard to figure out once you're asking the right questions. I can get my 8th-grade students to work this stuff through. Why can't mainstream superhero writers do it too?

See you next week.

Young Justice Sneak Peek Introduces the Little Justice League

More in Comics