The concept of Rogues' Galleries

Our Dread Lord and Master's post about Batman's "Rogues' Gallery," plus a comment in this post about Bastion and his place in the X-Men's "Rogues' Gallery" got me thinking about the concept, as you might have expected it would.  Woe betide anyone once I get to thinking!

I'm not sure where the concept of Rogues' Galleries originated, but they are almost required these days for big-time superhero books.  One of the complaints you hear about Superman and Wonder Woman comics is that those two characters don't have a good Rogues' Gallery.  The three best, it seems, are Batman's, Flash's, and Spider-Man's, although I'm sure there's room for argument.  The history of the term, it appears, goes back to the 1850s and famed detective Allan Pinkerton, who kept a collection of known criminals' descriptions, MOs, and other pertinent information.  Dick Tracy, of course, has one of the most famous Rogues' Galleries in history, but I can't find when we first started applying the term to the group of bad guys superheroes fought.  For instance, did people in the 1930s refer to Dick Tracy's "Rogues' Gallery"?  Beats me.

Somewhere along the line, though, the popularity of certain villains meant they would be used again and again, and they became associated with certain heroes.  The Joker, of course, is Batman's arch-nemesis, but Batman has plenty of other good villains, too.  This was both a good and a bad development.  In an era when comics were not collected, it allowed someone who might have missed a good Joker story in 1944 to experience a good one in 1950.  The idea of recycling villains probably (note I wrote probably, so if anyone knows differently, let me know) came from this paradigm - that comic book readers weren't holding onto the old books, so the writers could easily slot in a villain who had been used before.  It would allow a rivalry between the hero and villain to develop, while letting the writer get away with a bit of an easier task - instead of creating a new bad guy, they could always cherry-pick the one they wanted to use.  Back in the day, when speed meant as much (if not more) than quality, it was far easier to use characters that had already been created than come up with a new one.

The good thing this did, as comics became more collectible (not in a bad sense, as in just being used for investment purposes, but in a good sense, as in things that could be read over and over because the quality was better), was give readers a sense of the character's stability.  These were characters who lived in a specific setting, and their battles with villains were not simply one-off affairs, but wars that lasted years.  This is more particularly the case with the Marvel books in the 1960s, because of the way they were constructed, but it increasingly became the norm in DC comics as well.  Spider-Man's battles with the Green Goblin are perhaps the most compelling version of a hero coming across a member of his Rogues' Gallery multiple times, and this led to Gwen Stacy's death, which wouldn't have had the emotional impact if it had been some random villain.  The idea of a Rogues' Gallery helped create a sense of uniformity - continuity, if you like - to the hero's life, and as we got to know the men behind the masks more and more, it helped define who they were.  In that sense, Rogues' Galleries are a good thing.


The bad side of this, of course, is that it stifles creativity.  Why bother coming up with new characters when you can simply plug in a character who's already been invented?  And, of course, as you use the villain more and more, you find that there are fewer and fewer ways you can make him menacing.  Sure, a writer might come up with a very cool idea once in a while, but it becomes more and more difficult.  What seems to happen is that the writers make the villain more "extreme," leading to a higher body count - the villain must slaughter more people or people who mean a great deal to the hero.  This leads to a horribly cynical attitude about both the villains and heroes.  The other option is to continually add layers of history to the relationship between the hero and villain, and this leads to Gwen Stacy having sex with Norman Osborn and other unpleasant stuff.


It's unfortunate that Rogues' Galleries have gotten so embedded in comics culture, because the best comics tend not to use them.  I have never read Mark Waid's run on Flash, but it seems that most people think it's good because he used the Rogues' Gallery in a creative way and also, basically, created it himself (I don't know how true either of these statements are, because I'm basing this on hearsay, but bear with me).  But let's consider some great runs on comics.  Many people have fond memories of the God of All Comics' JLA, and he didn't use a lot of established villains.  When he went on to X-Men, he did an excellent job using a lot of new villains, even if he did eventually return to the Magneto well.  One reason why people have so many fond memories of the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle run on Detective is because Grant came up with several new, excellent villains, who were then, of course, incorporated into Batman's Rogues' Gallery.  Grant gave us Scarface and the Ventriloquist, the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man, Cornelius Stirk, Anarky, and even when he used Clayface, he created a new Clayface.  People may whine about J. Michael Straczynski's early issues of Amazing Spider-Man, but he tried to create some new villains for Spider-Man instead of trotting out the freakin' Vulture yet again.  Of course, many great runs on comics have used Rogues' Galleries, but it seems like, in the past 20 years or so, those kinds of comics have become fewer and further between.

I don't know if there's a huge fan reaction when a creator gets too far away from a Rogues' Gallery.  Do fans berate Marvel and DC editors demanding the return of Mirror Master or Kobra or Loki?  I know that a lot of creators these days grew up as fans, and so when they get the chance to write their favorite character, they think, "Hell, I can write a better Two-Face story than (insert older writer here).  In fact, mine will be the definitive Two-Face story!"  This leads not only to retread Harvey Dent tales, but yet more revisions in the character's origin.  A lot of villains have perfectly acceptable origins, yet writers feel the need to "fill in the blanks," so to speak.  This leads to more and more "Year One" stories, which stifle forward progress for characters in the interest of revisiting that character's "golden age," whenever that may have occurred.


Is that the only lure of Rogues' Galleries?  I don't know.  As a reader, I wish more writers came up with new villains for the heroes to fight.  I know, it's very difficult to do, and that's why it's easy to drop the Joker in a story instead of trying to come up with a unique psychopath.  I mentioned Cornelius Stirk above.  The two-parter that introduced him, Detective Comics #592-93, are freaky comics, as Stirk uses his meta-abilities to appear as anyone he wants to a witness.  He is addicted to the hormones that flood the body when a person is terrified, so he scares his victims to death and then eats their hearts.  It's a horrifying story, but a lot of people simply focused on the fact that Stirk should be the new Scarecrow - they were limited by seeing the villains of Batman as fitting into a Rogues' Gallery.  Jonathan Crane, of course, has returned again and again, but Stirk is no longer around.  Yet in those two issues, his use of fear was far more frightening than almost anything the Scarecrow has come up with (of course, there have been many excellent stories with Crane, but a lot are kind of dumb, too).  Recently, Paul Dini has come up with a few interesting villains, including a new Ventriloquist and the villain from his first story, Façade, but he too has fallen back into using the old-school villains too often, and his run has suffered a bit because of it.


Personally, I don't have much interest in Rogues' Galleries.  One reason why I have become bored with many long-running series is because of the over-reliance on previously-used villains.  It's certainly "cool" when the villain behind the whole Annihilation thing is revealed to be Ultron, but it's one of those things that is only cool if you are well-versed in the character's history.  When I see Magneto or Lex Luthor or Dr. Doom, I get a bit bored.  The superhero books I like right now - The Order, Iron Fist, Daredevil, Captain America, Moon Knight, Uncanny X-Men, Blue Beetle, Batman, Catwoman, Noble Causes, Dynamo 5, Invincible - either haven't been around long enough to have established Rogues' Galleries, have Rogues' Galleries that are so new they haven't become stale yet, or the writers are trying to use established villains in new ways.  One reason I have no interest in "Secret Invasion" is because Skrulls are just so freakin' boring.  I would love to see a superhero comic book in which the writer uses none - that's right, none - of the villains that have come before.  And I would love to see this writer write the book for five or six years.  That would be pretty cool.

Rogues' Galleries are part of the reason superhero comics remain a somewhat juvenile genre.  Can't we just move past them?  What say you all?

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