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Friday, October 24, 2008


Right away let me lay down my prejudices regarding villains.

In the annals of popular literature (which automatically disincludes anything in the realm of the canonical class), there are only Three Great Villains.

Rider Haggard's SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED (1887)

Bram Stoker's DRACULA (1897)

Sax Rohmer's FU MANCHU (1912)

Other prominent villains-- Captain Nemo, the Wicked Witch, Joker, Doc Doom, Darth Vader-- are at best "near greats," and most of the not-so-prominent may be "good," "interesting," and so on down the line. Only the Big Three-- all, not coincidentally, born from the medium of prose-- possess the quality Henry James called "density of specification." James was applying this concept to the density of realistic detail in a work, but though that verisimilitudinous idea does somewhat apply to these prose-villains-- or as much as it can, given the parameters of popular fiction-- I'm really thinking of the density of mythopoetic associations one finds in each of the Big Three; a density that puts all other villains to shame.

Of course, even if these villains were not fictional, few if any of them would be capable of shame. To borrow flagrantly from the psychological model of Big Sigmund Freud, shame belongs to the "ego," experienced thanks to the never-ending battle of the shameless "id" and the shame-inducing "superego." There should be no need to point out which of the latter two most resembles the archetypal comics-villain and which the archetypal hero, but who's the ego? One might suppose that it's the reader of the hero/villain struggle, who both enjoys the villain attempting all sort of transgressive desires (meant here more in the sense of Bataille than of Freud) and the hero's prosocial efforts to batter the villain into submission.

But what happens when the heroes are all gone and the villains, those icons of the id, are on the loose? That's a question suggested by the setup of the Mark Millar/J.G. Jones limited series WANTED-- but do Millar and Jones really let the dogs out? Attend.

Mark Millar is not unique in attempting to break down his readers' tender egos with a villain-centric world. Of the Big Three cited above, Rohmer's Fu Manchu, by promoting his favored fiend within an ongoing series of books, did the most to put readers in the Oriental slippers of an undefeatable evil. Stoker wisely (given his talents) killed his demon off in one book, while Haggard, having killed off his demoness in the first book, had to strain to launch one okay sequel and two mediocre prequels. So Rohmer is certainly one of the first creators who managed to make a villain into the star of the show.

Comic books also experimented off and on with villain-centric features, but few within the superhero idiom enjoyed much success (horror characters did somewhat better). I believe the first feature to be devoted to a large team of supervillains continually striving against their heroic enemies was 1976's SECRET SOCIETY OF SUPER VILLAINS, where the villain known as Gorilla Grodd (a "pretty good" malefactor, if you're curious) helped organize a bunch of standard DC evildoers into a force for evil. Though SSOSV was a pretty crappy feature, it had one inspired line, where Grodd tries to give his criminal compeers a reason for forming an alliance, saying that they should do for the same reason they do anything: "enlightened self-interest!" Even given the ritual nature of the hero-villain dance in superhero comics, it's practically mandatory that the villain should have an id-oriented reason for trying to foment chaos, or his whole rationale-- and that of the id/superego dance-- collapses.

However, it's a rationale that I found wanting in, uh, WANTED. One might think that in a world where the supervillains have successfully killed off all of the superheroes (and even wiped out humanity's memory of the event), one might see the supervillain in All His Glory: might see all sorts of weird, perverted, diabolical id-impulses on display. But I see more "id-iosyncracies" in an average issue of BATMAN than in this facile antiheroic tripe.

To borrow Freud's horse-and-rider imagery regarding the id and superego, the hero in mainstream comics is the rider, who guides the narrative to closure, but the villain is the horse that provides the plot's motive force. For the villain to do so, the creator must give the villain's nature center stage for some time, and this often has the effect of making the villain a little more humanly relateable than the superegoic hero, and maybe even more individualistic. The Joker and the Riddler may overlap in terms of narrative functions (both supercrooks leave behind clues that possess a comical tonality), but for Batman to defeat them he must figure out the different ways they think and act, anticipate what they will do, and determine how to use their strengths against them.

There should be no reason that, without the presence of the heroes, the villains should not still be as perverse and transgressive as they are in books with heroes. And yet the Millar/Jones work gives us nothing but pale imitations of the id-icons brought forth by the sublimely-trashy mainstream. Here's a Red Skull ripoff, here's a Clayface copy (appropriate!), and here's a pastiche of the Puppet Master (GREEN LANTERN version). Even in triumph, Millar's villains have all the individuality of ducks in a shooting-gallery.

Which I suppose is the whole point. Millar's antiheroic hero Wesley (supervillain name: The Killer) begins as a tedious office drone who is awakened to his murderous abilities by other villains and who proceeds to use his killing talents on as many of society's sheep as he finds satisfying. Later, it is other villains who become the targets in Wesley's rogue-shooting gallery, but neither their personalities nor their powers are any challenge to him.

Within the overall action-genre (which naturally subsumes the superheroic one), there's always a good deal of kinetic appeal in mass slayings of both the innocent and the guilty, with the villain usually supplying the former while the hero provides the latter. Within the subset of action-works deemed "antiheroic," it probably doesn't matter that the protagonist becomes the Lord High Executioner to just about everyone, as antiheroic works are inherently more id-aggressive, with more of a tendency to expunge other realities in favor of the protagonist's id-centered existence. It does matter a little, though, that the protagonist is just about as dull as a mass murderer as he is as an office drone. I don't *think* this was the author's intent, but IMO even a minor jerkoff antihero like DC's Lobo is more "killah" than the Killer.

From the bland narrative of WANTED it would seem that heroes and villains need each other, if only to challenge one another's weaknesses and provide a sense of conflict. Millar's Killer has no weaknesses, hence no conflict. And don't get me started on the faux daddy issues, which Millar totally bollixes.

In conclusion, I don't imagine that my opinion on Millar's meditations on matters villainous will disturb the author much, especially now that the miniseries spawned a big-budget, certainly-profitable film of the same name. But I will say the one thing no author likes to hear:

"The film was better."

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