I don’t even really need an intro here. You all knew this was coming. I’ve been grumbling about it and referencing it all month and the time has finally come for me to take on DC’s Villains Month.
Now, I apologize for all the kvetching leading up to this one. In a month of posts that were meant to be a positive celebration, I spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about the work of some other guys. But you’ve got to understand that:
this came directly on the heels of DC’s previous cascade failure of idiocy that I even wrote a bonus article about. That snafu also included Dan Didio openly proclaiming that heroes should never be happy, something so offensive to me that my slapping hand is still vibrating in anticipation of going to work.
It was the month of my freaking birthday! There’s nothing logical or reasonable about it, but it was as if DC personally got me a big box of manure with a spoon in it for my birthday. Oh, and they wrapped in Harley Quinn (one of my favorite supporting characters) paper too—paper they just finished wiping themselves with in point 1 up there.
So please forgive me assigning this relatively meaningless (DC’s New 52 basically has no continuity and their gimmick months are mostly throwaway stories) stunt on DC’s part the same level of affront as things that did have some effect on my reading like Marvel’s Decimation or Avengers Academy which took/are taking characters I enjoy off the table more or less forever, or One More Day which was… One More Day. Being mad at this is like being mad at Nercrosha. The fact that most of you have no idea what that is even if you read X-men makes my point on that pretty well.
What this is, however, is a teaching moment. As political catchphrases from the Obama administration go, ‘teaching moment’ is probably the best. I’m not too big on ‘abundance of caution’ and ‘let me be clear’ is too generic, so it wins by default, really. Um… I just kind of drifted off there.
So yeah, we can look at what bothered me so much about Villains Month, analyze it, and use it as part of a discussion on how to make good comic villains instead of that thing DC did this month, which is kind of the opposite of that.
Let us begin thusly:
What was so wrong with Villain’s Month that it required all this attention?
In a word: death.
And this time I’m not talking about my general disdain for killing of major characters. In fact, I’m pretty sure no one of any importance whatsoever died during the stunt. Usually, I’m cool with killing off bit players and faceless bystanders as is necessary. The problem is twofold:
First, nearly every single featured ‘villain’ killed people. Not only did they kill people, but they killed lots of people. The issue with this is not that there was killed, but rather who. If it’s the Joker or Black Adam, or some other psycho for whom racking up insane body counts is part of their identity as a villain, I say go for it. I’m not a fan of it, but hey, boats, floating—whatever. And hell, I’m not going to complain if the Penguin or Two-face caps a couple of dudes. They’re gangsters, it’s what they do.
Who was included in this slaughterfest? Oh, well Harley Quinn (because it’s not a party unless you’ve ruined something about Harley) and The Creeper. In case you’re unfamiliar with the Creeper—he was a hero until the New 52. A comedic hero. Now he’s a villain and kills bunch of dudes.
I’m going to get into why you can’t have all of your bad guys rack up town-sized body counts and why you should have some of them not kill at all in a bit, but let me get to the second problem.
Second: Almost all of them killed kids. There’s going to be some Tyke-death in the next Shameful Moments post, and it’s still going to outstrip this one (I’m pretty sure none of these kids were eaten by people) and I’ll save most of my rant on that for then, but for new, here’s the short version:
Killing a child is one of those things that changes how a character is seen. It is a Major Sin in the eyes of most people, like rape and torture. You don’t come back from that. That doesn’t get redeemed. You don’t get to be ‘fun’ after that in the same continuity. Killing a child is a special evil that you reserve for special monsters.
So of course DC had so many child characters killed off last month that there was a thread documenting it on CBR. And which character did they have get the biggest on-screen body count of kids? You guess it: Harley-goddamn-Quinn. They had her put bombs in thousands of toys and blow up hundreds if not thousands of little kids.
Contrary to popular belief, my issue with this kind of stuff is not just that it’s dark. I have no problem with my darker counterparts in the Superhero webserial game Worm or The Last Skull. They’re not really my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad; they’re both quite good and I’ll cheerfully endorse them. Hell, killing a ton of people is what Joker does and he’s one of my favorite villains.
No, to explain the specific failure of Villans Month, I need to talk a little bit about a character who would have been on my favorite villans list if it were a Top 15…maybe a Top 10: Carnage.
Haling from the Marvel Universe, Carnage, like Venom, his progenitor, is the combination of an alien symbiote and a human host. In this case, the human half of the Carnage gestalt is a man named Cletus Cassidy who was a serial killer even before getting an alien murder suit.
Carnage was created in (of course) the 90’s because Venom was such a popular villain that they decided to make him a 90’s anti-hero and giving him his own book, Venom: Lethal Protector, leaving a symbiote-shaped void in Spidey’s rogues gallery. It really says a lot about the era that one of Spider-man’s greatest, scariest villains was turned into an anti-hero by making him more of a violent sociopath. He was also created with an eye toward being a new type of villain for Spider-man to face, bringing with him a new moral quandry for Peter Parker, namely the idea that unlike with Venom, the two parts of Carnage were so deeply bonded that un-bonding them could well kill Cassidy.
And Carnage really was bad enough to make you consider killing him. This isn’t the ‘they might do some crime again and people might get hurt’ bullshit people usually use to justify having Superheroes commit murder against villains. No, murder is what Carnage does. He has no purpose, no agenda, and no gimmick, not even a particular antipathy toward Peter in general. He just wants to kill people in a spectacular fashion for the rush. Carnage is pure, visceral evil.
In his defining appearance, Maximum Carnage, he even influences other villains to go on a spree of violence, requiring Spider-man and a group of (mostly) D-listers to set out to stop them with the very real an weighty possibility that they may have to do so permanently. It’s a great story and the high body count actually serves a purpose in putting the pressure on the heroes to break their morality. And in great comic book fashion, they find a third option to fix things rather than stoop to the villains’ level.
The thing is, Carnage is that ‘special monster’ I talked about earlier. He’s unique in his brutality and in his nature as a villain who kills just to kill. This makes him different from his fellow Spider-rogues who are thieves, mad scientists and hired muscle who don’t go out of their way to kill people and instead just don’t care that much about collateral damage.
And that’s what’s wrong with Villains Month and the poor creative attitude it fosters. IF you read the ‘Kill Count’ thread I linked above, you’ll see that a lot of the defenders of the stories arguing that ‘killing people is just what villains do’ or that bosy count is a measure of villainy. I’m going to ignore the truly disgusting argument that since the writers ‘aren’t allowed’ to kill women (because of the Women in Refrigerators trope which was ironically coined by Gail Simone who wrote one of the offending stories for the gimmick: The Ventriloquist), they’re now killing children for the shock value because it saddens me that that’s probably the case for a lot of these guys.
In case this isn’t obvious, because I have no idea if any given reader has read previous posts where I talk about this, let me break it down: THAT IS NOT ALL THAT VILLAINS DO. Even DC was forced to admit that when they green-lighted one of the few good Villains Month titles, Flash: The Rogues, where the titular characters steal pretty much everything they can get their hands on, but kill zero people.
Killing is something that some villains can do. It isn’t some requirement for villainy. And that brings us (finally) to the point of this here post.
What Makes a Comic Book Villain?
To put it really simply, they have to be interesting antagonists for comic book heroes. Given that most comics protagonists fight crime/protect the public and have superpowers (and yes, this includes ninja training, and/or being really, really rich), most comic book villains are usually some sort of criminal/present a threat to the public and have superpowers of their own (including training and richness). As you can imagine, there is a lot of range within these two requirements.
And just as you can have crooks that are barely ‘super’ at all (For example, perennial Batman villains Riddler and Penguin have no powers, but still rank above the norm via a unique criminal mind and what is usually an impressive organization and exceptional (but not super) tech respectively), you can also have villains who don’t rate very high on the ‘evil’ scale either.
Let’s take the one group of bad guys DC decided to leave unsullied in their event: the Flash Rogues. In general, the Rogues are pretty okay guys even if they do love stealin’. They even have a gentleman’s agreement with Flash that they don’t kill or purposefully do grievous harm to bystanders in exchange for Flash not going all out on them with his physics-bending powers. Sure, some of them are assholes with at least the previous incarnation of trickster being massively homophobic for instance, but as a general rule, they’re a breed of villain I haven’t talked about, the ‘loveable rogue’. The audience is supposed to like them (except maybe Trickster, I’m not sure if he’s still an asshole in the New 52) even if they do bad things. Think Bulk and Skull from Power Rangers.
The existence of this scale is important because, as I hit upon repeatedly in many of these blog posts: These are people we’re talking about, not just cardboard cutouts. People do bad things, but they do them for reasons and they usually don’t try to get a huge body count while doing it no matter what. Even the absolute most brutal mob bosses don’t even kill indiscriminately for the lols.
In fact, I would wager that not even more but the vast majority of criminals not only don’t kill innocent people but wouldn’t try unless they were desperate. There was a recent tragedy where little boy was shot during a gang shooting. Sadly, because we here in America live in a society where guns largely run wild and free, this isn’t an isolated incident—there was a baby killed the same way this year, but the thing you have to remember is that the gang members weren’t aiming at these kids. It was a tragic moment of someone being caught in the crossfire between two warring factions.
My point being that if you’re writing supercriminals who are actual criminals, you don’t need to have them killing people. In fact, if their goal is to steal something and get wealth especially, killing people in the process is phenomenally stupid. Why? Because the cops don’t go all hands on deck with weapons drawn for a robbery and neither do the heroes. If you can not get caught for a couple of weeks and don’t get a case of the stupids, then someone else will take their attention soon enough and you can get away clean.
If on the other hand, you steal those jewels by gassing everyone in the store and slitting their throats, guess what? Their attention is going to be on you. The hero is going to dog you for as long as it takes, the cops will shoot you if they see your pointy little head and no one else is going to do anything worse than what you did to reduce the heat on your dumb ass. A serious criminal who hopes to gain anything from their crimes is not only not going to kill without very good reason, because they, you know, actually have aspirations of not being in a cell or in a box when this is all over.
Yes, you can have psycho killers like Carnage, but they’re just one type of villain. Without those other guys who arne’t psycho killers, there’s nothing special about Carnage. In fact, once former Scorpion, Mac Gargan got the Venom symbiote and started freaking eating people, there really was nothing new Carnage could show us. He was redundant and his further appearances had zero impact. He wasn’t even unique in being a symbiote villain at that point. He was just another guy that kills folks for no reason.
The majority of villains month’s villains have lost that spark of originality they once had. Not only do they all kill for little or no good reason, but they also all seem to have a backstory that involved abuse of some sort. So if you were an abused kid, DC thinks you’re going to grow up to murder people. Yay!
Now some people will point out that villains should usually pose a threat to the heroes and as such, we need to see that they’re capable of killing in order to validate that threat. Those people are half right. Yes, most villains should pose a threat. I say most because I do enjoy villains who simply hamper and annoy, however, I don’t think we need to see a villain kill in order for them to be a threat.
First of all, I am going to say something here that I don’t want anyone repeating and saying I said it, okay? Got it? Here it goes: you are not idiots. Most readers are not idiots.
Let is try a thought experiment. For the sake of illustration, let’s say I’m standing right behind you with a circular saw and a crazed look on my face. Do you actually need me to saw someone up in front of you to prove to you that I’m a threat, or is the through of a whirling disc of serrated metal just inches from the back of your neck, the wind of their motion tickling the little hairs there and sending a shiver down your spine enough convincing?
If you answered option B, then congratulations, you are a human being capable of extrapolating information and making a threat calculation without actually having to watch every dangerous thing murder people. You probably never had to bludgeon a hobo to death to learn that you don’t like killing people either.
So why the hell do writer think we can’t imagine that someone like the Joker, who probably has an existing body count in the tens of thousands already including the one Robin who should die and stay dead, is a threat without seeing him kill some folks in every appearance? Yes, he’s a threat! A deaf and dumb chimp can tell he’s a threat! We know these guys are threats! Why, then do we need to see, say, the Ventriloquist killing some kids? Because… BECAUSE. It’s like they get off on writing and drawing death and just need the barest excuse to get their rocks off.
The second thing is that death is not the only kind of threat.
Going back to Venom (because why not, he used to be awesome), you know why he was scary? Because he knew who Peter Parker was and didn’t trigger his spider-sense. Venom was capable of kicking Spidey’s ass, but what he really wanted was to hurt him, and break his mind. He would drop little clues about hurting his loved ones and then just let ol’ Pete go crazy, or he would ambush him, knock him around a bit, then leave. He would frame Peter for crimes and generally make his life hell.
Try and imagine someone who you can’t detect being able to show up and beat the crap out of you any time, could do the same to everyone you care about for good measure, and who has made it their purpose in life the break your spirit. Maybe death is scarier, but holy shit.
There are more things than person’s beating heart that can be taken from them. You can ruin them financially, you can take their family, and (provided Dan Didio or Joe Quesada haven’t gotten to it first), the can ruin your love life.
The idea that death is the only threat that can be made against the heroes betrays a serious failure in creativity on the part of the editors (the guys really writing the storied at DC at this point).
And that, I think is the deepest shame that comes out of all this. Eventually, Harley, The Creeper and Lobo… they’ll all be fixed. Even though the gimmick covers and false scarcity DC created was financially successful, this too shall pass. But the real damage is on that thread I linked. There are people, often with creative aspirations that see this lazy-ass bullshit and believe that this is how it’s done because real, professional comic writers are (being made by editors to…) doing it.
The comic writers of the next generation are being taught to be stupid and lazy. They’re being taught to make the same damn villain over and over with the same problematic backstory and the same muder-boner. What’s wrong with Villains Month isn’t that the comics in it were bad, it was that it is making future comics, movies, novels and yes, webserials bad.
Yeah, I could use an editor and all that, and I’m not about to sit here any say I’m the greatest writer in the world—or even in the top 50%. But damn it, I put some thought into things. Is it really too much to ask that the guys working in the industry leading publishing houses do that too? Are comic readers not worth it?
And guess what, campers? Lighter Days, Darker Nights (Rune Breaker, #2) is now on sale at Amazon and Createspace. I haven’t gotten the cupon code set up, but it will be 25% off at Createspace like the one for A Girl and Her Monster.
Questions, comments, verbal abuse? Please post them below in the comments, or the forum.
You can check in on what Vaal’s working on or just what’s on his mind by following @ParadoxOmni on Twitter, checking out his new (incomplete) Facebook Page or using the hashtags #TheDescendants or #RuneBreaker. Sign up to learn about new book releases by Vaal by clicking here.
Vaal now has many of his books available in multiple platforms in his bookstore.
Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.
You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
Descendants Serial is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.