I am excited to discuss a topic that has been begging me to write about it since the release of DC Comic’s most recent event, Year of the Villain. The new focus on all our favorite bad guys helped me notice a recent fad within the pop culture community and I decided to explore the subject in greater detail since 2019 is quickly coming to an end. And i’m going to do it with you.
Shall we begin?
Superheroes and their stories have motivated writers/artists all over the world for over 80 years now. Something about a super human with healthy morals and amazing skill sets had most of us wishing we could be them at least once in our lives. Yet, A “more-love-than-hate” relationship with the hero’s villainous counterparts caught my attention.
I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve heard “Thanos was right” since Infinity War‘s debut.
At first I just figured it was the latest trend in the world of comic books and movies. Production companies have continuously delivered exceptional performances by extraordinary actors for over a decade, after all.
However, the more I thought about it the more I kept coming around to a silly little idea. Maybe audience’s fall in love with modern day villains more so now because they’ve begun relating to them in a completely different way. So much so that villains have managed to develop their own fan bases outside of the respective hero’s story arc.
Just last week I was told the Joker and Harley are a great unit but could do without Batman and the rest of the Bat family. Confused?
I’m telling you, it’s a thing.
Cartoon Villain Fuels My Thought Process.
Let me briefly point to a beloved DreamWorks movie for the perfect example that can lead me into my thought; Megamind!
For those who have not seen this movie (*spoilers*) it’s basic plot is of a young, blue baby named Megamind whose planet is due for destruction shortly after his birth. Megamind’s parents prepare for the worst and send him on a route to earth hoping to ensure his survival (yes, like Superman). During the course though, he discovers he is not the only outsider escaping planetary demise.
Hero Meets Villain, Again.
Naturally, the two children eventually cross paths due to their shared origins and neighboring destinations. Only, Megamind couldn’t seem to fit into society like his super counterpart (later known as Metroman). All he possessed was an impeccable intellect inside his big, blue head. While the seemingly perfect boy had charm, special powers, and social influence.
Megamind becomes discouraged by rejection and reaches the realization that he wasn’t born to be a super hero after all. After accepting his “bad at being good, good at being bad” philosophy he decides super villainy was his true calling. Metroman’s exact opposite to be precise.
Years later, when his “goody-two-shoe” rival seemingly dies, Megamind is faced with an opportunity at redemption. Ultimately this turns him from anti-hero to the real hero in the eyes of Metro City. In the process revealing what he has secretly wanted all along: acceptance.
But Back To My Villainous Point
Fact of the matter is, like all our favorite good guys, the bad guys also have an origin story to tell. When exploring those origins we often find pain, anger, and/or fear were huge contributing factors to the shaping of these criminals and their circumstances.
I mean, not everyone can channel their anger to learn a new martial art every time life hands you a butt kickin’, like Batman. 🤷
Alan Moore’s Joker says “All it takes is one bad day” and we all have bad days, right?
History Had Something To Do With the Rise Of Villains
Simple Beginnings for Every Superhero
Every hero’s story needs a villain (or 2) that dedicate themselves to the destruction of the hero’s beloved city, family, or life. Up until the 90’s we were given characters that beautifully balanced protagonists with evil
plots and epic bad guy monologues (hats off to Billy Batson for that one). But we were given very little material beyond that to explore.
Audience’s didn’t care to pay much attention to villains in comics/movies at this point because most followed a generic stereotype. Villains didn’t have extensive back stories or complicated ultimatums. They only wanted one thing: Chaos.
Of course, to be fair DC and it’s then rival, Timely Comics, were experimenting heavily with different concepts for villains during the golden age. Inspiration came from all over but mainly from Hollywood cinema, news, and the media.
War Inspires Art in the Comic Book Industry
In 1938 Germany attacked Poland pushing France and Britain to declare war on Germany. This would result in World War II. During this, the media would mainly cover events that correlated to the war. It wasn’t hard for creators in both cinema and comic books to turn to these places and people for creative inspiration. From this there was one common type of villain that seemed to dominate comic and box office sales: Super geniuses.
Yes, there were other motivators at the time that created memorable stories, such as movie monsters. But characters like vampires, large lizards, and zombies were found just as expendable as the stories they were featured in. (They should have waited till the modern age, apparently)
Now, although these concepts were successful they became stale over time, boring. The creative minds behind all our favorite stories would need to work a little harder to keep up with the interests of it’s audience.
Milestone Comic Book Characters
As I had stated before, Marvel still hadn’t had it’s big break during the superhero era. Still known as Timely Comics, they would mostly focus their content on battles against the Nazi or Japanese. Most antagonists from this time would be portrayed once or a handful of times given to their lack of content. Audience’s were already familiar with this type of villain and that caused Timely Comics to briefly fall behind their rival in terms of creativity.
DC gave us Dr. Death, who would soon be overshadowed by the more popular Dr. Hugo Strange. Strange, working out of the infamous Arkham Asylum, captured the curiosities of his fans by pairing his darkest fantasies and his deepest intellect. He used this to birth a larger scale of characters with much more intricate stories, such as Azrael.
We were also given The Ultra-Humanite whom would fall short to the more anticipated Lex Luthor. What made Luthor stand out from the standard “evil genius” stereotype was his compelling way of interacting with people. Not only is he the smartest man in all of Metropolis but he also possesses a social charm that easily coerces people to blindly follow his agendas. Luthor’s attributes allowed him to reach higher status as a politician which posed an entirely new kind of threat.
A Play On Politics
These concepts allowed an entirely different narrative to surface. Superman was no longer facing a random public enemy but a man with powerful ties to his city. Same with Hugo Strange who you later discover works with Gotham’s secret society, The Court of Owls. This presents Batman with elite challenges even Bruce Wayne can’t buy his way through.
The new material was refreshing to comic book fans because villains no longer felt like “fillers” to the stories people were reading. The bad guys were starting to receive their own lives and stories outside of the occasional run in with a superhero somewhere.
Rollin’ into the Silver Age
With the 1940’s and WWII coming to an end companies found that keeping up with the public’s demand for interesting topics would prove slightly challenging. The increase of other genres in cinema was pulling interest away from the superhero narrative. This caused different fates for both popular distributors at the time. In my opinion, marking the turning point for comic books and their heroes and villains.
Timely comics had decided it was time to end their run of superhero stories and go on to cancel their books and the genre in late 1950. The following year Martin Goodman, founder of timely, decided to form his own distribution company. Thus Atlas magazine was born. Here, he decided to follow up on the audience’s interest in western, sci-fi, horror, and humor. Thank you, Mr. Goodman, for maintaining the audience’s demand for interesting material at bay. Meanwhile DC would be preparing to change the game for both Super heroes and super villains alike.
Silver Linings for the Industry
The silver age was a good time for DC comics commercially. The great success they had in reintroducing the superhero genre came with notable titles such as Action Comics, Showcase presents, and Justice league of America to name a few. Characters such as The Flash, Green Lantern, and Batman were reeling people’s interests back into the world of heroes and their villains. During this time they would also bring attention to side characters, like Jimmy Olsen and Robin. This technique was used to broaden plots and create more material to use in their universes. Though, this tactic required them to take a more lighthearted approach. That would inevitably lead them to neglect older audience’s appeal. Unfortunately for them this would end their time in the leading spot quickly. People wanted a sense of reality and there was a company ready to provide that.
Atlas followed closely behind DC’s accomplishments until the early 1960’s. It was then that a simple name switch and a soon-to-be legend would change the course of their success.
Heroes Turn the Tables
Atlas Magazine officially dons the name Marvel Comics in 1961 and a man by the name of Stan Lee would revolutionize the comic book industry. By introducing crowd favorites such as Spider Man, Iron Man, and The Fantastic four, Stan paved the way for Marvel’s extensive list of successes.
What made Marvel explosive within the comic community was their willingness to bring attention to real life problems and stakes. Something older audiences could appreciate and relate to. At this point in comics, DC was known for the perfectly groomed superhero archetype aimed at younger audiences. Marvel, on the other hand, was shooting for a “super heroes in the real world” approach. Villains became creepier, heroes became stranger, and stressors were more closely correlated to realistic aspects of life. Things such as drugs, politics, and even death.
(Side note: I will forever praise Spider Man for being one of the first titles to touch on mental health. I can’t stress how important that was for struggling communities, such as mine.)
Then the CCA Gets Involved
The CCA, or Comic Code Authority, was quick to get involved when one particular mini series pushed the limits of approval. Spider Man #96-98 (The narcotics story) was a concern for them due to the sensitive nature of it’s plot. Inevitably, the CCA folk became determined to prevent the publishing and distribution of Lee’s book.
Lee published the story without approval and the CCA had no choice but to reconsider in light of the story’s positive reception. Marvel would soon lead the comic book industry into The Bronze Age with a newly acquired ability to explore darker topics and people. The rivalry was far from over though. DC had already prepared rebuttal with their own set of stories.
Real World Villains
In 1971’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85-86 Oliver learns that his sidekick Speedy also suffers from narcotic addiction.
Villainous characters were taking back burner while authors focused on the “villains” of the real world.
In 1973, The Amazing Spider Man #121-122 officially marked the milestone for comic’s darker tone through the death of Peter’s love interest, Gwen Stacy. Here, the Bronze Age formulated by trends and their events, becomes the peak of DC and Marvel’s rivalry. The end product being some of the highest ranked stories of all time (X-Men, Crisis On Infinite Earths, Watchmen, etc). These events help set the red carpet for bad guys to have their turn in the spotlight today. My friends, this is where the door opens to the modern age of comics we know and love. With a central focus on the dark side of course.
So how does the race of relevance between two major distributors correlate to the sudden growth in admiration for bad guys today? I’ll tell you.
The Bronze Age Shapes Our Modern Age.
Thanks to a commercial rivalry and Stan’s willingness to push boundaries, comics and their writers are able bring one element of story telling to life. An element which allows readers to dig deeper into the minds of these fictional people and sympathize with their emotions and circumstances.
That element is Realism.
Let’s Be Real
Realism was the reason Marvel’s comic stories captivated a broad spectrum of communities. With DC following suit, it wasn’t long before our intention as consumers became clear. We wanted the truth. Cold, raw truth. At the expense of exposure to these sensitive subjects. Though some would prefer to call it awareness.
We as humans are naturally drawn to the complex and mysterious. A sense of curiosity when met with danger or drama. Take Rorschach from Watchmen, for example. He is clearly a cold-hearted criminal with no sense of repentance. Yet he is among the more popular characters in the franchise. After the release of Watchmen, Ozymandias (the story’s main bad) and Rorschach merch/titles were the items bringing in most of the royalties. Right alongside the series itself. Fast forward to now and the Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock series only help inflate
(Side note: If you haven’t read Doomsday Clock I excitedly recommend it to you. It will blow your mind beautifully.)
A New Era for Villains
The modern age has made it easy to toy with different perspectives to create new narratives with even wilder possibilities. In Tom King’s, Heroes in Crisis the barrier between ethical and evil is shattered when its conclusion reveals Wally West (aka Kid Flash) as the person responsible for a heinous, armed massacre. Hitting right at home to events we’ve experienced as of recently.
Creators will often use material that feels reminiscent to situations we’ve experienced in our world by applying them to the events occurring in their stories. Would you ever expect your favorite hero to be capable of something so terrifying?
In stories like CW’s Arrow and The Flash this concept is put to perfect example through the mistakes made by both men. While Barry tries pretty hard to maintain the idealistic moral scale a hero should follow, Oliver understands that sometimes you need to do bad things for the greater good. “That sounds like a villain’s mentality” you could say but let me show you a different perspective. That sounds like a human being’s mentality.
If I asked you “Would you kill someone?”, I’d hope your first instinct would be to say “no”. Now, what if I asked you “Would you kill someone threatening to hurt your family/wife/children?”. This time you might stop and contemplate it. Wouldn’t it be a hard decision? You would most likely be facing similar emotions as Barry and Oliver when faced with difficult choices.
“Sacrifice, greater good, all that jazz… oldest rule in hunting, Bobby. You can’t save everyone.” – Rufus Turner (Supernatural Season 11, Episode 13).
Year of the Villain
On the flip side, several villains also find themselves juggling their bad tendencies with the need to do the right thing. Harley Quinn, for example, is the Joker’s long time love interest. Her creation had no other purpose but to serve as his sidekick in Batman: The Animated Series. But her likeness and fan base rapidly grew and writers decided to give her a voice of her own. In several installations where Harley is featured we see her redeem herself through several acts of good like saving animals, helping homeless, and even working for Batman! Harley was a character whose sole motive was to assist in Joker’s evil plots but now rightfully has one of the largest followings in the DC fandom.
This. This is what makes comic books and their adaptations that much more captivating. This is what helped contribute to the rise of villains everywhere. The shift in Marvel and DC’s stories allowed us to switch between perceptions. Our expectations of what good and evil should look like were silenced and predictability was eliminated all together.
Thank you, Comic Book Creators.
Comic authors and the companies they work under continuously push limits to bring us intricately written stories. Stories designed to make us critically rethink the stigma of good and bad. Once that gray line is blurred we acquire a different perspective on already familiar events/people.
We start to ask questions like “Who is this person? what happened to them?”. Then proceed to look for answers to the mysteries behind every character and scenario. We empathize with the details that mold each and every one of them. Naturally, after investing that much effort into getting to know a person, place, or thing we tend to grow an attachment to the material. All the creators had to do was catch our attention with the right first impression.
— Don’t miss Todd Phillip’s “The Joker” which explores this topic intimately through a loosely based version of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”. Starring Joaquin Pheonix. In theaters October 4, 2019.