The Comics Classroom: The Nature of Super-Villainy, Part 1

One of the most interesting components to the super-hero genre is that there are often super-villains. Super-villians often exist as doppelgangers to their respective hero rivals, although this is not exactly a constant: Spider-Man has a goblin themed super-villian rival and Batman has one themed after a clown. Often, regardless of theme elements, the purpose of the antagonistic super-villian characters is to push the heroes in some manner such as money-centric crime, personal rivalry, or revenge.

Heroes in comics tend to come out on top when faced with their rivals, a fact which tends to rub some people in different ways. While many (heck, most) comic readers desire their heroes to prevail over any and all challenges, some desire verisimilitude in the conflicts they read. This idea of presenting ‘real’ villainy in comic contents has various results, some of which demand dialogue due to their controversial and divisive results.

What makes a good villain in a comic? For many, Joker proves to be a classic foil for Batman because of the kinds of criminal acts he commits; Joker pursues grandiose and emotionally taxing criminal displays. It isn’t enough to kill Batman, or for that matter to even just rob Gotham, but rather he needs to be remembered for it. Joker pursues actions which elicit the most tangible and emotional reactions, mainly through truly atrocious acts of barbarism and cruelty.


His crippling of Barbara Gordon, his (attempted) murder of Jason Todd, his brainwashing of Tim Drake, his maiming of Alfred, and his host of other evil actions have served as a means to push Batman, an emotionally detached superhero, into conflict with himself as much as with Bruce’s own inner demons. While this kind of cruel supervilliany is not for everyone, Joker has become a notorious and infamous member of Batman’s Rouge’s Gallery because of it.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Captain Cold serves as one of the most memorable of the Flash’s Rogues because, wherever possible, he strives not to wantonly kill the people of Central City. This could perhaps be to the lighthearted nature of the Flash himself, a character whose impetus started primarily to teach children science. While Batman served as a way to honor the character of Zorro and the Shadow, Flash’s comic origins means his villains needed to be more elementally challenging rather than emotionally challenging.

Captain Cold and his code of honor, a code which he has even pushed on those serving alongside him in criminal actions, has given his character a fan-base while, on some levels, denying him notoriety. The brutal and violent actions of the Joker are more liable to get tongues wagging than the time Cold spared Flash or innocent civilians.


But why is this, exactly? Why does a cameo appearance of a young Joker in the TV series Gotham prompt more interest than the entire run of Captain Cold’s character in the Flash TV series. To be sure, many, many people love Wentworth Millar’s current run as Cold. That much is beyond question. But, when examining the palpable reaction of casual viewers on a show like Gotham, it cannot be denied that Cameron Monaghan’s brief one-episode role as Joker in Gotham excited the viewing base.

Gotham’s viewer ratings, which had been on the decline for almost three weeks before the 16th episode where a young Joker premiered, shot up to viewing numbers the show had not seen since a month before and remained at higher numbers for almost four episodes after. Also, the episode following young Joker’s appearance, one which focused on the Red Hood gang (an element often pivotal to Joker’s history), would be the highest viewed episode for the rest of the season. In short, Episodes 16 and 15, strongly Joker-centric episodes, remained the highest viewed episodes for the rest of the Gotham season.

While the data and media contents discussed above are only one way to view the data, the main point is that certain villains create a more reactive audience, however this is not always positive. In May, a series of variant covers were created to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the famous Batman villain. The variant cover put out for the current Batgirl comic was immediately met with passionate critiques from various corners of internet and from comic professionals.

The main thrust of the argument against the comic variant was the dark tone, a tone which did not match that of the Batgirl series as presented by its writing staff. Indeed, compared to virtually all of the other variant covers, Batgirl’s cover was both the darkest and the bleakest by a good margin. Many assessed that, while it was true that Joker’s crippling of Barbara was one of his most famous actions, the variant cover’s presentation belittled the intentions of the present comic: it was intended as a lighter story with a more all-audiences feel, something most could certainly not say for The Killing Joke itself.

2137597-doom_and_valeria___fantastic_four_vol_3_54The feedback resulting from Joker’s Batgirl variant showed tangible evidence that villainous actions needed, where possible, to exist in line with the tone of the comic, as well as to also fit with the content’s subject matter. The famous Killing Joke comic, which served as a stand-alone graphic novel, did not match the on-going thematic content of Batgirl and was rejected because of it.

This is not something unique to Batman or DC Comics. In Fantastic Four Volume 3 #54, Dr. Doom was depicted as having successfully delivered Susan Richard’s baby daughter when Mr. Fantastic was unable to be present. Doom’s character at the time was handled by Carlos Pacheco, Rafael Marin, and Karl Kesel. Doom’s delivery of Susan’s baby granted him the right to name the baby girl. Doom gave her the name Valeria, a name which connected the baby to the only person on Earth Victor actually cared for.

Doom’s saving of Valeria was not entirely without precedent. Doom has assisted the Fantastic Four at this point in his existence many times, often saving the world with them (even if it was for purely selfish reasons). Doom’s history with Valeria up until 2002 had been somewhat odd since Valeria herself has only previously appeared in a comic back in 1971, this being a set of Incredible Hulk issues. Roy Thomas, one of the early writers who had handled much of Doom’s narrative evolution, clearly set up that it was Valeria who tethered Doom to humanity in the same way Cynthia von Doom’s soul did. Still, despite that while Cynthia’s could became the focus of a graphic novel in the 90s (Triumph and Torment by Roger Stern – it is amazing!), Valeria had remained absent from comics for almost thirty years by the time Valeria Richards was born.

Next week: Flash forward to 2002, as Mark Waid takes on the Fantastic Four — and Doom!



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