“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” - Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight
I find this quote extremely appropriate when I think about DC’s Forever Evil month about villains.
For the first time in the New 52, we see the Crime Syndicate from Earth 3, twisted versions of “our” Justice League. Instead of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Flash, there’s Ultraman, Owlman, Superwoman, Power Ring and Johnny Quick. I’ve enjoyed reading stories about these characters over the years, and can’t wait to see what Geoff Johns has in mind for them. (By the way, it did this long-time comics fan’s heart good to see the Outsider again!)
GOOD VILLAINS MAKE FOR GOOD STORIES
Let’s be real here – heroes need to be challenged or else we don’t care about their fight against evil. The reason some villains never really catch on is that they don’t have the resources to seriously take on the person their working against. I always yawned when the Prankster took on Superman. Puh-lease. However, I’m always intrigued when Bizarro, Cyborg Superman or another Kryptonian fights the Man of Steel. I remember when Batman actually attacked Darkseid in Justice League Unlimited on Cartoon Network and when he confronted the White Martians in Grant Morrison’s JLA. I remember gasping out loud and not being able to figure out how he could possible survive. THAT’S when you know you’re seeing a hero taking on a great villain!
I often cheer for a new or revamped villain to join a hero’s rogues gallery. A good example is The Wrath, created by Mike W. Barr and recently resurrected in Detective Comics as an “anti-Batman.” He’s a mirror image of Batman, but in a criminal way.
We all can list the throw-away baddies. My favorite was a Marvel villain called Banjo, who was called that because “he gets angry when you pick on him,” as the cover said. Ouch. I also remember Catman (who Gail Simone actually turned into a very interesting character later in his existence), Calendar Man and Demona.
“Moustache-twirling” villains used to be all the norm when we needed someone to cheer against. But more recently, comics have presented antagonists who instead have conflicting agendas (a la Star Trek). Sandman stands out to me in Marvel, and Paul Dini’s version of Mr. Freeze always resonates with me in DC.
The best New 52 example of this is Catwoman. She “swings both ways,” as it were, between doing the right or wrong thing. Some characters are more interesting if we are NOT sure what they’ll do next. I like that with some folks as well, but not all. “Sometimes a villain is just a villain,” to paraphrase a popular quote.
Speaking of Trek, there’s a danger to bringing back an “unbeatable” foe that Next Generation and Voyager fell victim to. While extremely popular and scary, the Borg became watered down versions of themselves the more often they appeared. We knew they would be overcome, so the danger level seriously diminished over time.
VILLAINS ARE OFTEN “HEROES” TO MANY FANS
Some fans take their respect for villains to a deeper level, though. Certain baddies have always had their own admirers, and sometimes their own comics. As a Batman fan, I was surprised years ago when the Joker was given his own title. The aforementioned Selina Kyle has her own monthly ongoing right now, just to mention another.
If you attend just about any comics convention, you’ll see people wearing the costumes of their favorite heroes. Others will be portraying their favorite villains. I continue to see Heath Ledger’s Joker, for instance.
When I ask people to explain their love of a villain to me, it often has to do with someone being able to act on their impulses without worrying about consequences. “The Joker does whatever he wants to whoever he wants,” one fan told me. I don’t necessarily want to go around behaving like the Joker, as last year’s massacre in a Colorado theater illustrates. But there are also other reasons, such as they can relate to a villain’s past.
BACK TO EARTH 3
What’s going to be particularly interesting to me is seeing just how Mr. Johns reveals the characters from Earth 3 to be. During the Crime Syndicate’s history, they have often been very different from other versions.
For instance, Owlman first had the ability to influence another person’s mind. Later on, he was lusting after Superwoman while snubbing Ultraman, something Batman would never do because he’s just too smart.
One of the very best Earth 3 stories was an animated DC direct-to-video movie called Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. In this tale, Owlman thinks the universe should be eradicated of all humanity, clearly the opposite of Batman’s perspective. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it! James Woods does an amazing job voicing Owlman.
What will Owlman be like this time? Very different from the past, I believe. We’re already been shown that Power Ring is opposite to Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern because he’s frightened by nearly everything. Jordan fights fear, on the other hand.
HOW IS THE “FOREVER EVIL” EVENT DOING SO FAR?
What I like about DC’s current event is that they’re often doing for the DCU’s baddies what Mr. Johns did for the Flash’s Rogues: Helping us understand what’s making these characters do what they do. (That’s not always the case, as in the Joker story where he trains an ape to be a villain. Really!)
Since only the first week has been released as I’m writing this, it’s hard to judge how all of the event will do. The stories about the Bat-villains are my favorites to date (Duhhh!), but the rest have been engaging as well. I expect to keep up with it all.
To pull back into the “real” world for a second, September is often a low-sales month for comics distributors since many readers are back in school. I like what DC has been doing in September since the New 52 arrived, and I hope they keep that up. I want my local stores to survive, after all!
Whether you love a bad guy/gal or love to hate that same character, great stories require great villains! You’ll have to excuse me while I go read my collected edition of Penguin: Pain and Prejudice written by Gregg Hurwitz again!