Funnybook Babylon

February 10, 2009

The Banality of Evil

Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

Titus Andronicus is a play so nasty that some scholars question whether the Bard could have lowered himself to write such venom. But it’s still pretty awesome, and Aaron is undoubtedly a Bad Dude. His hardcore BADNESS is exciting, almost refreshing when set amongst all of the more nuanced characters that populate Shakespeare’s other plays. But just like the kid who decides he would love to eat nothing but Fluffernutter, or the first man to edit together an All-Climax porno tape, the creative minds at DC have decided that it would be awesome if every antagonist in their comics were as evil and crazy as Aaron (or more likely the Joker).

We realize our boy Grant Morrison has been working within the palette of PURE EVIL lately in his superhero work, but the villains in Batman and Final Crisis are meant to be human avatars of Pure Evil, and are outliers — the garden-variety villains in the rest of the book recoil in disgust at the sort of things the Joker or Darkseid get up to. Elsewhere in the DC Universe, there is a definite “in for a penny, in for a pound” mentality: Are you a bank robber? Then you must be a murderer as well. Have you killed someone? Then you’d be willing to kill anyone, preferably thousands of them at once. And once you’ve committed mass murder, you might as well be down for rape camps, genocide, global extinction… it’s all “crime”! It’s all “evil”!

We can’t be the only people who find this incredibly boring, can we? It seems as if every villain in the DC Universe is receptive to, if not actively seeking, the destruction of humanity. So many villains have committed genocide — there’s even a villain named Genocide! — that DC has created the Sympathetic Mass Murderer. Sure, Black Adam personally murdered every human being in Bialya, but he’s not like Darkseid or Lady Styx or Starbreaker or Lobo or Brother Blood or Trigon or Alexander Luthor or Superboy Prime or Cheshire or Eclipso or Parallax or the Anti-Monitor or Vandal Savage or Brainiac or General Zod or Monarch or the Joker or Mongul or Hank Henshaw or Deathstroke! See, he was really angry when it happened, and it was revenge against the people the who killed his wife! Okay, so the people he wrongly blamed for her death, but still! Shades of grey!

Some characters just aren’t powerful enough to kill millions of people on their own, but DC doesn’t leave them out! In books like Infinite Crisis or Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds, these characters can be foot soldiers in genocide! Near the end of Infinite Crisis, once the new Secret Society had forgotten about their initial motivation for forming, and then their secret leader Alexander Luthor had forgotten his motivation, they decided to just break every criminal out of every jail in the world, at which point all the criminals teamed up to try to destroy society en masse. Luthor’s plan was, and I quote, to “give the Earth a C-Section and let Hell split out.” And apparently, every criminal and incarcerated felon in the world went “welp, might as well try to destroy the world’s urban centers! Let’s do this!”

Even minor villains without enough “juice” to mass murder are probably spree killers, rapists, drug addicts, child molesters, necrophiliacs, sex perverts, cannibals or some combination thereof. Given the things that DC characters like Black Hand, Mad Hatter, Matchmaker, Dr. Psycho and Jimmy Olsen put their dicks into, it’s no wonder that Alexander Luthor might assume “Hell” comes out of a womb.

So it’s no wonder that Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink is about the Tattooed Man seeing the face of God, affirming his commitment to family and community, helping the Justice League save humanity, getting a hero’s welcome, and then deciding to become a supercriminal again. He’s addicted to evil, you see. He probably gets a fat check for doing a college lecture tour, and tears it up, preferring to curbstomp an elderly lady to get his pocket money. He just can’t stop, he’s so evil! Just like everyone else.

It’s not even that these characters do evil, you need evil-doers for action stories. But look across the aisle at Marvel: nearly all of their iconic bad guys have motivations and goals beyond Inflicting Evil. There’s an occasional leftover Nazi like Red Skull or a complete psychopath like Bullseye, but most of the time there’s a level of nuance to enduring supervillains, the sort of thing that really only exists at DC for Lex Luthor and maybe Black Adam, the Good Genocider. And this relentless tide of unabashed, blatant evil that permeates nearly every book DC puts out right now isn’t scary, shocking or disturbing. It’s just boring.

Matt wrote an article dissecting the recent Faces of Evil: Prometheus one-shot last week, and Jon has one in the pipeline looking at Faces of Evil: Kobra. These are not fun books, but they’re great illustrations of the monotonous tone of purestrain evil shooting through the past several years of DC Comics. We’re not doing this to be dicks, we’re trying to show some tough love. Though were we DC characters, I would cap off this critical essay by shooting up, drowning a cat and trying to staple it to Ian Sattler’s face. Isn’t it great to not live in the DC Universe?

16 Comments »

  1. Well, look at how much success they had with their “pure chaos!” film adaptation of the joker. Villains that aren’t evil for the hell of it make people think too much. That makes them feel dumb.

    Plus, writing complex villains is, like, really hard and stuff.

    Comment by fodigg — February 10, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

  2. fodigg, it’s silly for you to say that people like Heath Ledger’s Joker because he didn’t make them think too hard. Leaving aside the high quality of the performance, the Joker is possibly the only villain for which the pure chaos approach works. He confronts Batman with an ethical puzzle, for one thing, in terms of constantly exposing Batman’s unwillingness to kill as ineffective in cases of pure evil: the Joker will ALWAYS kill again. Second, the Joker is a character that sees all of existence as fundamentally absurd, such that violence and chaos become funny. He’s had a kind of horrific (if undeniably comic book-y) philosophical viewpoint, as he did in the Dark Knight, ever since Alan Moore explored his psychology in the Killing Joke.

    Ultimately, though, the character suffers from the line-wide spread of pure-chaos villains, in that he is no longer a unique and horrifying embodiment of violence and disorder, but just another in a sea of motive-less villains.

    Comment by Moses — February 10, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

  3. Very good article, Chris. Nicely done.

    Comment by John Pontoon — February 10, 2009 @ 8:20 pm

  4. you bring up some very valid points. Honestly, I have no idea what’s going on with DC anymore. It reminds me of House’s friendship with Wilson, where he will continuously ask larger amounts of money to borrow that he doesn’t really need, just to see how far Wilson is willing to go. I feel like Wilson and DC is my House.

    Comment by pcastelar — February 10, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  5. Dead-on, Chris.

    This actually fits into a larger complaint that I have specifically about GM’s writing. I think that he has had some great, wonderful, challenging ideas. However, I don’t think every idea that he has is great, wonderful, or challenging. Someone needs to tell him “no” sometimes. Someone needs to tell a lot of other DC folks “no,” too. There shouldn’t be a “universe shattering event” every week…

    Comment by Amy — February 10, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  6. Amy, did we read the same article?

    Comment by Illvillainy — February 10, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  7. Chris, I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I do take issue with you using an unpublished issue (Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink) as evidence of your point. There are plenty of published works that back you up, no need to pretend to be clairvoyant. ;)

    Comment by Kevin Huxford — February 10, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

  8. I’m curious when this trend started. I mean, when did all the villains want to become the Joker? Is it around the same time that all the heroes became like “Batman: Dark Knight” in the late 80s? Did Marvel just grow out of their “Cool Trench Coat Wearing Phase” and DC sort of milks that 90s run?

    I think the only characters that kind of work are the villains in Flash Rogues Gallery. There’s this sense from the Rogues that their 1) either doing it for money, 2) doing it to piss off the Flashes or 3) crazy compelled to do crazy ass stuff (like Heat Wave or Weather Wizard). At least they have the right sense to give us something akin to “blue collar villains.”

    I think the main issue is the Legacy angle of the DCU. All the DC protagonists have a “Legacy” or a “Family” which they participate in or contribute to for the duration of their ficitonal lives. So the only group to actively go against a family tree has to be something against the family mold…a anti-social person…a psychopath.

    As soon as the “families” of the DCU began to develop, their vilains become akin to the boogie man who wants to destroy their family. The Flash Family has baby-killing Zoom. The Superman family has Chris Kent Snatching Zod. The Wonder Woman family has…uhm…drawing a blank. The Aquaman family has AJ Jr.-Killing Black Manta. Batman has the Jason Todd-killing (kind of) Joker. Green Lantern has Corps Killing Parallax. Even Elongated Man has a Sue-raping Dr. Light.

    If we take the earliest case, I think we can pretty much settle on the “Joker Killing Jason Todd” as the watershed moment where DC went, “Hey, if we really really threaten DC families, we gotta do it with villains that can threaten families, not just main characters.”

    Comment by Gary — February 10, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

  9. I would rather see the DC heroes battle a bunch of crazy evil villains than read book after book of Marvel heroes battling each other, or talking about battling each other, or complaining to each other about battling each other, or gazing at their navels, contemplating battling each other. Or battling each other only to find out they aren’t each other.

    Comment by waderpants — February 10, 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  10. Morrison can be as guilty as anyone at trying to make villains too extreme for words, but in Final Crisis he was actually painting with a pretty varied palette, from the Tattooed Man to Luthor to Human Flame to Darkseid.

    Comment by Dane Moniker — February 11, 2009 @ 1:11 am

  11. . . . and the Wonder Woman family has Circe.

    Comment by Dane Moniker — February 11, 2009 @ 1:11 am

  12. Nice article, and I completely agree with your complaint. But I hope you’ll forgive me for pointing out that the passage you’re quoting from Titus Andronicus – which is a really lovely masterpiece of Shakespearean smack-talk – is actually spoken by the villain Aaron, not by the title character. Titus himself is nine kinds of messed up, but Aaron is in a league of his own when it comes to nihilistic bad-assery.

    Comment by Mark Simmons — February 11, 2009 @ 3:24 am

  13. Hoist on my own petard! And corrected.

    Comment by Chris Eckert — February 11, 2009 @ 3:29 am

  14. I think you’re letting the creators off the hook a little too much here, but otherwise, a great article, Chris.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — February 11, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  15. Moses, that is silly. It’s also not what I said. I pointed out that because they’ve had so much success with this archetype, especially with the Joker and then especially in THE DARK KNIGHT, the are going to be prone to continue using this archetype. That’s all.

    Comment by fodigg — February 11, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

  16. In addition to the Rogues, the Secret Six have kept from becoming one-dimensional ‘all evil, all the time’ characters. Granted this could be because as bad as they are, the other villains have, collectively, decided that if they’re going to miss Heaven then inches don’t matter.

    You can tell that part’s true because the driving conflict has been about a chance to literally avoid going to Hell.

    Comment by HitTheTargets — February 11, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

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