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Thread: Week 49- Heroes & Villains

  1. StevenForbes Guest

    Week 49- Heroes & Villains

    Itís Tuesday, and I feel like singing. Iíve got Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel dueling in my head: New York, New York and New York State of Mind. Yep, a little homesick, but thatís okay. Itís Tuesday, and I get to spend some quality time with you. There really isnít much more that can be better.

    Anyway, weíre still talking about superheroes. Letís talk about the good and bad points of both heroes and villains.

    Iím old enough to remember a time when you could get into a fistfight, win or lose it, and then walk away with the knowledge of that outcome. Iíve lived through the changing of that tide, to where people [men] no longer fistfight, theyíd just as soon gun you down as look at you. Scuff someoneís shoes in the 80s in my neighborhood, and youíre dead. No, really. And I lived in the suburbs.

    When it comes to comics, while I enjoy the Silver Age, I donít enjoy the notion that it was somehow ďbetterĒ than the comics being produced today. Villains would do things that would definitely kill bystanders, and no one would raise an eyebrow. If you try that now, youíd probably be labeled ďmature.Ē

    Even though superheroes are adolescent power fantasies, there is nothing adolescent about them. Not at their heart. Weíre talking violence every issue, or the lead-in to violence. Weíre talking about fighting, using powers that should kill.

    And in modern comics [the Big Two], thatís a no-no.

    Letís talk about Captain America for a little bit. The super-SOLDIER. (How about using your indoor voice, Steven?) Nope. I want to make a point. Soldiers kill. Heís been through WWII. Heís fought against the Axis powers. Heís killed combatants. Heís a super soldier. As a super soldier, heís super killed them. So why is none of that ever really brought up in modern comics? Why is it that, as a soldier, heís looking for ways to defeat the enemy in a non-lethal way? As a soldier, he should be looking to defeat his foe by any means necessary.

    (But, Steven, heís better than just about anyone. He doesnít HAVE to kill because he can find a different way.) And thatís why he was captured and put on ice for a couple of years, right? Because heís better than everyone else.

    Superheroes, while being adolescent power fantasies, are also trying to appeal to our more noble, higher selves. Thatís not something I can really disagree with, not in essence, but I donít have to like it. The heroes are saying that itís okay to beat up on people, just as long as you donít kill them. Villains kill, and you donít want to be a damned dirty villain, do you?

    I donít have any European comics. I know, I know, shame on me. Iíll fix it later. Actually, Iíll be getting comics from other countries to study their superheroes. Iím talking their old superheroes. Yes, superheroes [besides myth, which is another discussion altogether] are considered to be an American invention [blame two Jewish boys for a little known hero called Superman for that], but even so, different countries have different sensibilities, and thus, do things differently. Just about everyone knows that in Asia, cartoons and comics arenít treated as kiddie fare like they are here. The art form is respected everywhere but here. (Figures.) What I want to do is compare and contrast superheroes from around the world. Itís something Iíll be getting to.

    Anyway, in America, ďheroesĒ donít kill. They will beat and bludgeon, but they donít kill. And even then, they will only kill when forced to, or only after much deliberation. Iron Man led a force to kill the Supreme Intelligence during Operation: Galactic Storm; Captain America killed Baron BloodÖso, killing does happen, even in our sanitized kiddie fare. Hell, Bambiís mother was killed, and that was Disney. [I was going to make a joke about spoiler warnings, but decided against it.]

    Does this limit what you can do with your own heroes? Not in the least, and of course.

    During the Ďgrim & grittyí era of storytelling, heroes gained a tarnish thatís been hard to shake for some characters. Everyone got uber-serious, and a lot of fun went out of the funnybooks. You can go down this early 90s path if you wish. Just donít be surprised if your hero doesnít catch on. In America, superheroes are symbols of hope, for all of their violence. During the grim & gritty time, there was little hope to be had. That will affect your creation.

    If you decide to go the Superman route [your character being damned near impossibly good-naturedóand itís only for stark comparisons, people. No lynching. Iíll tell mommy!], you still have an uphill battle for your hero to catch on, but it shouldnít be as bad.

    Hereís the thing about superheroes that most new writers forget, though: the hero needs to symbolize something. There are too many characters and stories that are being told that arenít about anything. Theyíre just excuses for fights, and thatís just lazy. Either lazy, or naÔve. I want you to reexamine your heroes, so they have a better chance for a longer shelf life.

    The heroes you make need to have more than one intrinsic flaw. This is the Marvel method of character creation. Statues of bronze with feet of clay. This keeps them relatable to your audience, and relatable to your audience is what you want. But you want them to symbolize something at the same time. If your hero symbolizes something, has a flaw or two, and is written well [read: not boring], then you stand a chance of having a character that your readers will take to.

    Top Cow has run contests for new series and characters, and the ones that win have something special going for them. Not just an interesting premise, but also characters that can be memorable in themselves. Something you think to yourself as a writer and say ďWhy didnít I think of that?!Ē because it was simple. Super Human Resources is a great example of a head-slapping moment for me. So obvious, yet something I didnít think of.

    I suggest your heroes be heroic. Anti-heroes [the Punisher] arenít that interesting to me, but thatís a personal bias. Theyíre too easy to get disastrously wrong, and often end up being one-dimensional. Having a hero be truly heroic takes hard work on your part as a writer. There arenít many true heroes about.

    We have these glamorous, glorified ideas of what a hero should be. Stand-up, self-sacrificing, selfless, brave, indomitable, gallant, and all the rest. A hero, by our thoughts and standards, are better than us, and that sense of betterment that we put upon them give us something to idolize. Superheroes should be Ďheroesí taken to that next level. Most of the heroes we follow are nowhere near that.

    Now, donít get me wrong. The reason most of them are nowhere near that is in an effort to be relatable to the readers. How many of us really relate to Superman? Heís often described as the ultimate Boy Scout. And heís an alien. Most of us know this, but donít really realize it, because he looks just like us [human]. But a lot of readers of Superman comics will say that the character inspired them to be better. Personally, I think that comics can only handle one of these totally selfless heroes. More than that will throw things out of balance.

    Villains, on the other hand, are another ball of wax altogether. Like heroes and their levels, there are three basic types of villain: your basic thug, your evil genius, and those that are evil for its own sake.

    To my mind, villains are harder than heroes. Heroes are simply doing the right thing. Why do villains do what they do? Sure, thereís the money problems that forces a lot of characters to steal, but what about the evil genius? You also have the characters that donít believe theyíre doing anything bad, just what needs to be done. Those should be the bulk of your villains: thugs with money problems, and those thinking theyíre not in the wrong. Those that do evil for its own sake should be few and far between.

    A few words about your villains: there should be a LOT more of them than the heroes you create. I suggest five villains for every single hero you create. And your most powerful heroes? Turn Ďem into villains. (Crazy talk!) No, really. Turn them into villains. Your villains, as a rule, need to be more powerful than your heroes. They need to have more advantages than your hero in order to make for interesting fights and drama. I mean, look at Magneto. Supremely powerful, and it takes a team of heroes to beat him. Best of all? Heís not really a villain. He just believes heís doing whatís necessary, and has the power and intellect to back him up.

    Villains are harder to make interesting. Their entire reason for being is to be put in the way of the hero. Whatís interesting about that? Not much, let me tell you. What you have to do, then, is make your villains really villainous. This is much easier said than done.

    In comics, villains have to walk a pretty fine line, if not staying on the side of being tame. Why? Because comics are escapism, and people donít want the real world to intrude too much on their fantasies. Go pick up a paper. Scan the headlines. Youíve got crime and horrible things going on all over. Thereís hardly any good news in the newspapers or on the televised news. But that true villainy? Thatís where itís at.

    I was reading that South Carolina has a serial killer. Various people have been found shot to death, with only a fifteen year old girl as the only survivor at the time I read it. She was shot, too. The article didnít say where.

    Thatís true villainy. A fifteen year old girl was shot, but she lived. It doesnít get more disgusting than hurting children. But put that in a comic? Have a character rape another? Do something memorably evil? Do something that reflects real life? You do that, then youíre just doing it for the sake of being shocking and disgusting. Rape and hurting children have no intrinsic value to storytelling. Murder? Sure! Go out and pillage and kill and destroy all day long! Donít hurt kids while doing it, though. If you do that, youíre a hack, because there are Ďbetter ways.í

    Understand, the reason you Ďcanítí do this in American comics is because of how comics are perceived here. You can tear a story right out of the news, but if it involves a kid or rape [or raping a kid], your story more than likely wonít be published unless you do it yourself. Societal mores are then hamstringing you as a creator, because you canít tell the stories you want. You canít let your villains be true to themselves.

    Think of how vile Doctor Doom truly could be if he were allowed to be a true villain instead of just a pompous ass. Think of how powerful your villains could be if they were allowed to reach their true potential. Think of how many readers you would be able to effect viscerally because of the power of your villains, and the actual villainy theyíre capable of. And Iím not talking of just looking more aggressive. If you watch the Nightmare on Elm Street series, youíll notice that in New Nightmare, they made Freddy more aggressive looking, they talked about him being more evil, but in the end, it was all camouflage. He wasnít allowed to be truly vile.

    Letís talk Dr. Light and Identity Crisis. He rapes Jean Loring, and longtime readers got up in arms about it. Captain Cold can go on a rampage in the 60s, instantly freezing innocent bystanders, and we understand theyíve been killed by tacit agreement. But rape? (Heh! You said ďbutt rape!Ē) Let that happen, then charges of misogyny get leveled at characters at the very least, and that writers have lost creativity and companies have become morally bankrupt at most. Thatís before the threats of 30 year readers never picking up a comic by that writer or company again.

    Difficult, ainít it? You want to have true villains, you want to do true horror, but you canít. Weíve been so conditioned by our self-enforced Comics Code that we donít even realize the things we Ďcanítí do. Its done the job of sanitizing comics so that we no longer even think about our chains, or our reactions when something gets printed that flies in the face of what weíre used to.

    So, what are you supposed to do? Superheroes have to have supervillains to fight, and in an effort to not be generic, they have to have a compelling reason for beingóbut that reason has to stand out from the rest of the reasons other villains have.

    No one ever said writing comics was easy, and with the proliferation of superhero universes, readers have a general sense of ennui because they feel theyíve seen it all already, and that just makes your job all the harder. You have to come up with something different and shocking, but not really shocking and different, because then youíll lose the very readers youíre trying to gain. Itís a tightrope, and walking it is no fun.

    And thatís all for this week. Homework: work on your reasons for your heroes and villains, and start converting your more powerful heroes into villains. Theyíll probably fit that role better, anyway.

    Next week, weíll talk about building a superhero universe.

  2. Join Date
    Jun 2008
    Post Thanks / Like

    While I PERSONALLY agree with most of your hero/villain do's and don'ts I gotta tell're showing your age on this one Forby.

    Those rules really only apply if you're writing for Marvel or DC, and even then they don't apply like they used to. Marvel heroes kill all the damn time now. DC heroes have been getting their hands dirtier too.

    Sure, death isn't as permanent as it used to be, but still.

    Plus, let's see..the Joker has beaten kids to death with crowbars, blown up their mothers, shot young librariarins through the spine, stripped tham and taken photos to show her dad, mass-executed thousands by lethal gas; Norman Osborn now runs the Avnegers and has them AND his new NEW THunderbolts working as super assassins, Venom/Spidey EATS people...
    We've had THE DARK NIGHT RETURNS, THE AUTHORITY, the MARVEL KNIGHTS books, The GL Corps has been given the go ahead for Lethal force.

    And yes, the most CERTAINLY DO mention Cap's days as a SOLDIER killing Nazis. Flashback stories, mini-series, the opening to REBORN, and AVENGERS/INVADERS have all shown gun toting Cap and Bucky doing what needed doing. The reason Captain America doesn't kill now is the he no longer works for the armed forces and is not at war. The rules are different, and he has chosen to represent America itself, and not the American Government. He explained this quite clearly during the 80s and 90s when they tried to put him back on active duty, claiming he never finished his service contract due to being frozen in ice. Which, by the way, did NOT happen as a result of him being captured, but from him falling from a plane trying to defuse a bomb in the line of duty. So, yes he IS better than everyone.

    And that's just some examples in Big Two land, that's not even touching on books like The Boys, or any of the Avatar Super Hero books! DYNAMITE just wrapped up SUPER ZOMBIES, a mini-series about a zombie plague that gave some people powers but STILL left them as canniablistic, where they ssaved humans only to keep them like cattle on a farm.

    Anyway, my point is, that more and more in the big two, and especially in the indies and smaller companies, there is both the room and the opportunity to blur the old fashioned good/evil lines.

    I, like you, still prefer my heroes to be "heroes", but at this point that is more of a personal choice than a code of conduct.
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5

  3. MartinBrandt Guest

    I tend to like both.

    I like the good old days of the man in white and the evil guy with the bad mustache.

    The 90s really was the anti-hero boom for me. That is when I noticed it most.

    To me a hero responds to a tragedy and says, I will never let that happen to anyone again.

    The villain says, I will not let that happen to me again.

    I am sure I read that somewhere, but it really it that simple.

    Lets open some eyes, good one Forbes.

    Were-lock out.

  4. CalvinCamp Guest

    I do believe in the "heroes should be heroic" theory behind not having heroes kill (and it's not hard to justify - having once been a soldier should be plenty of reason for Captain America to want to avoid killing when he has a choice), but I think there are other factors involved too. More practical, one might even say mercenary, reasons to have superheroes avoid the widespread killing of supervillians.

    Simply allowing a hero to kill doesn't seem to doom a comic. Wolverine stacks up bodies like cordwood and he's hugely popular. See Seb's examples too. But too many characters like that can become a problem. Even a handful of characters like that can become a problem. That's why Wolverine may mow down the villian's henchmen like a weedwhacker, but something almost always prevents him from killing the big villian. It's not killer superheroes that are the problem, it's the killing of supervillians that's the problem.

    Maybe I'm cynical, but I think the only real reason that stops Wolverine is the exact same reason that prevents all the other heroes from killing villians too. And it's very simple - if they start killing villians too freely, they'll quickly run out of villians. You also have to consider that the many of the villians have been around for a long time and are often, in their own way, every bit as popular as the heroes. Killing popular characters without forethought and reason is generally a bad idea.

    The popularity factor also relates to the problem with going "too evil" with the villians. You can't have Doctor Doom suddenly start deep-frying babies, not because it won't fly in comics, but because that's just plain not Doctor Doom. The Doom fans wouldn't stand for it. I think the same thing applies to pushing the "flawed hero" thing too far. If you're building on an established trait of the character you'll probably be all right, but if you suddenly pull something out of nowhere that isn't appropriate to the history of the character, then it's not going to fly. You have to be true to the character (hero or villian) or you'll tick off the fans.
    Last edited by CalvinCamp; Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 02:59 AM.

  5. drgerb Guest

    Another great read. I've got a quick question about heroes / villains. I love moral ambiguity, making the good guy mess up and do something wrong (or on purpose in a frantic / nervous situation) and also make the villains, at times, do heroic kinds of things. Here's my question:

    If done well, could a superheroesque comic book succeed when almost every hero is very flawed, and almost every villain act with heroism from time to time? I mean bridging that line between a hero and a villain (cause they are very similar) so much so that you don't quite know who truly is a hero and who truly is a villain? Say you give the reader a first impression that Character A. is a hero, then slowly over the course of the story, reveal that character is actually a villain? Or slowly change into being a villain?

    If the line that separates good and evil is blured so much so that it's no longer a line, instead a big blob of grey matter... Obveriously it depends on how well it's written, but would that succeed or fail? Would crossing that line too often lead people to think nobody really matters and the story is basically pointless if all the characters are between being truly good and truly evil?

  6. Dungbeetle Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by drgerb View Post
    If the line that separates good and evil is blured so much so that it's no longer a line, instead a big blob of grey matter... Obveriously it depends on how well it's written, but would that succeed or fail? Would crossing that line too often lead people to think nobody really matters and the story is basically pointless if all the characters are between being truly good and truly evil?
    I think the majority of hardcore readers are sophisticated enough to see that morality is a series of different sliding scales. That's why, although I'm not a massive fan of supes, I prefer team books like X-men or Watchmen because I can take something different away from it each time depending on what "head" I've got on.

    With a single hero like Spidey or Superdouche, you can only really get it if you, as a reader, are aligned with that character and think them to be the epitome of good. Like Forbes said, they're supposed to be better than us, and the idea that a superhero should be "too good to kill" is an alien concept to a lot of us (even if we'd like to think it isn't), who are quick to anger and have our own little subjective ideas about justice. It's particularly pertinent to American readers, many of whom might support the dealth penalty if the actions of the criminal on trial impact on our lives. That circular question; would you, if given the oppurtunity, destroy the bad guy, even if it made you just like him. Characters like Dredd and the Punisher have already made that decision, and perhaps have less depth as a result.

    I'm not always happy with the classification of many characters as anti-heroes. They tend to usually be "special" people who just so happen to act like a real person would given their powers/abilities. Maybe they're not a shining beacon of how we all should act, but there's still a voyeuristic pleasure in watching them do what they believe they have to. Perhaps even more emotional verisimilitude, because I know that if I was the person beating up that bad guy, I certainly wouldn't pussy out at the last minute. I, personally, find it easier to suspend my own disbelief for these stories. I can deal with stories where characters represent an ideal; logic, compassion, etc. etc. but for a character to just represent "good" or "bad" seems too simple.

  7. Sliverbane Guest

    Letís talk Dr. Light and Identity Crisis. He rapes Jean Loring, and longtime readers got up in arms about it. Captain Cold can go on a rampage in the 60s, instantly freezing innocent bystanders, and we understand theyíve been killed by tacit agreement. But rape? (Heh! You said ďbutt rape!Ē) Let that happen, then charges of misogyny get leveled at characters at the very least, and that writers have lost creativity and companies have become morally bankrupt at most. Thatís before the threats of 30 year readers never picking up a comic by that writer or company again.
    When I got to that part of the story my jaw dropped... I even exclaimed 'Holy Shit' as my friends rushed at me to see what I had read so far. I'd read far worse in novels, but seeing/reading it in a comic book was...well SHOCKING. And on a darker level fantastically evil!!

    At this point in the Bolts n Nuts series I've had one resounding thought. Comics!! You have to do this, not to that, this won't work. At least western (Namely American) comics are.

    It certainly makes me more determined to publish something more like a MANGA... I find my storytelling/characters, etc work and I see parallels to my work all the time....

    DungBeetle: Who says that destroying the bad guy makes you like him? Who really decides that? You(Self)? Society?

  8. JohnLees Guest

    Great column, Steven.

    Interesting stuff you bring up about the dynamics of heroes and villains. Here's a point I've been mulling over, though. You talk about how important it is to make villains be (in their own minds, at least) justified in their villainy, and that's a fair point. Much success has been had with characters like Sinestro by converting them from generic evil-doers into people who believe they are in the right.

    However, when you then go on to talk about how good it would be to have villainy inspired by the horrific stuff you see in the news, it got me thinking. All Star Superman was great because, in this time of morally conflicted, angsty anti-heroes, Morrison made plain old simple GOODNESS seem like something fresh, even spectacular. So wouldn't it be similarly refreshing to see more villains just being total bastards?

    I remember reading this column by someone (odds are you linked me to it in an earlier Bolts & Nuts), can't remember who, it is now lost in the sands of time. But he raised the point that, in his opinion, the greatest movie villain ever was Biff Tannen from "Back To The Future", because he had no redeeming qualities, nothing was done to make him sympathetic or rounded, he was just a bully. It was the kind of petty, mundane evil that just about everyone in the real world is familiar with. A similar example I thought of was Aaron Eckhart's character in "In The Company of Men" - he was just a total shit. When he's ruined the protagonist's life for no good reason, and the guy's sobbing "Why? Why did you do this?", he just shrugs, smiles and says "Because I could."

    I'd like to see more of the street-level thug villains go back to being this kind of bad guy. Most notably with Geoff Johns' highly successful portrayal of The Rogues, there's been a move to make street-level villains in that vein more sympathetic - driven by money troubles, as Steven pointed out. But it's not just the heavy-hitters who can be genuinely nasty. I want more comic book Biff Tannens. Small, petty crooks who are just bullies.

  9. CalvinCamp Guest

    Quote Originally Posted by Sliverbane View Post
    At this point in the Bolts n Nuts series I've had one resounding thought. Comics!! You have to do this, not to that, this won't work. At least western (Namely American) comics are.
    Limited.... pffft.
    Steven may be giving us the rules, but rules are made to be broken
    (though knowing what they are still helps).

  10. MartinBrandt Guest

    When creating there are no rules, just guidelines.


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