Monday, August 10, 2009

Superhero tropes I miss: Fun-lovin' Criminals.

There's just something to be said for a man or woman in a funny outfit committing petty acts of larceny with an appropriately outrageous theme or gimmick. These days it seems to be something of a lost art in superhero comics, at least where the bigger companies are involved. What happened to the stories where our good Captain Cold (pictured above) would knock over a jewelry store, run afoul of Central City's own scarlet speedster and end up cooling his heels in prison after the requisite feats of derring-do and overall badassery? In fact, what happened to this kind of villain in general; namely the Rogue, a reliable source of trouble for our heroes to dispatch within about 22 pages plus ads? And why aren't there any new 'rogues' out there today? Villains who aren't out to destroy the world or kill everything in sight but just want to make the big score and get one-up on the hero? I think a couple of things contributed to the downfall of the rogue archetype over the master/uber-villain.

Part of it comes from the fact that done-in-one stories just aren't how most superhero titles work these days. Before comicbook stores and the direct market, individual publishers sent their books out into the world uncertain as to whether or not the book's final destination would have carried the issue before it or would the issue after. For all the writers and artists of The Flash (I'm using that title as an example but it's hardly the only one) knew, this particular magazine would only reach a certain vendor and a given reader once, if at all. As a result, each issue was largely preserved as a single entity. There'd be the odd cliffhanger issue or multi-part story, but those wouldn't really come into vogue until the direct market allowed for a single venue where issue after issue would be made readily available. As superhero comics progressed the multi-part storyline came more and more into vogue, encouraging readers to come back for more and allowing the creators a chance to go a bit more in-depth than the original system might've allowed.

So while a 'menace of the month' format works great for a book that readers may not be able to read on a regular basis (namely most readers before the rise of comicbook stores), a single overarching villain or (to borrow the parlance of the Buffyverse) a 'big bad' allows for the best of all possible worlds. Yeah, the Parasite or Toyman make for a great villain for Superman to match wits with every now and again, but a schemer like Luthor in his corporate CEO incarnation allows for long-term storytelling potential. And--as most master villains do need their lackeys--it provides us with a plethora of costumed mooks/mercenaries/assassins that our intrepid hero may face without undue risk to himself. Simply put, the big bad works because the big bad can provide you with a mix of monthly menace for newcomers and long-term story arcs that will keep the reader coming back for more.

It's a great device, and one that I can see most writers utilizing because--after all--you want readers coming back month after month and a single villainous entity that will cause problems over a long period of time (say a summer crossover or yearly buildup to the big showdown) keeps the audience coming back. The problem arises in that--for the most part--all the major superhero titles seem to be doing this these days. Dark Reign has Norman Osbourne, The Blackest Night has the Scar Guardian (and her mysterious 'him' who's coming--*cough*NEKRON*cough*). The big titles seem to be caught in a loop of the next major epic storyline. And that's cool, I enjoy a good epic as much as the next guy. But if--as has been said--every comic is somebody's first, can't we have the odd breather period every now and then where we can revisit an old-fashioned superheroic slobberknocker where the Top tries to rob a bank and runs afoul (heh) of the fastest man alive?

Another thing I've noticed lately in the depiction of costumed villains is that there's a distinct lack of joy when it comes to their supervillainy. These days everyone seems to be bestubbled, surly, and behaving in a manner that makes me think they walked off the set of The Sopranos not moments before the first panel catches my eye. I realize that supervillains are deeply flawed, damaged people, some of whom are seriously creepy(your Jokers, your Venoms, etc). But whatever happened to the supervillain who had fun being a heel, that enjoyed matching wits against a daring hero, and who could be relied upon to monologue as the hero struggles to escape the overly intricate trap involving an inordinately theatrical death? These days it seems that they're all either surly brutes or skeezy sexual predators (poor, poor Doctor Light. Someday someone will salvage that gloriously cheesy character of yours).

A hero is only as good as the quality of his villains, but lately it just feels like supervillains have lost something, some essential quality of fun-loving, theatrical evil that got replaced by a need to have them appear more brutal and thuggish. To me, I'd much rather read a Captain Cold that matches wits with the Flash and even (occasionally) does him a solid than the one that helped beat Bart Allen to death. One villain has an interesting character and is worthy of the title of a rogue. The other. . .not so much.

Just my $0.02 and assorted pocket lint.