“Grant Morrison is one of the greatest writers ever in comics."
With those words, James Robinson opened up his dialogue on villains at the back of Justice League: Cry For Justice #3 and presented me with an interesting and insightful challenge. What makes a great villain?
Before I get to the question, I’d like to spend some time talking about an author who, in many circles of comic readership, doesn’t get anywhere near the level of glorification that he deserves. First let me tell you that I think Robinson is every bit the writing phenom that he thinks Morrison is. Robinson breathes a life into everything he writes, and for those readers who are either patient enough to let his stories' never-ending depth suck them in, or familiar enough with his works to know that the payoff is always exceptional, everything he writes is worth reading. My first encounter with James Robinson’s work came in the pages of Starman. At the time I read almost everything that was being published, but Starman, for reasons I cannot remember, failed to make my radar until a man named Clinton handed me a copy and told me that if I didn’t like it I could get a free book of my choice the next week when my shipment came in.
I didn’t like it, not at first. I was, however, immediately introduced to a concept that hadn’t really made any headway until that point in comics; mantles. In that first issue David Knight, son of the Justice Society’s Ted Knight (the first Starman of note,) dies a death that makes Blue Beetles seem grandiose, and in doing so immediately sets in motion events that will force the mantle he so loved to pass from the son who wanted nothing more than to be his father, to the son who never wanted to be anything like his father. The very idea of a generational tale set concepts running through my mind that caused me to pick up the second issue, and then the third. It wasn’t long until I realized that the book I didn’t really like to start with, I loved more than any other.
I have said this many times; Starman is the greatest complete super-hero series in comic history.
I am ashamed to admit for some time following the end of Starman, James fell off my radar. I was at a different place in my life and I was exploring different books. I had grown up a lot, and in that time my expendable budget had shrunk significantly. I simply couldn’t afford to read everything, and so I read a more select assortment of books. Nothing that James was doing at the time found its way routinely onto the list, although I don’t recall what he was doing. My level of awareness was at an all-time low. I only read some of Leave It To Chance, which is a bad thing, because it was a great book. Recently though I was catching up on lost time in 2009, and reading some books I had missed. Seeing that James had picked up a regular role writing for Superman brought a smile to my face, but that smile was doubled in size when I opened the pages to find that his tales were as intricately crafted as ever, and as always pulled forth from the silver age a collection of characters I had loved decades earlier.
In Superman, Robinson had brought back the classic version of Lar Gand that I always found so compelling as a child, and with him a complex puzzle involving disguised, time travelling members of the Legion of Super Heroes. I read every page with the fascination and wonder of my youth once more, and for the first time in a long time I remember what had crafted my passion for comics to begin with. Some digging around unearthed other books that he had been writing, including the onset of a new Justice League mini-series called Cry For Justice (as well as news that he was taking over as the new regular scribe on Justice League Of America!!) I picked up the first 3 issues of Cry For Justice, on sale, with grave concern that I was once again getting sucked into a mini-series that wasn’t going to matter (more on that tomorrow.)
James addressed that in issue 1, and then continued his dialogue with the fans through each of the next two books. It is in the third book that he asked the pivotal question that defines all great heroes; what makes a great villain?
The question isn’t answered, although he does share some opinions. I’m not going to share my thoughts on his topic, but I will share where my contemplation of his question took me; the quality of the villain defines the legacy of the hero. Or, in simple terms, great heroes have great villains. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never understood anyone who argues that the greatest hero ever is somebody other than Batman. It isn’t possible. Batman has all the best villains. It’s actually unfair.
In any event, give what I’ve suggested some thought.
What would you rather see? Spider-Man v Doc Oc (seriously? Octopus arms are supposed to impress me?) or Batman v The Joker? Ghost Rider v Blackheart or Fantastic Four v Doctor Doom (let’s forget about the terrible script and mediocre acting, and just picture the potential folks!) It’s all in the villain.
What makes a great villain? I’m not positive we can nail that down to just one element. What makes a great hero? Now THAT......we can answer.