Thursday, February 11, 2010

Powers, Supergod & why Joker isn't a villain

I read the newest issue of Powers last night.  I know from talking to some friends that not everyone thinks that Powers is still the solid book it was in its heyday. Some people think that Bendis lost the fresh edge and take on Powers that he had years ago, and that now the book doesn't read the same.  I'm not sure that I feel the same way.  I still enjoy Powers for its slightly more realistic take on how the US might respond to the open existence of super powers.  The fact that they are generally outlaws and that there is a special division in the police department assigned to specifically deal with them remains a setting that I enjoy.  The book, for me, remains a mixture of the super-hero genre with the crime noire genre, and is accented by what I think is great dialogue.

I read this issue and I don't see why anyone would ignore what is clearly a very unique super-hero book. This new series seems to be setting the stage for us to learn a whole lot more about the primary character, and just how long he's been around as a Power. We see that he was young and active in the World War, which has now brought Nazis into the story, and we already saw that he was involved in the mob scene back when Las Vegas was really starting to come into its own.  How far back does the story of Christian Walker go?  Could he be the original Power? Just some speculating.  I don't really have any insights to tell me that Bendis is heading in that direction, but I am intrigued by where he is heading.

I think this is a post-hype success.  Some people got off of it when it got too popular, citing a failure to continue to deliver its pre-hype success, but I disagree.

Moving away from Bendis and back to Ellis, I also read the second issue of his five part series Supergod.  The tale is a hardline condemnation of human research into genetic engineering laid over top of a series of cultural observations about how certain nations might envision the idea of creating their own super being / deity. The result, as we see the story through the eyes of a narrator in Britain who has more than his share of good laughs at the Americans (Ellis seems to do this a lot I think) appears to be Armageddon. We are seeing/hearing the stories that lead to the final days of mankind on Earth, and what we are privy to is a complex series of experiments as countries like Russia, England, India and Iran engage in the most lethal and insane arms races ever conceived.

Its too early for me to tell you if I like the story or not.  Right now it is reading a lot like Warren expounding his political views on other nations, and not enough like a story.  That said, I'm going to read it through until the end, because Ellis has earned that much respect from me.

Before I go for today (it's short, but I've got the flu) I need to clear something up; The Joker is not a villain.

Obviously he gets a lot of press as the man most people believe to be Batman's arch-enemy (they're wrong) and as such is widely regarded as a villain.  He isn't.  Sure, in some stories he comes across as as scheming, manipulative bad guy, but he only really rings true when people get that at his core he is quite simply......insane. The man is evil manifested in the form of a man who has completely lost his touch with reality and is incapable of perceiving the world as it actually is.  This removes him from any dialogue about him being a great villain, because all great villains have a single trait in common; they think they're good guys.

Lex Luthor believes himself to be the pinnacle of human genius, and that Superman is a threat to the world.

Ra's Al Ghul (who IS Batman's arch-enemy) believes that he is destined to save the world from mankind.

even Victor Von Doom believes that he is the rightful ruler of his people, and that the American super-heroes are pursuing a vendetta against him.

The Joker?  All he thinks about are whether or not Cheerios should be sqaure, and why Batman doesn't love him.  He's frickin' nuts.  He may be the most psychotic character ever.  He could argue for a place in the upper echelon of evil.  But as villains go, he lacks, I think, the cognitive recognition of purpose to be a great villain.

Brettell out!


Cam said...

I don't think a great villain necessarily has to be rational, and certainly not rational to the point of believing that their evil actions are somehow justified. A good example here is the villain from "No Country for Old Men". He's very similar to the Joker, and I think he's one of the most effective villains out there.

Now, a villain that believes themselves to be acting in the right is an interesting idea. So I agree it often helps make an otherwise lackluster character into something that much more compelling. I think it also helps people to empathize and understand the villain; most of us aren't rotten to our core, or bat-shit insane, and so it's hard to really come to terms with such characters. A good writer can pull it off, though. Like Alan Moore. Don't tell me that the Killing Joke isn't one of the best villain stories of all time. Don't even try it.

Rude39 said...

I would also make a case for The Joker. I base this on the following facts:

1) Some of the most personally damaging events to Batman's life came at the hands of The Joker. (Killing Joke being one, A Death In The Family is another.)

2) I think that a villain should be considered, in part, by what they do. Ra's is a villain by purpose, no doubt about it. However, there are things he simply would not do. Joker however kills without hesitation or bias, and has the largest track record for heinous acts in Batman's gallery.

3) Fear factor. In my mind, Joker is FAR scarier than Ra's is. True, Ra's has True Believer syndrome in that he will make cold sacrifices for his ends. He's also very calculated, very methodical. All that said, he doesn't strike the same not of terror as The Joker, mainly because The Joker's more methodical nature comes in his unpredictability. No one thinks the way Joker does. You don't know if the gun he's pointing at you is loaded or a gag, and he's liable to kill you either way. A person could empathize and maybe even see Ra's point of view. The Joker's thought process is completely alien, and it's the fear of what we can't understand which makes him scarier than Ra's, in my mind.

Since we're talking about Batman villains I have to ask...

What does everyone think of Hush?

I, for one, am greatly impressed by him, even Heart of Hush(which was underrated by some). While I don't think he's in the league of Joker or Ra's yet, I think he has the POTENTIAL for such.


The 4th Man said...

Note to self: Make wildly provocative statement to get interesting dialogue going. CHECK.

And now that it's going.....stand your ground.

I think both of you have made lucid arguments for The Joker being considered a major character in Batman mythos, and even for him being a terrifying opponent who orchestrated horrific acts that dominate key moments in Bruce's history.

But does that make him a villain? Is Joker the bad guy, or is he just insane? Society tells us that insanity takes rational motive away from criminals, and without rational motive how can we call them villains?

Yes, I agree that a good writer can make a Joker story compelling and intense. But that doesn't make him a villain. It makes him Batman's opponent. Sometimes a great one, no doubt about it.

I'm surprised that nobody pointed out that the core villains of Batman's rogues gallery are all clinically insane and that the story of Batman is an obsessive compulsive's war with madness. Joker. Two Face. Poison Ivy. Riddler (clearly autistic at the level of Rain man!) Batman is a hand guide to psychological neurosis and sociopaths.

Hush is a terrific character, who if we are lucky, will only continue to be drawn out and woven into the core of the Batman tale by the best of the writers. I think the original story that introduced him was brillaint, and I don't even mind Heart of Hush, although it didn't captivate me quite the same way. In Hush I see the chess player on the other side of the board from Bruce. In many ways he reflects a more criminalistic Ra's.

Has everyone read The Cult? Deacon Blackfire was a TERRIFIC villain, and that Batman story is EPIC.

Cam said...

"Society tells us that insanity takes rational motive away from criminals, and without rational motive how can we call them villains?"

Your argument here is presupposing that a villain must be rational. If a crazy dude that believed he was Satan killed my family members, even if he was mentally ill, he'd still be culpable. Sure, maybe we should try to rehabilitate such a person if we believed there was a chance, rather than lock them away forever. But this in no way detracts from the horror of their actions. Shouldn't this be how villains are judged, via their actions?

Merriam-Webster gives the following definitions for villain:
1) an uncouth person;
2) a deliberate scoundrel or criminal;
3) a character in a story or play who opposes the hero
4) one blamed for a particular evil or difficulty adds:
5) a cruelly malicious person who is involved in or devoted to wickedness or crime; scoundrel.
6) a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot.

None of these mention motive. They all seem to judge a villain via their actions alone. I think what you call a villain is something that might better be refered to as a "criminal mastermind". This phrase seems to prescribe a degree of rationality to a villains actions, and sounds like a better fit for what you call a villain.

The 4th Man said...

"Your argument here is presupposing that a villain must be rational. If a crazy dude that believed he was Satan killed my family members, even if he was mentally ill, he'd still be culpable."

Is he culpable if he is found 'not guilty by reason of insanity'?

Do you remember the kid just up the way from your parents place who walked into his parents bedroom and hacked his mother to death with an axe in her sleep because he was off of his meds and was schizophrenic? His brother used to work at the comic store. That kid was never sent to jail or held responsible for his actions, because in the eyes of the law he was a victim and not a criminal. He has no criminal record.

His actions were horrible, and the idea that he might do them again is awful, but society decided that he wasn't responsible for them because of mental illness. Do you think that makes him a villain anyways?

My argument is that some cognitive level of understanding is required for you to be a villain. How do we assign villainy to people who aren't aware of their own actions, or in the least appear not to perceive or understand them in the same way as the "real world?'

I'm not saying you're wrong. You may be right. Joker may be a villain. But if he is, then you're saying that knowledge of right and wrong isn't a fundamental part of determining a villain.

Using the dictionary to define your argument is too weak a path for somebody with your IQ Cam, and so I dismiss it. Stop being lazy.

Besides the term 'deliberate scoundrel' used by merriam-webster requires intent to do wrong, which in turn requires an understanding of right and wrong.

Which brings me all the back to wondering whether or not the insane qualify.

Rude39 said...

If the insane don't qualify, then by your own argument Jeff, none of Batman's rogues are actually villains, including Ra's. (doesn't he lose his mind when he uses a lazareth pit?) Also, if part of what defines a villain is that he believes he's the good guy, then isn't his concept of right and wrong already skewed?

I stick to my guns that acts, as well as fear factor determine more of what a villain is than WHY they're doing whatever it is they do.

Cam said...

I'm certainly saying that knowledge of right and wrong isn't necessary to be a villain. Right and wrong are relative ideas, in any case. We call someone a villain when they act out of accordance with what we view to be right. Villain is a label we prescribe to someone when they act in a way we deem to be evil. It is entirely possible for us to disagree about who is a villain and who not.

The ax dude may not have a criminal record, but surely he received treatment. Treatment for the criminally insane is often a lengthy thing; it's not uncommon for it to exceed the length that they would have otherwise spent in prison. In this particular story I'd certainly call him a villain. He commited a terrible, reprehensible act. The fact that he was nuts adds an element of tragedy to it, but it doesn't absolve him of responsibility for his actions.

I wouldn't say society decided he wasn't responsible for his actions at all. I think that the insanity laws are there to help people, rather than lock them away. Rehabilitation when possible is just good sense. I'm sure that his treatment involved/is involving helping him come to terms with his actions, and understand why they were absolutely inappropriate.

As for your take on the "deliberate scoundrel" definition, you can't tell me that Jokers actions are not deliberate, can you? His motivation may be chaotic and hard to grasp, but certainly his actions are deliberate and not accidental. That he is a scoundrel is a judgement made by the rest of society; the same is true of Dr. Doom or any other villain that believes they're in the right. They certainly don't think themselves scoundrels, but society labels them that way because their worldview is different from that of the majority.

Lastly, using dictionaries to make an argument is not lazy whatsoever in this case. I feel you're using a nonstandard definition for the term villain, and I think the list of defintions I found makes a pretty sound argument. If you were to post about how Joker was not the greatest mastermind in all of comics, I wouldn't be able to put up a single compelling piece of evidence to the contrary.

The 4th Man said...


While that was fun while it lasted. Cam's still lazy though. Dictionaries. Pffffffffft.

I wrecked my wrist yesterday, so it ended up being a longer break than I cared to make it. X-rays for it shortly, but based on swelling it is obviously broken. I'm going to get back to blogging tonight I think. Just have to hold my wrist steady.

J, Ra's only goes through temporary madness, before his mind regains control. He is quite sane (legally anyways) when he executes his plans to save the earth from mankind.

Cam, that kid was back in the comic store in under 3 weeks. The idea that they end up in long term psychiatric care is nice in theory, but doesn't always happen in practice.

It should be scary when you think about it.