Tuesday, August 5, 2008

SDCC Topic 1: Flash Villains

Mrs. Speculator and I went to a panel in San Diego spotlighting Geoff Johns, who appears to be poised to write every book in the DC stable. Asked if he was planning on announcing his empire at DC soon, he laughed it off, but there really can't be anyone more busy there at the moment. I'm mostly enjoying his work, especially since he seems to have hit on a formula that works well, even if it is predictable (big reveal on the last page!). While the format is repetitive, the content changes, and it is that (and his near-encyclopedic knowledge of the DC universe) that really makes his books fun.

At the panel, Johns described a current mini-series called Rogues's Revenge, where the repercussions of the death of Bart Allen in the lives of the villains who performed the deed are explored. And while he was describing the basis of the mini-series, he said something along the lines that the villains should have been smarter than to kill Bart in his short stint as Flash. And you know, that all seems well and good...until I got to thinking about it.

While the original motivation of the Rogues Gallery was to rob and make money, over time that motivation has had to evolve, unless it is being artificially restrained by the continuity and rules of comics writing. Sure, they each had "superpowered" gimmicks--heat ray, cold ray, mirrors, control of the weather--and so they would appear to be a match for their nemesis. And perhaps there might have been a thrill over time to go up against someone as powerful, or more powerful, than they were. But after a while, it should have been apparent that the result of each clash was going to fall into a limited number of categories:

1. The rogues get captured and sent to prison. Perhaps they could go on a crime spree over some period of time, but if they stayed around Central City, the general result is capture by the Flash--it's the pretty much unbreakable rule for superhero comics: the villain gets caught at some point.

2. They get enough money to give up the life of crime. I can't think of a single instance of a villain just walking away from it all into retirement. I'm sure it must have happened somewhere along the way, but it's rare enough that a decently written story about it would probably be ground-breaking.

3. They capture the hero in some terrible deadly snare. The comics are full of the villains working out extraordinary traps in order to capture the hero, but what happens happen if the traps are successful? Either the hero escapes, which leads us back to #1, or the hero DIES. There's no point in keeping the hero alive after they have been captured, because they will eventually escape and put the villain in jail. Scott Evil's diatribes in the Austin Powers movies makes this point clear--don't talk to the hero, or describe your nefarious scheme; don't give them a chance to escape, just kill them. Because it is the hero's job to capture the villain, and the only thing that is ever going to stop them from doing that is their own death.

So, I'm not sure who is more naive: Johns for hinting that there had to be another way or the rogues for staying in the fight, even if it was against a new version of the Flash. Granted, solely from the standpoint of writing a serial format, the only option that doesn't end the series is #1, which is why it is what we see most often. The joy in comics comes from the deviousness of the villain and the whatever-the-attribute-is of the hero to overcome that trap. The best stories are ones that involve intricate machinations revealed over time, the ones that put the heroes at the worst disadvantage and then show them at their heroic best as they overcome the long odds. This is why Watchmen can only be a mini-series (SPOILER ALERT!): the villain wins! Of course there could be interesting follow-ups regarding the world that Ozymandias has created, but those really aren't stories of superheroes any longer.

Ultimately what Johns describes in his statement--that his villains should know better--is his trying to eat his cake and have it too. Real people in the situation the rogues found themselves in would have known better--they probably would have given up the fight a long time ago. But these guys continue to fight, which by itself masks an implicit escalation of tactics: villain tries a trap, villain fails, villain goes to jail. What happens next? If they stay in the fight, the villain comes back and tries a more dangerous trap, and the cycle goes on and on until it gets broken with the removal of one combatant or the other from the field.

This is why it is supposed to be shocking when a hero dies--not only is it tragic when a figure for good who fights for the general well-being of people he doesn't know is killed by the effects of his selfless decisions, but from a metafictional point-of-view, it imperils the series. Of course the hero almost always comes back, or the serial is generally dead. Barry Allen died, and Wally West took over. Steve Rogers died, and Bucky took over. The serial has to go on, or in comic book hero terms, "his death has to mean something." And the villain is captured and sent to prison, until they are released and escape and then it goes around again with a different pair of combatants.

The things we like best are the things that break this pattern--X-Men follows this pattern but in a soap opera format that is just as much about their personal lives as it is about fighting crime. And of course, the X-Men have the advantage that they themselves are not so much heroes as they are non-humans fighting for their own rights in a world hostile to them. They have villains to fight, but it's not about the redistribution of wealth, but upholding the rights of all sentient creatures.

But, for the vast majority of stories, someone has to win. And when it is the villains, they really have no choice but to kill, due to the implicit rules of their combat.

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