Mar 7, 2012

What can Batman teach you about writing? Part 2 - Villains

Read Part One here.

When a hero strikes a pose, a villain will try to match it.
Batman’s foremost enemies all represent aspects of Batman’s personality. You could say that they are Batman minus the heroism.
Some, like Harvey Dent (Two-Face) are actually fallen heroes who worked on the right side of the law, whereas Batman operates in a grey area. Who are these liminal figures that challenge Batman's sense of order?

 The Joker
“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

by Brian Bolland
The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore, delves into the Joker’s motivation for doing what he does. The world is a black, senseless joke, so he might as well add to the preexisting humor. All it takes for a good man to go rotten is a bad day, claims the Joker.

Where Batman weaves close to the shadows, the Joker had rather put on a big show. In The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns (graphic novel), it’s very clear that the Joker regards Batman not only as the ideal audience but also as his other half.

The Joker’s lineage is ancient, like Batman’s. If Bruce Wayne evokes the distant past by putting on a shamanic bat costume, then so does the Joker hark back to time immemorial. Shall we take a brief look at his ancestry? There’s something of the Japanese yako about him; also the Pale Fox of the Dogon or Loki, of Norse legend.

As trickster and subversive, the Joker surely descends from Harlequin or Arlecchino, originally a servant of the devil. John Rich, father of English pantomime, turned Harlequin into a magician. Joker’s access to a plethora of gimmicks and lethal implements borders on magic -- I can’t remember one single story where the source of his apparent, if temporary wealth is explained in any detail. Surely he’s got to pay for custom guns and outsized booby traps?

The Joker’s face is a mask he can’t take off and, in yet another parallel, the killer clown has erased the personality beneath the mask. All that’s left is a theatrical character that owes as much to neurosis as to ancient Greek comedy.

What’s always bugged me about the Joker is how thoroughly unfunny he is. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the sadistic clown was a revelation. I found myself in the movie theater thinking, “This is it! In real life, he would be a scary, totally humorless psychopathic bastard! The bottom line to the Joker is that he is all about terror -- the way he sees things, he’s the only one with a right to laugh.”


by Bruce Timm
Two-Face was Harvey Dent, a district attorney who earned the nickname ‘Apollo’ thanks to good looks, a tough stance on organized crime and a reputation for unassailable honesty. Mob boss Sal Maroni, believing Dent was responsible for the death of Maroni’s father, threw acid at Harvey’s face during a trial.

The disfigured ‘Apollo’ became a symbol of Batman’s duality. While the Joker is a negative image of Batman, Two-Face resembles a curved mirror. Batman alternates between his day/night sides, whereas Harvey Dent doesn’t. Two-Face is stuck in an incomplete metamorphosis, just like Batman’s. The main difference is that Dent’s transformation shows, it draws attention to itself.

Dent has become a flammable cocktail of Apollonian and Dionysian forces. In Macedonia, Dionysus enjoyed the epithet Pseudanor, “false man.” Gender ambivalence is Dionysus’ domain -- the twice-born* god was raised as a girl so Hera, Zeus’ consort, wouldn’t find him and kill him out of jealousy.
* also dimētōr, born “of two mothers” (first carried by Semele, the mortal mother, then by Zeus, who would give birth to a full-grown baby Dionysus). 

Did I mention that Dionysus was also very attractive and enjoyed meting out unusual punishments?

Torn between reason and instinct, Two-Face embodies that same volatile two-sidedness.

The Riddler

The Riddler is nuts. (“Nuts” is not a clinical term.) He wants to be caught. What the Riddler is actually looking for is an intellect to engage with, a worthy opponent.

Edward Nigma, the Riddler, embodies obsession. Neither he nor Batman can stop doing what they do.

Mr. Freeze
Illustration by Joe Quinones

Much like Bruce Wayne, Mr. Freeze carries a heavy burden of guilt. Emotionally, he is Mr. Frozen. His main goal is to revive and cure his wife. Freeze holds her in cryogenic stasis, committing robberies to fund his research. Freeze is primarily motivated by family. A broken family. Sound like anyone you know?

Minor villains: Victor Zsasz, Killer Croc, Scarecrow

Victor Zsasz is a serial killer who cuts his own flesh every time he takes a life. Batman is a readjustment machine, putting things right wherever he can; Victor Zsasz is a killing machine. Both know obsession all too well. Batman’s vow to preserve life is subverted by Victor’s game of life and death. The killer is keeping score, and those notches on his skin matter.

Killer Croc (Waylon Jones) is portrayed in jarringly dissimilar ways. Sometimes he appears more human, others more bestial. But that is an editorial issue. Croc’s tragedy is that of a man who succumbs to instinct and violence. He, too, is a reverse Batman. All brawn and very little brain, out-of-control appetites and a fierce animal nature. One major difference between the hero and villain is that Batman chose his totem, whereas Killer Croc never had much of a choice.

Scarecrow is fascinated by fear, but takes Batman’s approach to that basic emotion and crosses the line twice, laughing all the way.

Batman can disguise his otherness. Most of his enemies cannot. In the end, they’re forced to be terribly honest… Unlike Batman, who needs a disguise to cover up his shallow, daytime self. 

Epilogue: Other Batmen

Being the iconic character that he is, Batman lends himself to parody. Fortunately, I might add. In the video below, comedy troupe Barelypolitical explores Batman's fascination with custom vehicles.

Then there's "My Parents Are Dead!" - a distillation, in comic form, of all that makes Batman the adorable lunatic he is.

Click here to read the comic

Who's your favorite Batman villain? Mine's Catwoman, because you just can't pin her down. Is she a heroine or a villainess?

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