Thursday, July 08, 2010

Breeding Contempt

Over at Mighty God King, MGK just posited that Deathstroke the Terminator was a much better character back when "[h]e showed up every once in a while, was incomparably badass, and then disappeared for a bit."

I submit that, with a few rare exceptions, this is true of every supervillain out there.

This kind of overexposure doesn't just diminish the villains, it diminishes their heroic counterparts, as well.

It's a subset of Follow The Leader that I call the The Show Biz Bugs Syndrome: "It'th a great trick, but you can only do it wunth!"

When Frank Miller made the Kingpin a fixture in Daredevil, it gave Matt Murdock a focus and a direction that previous writers had failed to instill.

When John Byrne reinvented Lex Luthor as the Corrupt Corporate Executive, it just made Superman look ineffectual. By the definition of Luthor's new persona, Superman was not allowed to beat him. Ever.

By far, the hero who's suffered the worst of this has been the Batman. In the last decade or two, adversaries who once appeared every few years have become members of the supporting cast, crime bosses in Gotham who get more monthly panel time than Jim Gordon or Alfred.

And, as a result, as Batman's wealth and technology and planning ability has increased to ridiculous levels, he's become pretty much useless. except when he's fighting other heroes. The argument that "Batman should just kill the Joker" didn't have as much impact when the Joker got tossed into Arkham (or jail) and we didn't see him again for a couple of years.

For all the silliness of the "Sci Fi Batman" of the late '50s and early '60s, he was far, far more effective than the Grim And Gritty Vigilante of the post-Miller days. When he put someone away, they stayed away, and often even served their full sentence (as I mentioned in passing in Fine Feathered Felony the other day). Late Golden Age Gotham was often touted as a model city for law enforcement, and civilian characters would, on occasion, mention that they'd moved there because it was so safe, thanks to The Batman.

The writers of the Golden Age and Silver Age knew that there were only so many good stories you could tell with a given antagonist, and used them sparingly. There were also much more willing to whip up a new adversary and, well, "throw it against the wall to see what sticks." There's more reluctance to devise new foes in this day and age (Grant Morrison being a notable exception), and I think that, too, is a detriment to both characters and creators.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Fine Feathered Felony

As I've mentioned elsewhere, my favorite Batman adversary is The Penguin.

The depictions we've seen in recent years, alas, don't quite get him.

I don't disapprove of the depiction of Oswald as smart, savvy crime boss, pulling strings behind the scenes while he poses as a Legitimate Businessman; the role suits him like a well-tailored tuxedo. Unfortunately, as the Batman titles move away from Theme Villains who treat Crime as Performance Art, there's a tendency to sweep that period under the rug entirely. Cobblepot is now a Clever, Devious Gangster, and one gets the impression that he has always been a Clever, Devious Gangster.

Fiction, however, suffers no lack of Clever, Devious Gangsters, nor does Real Life. Everyone knows they're Connected. Everyone knows they've got their Fingers in the Pies. Nobody can get any hard evidence, or pierce their thin veneer of Legitimate Business to bring their nefarious deeds to light.

It's a complex and multifaceted character archetype, admittedly, but it's a common one—and if there's one thing that Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot strives never to be, it's common.

Without her career as Batgirl behind her, Oracle is just another hacker. Without his career as a Theme Villain, Oswald "The Penguin" Cobblepot is just another Made Man, differing from Rupert Thorne or Tony Zucco only in his nom de guerre—and his real-life peers include such notables as "Baby Face" Nelson.

To me, the Theme Villain and the Clever Devious Gangster are two sides of the same Penguin coin.

Golden Age Oswald had one of the best origins in comics: he got no respect because he was, frankly, a funny-looking little fat guy with mildly eccentric habits. He deliberately constructed the Penguin persona, exploiting and accentuating his comical appearance, encouraging people to underestimate him.

He pulled off big, flashy, ridiculous stunt crimes, deliberately provoking
the local costumed vigilante, because that's how it's done in Gotham.

And it worked.

He made his rep as the one Flashy Theme Villain who was Smarter Than He Was Crazy.

When he walked into a room, people no longer thought, "what a funny little man!"

They thought, Holy crap, it's the Penguin! Get in the car!"

His "Crime as Performance Art" routine paid off. He got respect.

And he parleyed that into the criminal empire we see today, in the Aluminum Age.

Now, there's a unique character.

I'd love to see a Penguin graphic novel that shows his evolution from Performance Artist Gimmick Villain to Criminal Mastermind. He slowly and quietly builds up his organization—and every time the Bat starts getting too close to his real operations, he puts on the tux and the top hat, grabs a bumbershooter, and pulls off some big, flashy, incredibly distracting Stunt Crime.

He's thwarted, captured, tossed into prison, and uses his prison time to make more contacts and connections. He serves a short sentence, since he studiously avoids injuring or killing anyone in his big stunt crimes, and might even get time shaved off his sentence for "good behavior": he keeps his prominent nose clean when he's inside.

Eventually, he "goes straight", opening the Iceberg Lounge and putting himself on display as Supervillain Chic. He writes his memoirs, and does the talk show circuit, openly talking about his "misspent youth", freely admitting that his "Fine Feathered Felony" was, in essence, a publicity stunt to garner the respect and recognition that he so craved. He's witty and charming and funny and a great draw.

And in the background, though layers of front companies, bribes, and shady connections, he runs a good chunk of the Gotham City underground.

*Aren't these Thornes and the Zuccos of the world the ones that the Batman is supposed to focus on? Isn't he the Great Detective who can get the goods when nobody else can? They used to be disposable mooks, soundly defeated and sent up the river; nowadays, they seem even more untouchable in Gotham than their real-world counterparts. I need to do a post about the "Batman is Useless" trope, and how it really only emerged Post-Silver Age.