Marvel Vs. DC: In Comics and in Movies

Jan-29-09

I know that things have been quiet around here. The beginning of this week was extremely busy for both Jason and I. Jason is still piled under work, while I have managed to clean my desk off, at least to some extent. Jason won’t be back until next week, and rather than allow the blog to continue to sit without any new content, I thought that I’d throw out something I’ve been thinking about lately. Sadly, you’ll just get an essay from me, rather than our usual back and forth, although perhaps, when Jason returns, he’ll want to throw some of his ideas on this topic onto my essay. In any case, I hope to post something tomorrow as well, and failing that, we should be back on track next week.

It’s Oscar time of year, and if you are someone who follows the Oscars at all, then you’ve no doubt been inundated with the talk about the possibilities of The Dark Knight being nominated for a best picture (which didn’t happen) and Heath Ledger being nominated for his performance as the Joker (which did happen). Many critics have posted The Dark Knight on their lists of the best movies of the year, and it was the top money-maker of the year in movies. Most comics fans have nothing but praise for the movie, and indeed, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and am thrilled that it seems to have given comic book movies the respect and mainstream recognition that they deserved.

The movie with the second largest box office take this year was Iron Man, which didn’t receive anything more than a smattering of technical Oscar nominations. While it did receive glowing reviews when it was released in May, it has not made many Best Of lists from the ranks of the critical elite. While it was undeniably popular, it wasn’t seen as a breakthrough movie, nor was it heralded by many as ushering in a new era of serious comic films. It invariably gets ranked behind The Dark Knight in most discussions of favorite movies of the year. Most discussions, except for mine, that is, as I will unequivocally say that I found Iron Man to be much more enjoyable than The Dark Knight. This actually makes perfect sense, since to me, 2008 became the year when DC and Marvel movies truly reflected the comics companies themselves.

Let’s start with the movies first. I saw both movies on opening weekend, although I was vacationing in Vermont when Iron Man opened, and didn’t get to see it with my normal, geek-culture savvy friends. Instead, I saw Iron Man with someone who doesn’t read comics, knows next to nothing about pop culture, and has no interest in superheroes. And he loved it. From beginning to end, he was absorbed, he was transported, and most of all, he was entertained. We both were, as was the entire theater, judging from the reactions of the crowd. As a movie, Iron Man is simply fun. The script is smart, the acting is engaging, and the pace is brisk. There are no egregious plot holes, and I don’t believe actions seemed forced. Characters behave logically, and the movie stays faithful to the spirit of the comic while making the necessary changes to appeal to a mass audience. Robert Downey Jr. gives a wonderful performance, one full of life and energy as the titular hero, and he’s quite ably supported by his fellow thespians (Jeff Bridges deserves special mention for simply disappearing into the role of Stane; I wouldn’t have realized it was him had I not recognized the voice after a short while).

I also enjoyed The Dark Knight when I saw it. It’s a great movie. I think the actors are all exceptional, although I am not sure that Ledger deserves an Oscar nomination. I believe his performance would have generated some heat in any circumstances, but his tragic death (and make no mistake; I do view his death as a tragedy. Ledger was phenomenally gifted, and while I may not be on the “Joker-Love Bus” that surrounds his performance in this movie, I’ve enjoyed him in every movie of his I’ve seen) has lifted a good performance far above its merits in the eyes of many people. To be honest, by the end of the movie, Ledger’s unique verbal style was beginning to seriously irritate me, and had he been without reach, I’d have been mightily tempted to smack him. Had I chosen the actor to be most rewarded for his work in the film, I may have singled out Gary Oldman, a supremely skilled actor who so often gets thrust into the role of villain (a role he performs remarkably well to be sure) that it becomes incredibly refreshing to see him here in the guise of a hero. If only we could see that more often.

I believe there are a few reasons that I didn’t enjoy The Dark Knight as much as many people. The first is its length; I’m a firm believer that most movies could stand editing, and The Dark Knight stretches out for 152 minutes, which I thought was a little long. Iron Man, for its part, is almost 30 minutes shorter, making for a more tightly paced experience. I also was very disappointed that Aaron Eckhart, who did a fantastic job as Harvey Dent, had his character’s entire arc told in this film. Harvey Dent is too interesting and complex to be completely explored in the space of one film, especially when he is not the main focus of the picture. They could have cut thirty minutes from the film, and had an excellent villain for the next picture, but not dealing with the Two-Face character in The Dark Knight. They could have allowed Eckhart to develop Dent fully in this film, turning him into a character that the audience truly cared for and was invested in, and then his fall in the next movie would have been that much more heartbreaking.

Again, I enjoyed The Dark Knight. But I realized that these movies reflected the way I read comics. I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan. There was a short time in my life when I read move DC than Marvel, but for almost my entire comics reading life, I’ve always enjoyed Marvel more. I believe that these movies are very reflective of the companies from which their characters sprang. Dark Knight is serious, dark and packed full of detail. It’s smart, and it knows it, and it prides itself on that. In the end, it takes itself a little too seriously. That is how I saw DC comics of the 60’s through the 80’s, and to an extent, I still think it’s true today. The comics, like the movie, are gorgeous, and they’re good, but there’s almost a clinical detachment to them.

Marvel, and Iron Man, on the other hand, are bright, colorful feasts for the eyes and imagination. Things happen fast and furiously and there is a light touch to the material; the movie (and comics) know that the events they’re depicting are larger than life, and they play it as real as possible, but they wink at their audience to let the audience know that the creators are indeed, in on the joke. There’s a life and energy in Marvel’s comics, again particularly zeroing in on those from the 60s to the 80s, but still continuing to today, that DC simply can’t match. I believe that the Iron Man movie captures that energy perfectly.

In the end, it’s not about trashing one movie to elevate another. Dark Knight is a wonderful piece of cinema, and everyone attached to it should be proud of their achievement. My point is simply that, in 2008, Marvel and DC finally managed to shine their unique brand onto the silver screen, and in that instant, my old comics buying habits came roaring back to me. I’m glad to have both types of movies available, just as glad as I was to have both types of comics to buy. I just know, in the end, where my true fondness lies.

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What Candy Would Your Favorite Superhero Hand Out?

Oct-31-08

So I took my boys trick-or-treating last night and was pretty amazed at the bizarre range of “treats” they ended up hauling in…things like a bag of Doritos, a tube of Go-Gurt and a pack of those Nip-Chee crackers you get out of vending machines. I thought it would be funny to imagine what the superheroes would hand out if they were part of the neighborhood. I’ll throw out my thoughts and then see if John has anything to add…

Superman: Obviously, he’d be handing out Clark bars (and absolutely no one would see the connection).

Silver Surfer: For a shiny dude who has traveled the entire galaxy, could there be a better treat than a Milky Way bar?

Mister Fantastic: I’m guessing he left a bowl outside the Baxter Building filled with gummi bears, bubble gum and salt water taffy.

Captain America: There’s no way Mr. Straight-Laced would be handing out candy. No, his immaculately decorated house would be the one mercilessly TP’ed after he offered up apples and toothbrushes…or worse, savings bonds.

Hulk: Jawbreakers.

Iron Man: I’m guessing there’s a hefty collection of those airline-sized bottles of liquor clogging up a closet somewhere on the Stark compound.

Hawkman: Cans of Red Bull. It gives you wings!

Thor: Skittles, in memory of the gateway to his homeland, the Rainbow Bridge.

The Joker: Aside from the obvious, like gumdrops laced with poison or brownies filled with razor blades, I think he might go for something subtle…like Snickers. Get it? Snickers?? ‘Cause he laughs a lot?

The Blob: Empty Chunky bar wrappers…because, well, y’know…

Martian Manhunter: He’d give out Oreos, until the legal department caught up with him, when he’d switch to Chocos.

Human Torch: He’d be too busy running around with the Thing playing tricks on everyone, but I’m sure he’d leave a bowl of Hot Tamales next to Reed’s candy.

The Thing: His bowl next to the Torch’s would have pieces of rock candy.

Dr. Doom: I bet trick or treating is a lot of fun in Latveria. “Who dares TP Doom’s castle? Is that you Richards? Curse you and your automatic egg thrower! I swear on the soul of my dead mother, Doom shall lay flaming poop on the front stoop of the Baxter Building!” In any case, I imagine his gives out gummi Reed Richards, filled with a strawberry jelly, so his subjects can actually have the pleasure of ripping the accursed Richards apart and feasting on his entrails.

The Wasp: I think she gives out fashion tips. “Dear, I don’t care if you are dressing up as a ghost, that plain white sheet is booooring. Wait right there and I’ll be back with something to spruce it up!”

Dr. Pym: He gives out miniature candy bars.

Mr. Miracle: Rubik’s cubes and Chinese finger traps.

The Spectre: He gives out unholy vengeance to all those who dare to play tricks. “I saw you TPing that house! I shall now transport you to a dimension where you are made of toilet paper and the John Goodman Impersonation Society has just finished eating at a Mexican buffet!”

Got any more?

Aww…wouldn’t Wasp hand out Bit O’Honeys? And Mars bars for J’onn J’onnz (he’d keep all the Chocos for himself)?

Green Goblin: He’d have a satchel full of those little pumpkin-shaped candies, the only problem being that he’d be throwing them at everyone and cackling madly. Oh…and they might explode.

Wolverine: Candy cigarettes (if the Marvel editors will allow it).

Skrull Kill Krew: Cow Tails.

Mr. Mind: Anything but gummi worms.



How to make your lame villain scary

Oct-30-08

Both Marvel and DC have something in common; their superhero universes contain a lot of lame villains. Oodles. Marvel tried to correct the problem in the 80s when they introduced Scourge, a character who seemed to exist only to clear out some of the deadwood in the Marvel criminal community. However, not only did Scourge miss a ton of losers, but many of the ones he killed have seen their gimmicks and names passed to new thugs, so their legacies (such as they are) live on. Perhaps seeing that this attempt at eliminating pathetic evil-doers didn’t stick, both Marvel and DC seem to have settled on revamping many of their villains and making them, as the kids say, bad asses. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. Herewith are our recommendations for turning the Ringer into next year’s villain du jour.

1. Less blood, more threat: The most popular way to make a villain seem scary is to have them go out and rack up a body count that borders on genocide. Popular thinking seems to believe that, if your victims don’t number in the triple digits, you’re small time and might as well go back to fighting Captain Ultra. Alternately, you don’t have to kill a lot of people, if you kill just a few, but really gruesomely. Now, gruesome can have its place, but often times today’s comic writers seem to simply be trying to outdo the last gruesome death that saw print, and consequently, the deaths themselves mean little.

Let’s be clear: a huge body count is absurd, and it’s one of the things that’s pushed the Joker from menacing to maddening (for the readers). You don’t need to murder a stadium of sports fans to make a point, and how many villains are interested in doing that anyway? It makes your villains seem like crazy comic book villains if they’re going after huge masses of people. Most readers can’t relate to that sort of crime; none of us really expect to get blown up with lots of other people in a mass venue. That’s where people feel safe. Instead, keep your villains relatable; if they’re killing people, have them break into the house in the middle of the night, or catch someone walking home from the movies (perhaps after seeing a Zorro flick). Then you’re hitting your reader somewhere they’re more familiar and you’re more likely to dredge up some scares in them. Of course, this will work even better if you follow tip #2:

2. Let your reader get to know your victim: The better the reader knows the victim, the more impact it will have when your villain offs them. Of course, you don’t want to have Terra Man kill Lois Lane just to make him scarier, but you can introduce other characters for Terra Man to kill or threaten. The reader doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with the character; it can be a simple page or two, as long as you use that space to effectively convey enough of a piece of the victim’s personality so that the victim can be seen as a person, and not just as a piece of meat to be ground up by your villain.

3. Strip your villain back to basics: Often times what makes a villain even lamer is when writers try to give them more gimmicks and more toys in an attempt to make the villain more threatening. Unfortunately, this often backfires, and the villain comes off looking worse than ever. Let’s use the Ringer for example. For those who don’t know, the Ringer is a Marvel villain who’s gimmick was…well, rings. He had all kinds of different rings which did different things, and every time he appeared, it seemed he had a new set of rings that could do even more useless tricks. I would get rid of all of them and stick with one of his original gimmicks: constricting rings. Instead of having the Ringer tossing exploding rings across Times Square, have him sneaking through the dark alleys. He finds a victim, slips out of the shadows, and quickly slides a constricting ring around the victims throat. Then he watches as the poor person suffocates at his feet. Or perhaps he wants the victim for some future purpose. One ring around the body, which constricts enough to prevent the person from taking a deep breath (driving most of the fight from them) and then another around the wrists to bind the victim and make it easy for Ringer to capture them. That’s much more threatening than anything the character has ever done in the past.

4. No more primary colors: We’ve discussed a lot about art the last few days, but I need to mention it again. If you want a scary comic, you need art that provokes an atmosphere. It’s not just about the pencilling and inking, but you also need a strong colorist, who can keep the colors muted and provide a spooky setting, without making the book a bloody, dark and impossible to read mess.

5. Allow them occasional victories: Many villains are considered lame because they never win. Of course, when we’re reading this sort of story, we know the villains will lose in the end (unless you’re reading current DC) and that’s part of the tacit agreement we, the readers, make with the creators. However, it’s important to note that, unless you want your villain to be a laughing stock, you need to give them a win every now and again. It doesn’t have to be a big one, but if they never manage to bring any plans to fruition, they’re certainly not going to be scary. Perhaps some of their early plans succeed because the hero doesn’t know about them, or perhaps they even beat the hero a few times, when the hero isn’t expecting them or their abilities. In the end, it’s just important that they sometimes succeed, so the reader doesn’t know if they’re actually going to pull off the plan that will spell the end for a threatened supporting character. If the villain sometimes wins, they become credible, and then they can start to become scary.

There’re some ideas. Agree? Disagree? Have some of your own?

Yeah, I have a suggestion. Don’t ever again write a post that mentions both Terra Man and Ringer. That was the most frightening thing I ever read!

The one point you make that I feel the strongest about is #5. If the villain isn’t a credible threat, they’re never going to be taken seriously. Look at someone like Green Goblin. On paper, he’s ridiculous. But what was the first big thing he did as a villain? He offed Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Instant archenemy.

And I think #4 is an important rule. I mean, really, who’s scared of Shocker in his yellow quilted shirt? Or a giant orange Armadillo? Or Wizard in his fancy purple and red ensemble with the giant helmet (or, for that matter, the Leader and his giant cranium tucked into an orange and yellow turtleneck)?

If we’re talking about turning villains more towards the scary side of things in terms of tone and method, then I think there are three other points that need to be made:

6. Intimidation works. A strong baddie is an imposing baddie. And I don’t mean that he has to be huge or have some sort of magnificent power that cancels out the sun. Perfect example: Galactus is NOT scary (especially his movie version…ooooh, a cloud!). No, I’m talking about their mere presence sending a chill up someone’s spine. The foe could be old and frail, like Cassandra Nova or have a really bizarre look, like Emplate, and they would be more effective than Turner D. Century in his spiffy suit. This criteria is one of the reasons why Doctor Doom, Ultron and Red Skull have remained on the scene for so long. Plus, it helps to keep the main threat hidden for as long as possible in order to build up the suspense. Show a creepy hand or part of a horrific visage every now and then, but keep the big reveal until absolutely necessary. Evolution is a viable course to follow too. Take Annihilus for example. When he was first introduced, he just looked like a dude in a giant metal bug costume. However, his latest incarnation shows him in a more insect-like form and, I have to admit, he’s a bit skin-crawly now.

7. Go off the deep end on occasion. There’s something to be said about being organized and rational. Perfection involves a certain type of horror. However, that perfection can be elegantly offset with the occasional psychopathic outburst. Tear apart a puppy with your bare hands. Push a stranger off a bridge. Randomly erupt and beat the beejesus out of one of your henchmen with a nearby computer keyboard, cackling wildly as letters and numbers careen off his scalp. Divine madness goes a long way towards building a scary reputation. That’s one of the few things I’ve respected in good portrayals of the Joker.

8. Have a grand scheme. Anymore these days, villains are just out on personal vendettas which, while they have their place in history, do not build up a broad depth to your villainy. None of the bad guys seem to have any plans beyond eliminating so-and-so. What then? Now, I’m not saying we should go back to the days of simple bank robbing or awkward planning to poison water supplies with special fish, but there has to be a rational beginning and end to the rampage, aside from ending up in jail. To be effective, you have to follow through. An exception to this rule is taunting. A great villain needs to be able to taunt without remorse…kidnapping loved ones, stalking alter egos, harassing coworkers and implying even worse plans. That stuff always works. Not to say it couldn’t be augmented with some unrelated evil plotting.

Scary is in the eye of the beholder. And I feel that there are very few villains in today’s comics that fit the bill. Most of them are just glorified punching bags. The most recent example of a good revamp that I can think of is Dr. Light. DC definitely made him a creepy dude. Of course, a swift kick to the nuts remedied that. Taking a previous example, I’m not sure we could ever morph Turner D. Century into a formidable foe, but I think the rules we’ve set out are a clear checklist for avoiding the pitfalls that created Mr. Century in the first place.



The Joker: I Dislike Him Too Much to Create a Witty Title

Jul-09-08

Ugh. The Joker.

I’m sure many people may not understand my antipathy toward this character, especially those who don’t read comics. If you only know the Joker from his media appearances, you may like the character. Heck, if my only exposure to him was Mark Hamill’s brilliant performance from the animated Batman shows, I’d think he was Batman’s best villain as well. I will also admit to being incredibly excited to see him in the upcoming movie, as I think that we’re all going to be blown away by Heath Ledger’s performance. But, to see the Joker in the comics…..ugh.

There are two huge problems with the Joker. The first is that he’s overexposed. Because the Joker has claimed the mantle of Batman’s greatest foe, it seems that every writer who tackles the Dark Knight wants to write a Joker story. Not every comic writer has a Ventriloquist story, or a Poison Ivy story, or a Calendar Man story, but they all have a Joker story, so we keep seeing him. Not only that, but the Joker’s profile has become so large that people who aren’t even writing Batman want to tell their Joker stories, so he guest stars all over the place. He’s appeared in just about every series you can imagine, from Wonder Woman to the Justice League. Things went completely out of control in 2001 when DC published a crossover event called Joker: Last Laugh, a Joker-themed event that had its own miniseries and spun out into dozens of DC books. This miniseries was supposed to be the last we saw of the Joker, but sadly, it just set the stage for more Joker stories.

The second problem with the Joker is that he no longer makes sense as a character. Writers, in an attempt to outdo everyone that came before them, have amped up the Joker’s insanity and murderous impulses to an unbelievable degree. First of all, how does this guy get henchmen anymore? Who would work for him? He kills his own people left and right, and does he actually ever score any money or do anything that would make him an attractive employer? Worse is the fact that he’s invited to join villain teams, which makes even less sense. Why would a genius like Lex Luthor, someone who thrives on control, invite the most uncontrollable villain in the DCU into his team? Surely he knows the Joker will eventually cause all of his plans to come tumbling down?

Joker also doesn’t work because, again, his crimes have become too heinous. The Joker has killed the second boy to bear the mantle of Robin, Commissioner Gordon’s wife, and he’s crippled Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. Now, the first crime is horrible enough, but the second two? If some criminal killed a police commissioner’s wife and crippled his daughter, you know that criminal would soon find himself “accidentally killed” while attempting escape. C’mon, even if Gordon wouldn’t do it himself, surely one of his cops (since Gordon is beloved by most of the police) would have done it for him. This is a police force that includes Harvey Bullock, who breaks rules constantly and was willing to reveal information to the mob to avenge Gordon when Gordon got shot (not killed, not paralyzed, but simply shot) by somebody the law couldn’t touch. The fact that the Joker is alive makes no sense (and don’t even get me started on the idea that Batman himself would be well within his rights as an upstanding hero and protector of mankind to kill the Joker himself; it’s not like the Joker can be rehabilitated and reformed).

So, with all of that being said, what can be done with the Joker. Is there any hope for this Clown Prince of Crime? Is he worth saving? Can Batman survive without him?

Wait…tell us how you really feel. I’m not sure where you stand on this one. And I’m disappointed that you couldn’t come up with one goofy headline, even to make fun of the fact that you despise The Joker. Something like…”Joker: The Clown Prince of Just Shoot Me Now” or “Joker: Wow, The Insane Clown Posse Sucks” or even “Joker: Meh.”

All joking aside (no pun intended), I’m with you one hundred percent on this one. When I think back to my earliest exposure to the character…the live-action TV show with Cesar Romero’s mustache, the cackling goofball from the Filmation cartoons…I’m reminded of the best and worst of comic book villain stereotypes. Those campy 60’s and 70’s representations encapsulated what comics were all about as a kid: bright colors, over-the-top scenarios and the valiant struggle of clean-cut goodness versus wishy-washy “evil.”

Then, as I get older and more into the history of comics, I discover that the Joker is a real creep. His original look was based on this:

The Man Who Laughs

The Man Who Laughs

It’s a still from a 1928 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s little-known novel The Man Who Laughsstarring Conrad Veidt, a German actor remembered best for his role as a Nazi officer in Casablanca. In the story, the character Gwynplaine is a disfigured actor who learns he is actually the son of a baron. His father, an enemy of the king, was killed and the then-toddler Gwynplaine was given to a group of gypsies who purposefully mutilated his face in order to use him to beg for money. Obviously, the character of The Joker has no connection to this role outside of his grotesque look. Man, that is one creepy black and white photo.

In his earliest appearances he was portrayed as a maniacal mass murderer, reinforcing the widely held belief that clowns are evil freaks. It wasn’t until the Comics Code Authority (and the invention of television) cracked down on his heinous crimes that The Joker became the buffoon-based annoyance we all remember so dearly. Seriously. How intimidated would you be if your main villain dressed in purple, pranced around like a court jester on speed with a giant mallet in his hands and left you gift-wrapped packages that ticked ominously? Boooo-ring!

And of course, nowadays with the voluntary removal of the CCA’s oversight, Joker has returned to his ham-fisted murdering and cackling ways…bludgeoning Robin, paralyzing Batgirl and pretty much running free through the streets of Gotham City without a care or fear in the world. I had retreated from comics in the late 90’s (it’s a long story, but had much to do with Spider-Man’s Clone Saga) and returned to the fold just as Joker: The Last Laugh was hitting the shelves. Like John said, it was meant to be “the last Joker story” as the character was dying from cancer or something like that, but the whole thing turned out to be a ruse set up for Joker to escape from prison (if I remember correctly). I was not impressed.

The best thing his legacy has given us is Harley Quinn, a character that fit well with Joker’s depiction in the animated series, but defies logic in the comics version of the character. Like John has effectively pointed out, who in their right mind would work with this psycho? Granted, Quinn is a bit loopy herself. However, I find it difficult to fathom that anyone in even the harshest of domestic situations would stick by someone who has repeatedly tried to kill them (even admitting as much), especially if that person were also a well-known criminal and crazy person. Henchmen be damned!

What this all boils down to, yet again, are inconsistencies in the character. Random revamps, multiple origin stories, overhauls in attitude and goals and a lack of emotional attachment to The Joker are what have led me to be so underwhelmed with his potential. Wizard magazine voted him as “The Best Comic Book Villain” in 2006, but I just don’t see the allure. Jack Nicholson didn’t help matters with his role in Tim Burton’s Batman franchise relaunch either. There’s just no menace left in The Joker and I have to agree that his continued existence baffles me too. Someone at some point would have offed the guy by now. People like him cannot exist outside the law for so long and at such a high profile that they would avoid retribution by either a police officer, a costumed vigilante or just some misguided, obsessed stalker who thinks that killing The Joker will bring him instant fame and glory.

And I don’t care how righteous and honorable Batman wants to sell himself as, no one would hold it against him if he snapped this loser’s neck, tossed him in a pile of garbage and walked away whistling a happy tune. It just makes no sense. There’s not a legal system in the world that would continue to treat this monster with the kid gloves demonstrated in the DC Universe. He’s unrepentant, uncaring and unable to be rehabilitated.

So I guess the big question is, how do we fix him?

Wait, how do we fix him? Isn’t that what I asked you? Yeesh.

The big problem is that I’m not honestly sure he needs to be fixed as much as he needs to simply go away. Does Batman need this guy in his Rogues Gallery? I don’t think so. We’ve detailed some great villains over the past week, and there are other really good Batman villains that we didn’t even touch. Two Face. Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn (who I think works perfectly on her own). The Ventriloquist. The Riddler. Catwoman. Penguin. Ra’s Al Ghul. Black Mask. These are villains that stand as strong antagonists for Batman, in addition to the ones we detailed, and all of them have potential. Heck, I’d rather read a story where Bane is the villain than read another Joker story right now. Yes, I said that. I find Bane more interesting than the Joker. Obviously, this is not good for the Joker, since I would rather read the box which contains my morning cereal than read a story featuring Bane (although, I admit, some of my antipathy toward that character stems from him being used in Knightfall, and he’s received better treatment since then. But, that’s another post…). The point here is that I don’t see the Joker bringing anything to the table that another Bat-Villain can’t bring, and they can probably bring it in a more interesting way, and one that doesn’t make my head hurt.

When we fix characters around here, as is our mission, we’re usually giving them a direction or trying to reimagine them for a new audience. We’re trying to fix their continuity problems and straighten out the mess that’s been made of them over the preceding years. However, since one of the Joker’s biggest problems is that he’s completely overexposed, it’s hard to fix him and use him, since he’d still be overexposed. It’s kind of like fixing Wolverine, the most overused and annoying character in the Marvel Universe, and he’s not half as bad as the Joker (although he is used waaaaay too much and is annoying…let the flaming of John begin!).

So, rule number one for a revamp of the Joker…limit his appearances! He gets used, at most, for one story a year for the next five years. No crossovers. I don’t care that he’d be great to stick into DC’s Absolutely Final We Mean It This Time Crisis…he doesn’t get used. I don’t care if Grant Morrison has the perfect story for the Joker in All-Star Superman. He gets told no. One story a year. He fights Batman. That’s it. I’d actually prefer to limit his appearances even more, but I realize what I’m suggesting is already unrealistic, so I’ll keep it at one story a year.

The second rule requires us to make a decision…do we deal with the fact that the Joker should be dead right now? I see two options…the first is to ignore the fact that his ass should have been capped already and simply use him in a reduced capacity (see rule number one) for a few years, until enough time has passed that he again becomes a credible character. It’s kind of a cop-out, but it could work. The second would be my preference, which would be to charge head first into the idea of why no one has killed the Joker yet. Perhaps a member of the GCPD could decide to take the Joker out, then find himself stopped by Batman, and could confront Batman with the question of why he has allowed so many people to die by turning a blind eye to the Joker’s crimes. Perhaps Batman himself could decide the Joker needs to die, and have a story where he questions whether this is a step he should take. Perhaps something else brings the issue up, but whatever the case, we need to end the story with some sort of reason why killing the Joker is bad. Sadly, I don’t have that reason. That lack of a reason would be the only way I’d support the first option. However, whichever option we take, that actually leads us into rule #2…tone down the Joker’s homicides. No more killing and maiming important members of the DC Universe, and less slaughter in general. He can be very dangerous without cutting a deadly swath through Who’s Who of the DC Universe.

So, that’s my start. Thoughts?

The reality of the situation is that The Joker is so ingrained in our society, not just for comic book fans but for general pop culture reference, that you can’t really ever get rid of him. Remember all the fake hoopla that accompanied the “death” of Superman? Did anyone honestly think that Warner Bros. would permanently remove one of their biggest icons (and greatest marketing tools)? Hell no! There’s a certain comfort level associated with the Average Joe being able to name-check villains with heroes. When I say “Spider-Man” you reply “Green Goblin.” When I say “Fantastic Four” you say “Doctor Doom.” Captain America leads to Red Skull, Magneto fights the X-Men, Daredevil has Bullseye (or Kingpin), Superman has Lex Luthor, even Groo faces off against Taranto…though he can never remember if they’re friends or enemies. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s an unwritten rule: a popular hero’s most recognizable arch-enemy will never, ever, ever truly go away.

Where does that leave us and our nefarious plans for his imminent demise? I don’t really think it changes anything. Like you’ve said, we can merely take him out of the picture without taking him out of existence. There are a plethora of opportunities to tell better Joker stories just by merely limiting his influence over the day-to-day goings-on in Gotham City.

Perhaps Batman has other things to worry about as all of our revamped villains (and even the cool ones we haven’t touched upon yet) begin to institute their insidious plans. Joker’s follies are pushed to the wayside as Batman deals with these newly inspired threats. The Caped Crusader spends the better part of two years trying to rein in these other dangers, while we catch glimpses of Joker’s disappointment and neglect in small backstories and flashback scenes. This could all lead up to one big blowout crossover story where the Joker tries to regain some respect. And, his ultimate plan foiled, he slinks back into the shadows for a few more years. Since he’s such a “big picture” threat and works best as a solo foe, I think this scenario would fit his needs perfectly and still allow writers to delve into the big, powerful Joker tales they all want to tell.

Another option would be to change his position in the Bat-verse. Instead of being the main villain, we can relegate him to a smaller snitch-type role or even a kind of, heavens forbid, adviser to Batman. For instance, he performs one last caper, gets captured by the Dark Knight, and finally gets imprisoned in a place that he can’t possibly ever escape from under any circumstances. Batman could visit him, a la Hannibal Lecter, and pick his twisted brain for information concerning other villains and criminal activities. It would be a way of subtly rehabbing him for readers and slowly integrating him into a different role. However, it also leaves open the possibility for him to have a complete 180-degree flip back into psycho bad guy mode and go absolutely crazy again. I see visions of Norman Osborn in this restructuring (which would be another avenue if The Joker actually had an alter ego we could exploit).

I like your idea of exploring a “Why Don’t We Just Freaking Shoot Him in the Face?” arc that involves members of the GCPD, Batman and a bunch of flashbacks (like a sitcom clip show) that show instances of his ultimate survival. However, once that storyline has reached its logical conclusion…whatever that may end up being…I think another revamp option would be to go completely over the top with his homicidal tendencies. If you think about Batman’s rogues gallery, there isn’t a real killer threat in the bunch of them (though Killer Croc definitely would cross that line if allowed). Sure, they’re all dangerous in their own ways, but there’s no overwhelming danger in dealing with any of them mostly because they all have their own personal goals. On the flip side, The Joker’s only obvious goal is to rid the world of Batman. But there’s no rule that says he has to pursue a straight line to get there. He’s a freakishly sociopathic clown for goodness’ sake! Let him run roughshod over everyone, taking out any loose ends, any horribly misused characters and any continuity problems left over from the Never-Ending Crises. Basically we turn The Joker into DC’s Scourge, except minus the altruistic goal of “removing bad villains from the world” and adding in the bottom line of ticking Batman off to the nth degree and drinking his milkshake.

Regardless of the “Choose Your Own adventure” options I’ve supplied to you, I agree that the final outcome of limiting Joker’s appearances (and his influence) is what needs to be reached. Put a moratorium on his nuisance factor and turn him into more of a whispered legend that may eventually rear its ugly head again some day. So which option works best for you?

I love your idea of using him as a Hannibal Lector type for awhile, and think that can work in with the idea of confronting why Batman has never killed him, and why the Joker’s survival has value. So, we start out by running our story on why the Joker has not been capped yet. We go a few issues, and we explore various characters and their thoughts on this subject (I know that Gordon, at one time, thought that killing the Joker would be doing exactly what the Joker wanted, and that Gordon wanted him kept alive and processed through the legal system to show the Joker that he couldn’t break Gordon) and in the end, Batman has the opportunity to either capture or kill the Joker. I think he chooses the first option, and I think he does it for much of the reason that Gordon outlined. If Batman kills the Joker, then the Joker wins, by pushing Batman past the law and forcing Batman to take matters into his own hands. Honestly, Gordon’s rationale may be the only one that makes any sort of sense when considering the Joker’s continued survival, and if we assume that Gordon made this philosophy known to the GCPD, it may explain why none of them have blown out the Joker’s brains in some dark alley; they refrain out of respect for Gordon’s wishes.

However, after Batman captures the Joker, and the Joker heads to court, a very aggressive District Attorney manages to convince the judge (which shouldn’t be too freaking hard) that putting the Joker back in Arkham Asylum is too dangerous. For all the security at Arkham Asylum, they might as well just let him go. The judge agrees, and with the help of the Justice League, this new, escape proof cell is devised. The Joker is placed there, just like a Hannibal Lector, and the only one that he’ll speak with is his very own Clarice, Batman. Now, not only do we get to see Batman and the Joker interact, but if the Joker can help Batman with some information that saves lives, it begins to validate the Joker’s survival and Batman doesn’t look so bad for letting the schmuck live. I wouldn’t have Batman going to the Joker often (in fact, I’d have it be very rare; again, not more than once or twice a year), and only on really big cases, where Batman is trying to figure something out that’s outside of his own area of expertise. Perhaps he needs information on criminal hideouts, or the working of the psychopathic mind, and Joker may be useful.

By keeping the Joker like this for a year or two, we limit his exposure and are still building a bigger reputation for him. Then, after a few years, he escapes. He would probably need outside help, and I’m not sure who would help him, but maybe someone springs the Joker just so the Joker could wreak havoc. Perhaps Batman, with the Joker out of the way, is really able to stay on top of Gotham’s other villains, and so some of them join forces. The Penguin, Riddler and Poison Ivy decide that, if the Joker were on the loose again, he’d distract Batman from their nefarious doings, so they team up, concoct a plan, and the Joker is freed. However, the Joker promptly disappears, giving Batman the chance to school the three masterminds on the error of their ways. Batman then waits for the Joker to make his move. And he waits. And waits.

For at least a year the Joker is silent. Then he returns, as you described him above, working alone, and doing one or two (absolutely no more than two) crimes a year, crimes whose main goal is eliminating his hated foe, although as you pointed out, that road may not be a straight one. No more gangs. No more Harley Quinn (she’s been on her own since Joker got busted a few years ago, and can stay on her own). Just the Joker, striking alone and without warning, at anyone whose death could help further his twisted plans.

Does that tie it together?

I think it works well and it nearly makes me not hate The Joker. In fact, it could almost be seen as a blessing, turning the “oh great…Joker’s back” reaction into more of a “cool, the Joker’s back!” Of course, I’d like to see other things done with him as well…like dialing back the ridiculous outfit he wears. If they can makeover the Riddler to look less obnoxious, then it shouldn’t be too hard to do the same for Mr. Clown-Face. At the very least, give him a tailored suit in a rational color that doesn’t make it seem like he raped an Old West mortician and stole his ribbon tie. Is that too much to ask?

I’m apprehensive to say that we’ve wrapped this up nicely because I believe that Heath Ledger’s prematurely-legendary performance may reopen this can of worms for the general public. However, strictly comics-speaking, we’ve managed to handle a difficult character with genuine aplomb and for that I say we pat ourselves on our respective backs and move on to the next challenge.


Mad Hatter: Let’s Go Crazy! Let’s Get Nuts!

Jul-03-08

Mad as a...uh...well, you know.

What is it with comic book writers inventing characters who can hypnotize people with their hats? Look, there is nothing inherently frightening or intimidating about a weird dude in a top hat. And yet, at the same time, there most definitely is something…off-putting about it.

Jervis Tetch is either a simple character to write that has just been over-thought, or he’s an impossibly complicated character to write that has never been handled correctly. When you’re that completely crazy, it’s really hard to make it believable (and unbelievable too). Here’s another villain whose background has been muddled over the years. At times he’s been obsessed with Lewis Carroll and reciting silly nonsense rhymes. At other times he’s shown as being unhealthily drawn to hats. He’s pulled simple crimes and ornate schemes. He’s used mostly mind control as his modus operandi, kidnapped little girls to sell as sex slaves, and even used his hats on himself to induce pleasure and lucidity. He’s one messed up little man.

On paper, he holds a lot of similarities to Scarecrow. The main difference is that while Scarecrow seems relatively sane while committing his crimes, Mad Hatter is quite the opposite. The little bugger is, to put it simply, mad. Cuckoo. Nutso. Off his rocker. Clinically wacko…from manic depressive, to obsessive-compulsive, delusional, schizophrenic and dangerously homicidal. However, where The Joker comes across as being a bit off and obsessed with taking down Batman, Tetch appears to just be totally chaotic. His schemes make no sense, they have very obtuse goals and roundabout processes. He babbles nonsense. He seems to be playing along only to turn and sink a knife into someone’s back. One moment he’s foaming at the mouth, the next he’s sipping a cup of tea and talking to stuffed animals.

Before we get into our regular back-and-forth session, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I think Gail Simone handled him beautifully in his recent Secret Six appearance. He was weird, creepy, helpful and one hundred percent dangerous all at the same time. She made you feel bad for him and then she made you feel bad for anyone who was around him. The little quirks, like only eating food with hats on it, really gave his character some much-welcomed dark humor.

So where do you start with a revamp ? What’s the big idea here? Who is Jervis Tetch and where does he fit in the DC Universe? Can the Mad Hatter be made into a big time villain?

Since you brought her up, can I just say that I think Gail Simone is one of the best writers in comics today, and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being as good as she is? She’s excellent with character, but doesn’t neglect plot (so many writers seem to favor one element over the other), she doesn’t feel the need to eject years of continuity to tell her stories, and she does a very good job of balancing serious subjects, yet injecting a little bit of humor into a book as well. I am a huge fan of hers, and I have been ever since I first read her column “You’ll All Be Sorry”, which was consistently one of the funniest columns on the internet. I am always entertained by her work.

Of course, that first paragraph has nothing to do with the Mad Hatter, probably because I’m stalling for time and trying to fill up space. I’ve been contemplating Mr. Tetch since we first mentioned the Bat-Villains as our next group of characters we wanted to explore, and I’ve focused really hard on him this morning, since now he was on the blog, in black and white, with a nifty picture. It hasn’t helped. I’ve never really had a handle on this character, perhaps because nobody else has a handle on him either. We keep coming back to this fact with a lot of Batman’s villains, but you mention here again how the Mad Hatter has been depicted in a variety of ways over his career. I suppose, when characters have been around this long, that’s to be expected. Honestly, my most vivid (and fond) memory of the character is what was done to him in Batman: The Animated Series (another subject that keeps popping up for us) and even then the character didn’t interest me much; I just liked Roddy McDowell’s voice work.

So, what do we do with the Hatter? Um, I have no idea. Let him be a casualty the next time a character needs to be killed to prove a point? Team him up with the Ringmaster in an intercompany crossover? Perhaps Marvel and DC could trade some characters, the way pro-sports teams trade players? I’m stumped on this one….but I have no doubt you have a crafty plan up your sleeve. I’m anxious to hear it.

Nice cop out. Let me see if I can struggle out from under this sudden and unexpected “right back at ya!” weight. Jerk.

I have to admit that my thoughts were all over the place on this character as well. I always saw him as a bit of a goofy, themed villain in my earliest exposures to the Batman world. Then, when I dove into the Loeb/Sale stories, I started to see him in a different light. Now, he’s actually one of my favorite Bat-foes. And after reading your befuddled response, I have reached an epiphany about Mr. Jervis Tetch. His origin and previous appearances are not at odds with his current incarnation. In fact, there is nothing overtly conflicting about his character at all. He is just totally and one hundred percent crazy.

How liberating it must be, as a professional comics writer, to be able to pluck an established character out of the ether and use him as you see fit without any reverence to his previous appearances, knowing that you always have the ultimate editorial excuse in your back pocket: he did it because he’s crazy. Why has he stopped reciting nursery rhymes and is now fixated on hats? Because he’s nuts. Why is he obsessed with little girls yet manages to create advanced technological gadgets? Because he’s an ACME Brand loony-tune! Why was he a brunette, then a blond (with a pet monkey), then a gray-haired older man with a penchant for stabbing strangers? Because reality has no use in his mind!

Batman would be spending as much time assuring that Tetch was not a threat to himself as he would be keeping Hatter from causing trouble for others. And the unpredictability would be truly enlightening. He could crack in mid-sentence and go on a killing spree that only ended when he finally got his hands on a bowl full of green gummi bears. He could cook up a scheme to steal all the pants in Gotham City as an offering to the aliens that contacted him in his sleep last week. He could start blowing up post offices after he believes that the President is ignoring his subliminal messages involving a National Custard Pie Day. Jervis Tetch can do ANYTHING.

It would be liberating to write dialogue for a madman and you could really push your creative limits when coming up with plotlines and reactions. Imagine Batman sitting at the Bat-computer as it spits out theory after twisted theory on what Hatter was going to do next, what hidden meanings may or may not be present in his motives and how he could be stopped or at least derailed (if that’s even possible with a schizophrenic showman).

I’m not sure this is a big idea as much as it is a revelation into the truth of the character. I still haven’t really answered any of the questions I posed at the end of my initial post. So how does it all fit together?

You’ve discovered my super-hero identity….Cop-Out King. I’ll sit around the Watchtower, sipping mai-tais and eating Cheetos, and when the rest of the Justice League comes back from smacking down Amazo, I’ll tell them that I was going to help, but I had to take my Kingmobile in for service at Jiffy Lube. Or I was going to help them decipher the newest super-riddle from the Riddler, but I was really busy talking to the Police Commissioner about a possible charity gig for us. Gee, and I would have enjoyed being part of the team that busted Darkseid, but I was trying to finish the latest Neil Gaiman novel. I expect Cop-Out King to take the comics world by storm.

Anyway, I do like what you’re suggesting with the Hatter. We’ve basically been spending most of our time in these Bat-Villain entries explaining that, yeah, this villain may be a little crazy, but it’s a very functional crazy. I like the idea that Hatter is simply bat-guano insane (are we a PG blog?; I didn’t want to be slapped with a mature readers label, so I’m keeping it sanitized). As you say, it actually gives the writers a lot of room to work with him. It could be considered a cop-out in its own right, if we were using it to label every villain. However, for this one villain, I think it works well. Hatter is actually crazier than the Joker, and I like that.

As for those questions you ask, as to how he fits into the DCU and if he could be a big time villain, I’d have to give the latter question a big fat, “NO!!!” While I like the idea of Tetch as you describe him, I think his insanity would prevent him from ever being truly effective. Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure Tetch does very well with his own schemes, and he might even plan big, but I wonder if someone with his level of insanity would ever be able to bring a detailed plan to fruition. I don’t think so. Of course, as I say that, I think of the things he’s been able to accomplish and some of those plans were incredibly detailed, but they never had a huge scope. I think, to be a really big time villain, you have to be able to perfect and execute not just one plan, but a whole series of them, leading to something really big, and I’m not sure that Tetch could do that.

I see the Hatter being very effective, however, on whatever scheme he’s currently working. After all, because the man is completely loony, it makes it that much harder for Batman to get inside Tetch’s mind and predict his next move. In many ways, Hatter’s very insanity is the best defense he has against Batman’s analytical mind. Hatter may not always take the next logical step, even if the next logical step is also the best step to accomplish the Hatter’s goals, and while that would normally be a weakness, it would be a strength if it allowed the Hatter to confound the Dark Knight. I like the edge that would give the Hatter, and think it could make him a very interesting foe.

This is why I see him as perhaps not a major villain in terms of world domination, but a major villain in terms of nuisance and effectiveness. As long as he can avoid being captured, the Mad Hatter can wreak havoc throughout the DC Universe. No one knows where he’ll strike next or what he’ll do or what the consequences will be. And he shouldn’t be chained to Gotham City either. I see nothing in his origin or operation that is Gotham-related specifically. He could be used effectively in just about any title that DC prints right now. Of course, that doesn’t really help us redefine him as a Bat-villain either.

But I think the biggest thing you’ve pointed out is the fact that Jervis Tetch is much more insane than the Joker. Hatter is so crazy he’s barely within the scope of reality. Joker is just unpredictable. Hatter sometimes switches up the way he handles situations, preferring to play along sometimes if it helps him attain his goals more efficiently. Joker is just an evil jerk. If Batman has to stare down the face of madness in order to counteract any personal demons he may be struggling with, I think it’s far more productive to have him battle the diminutive Tetch than it is to have him go toe-to-toe once again with the overused Joker whose only goal is to eliminate Batman, and not to simply cause chaos in spite of him.

And, with that proclamation, I assume we should move the discussion on to The Joker himself…


Batman’s Bad Men (And Women)!

Jun-23-08

We’ve threatened to do it before and this time we’re following through on it. It’s DC time at “Meanwhile…Comics!” After realizing that the Young Justice post we did a while back has remained our most popular item (which is interesting in itself, since it’s the only post that didn’t offer any true solutions to the questions it raised, but I digress) and seeing that the new Batman film will hit the streets in less than four weeks, we’re dedicating all of our posts until then to the Dark Knight himself.

Today’s entry is similar in scope to the YJ post in that it’s just going to give an overview, mention some discrepancies, and most likely just kind of fizzle out at the end without a resolution or even a feasible recap. That’s the way we roll, playa. We’re award-nominated now. We have to keep it real.

So bring on the bad guys!

Of all the popular comic book characters in modern times, none has a more recognizable rogues gallery than Batman. Sure, the Spider-Man movies have shone the spotlight on a few of Spidey’s most popular foes, but no one outside of the nine circles of fandom would know The Jackal or be able to identify The Chameleon in a lineup (even trickier considering his abilities). Batman’s villains owe a lot to the media…from toys to films to television to lunchboxes to cartoons to party favors…in making them as everyday as they are. I don’t know a single person who couldn’t name these four ne’er-do-wells:

Bif. Bam. Pow. Sigh.

Let’s just jump into this from left to right, then we’ll hit some of the second-tier baddies.

The Penguin: A dude with trick umbrellas and henchmen with bird-based nicknames. Intriguing. I always thought that Penguin was pretty lame and he was made even worse by Tim Burton who turned him into a flippered weirdo who looked like Danny DeVito. Oh, wait, that was Danny DeVito, wasn’t it? Blah. Anyway, steps have been taken on the comics side of things to turn Mr. Oswald Cobblepot into a serious businessman/nightclub owner/smuggler. That makes a lot more sense to me. No one’s going to take a tiny fat guy with an umbrella and an avian fixation seriously as a “dangerous” villain, but he can pull off the criminal mastermind role quite well.

The Riddler: Most of my exposure to this clown comes from various cartoon series and revolves around his incessant need to not-so-cryptically telegraph his evil plans to Batman right before he tries to pull them off. Plus he dresses in a bright green, question mark-covered leotard, which is not a good thing. In the comics, he has “gone straight” and become a sort of detective in his own capacity. Again, a good turn as far as I’m concerned. There are enough horrible villains out there whose only goal is to get captured again and again. At least the Riddler keeps things interesting by making you think he’s trying to help you.

Catwoman: Never my favorite threat, she works much better as someone who travels in the gray areas of the system. Nowadays, she’s more or less on the hero side of things anyway.

The Joker: Wow. The most overused villain in all of comics. The fact that he has done so much over the years and yet has gotten no true punishment out of it just seems to reinforce the limits on superheroes in the public eye. I get it. He’s crazy. Big deal. Batman should just slit his throat and dump him in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Who’s going to miss this loser? Writers have pigeonholed him so badly that there’s no way to identify with him anymore. There’s no inner conflict, no rationality, no pathos for the bad guy. He just does stuff with no rhyme or reason…intermittently a purely crazy, bloodthirsty bastard and then a goofy sad sack who can’t seem to catch a break. I care less about The Joker than I do about Hypno-Hustler (well, that’s not really fair since I really like Hypno-Hustler even though I shouldn’t).

So, the Big Four are easily identifiable, but are they archenemy-worthy? I don’t think so. I think they’ve been used too much to have any relevance anymore. But that is up for discussion, as always.

Next, I’m going to give a short rundown of the other nuisances in Batman’s sphere of influence:

Mr. Freeze: A frozen guy who’s ticked off because he caused his own wife’s death.

Ra’s Al Ghul: Leader of the League of Assassins who can regenerate himself

Scarecrow: He dresses in hay and burlap and uses fear toxin to creep people out.

Bane: A walking stack of steroids who once broke Batman’s back.

Two-Face: Horribly scarred (physically and mentally) former district attorney with an odd sense of ethics.

Mad Hatter: A quite insane scientist who can mesmerize people with various hats (what is it with hypnotic headgear in comic books?).

Poison Ivy: Can control plants and manipulate toxins to help control others (what is it with weird forms of mind control in comic books?).

Harley Quinn: Joker’s most famous sidekick and Poison Ivy’s best buddy.

Clayface: A big pile of…uh…clay that can change his appearance

Calendar Man: A semi-retarded dude who commits crimes based on various dates. Why?

Black Mask: The first truly interesting Batman villain in years, he is a Gotham City crime boss with an eye towards total domination of the city.

Hush: Lame villain created just to throw everyone off during what was quickly becoming a horrible storyline.

Killer Croc: A giant reptile/human hybrid who lives in the sewer and likes to eat people.

Man-Bat: Right. He’s a man who can become a giant bat for reasons never truly understandable.

Ventriloquist and Scarface: A timid man with a tiny wooden puppet who thinks he’s a gangster.

Calculator: Used to wear a costume with a giant keypad on the front of it. When no one would stop laughing, he decided to become a villainous information broker, the yin to Oracle’s yang.

Ah, some of these losers make me yearn for the heady, campy TV days of Egghead, King Tut and Lola Lasagne. Let’s all dance the Batusi and talk about the good and the bad in Batman’s rogues gallery, shall we?

There is no doubt in my mind that Batman has the richest cast of characters in all of comicdom. There’s the plethora of villains that populate Gotham City (and really, who can blame the occassional psychologist or author who extends the theory that there are so many whackos in Gotham City because of Batman himself….no other city has this many freaks running around in it!), and there’s also his good guy friends (who shan’t be discussed until another post). I also think you touched upon something very important; Batman’s cast has probably seen more public exposure through various forms of media than any other comic character I can name. Even more interesting is how often the movie, cartoon or television version will begin to overwrite the original comics version. A lot of these characters have evolved considerably thanks to the fine work of some talented individuals in non-comics media (I am particularly looking at everyone involved in Batman: The Animated Series, which was one of the best super-hero portrayals anywhere, anytime, anyhow).

I think that the Big Four that you mentioned all deserve their own posts. Goodness knows the Joker does. I’d like to take a stand here on the Joker and say this for public consumption. I. HATE. THE. JOKER. He used to be an interesting character, but, as you said, he has been horribly overused, and his continued existence snaps my extension of disbelief faster than Tobias Whale sitting on wicker furniture. The fact that Gordon or one of the Gotham City cops didn’t pop a cap in his ass after No Man’s Land is one of the stupidest….at least Harvey Bullock would have……grrraaarrgh! This will be a post closer to the movie. Count on it.

As for some of the other villains you mention, they’re an interesting bunch. At least, they can be. Mr. Freeze is undoubtedly my favorite….when he’s being written for the aforementioned Animated Series. Somehow, he never translates as well into the comics. I think one of the problems with Mr. Freeze is that he’s powerful. If you look at Batman’s Rogues Gallery, these are not very powerful villains; they’re mostly normal humans with a couple of gimmicks. Perhaps the most physically powerful of them, Killer Croc, is also an idiot, and that balances out. But Freeze is powerful and smart and I think that makes him stand out amongst the other rogues. He should be the star of the galaxy, but he’s not. And why is that his power’s fault? Well, it seems that many writers delve further into the psyches of the non-powerful Rogues, probably because the hideously scarred psyche is what makes Batman’s foes interesting. With Freeze, they have this cool power they can play with, and that seems to be what they focus on. Perhaps, without that power, they’d focus a little more on the tragic nature of the character. Of all Batman’s foes, I think Freeze may ultimately be the saddest and the one that the reader can empathize with the most; Freeze wasn’t evil, but he saw someone he loved die and was himself horribly injured in an accident, and that’s pushed him to the edge.

I don’t want to spend too much time on any one villain, and I just talked about Freeze more than I probably should, but let me hit a few other baddies real quick. I think that Batman’s main foe should be Two-Face. He has the most interesting backstory, the fact that he was both Batman’s and Gordon’s friend is unique to him as a villain, and the fact that there is some good in him also brings him to the forefront. Too many people want to write Two-Face stories where they forget about the fact that he was once very close to Batman and Gordon. For a time, he was closer to them than anyone else. He must have knowledge about them he could use against them; why hasn’t he used it? Like Freeze, he’s also a tragic character, and that doesn’t get played up enough; this was a man who had a good life, and it was stripped away from him because of an evil man. I’d play with that a little more.

Harley Quinn is wonderful, and I love seeing her, especially be herself. Keep her away from the Joker! (Have I mentioned my hatred of that character?) She doesn’t need the Joker to be interesting, and is actually much more fascinating when she’s got her own plans and is calling the shots her own way, rather than when she is playing sycophant to the most overused villain in comics. Ugh.

Clayface is another one I’d like to talk about. Batman tends to veer toward horror stories (or, at the very least, grisly, moody and spooky noir stories) and Clayface would be perfect there. Again, however, he seems to be a victim of his power, as everyone wants to write about the guy who can change his shape. Whoopdee-doo. Let’s go back to the original Clayface, Basil Karlo, a horror film actor who goes insane. You could do some very spooky stories with him; the shape changing could be a nice complement, rather than the star of the show. Scarecrow is another character that would fit well in the moodier stories, but they kind of need to figure out how to use him. He was very well done in the No Man’s Land stories (and really, savor those words, as I will likely never type them again), being used as what he is; a student of psychology, who knows how to twist people mentally to do what he wants. Then, Jeph Loeb used him in Hush and he was some crazy nursery rhyme spouting schmoe. What the hell? Scarecrow is a brilliant college professor, and can be quite spooky. Let’s give the guy his due.

Finally, one more quick note….I find the Ventriloquist both fascinating, very cool, and utterly ridiculous. I really like the idea of someone with a split personality finding an outlet for that personality through a ventriloquist’s dummy. That’s great! What a neat idea….that never seems to work. Seriously, this character always hits me as being silly and I find it difficult to believe any serious criminal would work for this man. I know most of the Bat-foes are crazy, but he takes the cake! Could there be potential here….just maybe..

So, do we break these characters down into separate posts, because I think we could do most of them justice, or do we lump them together in a few posts? Or do we just discuss them all right here, because there’s plenty of potential with these crazies!

Interesting…I’ve always enjoyed Mr. Freeze from the cartoons too. And the Snow storyline from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight retold his origin in a clear and clean way (with amazing art from the late, great Seth Fisher). I agree that, aside from B:TAS, no one has really paid attention to the anguish in his life.

I like Scarecrow too, but I prefer Mad Hatter. I think he was used brilliantly by Gail Simone in her Secret Six run. Plus, he’s quite freakin’ insane…more so than the Joker, I think. There’s a certain level of creepiness to his ramblings and random crimes (not to mention the subtle notes of pedophilia). He reaches for the unexpected immediately and I find that completely readable.

I don’t know much about Clayface in the comics. Harley Quinn is a phenomenon in her own right by the fact that the animated series made her the character she is today. You don’t often see that kind of transition. And Two-Face has his moments, but it’s hard for me to get the ridiculous Tommy Lee Jones take out of my head.

If you have nothing else to say in this intro post, I believe we can start breaking some of these villains out in their own entries and see what we can do with them. I’d like to tackle Mad Hatter. You’re free to start with Clayface, Two-Face, Ventriloquist, Scarecrow or Mr. Freeze. Then, together we can spout our hatred for The Joker. That’s seven villains ripe for revamps…and you know how I love the number seven!