Superhorrors: When Capes and Killings Clash

Oct-29-08

So, Jason and I have been discussing bringing horror into your superhero comics, and how it can be done successfully. We thought we’d take some time to examine some heroes and teams in the multiverse of comics that we think lend themselves particularly well to the horror genre. I’m going to just mention five that I think would work well, although to be honest, I think just about any character that is not simply used for comedic effect can work in a horror comic. I’m not sure I’d write the Ambush Bug Halloween Special, although that could be very amusing. Still, it’s not hitting quite the effect that we were hoping for.

I’m not going to be focusing on characters like Ghost Rider and Deadman since it’s pretty obvious that they work well in horror comics. I’m also not going to be suggesting an entire series based around horror for these characters: I’m not suggesting a new Spider-Man book called Spidey Horror Stories or anything. I’m just going to spotlight some characters who could have a really good one or two issue story in their titles that is more in the horror genre and less in the superhero genre. Here we go!

Fantastic Four: At first it might not seem that this group, the brightly colored leaders of Marvel’s superhero universe, could work well in horror. Johnny and Ben are too goofy, and they’re a more happy-go-lucky team, you might believe. However, I think they’d be perfect. Right off the bat is the fact that they’re explorers, which means they find themselves in situations where horror could be found. In fact, I have a scenario already in mind.

Our Fantastic Foursome are flying through the Negative Zone, moving a small group of refugees whose homeworld was destroyed by Annihilus, when they encounter a derelict spaceship. Reed wants to investigate, and so they dock with the ship, and they begin to explore. As Reed tries to determine what happened on the ship and where the crew went, the team splits up to search for clues. Along the way they begin to discover that whatever happened was mighty unpleasant, and that the cause of the crew’s disappearance may still be lurking aboard!

The Fantastic Four have those dark blue/black uniforms, so they can be drawn in a darker art style and still look faithful to original design. The Thing, of course, works perfectly in a horror setting, since he’s a monster. The Thing and the Torch might be lighthearted at first, but they would get serious when the danger became apparent, and that helps sell the horror; if something can scare or at least unnerve these two, then it shows the audience that it must be pretty bad. If you make the threat something supernatural that helps too, since the FF tend to deal in hard science, and the supernatural will immediately throw them out of their element. The refugees give us characters who can be killed or disappear, since we obviously won’t kill the FF. The trick is not to make the danger about whether the FF will be killed, since everyone knows that won’t happen, but whether or not they can protect this group of refugees. Keep the refugees in danger and have the danger stalking them, and you’ve got actual tension. After all, the FF are the ones who decided to stop at this ship; they are truly responsible for these civilians, and are going to do whatever they can to protect them.

I think there are a lot of creative teams that could do something like this justice, but I would choose Dan Jurgens and Kevin Nowlan. They worked together on a Superman/Aliens story that had the sort of atmosphere I’m envisioning.

Martian Manhunter: He’s dead, which makes him perfect for a horror comic! I kid. Assuming he wasn’t dead, I think J’onn J’onzz would do well in a horror story. Honestly, were I to use him in a comic, I’d use him more like the Phantom Stranger. Because of Jonn’s shapeshifting powers, he can be anyone and anything. He used to want to explore the world around him and learn more about humanity. I can envision an actual series with him traveling the world, taking on different identities and spending time with people. In many cases, he’d be more of a guest star in his own series, as we’d truly be reading the stories of other people, with J’onn more on the periphery. Not all of these stories would have to have a horror bent, but some certainly could.

For example, perhaps J’onn meets a group of people in an inn, where he stops to wait out some bad weather on his travels right around Halloween. He spends some time in the common areas meeting the guests and giving the reader a chance to learn about the other characters. Everyone retires to their rooms, but strange things are happening. J’onn assumes the suspicious activities are part of some Halloween prank, but then people start turning up missing or dead. What’s happening to them? J’onn’s a powerful hero, but his power does him no good when he doesn’t know who the bad guy is or from where the threat originates. I think JM DeMatteis would write something like this quite well, and Tom Ostrander has the sort of moody art which would be perfect!

There’s two, and I went longer than I thought. Do you think they have potential, and do you have any of your own to add?

That’s so weird. I was making a mental list in my head and the Fantastic Four was one group that I had definitely decided could never be made into a horror book. And yet, your idea is strangely compelling. Although, to be honest, it reminds me more of a Challengers of the Unknown plot with some convenient superpowers thrown in for good measure.

For me, the obvious titles/teams/characters that could be turned in a horror direction are some of the ones we’ve already mentioned and revamped: The Defenders fighting off the supernatural in a largely covert manner, a la X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Doctor Strange in pretty much any situation; and, of course, Batman when he’s fighting one of his more psychological (or just plain psycho) foes like Scarecrow or Mad Hatter. I enjoy the twisted paths those stories could go down.

However, if I wanted to pitch a completely new direction for an established character, I would pick:

Vision and Scarlet Witch: I know, it’s kind of a cop-out choosing a character with the word “witch” in her name, but bear with me. I see this as more of an urban horror story. Vision plays the role of the vengeful ghost and Wanda is the troubled street urchin trying to convert the masses to her way of thinking. She has that Old World bent to her, but the metropolitan citizens ignore her and look down upon her. Vision visits the successful city businessmen who have shunned their morals in favor of greed and expansion. He’s a creepy robot, the perfect representation of technology run amok, and he can float through their freakin’ walls! The Vision has gone rogue and is taking out his vengeance on the leaders of this new economy. It’s up to Scarlet Witch to find a way to soothe the savage beast, as it were. I’d like to see this written by Warren Ellis, someone who knows a thing or two about current tech but also has a foothold in the paganistic side of things too. And the artwork needs to be done by someone who has a realistic and detailed style…maybe John Cassaday? Or Tim Sale?

Hulk: Given the Jekyll and Hyde background of the character, this is probably a bit of a cheat. At the same time, the Hulk has always been more about the anger and rage of being a monster than of the dark guilt and isolation of being a man with a troubling, uncontrollable secret. Bruce Banner has removed himself to a secluded village somewhere in South America, in the windy valleys of the Andes. He’s set himself up as the town doctor, attending to the elderly residents and the children of the village. But not is all as it seems. In fact, he learns that a lot of the injuries he’s trying to heal have been caused by some mysterious beast that haunts the fields at night. A strong-willed policewoman from the neighboring city has been tasked to track this villain down. Unfortunately for them both, she and Bruce fall in love and he joins the cause to help her hunt…him. This book would have to be written from a first person point of view, like some of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest works, but with a modern nuance and awareness. I’d put Brian K. Vaughan up to the task. And the art style would need to be dark and muted, with the monster emerging from the shadows to claim its victims. I think Ryan Sook could pull this off well.

I think any of these stories, mine or John’s, would work well in an anthology book, similar to the recent X-Men and Avengers Fairy Tales series. Thoughts?

I really like your idea of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch in horror stories, and your creative team is fine.  However, if I may suggest an alternate penciller, I’d like to throw out the name of Michael Bair.  He’s primarily known as an inker, and does a tremendous job in that capacity.  However, he has done some pencilling, and he did a short Vision story for an anthology (probably an Avengers Annual) where the Vision goes into a burning building to rescue a child.  His artwork was extremely moody and creepy (the child is afraid to go with the Vision because the Vision scares him, and a reader could certainly understand why!) and I think he might be an interesting choice.

Fantastic Four vs the Challengers of the Unknown:  honestly, aren’t they the same thing, except with superpowers and a family situation?  They’re both explorers, and you’re right, you could do the story with the Challengers, and it would be excellent.  In fact, perhaps that could be a good pitch for the next Challengers revival; something more horror related.

I do agree that any of these ideas could work if they were fleshed out.  You mention the Fairy Tales series Marvel published; why not a horror series?  Start producing it in the beginning of the year, and then release it weekly in October.  You could do two or three a year, four issues each, and if they come out once a week it could really draw in an audience, particularly at the spookiest time of the year.  You could release collected editions of them the following year 2-3 weeks before Halloween, while also releasing a new batch of weekly horror for that year.  It could be a nice marketing plan, and by the second year, you’d have single issues of horror for the comics shop crowd, and collected horror trades for the bookstore market! 


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…


Scarecrow: Not Just a Member of the Legion of Doom

Jul-01-08

Seriously, what was up with the Legion of Doom in those old Challenge of the Superfriends cartoons? Would Luthor just let anyone join? I mean, this is a team that was founded to fight a group that included Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, and Luthor thought that Toyman, Scarecrow and the Riddler were major threats, and had the potential to overcome these heroes?! I loved the first episode, when they introduced all the villains, and they spoke about the Riddler’s “super riddle power”. I wonder exactly how that power worked? However, I am not here to discuss the Riddler…not yet, anyway. Today we spend some time investigating the scariest member of Batman’s Rogues Gallery…the Scarecrow!

I think the concept of the Scarecrow is actually a pretty solid one. We start with a college psychology professor, one Dr. Jonathan Crane, who turns to crime because he is fired (I’m constantly amazed at how being fired is apparently very traumatic for some people. I’ve known many people who were fired for one reason or another, but none of them have yet donned odd costumes and turned to a life of crime. Obviously, my social circle must be too small). Because he knows psychology and is fascinated by fear, he decides to use those as his motif (because, if you are going to turn to crime because you’re fired, you can’t just go out, grab a ski mask and knock over a liquor store. No, you have to have a theme!) and becomes the Scarecrow. Although he was created back in the 1940s, he didn’t see much use until the Silver Age, when he was revived. Since then, he’s been a constant thorn in Batman’s side.

The underlying visual and thematic appeal of the Scarecrow can’t be denied. Yes, if drawn wrong he can look cartoonish and silly, but when drawn right he can look terrifying. Honestly, as much as I make fun of The Challenge of the Superfriends, Scarecrow occasionally stands apart from the rest of his villainous teammates in his somewhat fearsome appearance (fearsome, at least, within the confines of the Saturday morning cartoon world). In Batman; The Animated Series they made him look more gruesome still, particularly after he was redesigned for the later episodes. And, in the comics, he’s often looked very frightening. I’ve also always been fascinated by the fact that this is a gentleman who is a trained psychologist, and he should be using that training. Many times, he’s just been a guy with a fear gas, and that’s all they’ve done with him, but they should be able to do so much more. One of the best uses I’ve ever seen of the character was during No Man’s Land, when he situated himself in a church and used his knowledge of psychology to set disparate groups against each other. It was very well done, and there was nary a fear gas canister in sight.

My problem with the Scarecrow is that his characterization and look are all over the board. Sometimes he is presented as a very smart, but cold man, who has no times for games and needs to get on with the business of scaring people. Sometimes he’s shown as a genius in the field of psychology, and sometimes it doesn’t seem as if he’s had any training in that respect. I’ve seen him depicted as a man who lives only to create fear in others, with all other considerations secondary, and as someone where fear is merely a means to an end. At times he appears as a rational man, as he did in No Man’s Land. Then you see him in something like Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush and he appears to be nothing more than a madman, quoting nursery rhymes in lieu of intelligent discourse and apparently incapable of anything else. That needs to stop and we need to portray him in a more consistent manner.

So, what do we keep and what do we ditch? What makes Scarecrow a worthy addition to the Rogues’ Gallery? I have some ideas on the subject, but I’ve been babbling on for quite awhile, so I’ll turn this over to the lovely and talented Jason first, to see if he has any thoughts on the subject.

Well, given the fact that this is the cover to Scarecrow’s first appearance, I think we have some explaining to do:

I always knew Robin was the catcher.

To say the character of Jonathan Crane has been “all over the place” is an understatement. As you’ve noted, he’s gone from respected psychologist to poetry-spewing madman to pharmacological genius to clueless dolt all in the span of a few appearances. Even Wikipedia lists him as insane. His origin has been vague and tweaked and expanded and retconned and ignored. He has been mentioned as liking to frighten birds (makes sense for a scarecrow), then as having a phobia of birds and then, subsequently, being fascinated by birds and given a pet crow. He starts out using his costumed persona to frighten people into doing his bidding, then its said that he actually began his fear-inducing career as a result of early childhood bullying. This later expands to include his constant interest in fear and the experiments he begins that lead to his psychology career. He works at Arkham Asylum and takes the Scarecrow moniker because of the teasing he endured due to his lanky frame. At some point he develops his fear toxin only to stop using it recently in preference to using psychological tactics again. And in Batman: The Animated Series, Scarecrow actually whips up an anti-fear toxin to hold Gotham City ransom. But that’s not all! As you noted, Jeph Loeb writes him singing random nursery rhymes. Judd Winick turned him into a “Scarebeast.” And in other stories he’s revealed to have been born out of wedlock, murdered his grandmother, used a group of young boys to terrorize the city and been beaten senseless by The Joker. Oh, and in every media iteration, from comics to cartoons to movies, Scarecrow has been exposed to his own fear toxins. Not fun.

Whew. Where do we start?

Maybe it would help if we did a quick rundown of his visual appearance over the years. Here’s a semi-chronological recap:

(Sorry, that last one is the epically more interesting Marvel version of Scarecrow. He’s a contortionist!)

Considering he went from looking like Phyllis Diller to a rotting bag of puppy chow, I think there has been some improvement in his style (the later animated appearances are particularly creepy). And, perhaps, this indicates a desire to take the character more seriously as a strong villain. A few things still need to be determined before we can plot a new course for him, however. What is his motivation? Why Batman and why Gotham? Is he truly crazy? And can we definitively work all of his wonky origin bits into one cohesive presentation that makes him believable and a viable threat?

There’s a demented Children of the Corn aspect built into his appearance, his abilities and his origin. He could be like a scary version of Fagin from Oliver Twist or a demented Pied Piper figure. Looking at Ed Brubaker’s recent revamp of Mister Fear over in Daredevil, there are a few directions we could go with Mr. Crane. Using fear as a personal means to an end, i.e. acquiring wealth or status, is a persistent path to follow. Spreading his drug through the masses, as either a psychotrope (as seen in Batman Begins) or as more of a mind control substance (as alluded to in the cartoons), would make sense too. But what is his ultimate goal?

You know, I’ve written my opening line about ten times, flipping back and forth between whether or not the Scarecrow is insane. I certainly don’t think that he’s Joker-level nutso, but I think that he is crazier than someone like Penguin or Mr. Freeze. If nothing else, he’s obsessed with the concept of fear and unlike someone like Freeze, who was forced into his super-villain role by circumstance, Crane chose to dress up like a Scarecrow and terrorize the world. I do believe Crane is crazy, which doesn’t make him any less dangerous, or his knowledge of psychology any less useful.

Nailing down his motivation is even more difficult. Obviously, I think the idea that he wants revenge on the people who fired him from his teaching post is something that we can either ignore, or can say has been achieved (honestly, I don’t buy the firing as why he became the Scarecrow anyway. I think his obsession with fear was always with him, and perhaps was the reason he studied psychology in the first place. When Batman and some of his original Rogues’ Gallery began appearing, I think Crane became fascinated with this new type of character, these icons who evoked such strong emotions from the general public. Crane began to contemplate if such an icon could be created specifically to evoke fear from people, and toyed with the idea of becoming just such a symbol. However, the orderly, obsessive/compulsive part of his brain wouldn’t let him just take up arms against society; that part of him would require society to wrong him. He knew that he needed an excuse to become this villain, and he subconsciously knew that discharging a firearm in class would result in his termination. Once that thought became reality, he could then declare himself the victim and become the Scarecrow, free to spread fear throughout the world!).

Well, it seems that I’ve given him a motivation through my parenthetical musings. However, the idea of his motivation being simply the spreading of fear seems a little thin to me. I’d rather say that, while he is still obsessed with fear, he was a professor at a college, and probably involved in research along the way. I see the Scarecrow still involved in research, but now the entire world is his laboratory. Yes, he’ll perform robberies and the like, for the money they bring him, but that money is simply a means to an end, with that end being his research. In the long run, this could give us a lot of different stories to tell with this character. Each time we see him, he could be testing another theory. For example, perhaps he wants to study the difference between how males and females react to the fear of spiders. He could go about this in multiple ways. First of all, he could try and concoct some of his fear gas that will cause the victim to feel that they are being covered by spiders, and then try to affect a very large group of people at once. In this way, he wouldn’t be able to examine all of the effects of his gas first hand, but he could check casualty figures and reports afterward and get some data from that, and he’d have a large group of specimens to work with. Alternately, he could kidnap people (a few at a time perhaps) and then experiment on them one at a time, perhaps covering them with real spiders, while watching their reaction from nearby.

Imagine the scary here….some innocent is kidnapped while walking home from the grocery store. They wake up in a small, bare room, with most (or all) of their clothing removed, making them feel very vulnerable. Suddenly, a single light flickers on, bathing the subject in a harsh, cold light. A hoarse voice, chilling in its clipped tones, comes over a sound system, and asks the subject to prepare themselves. Suddenly, spiders start pouring through the ceiling, completely engulfing the hapless subject. While this is happening, the voice on the loudspeaker is asking the subject for their impressions, and what they’re feeling (which the subject is ignoring as they scream their heads off).

That’s how I could see the Scarecrow operating, at least if he were researching that sort of theory. However, he could come up with all sorts of theories to investigate, and doing so could lead him into conflict with Batman in any number of ways (or even with different heroes, if we wanted to use him that way). Thoughts?

I think you’ve given him perfectly reasonable motivation without any sort of hint of an ultimate goal. But that’s not a bad thing either. If he is slightly unhinged, then his psyche may not be able to rectify a final outcome…he may just be experimenting for the sake of experimenting without ever reaching his hypothesis because he’s so wrapped up in the minutiae of the moment. I think the fact that this approach makes him so random and creepy is perfect for his persona.

What’s even more interesting is that this accurately blends aspects of his checkered origin stories with the direction the character has taken in the most current movies. It moves him away from the “goofy, costumed theme villain” into more of an intellectual, reason-based antagonist. As he gets from Point A to Point B, the devil is in the details so to speak. I could see him sitting in a high-backed armchair, his spectacles on the end of his nose, scribbling in a leather-bound journal while watching scenes of fear-based torture on a closed circuit television. The fact that he would appear as only a voice and perhaps a grainy black & white visage to his captives lends him an air of detached evil, the kind that is only found in twisted, calculating men like the main baddie in the Saw movies.

This Scarecrow would rely on trusted henchmen to do his dirty work. He would remain in his “Ivory Tower” pushing buttons and taking notes, appearing only as the experiment was winding down. In fact, his costumed identity could be relegated to simply the burlap mask necessary to conceal his true face…or some sort of anonymous coveralls with the mask and a noose necktie…something very serial killeresque. The name Scarecrow would come to symbolize not the actual look of the man, but rather his demeanor. He could even ascend to some sort of post in the criminal underground, similar to Penguin or Black Mask, where he ruled primarily by tactics of fear instead of brute force, the implication of power rather than power itself. I could see Batman visiting him through the window of his richly appointed library, trying to place blame on him for one crime or another, but having no true evidence linking him to such. In that sense, Scarecrow could play a much better control freak than The Joker.

Outwardly, I could even imagine Jonathan Crane playing the victim to the public. Coming forth and showing remorse for his previous actions, swearing to be an upstanding citizen, and launching some sort of charity program for literacy or education. He could gain sympathy from the masses in the face of Batman’s supposed obsession and brutality. Maybe even fooling enough folks to run for office one day, all the while struggling to keep his true self contained in the public eye (and continuing his experiments in secret while decrying them in the media). Double creepy!

Well, everything wrapped up nicely. And much quicker than usual. Still, I can’t improve on this; I think we’ve got ourselves a revitalized, and quite honestly, very scary super-villain.


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!