Cardboard Villains

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Over at Sam Sykes’s blog today he talks about the new NBC superhero show, The Cape. I’ve not seen it but by all accounts, it’s bad.

Sam spends a lot of time outlining what he sees wrong with the series, focusing on the cardboard villain. He goes into some detail why he thinks this is wrong

“Batman’s stories are, essentially, philosophical debates. Nearly all his villains represent an ideology or philosophical point of view and none of them is more recognizable than the Joker. He’s gone through several iterations (several of which will undoubtedly be examples countering what I’m saying here, but that’s the nature of comics), but there’s been a few points that have remained largely the same about the Joker: he doesn’t really want power, he doesn’t really want money, he wants to prove a point.”

It’s stuff like this that makes me want Sam to write a superhero novel.

Superheroes are our modern day myths, the Zeus and Thor of the modern world. Just like the old legends, these iconic comic book heroes are modern day morality tales, linked not by a single narrative but thematic heroes and villians. OK, so as comic art has matured, so the medium has expanded to be more than that, but Batman is still about the darkness that exists in people’s hearts, Spider-Man is still about responsibility.

A superhero is measured by his foes. If, to use Sam’s point, superheroes are philosophical debates then you have to have strong counterpoints or it becomes one-sided.
Now I’ll argue to I’m blue in the face that you can have an evil lord in a dark castle and still have him be a three dimensional villain and that’s because of a point Sam touches on: character philosophy

My favourite comic as a teenager was GI Joe. Yes, I’m British but I’m a huge Joe fan (Do not get me started on that abysmal movie). What I love about GI Joe is that by all accounts, it should have been a trashy toy tie-in that lasted for 8 issues. Instead it was a great comic that many people wrote off despite it running for over 150 issues. It’s also one of the most influential things on my storytelling.

All but (I think) 2 issues were written by the same guy: Larry Hama, who I rate up there with Tolkien and George Lucas as storytellers who shaped me.

Obviously the comic had to promote the latest release of toys, which meant it was a comic series that had soldiers, advanced technology, ninjas, a Frankensteinesque monster created from the DNA of history’s greatest leaders, and villains who would seem outlandish even in the Marvel universe. But where G I Joe shone was inbetween all this. All these elements were weaved intricately into a single narrative and there were these little moments in the comic series where it just hit you. And because it wasn’t the sort of series that needed to hit you just sell you toys, the fact that it did made it all the more poignant.

Take for example the lead bad guy, one Cobra Commander. He should have been a cardboard character, the type who at the end of each comic would raise his fist and shout “curse you GI Joe”. But instead he was revealed to be a small businessman who felt betrayed by the American way, a father so intent on his crusade that he tries to kill his own son.

As with all good comic villains, he died only to return again for GI Joe’s 100th issue. And what a return.

“Citizens of Millville” he says. “Do not be alarmed. I, Cobra Commander have seen fit to bring the blessing of Cobra Domination to your pathetic little run-down municipality! We are going to bring you a new prosperity! New Jobs, new industry, new commerce! All this coupled withan end to crime and immortality.”

What I love about this is how he sucks you in. Why’s he the bad guy you find yourself asking? There’s obvious hints in the speech – the word ‘domination’ and ‘pathetic’ – but these are more to do with character than motive. I found myself as a teenager wondering if I’d misunderstood him. I could understand if he offered all that why people might follow him, join his cause.

But then there’s the next balloon

“Of course, this will mean curtailing a few insignificant personal freedoms that you won’t even miss much!”

Boom! It was like someone exploded my head. In that one sentence, everything is turned around. We realise why Cobra are the bad guys, we understand Cobra Commander’s philosophy, and we learn how much our personal freedoms are worth to us.

He’d so nearly clinched the deal for me, but that final balloon, turns it all on its head. Not only that but suddenly Cobra Commander has gone from a cardboard comic book villain to a misguided individual, full of depth. By saying what he does, I know WHAT the Joes are fighting for, and WHY they are the good guys. What’s more I learn something about myself and what I value.

This had a profound effect on me as a teenager and how I understood characters. Ever since I want the villains of my stories to have those depths, to offer a deal too good to be true, to have these conflicts of reasoning which turn the sweet apple sour. In fact, in my novel my bad guy – a Mr West – uses a version of this very speech.

“Of course the humans and dwarves, and even the elves would argue that without choice there was no freedom, but what use was freedom when all that was stopping people killing you or stealing from you was a thinly guised code of moral conduct. With choice, it gave people the right to do bad things to others. Where was the freedom from crime, the freedom of job security, the freedom of not having to worry about the course of your life?
No, Mr West told himself, the amount of choice here was bad.”

The GI Joe comic book still had the ninjas, the brainwave scanner and the biker gang, but it also had those rare moments of depth that lifted it from being yet another licensed tie-in into what I still consider one of the finest comic series of all time.

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2 thoughts on “Cardboard Villains

  1. […] written about my love for Larry Hama’s GI Joe comic series before (see HERE). As far as I’m concerned, Larry is one of the most influential writers to inspire me. […]

  2. Larry Hama fan says:

    I agree. His work really shaped my thinking about people and human nature. I also learned a lot about firearms, military history, and tactics that still come up today…

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