Over-identify with the badguy? We’ve all been there. But which badguy is the important question, and why…
I have seen a lot of posts on social media recently comparing politicians, and other politically involved individuals, to supervillains. My favourite of these so far came from last summer, and I wish I knew what genius added David Cameron speech bubbles to Dr Doom.
I have since seen links made between Teresa May and Judge Dredd, and Emperor Palpatine (with Jeremy Corbyn rather suiting the Ben Kenobi role). Elon Musk has even joked about his potential to become a supervillain. As a child, I learnt a fair amount about political expectations and organisational norms from cartoons and comics: Dr Doom is a political dictator whose physical injury in no way excuses his poor leadership skills. Ditto, Skelator. What we see in the characterisation of these villains is that they were presented as unfit to hold power because they were motivated by selfish drives. Musk’s joke about building a ‘volcano lair’ works from the same premise – that self-indulgence is the hallmark of a villain. Just as life imitates art, so art imitates life. Donald Trump was recently parodied as a bad guy in Spider-Gwen Annual #1, as M.O.D.A.A.K (a.k.a. Mental Organism Designed As America’s King) on a different Earth in a parallel universe. And as the right-wing are pilloried, the left are celebrated with Justin Trudeau following in his father’s footsteps once again (Pierre Trudeau was in Uncanny X-Men #140), in the unsubtly titled Civil War II: Choosing Sides #5 from Marvel.
That mainstream comic writers are, mostly, social democrat or liberally inclined is hardly surprising given the history of the medium’s engagement with the stories of marginalised minorities, and the idea of heroism being intimately bound up with the concepts of justice and fairness. Judge Dredd was, of course, inspired by the Thatcherite politics of 80’s Britain. I love Judge Dredd stories, and the recent film adaptation too, but I don’t want my lived experience to echo the residents of MegaCity One. But there’s a genuine complexity as to the meanings of terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘justice’ explored in those stories.
Did I gravitate to superhero media as a kid because I was drawn to stories that reflected my views or were my views shaped by the media I consumed? Probably a little of both, like everyone. But I also loved monster movies, which is one reason I study Gothic fiction when I am not nerding out here, and I always sympathised with the monster. Frankenstein’s creature is lonely and his crimes are a result of his bad treatment by others. Vampires are usually a bit sexy and soulful, they look human so we hope to redeem them with love. Mostly, the monsters got ‘born wrong’, and for kids marginalised because of sexuality, gender or race, this provokes a powerful sympathy. This holds for many of our cartoon villains – Ming the Merciless, the clue’s in the name, Krang and Shredder (Oroku Saki). Or how about Dr. Claw? Note the discomforting racial implications of the orientalism present in the majority of the names and back stories, and the disturbing ableism, of this small but fairly representative selection of 80/90s badguys from my childhood. For all the lefty social inclusiveness espoused in the storylines, there’s a lot of in-built social bias in these stories. Of course there are fans who got sick of seeing Asian martial arts and names presented as ‘good’ on white guys (or turtles) and bad on everyone else, or when it seemed like only badguys had prosthetic limbs, or counting 6 guys on the page for every one woman. Some fans turned to fic, writing tragic backstories to justify the bad guy’s position, or redeeming them entirely. Some sighed deeply, accepted it for years, until releasing it all as an angry twitter rant in 2012.
We most of us have a monster we want to redeem, whether we think he’s misunderstood, or her story was poorly served by writers enmeshed in a colonial white supremacist worldview, or they were coded as queer and – dammit – that’s not monstrous! I am now friends with ardent Slytherin, Brotherhood of Mutants supporters, and unrepentant villain fans of every stripe. We resisted the narrative that made marginalised people monsters, that said they (we) were dangerous. As we all know, the line between Magneto and Charles Xavier is very fine, and I think if you can’t sympathise with Max Eisenhardt /Magnus/Erik Lehnsherr then you don’t have a lot of imagination or experience of being judged solely based on who or what you are… The politics of comic books are complicated, which is what makes them rich and interesting stories.
But there’s a different sort of apologist out there, admiring a different type of villain. They equate badguy with badass. They don’t support the marginalised, reclaim a place for the misjudged, or sympathise with the misanthrope who’s just had enough of the worst of humanity. They revel in the worst of humanity. There are bad guys in the superhero comics and cartoons who aren’t created as a reflection, or projection, of fears of a minority ‘other’. There are bad guys who are simply exaggerations of power already at play in the world – The Joker’s mistreatment of women, Kingpin’s ruthless, rule-less business dealing and blackmarket exploitation, shadowy government agencies experimenting on people/mutants. And if it’s only the lefties who think these things are a bad idea, I’d be amazed. The fans of these characters say they enjoy exploring just how dark and twisted the human creative mind can be, or that this is a release valve for pent up frustration with the world. Maybe that’s pretty simply true. But, if someone claims their favourite villain is the Joker, I am immediately suspicious of their motives. He is, as many observers before me have pointed out, perhaps the original troll – in it for the lulz, and not giving a crap about who gets mown down in the way.
Magneto is a badguy because he is invested in the world, even Dr Doom wants to achieve a measure of efficient government. The Joker only cares about himself. If that’s your idea of a relief, no longer having to care about other people, well I am sorry having feelings is such a burden to you. Just because my life would be easier without a conscience doesn’t mean I would wish it away. I am all for sympathy for the monster, I am not sympathetic to the monstrous. There’s a difference.