Finding Villains

Villains

Spider-Man has the best rogues galley in comics. But two of the most successful runs of Amazing Spider-Man were by writers who chose to eschew the familiar rogues in favor of a new approach. JMS focused mostly on new villains, while Roger Stern pit Spider-Man against bad guys from other franchises. It demonstrates a strength of the franchise: there isn’t one obvious selectionof antagonists for the hero. The writers and editors have choices.

There are still a few rules, but there’s a lot of flexibility within that. Obviously, there should be some impressive villains. And the writers should know what they’re doing. If Spider-Man is beaten too easily, the character is diminished. If the antagonist is dispatched with ease, the villain is diminished. Some bad guys aren’t meant to be A-listers, but the writers have to figure out what they’re saying about the characters in the action sequences.

One of the goals of the Brand New Day era had been to rebuild Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, as many of the villains became less impressive through overuse. Name villains (especially Doctor Octopus, Vulture and the Rhino) had essentially become punching bags for Spider-Man, defeated in scenes showing what a typical day in his life is like. If the Rhino is dispatched in the first three pages of a story in which someone else is the bad guy, or even within an eight page back up story, his next appearance won’t be as impressive. All the stories in which Spider-Man mopped the floor with several of his enemies also made the hero seem impervious when he just has to fight one of the bad guys. That isn’t the case after the bad guys returned in the Gauntlet Mega-arc.

Writers can go to the extreme, when they won’t acknowledge the shortcomings of the villains, so the Kangaroo, Mindworm or Hypno Hustler give Spidey as much trouble as Electro or Sandman. The writers and editors have to find the middle ground. Straying too far in either end seems to be the main source of complaints regarding the depiction of villains for fans and critics. There are situations in which Stilt Man is a menace worthy of the attention of both Spider-Man and Daredevil. In those cases, the writers should establish what makes this situation different from the norm.

Daredevil_22_Cover

While the antagonist is obviously going to be important for a superhero story, the bad guys are ultimately interchangeable. Most appear in one-off stories, dispatched without much of an impact on the larger mega-arc. So even if my favorite villain is broken so that no other writer is able to use him, it’s not as serious a problem as Peter Parker’s status quo, which is expected to affect most of the stories. The Lizard is my favorite Spider-Man villain, but good writers should be able to tell their stories without him, because their next story was going to feature someone else anyway. The overall system is more important than plans for specific criminals.

When it comes to their philosophy regarding malefactors, the creative teams can have different approaches. If one writer chooses to introduce entirely new villains, he can do so. If someone wants to limit themselves to the A-list classics, that remains a viable choice. While I suspect that a good mix works best, I’m not sure it matters. If a writer has a particular philosophy for his or her own run, it won’t affect the next guys.

There’s stuff I might consider doing as a writer that I wouldn’t insist on from anyone else. One group that’s been ignored recently is the less famous recent villains. For writers and artist, there’s something satisfying about using your own characters, and many comics pros have been fans of Spider-Man for a long time, so there is also a desire to pit the wall-crawler against the bad guys from the comics that introduced them to the series in the first place. And those comics were disproportionately likely to feature a handful of villains who have been around for decades. So a creative team might distinguish themselves by focusing on Spider-Man’s other culprits, the ones whose initial fans may be too young to write Spider-Man comics, such as Fusion or Massacre.

*Update- Maybe not after that last appearance.

*Update- Maybe not after that last appearance.

However, this may just be the least commercially appealing of the numerous approaches. Using famous villains makes sense because these guys have a built-in fan base, and Spider-Man fans like seeing their hero pit against his most recognizable enemies. Using villains from other titles could bring in some new fans who don’t regularly pick up Spider-Man comics. It’s rare, but some pros have a more esoteric approach, using villains who fit a particular mood that they want to convey throughout their entire run. So a crime drama inspired run like Peter David’s Spectacular Spider-Man work might focus on street level bad guys, while a run inspired by horror movies like Todd Mcfarlane’s Spider-Man would feature the likes of Hobgoblin and the Wendigo.

With new villains, newer readers and older fans start out on the same page. If obscure characters are used, it could be off-putting for anyone who hadn’t read a particular part of the character’s back-story. The story has to work for two different groups of readers: those who read the earlier appearance of the villain, and those who are introduced to the new bad guy.

Still, it’s something I’d consider. If I was writing the books, the Chameleon could become a major player, as Secret Invasion showed how effective someone disguised as another could be. Doctor Octopus would get all previous charges against him dropped on a technicality, and become a private citizen for a while. There would be some new villains and supporting characters. And I would have big plans for Fusion.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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