THE CONCEPTUAL HALL OF SHAMEwhich will (dis)honor those comic book tropes that set off (or should) a reader's Automatic Crap Detector (or, as I like to call it privately, my "Spider-Man-villain sense"). Our first inductee is, of course,
THE VENGEFUL CHILDHOOD FRIEND
A close friend of the hero from school or childhood is retconned into the hero's past, sometimes with a role so disproportionately large that it seems ridiculous that we've never heard of the character before. The former friend returns at what seems like a completely arbitrary point in the hero's career to wreak revenge for some real or imagined slight or injury.The poster children for this weak-kneed trope are Tommy Elliot (Hush, from the Batman mythos) and Kenny Braverman (Conduit, from the Superman mythos).
Strong characters build their power and significance from the ground up, over time. As the saying goes, they win their reputation the old-fashioned way: they earn it.
Many (if not most) of the great villains were not introduced as Great Villains. They were introduced simply as villains, and through the intrinsic strength of their initial concept, deft handling by writers, and a unique dynamic with their foe, they become Great Villians through continued appearances. Even if they never appear except in opposition to the hero, they still stand on their own as characters; if you subtract the hero, you can still picture the villain with his own motivations, out doing evil, perhaps fighting some other hero. Such villains stand in opposition to their foe (which makes them seem like challenges for the hero to overcome) and are not dependent on him (which makes them simply feel like plot props).
Weak writers love to shortcut this process. They attempt to imbue their new pet villain with immediate and powerful significance by shoehorning him in as an important personal friend from long ago. Rather than let the villain prove himself as a threat, the writer gives him an instant "unfair" advantage, like knowing the hero's secret identity The logic of their motivation is murky; why have they chosen now and not earlier to strike, and why not simply announce the hero's secret identity on YouTube? Because the writer isn't really interested in this guy as a independent entity, the character is smothered in vagueness (motive, powers, codename, final dispensation). Because such villians are really props, they usually only have one story in them (and not a very good one, at that) .
Warning signs for this Shameful Concept are:
- Unlikely continued use of diminutive first name from childhood (e.g., Kenny rather than Ken or Kenneth)
- Vague and weak motivation against the hero (I can't even remember why Kenny disliked Clark so wildly)
- Knowledge of the hero's secret identity or other personal weaknesses
- Vague powers and abilities, whose source or origin is sloughed over
- Nearly random noun for codename (Tell me "Hush" and "Conduit" don't sound like someone picked them out drunkenly from a dictionary during the DC Holiday Part and challenged a fellow writer to build a character around them).
- Vague and inconclusive ending to their storyline
Don't be confused; there are villains who share some superficial characters of such crappy MacGuffins, but are actually decent characters. Not all old friends who become villain deserved to be tarred as "Vengeful Childhood Friends".
Exempt from condemnation are the Silver Age Lex Luthor, because DC went to such lengths to make it work that they actually kind of succeeded, and the Green Goblin(s?), because he wasn't retconned and his development as a villain was contemporaneous with his role as a regular member of the hero's supporting cast. Similar to Luthor, Two-Face was made more interesting on Batman The Animated Series by inserting a friendship between Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne (and, later, Batman). But both Luthor and Two-Face existed on their own and stood as strong independent characters before their relationships with the hero were "backdated".
Anyway, there must be other clear examples of this Conceptual Shame than the awful "Hush" and "Conduit". Who are they...?