Monday, November 07, 2011

Cool and Unusual

Riddle me this, dear readers! What is harder to become the harder you try to become it?

Answer: Cool.

“Cool” as a label is fairly new when compared to more venerable terms of praise like “nice”, “excellent”, or “great”. “Cool” as a slang for “fashionable”, “in style”, or “exemplary in its good qualities” began in about 1933, in large part due to its usage by jazz saxophonist Lester Young.

Lester Young would have sweated "cool", if he ever sweated.

But the term found broader exposure in the beatnik culture of the 1950s and the term really came into its own, I’d say, by about 1953 when the term “uncool” became common. Nothing so firmly cements a concept that being able to label all things either “X” or “un-X”.

A beatnik One who was so cool, he was also smokin' hot. Woof.

A comparative newcomer in the world of Webster, perhaps, among “slang” words no term has had great longevity than “cool”. Most of its contemporary fellows from the 1930s have aged and withered. Seldom do you hear current teenager describe an option as “jake”, condemn someone as a “whanger”, or dismiss the unlikely as “bushwa”. Yet “cool” remains.

Perhaps it is because the concept it represents is so useful. Even-temperedness, unconscious superiority, effortlessness, indifference to the judgments of others—all the things that teenagers in particular long for so earnestly and (generally) find so difficult to attain are what defines “cool”.

The adolescent within us is always concerned with what is “cool”. As adults we may label it slightly differently (“This character has a richness, charm, and depth that both instantly engages the reader and enables the writer to convey subtle but cogent satire” is really just critic-speak for “I like this character; he’s cool.”), but we are still often concerned with what is cool.

For example…. the essential conflict between Batman fans and Superman fans? It’s not “human” versus “superhuman”. It’s about coolness; Batman is “cool”; Superman is not “cool” (as some people define it).

Batman inspires fear and awe.

As does Superman... in his own way.

At least, that’s the traditional view of the characters. If you consider them as people, however, it’s easy to make the opposite case. Batman is less cool than Superman, as a person, because Batman strives to impress others and Superman does not. Such is the quixotic difficulty of pinning down what is “cool”.

But, as in the riddle above, one thing that is generally agreed upon is that “being cool” can never be the result of a conscious effort to “be cool”. The same can be said of any “cool” substitute, such as “edgy”,“bizarre”, or “outre”. We all know people who try to be “cool” and therefore are not. So, too, there are those striving desperately to be unique, or eccentric. The person striving to be “cool” is seeking admiration or popularity among his peers; the person striving to be “unusual” is seeking individuation from his peers. But the idea is the same.

Which leads me to my real point: Why So Many Modern Villains Suck. They suck because the writers are striving too hard to make them cool or unusual. They don’t happen to be eccentric, which lends them interest; their purpose is to be eccentric, which is not really interesting at all.

Take yer classic villains from Batman’s rogues gallery (or even Flash’s or Superman’s). Are they bizarre and eccentric? Of course. But that’s HOW they do things, now WHAT they do. WHAT they do is being professional criminals: in short, they steal things and kill people as part of the process. They are trying to be successful criminals, they aren’t trying to be bizarre; they simple ARE bizarre.

“Professor Pyg”? “The Dollmaker”? Mr Szasz? Deathstroke? Bane? Doomsday? Sorry, modern writers; you are obviously trying too hard to create characters whose very purpose is to be bizarre or bad-ass. As in the Batman/Superman example above, I make the distinction between the purpose of the character and the purpose of the “person”. Because, sure, when a writer creates a villain, he wants him to be a credible threat and be unique in some way. Nothing wrong with that, I’m not saying there is. But when being bizarre seems to be the only purpose of the “person” the character is… well, that’s just some writer trying too hard to cool. And failing.

Ask yourself which of those the Joker currently is the next time a writer uses him…


SallyP said...

Scipio, YOU are cool. not. But I appreciate it when I see it. For example, the original Doctor Polaris was cool. His bearded successor was not. Definitely not. Although I would have to say that Gail Simone did a pretty good job of making Bane a lot cooler than he was. Not to mention Catman.

Noah said...

To the list of Trying-Too-Hard Modern Villains, I'll add Marvel's walking atrocity Carnage. I can just imagine the writer's meeting where they they sat around the table in the writer's room and decided to try and make Venom cooler. "Okay, Venom sells well, but he doesn't look nearly ridiculous enough. And what's with these understandable human motivations? Can we get rid of those?"

Voila, a gibbering psychopath wearing an alien suit made of blood, whose only motivation is that stabbing people people to death is fun. Thank GOD we don't see that idiot floating around too often anymore.

Bryan L said...

That's exactly the problem with the current incarnation of the Joker. He's no longer a criminal who has an unusual MO -- he's a gaudy serial killer whose only "goal" is a body count. It's dull and it's pointless. Every story that uses him is pretty much just like the LAST story that used him. I really hoped he'd get rebooted in 52, but no, we're stuck on the same old loop.

Scipio said...

Sally, you're a middle-age mother with one of the best known and loved superhero comics' blogs on the internet. You'd sweat cool... if you sweat.

Nathan Hall said...

Think you mean to say modern writers are "trying too" hard - don't forget the second O. Feel free to point out my misspellings in accords with Muphry's Law.

Coincidentally, I thought one of the coolest supervillains is Captain Cold. His look was pragmatic yet distincitive(heavy coat and ice goggles) and he has his own code of morality that he follows. Sure, he only has one power (or, rather, one powered item), but through creativity he finds all kinds of applications for it.

In other words, he dresses for effect instead of style, he's faithful to his own values of success, mainstream be damned, and he thinks outside the box. Those are the same qualities that made Steve Jobs cool.

Anonymous said...

Wait, you're putting Deathstroke on the "tries too hard" list? The man has sex with underaged girls, how totally cool is that? The guy plays by his own rules.

Ever see one of those carwashes run by junior high girls who have made the poor decision to do it in bikini tops? On any given weekend, that's where Deathstroke is.

Matt said...

I think those rogues have the benefit of time and different eras behind them, though. They look out of place NOW, but they didn't seem so far-fetched relative to the time of their inception.

Then again, "cool" is a subjective term. I'm among those that think the newer villains are try-hards, but I assume that there are plenty of teenagers that think they're pretty cool. Take Wolverine. (Please)

Nathan Hall said...

Kids still like Wolverine? Stupid kids.

'Course, back in my day kids said they were Lobo fans without a hint of shame.

Accursed Interloper said...

"Sorry, modern writers; you are obviously trying to hard to create characters whose very purpose is to be bizarre or bad-ass."

Other characters fail in the opposite direction, and get, like maybe half the page count of an issue spent on establishing and codifying and monumentalizing and hammering home their alleged coolness. No, I'm not thinking of Bobo Benetti; I'm thinking of The Shade.

Scipio said...

Bryan L.; good point, I agree. Back in the day, one of the Joker's selling points was that you never knew what his new angle might be. Nowadays you know exactly what he'll do.

Scipio said...

Interloper; good call on the Shade.

Pat said...

Heh, love that opening riddle. I remember about 15 years ago reading a columnist (forget who) who claimed that he was 40 years old and still legitimately cool. Why he had a Limp Bizkit CD in his car stereo!

And all I could think was "Poseur!"

tad said...

This problem also often falls into the "show don't tell" problem -- too many writers try to tell the reader how scary, cool, brilliant, edgy, whatever the character is instead of making the character display it.

When I was a kid, I always used to resent the Marvel writers constantly telling me what a great leader Captain America was when I couldn't exactly see any such thing. It's a writer's shortcut and it's a bad one.

lackluster said...

Deathstroke's first appearance was in december of 1980, just shy of 31 years ago. That's a pretty expansive definiton of 'modern' you have there, Scipio.

I won't dispute your larger point, although personally I find Pyg delightful.

SallyP said...

I don't ever sweat, Scipio...but I do glow upon occasion.

Nathan Hall said...

Tad makes a good point - heroes should prove themselves admirable just as villains should show their evil sides.

I mean, would anyone believe Green Arrow was worthy of the Justice League if he didn't just show up there one day?

Stoop Davy Dave said...

"too many writers try to tell the reader how scary, cool, brilliant, edgy, whatever the character is instead of making the character display it."

Exactly why I dropped Mister Terrific from my pull list, after just two miserable issues. Bah.

steve mitchell said...

"Thank GOD we don't see that idiot floating around too often anymore."

And then again. . .Marvel starts the new "Carnage U.S.A." series next month.