Friday, May 30, 2014

An Original Question

Who is the most original Batman villain?

Batman, as we know, has many, literary ancestors, including Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the Phantom, The Shadow, and Sherlock Holmes.  Not only does that fact not diminish him, it ennobles him. Batman is to vigilante crimefighters what Bach is to the Baroque: the ne plus ultra, the superior synthesis of all that has gone before, the gold standard of his type.  One of things that makes Batman great is precisely how original he is NOT.

Only Bob Kane could create a character as unoriginal at Batman, so please be fair and give credit where credit's not due.

This aspect of Batman is a commonplace.  But what of his villains? How unoriginal are they and which is the most original?

The Joker.  Like Batman, the Joker is an unsurpassable synthesis.  The deformed Gwynplaine of "The Man Who Laughs' 

and the maddened murderous clown of Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, for example, 

"Hey, buddy!  Leave some scenery for the rest of us to chew, willya?"!

...are part of his deadly iconic mix.  One could discuss the genius of a creation like the Joker for hours, but we'd be wasting time making a case that he's the most original of Batman's foe.  Like Batman, part of what makes the Joker great is precisely that he is not original.

Catwoman.  Puh-lease! We all love Kitty, but she's every femme fatale every vigilante's every matched wits and mashed faces with!  Let's just cite Sherlock Holmes' Irene Adler, and leave it at that.  Sure, Selina Kyle had the animal costume fetish thing, but in that the character is just being set in the same mold and animal-totemed Batman himself.

The Catwoman would sweat Moxie. If she sweat.  Which she doesn't.

I certainly have a soft-spot for The Penguin, and always insist that he be given his due (which he's usually not).  But his creators are on record as saying that he was based on the "A.J. Raffles" character of a gentleman thief.  Maybe they just said that to distract people from realizing  how thoroughly they stole the character from Chester Gould's Dick Tracy.  


Two-Face is one of my favorite characters, and perhaps the Batman character with the most to say about human nature.  He's also quite the fashionista.

You need to understand that if the tie is NOT drawn that way, it means it's a CLIP-ON.

But Two-Face is just Gotham's take on Jekyll/Hyde (and it described exactly as such in the splash page from his first story.  
Read any good books lately, Harvey?

Compared to some of the above, the Scarecrow is actually fairly original.  But he's too clearly a villianized version of Ichabod Crane, the spindly teacher from America's most famous ghost story, Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleep Hollow.  

Professor Crane

The idea of a demented master of psychology holding an entire city in fearful thrall mostly for the hell of it and to sustain his own fragile ego is, after all, an American archetype.

That's DOCTOR Crane to you!

Later arrivals Poison Ivy and Mr Freeze may seem more original... at least until you've read Hawthorne's Rappacini's Daughter, in which a mad scientist, distraught at the loss of his wife, uses venomous plants to make his daughter poisonous to the touch, shutting her off from normal human contact.  

Combining the origins of Mr Freeze with that of Poison Ivy makes for a surefire classic.

I think, in fact, that the Riddler might be the most original classic Batman villain.  That may surprise you.  A villainous mastermind who toys with the authorities by leaving intentionally puzzling clues is SUCH a trope to us! Nowadays even violent psychopaths like Hannibal Lecter leave anagrammatic clues just to prove their smarter than everyone else. Why, without this trope, what would Kevin Spacey due for a living?

'Your guess is as good as mine. Actually, I lied; it's not."

But when you think about it...don't all of those many puzzling villains...FOLLOW the Riddler?  Honestly, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a literary predecessor to him in the whole "I mislead you with clues for fun to show how smart I am" type of villain.  I mean, sure there have been clever masterminds such as Fu Manchu, who might mislead their opponents.  But only incidentally, only as means to an end.  The Riddler seems to be the first character for whom 'the game' IS the end, and crime merely the means to play it.  

Am I wrong? Or is the Riddler actually the MOST original Batman villain...

which would explain why some many modern villains are based on him?  Which would make him, in a literary sense...
Batman's most influence villain?

Feel free to discuss.


Joshua Roots said...

Two Words: King Tut.

*drops mic*

*picks it back up*

*drops it again*

Scipio said...

THIS again, Lord JJ?

John said...

He's not quite the same, but Bulletman faced off against a Doctor Riddle about five years prior. Riddle was a Hunchback (with a question-mark-shaped stoop) who not only taunted the cops with clues, but also "riddled" people with bullets.

I've never been able to think of a fictional source for Clayface. Sure, Lon Cheney, but he's not fictional.

The Ten-Eyed Man is the only one where I can't think of anything. Or maybe he's just a clever rehash of Crazy Quilt, who instead has a misty origin.

Dr. Double X also comes to mind. Thankfully, it doesn't happen very often.

Oh, and the Gorilla Boss. The concept may not be original, but whoever decided that Sinestro should turn his brain into a planet for energy was...certainly (ahem) original.

Could you expand on the connection between Mr. Zero/Freeze and Rappaccini? I don't see where he's inherently dangerous or inclined to get close to people like Poison Ivy.

Scipio said...

Interesting thoughts, John; and thank you, I had forgotten Dr. Riddle.

Just like Rappacini's Daughter, Mr Freeze is a person who, involuntarily, suffers a transformation of their biochemistry that make it impossible to be physically intimate with others (because he can't live outside of 50 below)>

Nathan Hall said...

One thing I always argue with other writers about is whether or not "original" is synonymous with "good." I maintain it's not - a developed trope can be enhanced and improved with a fresh take. Not all ideas are created equal, and the best ideas are cultivated and developed.

By that way of thinking, I feel Batman's most original villains are both his most freakish and his worst. Examples:

The Absence:


And the Eraser:

Admit it: You don't care about any of those characters, do you? And if you were a comic book writer, you'd be hard-pressed to use them in any meaningful way. You'd probably have them cannibalized off-panel, like Kite-Man was.

Dalle Robberts said...

Couldn't the Riddler be said to have been inspired by Professor Moriarty, who also strove to outwit his arch-enemy whom he considered an intellectual equal?

Dalle Robberts said...

Oh, and forgettable Superman foe, the Puzzler, predated the Riddler by about a half-dozen years, also.

Scipio said...

Oh;yeah... I DID forget about him.

Nathan Hall said...

The Puzzler was ably played by Maurice Evans on the 60's show.

Dalle Robberts said...

Yeah, but he was little more than a Riddler clone on the show (which he really was, as the episode had been originally written for the Riddler). In the comics he was much cooler. You had to love it when, out of humiliation and revenge, he murdered professional card-players in methods inspired by the card games at which they had beaten him; clubbing a poker player to death with a fireplace poker, forcing a bridge player's car off a bridge, etc.

Scipio said...

That's VERY Rocky Grimes

Dalle Robberts said...

Isn't it just?

Randy Jackson said...

No Killer Moth? Really?

Joshua Roots said...

By the way, the Fraiser dig? Simply fantastic.

Scipio said...

Thanks, Josh.

Randy, I didn't feel the need to address Killer Moth at all, because he is self-professed copy of ...Batman himself. Even in-story, he is an un-original.

Dalle Robberts said...

True; but there were lots of others before him who tried to copy a more popular creation and failed miserably to do so. Any of the pulp magazine "jungle lords" who came after Tarzan; any of the pulp magazine "oriental masterminds" who came after Fu Manchu; etc.

SallyP said...

Not sure if the Riddler is Batman's most original foe...but he's certainly the best!