Monday, September 29, 2008
Dr. Polaris Returns, and What It Means
It's time to talk about Dr. Polaris.
Actually, that's a needless statement; it is always time to talk about Dr. Polaris. I mean, just look at him; hear him. Dr. Polaris is villainous style personified.
In case you didn't notice, Dr. Polaris has turned up again, in the pages of Blue Beetle. And if you haven't noticed, start reading Blue Beetle.
There's been some debate over whether this is the "real" Dr. Polaris. I hereby declare this debate meaningless. Every once in a while, DC kills a villain (or even a hero) for some shock value, usually as part of some crossover event. They're replaced for a while, perhaps, by some one dramatically different: of a different race, gender, costume, powers, or M.O.
Usually, it doesn't last, at least, not if the original villain was worth was his salt (which chances are he was if he was significant enough to be a "surprise death"). Almost inevitably the spirit of the original villain reasserts itself. The new version becomes like the old one, or a third version silently appears with little fanfare and simply takes his rightful place.
The first example of this that comes to my mind is the Mad Hatter, but I'm sure you can name many others. But with his most recent appearance, Dr. Polaris has become an exemplar of another villainous attribute: gang-lordism.
Back in the day (that means the Golden Age), people (and by people I mean villains) had gangs. Those were the days. Now, I'm not just waxing nostalgic for matching thematic costumes and Brooklynites in derbies and turtlenecks. It's the sheer practicality of it that I'm applauding.
I don't care what kind of gadgets or superpowers you have: if you really want to get anywhere you need an organization. It's sheer practicality; you gotta sleep sometime. And, if you're a supervillain it's hard to go for a stroll to the corner store; you need people to do this for you.
This concept faded, sadly, in the Silver Age. I blame the Flash Rogues. Everything became a battle between super-abilities, and thugs in horizontally striped shirts and newsboy caps didn't quite make the cut.
But this spread. Non-powered villains like the Joker and Two-Face started to become sole actors, limiting the scope of their danger.
The way in which Dr. Polaris has returned is a heartening signal that this trend is reversing. Writers are starting to realize that even superpowered villains work better if they're portrayed as the principals surrounded by a larger web of evil that they control. In Blue Beetle, Dr. P is first introduced as a ganglord. A very hard-edged ganglord. He's not in costume, and he's running his criminal organization ruthlessly. He's using teenagers as guinea pigs, giving them limited magnetic powers with which to commit crimes for him. And only when push comes to shove does he break out the Polaris-costume and start killing left and right.
Why is this good? It makes the villain seem smarter. It makes the conflict relevant to regular citizens. It makes the confrontation with the hero a climax, not an opener. And it reminds us that many of these archcriminals didn't become villains because they were "super"; they became "super" because they were villains.