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.


SallyP said...

Doctor Polaris knows how to delegate.

I have to admit that it would be a lot more fun to be a villain if you have minions to order around.

Anonymous said...

The first example of this that comes to my mind is the Mad Hatter, but I'm sure you can name many others.

Frankly I can think of more examples of this in Marvel than in DC. Mostly Spider-Man bad guys, actually. They eventually brought back Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, after years of watered-down substitutes (whiny sons and cosplaying shrinks). And they tried to kill off Doctor Octopus and replace him with a female version some years back; didn't take too well with the fans, as I recall. Back in the 70s they "killed" the original Mysterio and replaced him with a younger, stronger version; just a few years later it turned out to be a "hoax" and the real Mysterio was alive and well. And even before that, in the 60s, they tried a younger, stronger Vulture on the fans; didn't take.

Chad Walters said...

To be fair, the "gang lord" style of villain never really disappeared in comic book adaptations, only the comics themselves.

If you take a look at ANY of the Batman movies, you'll see villains and their minions. Lex Luthor generally had help as well in the Superman movies. I can't recall any henchmen in the Marvel movies, but Magneto did have the Brotherhood and Obadiah Stane was a ruthless businessman, so he had the mentality, if not the actual gang...but I doubt he made that suit all by himself.

Doctor Polaris said...

I don't just seem smarter... I am smarter. And I thank you for recognizing my potential.

And it is true: I was a villain long before I was "super." When I started, I had little more than a bad costume, a magnetic gun, and a dream. A dream of robbing a theatre box office and smashing Green Lantern over the head in the process.

Always reach for your dreams.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Doom, as always, has taken this concept to its logical extreme. He doesn't just have a gang, he has an entire nation of mindless minions and fawning lackeys. Plus robots, androids, and all-mobile pacifier units.

Patrick C said...

Mongul was replaced by a rapidly aging son, who looks and acts exactly like Mongul. He is also named Mongul.

Lex Luthor II was just Lex Luthor, and I think it's either been forgotten or punched out of continuity that he's inhabiting a cloned body.

Those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Diamondrock said...

Yeah, and to top it off Mongul II killed his sister. She will never be mentioned again. Nor will the fact that there's supposed to be a "Jr." after Mongul's name...

Anonymous said...

1. Mongul 2: The Sequel
2. Mongul had his Warworld which was like having a "SPAAAAACCCEEE-GAAAANNNGGGG" (ala Gary Owens)
3. Brainiac IS a gang
4. Toyman MADE his own gang
5. Why the hell do you follow someone like the Joker? Someone like Two-Face has the brains for it. Signing up w/ the Joker is like saying,
"Well, I MIGHT get rich" but then you have the very loud voice in the front of your head that says
"OR! You could be killed by him" or put in jail, where others MIGHT take pity on you for just working w/ him.
"Its okay, Jim. He's not hear anymore. Its okay"

Lovecraft In Brooklyn said...

the rerelease of The Warriors has comic-book style transitions between scenes... i'd love that sort of gang in comic books. or movies
Batman & Robin did it with the themed gangs, which almost makes me think that movie was decent...

Martin Gray said...

The first replacement villain I can recall was Two-Face 2, who was the actor playing Harvey Dent in a TV version of his life - someone swapped the props acid, eek!

As for the daughter of Mongul, who couldn't love a two-ton Tessie named Mongal?

Anonymous said...

As for the daughter of Mongul, who couldn't love a two-ton Tessie named Mongal?

Julius H, Schwartz, what have you done? We can only hope Judd Winick doesn't read this blog...

Your Obedient Serpent said...

You know, I've been trying to run a Mutants & Masterminds game for a solo player, whose PC is a non-powered, "Street-Level" ass-kicker who's not really concerned about big, high-profile crimes against rich people.

This requires a completely different mindset than the usual X-Men-Inspired slugfest between squad-level team of super-powered characters that's typical of most superhero games.

I'd been kind of piecing together ideas in this direction (including the "dosing teenage gangbangers with unstable superpowers" bit), but this post really helped solidify some of the ideas that hadn't quite jelled yet.

Thanks to you, and thanks to Matt Sturges for giving me a storyline I can (steal blatantly) use as inspiration!

Chance said...

Was Polaris last seen in Final Crisis being blowed up by the Human Bomb? Or did he have a more recent "death"? And is this the same guy, or do we not know yet?

Martin Gray said...

Well, the regular Dr P is named Neil Emerson and was clean-shaven, where the current guy is going by Nichol and has a beard . . . but, the original Dr P has metal problems which led to the creation of the Dr P identity in the first place, so perhaps Nichol is an alternate persona. With a beard (you know,like Dream Girl was to Star Boy).