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.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Penny for Your Thoughts.

Hawkgirl....had a giant poodle.

Named Penny.

Somehow, of all the weird things comics have asked me to believe, this is one of the weirdest and hardest to believe.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Martian Manhunter (for those who have ever been laid)

So, the latest thing we must all (apparently) weigh in on is David S. Goyer's recent convention comments about the Martian Manhunter:

“How many people in the audience have heard of Martian Manhunter?”
Following some applause from the audience, Goyer joked, “How many people that raised their hands have ever been laid?”
“Well, he can’t be f****** called ‘The Martian Manhunter’ because that’s goofy. He could be called “Manhunter.” … The whole deal with Martian Manhunter is he’s an alien living amongst us, that’s the deal. He came out in the ‘50s, and he had basically all the powers of Superman, except he didn’t like fire, and he could read your mind. So here’s the best part: So he comes down to Earth and decides, unlike Superman who already exists in the world now, that he’s just going to be a homicide detective, and pretend to be a human homicide guy. … So instead of using superpowers and mind-reading and like, ‘Oh, I could figure out if the President’s lying or whatever,’ he just decides to disguise himself as a human homicide detective. Dare to dream.
“I would set it up like The Day After Tomorrow. We discover one of those Earth-like planets… So maybe like… we get the DNA code from that planet and then grow him in a petri dish here… He’s like in Area 51 or something and we’re just basically… doing biopsies on him.”

First, we address the attempt to dismiss the Martian Manhunter and belittle those who might consider him significant or even relevant. Goyer is clearly being inappropriate, irrelevant, and rude.  But he's also being foolish. The fact that there are people who care about such things as Martian Manhunter is what keeps people like Goyer employed (let alone famous enough to stand there and deride them for it).  Goyer starts with an ad hominem attack on anyone who, by definition, would able to contradict what he's about to say.  That's a very strong tip-off that he doesn't feel his position is sound (or that he's just generally insecure and cannot bear any debate).

Goyer is well within his right to point out that there are conceptual problems with the Martian Manhunter as a character.  I myself have made a case that those problems are fatal flaws, and that DC should eliminate and abandon the Martian Manhunter.  But most of the objections he raises can be countered.

For example: yes, we know now that there is no life on Mars.  But J'onn's not from OUR Mars; he's from the DCU's Mars.  We know that the Nazis didn't have any giant red robots or a warwheel, and yet I've certainly seen those in comics.  We also don't have in our world: vampires, ghosts, Kryptonians, Atlantis, talking chimps and gorillas, magic lanterns, speed force, Amazons, or people who wouldn't realize that Ollie Queen is Green Arrow.  Yet, there they are in the DCU.

"The whole deal with Martian Manhunter is he's an alien living amongst us, that’s the deal."  Okay. Fair enough.

And damned smug about it, I might add.

"He came out in the ‘50s, and he had basically all the powers of Superman, except he didn’t like fire, and he could read your mind. "  No, not quite.  Mr. Goyer sounds like someone who is confusing the backstory that the Martian Manhunter has been given in subsequent iterations with his ACTUAL introduction into comics.  As any reader of the blog of fan of Apex City, America's Most Flammable Vacation Spot, already knows, when introduced the Martian Manhunter did NOT have 'basically all the powers of Superman; he also could NOT read your mind.  That was, in fact, one of the few things he could NOT do.  Was he stronger and tougher than humans? Yes.  But he was written mostly as having power Superman DIDN"T have.  He could change shape (grow giant, shrink tiny, and alter appearance).  He could become invisible.  He could become intangible.  He could manipulate matter mentally with great effort.  He didn't run superfast, but he could spin superfast.   He didn't have freeze breath, he had hurricane breath.  He was like Grant Morrison's Brotherhood of Dada character, The Quiz; he had every power you hadn't thought of yet.
At least buy them dinner first, J'onn!

What Goyer is actually criticizing is the oversimplication of the Martian Manhunter that came when he was no longer been written as a main character in his own storylines but merely as a me-too in Justice League and elsewhere.  And he is right to do so.  With J'onn as powerful as he is written now and with the power set he now has, it seems pretty feeble that he did nothing more than hide out as a police detective.  In his original stories, it made sense: he wasn't trying to be a superhero, he was trying to get home to Mars, but was trapped. So he chose a life doing something he had the abilities for; crimefighting, alongside normal crimefighting authorities.

Goyer is right that current J'onn with his traditional backstory...doesn't ring very true.  His personal solution to that problem is, well, a bit odd, in that it would make J'onn a passive figure, a Frankenstein's Creation; more like Superboy.  But the only thing that's really needed to fix J'onn's origin is to make him less powerful.  Reduce his power set and levels, make his abilities most a function of his mind, limiting how much energy he has to use powers, not letting him do more than one thing at a time, like a modern day Ultra-Boy.  Suddenly, creating an identity as a detective seems sensible again, particularly since he has no home to go back to.  And...why WOULD he become a superhero, since no one else was doing it?  Only after Superman showed what good could be done by 'coming out' as an alien superhero would it make sense for J'onn to do so.

Goyer's criticisms of the Martian Manhunter are poorly put, to be sure.  But rather than focus on correcting Goyer's failings, let's focus on correcting J'onn's.  Because frankly, I don't care at all about David S. Goyer, but I do care about the Martian Manhunter.

P.S. Even though I have, in fact, ever been laid.