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B&N Week 16: Supervillains!

| April 12, 2011 | 8 Comments


Tuesday. It’s one of those days that I love. It ends in “y” and everything. I have a special affinity for days that end in “y”…

And since it’s Tuesday, I guess that means it’s time for another installment of Bolts & Nuts, right? Right. So, let’s get to it.

We’re still talking about superheroes. Recently, I spoke about supers in general, and about the heroes in specific. This time around, I’m going to talk about supers in general, and supervillains in specifics. The two, contrary to current belief, are not interchangeable.

Let’s talk about supers generation for a little bit. Last week, I advocated the use of table-top role playing games, and that still applies. While I play City of Heroes, I’m not really in love with their generation system. Let’s look at it for a little bit.

Let’s say you create Pen-Man in the City of Heroes generator. You want him to be able to fly, and be really strong. Of course, he won’t be able to fire ink or create ink shapes or anything like that, but you take something with a dark energy melee and a sword or something. The sword will be substituted for the pen in your imagination. You make the closest approximation to Pen-Man that you can using their generator. It’s not the best, but it gives you an idea of what you want.

Then you start going through missions, and Pen-Man grows more and more powerful. Initially, he couldn’t fly very fast, but he was able to get there. You go through the levels, and you get more powers and stunts. More weapons. But you keep going. Now you’re level 35, and Pen-Man is no longer the character you started out with. He can teleport. He can heal. He can teleport others. He can run really fast. He has all of these powers that don’t fit within the scope of his original generation. That’s the fault of the generator. Basically, when it comes to creating supers that I’m going to use in comics, I only use City of Heroes for costume generation. And even that’s somewhat limited.

You have three body types: call it male, female, and the Hulk. You can adjust the bodies from there, making them taller or shorter, more or less robust, and they have all kinds of costume parts and shadings and heads and such. Literally millions of permutations, and even with those, you’re still limited only to what they have. Basically, all of this is just to say that this method of generation will only get you an approximation of your character—not something that’s as close as you want it. It’s your imagination. Use it to the best of your ability.

But, the above is the reason I don’t advocate online role playing games. They’re limited. Much more limited than tabletop rpg’s, in my opinion. With tabletop rpg’s, you’re able to do anything you need to. You’re able to adapt given powers into anything you need, if they’re not already there, and in understanding the system of creation, knowing what the numbers mean when it comes to power levels et al, you’re able to get your initial character to be as powerful as they need to be, and then build them up from there over time—just like in the comics. I’m a Marvel person, so I have a few Marvel systems under my belt, and am able to create characters decently fast under them. So, I know that with the power set I gave to Pen-Man, it’s basically a derivative of Cosmic Energy Control, and he would be powered accordingly. Not simple, but you get used to it.

Supervillains are different. Not much when it comes to their generation, but enough. Because of the sophistication of today’s reader, it’s not good enough for the bad guys to be evil “just because.”  That might have flown in the 60’s and 70’s (and possibly even the 80’s), but it’s not going to fly now. Not if you want to have a good villain.

The best villains are the ones that you can identify with. They should also be the most powerful. We’ll get into powers in a little bit. I’m going to give you the best villain I think has ever been made: Magneto. Screw Darkseid, screw Venom, screw Ra’s al Ghul, screw Luthor. Screw ’em all. The best villain ever made is Magneto, and I’m going to tell you why.

The reason is simple: Magneto is not a villain. He’s definitely not a hero, but he’s not a villain. He wants betterment for mutantkind. He just has a really aggressive way of going about his objective. For those of us that remember Secret Wars [and if you don’t, or have never read Secret Wars, go get the trade. Seriously.], Magnus was with the heroes when they first got to the Beyonder’s space station, not the villains. That is important. He’s a “villain” whose reason for being is not villainous. He’s actually an aggressive altruist.

And that’s what you must do in creating a good villain. Their mission, their reason for being, must be identifiable as something sympathetic to the common reader. It has to be. What’s Darkseid want? The Anti-Life Equation. Cool, but how is that identifiable with the common reader? Ra’s al Ghul is an eco-terrorist. I can kinda get behind that. Everyone is getting “green” nowadays, and DC did the smart thing in bringing back the Demon’s Head. Judicious use of him is now necessary for him to be a real threat. It can also make him into a worthy villain.

Basically, I’m talking about ideologies. It doesn’t have to be diametrically opposed to your hero, but it should make them sympathetic to the reader. It should make them hard to be seen in a villainous light. Diametric opposition can be boring, because it’s black and white. The best villains don’t see themselves that way. They’re deeper than that. Their goals are bigger.

Once you have a villain that’s worthy of the name, with an ideology that is good but taken to the extreme, what needs to happen next is their power set.

A good hero is defined by their villains. Let me say that a little differently, because there’s a bit of debate about that. The previous statement is a little broad. A good superhero is defined by their villains. This actually says more about the villains than it does about the hero, although most people don’t notice it.

From a standpoint of raw power, your villain should be either as strong or stronger than your hero. Their job is to push the hero to their limits, usually physically, but it could also be mentally or emotionally. The thrill is simple: how is the hero going to overcome the villain? If the villain is no match for the hero, where’s the contest?

Spider-Man versus the Kangaroo. No contest. Superman versus just about anybody. No contest. It’s uninteresting. However, you put Spidey against Venom, then you have a match. Superman and Darkseid? You’ve got a brawl on your hands. Your villains should serve one of two purposes: pushing your hero in some way, or giving your hero a break after lots of challenges. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Now, not all of your villains need to have a big reason for being and ultra powerful. Look at the Kangaroo. The Gibbon. Look at Slyde. These characters are there to provide a break for your hero. There’s no real challenge to them, and their reason for being? Money, usually. Sometimes they do team ups for revenge or something like that, but generally its money. A character like the original Kraven is there for the challenge of the hunt, and Bullseye just likes to hurt people. These characters are okay, as long as you take them for what they are. Understanding the purpose of these characters will lead to making better heroes and villains.

The thing that I like most about villains is that I get to think bad thoughts. Not only do I get to think bad thoughts, but I get to draw others into my bad thoughts. I get to go into some very dark corners, and come out the other side. Villains can do that for you. They can be disgustingly bad, and you can put that down on paper and free yourself of it.

And that’s what’s really happening when you do a story. Stories have conflict, and the conflict you put down on paper is really nothing more than self-examination. Think about it. What does Identity Crisis and Secret Invasion say about Brad Meltzer and Brian Bendis? Meltzer went into some dark corners with Identity Crisis. Not everyone liked it—it made some people downright uncomfortable—but that doesn’t detract from the power of the story, or the fact that there were some honestly messed up things going on in Meltzer’s head.

Robert R. McCammon wrote a book called Baal. It’s got some similarities to The Stand, but it’s still its own story. There were some honestly dark things going on in that book, and McCammon said that he wrote it while he was feeling powerful and invincible and pissed at the world.

Anne Rice lost her daughter, and then wrote a book. That pain and sorrow and sense of loss became Interview With The Vampire, the start of her Vampire Chronicles.

Dark places. You can do that with your villains. I’ll go so far as to say that you should go there with your villains. Not so far as you lose your readers, but pretty far.

What’s too far? I, personally, have few boundaries when I write. I’m twisted, and I’ll be the first one to tell you. However, I know that there are certain things that most people just won’t go for. Hurting children, especially babies, even though you see it all the time in the news. That tops most people’s lists. That, and rape. There’s just something about those two that most people will throw their hands up and drop you like a hot potato, story merits be damned.

Robert Kirkman wrote a story that was very dark. It was basically an issue of torture. A “hero” torturing a bad guy. Of course, she had a great reason for it, but Kirkman went into a very dark place in order to tell that story. It was also the subject of a lot of long letters, about half and half: half in condemnation, half in understanding and praise. Of that half in condemnation, there were a few that said they wouldn’t pick up the title anymore. That means Kirkman went into a very dark place, and touched uncomfortable nerves in people. If you’ve written something in such a way as to move someone to write to you saying it was basically snuff porn and they were never going to pick up the title again, you’ve done one of two things: you’ve either written snuff porn, or you’ve written a deep, dark story that caused a very real reaction in your audience.

Time to lighten up a bit. Now, we’re going to talk about flip-flops. Magneto as a hero, Sandman as a hero, the Black Cat as a hero. Whenever you see a character flip, you’re seeing a writer say that they have nothing else interesting to say with the character as a villain, so they have to jump to the other side of the fence for a while.

There are two things concerning flips. The first is that it’s almost always a villain turning into a hero, and hardly ever a hero turning into a villain. The second thing is that the flip generally doesn’t last. [I’m speaking in generalities, folks. No hate-mail or “corrections.”]  If you decide that you want to flip a character, then you need to make sure you’re not hurting the integrity of the character. That’s sometimes a lot harder to see than you think. [This will basically be something determined by your editor.]    Flipping isn’t something done without a plan, and without being carefully thought out. However, it’s also a fine line to straddle. Magneto’s done it a couple of times, and Namor can’t make up his mind. When a hero turns into a villain, there has to be a damned good reason for the flip. The bigger the character, the bigger the reason. Green Lantern Hal Jordan springs to mind. Flipping the character again [redemption] has to be an even bigger spectacle.

So, what am I saying with all of this? Let’s run down the list.

When creating a supervillain, the good ones have ideologies that are sympathetic to the audience, making them less of a villain and more a misguided soul. Magneto.

When creating a supervillain, they serve one of two purposes: either give the hero a run for their money [Venom], or give the hero a break [Slyde].

If they’re giving a hero a run for their money, they have to push the hero to their limits, either physically, mentally, or emotionally, if not all three.

It’s okay to go to dark places with your villains. Honestly, that’s what they’re there for.

If you’re going to flip a character, make sure the flip makes sense, and understand that more than likely, it won’t last.

Now, while I want you to think of these as rules, understand that they’re really more like guidelines. However, by following them, you’ll be creating better villains, and by creating better villains, you’ll be creating better heroes.

Homework is to create two villains for your hero. The first is to push them, and the second is to give them a break.

Next week, more heroes and villains! Or, we may talk about something else. We’ll see how it goes. See you then.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at for rate inquiries.

Comments (8)

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  1. Oh man, City of Heroes… that brings back memories! I dropped it after five years, in part because it was too time-consuming, but mostly because I kept getting angry at the system for not being flexible enough for my taste. Something tells me you were a Virtue player, Steven…

    However, it did teach me a lot of things about villain creation (although I already knew it’s not spelled “villian”, like most other CoH players seemed to think, especially since they opened up the “Rouge” isles).

    Back then, I had written a lenghty document discussing the various motivations for becoming a villain. Lemme see if I can remember some at the top of my head:

    – The Egotist wants everyting because he considers himself entitled to it. He just takes the shortest route to his goals, no matter who he has to go through. Common thieves and hit men fall into this category.

    – The Mindless Monster is a rampaging force of nature. Its actions are motivated by basic needs: feeding, mating and protecting its young or territory. Acid-blooded aliens and big toothy fish roaming around Amity Island fall into this category.

    – The Alien has simply no grasp of the concept of right and wrong as humans see it. He commits evil either because he can’t comprehend this distinction or because he’s essentially evil on a metaphysical level. Extraterrestrial invaders, demons and ancient gods fall into this category.

    – The Twisted Philosopher has created a whole world view that justifies and even demands criminal behavior. Evil cultists and “original” thinkers a la Marquis de Sade fall into this category.

    – The Unwilling Villain is compelled by an outside force to commit atrocities. The compulsion can be direct (curse, hypnosis, mind-control device) or indirect (blackmail, threat). Lycanthropes, certain ghosts and people indebted to the mob fall into this category.

    – The Misguided Altruist genuinely doesn’t think of himself as a criminal. His intentions are noble so his means have to be as well. Some well-known mutant rights activists and eco-terrorists fall into this category. 😉

    Great column as usual – my brain is engorged of food for thought!

    • Thanks, Yannick!

      (Yes, I played on Virtue. That’s where the action was!)

      I wouldn’t consider a Mindless Monster inherently evil. As you put it, they’re a force of nature. They’re just doing whatever their instincts say. (I recently [finally!] saw Cloverfield, and I have to say, the monster wasn’t evil. Somebody, either the monster or us, was at the wrong place at the wrong time.)

      In all, though, I like the breakdown you have here. I see a lot of thought was put into it. Good work.

      When are you going to step into The Proving Grounds? 😉

      • Ah Virtue! Come for the action, stay for the drama! 😉

        I guess the name of “villain” doesn’t really fit the Mindless Monster as well as “antagonist” i.e. a force opposing the protagonist. In that sense, evil is subjectve since it’s defined in opposition to the hero’s actions. But I agree with you that it’s as evil as a tornado, cancer or a car accident.

        I just picked up my script again, halfway though it in fact. I had to take a long break due to personal reasons. However, I’m not worried since my outiline is all laid out so it’s almost like filling in a form right now. Still, I want to get to the very end of it before submitting anything. I have the nagging feeling that things are going to move around as the story unfolds. The bigger the house you build, you longer it has to settle before it stops creeking in the night.

        Oh and I have to ask a native English speaker to look it over so you don’t rip your eyes out. 😛

  2. Hmmm, I would really like to read the rest of your document discussing the various motivations for becoming a villain, Yannick. I guess for my own webcomic I have only created “Egotists” (I think, but maybe I am wrong here…)
    Anyway, Steven, again a very entertaining and interesting article. I guess I will follow you around from today onwards.

    Heroic regards from Germany!
    Arne / thirtyseven / @ancire

  3. Hi, Steven! (Shadow waves back)

  4. John Lees says:

    Another great column, Steve, and a topic close to my heart. Villains typically rank amongst my favorite characters in fiction.

    In terms of their characterisation, however, I’m torn between making them sympathetic or not. I think in comics, and indeed in fiction as a whole, there is a certain cyclical nature to what kind of bad guys capture the public imagination. And while yes, past the 80s, and through the 90s and into the 00s, there did seem to be an upsurge in the sympathetic villain, with Magneto as the prime standard bearer in the comics.

    I know that, in The Standard, I tried to make most of my villains, to some degree, sympathetic. One of the primary villains for the first half of the series is just vile, but the two main overarching antagonists of the series as a whole are developed in a way where I hope there actions are totally justifiable from their skewed perspective, and you can see how in their minds they think they’re doing the right thing.

    But I fear there is a danger in making your villains TOO sympathetic. I think if you get overly caught up in making the audience see things from their point of view, it can ultimately hamper the audience’s identification with the hero and their motivations. John Bryne was famously critical of Magneto’s retconned Holocause survivor origin, claiming that his wife, upon hearing of the change, said, “But that’s not the origin of a villain, that’s the origin of a hero.”

    I actually love the Holocaust survivor origin, but largely because of the tragic irony of Magneto turning into the very kind of bigoted monster he once devoted his life to fighting against. One of my favorite moments in the first “X-Men” film was when Cyclops says to Magneto something like, “If you were really noble, you’d be sacrificing yourself for your cause rather than an innocent girl.” And Magneto is unable to answer the accusation, because he knows Cyclops is right, and he’s a bit of a hypocrite. And Grant Morrison once said about Magneto, “What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen, is a mad old terrorist twat. No matter how he justifies his stupid, brutal behaviour, or how anyone else tries to justify it, in the end he’s just an old bastard with daft, old ideas based on violence and coercion. I really wanted to make that clear at this time.” When Magneto gets TOO sympathetic, in my eyes he ceases to be a villain, and becomes an anti-hero.

    I think that, in recent years, the unsympathetic villain has had something of a revival in popularity. Steve says Magneto is the best supervillain in comics, but I’d argue that The Joker holds that role. And few villains have less redeeming qualities than he does. “The Dark Knight” gave us a Joker that faithfully adapted much of what makes The Joker compelling, that total disconnect from human decency, taking sadistic delight in drawing out the very worst in people, an almost primal force of evil.

    Another one of the best movie villains of recent years was Anton Chigurh from “No Country For Old Men”. What made him so terrifying was how implacable and inhuman he seemed, his humanity stripped away. Because he has no tragic backstory or clear justification for what he does, it makes his menace more pure and concentrated, he’s frightening on a visceral level.

    Look in the comics as well. One of the best villain portrayals Marvel has enjoyed in years was how Ed Brubaker brought the Red Skull to life in his acclaimed “Captain America” run. And he was just vile. No sympathy there whatsoever, and it almost felt refreshing in a way to be greeted with a villain who seemed to be bad just out of the sheer love of being bad. And The Governor from “The Walking Dead” was one of the most despicable characters to ever show up in a comic book, but also one of the most memorable villains of recent years.

    I think Grant Morrison is the master of creating truly horrible villains. Whether it be the collection of oppressive, debauched sadists that show up throughout “The Invisibles”, or the near Satanic evil of Dr. Hurt through his lengthy Batman run, or the never-darker Darkseid of “Final Crisis”, Morrison has a knack for delivering villains that you can truly hate, and as a result truly support the heroes who oppose them. And one other thing I’ve noticed in Morrison’s work is this tendency of having these seemingly-formidable villains exposed as quite petty and pathetic once they meet their match in a hero worthy of challenging them.

    Ultimately, I think there are benefits of both kinds of villain – the justified, sympathetic villain and the despicable monster villain. But whatever way you go, the key is not to do it half-assed. If you want a villain to be sympathetic, really take the time to develop them and give them motivations that could almost be valid. And if you want to make them truly monstrous, don’t shy away from writing stuff that almost makes even you flinch.

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