Thursday, January 03, 2008

Motivations of a villain?

Sometimes it’s just too easy. This has been in my head ever since I read Keith Champagne’s commentary on the last issue of COUNTDOWN: ARENA.

In a series whose main plot didn’t make much sense from the solicitations: somehow Monarch nee Captain Marvel is able to traverse the different 52 realities, kidnap and coerce various heroes in order to build an army to fight the Monitors, but he wants just one Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, etc and so he has multiple versions fight it out, often to the death. The built in flaw is of course, if he’s powerful enough to do this, why limit himself to just one? Why not multiple Supermen, Green Lanterns and Flashes? Why would you even want a Batman in such a battle? A Batman that could really be valuable over the various super-powered heroes is probably one that would be dangerous to have working for you via coercion.

Then Keith says this about it:
“Let’s talk about Monarch for a minute.

There have been a lot of questions about Captain Atom/Monarch throughout “Countdown” and subsequently, into the pages of “Arena.” Why is Captain Atom suddenly so evil? How did he get so powerful? Why does he hate the Monitors so much?

The answer is: I don’t know, either. Those are all questions for the “Countdown” crew to answer and I didn’t need to know any of it to write “Arena.”

My job over the course of “Arena” wasn’t to answer the Captain Atom/Monarch stuff. It was to build Monarch up and get him ready for his coming war against the Monitors.”

“…..At this point, no matter how Captain Atom is eventually shown to become Monarch, I feel I’ve done my job. He’s now a great villain, plain and simple. He’s shown how smart he is, he’s shown how powerful he is, and also how determined he is. Monarch is now at a level where he can take on the Monitors in serious fashion and possibly win.”

( ws/newsitem.cgi?id=12663)

Ok, I could understand the writer not wanting to reveal it. But, not to know? He’s saying that his job is to write a mini focusing on and building up this character, yet he knows nothing about what is motivating the character, how he got from Point A to Point C.

And, not understanding or giving anything that really motivates the character is what makes him NOT a great villain. Sure, he’s been built up as a force to be reckoned with, but that’s kids on the playground debating on who’s the better hero or villain based solely on who can beat up who. Your great villains actually have depth. We understand a bit of what motivates them, even if not at first. If Monarch/Captain Atom does become a great villain, it will be because of what others do, not what was done in this mini. Character motivation is such a big deal, that when talking about writing, Orson Scott Card focused on that above everything else. Many writers talk about characters eventually taking over the story while writing, it's because they have such a clear idea of who and what the character is about.

It highlights a problem with the Monarch character (and has plagued some other great villains at DC such as Kobra and Vandal Savage). The character changes every time he’s trotted out as a menace, no one can really decide what the character is supposed to be about. It’s not even the same person every time. With Monarch, this has its underpinnings in his origins. He started out as a mystery character in ARMEGEDDON 2001, back when it was cool to run the Event of the Year through the annuals. When fandom deduced it was supposed to be Captain Atom turned traitor, last minute changes made the character into Hawk. Even though the HAWK & DOVE annual was one of the few that outright refuted that possibility, and the reveal of Hawk as the villain only makes sense if one ignores what the whole H & D series was about. It also gave the armor no origin, Hawk steals it from his future self, making the origin of the armor a bad time loop. After a lackluster mini of Captain Atom and Monarch squaring off across time, Hawk gets an upgrade to Extant and abandons the armor. So when we see the armor again, it’s now being worn by a duplicate Nathanial Adam (Captain Atom's secret identity) seeking revenge on Captain Atom (somehow the experiment that transformed Captain Adam to Captain Atom actually created a quantum clone) in the pages of EXTREME JUSTICE. But that series was short-lived and the villain again went into limbo. With the end of BATTLE FOR BLUDHAVEN, a damaged Captain Atom fresh from touring the Wildstorm Universe winds up in the again abandoned armor. We have a visually interesting villain, but he changes each time out. The only thing consistent about the character is that every story he’s been in has been a bad one.

Think of your characters like Lex Luthor, the Joker, Doctor Doom, Galactus. Part of what makes them work is we do know the motivating factors behind the characters. Even if we don’t know everything about the history, we still understand character. As such, this has led to a largely consistent portrayal of them because they are characters, not cyphers. And when Post-Crisis Lex Luthor was re-tooled, that was the character that appeared in other books, he was built up because he wasn’t changed with each new story that he was used. Not that consistency matters in the DCU anymore. Currently there are two different versions of the Legion of Superheroes in the mainstream DCU and then a third based on the cartoon series! TRIALS OF SHAZAM has a completely different Captain Marvel than Jeff Smith’s over-hyped MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL, and neither make any attempts at accurately portraying the characters, but writers with egos thinking their version trumps all preceding ones.

Keith Champagne does that as well in COUNTDOWN ARENA. A multiverse army of Captain Atoms arrive to take down Monarch, including one based on the Ditko version. Of course, Monarch easily slays that Captain Atom, making him the biggest bad dude around. The same page further underscores just how little Champagne understands his main character. He obviously doesn’t really know that much about the Post-Crisis Captain Atom either as he has Monarch comment to the original version of the character how much like him he once was. In actuality, the Post-Crisis Captain Atom was very different from the original from origin story to looks to motivations of the two versions.

I also found the artist choice to be an odd one. Scott McDaniel is a very dynamic and quirky artist. He’s so heavily stylized that in combat scenes it can often be difficult to follow the action, it actually slows the reading process down to figure out what exactly happens in a scene. He’s at his best with non- to low-powered solo characters and books. A book like this plays to his weaknesses not his strengths. He’s not good with crowd scenes, characters seem barely rendered and costume details skirted on. Similar looking characters look too closely alike, it’s hard to tell the various Batmen apart in their battle for instance.

To truly salvage the character is to probably do the one thing has defined him, dump the whole hero gone bad angle. Put an unknown in the armor. In other words, make Monarch himself the character and not whatever superhero id he was before. Other than Patsy Walker, has any previously established character taken on a radically different identity and actually have it work? Hal Jordan didn’t work as Paralax and certainly not as the Spectre. Azrael as Batman was designed to fail. I guess, maybe Robin as Nightwing, but it’s not like Dick Grayson radically changed in the pages of TEEN TITANS, he still played the same role in the book as he always did, it was more of just a change in nick name and clothes, something many do when moving from adolescent to adulthood. The various identities of Hank Pym is no doubt in part what lead the character to be defined as unstable. Let the villain be a villain and the hero be a hero. Instead of completely destroying every Charlton hero one by one.

1 comment:

Doctor Zen said...

Today the main motivation for both heroes and villains seems to be revenge on each other. So much so that it can read like gangs having turf wars.
60s comics have a bad rap for lack of characterization, but people had motives, and they weren't all just take-over-the-world. Sonar wanted to promote his country, Captain Cold wanted to impress women, etc. I can't think of a current villain whose motive isn't Power (no reason why he feels he needs it) or Revenge.