My heroes have always been villains, Episode V: Tom Marvolo Riddle

I first read the Harry Potter books as an adult—I began them when book four was still only available in hardback—so my reaction to them and their characters might be expected to differ from how I responded to those tales that had first begun to grip me when I was younger, such as The Lord of the RingsYet, like so many millions of others, I was enthralled by Rowling’s work.  When the new volumes were published, I was one of the midnight-pickup pre-buyers, waiting in the bookstores in the wee hours for my copies the day they came out.

Unlike many of my earlier reactions to such sagas of good versus evil, I was not—at first—particularly interested in the bad guy, Lord Voldemort.  Based on the first three books, which only showed us Voldemort in fragmented or highly reduced form, he seemed a petty villain to me.  Racist and otherwise bigoted, he—if his followers were any indication—was simply a spoiled bully, a reflexive defender of ancient and unearned privilege raging against a more modern, rationalist, and egalitarian way of life, embodied most fully in Dumbledore.  I did enjoy the plays on words Rowling made with his name, but he himself didn’t seem very interesting.  He didn’t elicit a feeling of overwhelming threat and natural force like Sauron does, and I thought it a bit cheeky for anyone to call him “The Dark Lord,” a title I scarcely felt he merited.  He didn’t have the tragic sense of twisted, broken, could-have-been greatness embodied in the likes of Darth Vader and Doctor Doom.  And he certainly didn’t have the cool, detached intellect, that sense of an almost alien intelligence, that Hannibal Lecter possesses. Continue reading

My heroes have always been villains, Episode IV: Victor von Doom

Hello and good morning.  It’s time at last, after a month-long hiatus, to give you the latest iteration of “My heroes have always been villains.”  Today I discuss one of my personal favorite villains:  Dr. Doom.  The fact that he is a comic book villain may make him seem a less than respectable choice of character to discuss, but the popularity of movies depicting such villains—including situations in which these depictions have been critically acclaimed (e.g. Health Ledger’s role as The Joker in The Dark Knight), and the immense success of movies involving villains such as Loki and Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—makes me feel that Doom is a worthy subject of discussion.

Those of you whose only exposure to Doctor Doom comes from the theatrical versions in the Fantastic Four movies could be forgiven for thinking that he isn’t very interesting, but those movies did no justice whatsoever to the character.  I liked the casting choice in the first two movies (I didn’t see Joseph Culp’s version), but Julian McMahon was simply not given a good script with which to work to portray this most riveting (and riveted) of all comic book villains.

One difficulty in discussing a comic book villain is that the characters, especially long-standing ones, are written and interpreted by many different people over time, often with wildly varying quality and depth.  I will here focus primarily on Doom as portrayed by such greats as John Byrne (probably the best of them all) as well as such stand-outs as Jim’s Shooter’s Doom in Marvel Secret Wars, Chuck Dixon’s Doom, and, of course, the work of Doom’s creators, the inimitable Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Over the years, I’ve come to see Doom as a sort of anti-Batman.  The two have similar back stories.  Differences in their life courses seem dependent almost entirely upon specific details of the events which shaped them, but the events and outcomes are similar in many senses.  Doom’s parents, like those of Bruce Wayne, were killed when Victor was quite young, and at least one of them died in his presence.  Of course, Doom was a gypsy, and Bruce Wayne was born fantastically wealthy; perhaps these facts are fundamental to their different specific career choices.  Doom was a member of an oppressed and marginalized minority, his family hounded by, and his parents (at least his father) killed by, the “powers that be”.  Wayne, in contrast, was born into power, and his parents were killed by a low-level criminal.  So, perhaps predictably, Wayne became a protector of the order of society against elements of chaos.  Doom, on the other hand, grew to seek vengeance against those in power, to strive always to take that power for himself, and if possible, to assume control over fate, to become more powerful than anyone or anything else in the world.  Of course, in comic books, all things are possible, and Doom has achieved this goal on an occasion or two, only to lose it…largely through the tragic character flaws that made him a villain in the first place.

One central aspect of Doom’s mystique is the fact that his features are terribly scarred, certainly from his own point of view, and are always covered by his baleful gray armored mask.  But really, I don’t want to dwell too much on the issue of Doom’s visage.  As has been insightfully said about Bruce Wayne’s identity as Batman, the mask is the character’s true face.  The flesh and blood beneath is the façade.

One thing that’s always intrigued me about Doom is that, like Batman, he has no superpowers.  His “powers” are all self-created, the products of his incomparable mind and (apparently) unlimited will.  Yet, despite being an “ordinary” human in a universe populated by beings of almost unimaginable power, Doom remains one of the most potent forces in the Marvel universe, and he has challenged the good and the great on many occasions, defeating those who should be far beyond his power through cunning, intelligence, and nerve.  This is another trait he shares with Batman.

Also like Batman, Doom is pretty screwed up in the head.  It’s hard to see how he couldn’t be, given his childhood experiences, but at least some of Doom’s mental dysfunction seems to be inherent.  He is intensely egotistical, and this is probably congenital to at least some degree, though it’s perhaps also a learned defense mechanism against the chaos that he faced in his formative years.  It’s also somewhat justified, for Doom is a fantastically brilliant scientist and inventor.

One could be forgiven for speculating that Doom might have at least a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome.  He certainly has difficulty connecting with other people emotionally, almost always preferring the company of his robots to that of any lieutenants, sycophants, or courtiers, let alone comrades or friends.  His only close human contact is with Boris, his father’s friend, who took care of Victor—to the degree such a notion has meaning—after Werner von Doom died.  Certainly, there is no one else in the world that Doom trusts, and he doesn’t even trust Boris in the sense of relying on him.  He also doesn’t connect well with his subordinates as real human beings with feelings and identities, killing some of them if they make even trivial mistakes, or if they accidentally question his genius and infallibility.  “Doom needs no one,” he says, quite typically, before destroying an errant robot, practically quoting “Another brick in the wall, Part 3.”

Also fitting the Asperger’s model, Doom definitely qualifies as having restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests.  His life centers almost completely around three basic goals:  1) to free his mother’s soul from Mephisto’s Hell; 2) to conquer and rule the world; and 3) to destroy the Fantastic Four, especially Reed Richards.  Even the possibility of restoring his own face is a distant afterthought—the mask, even to him, really is his true face.

Another interesting aspect to Doom’s character is that he’s not actually that terrible a villain in terms of what he does when he achieves power.  He’s willing to do almost anything to achieve his ends, and God help you if you get in his way (though he has a weird code of honor:  he misleads, deceives, tricks, and otherwise manipulates people in endless ways, but he seems allergic to telling any direct, blatant, knowing lie, at least a petty one, and he will never, ever break his word of honor; if Doom makes a promise, he’ll keep it or die trying).  Once he achieves power, however—as in his control of his native country of Latveria, and on those occasions when he’s achieved temporary dominion over the world—he treats his subjects well, and almost always makes things better than they were before.

I don’t know if this is an expression of benevolence on his part or is rather a function of his insatiable ego:  if he’s going to do something, then you’d better believe he’s going to do it better than anyone else ever could, and that includes running the world.  The average citizen in the Marvel universe could be forgiven, frankly, for hoping that Doom would triumph over all those stupid, wishy-washy heroes who keep everything messy and violent, under the control (if one can dignify the state of things with that word) of lesser minds.  Doom is not one of those villains who wants to watch the world burn.  He wants to put out the world’s fires; he just thinks he’s the only one good enough to do it.

He may be right.

Doom is a complicated character, certainly, and that’s one of the things I like about him.  Though insane, violent, and dangerous (certainly!), and with an arrogance that is only acceptable at all because he lives up to at least some of his own hype (eat your heart out Kanye West), he is very human, and very tragic.  Though certainly evil by most sensible definitions of the word, he is not Evil, if you take my meaning.  He is self-reliant to a fault, with absolute conviction in his own point of view and in his personal capacity to achieve any goal on which he sets his sights.  In focus, willpower, determination, and related synonyms, he is unmatched by any character except, again, Batman.  Like Batman, in Doom this attribute is central to his success, and is also not uniformly good, even for him.  It is, in a way, terrifying.  Doom makes the Terminator look like a vacillating dilettante.  He absolutely will not stop, and he will never, ever, give up.

This is not a good thing.  Sometimes the only sane, reasonable, logical thing to do is to call something a bad job and let it go.  Great deeds can be done by those who set their sights on their goals and never waver from them; also, terrible deeds.

The inhabitants of the Marvel universe might really be better off if Doom were in charge, but the cost of achieving that state would be gargantuan, not least to Doom himself.  But, of course, the nature of comic book villainy is such that Doom is never likely to be allowed to mellow out and settle down, get married, have kids, write his memoirs, and make unsurpassed scientific contributions along the way.  On behalf of the characters involved, we can call this a shame.  But for those of us reading—at least for me—we will be endlessly grateful.

My heroes have always been villains, Episode II: Sauron, lord of Mordor

It’s the second Thursday of the month and, as promised, this is the second installment of “My heroes have always been villains.”  Today, I discuss one of the greatest villains in modern fantasy literature:  Sauron of Mordor, the title character of The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson’s amazing LotR movies (and the slightly less amazing The Hobbit movies) have brought Sauron to the attention of the population at large to a greater degree than ever before, but he was hardly a shrinking violet to begin with.  Millions upon millions of us met him in the books, after getting teased by him as the Necromancer in The Hobbit. Continue reading

My heroes have always been villains, Episode I: The Downfall and Redemption of Anakin Skywalker

Welcome to the first “official” entry in the “My heroes have always been villains” series.  I had trouble deciding with which villain to inaugurate the project.  Should I start with that quintessential Western villain, Satan, specifically as characterized in Milton’s Paradise Lost?  He’s certainly one of the grandest and most impressive of malevolent creations, and Milton’s epic is undeniably one of the greatest works in the English language.  But that might be rather rarefied as a beginning, and though Milton did a great job making Satan not only believable but even convincing and charismatic, there’s still a lack of depth to the character.

In the end, I decided to go for a “lower-brow” starting point and to begin with perhaps the most well-known of villains in all of modern literature*:  Darth Vader.

For those of us who experienced the Star Wars phenomenon from its beginning, our understanding of the character of Darth Vader underwent a very drawn-out process of discovery.  When we first met him, he seemed a superficially one-dimensional bad guy, but we quickly learned that he was not some essence of pure evil by nature, for early in the movie Obi-wan Kenobi says that Vader was once a Jedi knight, “before he turned to evil.”

If there is a pure and ultimate villain of the Star Wars saga, it is surely Emperor Palpatine, who seems to have been a bad seed right from the start.  This makes him a great villain in a sense—you certainly don’t have to feel bad about opposing him, or about how he meets his end.  But there’s also no deep humanity to him.  No one but a psychopath could truly empathize with him, and psychopaths just aren’t very good at doing that.

Darth Vader, however, as we learn his life story in the prequels and on back through the original three Star Wars movies, is on par with the great, tragic villains of classical literature.  His decline and fall and eventual redemption are arcs of character development worthy of Shakespeare (if nowhere near as well written).  In fact, the villain whose story I find most reminiscent of Vader’s is MacBeth.  He starts out truly heroic in character, brave and noble, serving the good of his society, as does MacBeth (Vader actually succeeds in being more complex than MacBeth, if only because he has six longish movies in which to explore his personal development, while MacBeth had only one relatively short play).  Vader’s descent is not born of some innate tendency to evil but is the product of many attributes that we would rightly call virtues, but which are twisted to become classic, tragic flaws.

Anakin Skywalker is earnest and brave from the first moment we meet him.  He is also loving and devoted, first to his mother, and then to Padme and Qui-gon Jinn, and even to Obi-wan.  He desires to do good, that much is clear.  Vader, despite his tendency to choke subordinates to death, never seems to be a sadist.  Palpatine may gloat and laugh while he torments his enemies with “force lightning”, but Vader lashes out in anger, and that anger seems, to me at least, to be born of frustration.  He’s trying to do “good”—to bring order to the galaxy, as he says—and his people keep screwing that up for him.

Anakin Skywalker’s tragic flaw is in that he loves too much; he can’t internalize the Jedi’s Buddhist-style ethos of non-attachment.  This surely has at least something to do with his early life as a slave.  A slave always lives in fear, as so wonderfully summarized by Roy Baty near the end of Blade Runner, because whatever a slave has or loses, including his life, is entirely out of his hands.  Anything a slave loves can be taken from him, arbitrarily and capriciously, not merely by the vicissitudes of impersonal nature, but by the human whims of his owner.  But even after Anakin gains freedom and great power as a Jedi, he cannot prevent the death of his mother, and that loss and frustration leads him to act out in rage, his first real act of darkness.  But this is not an act of sadistic destruction, indulged in out of a love of suffering and death, but is an expression of loss and horrible grief.  We can sympathize with Anakin’s feelings, even if we cannot condone his actions.

It is that very love and attachment—and the fear of loss that is such a strong part of it—that provides the opening for the true villain of the piece to manipulate Anakin, and to lead him to betray the Jedi.  This ironically causes him to lose everything that he loves, and to become, finally, “more machine than man…twisted and evil.”  In many ways, Anakin’s descent is more credible, and more sympathetic—as well as more tragic—than that of MacBeth.  Those very aspects of character that make Anakin a great hero are the means by which he loses his mooring and becomes a figure of terror and hatred.

Unlike MacBeth—again, partly because he just has more stage time with which to work—Vader is able to achieve, in the end, a redemption from evil through the love of his recently-discovered son.  At one point in Return of the Jedi, Vader says to Luke that Obi-wan was wise to hide from him the fact that Leia was his daughter, and presumably also that Luke was his son.  I have to wonder if that’s true.  Hiding the children from Palpatine was certainly wise, since he would have seen them as potential, powerful tools.  But Vader’s embrace of violence and darkness is surely at least partly because he believes he truly has lost everything that has ever mattered to him.  Thus, he surely sees the universe as a place of unmitigated shadow.  If he had known that his children had survived—rather than dying with their mother, as he apparently believed—I think he would might have turned against the Emperor much earlier than he finally did.  Maybe not.  Maybe he would have been just as tragically afraid of loss as he had been before and would have willfully committed just as great acts of evil to protect himself from ever losing them.  We can certainly imagine Palpatine deliberately engineering that loss for him, to draw him even more thoroughly into darkness, this time with no chance of redemption.  But it’s also possible to imagine Vader turning on and destroying the Emperor much earlier, recognizing the threat that Palpatine would always be to his children, and striving to make a peaceful and benevolent life for them.  Would he then have been able to escape the fearful attachment that led to his fall in the first place?  It’s impossible to say.

In any case, Vader’s story arc is what it is, constrained by the necessities of epic story-telling.  We would not be as satisfied with MacBeth if the title character had surrendered himself to MacDuff, shown repentance, and thrown himself on the mercy of his righteous avengers; he must be killed in battle, destroyed by the one to whom he has done the greatest harm.  Vader’s end is, in many ways, better than that of most fictional antagonists.  He gets to meet his lost children, and he finally turns on the real villain who has engineered much of his misery, helping to free the galaxy and then dying peacefully in the arms of his son.  It’s an ending worthy of a place of honor among those grand and melodramatic tales that have stood out in the history of story-telling.

Star Wars has its clunkiness, especially when it comes to dialogue—George Lucas is no William Shakespeare, but then again, who among us is?  But in that it revolves around the character development and descent—and then reclamation—of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, it achieves a level of sophistication that belies the superficial lightness of its entertainment form.  There is real depth, pathos, and tragedy to the story of Darth Vader, the heart of the Star Wars saga, and this is probably why Vader is one of the most well-known and—dare I say it?—beloved villains in all of modern literature.

*in the definition of which I include not just written fiction, but also comic books, movies, and potentially, even video games

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor blog post

Hello and good day to you all.

It’s been a reasonably productive week for me, especially considering that I haven’t felt very well.  I didn’t even write an entry for Iterations of Zero last Sunday, but I’m planning on making up for that by publishing two new posts this coming week—one new and one republished from among works that were previously posted here.

On the other hand, Unanimity has been proceeding at an excellent pace.  On Saturday, April 28th, its first draft passed the quarter-million-word mark.  This will be my longest book so far, even after I pare it ruthlessly down in the editing process.  That’s not a bad thing, though—at least I hope it won’t be.  The story will be as long as it must be.  I’m just the messenger; please don’t shoot me (though you can, if you wish, quote MacBeth and call me “Liar and slave!”).  I’m greatly enjoying writing the book, and that has to be my primary criterion for success.  Obviously, I hope that people will read and enjoy the finished product, but even if I knew without any possible doubt that no one would, I think I’d still write it.

The recording of the audio of Hole for a Heart is complete, and the sound-editing process has begun.  I’ve been forced to re-record some of it due to mic malfunctions during the initial reading, which led to terrible static.  Apparently, once or twice while I read, the microphone cord came partly loose.  The result, when looked at on the waveform-layout, is a terrible progression of spikes, and when you listen…well, you won’t listen, because that’s been deleted and re-recorded.  Trust me, you wouldn’t want to hear it.

I did a little more “voice acting” in this story than in its predecessors, because there are more characters interacting, and there’s a bit more drama and emotion in that interaction.  I worry that I might have hammed it up a bit in places, but at least I enjoyed myself.  The story doesn’t have a happy ending, but then again, it’s a horror short story, so it wouldn’t end happily, would it?  Looking back on my published short stories, only one in three seems to have a “happy” ending, and if you go back in time to earlier works, that ratio drops even farther.  My novels, though, are another matter.  They all end up, more or less, with the good guys having triumphed, at least for the time being.

Unanimity will end on a bittersweet note, though.  Oh, of course, the situation will be resolved, and the dangers will be conquered, but the outcome will still be tragic, and the surviving characters will be scarred by their experiences.  This, unfortunately, is just the way things often are—in life as in fiction.

The next novel I plan to write, on the other hand, is going to be much more upbeat, and probably quite a bit shorter.  I’m not sure which of the stories clamoring about in my head will be released after that.  Eventually, I’m going to write a second book, and then a third, in the saga of Mark Red, but I really want to get other things out first before I return to my young demi-vampire and his friend and mentor, the vampire Morgan.  At some point, I expect also to write my prequel to Son of Man, detailing the back story of the character Michael.  That’s a tale that’s been waiting in my head for at least as long as Son of Man waited.

Of course, sooner or later, I’m going to write the story of my beloved characters The Dark Fairy and the Desperado, originally created in idle drawings, and yet other books lie waiting in between.  Thankfully, I write almost every day, unless I’m feeling quite ill.  I’d love to be able honestly to paraphrase Epicurus and say, “When I get a little time, I write books.  If I have any left over, I work to buy food and clothes.”  Unfortunately, in real life, working to make a living takes up a far bigger chunk of my time than writing does.  And then, of course, I have to sleep, alas.

Finally, as I said previously, I am going to start, probably next week, writing my long-planned series on my favorite villains from literature—from novels, to myths, to legends, to comic books, to movies, and beyond.  Often in fiction (and less often, but far too often, in real life), villains are the ones who set a story in motion.  Without Sauron, The Lord of the Rings would not be worth telling, and Harry Potter’s life would be far less gripping (though probably much more pleasant) had there been no Voldemort.  Villains act while the heroes, more or less, simply react, but both of them, when they’re “good”, teach us about the world and about ourselves.  Perhaps more important, reading about them is fun.

On that note, I’ll bring this blog post to a close.  Thank you all for reading, and please be as well as you can possibly be.