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You would think that the comic industry as a whole would have a check list that they go through when creating a new character. Some would probably say they do and then go onto list things like: Character Design, Weapons, Powers, Location and Origin. And to a lot of creators and readers that’s what it boils down to: What do they look like, what can they do and how they came to be with a lot of emphasis on that last category.
So many comics fall to obscurity due to the industries hang up on the “origin story” that most of the time they don’t even make it past the origin story in the series. Sadly, it seems Hollywood also has this same hang up and has forced it into movie upon movie. When you really think about it the origin story should be one of the last concerns when presenting a new character to the audience. One of comic’s favorite characters – Wolverine – went nearly thirty years before having his origin explained and the mystery of his origin was one of the things that fans loved the most about him.
That brings us the question of the article, “What makes a good super-hero?” The answer is quite simple… their villain.
Batman is nothing without his rogues, but he’s even less without the Joker. Spider-man is just a man in tights with a hard life until you add the Green Goblin and his rogue’s gallery to the mix. This can be found countless times throughout comics: Spawn, Violator. Superman, Lex Luthor. Hal Jordon, Sinestro. Flash, Reverse Flash. Professor X, Magneto. Thor, Loki. Daredevil, Kingpin. Literally every character that is at the core of a comic universe either has that one pinnacle villain or a gallery of villains.
That being said, if you want a well-developed hero that maintains an audience regardless of origin then begin with the villain. What the villain represents is the conflict for our hero. He can’t always be fighting the mafia, gangsters or evil faceless corporations. There needs to be a human face behind the villainy otherwise it’s a crime better left to the police.
Let’s go back to our example of a hero with no origin that managed to not only maintain popularity, but grow in popularity as well. Wolverine has several baddies that have plagued him over the years, but arguably none worse than Sabertooth. Countless battles, countless fights ended in a draw or with Sabertooth triumphing Wolverine one more time. It made both characters interesting because you never knew what Sabertooth was up to or who he was going to kill. The simple fact is that since Wolverine killed Sabertooth (thanks for nothing Jeph Loeb) Wolverine hasn’t nearly been as interesting of a character.
The pit fall that the comic industry as a whole falls into is that they always want a new villain. Granted it’s boring and dull to watch a character fight the same villain over and over with the hero easily defeating the villain time after time. That’s what makes the creation of the villain so important. If the villain has an endgame planned and is leading the hero along then the villain can have countless henchmen playing their role in breaking down the hero.
Of course the next question then becomes, “What makes a great villain?” Well it’s not a catch 22. What it actually is… is motivation.
A villain should exist to complete their own goals and function separately from the hero. Their plan/plot should already be in motion before the introduction of the hero. Then when the hero impedes upon the villains plans, they are forced to deal with the hero. Not vice versa. There are far too many Spider-man villains created due to the existence of Spider-man that have no other reason to exist.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule. I’m sure someone reading of this thought of five characters (mostly Marvel) that aren’t privy to this rule. I’ll give you one: The Punisher. He really doesn’t need a main stay villain and the ones he does have are… sucky. The Punisher exists to kill mobsters and gang members because it’s the life style that killed his family. Because of that his origin is the most important part of his character. Sure, there are other examples as well. One could even make the argument that Batman’s origin is single most defining element of his character. The problem is that to this day writers are so hung up on his motivation that it waters down the character as a result. The important thing to remember is that new characters don’t have 70 years of history at their disposal.
What’s important to remember is that what’s worked before doesn’t necessarily continue to work. And even then at some point the character needs to move past their origin to continue to be interesting. If you honestly sat down and thought about the last time an interesting villain was introduced to comics you might have to think a long time about it. There are the Mr. Pigs and the Black Lanterns that pop up, but nothing as threatening as Galactus or chilling as the Joker.
If comics want to continue creating new characters that fans love and support then they need to rewrite the checklist and put “Villain” at the top. Otherwise we’ll be left with mediocre heroes that go from one cancelled title to the next.