Anniversary Special

Fictionside 104: Heroes & Villains

Fictionside Heroes and villains

This half-birthday we pick out 10 of our favourite heroes and villains …

IT’S JOKERSIDE’S FOURTH AND A HALF BIRTHDAY, AND SO HERE’S ANOTHER OF OUR BI-ANNUAL FICTIONSIDES AS WE CAREER TO THE CLOSE OF JOKERSIDE’S FIVE YEAR MISSION! This time round, we’re picking out some of our favourite fictional heroes and villains. And wouldn’t you know, some of them are a bit misunderstood…

Actually, wouldn’t you know that with a Fictionside, things are a little more complicated than that. We’re going to pick out four and a half heroes and four and a half villains. There’s lots of Brits, and lots of hoods, a surprising amount who first appeared in comics, but bear with us…  Because it’s a Hell of a dinner party!

Heroes & Villains

Hero: Captain Britain

First appearance: Captain Britain Weekly #1, 1976

001 Captain BritainA champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, measured against the quality of his foes…

Brian Braddock. Bloody brilliant. Originated created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe in 1976, it’s when Alan Davis and Alan Moore stepped aboard to ‘learn their craft’ that the Marvel universe’s premier British hero earned his finest hour. And by Merlin, did he earn it.

The story that kicked off with a trip to A Crooked World didn’t simply define the British equivalent of Captain America, who’d been sauntering around for the best part of half a decade. It played a huge role in unfurling the Marvel multiverse, naming the main super-powered universe as Earth-616 under Moore’s predecessor David Thorpe, and introducing two barely stoppable Marvel supervillains. In the dapper form of Terry Thomas came Mad Jim Jaspers. And at the hand of Sir James’ megalomania, The Fury. Unsettling and unnerving.

In his first stab at a mainstream Marvel book, Moore took on Thorpe’s storyline mid-way through and proceeded to hone a champion in the great and noble line of great British heroes, and of course, one measured against the quality of his foes left at the writers disposal. Jaspers’ is one of the Marvel universe’s great mutants, and by achieving the position of British Prime Minister yet another warning to George Osborne about taking on too much work. Jasper’s reality altering mutant skills were vast, and once used on a large scale triggered inevitable madness. His creation, the Fury, was a cyborg killing machine so perfect it could survive the collapse of reality and traverse the multiverse in pursuit of its single-minded aim. Within issues Moore had killed off the hero on the failing, warning Earth-238 before resurrecting him on 616, ready for the same, unstoppable events to threaten that reality.

Braddock’s powers were the parallel of Captain America’s, reflecting Albion. Instead of the truth, justice and American Way, Braddock was invested by the ancient, mystical powers of the British Isles by Merlin, destined to uphold the laws of Britain and by implication, become a chief guardian of the multiverse. Who knew that the role thrust upon this Brit would prove so influential. Starting with the wonderful Silver Age conceit of rubbing his sacred amulet, Britain’s comfort in his role changed as his abilities and weapons were refined and his distinctive, patriotic suit pared down just before he first encountered mad Jim.

Excalibur and Arthurian legend continues to wind around Captain Britain’s story, in storyline and pun. He’s inextricably linked to the wider Marvel-verse as the twin of mutant Psylocke. While she was last seen on the big screen in X-Men: Apocalypse, resolutely not with an Essex accent, Brian fans are still questioning whether Marvel’s simply forgotten to announce their Captain Britain film… Like any great British hero, he’s hardly a one trick wonder, mystic or otherwise. Informed by Holmes, Bond and the best of Blighty, the Braddock story has not only dragged in childhood trauma, the secret service, and huge wad of British society, but also granted him a Ph.D. in physics. Bloody brilliant.

Villain: Dr Death

First appearance: Detective Comics #29, 1939

009 Dr DeathDespite being one of the great early foes, he never made it into the top-tier of comics’ greatest rogues gallery.

Is that the worst or best name for a comic book villain? One might think it’s a bit limiting (although fellow physician-of-sorts, Doom, might beg to differ), or a bit close to the bone. Real life has served up a number of Dr Deaths who’ve well-earned their moniker after all. But with this Dr Death, it was all about the MO as much as sacrificing his looks for his art. So, just who is he?

Well, he’s the first but not the last mad scientist on this list, preceding the real Dr Deaths of the 20th century. Dr Death was the first traditional supervillain encountered by the early-career Batman and beat Hugo Strange and Joker to become the Crusader’s his first recurring felon. Accompanied by varying assistants of various ethnicities, Dr Death hatched generally hatched schemes with poison gas in the early days. His first appearance in Detective Comics #29 ended with his presumed death in an explosion of his own making, although that was soon revealed to have left him alive but horribly disfigured. A revival in the 1980s reimagined him as a paraplegic, poison gases still his area of interest. Rumbling along the back alleys of Gotham for decades, Dr Death was soaked in ambivalence. His real-life creator remains in dispute, although Bob Kane is credited with the script that first introduced him, and despite being one of the great early foes, he never made it into the top-tier of comics’ greatest rogues gallery.

It was Scott Snyder’s recent glorious recent run that re-embedded Death into the mix. Delving back into Batman’s early years, the main yarn of the New 52 Zero Year crossover let Snyder dig back into the Knight’s origin by forgoing the dark shades of Frank Miller’s Year One and scripting a disturbing and brightly coloured dystopia. The concept of the Dark Knight triggering the rise of the supervillain is skewered as Bruce Wayne returns to a city that’s ruled by monsters in waiting. Pre-Batman, the Riddler and Red Hood make chilling daylight opponents. One of Snyder’s greatest strokes is to unvei Dr Death once again as one of Wayne’s initial foes, using his nefarious schemes as a crucial component in building trust between Wayne and Jim Gordon. This time, a grotesque figure, Death is the victim of his own experiments, triggering enhanced bone growth in victims and himself that gives him a captivatingly disgusting look.

Again, Dr Death seemed to outlive his use too early in the Caped Crusader’s career, but he’ll always have that name.

Hero: Merlin

First appearance: Historia Regum Britanniae, c. 1136 – maybe

007 MerlinDespite his great power and a becoming legend in his own lifetime, he may not be able to divert fate but is destined to survive it one way or another.

It could have been King Arthur, or Sir Lancelot. There are many fascinating heroes in Arthurian myth, and many accompanying tales that reaches into our present and future (as Captain Britain proves). However, it’s Merlin, or Emrys, or Myrddin, or whatever you’d like to call him, who nudges ahead to take a central seat away from his swashbuckling counterparts. Arthur, Lancelot and the men of the Round Table have romance behind them, they have actions, morals and destiny. Merlin has something else. He’s the right hand man, the manipulator behind the throne. One, who despite his great power and a becoming legend in his own lifetime may not be able to divert fate, but is destined to survive it one way or another.

It was Geoffrey of Monmouth who first defined the character in his Historia Regum Britanniae around 1136. His amalgamation of likely real and mythical figures, from mad prophet Myrddin Wyllt to Romano-British war leader Ambrosius Aurelianus, was one of the earliest fictional crazes. Achieving instant popularity in Wales, it didn’t take long for the legend to spread, and for creators to have all manner of fun with the mage.

From Susan Cooper’s Professor Merriman, to TH White’s version who aged backwards. Turned evil by Stephen King and Mark Twain, reawakened in the science fiction of C.S. Lewis… In Doctor Who he’s quite probably a future (red head) incarnation of the Doctor. In BBC’s Merlin, he stalks the minor roads of contemporary Britain waiting for his King to rise again at our hour of greatest need (Brexit?). He’s Nicol Williamson, Joseph Fiennes, Sam Neill. He’s the great magician and he’s on our side. Most of the time.

Villain: Dr Doom

First appearance: The Fantastic Four #5, 1962

008 Dr DoomHe is simply, impassively, Doom. And he’s watching.

Not the first Doctor on this list, but considering his scope, perhaps the most wasted. That may sound daft – he is and remains huge in the Marvel universe. But the legion of fans who only know the name of Doom as owned by the metallic, inexplicably powered protagonists of Fox’s two recent versions of the Fantastic Four, are missing a trick – and it’s not their fault. He’s Marvel’s great evil scientist, of many, blended with the Man in the Iron Mask. He’s the Jekyll and the Hyde that balanced out, but also a great reach back to dictators that plagued the European continent throughout the twentieth century. He’s the bitter genius (see also in that other pantheon, Superman’s great foe Lex Luthor) incapable of fulfilling his potential or claim his destiny thanks to the crippling crack of a character flaw. He’s obsessed, he’s hard done by, he really wants to be the hero and he just isn’t. If Dr Death is bad, Doom’s name is worse. And it’s a moniker that’s naturally hanging over him from birth. As if sharing a first name with Victor Frankenstein wasn’t bad enough… Von Doom?

But Doom isn’t just a distortion of science, or not as we know it. A fusion of magic and science, he stands on the cusp where both may appear imperceptible from the other, depending where you stand.

A recent reading of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan revealed a perfect example of Doom’s power as one of the top-tier supervillains. As the pacifist Wolverine and blind Hawkeye speed across a ravaged, fallen America in the Spider Buggy they tangle with newfangled Kingpins and navigate the giant fallen skeleton of Loki. But when they sail through the portion of America carved into New Latveria, Doom simply watches them drive off from above, all seeing, un-interfering. This may well be Millar’s recurring real world mutant Clyde Wyncham rather than the original, but in the text his identity remains unknown. He is simply, impassively, Doom. And he’s watching.

And horribly that’s one character that Fox could have pulled into Logan.

As I write, I realise I haven’t read nearly enough of Victor von Doom. And he’s not even the final hood on this list…

Hero:  Wonder Woman

First appearance: All Star Comics #8, 1941

001 Wonder WomanThe biggest battle for one of DC’s consistently fascinating characters remains public perception

Formed from clay by Zeus, conceived in four-colour bondage by the eccentric inventor of what would become the lie detector. It seems that Wonder Woman, the great female superhero of DC Comics and potentially all comic-dom, is always at the whim of men who mis-use, mis-interpret and underestimate her. But that’s part of her strength.

Up to Frank Cho walking away as cover artist of her comic reboot last year, she’s occasionally had bigger foes to battle off the page than on. But the biggest battle for one of DC’s consistently fascinating characters remains public perception. A great example was her recent unveiling as the UN’s first fictional ambassador, shortly before she was unceremoniously stripped of the honour. The backlash seemed entirely based on her sexual objectification, rather than the strong, powerful demigoddess of peace and truth that the progressive move had indicated in the first place. Wonder Woman drew inspiration from early feminists and particularly the two women in creator William Moulton Marston’s rather unconventional life. Its something picked up in Grant Morrison’s recent Wonder Woman: Earth One, as well as many other brilliant male and female writers who’ve realised the potential. It’s not in-confrontational, it’s not entirely comfortable. But what Wonder Woman represents shouldn’t be.

The shadow of the 1970s television series hangs around Diana’s neck in a far more insidious way than the 1960 camp masterpiece of a show hangs around Batman’s.

Quite rightly, she’s the best immediate chance of saving the faltering DC Extended Universe. Her forthcoming solo adventure, with which DC beats Marvel to the screen with the first solo female superhero film, looks truly stunning. Wonder Woman isn’t simply a member of the Avengers or Justice League. She’s part of the Trinity. A crucial comic creation, who must one day receive the recognition she deserves.

Villain: Kylo Ren

First appearance: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015

004 Kylo RenWhile Ren’s struggle manifests as weakness and tantrum, there’s no doubt of the danger he represents.

Well, he really wants to be a villain… He could be a half, perhaps he’ll turn out to be a hero – you know what those Skywalkers are like. But where we sit right now, near the midpoint of the third Star Wars trilogy, there’s no doubt he’s a full villain. He fought the good, he works for the bad and he didn’t just kill many people’s favourite pop-culture hero, he killed his own father. There’s little redemption to be had there, although the trilogy will no doubt plumb it for all it’s Force-ful.

Many walked away from The Force Awakens with a slightly hollow joy. It was all good fun and it was all well done. It was a glorious return to what the original trilogy provided, but it was remarkably soft relaunch of the first film 40 years on. Time is likely to be harsher on its light retooling of A New Hope as the current trilogy retreats into history. Perhaps even more left the theatre thinking that Ren was a damp squib. The flaws and interest at the heart of the character were necessarily presented on screen in broad strokes. He was weaker than Rey with the Force, he was whiny, he was prone to rather amusing tantrums. Of course, neither Anakin nor Luke were immune to those traits. The shadow of Ren’s grandfather suffocated the Star Wars prequel trilogy, but currently remains in check. Unfortunately for Ren’s character, that’s because his grandson absorbed it. Vader’s is a giant dark shadow, as Rogue One has since reminded us. But the nuances of Kylo Ren, no matter what the future holds, can’t be overlooked. Knowing it’s not easy to beat Vader, The Force Awakens wore that as a strength.

We see Ren struggling with the call of the Light Side in a universe still pruned of Jedi and Sith. While that manifests as weakness and tantrum, there’s no doubt of the danger he represents. Watching those on the light struggle with the manifestation of their Force powers is one thing. A darkly damaged young man with unchecked powers is something else altogether. For Jokerside he’s the most interesting character the saga’s unfolded so far, and we look forward to what Lucasfilm and the sure hands of Adam Driver have in store for him. Until the comic-universe dominating Doctor Aphra shows up perhaps… At last there’s a character in the world’s foremost space saga who’s unpredictably trapped in the familial coincidence that runs like a spine through the Star Wars.

Hero: Thor

First appearance: Well, as Mercury – Germania, 98 ad

003 ThorThor hates to be tricked or upstaged and answers with his fists first, something the other gods are happy to put on the front line… But has something burning at the back of his not so incredible mind…

This writer never really fell for the Marvel comic book version of the Norse Thunder God during his formative years. But the tales derived from the ancient Poetic Edda and Prose Edda certainly had an effect. The Norse canon is utterly captivating, taking the dark potential and excessive rewards of other mythologies and presenting something darker, richer and finite. There are horrible ends all around, on the mostly raucous and joyous progression to the inevitable end of Ragnarök.

Of course, despite the liberties they’re quite entitled to take, Marvel’s version of Thor on page and lately on screen have captured him very well. Thor is mighty indeed. But he’s also reckless and hardly the greatest thinker. The thinking, planning and knowledge is part of the fun when it comes to Loki, and part of the frustration when it comes to Odin. But with Thor, it’s all about the present. With one, tiny, serpentine exception…

Recently reading Neil Gaiman’s superb retelling of Norse Mythology has reinforced this fascinating and hugely powerful figure. Thor’s impetuous and absolutely detests being beaten. His answer to most things, is to kill it. His answer to all giants, is to kill them. In Gaiman’s retelling, he kicks a dwarf into the funeral pyre just to break the tension of his brother Balder’s funeral.

Thor hates to be tricked or upstaged and answers with his fists first, something the other gods are happy to put on the front line. He’s all the more dangerous thanks to the hammer Mjölnir that always returns to his grasp, the iron gloves Járngreipr and strength-doubling belt Megingjörð.

He’s the scourge of the giants and he knows it, but it doesn’t help his humour or irritability. In proving himself, he dents mountains with his hammer, creating storms and lightning as a side-effect rather than a weapon. He creates the tides from his ability to down so much of the sea around Midgard. But after one slice of giant-generated illusion, the god who’s almost every current thought is consumed with punching Loki or a giant, has something burning at the back of his not so incredible mind. The implacable foe. The Midgard Serpent, that he absolutely must kill. His father Odin is all wise, thanks in part to the sacrifice of an eye. He can see the future. But Thor’s paving of the road to destiny at Ragnarök is driven simply by his own inability to handle defeat. What a great, powerful, infallible, brilliant hero he is.

Villain: Davros

First appearance: Genesis of the Daleks, 1974

005 DavrosSome of the Doctor’s greatest villains took a while to reach the party. While the Daleks popped up on the first alien planet we wandered across, the Cybermen waited until the first incarnation of the Doctor’s last possible moment. The Ice Warriors waited a good four years while the Silurians and Sontarans were fashionably late when they popped up in the 1970s. Joining them around the same time, and heading straight to the kitchen via the circus, was the Doctor’s greatest rogue. The Master landed in 1971, but did he, or she, as was posed in Series 9, rise to become the Doctor’s greatest nemesis? No, as the Doctor said in response, it’s actually…Davros.

For one, the father of the Daleks may have arrived after the Master, over 10 years after the TARDIS first flew on the BBC, but he’s the only villain who managed to simultaneously knock the Doctor’s longest running, ultimate foes into a cocked hat while breathing into them a literal breath of new life.

Davros is yet another bitter, deranged and evil scientist sat hideous on this list. His children, the Daleks, gained mass popularity by beating expectations. They’re not robots as their constantly mistaken for, and they’re not emotionless or logical. They have the searing emotion of hate burning through them, which gives them over to daft plans and vindictive banter. You take that a step further, you get Davros. That may seem counter-intuitive, as a step back to the creator, but the show’s mythology has carved a bold fiction from exploring the psyche of the god after after we’ve all got to know his creations so well. Not least from the perspective of those pepper pots. to show how much there is to be mined, it was only on his last appearance in Series 9 that we met Davros as a child for the first time.

And Davros still has surprises, as ridiculous as they can be. Try watching the moment when he opens his eyes for the first time in millennia in The Witches’ Familiar. Hilarious. Awful and hilarious. The 2017 Doctor Who annual, always a classic for one-liners, has Davros proclaiming the Daleks’ one weakness is their refusal to give him up. That fits the latter day timelines where those children always seem to want to have their parent around. But fortunately, thanks to the precedent set in his first classic adventure, he’s a fascinating, watchable villain who can pose moral dilemmas to the Doctor like no other.

While Davros may be a fictional extension of the real horrors or the Second World War and a long legacy of evil geniuses, he enriched the Daleks and the scope of horror that Doctor Who can explore. The Ice Warriors, Cybermen and Silurians have or will become explorers through natural catastrophe, the Sontarans through a millennia long war. The Kaleds were manipulated. Later, the Daleks were happy to be rulers of their little backwater until the Doctor introduced them to an expanding universe. But unlike all of them, even the Doctor, we’ve seen Davros rise from a scared child on an endless battlefield to concentration camp scientist to the destroyer of cities and on to immortality, assaulting Gallifrey and somehow surviving the jaws of the Nightmare Child. Few other characters has undergone such a journey, well beyond the journey of caveman to modern man. On first appearance he was a scientist limited by his society’s progress, by 2015 he was something else altogether. And yet. no matter how far he comes, he remains as duplicitous, feeble, pathetic and crafty as ever. It’s a feat, one that the expanded audio adventures of Big Finish have had particular fun with.

What a horrible, fascinating foe he is.

Half a Hero: John Constantine

First appearance: The Saga of the Swamp Thing #37, 1985

006 ConstantineHe’s also a force of nature, who worryingly leaves a trail of dead friends in his wake and even more worryingly, has taken on a life of his own.

At last, a character that the mighty Alan Moore actually did bring to life. There’s something deeply, unrepentantly brilliant about John Constantine’s place in the DC Comics canon. He’s fun to write sure, all pithy one-liners and an all-too aware, grounded character cast adrift in the most absurd situations. But he’s also a force of nature, who worryingly leaves a trail of dead friends in his wake and even more worryingly, has taken on a life of his own.

He’s damned unlucky and damned lucky. While the likes of mutants, aliens, meta and powers show us the metaphysical, Constantine connects the extended universe with the ground. His superpower isn’t the magic he can weave, which in the best comic storylines is underplayed to trickery akin to a modern day Loki or Faust. It’s that he can chain smoke and guzzle drink, age in real time, lose all his mates, date Zatanna and generally, always get away with it. Oh, except the extreme sacrifice and endless haunting existence he wears as much as his trademark trench coat.

It’s worth remembering the way he appeared to his creator, not as an idea but after Moore had given flesh to a character so strongly formed it always seemed that real life protruded into art:

“John Constantine, the Liverpudlian wizard, working class chain smoker and all round sarcastic bastard hailed from the DC Comic universe, alongside Superman and Batman.   Constantine spawned in the mind of Alan Moore when artist Steve Bissette requested a character who looked like Sting during their legendary 80s run on Swamp Thing.  On one occasion he even appeared in the swamp making use of a small craft named The Honourable Gordon Sumner.  Or that’s what we’re led to think.  Moore has since recounted the two times he has met his creation in real life, once earning a conspiratorial wink in a sandwich pub and then years later when the mage whispered the secret of magic in his ear…

Such tales not only add weight to a character who you may suspect sits smirking on top of the fourth wall, but also indicates how much he was an archetype lying in wait.  Increasingly I’ve thought Constantine lay for years in a stone block just waiting for Moore the sculptor to chisel him out – the new Colossus of Constantine.  John’s been lying in the pit of English literature for at least the duration of the 20th century.  More complicated than piecing together the strands left from Caliban to Crowley, but also channelling the baby boomers and working class Thatcher rage through punk and every facet of British culture.  Beyond the English tourism, Constantine has fitted brilliantly into the world of one of America’s largest comic conveyors, unlikely if he was a cypher.

The mage soon broke free from the Swamp and started his own run that lasted from 1988 to 2013 under DC comics ‘mature’ Vertigo line and various comic creators.  Moore isn’t the only father of Constantine to meet him.  Jamie Delano, who kick-started Constantine’s solo adventures, has also recounted meeting the character in real life outside the British Museum.” – Constantine: The Endless War of the Roses

And talking of the blinding Hellblazer series that Delano kicked off, who can forget the mage’s 40th birthday when Swamp Thing popped up in a flowerpot and was coerced into generating a sprig of marijuana. Constantine will be around a long while, and things will never be easy.

He might be behind you right now.

Half a villain: Frankenstein’s Creature

First appearance: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818

001 Frankenstein's MonsterAs with John Constantine and a number of characters on this list, it’s difficult to keep attention on a creation when presented with their creator. It’s an odd tussle, learning more about a god, warned or otherwise, while trying to rise above or beyond the mundanities of what they rightly or wrongly spawned. In Frankenstein’s case, various adaptations of the original great book that played a huge role in galvanising science fiction have separated the close struggle and interdependency of the scientist and the life he creates.

Except for the dullest horror readings, the creature has always been a sympathetic, doomed character, even when converted into a weapon of massive and vengeful destruction in I Frankenstein or the DC Comic saga. In the novel, the creature’s quest for vengeance was everything to its existence, and once that switch was thrown, could only end with his and his father’s death.

On film, he may be memorable but he’s varied. Recently, the unfortunately dire Victor Frankenstein reduced him (in a ridiculously enlarged way) to a cameo super hulk. On television, Penny Dreadful set him in the middle of its gothic potpourri as a superbly balancing, pained, cursed and lonely romantic. In the 1950s through 1970s, Hammer turned the creature into a rolling idea while concentrating on the misguided experiments of its Baron.

But in truth we’re all the monster in a tale which is best seen in the strong, sweeping range of its moral. Whether it’s Prometheus handing us fire, God entrusting us with Eden, Lif and Lifthrasir climbing from Yggdrasil after Ragnarok, it’s the humans, the creations, who have to remain the interesting core. The creator or creators can survive, retreat, become distracted or expire and it’s the less interesting creation that endures until they break the purpose away from the guiding hand. Just as Mary Shelley’s tome has for nearly 200 years. Just as the creature’s presence and power over pop-culture was massively helped by the sublime acting of Boris Karloff and incredible make-up of Jack Pierce in the classic Universal horrors of the 1930’s. So the Creature remains a warning mirror for us all.

An anti-hero close to home.

There’s one more Fictionside of this Five Year Mission left – Read our Fictionsides so far:

FICTIONSIDE 101: Five types of Hollywood Reboot

FICTIONSIDE 102: Jokerside’s 10 Rules of Engagement

FICTIONSIDE 103: Who needs a shared cinematic universe?

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