Review of The Supervillain Reader
Robert Moses Peaslee and Robert G. Weiner, eds. The Supervillain Reader. University Press of Mississippi, 2019. Paperback. 432 pg. $30.00. ISBN 9781496826473.
A work like The Supervillain Reader, in today’s superhero-obsessed popular culture, essentially sells itself. After all, as the book’s introduction notes with its title, “It’s All About the Villain.” More specifically, Stephen Graham Jones states in the Foreword that “[w]ithout supervillains, there can be no superheroes. This is an axiom in the world of capes and tights – it’s going to be a boring comic book if there’s no one to fight – but it goes for the world at large, too, since forever, which you can trace out baddie by baddie throughout the course of this book” (xii). Villains fascinate us with their, as Moses Peaslee, Weiner, and Duncan Prettyman put it, “beguiling sociopathy” (xiv). We find compelling, even tempting, their willingness to break apart the social order (a structure that superheroes by definition tend to support) for motivations that we can easily understand – revenge, power, money, even (in the cases of so-called “antivillains” like Magneto) the desire to effect real structural change. (One of the more thought-provoking essays in the book is Ryan Litsey’s “The Kingpin: A ‘Princely’ Villain for Social and Political Change,” which contextualizes the Marvel Netflix version of the Kingpin in light of his particularly Machiavellian type of virtue that uses chaos to ultimately stabilize societal order. It’s a prime example of the intellectual creativity of which this collection, all previously published work, is capable.)
Because we find superheroes so entrancing, as our heroic fantasies and as personifications of hopes in a world where justice inevitably prevails, it follows logically that we find endlessly rich the opposites—the supervillains—that define them, give them motivation, and set their character traits into proper relief. To me, likewise, the most interesting pieces in Supervillain Reader examine this dichotomy in the context of comic books and related media, the sources of so much colorful and dramatic supervillainy. However, the Reader does not limit itself to explorations of comic book figures like the Joker, Lex Luthor, and Doctor Doom, but takes several deep dives into the supervillain concept as it has developed over millennia of human culture. These are not always successful or convincing to me, but taken as a collective they do demonstrate that the image of the villain has always been with us, whether as a mirror into which the hero and we as readers gaze to see the inversion of our accepted societal values, or as an instigator of events that require a hero to rise and fulfill their role as a champion of those values.
Although I would argue that as media consumers, we essentially know the supervillain when we see one—they’re not the bank robber, the terrorist, the insider trader, the petty thief; they’re the one with the private army of henchmen, the world-spanning criminal syndicate, the volcano lair, the grandiose dreams of world domination—the first section of the Reader builds on this innate knowledge, and is usefully and comprehensively devoted to exploring and defining the various identities of the supervillain. The centerpiece for me of Section 1 is comics studies scholar Peter Coogan’s analysis “The Supervillain,” which methodically charts out the various aspects that comprise a supervillain—their powers, their motives, their identities, their relationships with the hero that opposes them. This essay is not only analytical but demonstrates the book’s value as a creative and prescriptive text that allows readers interested in creating their own stories to build a better bad guy themselves. Most of the section is dedicated to establishing a moral taxonomy for supervillains in relation to social and moral philosophy as well as dramatic structure. Both Coogan’s piece and Robin S. Rosenberg’s “Sorting Out Villainy” are useful for dissecting the supervillain image into its raw materials, while in “Dividing Lines: A Brief Taxonomy of Moral Identity,” A.G. Holdier breaks down the spectrum of moral identities into which supervillains may be sorted (i.e., the “antihero”). Holdier’s piece is particularly effective at erasing the simplistic and reductive “supervillains = absolute evil 24-7” model.
The book’s second section takes the historical view, looking at various instances of the supervillain (or at least the proto-supervillain) from ancient myth (starting with Angulimala, a powerful figure of evil redeemed in Buddhism) forwards. The section examines villains from Shakespeare, including a powerful piece from Jerold J. Abrams, “Shakespeare’s Supervillain: Coriolanus,” that analyzes the generally-underlooked “man of steel” Coriolanus within the supervillain framework; Satan from Paradise Lost (1667); Captain Ahab; and Voldemort, to name a few. To me this section is the weakest of the entire work, containing as it does several pieces that seem tangential to the book’s overall thesis. Even allowing for an expansive definition of “supervillain” (and allowing for the fine quality of the essays in isolation), I’m not sure what value an exploration of midwives-as-witches, or a comparison between Irene Adler and Catwoman have to the project overall.
Section three concerns the role of supervillains in broadcast media: given that supervillains have such visible presences in film and television today, this section seems especially apropos to the interested scholar. Case studies of specific supervillains and their relationship make for deep reading about characters who benefit from quality textual analysis, including Dr. Caligari, Godzilla (in “Destructive Villain or Gigantic Hero? The Transformation of Godzilla in Contemporary Popular Culture,” Stefan Danter provides an interesting case, in the iconic Godzilla, of the transformative nature of supervillains, and of their ability to cross traditional villain-hero boundaries as popular sentiment evolves), Harley Quinn, Darth Vader, and the aforementioned Kingpin. The final section of the Reader delves into comic books and animation, the traditional sources for supervillains as we generally understand them. Of particular note here, I found Jose Alaniz’s thoughtful essay on disability and physical deformities as traditional, and ableist, markers of the villainous in Silver Age comic books, “Disability and Silver Age Supervillain,” to be fascinating in its uncovering of a system of prejudice that marked this era in comics publishing. Equally intriguing is Phillip Lamaar Cunningham’s ”The Absence of Black Supervillains in Mainstream Comics,” that explores the general lack of Black supervillains, finding this absence rooted in bigotry, limited imagination, and in narrative conventions placed on Black superheroes that spread to villains. W.D. Phillips’ analysis of the DC Comics alternate story Superman: Red Son, “Where Did Superman’s White Hat Go? Villainy and Heroism in Superman: Red Son,”is a well-written piece using that notable story arc as an example of the heroism-villainy inversion from the traditional model.
The Supervillain Reader exists because as human beings and as cultural consumers, we crave villains as parts of our ultimate fantasies. As Randy Duncan notes in the book’s Afterword, “We all have a bit of the villain in us. The shadow, the id, whatever you want to call it – there is a part of each of us that wants to break the rules imposed by civilization. But most of us do not…And that’s why we’re attracted to villains. They break the rules. They do what we dare not do. Isn’t that also true of superheroes? They do things we cannot do and might not dare, even if we could” (372). That attraction has a deep imaginative power, one worth exploring as a fundamental part of our cultural makeup. By analyzing what makes our supervillains who and what they are, we get a more full sense of our own moral limitations and boundaries. What supervillains will break free of society’s bonds and attempt to impose their wills and desires on the planet next, and what will those say about us?
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.