With the vast gulf between the number of people willing to see a movie about superheroes and the number of readers of superhero comics, there's a lot of talk about how to make these comic books welcoming to new readers. I'm wondering if one of the problems is the reliance on the traditional rogues gallery, the supervillains who return time and time again to menace the heroes.

One of the many reasons superhero comics are so inaccessible to new readers is that these stories tend to feature characters who have a prior history which long-standing readers are aware of, but newcomers have no familiarity with. So previous adventures from decades of backstory are likely to be referenced, and new readers will have to make all sorts of inferences to understand what's going on. Does the hero take this bad guy seriously? Is this bad guy supposed to somehow be sympathetic? Why does the hero seem to dislike this bad guy more than the bad guy in earlier issues?

There's the argument that it should be easy for new readers to understand as the only stories that matter for a villain are their first appearance and their status as a long time fixture of the books. That was the traditional approach, though I would add three additional elements of a villain's story that a reader often has to understand just to make sense of a story.

First, there's the role in a larger mega-arc which may include other stories. If there's a recurring mystery involving Electro, many of his recent appearances are likely to be mentioned. The most recent appearance of a villain is also often referenced. This was much more typical in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. With Marvel publishing dozens of titles, it's often hard to keep track of the most recent appearances, which is why it doesn't happen as much anymore. You do see it sometimes, especially when it's been a long time since a villain appeared, and it seemed as if their character arc had come to an end, meaning an explanation was necessary for the return.


For some villains, significant stories are typically referenced. Gwen Stacy will be name-dropped when Norman Osborn's the bad guy. Kraven's Last Hunt would be mentioned with Kraven. And the Lizard is likely to be reminded of what he did in "Shed." It's only true of a handful of villains, although it was accelerated during the Gauntlet mega-arc, in which several of Spider-Man's antagonists went through some changes.

It gets a bit more convoluted this way, but it's still not as if every story the villain had appeared will be name-dropped. Though it can be argued that it's not a good thing if a villain's previous appearances have been so inconsequential that it's not worth mentioning.

Casual readers might also be a bit confused if the handful of comics they've read earlier gives them a different taken on the characters. Someone who read Erik Larsen's Spider-Man runs in the 1990s would be distracted over why Sandman's a bad guy in "Ends of the Earth." Over time, some elements of the backstory become more important than others, which is prone to confusing readers who are only familiar with the less consequential stories.

Of course, it's worth remembering that Spider-Man's rogues gallery, possibly the best in serial fiction, is a major part of a series's appeal. A kid who has seen all the movies or played one of the games wants to see those bad guys in the comics. He's happy to see the villains he owns as action figures showing up in the book and kicking ass.








However, in comics, reviews have been good when writers have chosen not to use the traditional bad guys. Scott Snyder's Batman tops the sales charts, with a focus on entirely new villains. As I noted in the previous entry, two of the most acclaimed Spider-Man writers explicitly went in a different direction. Roger Stern liked to pit Spidey against Marvel villains he hadn't fought before. JMS focused almost entirely on new villains. Wizard Magazine did a list of the top ten Spider-Man comics circa 1998, which only included two stories in which Spider-Man had a rematch with someone from his rogues gallery. Three of the stories featured the first appearances of new recurring villains, while two more featured Spider-Man's first encounters with bad guys from other titles.

I think writers should always be able to stories with the old bad guys if someone has a Kraven's Last Hunt, or Unscheduled Stop. But currently, most stories feature existing villains. Perhaps there should be a rule that a majority of stories feature new villains. So with Amazing Spider-Man's 24 issues an year, there would be a cap of 11 issues that could feature recurring villains. So a persistent reader would soon have a slightly more accessible "A" storyline.

To elaborate a little bit, if Spider-Man hasn't fought the guy before, it's a new villain, even if the antagonist is well-known to fans of other franchises. Stories in which Spider-Man fights against ordinary humans like "When Commeth the Commuter" or "To Have and to Hold" would count as new villains. And the continuation of a multi-part storyline would also count, as the new reader should have an easy time purchasing earlier parts of that storyline. But once the initial story comes to an end, if the bad guy returns, it would be as a recurring villain.

Doctor Who is a model for this, a decades old Television series (relaunched in 2005) which is particularly effective at appealing to new audiences. I think it's worth looking at the accomplishments of a series that has managed to build an international audience in the millions despite a steady flow of new content and decades of backstory. As a mark of its success, it recently became the first British television series to appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. And Dan Slott's a big fan.



One thing that helps is that the stories tend to feature new villains more often than not. Ans this is a series that is acknowledged as having another of the best rogues galleries in serial fiction. I don't know if it's intentional or not, but of the 21 stories since Stephen Moffat took over as showrunner, only seven featured existing villains. As a caveat, by existing villains, I'm usually referring to existing alien species. It's rare for the Doctor to have a rematch against specific Daleks or Cybermen, although it does happen on occasion. There was a similar ratio of new to old rogues under Moffat's predecessor Russell T Davies.

Thinking of Doctor Who led me to consider how television handles this stuff, as a medium that has usually been successful at getting new audiences for programs. While there are some programs like The Wire or Breaking Bad where the viewer is expected to start from the beginning as if it were a novel, most shows try to get new audiences. And one point of accessibility is that the A-plot usually involves new characters. It's been this way since the first form of episodic storytelling, the Sherlock Holmes short stories, with each story bringing new murderers, blackmailers and/ or thieves.

If I was suddenly an editor, I'm not sure I would mandate new villains in a majority of the storylines. But it's something worth considering. Maybe JMS had it right.

One drawback is that B-list villains would be used even less often than now. With a cap on recurring villains, many writers are going to restrict themselves to their own creations or the classic A-listers. But they're less prone to waste valuable real estate on the likes of Puma, Hydroman and Fusion.

Another problem is that recurring villains tend to be better than new villains. The quality of a new antagonist is somewhat random, but if a bad guy that's still in demand after dozens of appearances, there's something about that character that works. The writer and artist can also build on what's worked in the past, and avoid takes on the character that have not been as successful. Though that type of approach is likely to result in a lot of repetition with the 47th appearance being similar to the 46th.

There's also the argument that if something has to be mandated, it's less likely to be successful. If the creative team of a monthly is obligated to tell seven issues worth of stories with new villains in order to do their Doctor Doom five-parter, it's likely that the new villains won't be very impressive, as these wouldn't be stories that an
yone actually wanted to tell.

However, it would be helpful to new readers if stories regularly had interactions between characters who didn't have decades of back-story. This doesn't quite work with the supporting cast, since Peter is going to hang out with people he has known for some time, including his family, friends and coworkers. In cop dramas, there's a steady influx of new suspects. Legal dramas have a steady influx of defendants. For the same reasons, these types of superhero comics would benefit from more new supervillains.


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Spider-Man has the best rogues galley in comics. But two of the most successful runs of Amazing Spider-Man were by writers who chose to eschew the familiar rogues in favor of a new approach. JMS focused mostly on new villains, while.Roger Stern pitted Spider-Man against bad guys from other franchises. It demonstrates a strength of the franchise. There isn't one obvious answer to the question of how to handle the villains.

There are still a few rules, but there's a lot of flexibility within that. Obviously, the villains should be impressive. And the writers should know what they're doing. If Spider-Man is beaten too easily, the character is diminished. If a villain is dispatched with ease, the villain is diminished. Some bad guys aren't meant to be A-listers, but the writers have to figure out what they're saying about the characters in the action sequences. That seems to be the main source of complaints regarding the treatment of villains for fans and critics.

Beyond that, the creative teams can have different approaches. If one writer chooses to introduce entirely new villains, he can do so. If someone wants to limit themselves to the A-list classics, that remains a viable choice. While I suspect that a good mix works best, I'm not sure it matters. If a writer has a particular philosophy for his or her own run, it won't affect the next guys.



There's stuff I might consider doing as a writer that I wouldn't insist on from anyone else. One group that's been ignored recently is the less famous more recent villains. There's something satisfying about using your own villains, and many writers have been fans of Spider-Man for a long time, so there is a desire to pit the wall-crawler against the bad guys from the comics that introduced them to the series in the first place. And those comics were disproportionately likely to feature a handful of villains who have been around for decades. So a creative team might distinguish themselves by focusing on Spider-Man's other villains, the ones whose fans may be too young to write Spider-Man comics, such as Fusion or Massacre. 

However, this may just be the least commercially appealing of the four approaches. Using famous villains makes sense because these guys have a built-in fan base, and Spider-Man fans like seeing their hero pit against his most recognizable enemies. Using villains from other titles could bring in some new fans who don't regularly pick up Spider-Man comics. And with new villains, newer readers and older fans start out on the same page. If obscure characters are used, it could be off-putting for anyone who hadn't read a particular part of the character's back-story. The story has to work for two different groups of readers: those who read the earlier appearance of the villain, and those who are introduced to the new bad guy.

Still, it's something I'd consider. If I was writing the books, the Chameleon could become a major player, as Secret Invasion showed how effective someone disguised as another could be. Doctor Octopus would get all previous charges against him dropped on a technicality, and become a private citizen for a while. There would be some new villains and supporting characters. And I would have big plans for Fusion.
It's worth looking at the many different ways top Spider-Man writers have handled Spider-Man's villains. Brian Michael Bendis reimagined most of the rogues gallery in 170+ issues set in the Ultimate world. He was patient enough to save some of his favorite villains until it made sense for the story, waiting nearly a decade to introduce the Ultimate Mysterio. But he may just deserve the most credit for that period when the best-selling comic book in the country had Norman Osborn as the lead.

Gerry Conway was the first writer to realize that Spider-Man had years of backstory. Revenge was often the motivation for his villains, including the Harry Osborn Green Goblin, the Jackal, the Punisher (who was tricked into thinking Spidey killed his best friend) and Tombstone. He also tied villains to members of the supporting cast, as in the case of the Man-Wolf and the Molten Man, now revealed to be Liz Allen's stepbrother.

Tom Defalco co-created Deliah, the Rose, the Black Fox, Puma and others. And then he went on to give Spider-Man's daughter her own rogues gallery. He also continued the Hobgoblin saga in both Amazing Spider-Man and the MC2 Universe, so he often had at least one "Big Bad" in the series. The one problem with Spider-Girl may just be that it's impossible for writers of the regular Spider-Man titles to implement her rogues gallery. An additional not insignificant accomplishment of Defalco's is how he essentially defined Dr Octopus's origin in two of his Spider-Man Unlimited issues.

Peter David's best work pit Spider-Man against somewhat ordinary bad guys. The Commuter was a thief who lived in the suburbs. The Sin-Eater was a maniac with a shotgun. Then there was MJ's stalker in FNSM. In addition to his quiet intimate stories, Paul Jenkins was also effective at having villains force Spidey to make almost impossible decisions. Joe Kelly's biggest arcs focused on the families of the bad guys, including Norman Osborn, Kraven and Hammerhead.

Stan Lee co-created most of the major Spider-Man bad guys, who generally had mundane motivations, such as making money and becoming New York City's top crime boss. That may actually be one of the biggest differences between Marvel and DC. I once pondered whether Alan Moore or Stan Lee had co-created more great comic book characters. And then I remembered that in addition to all the great superheroes and supporting cast members, Stan Lee had dozens of notable supervillains. That was the moment I realized he was the clear winner in that category, and may remain so .



David Michelinie may have co-created more memorable villains than any writer since Stan Lee, with Venom, Carnage, Cardiac and a few others. He was big on having interactions between villains, with the return of the Sinister Six, and Spider-Man often getting caught in a fight between other bad guys (Scorpion VS the Rhino & Whiplash, Green Goblin VS Hobgoblin). The risk there is that it can make the villains seem less impressive when they all have to work together against Spider-Man, but it ensures that the artist has something cool to draw, and that the hero faces a unique challenge. Sure, Spider-Man had fought the Rhino before, but he hadn't fought the Rhino, the Scorpion and Whiplash at the same time.


Mark Millar's villains were rather brutal, even when realizing their weaknesses, as when the Vulture decided to avoid challenging Spidey until he had all the right tools. Millar was responsible for turning Mac Gargan into Venom, a development I supported. But his main plan seemed to be to pit Spider-Man against villains even casual readers would recognize. Marv Wolfman brought back classic figures who hadn't been seen in a long time, such as the Burglar & Mysterio. He also introduced the Black Cat, and used the death of Spencer Smythe to further Spidey & Jonah's relationship. The stories felt substantial, even if much of it was reversed. Zeb Wells's specialty seems to be epic multi-part stories pitting Spider-Man against one of his greatest foes.

Stern was my favorite writer when it came to the question of Spider-Man's enemies. He may have been the first writer to have a clear philosophy about what villains Spider-Man should face, and why. Hea voided the trap of making Spidey's enemies less impressive through repeated defeat, while coming up with new challenges for the webswinger. But that doesn't matter as much as the awesomeness of the actual stories. And a lot of credit goes to the guys beating up on Spidey. "Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut" is one of the best fights in comic book history, and the best with Spidey. In addition to his focus on villains from other titles, Roger Stern is best known as the co-creator of the Hobgoblin. He also gave an origin to the Vulture, and revealed a secret from Mysterio's past. So he was willing to use the familiar bad guys when there were new wrinkles to explore.


Dematteis may just be my second-favorite. His villains usually had actual arcs in their storylines, while they were putting Spidey through hell. It wasn't just about finding someone for Spidey to beat up. Dematteis is probably the first guy you want for a mini-series about the villain in the next Spider-Man movie. He fleshed out the antagonists, and explored what made them tick. It's impressive what he managed to do with Mysterio and Electro in the space of three issues. He also had a tendency to kill off characters (Kraven, Dr Octopus, Harry Osborn, etc.) which made for effective self-contained arcs, but wasn't the best approach for this kind of serial.

Dan Slott has the potential to surpass either. The co-creator of new villains including Mr. Negative, Paper Doll and others, he's also willing to change the status quo for the villains, with a tendency to upgrade the classic bad guys (Dr Octopus, Scorpion & the Spider-Slayers) or give them new identities (Anti-Venom, Phil Uirch becoming the Hobgoblin.) He makes the classic villains more dangerous, but also managed to tell a good story with the Queen, an obscure opponent from the universally reviled Avengers Disassembled Tie-in. He's willing to consider every option for the sake of the story.

All these writers have succeeded at an important aspect of the series in their own way. But there is one problem with the traditional rogues gallery.



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