SHOP TALK: Paul Cornell on creating compelling villains
I think all the best villains articulate something, stand for something. The Joker: chaos unleashed. Lex Luthor: concern for the big things means losing sight of the small. They’re often one trait of a balanced mind magnified to the point of unbalance. They’re also often children’s fantasies of lives lived without acknowledging civilisation’s limits. (It’s no coincidence that small children will often root for the villain.) They also often say something about the hero: Batman is rationality (if he isn’t, he’s lost); Superman, for all his power, cares about the small things. Because Batman represents the balanced mind, he’s faced by a whole pantheon of exaggerated visions of mental unbalance, every trait from quizzicality to mourning boosted way beyond normal. The Flash is such a nice guy even his rogues are only playing at it. Everything about Green Lantern in the last few years has been the quantifying of his opposition into symbols for emotional complexity and symbols for outright villainy. I’ve quietly tried to offer new reader introductions for a lot of the villains that show up during Lex’s run in Action Comics, because I’m thinking of it as, amongst other things, a gallery of them, a chance to show off how exciting and interesting DC villains are.
But how do you make a new villain? Well, it’s quite daunting. I think it was only Grant making the creation of new villains a stated aim of Batman and Robin that opened my mind to doing so. Without giving too much away, my aim was to take a facet of Batman’s rational life that hadn’t had a mad villain amplifying its opposite into psychodrama, and do just that. Then around that core one has to try to build a sort of archetypal shape, the idea being that it’s easy for audiences and other writers to understand exactly what this new character stands for, what they mean. Their look should say it, ideally, even without dialogue. I can’t claim to have got it right. I have no idea. Writers don’t get to say who joins the pantheon. We can only put the character in place and hope that other writers use them again. My new guy is called The Absence. And about him I’m saying nothing. He first appears in Batman and Robin #17. He’s nobody special, you could say. The story in question is called ‘The Sum of Her Parts’, and it’s about one of those girls you always see on the arm of Bruce Wayne, who, post mortem, has been unfortunately removed from her grave. I like to think that it shows off the side of me that writing Knight and Squire doesn’t (although that has a rather more chilly ending), the bloodthirsty, darker side.
That, I suppose, is the central thing writing villains lets us do: articulate what otherwise must stay inside. Good night.