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October 8, 2012 at 4:11 PMComments: 6 Faves: 0

Age Old Questions and Musings

By E.M. Wollof from SLN More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the The Blog Cosmic Blog Series

"Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent." - Dr. Seuss

As I contemplate the next move in the chess game that is my life, my research into it has taken me waaayy back to my fascination with comic book heroes and villains. I find myself asking the same questions about both edges of the proverbial sword and what defines them. What is the difference between the hero and the villain? Why is there a need for direct delineation between the two? What makes a hero? And, consequently, what makes a villain?

Oddly enough, many of the answers I had when I was younger seem to form a rather peculiar basis for my answers today. For purposes of getting them out of my head so I can move on, here they are, separated in all their glory.

What is the difference between a hero and a villain?

ageold1Young E.M.: A hero is someone who uses his/her power to help people, and a villain is someone who uses his/her power to hurt people. (Yes, the young me spoke that way, he was apparently "mature for his age." I don't see it.).

Current E.M.: Young me has an excellent point. When we look purely at the consequences of both the hero and the villain, there is a certain sense of right vs wrong, light vs dark, that emerges. The straight lines and easy descriptors that make it much simpler for us, as fans, to fully accept the roles that characters play and how they fit into the world. But, that is just a consequence of action and one that doesn't always hold true.

The idea of a greater good almost always gets in the way of our hero making the choice that benefits every party involved (with the exception of the villain, they always get the short stick). Someone is going to be sacrificed, bottom line.

At the same time, while our heroes are saving the world, there is always collateral damage...always. Now, collateral damage is rarely ever mentioned (unless the public is turning against the hero, common comic book storyline, though vague in its application), but it most definitely exists and it most definitely kills. You can't have beings harnessing the power of the universe fighting equivalent powers and not see some collateral damage.

Does this make our hero bad and our villain worse? No, these aren't the factors that determine bad or good.

Intent is where we find our dichotomy. Both the hero and the villain are insane, there can be no doubting this. They have both effectively cast aside the initial survival instinct that would chime in and say, "Hey, this is probably going to kill you," and replaced it with an obsession. Clinically, this is beyond an everyday choice, but it is directly after this choice that we find the truest definitions of hero and villain.

ageold2Immediately after setting aside any anxiety over dying, the hero baths in the idea that good can exist, that hope will always remain, that he or she can be that ideal for all who would gaze upon them. The villain does something very similar, only it is the absence of these attributes that washes over them. In these moments of purification two very simple ideas emerge:

"I will help in any way I can."

"I will dominate in any way I can."

This very fork in the path to self-realization leads to every action that will follow. Even the simplest actions, like dealing with the tailor who fit their cape.

"Thank you for your help. I appreciate it."

"Many thanks inferior being. Enjoy your freedoms while they still exist."

Why the direct delineation between the two?

Young E.M.: So we can know which one is which! Duh! (Yea, he was a smartass as well)

Current E.M.: In the simplest of terms, young E.M. is correct and, for a very long time has remained so, until the last 10-12 years where the line has begun to blur.

The simplest examples of this blurring happen when the public world begins to become aware of ageold4the superhero realm. In the earliest days of comic lore, this was a rare occurrence (with the exception of select groups, like the Teen Brigade). It happened, but the effect was minimal and never lasted long. Now, when a hero or villain begins to make it into the public's awareness, the view of the hero or villain becomes subject to public opinion, which follows whatever the governing body has predetermined about the character.

In Nolan's Dark Knight series for instance, the stark contrast between a hero and a masked vigilante is brought glaringly to light once people start to die due to Batman's one rule.

In a society as cynical as ours, a villain who is murdering scum and a hero who refuses to do just that can easily experience a role reversal in the public eye, though the switch is usually brief. But, brief as it may be, the switch slowly begins to creep into the psyche, making us question the true difference between hero and villain.

What makes a hero? What makes a villain?

Young E.M.: Awesome Powers!!!!

Current E.M.: Ahhhh, to be young again. In my mind, the hero and villain are formed in the same way, tragedy. It is through this tragedy and the subsequent realizations, that our hero and villain make their true character known.

ageold5The hero fights with the idea of vengeance for imagined slights, plays upon the idea of how easy it would be to use his/her power for evil, and eventually is reminded through pure innocence or sage advice that vengeance is a sure path to the dark side (yea, its a Star Wars reference. Couldn't help myself, there is no better encyclopedia for those archetypes than the galaxy far, far away). Upon this reminder, the seed of good is planted firmly in the fundamental structure of the character.

The villain takes a much clearer path to his/her identity, wallowing in the anger and grief brought upon by tragedy. He/she begins to fixate on all the supposed slights brought upon them by the outside world. The condescending glances, the lack of continuity, the removal from the group mentality, the narcissistic personality, all move a character to evil.

Now, we can't talk about these origins without talking about redemption and the fall. Heroes and villains are figures of massive proportions and massive egos. This ego can be swayed one way or long as the seed has been planted in their time of initial design.

The most simple example of this being Anakin Skywalker (in both the movies and the comics). A pure child who is jaded by the death of his mother and the fear that he will lose his love again. While the death and fear drive him to the dark side, that initial purity and love bring him back.

Thanks for reading.

What did you think?


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  • I know this is cheesy, but as I was reading this, I had a hard time not considering Megamind. In that movie, the good and evil are chosen by such slight differences, not by major life altering problems. It is a beautiful look at how easily we can cross that line, just because we don't like someone, or because someone worse has come along. I think that it shows that Megamind didn't start with pure evil. He was against the one that everyone thought was the hero. It left him with very little choice: either suck up to the man he hated, or embrace the dichotomy. Love it, and great blog!

  • Ollo!

    While I do agree with you that Megamind is a fantastic movie, it was created to bring to light the inherent flaws within the superhero genre. In that light, you are correct, the movie steps away from the mold slightly.

    Also, how does a baby landing in a prison not constitute a life altering problem?

    Sorry, just watched it last night, so it's all extremely fresh.

  • Lol, I guess I forgot about that. I thought that it was only after he made the decision to hate the hero that he turned to the darker side.

  • Ah, but the two are staples in the superhero realm, the realization and the cause. Tragedy befalls all characters of the realm (like two planets getting sucked into a black hole), and that will be the defining memory of them both, but the realization of their "destiny" due to the defining memory is the grave consequence.

    All in all it makes for epic storytelling.

  • I love it! I love a not quite perfect hero. Nothing makes me happier than a character that is overall light side, but is haunted by the darkness. I think it speaks to me because that is how I feel.

  • The anti-hero is a fantastic character to read. Batman (in origin only), the Punisher, Ares, Yellowjacket, the Hulk, all are awesome heroes because every action they take is wrought with pain and barely harnessed rage. Reading through their inner conflict is a joy in itself.

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