Sunday, May 31, 2015

I was a Teenaged Marvel Zombie: No Bad Villains

Last month, I got my hands on the first two graphic novels of Ms. Marvel, incorporating issues 1 through 11 of the new series. The main character is Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Muslim Pakistani-American girl who likes writing Avengers fanfic. She’s struggling to find some kind of balance between the conflicting demands of the traditional culture and values of her parents and those of her Jersey City high school peers when she’s exposed to a mysterious cloud that gives her shape-and-size-changing powers. (Point of nerdery: the cloud is Terrigen mist, which means that she’s an Inhuman.) Anyway, she uses her powers to help people—no shock there—and it’s great. I highly recommend the series.
The main bad guy for this story arc was a fairly flawed clone of Thomas Edison called “The Inventor.” The specific flaws have to do with the fact that some cockatiel DNA got into the mix while he was being created and his conviction that all teenagers should be put in vats Matrix-style to generate power.
“You kids with your intertwitters and hippity hop music! Get off my lawn!”
While certainly an appropriate nemesis for a new generation of hero, I was struck by the feeling that he’d stolen his shtick from a 1980 Spider-Woman villain called “Turner D. Century,” a name that I would gladly steal for my own uses if I thought for a second I could get away with it. Turner D. Century was all about restoring the country to its idealized and uncorrupted state of around the year 1900. So, he dressed in period costume, rode around on a flying bicycle built for two and wielded an umbrella that shot fire. His villainy included the use of a bicycle horn that would have killed everyone under the age of 65; a scheme that, if successful would have brought about the extinction of the human race. No deep thinker, that one.
He needed to put a mannequin on the second seat of his bicycle built for two. It was kind of sad.
Turner D. Century was eventually killed in a Captain America storyline by an assassin known only as “The Scourge of the Underworld,” or “Scourge” to his friends of which he presumably had none. The Scourge storyline was a crossover event before crossover events were the big, overwrought, drawn-out cash grabs where everything is going to change forever this time we mean it for real that they are today. Basically what happened in the few months before the story reached its conclusion in the pages of Captain America, some C-list villain would show up for a few panels in some other book, cackle a bit about his nefarious scheme and then unexpectedly take an explosive round to the chest. Scourge would then pull off his rubber mask or whatever disguise he was using, shout “Justice is served!” and disappear, all without drawing any attention from the book’s title character.

(What’s more, Steve Gerber had done this bit some years earlier in the pages of The Defenders with the “Elf with a Gun.” Basically, there would be a “meanwhile” and a cut to random people we’d never seen before who’d have whatever they were doing interrupted by “An elf! … An elf with a gun!” Blam! And then we’d cut back to the main story. It was just a weird random thing that happened that Steve Gerber had no intention of explaining or resolving. He was kind of brilliant that way.)
It's a terrifying and ridiculous way to go. It's terdiculous.
Anyway, Scourge did in old Turner D. Century along with nearly 20 other supervillains of varying degrees of actual threat and/or silliness. It turned out to be a pretty good story even if Captain America wasn’t able to win the day without using the phrase “Judge, jury and executioner.”
Spoiler: They're all doomed.
I actually had a point. All of the above characters were considered disposable by reason of being played out (at best) or just stupid and ill-conceived (at worst). Looking at some of the names given, it’s easy to see how one could have come to that conclusion. For example, “The Hijacker,” who apparently hijacks things.
On the other hand, if they hadn’t killed of old Turner D. Century, they could have used him in Ms. Marvel and wouldn’t have needed to invent the Inventor. (Though a cockatiel-headed megalomaniac was definitely the way to go when the need arose.) 

Where we're going, we don't need pants!

As I’ve always maintained, there are no bad characters, only badly written characters. For instance, take Kraven the Hunter, a classic villain from Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery. His shtick was basically that he was an evil big game hunter who wanted to hunt Spider-Man. By 1987, he’d been pretty played out and hadn’t appeared much. Then came the six-part “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which, among other things presented a look into the C-list villain’s tortured psyche. Today, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is remembered as one of the best Spider-Man stories ever.
So I can’t help but wonder how many of Scourge’s victims might have had a “Kraven’s Last Hunt” in him or her, given the right time and storyteller. For instance, where would the turn of another century have found Turner D. Century? What if he patented his flying bicycle and it became the hot new thing among the generation he loathes? What if the Hijacker set out to pull off a really big heist? What if the Ringer (his thing was he threw different trick rings and hoops and such at people) or Bird-Man (he could fly!) set out to prove once and for all that he’s not ridiculous?
The story was actually called "Spider-Man Night Fever." I feel somehow cheated.
Someone should do a Hypno Hustler story. “Hypno’s Last Boogie,” perhaps?
Or maybe "Kangaroo's Last Hop?"


1 comment:

  1. So what would redeem "The Inventor"?