John Byrne changed my mind the other day. We were in my office talking about some of the new super-villains he was going to use in his new SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK book, and he mentioned a number of odd-sounding choices-- the Toadmen, Doctor Bong, the Black Talon, etc. I asked him if he wasn't going to come up with some all-new baddies for the jade giantess to tangle with. He said no, not if he could help it. Well, how about on the AVENGERS books, I asked? Aren't you going to try to come up with another Terminus or the Master or Omega Flight, to name but three of John's contributions to the Marvel mythos? No, he replied jauntily (John does everything jauntily), not there either. I was flabbergasted. Here was one of Marvel's top creative talents telling me that he was going to coast, rest on his laurels, content himself to take the creations of others, dust them off a bit, and plug them into his yarns. Surely there was no justice in the world.
Then John patiently explained to me his reasoning...and I slowly began to accept the logic behind his alleged laziness. John feels that Marvel has plenty of good under-explored villains already, and literally dozens of slightly less-than-good villains who only need slight retooling and careful handling to make them top-notch antagonists. That's what he intends to do with the characters that readers and other writers have dismissed as lame and tired, and show them that they can amount to something, become contenders, justify their existence in the Marvel Universe. I had to admit that I'd seen it done before. Bullseye had been a minor gimmick villain until deft handling by Frank Miller put him in the winners' circle. Loki had become very wearisome and anemic before Walt Simonson revitalized him with bold new insights into his character. And think of what a shlep Mastermind was before Chris Claremont and John Byrne made him the instigator for the original Dark Phoenix saga.
John explained that in his view many of today's villainous creations simply duplicated already existing characters in powers, motivation, or personality, if not in all three. Not only did these derivitive characters take some of the shine off the original they were ripped from, but they also needlessly cluttered up an already quite populous universe of characters. I could buy that logic. In point of fact, one of my duties as Executive Editor is to coordinate names, powers, and concepts of all new character-creations in order to ensure that we don't have accidental duplication of said names, concepts, and powers. With my fellow editors' cooperation, I stand guard over the uniqueness of our preexisting characters by insisting that every new character truly has something unique to offer the universe in order to justify his or her existence.
Okay, so new characters should not duplicate old characters. Fine. But what about some of these old villains who nobody in his right mind would want to emulate? Isn't is possible that a villain's very concept was so hackneyed, derivitive, and uninspired, or that a villain had been so badly damaged by years of less than adequate handling, that he is totally unsalvageable? That, after all, was one of the principles behind the "Scourge of the Underworld" killings of 1986, a conspiracy I had no small part in. (For that matter, neither did John Byrne, who co-created the character with me, naming him and designing his uniform.) Part of the rationale behind Scourge was that Marvel needed to do a little house-cleaning. The Marvel Universe had gotten just too darn large, and there were too many lame, forgettable, throw away villains littering the landscape, begging for an entry in the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK though not deserving one. So Scourge, aided and abetted by a flock of willing writers, went slithering around, making dead meat out of 30 minor villains in no less than ten different Marvel titles. (Okay, so I admit, almost 2/3 of the assassinations were committed in books I wrote.) Was I wrong in advocating that good housekeeping (if not justice) was served in such a manner...?
Yes, yes, I now think that I was, thanks to that conversation with Mr. Byrne. Let it hereby be known that I, the undersigned, repent. I'm sorry I had any of those lame-o's killed-- well, except for Turner D. Century maybe. Those of you who rank my penchant for demises right up there with Thanos', I apologize to you if I've taken any of your favorites away. Like Galactus, I promise to give to the Universe more than I've taken. And furthermore, I vow to never kill anyone I haven't created again. I am now a staunch advocate of accepting the Byrne Challenge-- to take a virtually irredeemable character, and make something out of him or her. I wonder, could it have been done with Commander Kraken, Mind-Wave, the Vamp, Steeplejack, or Shellshock (all villains I had offed in the gruesome CAPTAIN AMERICA#320)...sure. And if I couldn't think of how, maybe some other writer could. But not anymore. I'd killed them, prevented them from going on to greater fame in the pages of SHE-HULK. No more, I say. My bloodletting days are over.
So, thanks to John, I've become a Villains-Right-To-Lifer. But does that mean I'm going to shut down my character factory completely, and deprive the world of such classic Gruenwald creations as Armadillo, Poundcakes, and Boomslang? Nah, you're not that lucky. I do intend to introduce the new more sparingly perhaps. I still believe as I stated on the text page of SOLO AVENGERS#1, that every Marvel hero deserves at least one arch-enemy all his or her own, and if Tigra doesn't have one, by gum, it should be the Tigra writer's job to get her one, preferably without raiding another hero's rogues gallery.
But when it comes to the Byrne Challenge of revitalizing pre-existing super-villains, how does one go about it? A cosmetic change, like a new uniform, is not necessarily the answer-- though it did wonders in the Beetle and Boomerang's cases, both of whom are currently clad in Byrne-designed duds. To truly help a villain reach his or her full potential, a writer must examine what it is that distinguishes this villain from others of his or her ilk and what it is that makes him or her tick. Then the writer must craft a tale where these things are explored. Perhaps there's the potential for greatness, or at least uniqueness, in every unsung villain who's ever taken up space on a page.
You readers are the judges on whether a writer is doing his or her job with the villains he or she portrays. Every time you read a story ask yourself, 'Did this story enhance the villain's stature, provide us some keen new insight into his character, or present some interesting new facet to the character's life...or did it trivialize him, mess up his continuity, duplicate some old story he appeared in, make you know less about him than you did before, and make you wish you never saw him again?' Let us know, okay?
-- Mark Gruenwald