“Just like heroes, villains are a barometer of what we value and what we abhor as a society,” said editor Robert Peaslee.
There's a dark truth behind all truly good stories: The villains see themselves as the heroes.
It explains a lot about them: how far they will go to succeed, why they persist no matter how many times they're defeated and why they continue to fascinate audiences.
Villains, particularly those larger-than-life enough to be deemed supervillains, are the focus of a new book edited by two Texas Tech University faculty members. In "The Supervillain Reader," Robert Peaslee, an associate professor and chair of journalism and creative media industries in the College of Media & Communication, and Rob Weiner, popular culture librarian for University Libraries, present a collection of both reprinted and original essays on villains and supervillains throughout popular culture.
"Just like heroes, villains are a barometer of what we value and what we abhor as a society," Peaslee said. "Today, however, villains are changing, which was part of the impetus for publishing this book; no longer limited to showing us examples of often cartoonish moral incorrectness, villains in contemporary society are actively framed as sympathetic, as reasonable, even as protagonists. That there is demand for these more complex characterizations of villains is something to examine carefully, as are narrative choices that underpin those characterizations and the many ways audiences engage with them."
A perfect example of such a character is the X-Men universe's Magneto, who both men listed among their favorite villains.
"Magneto is one of those villains where the line between evil and good is in that gray area," Weiner said. "He believes what he's doing is for the benefit of mutant kind, as opposed to just being pure evil, so he's a very complex villain. Magneto is so complex as a character that stories are always interesting when he's the villain of the piece, or even the hero of the piece. Magneto sometimes vacillates between hero and villain."
"He is, for my money, the most heroic villain," Peaslee agreed. "His backstory, set against the Holocaust, sets him up perfectly to take an uncompromising, militant stance on mutant rights that continues to resonate, despite his methods."
The Joker, their other favorite villain, is intriguing for a different reason.
"The Joker is fascinating to watch – not somebody who you'd actually ever want to meet, necessarily, but the Joker has no rules," Weiner explained. "He does whatever he thinks he wants to do and is, in some ways, the ultimate expression of freedom."
In this way, Weiner said, villains allow audiences to live vicariously in ways they shouldn't in real life.
"In human nature, there's always a dark side, and I think we can learn about ourselves and what it means to be human by examining villains in popular culture, in comic books and movies," he said. "The 'Joker' movie is a really good example of that. I think what people want now is the complexity of the villain, where it's not always so cut and dried between good and evil, where we can see, if you will, a human side to the villain.
"We don't necessarily approve of what they do and the means by which they get there, but we can certainly understand situations that villains sometimes find themselves in. For example, in 'Spider-Man 3,' Sandman steals money so he can get his daughter an operation. He commits a crime, which we don't approve of, but we certainly understand the motivation behind it."
"The Supervillain Reader" is not limited to villains in the comics. It features villains in mythology and literature – including Satan, Shakespearean villains, Captain Ahab from "Moby-Dick" and the Harry Potter series' Voldemort – and on screen, from TV serial killers to Godzilla and Darth Vader.
While some people might scoff at academic research of this sort, Peaslee explains there's a pressing need to study villains and why people identify with them, especially in today's real world.
"We live in a multi-channel, fragmented media ecosystem where everyone can find a place in which their worldview is 'right,'" Peaslee said. "The breakdown of legacy media's relative stranglehold on the national conversation has been welcome in many ways, but perhaps less positive is the narrow-casting now possible to niche audiences with anti-social or otherwise problematic points of view and the reinforcement of such messages through algorithmic garden walls that make it all seem quite normal from a given user's perspective.
"In storytelling, good villains see themselves as the hero of their own story, so it follows that if there are multiple 'stories' to which people are responding out there, there are as many definitions of 'hero' and 'villain.'"
This is the fourth book Weiner and Peaslee have collaborated on, following "Web-Spinning Heroics: Critical Essays on the History and Meaning of Spider-Man" (2012), "The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime" (2015) and "Marvel Comics into Film: Essays on Adaptations Since the 1940s" (2016).