Do villains have to commit "taboo" acts for us to hate them?

Do villains need to rape, torture or mutilate people for us to hate them? Or maybe the reverse is true: Sometimes we can invest more in a villain, if his or her evildoing is creative and leaves more to our imaginations. Sometimes with villains, brutality is the lesser path. Here's our plea for more subtle monsters.

Recently we promoted an observation deck post about Mark Millar's and Todd McFarlane's comments on gender, and violence, in comics. The two creators discussed their views on comics diversity, and fielded some criticism about the use of rape and extreme violence in comics. Mark Millar claimed that, "The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy."

The false equivalency between rape and decapitation is discussed in the post, but the quote leaves me with questions. Since when do we actually need rape scenes, torture scenes, and creative atrocities to prove a villain's bona fides?

Take King Joffrey, pictured above. Do we hate him because of his sadistic, revolting acts, which we've witnessed on several occasions — or are there other, more complicated, reasons why we loathe him? Would we still hate him as much if he just tortured the occasional person?

I'm not saying that there's no place for ultraviolence in comics, or in other forms of media. The problem arises when creators lose sight of the fact that rape, torture, and murder are extremes. And there are other — sometimes better — ways to show that someone is a "bad guy." Minor crimes can have a major impact, but only if we let them.

Non-Criminal Offenses

It’s not even necessary for the villain to commit a crime for the audience to hate him or her. In a medium that tells serial stories, sometimes criminal behavior is actually a step backwards in summoning audience hatred for a character. There are plenty of comics out there that star heroes who started out as villains in other comics. Deadpool, Deathstroke, and The Punisher all come to mind. In serial stories, the audience is most likely to hate characters that annoy or offend us, rather than the ones that do awful things.

Do villains have to commit "taboo" acts for us to hate them?

Why does the media go nuts about conservative politicians in sex scandals or “progressive” politicians in sexual harassment scandals? Because hyprocrisy always gets people going. Granted, we have to be careful about censuring hypocrites. As the famous saying goes, “A hypocrite is a person who – but who isn’t?” Still, there’s something that induces glee when we watch a hypocrite take a fall. If the villain is a deliberate hypocrite, the smugness of it makes them seem pretty heartless, but I think there's a better way to go.

After all, the point of a villain's actions in a story isn’t just to demonstrate how terrible they are, it’s to fill the audience with the burning need to see them crushed. Every time the hero has a setback, the readers need to feel that anger at seeing the villain slip away. There are few things more frustrating than villains who create such a big barrier between their actions and reality that they don’t know that they’re hypocrites. It adds a level of frustration to everything they do. Don’t they see how wrong they are? Someone needs to show them, and since the readers can’t, they cheer for the hero who can.

Another way to get us to hate a villain who technically isn’t doing anything illegal is to make them a particular kind of bully. I’m not talking about bullying in the modern internet sense of the word, but going back to the original idea of a bully – someone who goes out of way to pick on a person who has no way to take a shot back at them.

That’s pretty much the definition of villainy, but it’s not necessarily illegal. Everyone who’s ever worked in the service industry knows the kind of people who are just waiting to make life miserable for people who need to keep their job. But a bully going on a rampage and taking out targets – even really easy targets – gathers a kind of glory around them. Millar even wrote about that glory in Wanted (which, by the way, I still think is a retelling of Cinderella.)

A cowardly bully, who snivels and whines when any hurt at all comes their way, isn't just a villain that people hate. He or she is a villain that people despise. It goes back to what people mean when they say a “bad guy.” Someone being “bad” isn’t just about actions, it’s also about character in the old-fashioned sense of the word. And when the focus is on “bad character” rather than atrocity, it’s possible demonstrate that a villain is despicable without showing any crime at all.

Proving The Villain's a Real Threat

Then again, why do we necessarily need to prove that someone has a bad character? It’s true that, when we start a movie or a single novel, we need some evidence that one person is the hero and the other person is the villain. But in serial fiction, it doesn’t necessarily work the same way. Most people opening up a Batman comic are automatically going to be on Batman’s side. Audiences don’t necessarily need to know that a villain is the worst person who ever walked the Earth to want the hero to win. They just need a reason to be invested in a particular story.

Do villains have to commit "taboo" acts for us to hate them?

Usually they’re invested because the villain is a threat to the hero. This threat is, nowadays, proved by showing the villain striking the hero personally. The most famous (and infamous) acts of shocking violence in comics are usually committed against the people close to the hero. By getting to the hero’s family, the villain proves he/she is a threat.

Although that sets the scene for a particular type of story, it’s not the only way. A villain is a threat if there is a question about whether or not the hero can beat them. If someone plans a series of jewelry store heists all over Gotham, and makes Batman look like a fool, they're a threat because of their intellect, not because they can murder his valet. If Superman tries to stop a bank heist, and the bank robber turns to him, and smacks him down, the point isn’t that Lois Lane is hanging over a vat of acid, it’s that someone is stronger than Superman. And if someone managed to make a longer speech about liberal politics than Green Arrow, while wearing a sillier hat? My god, I can’t type for the nail biting.

Do villains have to commit "taboo" acts for us to hate them?

There’s also the angle of sheer fanaticism. To return to Batman (as I always will), there’s a reason why all of his main villains are locked up in a gothic loony bin. Creators constantly point out that Batman has an obsession verging on madness. His goal is to make sure that what happened to him will never happen to anyone else. This is impossible, and everyone knows it. He’s a fanatic, so the only way to make any of the villains a threat is to make them even more fanatical than he is. Their commitment exceeds his own. Again, we don’t need actual crimes to show that someone is a bad guy, we just need to know that they’re willing to put more into their goal than the hero is.

Too much violence and sadism is numbing

And meanwhile, if you show torture, rape and brutality too often, especially in a long-running serialized narrative, you run the risk of desensitizing both the hero and the readers. Until it's just like, "I just cleaned that refrigerator!"

After all, one of the major problems of any piece of fiction is it is written by someone who knows that it is a piece of fiction, and the characters behave accordingly. That means that, if someone is killed, the heroes automatically assume foul play. If a suspicious event happens, they automatically assume something is wrong.

Although many stories show heroes reacting to sudden tragedies with grief, that’s not the same as the reflexive disbelief of someone who is actually surprised by tragedy. All too often, the heroes don’t feel shocked, and so we don’t feel shocked. In those rare pieces of fiction that don’t let the characters know they’re in a thriller, the heroes feel the same blank astonishment and growing anger as we would if, for example, a close cousin of ours was murdered by a spy ring. And the audience shares that feeling.

Do villains have to commit "taboo" acts for us to hate them?

And that's where I think extreme violence does damage to serialized hero narratives. If someone’s mangled body is left dangling from a ceiling fan at a daycare center, there’s only so much emotion to be wrung out of a more minor crime, later on.

As more and more extreme violence is used to make an impression, eventually the entire comics medium is brought to such a pitch of sustained violent hysteria that it becomes difficult to crank it down to crime, adventure, or monster stories again. Extreme, or taboo, violence doesn’t just raise the ceiling on creative expression, it raises the floor as well.

I’m not arguing that the kind of over-the-top gore of some stories doesn’t add anything. In fact, sometimes it adds a lurid intensity that is a legitimate angle of expression. But that kind of violence takes something away from storytelling as well, and we should take that into account either when creating a story or critiquing it.

So what makes you hate a villain? And what's your favorite example of a villain who becomes despicable without decapitating a busload of nuns?