Vampires and Supervillains

Here are two posts on vampires from Theodora Goss and Nathan Ballingrud.

What unites both of them as well as many others in the speculative fiction community is that they see the romanticization of the vampire in decent years as a degradation and destruction of vampires as credible monster. I don’t see it that way – I see the recent reimagining of the vampire as an expansion of the old legend into a different direction, one that didn’t begin with Twilight either. But then, I was never that invested in the image of the monstrous vampire in the first place. I was the teenager who screamed in frustration at the screen while watching some old horror film, “But she used to be your daughter! You can’t just ram a stake into her heart.” A few years later, I was the person who considered Buffy and friends hypocrites for being all freaked out about Faith accidentally staking a human (and a villain at that), while having no qualms whatsoever about staking vampires. And as my reaction to 30 Days of Night shows, I’m still not a fan of the “vampires as pure monsters” trope. I’ve never been particularly interested in monsters. In fact, I only started to get interested in vampires once they became more than just monsters.

In short, what we’re seeing right now is not a destruction of the vampire myth but an expansion and a reimagining. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing vampires that are closer to the monsters of yore, if that’s what floats your boat. The vampire myth is big enough to encompass both Edward Cullen and the vampire zombies of 30 Days of Night and everything in between.

While on the subject of villains, Sam Sykes offers his thoughts on the new superhero TV show The Cape and on supervillains in general. And Adrian Faulkner agrees with Sykes that villains need depth.

Now I haven’t seen The Cape, but I agree that villains should have more dimensions than just being evil for the sake of being evil. On the other hand, I have never really cared for the Joker in any of his incarnations, because most of the time, the Joker just does wacky and evil things to prove that he can. He doesn’t have any aims besides spreading chaos, because he’s crazy. Which isn’t very satisfying. Never mind that Batman is not really mentally stable in most incarnations of the character either, so you get two mentally disturbed individuals trying to prove a point and Gotham City suffering for it (most notably in The Dark Knight, though this motif runs through the whole Batman canon).

As for villains whose aim is just to spread chaos, I vastly prefer Dr. Mabuse. I wish someone would do a new Dr Mabuse for the post banking crisis era. Considering that Mabuse got his start during the brief golden years of the late 1920s and had his second outing immediately after the 1929 Wall Street crash and that his stated aims were “destabilizing the international system of finance in order to usher in the world domination of crime”, he would totally fit into today’s climate. It could even be the same Mabuse as of old, since Mabuse has been a malevolent spirit taking over others at will for the past fifty or eighty (depending on your definition) years now. And considering we’re dealing with a villain who has lived through four very different political systems by now, there would be plenty of room for political and social commentary. In short, someone please acquire the rights from whoever hold them (probably Artur Brauner) and give us Dr Mabuse updated for the 21st century.

On the other hand, my favourite superhero TV show (not that there’s a big selection) at the moment is Misfits, which rarely has villains in the traditional sense. And my favourite villain of the past few years is Jim Keats from Ashes to Ashes who is evil because he’s… well, evil (there’s a spoiler there, but basically Keats can be boiled down to “He’s evil because he is.”). He’s also not particularly multi-dimensional and everything we do learn about him is false. He’s still one of the most fucking scary things I’ve ever seen, the sort of scary that would make Darth Vader, the Master, the Joker, Ming the Merciless and Dr. Doom soil their collective pants.

But exceptions notwithstanding, when dealing with monsters and villains it is always a good idea to give them a motivation beyond evil for the sake of being evil. And making the antagonist too one-dimensionally evil is always a trap to beware of.

“The novel” isn’t the sort of story that has world-shattering evil, there is no villainous mastermind here who wants to conquer to world. There are a couple of “villains” of sorts: a controlling and micromanaging mother, an obsessed police officer who can’t let go off the one case he couldn’t solve and hounds the descendants of the former suspect, a boss who cares more about the bottom line than about his employees. And then there is the main antagonist who is basically an unpleasant and controlling bully with a huge entitlement complex who picks on those that are weaker than him. Actually, he’s not all that different from the minor antagonists in “the novel”, since all of them are controlling bullies who like to exercise whatever power they have.

Now the problem is that one of the two POV characters hates – and I mean really, really hates – the main antagonist. And this POV character sees the antagonist in fairly one-dimensional terms: He’s a bully, he hurts those who are weaker, he’s evil. You can’t really persuade that character to see any redeeming factors in the antagonist either, he just hates him. Luckily, my second POV character sees the main antagonist in somewhat more differentiated terms, as definitely not a good person or a person it was good to have been with, but not as this cardboard villain either. The same holds true for the minor antagonists. One POV character sees the mother for the toxic person she is, the other doesn’t. One POV character sees the retired police officer for what he is, a bitter old man who takes out his frustrations about his own inadequacies on others, the other doesn’t. They both agree that the boss is a wanker, though.

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2 Responses to Vampires and Supervillains

  1. I agree with your point that villains who are evil for the sake of being evil are at best unbelievable, and at worst flat out boring. And the storyline where Faith accidentally kills a human being was one of the best in the whole run of the show; I always thought it was pure chance that it happened to her and not Buffy herself.

    My yen for simpler vampires stems entirely from my indoctrination to them when I was a kid. My feeling is that by making our vampires three parts sexy and conflicted to one part dangerous, writers are actually taking the easy way out. A bigger challenge would be to have the protagonist fall in love with a vampire who really does, at heart, want nothing more than to drain the world. To me the story doesn’t come from the vampire’s lack of (or corrupted) humanity but in the reaction to it by the people it encounters or once knew.

    I’d love to read a vampire story about a parent forced to confront it’s recently-vampiric child.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for commenting.

      My issue with the Faith stakes a human storyline (and I agree that it could just as easily have happened to Buffy) was the hypocrisy of Giles and the rest of the Scooby gang who had no issues with staking vampires and yet got all put out over a single human, one who was not exactly a worthy citizen at that. But knowing Joss Whedon, that’s probably just the reaction he intended.

      One thing I did like about your post was that it highlighted how our childhood reading and viewing influences our reading and writing preferences down the road. Growing up in Germany at a time when outright horror films simply weren’t shown on TV, because it was believed they would turn viewers into axe murderers or whatever, I had the crap scared out of me by black and white crime thrillers about criminal masterminds with a penchant for masks, capes and disguises. And yes, I can clearly trace the influence of those childhood scares in my reading and writing preferences today. Meanwhile, my main exposure to vampires were Count from Sesame Street and the children’s book The Little Vampire, so I’ve never been that invested in the vampire as a monster.

      Though I agree that some of today’s sexy and non-threatening vampires can be grating, particularly if not done very well. Falling for a vampire who’s sexy and yet genuinely dangerous – as opposed to the faux dangerousness of the likes of Edward Cullen – would definitely make for an interesting story, though it’s probably a hard sell in the paranormal romance/urban fantasy genre. There was an urban fantasy trilogy (name and author escape me) some time ago, where the heroine fell for a vampire, only to decide in book 3 that the vampire was too dangerous, stake him and hook up with a human police officer instead. Definitely a neat reversal of expectations, but the readership was not amused.

      As for parents having to deal with their vampiric child, the example I was thinking of came from an old Hammer horror film or something like that I saw as a teen and was garnished with so much misogynism and sexphobia it was hard to take (young woman has not been virginal and had sex with a guy who was a vampire, got turned, tried sucking her fiancé dry and was staked by her father and fiancé). A better rendition of the theme could actually work. I remember seeing a decent vampire child story as a slushreader years ago. And a recent YA by Lilith Saintcrow has a reversal of the theme, a teenager is confronted with a vampiric/zombified parent.

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