Managing your heroes and villains

The classic comic book argument, besides all the ones about what spandex actually looks like, is who would win in a fight: Batman or Superman? This being the classic way of determining a character’s superiority in superhero circles. Now, there are many points to be made for each side, most of them as pedantic as they are tedious, but I posit to you, dear reader, that neither of them are in the running for top dog of the DC universe. They are both outmatched by the Joker.

Before I am buried alive in a mountain of angry emails, hear me out on this one. Within the comic book universe, the Joker possesses powers that make superstrength and heat vision look like chump change. They are never named or specified, but the evidence is there in every appearance the character makes.

Like all villains, the Joker is immortal. Not just immortal, but a sort of deity figure. Death is already a minor inconvenience in any superhero universe, assuming you’re not a civilian or a minority, but the Joker’s eternal nature puts Superman’s invulnerability to shame. In theory he’s a mortal man, at least that’s how he is always portrayed, but think about it. Nobody’s ever managed to put a bullet in him. All those cops throughout his entire criminal career, and not once have any of them so much as winged him. Clearly the Joker is so death proof, subconsciously everyone knows there isn’t even any point in trying. When Batman breaks every bone in his body and leaves the Joker comatose, he’s back the next month, fit as a fiddle and not even showing the slightest sign it ever even happened.

The Joker is essentially a sort of trickster god in this sense. Eternal, unchanging, and capable of feats of omnipotence. He can murder thousands of innocent civilians in a single night without the “World’s Greatest Detective” even noticing, and in the most elaborate ways as well. He can have their corpses all dressed up in costumes and arranged into a visual pun before they’ve even begun to smell.

Despite living out of abandoned fairgrounds and disused warehouses that apparently once belonged to purveyors of giant jack-in-the-boxes, he can get his hands on absolutely anything the situation requires. Gallons of acid? Sure, why not! A hundred gorillas? Who says they’re endangered! A blimp with a huge jester face on the front, filled with nerve gas that’s somehow still buoyant? Nobody makes them, but there one is anyway!

He can go anywhere, do anything, and his schemes always work. Even if they don’t accomplish the mass mayhem they were supposed to, innocents will still die. Often by the truckload. Which is exactly the point I am getting to here.

This is unchecked authorial control. This is the writer, or more accurately writers, needing to challenge a character that they’ve stripped of flaws. Batman is the greatest detective, the best martial artist alive, a genius in every way with a bottomless expenditures account that supplies him with whatever he needs, from fighter jets to state-of-the-art technology. Against all that, he practically needs to fight a god in order to experience a challenge. Even Superman isn’t on his level, at least according to some fans.

The Joker, and Batman, are not the best examples of this sort of thing purely because they are written by so many different writers in so many different forms. The Joker from the 1992 animated series is almost incomparable to the current comic book incarnation, and still not the same as Jack Nicholson’s version in the 1989 movie. Only the broad strokes are there, like the many renditions of Sherlock Holmes or Dracula. Except a homicidal clown.

Even so, writer beware. When advice is given to you to give your characters flaws, it is to make your life easier, not harder. Challenging a flawless character is impossible without creating an equally flawless situation, and by that point your reader might be rolling their eyes so hard they’ll fall out. Eventually you might find yourself struggling so hard to present a conflict that you just give up on trying altogether, resulting in a scenario where your flawless character acts like an incompetent buffoon simply to get into trouble that they can they extract themselves from.

Protagonists (and antagonists alike) can be more than normal. They don’t have to be realistic in every sense. Nobody’s expecting an action hero to get hit by a stray bullet and bleed out in chapter two, regardless of how often they dive through machine gun fire. But they need to have limitations, otherwise diving through machine gun fire isn’t going to seem dangerous at all. The solution is not to create an unstoppable super weapon, but to just dial it back a bit.

Besides, think of the poor background characters. At this point in time, Gotham’s seen so many mass murders and crime waves that there’s got to be only a couple of civilians left alive in the city. Even living out in the woods, eating grubs and berries, has got to be a better life than staying in the same city as the Joker.