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Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Posted by Tamila Deniece Harris 1:58 PM No comments

The distinction superheroes and super-villains represent between right and wrong is often so black and white that it makes superhero movies, TV and comics appear bland. Heroes responding to disasters and attacks perpetrated by their darker counterparts is the very foundation of the medium—so repeatedly defined over the last near-century that its simplicity often repels newcomers to comics. In 1938, the daring Superman who defied odds to rescue the downtrodden was a fresh and resonating idea for the everyday citizens of the Great Depression. These days, however, people know what to expect, and with so many movies and television shows out there based on comic books, it can be rare for some people to see much beyond the basic set-up.

As a fan, however, you know that’s not always the case. Humanity in the various characters—be they heroes or villains—can be dynamic, even unreliable.  From flawed characters such as Batman or Green Arrow, to empathetic villains such as Mr. Freeze, stories aren’t always so simple as the one-dimensional hero/villain mythology has implied them to be. Anti-heroes and even anti-villains help keep superhero stories varied and ongoing, across decades with each changing generation.

And sometimes, heroes go bad. Something twists them into a wrong shape, and then a savior becomes sinner for the remaining heroes to contend with. Oh sure, you have conventions such as mind control, parallel worlds, clones and alternate realities. But in the DC Universe, sometimes the heroes really get tired of being so heroic.

One of the best and most extreme examples of this is Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern who—for a time—was the DC Universe’s most feared despot, Parallax. While he was off-world, Hal’s hometown Coast City was annihilated by the super-villain Mongul, an alien dictator who was scheming to turn Earth into a new Warworld. Hal became maddened with grief and began using the abilities of his Green Lantern Power Ring to remake and recreate the buildings, places and people of Coast City as he wanted to remember them. Before long, the Guardians of the Universe recalled Hal to report to Oa for an admonishment on using his ring for personal reasons. Outraged at their unsympathetic reaction to his loss, Hal returned to Oa and sought to absorb the Central Battery, encountering and brutally defeating many Green Lanterns in the process. Stealing their rings as spoils of war, Hal’s power multiplied before he succeeded in absorbing the Power Battery and becoming a godlike being who intended to use his near-divine status to rewrite history to his liking.

It took several attempts and encounters with his fellow Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, Superman and many other DC heroes to stop Parallax. Eventually, when he learned the Earth’s sun was going out, dooming the planet to a frozen death, Parallax committed one final act of heroism and used his complete power to reignite the sun at the cost of his own life.

It’s since been retconned that the Parallax persona was an alien parasite which took control of Hal at his weakest psychological moment, but for a decade, readers and the DC characters understood that not every hero stays good forever. Hal’s years of service, heroism and bravery became tainted with the pain of loss, and the vulnerability of an uncaring system. Was he always susceptible to this kind of emotional snapping point? Was it Mongul and the death of Coast City that broke him, or was it the Guardians’ rejection of his anguish that proved to be the final straw?

Hal sought to remake things as they were, to achieve ultimate control because things went wrong. That’s also how Superboy Prime saw the universe.

Born on a parallel Earth where the DC heroes were fictional, Superboy Prime gained the powers of a Kryptonian and—to make a long story short—saw himself as an inevitable Superman, destined to continue the cycle of good triumphing over evil. However, living in a pocket dimension made him believe that the world had gone wrong. Violence was far more of a recurring consequence in his universe and the superheroes of our universe weren’t as heroic as the ones he knew. Burdened with glorious purpose, Superboy-Prime smashed the walls of his dimension’s reality and travelled to our known DC world to take the mantle of Superboy from Conner Kent. This resulted in a horrifically violent battle in which several past members of the Titans were slaughtered by the out-of-control Superboy, all the while screaming that he was the true hero of the universe and that our world’s champions behave more like villains.

Superboy Prime’s violent actions resulted in the deaths of both our universe’s Superboy (he got better) and the Golden Age Superman. He was brought down by the combined might of two Supermen and multiple Flashes and Green Lanterns. He would later reappear alongside the Sinestro Corps and the Legion of Doom, always bedeviling the DC Universe while claiming to be the true hero among masquerading imposters acting as villains.

This seems to be the track for superheroes breaking bad—they have to still believe they’re in the right. No matter how unjustifiable their actions, they still see themselves as the heroes, even as their own friends and allies evolve into their enemies.

Not so true on the opposite side of the tracks. Lots of villains have become heroes. Some depend on possession and persona manipulation, such as Star Sapphire. Others join the side of the angels to battle overwhelming forces, like Captain Cold and Lex Luthor.

During the battle with the Crime Syndicate in the crossover storyline Forever Evil, Luthor formed a new Injustice League to battle the Earth-3 super-villains who had taken over the world. Saving the planet and a near-dead Nightwing, the world saw Luthor as its savior and public perception of the business tycoon skyrocketed. What made better sense than for him to join the Justice League?

This didn’t particularly grab Superman, but Batman and Wonder Woman suggested that at the very least they could keep their eyes on Luthor should he be up to something. Still, despite the safeguarding and pragmatic reasoning, Lex made good on his effort to turn over a new leaf for the betterment of mankind. He was essential in financing the League’s operations, and when the New 52’s Superman died, Lex assumed himself protector of Metropolis in his honor. Aiding in the battle against Doomsday, Luthor’s public trust was denied by the original Superman, who returned and—familiar with Lex’s scheming ways—refused to believe he had turned good. This left Luthor out of prison, free to enjoy a popular reputation, but once again on Superman’s bad side.

Of course, Lex Luthor was never going to stay good for long. He’s DC’s ultimate bad guy! A major player like him is destined to be evil. That does leave room, however, for lesser appreciated villain characters. Take Pied Piper, for instance.

Hartley Rathaway was never a heavy hitter in the pantheon of the Flash’s rogues gallery. Born deaf, Rathaway’s hearing was aided through sonic technology, which granted him a fascination with sound, leading him down a life of petty sound-related crimes. He was routinely beaten up by the original Central City Flash, Barry Allen.

After Allen’s sacrifice to save the multiverse in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Pied Piper encountered the new Flash—Wally West—after reforming himself. Wally meets Rathaway donating goods to homeless shelters and looking out for the downtrodden. Disinterested in wealth, the former villain would go on to become a close friend and confidant of Wally’s. The two would often talk about Wally’s predecessor and help each other on cases. This is an example of a villain-turned-hero case that stuck. Originally deaf, and eventually revealed to be gay, Rathaway saw regular people as vulnerable and became interested in helping them in ways only he could. He shed his delusions of grandeur and calmed down into a reliable and friendly guy.

Does this normality make Pied Piper the sole exception to both heroes and villains? Hal Jordan, Superboy-Prime and Lex Luthor all believed themselves to be the sole answer to their worlds’ problems and became monsters at one point or another in trying to prove it. Hartley Rathaway viewed himself as being of the people, not above them.

It’s a good indicator of the struggle many heroes are faced with, as well as cautionary examples they look to avoid. It’s a nuance of superhero storytelling that reflects the decisions between right and wrong we make in the real world, and how those directions often get confused as the other. Strong examples like this can be found all throughout the tapestry of the DC Universe and offer a fascinating look at how the perspective of good and evil gets examined in a multitude of interesting and complicated ways.

Donovan Morgan Grant writes about comics, graphic novels and superhero history for Follow him on Twitter at @donoDMG1.

This post was originally published at Comics by

* This article was originally published here


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