Sunday, 18 March 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Sauron

Sauron! One of the greats, a poster child for the power and effectiveness of the unseen villain. Or would be, but you can’t exactly be a poster child if no-one knows what you look like. Of course, the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring had a rather disappointingly generic Black Knight figure, which went flailing into the midst of the Last Alliance and then exploded. And of course there was the peculiar decision to turn the metaphorical Eye of Sauron into his actual form; a strangely impractical manifestation, considering its lack of ring fingers. But as awesome as those films were, they didn’t have the real Sauron, the Sauron whose menace has hung over road-weary hobbits and the readers who love them since 1954.

Funnily enough, a Google Image Search for Sauron’s master Morgoth, the Satan-figure of Tolkein’s sprawling mythology, will offer up a fairly impressive selection of artistic renderings. There’s something about the original Dark Lord that captures the imagination, and many of these fan-made depictions are genuinely intimidating, capturing the merciless inhuman spirit of the Black Foe of the World. The best ones go beyond a mere scaled-up human in uncomfortable-looking plate armour, and capture the sense that we are dealing with the mighty vessel of a spirit of rage and arrogance and cruelty that predates the created universe. Up and up our eyes travel, to either a vicious-looking visor concealing some madness-inducing terror, or a brutish face that resembles humanity only in the most mundane sense. Either way, the blazing eyes are, as the master would put it, “windows into nothing.”

Yet a similar Google search for Sauron, a far more recognizable character for anyone who isn’t a Silmarillion-reading ultra-nerd, yields far more disappointing results, unless you like seeing Peter Jackson’s Black Knight from a hundred different angles. Perhaps Yours Truly isn’t looking hard enough, but Gorthaur the Cruel (you can tell how dangerous/impressive someone is by their portfolio of spare names and titles) seems to defy memorable artistic depiction. Even Tolkein himself struggled with it. His own idle drawing only produced the merest suggestion of some terrible, semi-formless shape, reaching out over the land.

That’s the key to the lasting appeal and potency of Sauron. His body, a mere garment that the immortal spirits of the Maiar adopt for convenience, is presumably terrifying, but the occasional teasing reference to it in the text is all we need. By the closing act of the Third Age, Sauron’s body is almost an afterthought, needed to anchor him to the world of matter and keep him as something more than a wraith. After losing his ability to shape-change in the Downfall of Numenor (it’s a long story, non-geeks) the standard Dark Lord body doubtless offers him little joy. He’s become a creature of pure mind, locked up in the prison of his own thoughts, brooding and scheming for centuries at a time with only his own harsh and loveless voice for counsel. He recognises no equal, after all. His Ringwraiths and Orc-captains are valuable slaves, not advisors or even courtiers. He’s already existed in Middle-Earth for millennia, and seen sights that the slow drain of magic out of the world ensures can never be seen again. Been there, killed and desecrated that. Dominating and terrorising lesser beings is such second nature by now that he doesn’t even need to leave Barad-Dur (an awesome structure I always desperately wanted to see the inside of) to do it.

In essence, imagine an obsessive, psychopathic personality with no sense of any kind of personal limitation, shut up in a building trying to figure out the best way to run the world. Now imagine that this personality is an immortal god-king who has had a long, long time to brood and fester and pump up his own ego, while stubbornly declining to allow any consultation or acknowledge any rival. Now give him vast resources, and a step-by-step plan, and you have Sauron.

One of the many, many criticisms levelled at Lord of the Rings is that its Evil is too vague, too generic. It’s understood that a victory for Sauron would be a Bad Thing, but not exactly why. This is why. If Sauron conquers the whole of Middle Earth, then the rise of humanity will not occur. Mankind has a unique ability to change and grow and refashion itself and the world around it in ways undreamed of. As Elves and other static fantasy races fade into obscurity, humans accomplish greater and greater works, even as they lose the potency of the heroic age represented by Aragorn. Sauron’s triumph would have brought history to a stop. With a single all-powerful ruler, there is no competition, no dynamism, none of even the most rudimentary freedoms of an ancient monarchy. Everyone is no better than an Orc, marching where they are told. After a while, perhaps everyone starts to look like an Orc. Worst of all, unlike even the most absolute tyrannies of Real Life, there is no hope that Sauron will ever die, or weaken, or be overthrown by anything less than a contient-destroying Divine Intervention. With no ability to grow or develop (according to Tolkein, evil is sterile and can only pervert already existing things), Sauron would simply stare out over his vast kingdom forever, with nowhere left to expand to and nothing left to do, his ultimate victory also his ultimate despair. Seen in this light, Frodo is a hero of liberty beyond a thousand Thomas Jeffersons.

I mean, not that any of this is real or anything.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

10 Greatest Fictional Anti-Heroes: The Punisher

And now, every night, I go out and make the world sane.
-Garth Ennis, Punisher MAX #1

There should be no such thing as a guilty pleasure. Those two words should never go together when discussing any sort of entertainment media. You like what you like, and you should never qualify your appreciation with self-deprecating, cringing expressions like “guilty pleasure.” Whether you’re into table-top miniatures or extreme knitting, competitive Magic the Gathering or even TV talent shows, nothing that’s essentially harmless, which releases soothing warm goo from your brain’s pleasure centres (I don’t really understand how the brain works) is worth feeling ashamed about. On the flip-side, anything you consume that’s genuinely terrible and without merit shouldn’t be rationalised; sometimes you need to take a long, hard look at yourself and wonder if it was really necessary to watch that slasher remake from start to finish. Still, everyone has different standards of what they consider acceptable entertainment, and you can find value in even the most unlikely places.

That said, it’s easy to see why massively over-the-top, bloodthirsty wish-fulfilment comic-book anti-heroes might be considered pushing it.

The essentials of the character are simple to the point of tedium. He’s a military man whose native talent for mass murder found a limitless outlet in the form of his endless, bloody campaign against organised crime, inspired by the senseless killings of his family in the crossfire of a sloppy gangland feud.

Mr. Castle certainly inspires a lot of instinctive revulsion. The implication that single-mindedly murdering gang-members in a variety of ways is some sort of sane response to the problem of organised crime is on the face of it the sort of pig-headed vigilante vengeance-dream that probably dances through most people’s heads sooner or later, but becomes in a problem if it parks itself in your skull and settles down to become respectable. The Punisher started out as an antagonist to more idealistic Marvel heroes; his ruthlessly casual attitude to the use of lethal force could act as an object lesson in How Not To Battle Evil. His bleak skull motif is almost stereotypically villainous; if Stan Lee ever popped up in the Punisher’s stomping grounds to talk him up for the kiddies, he would be some sort of soul-destroying mirror universe version of Stan Lee, maybe a cadaverous junkie with his trademark avuncular, beaming expression contorted into a hateful sneer.
But the real issue with Frank Castle is his simplicity. It’s incredibly, understandably easy to see him as a characterless automaton, a vessel for the most tedious power fantasies. The man is a dead-eyed murderer whose strict code allows him to rationalise the most absurd body-counts by making sure that all his victims are (conveniently) irredeemably evil. Garth Ennis’s run on the Punisher for Marvel’s adults-only MAX imprint stressed that Frank really is a living weapon, occasionally fuelling himself with burgers and steaks before returning to an inhumanly lonely and brutal existence of gun-battles, interrogations and other demented action-movie set-pieces. He’s like some sort of gruesome caricature of all-American masculinity, ideals of hardness and self-reliance taken to an unimaginable extreme. It would be so easy to dismiss the character as fundamentally uninteresting.

And yet, somehow, there is still lingering potential. It takes a bit of work, but in the right hands Castle can be an awesome flat character, rather than a one-dimensional one. This is the root of his appeal; to paraphrase Alien, you admire his purity. He’s a perfect killer, top of the urban jungle’s food chain, a core of frozen hate that the mayhem and bloodshed of his twilight underworld can revolve around. Make him run a gauntlet, put him through his paces. With some creativity, lots of atmosphere building and scene-setting (hushed conversations between sweaty criminals, worn-out, frustrated police, mundane cityscapes given a hellish aura by the awful violence breeding behind their dreary facades) and a bit of subversion to mix up the formula, and you have a story worth reading.

Not exactly controversial, but Garth Ennis is the best at this. There are many reasons to take issue with him as a creator; when your signature is cheerful depravity that pushes the envelope of comic-book violence, you’re forever walking a tightrope between the effectively shocking and the merely adolescent, and he frequently falls on the adolescent side. His Punisher stories are mercifully free (for the most part) of “comedy” ultra-violence or parody nastiness. Violations are graphic, life is cheap, but at least Frank never looks over the grisly mess and chuckles at the wackiness of it all, or ever pretends to be some sort of rough yet decent heroic avenger who just needs to kill a few more people before he can shrug off the past and get back in the dating game. His moments of humanity are carefully rationed out, and it’s very clearly established that he enjoys death for its own sake and is ultimately trying to fill a bottomless hole inside him with the blood of the wicked. He’s presented as more of a force of nature than a full-on monster, steered this way and that by the demands of his steely code, but forces of nature and monsters alike can wind up in some interesting, if horrifying places, one street over from the pale of humanity.

Of course, there’s plenty of revenge fantasy and jangling shell-casings as well. It’s really not for everyone. But at the same time it’s nowhere near as monotonous and uninspired as you’d expect such a derivative and simplistic set-up to be.