Thursday, 31 May 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Agent 47

  The subversive potential of videogames for exploring the darkest, most disquieting human drives is rarely more evident than it is in the Hitman franchise. Perhaps it’s makers didn’t set out to make more than a deftly original power fantasy, with an amoral cipher of a protagonist, but that doesn’t stop the many faces of Agent 47 from oozing underneath the skin to break bread with the player’s more colourful inner demons.

  47 is a nameless, dead-eyed avenging angel in a high-end suit, complete with strangler’s hands wrapped in black leather gloves, pale skin, a perpetual expression of stern determination and, most outrageously of all, a barcode tattooed to the back of his head, as if to sardonically taunt the authorities’ inability to identify him. He looks like a cliché representation of what the average person might imagine when they think of a professional assassin, yet he slides through the game’s demented universe like an impossibly discrete shark through an especially colourful undersea wonderland.

  In the most recent game, Blood Money, target locations are typically snapshots of humanity’s underbelly, scenes of exuberant celebration concealing fundamental depravity; colourful parties presided over by arch-criminals and wealthy degenerates, wistful holiday spots where gangsters and killers lurk. 47 weaves through the sweating, blundering masses with chilly purity, pockets stuffed with sterile instruments of death. Depending on the player’s whim, he might act with total professionalism, killing with almost dainty precision and leaving a single concealed body behind. Or he might just scythe a path through bystander and security alike in a nihilistic frenzy, fighting his way to the mark in a storm of blood-mist and shell casings.

  47 stands out amongst the edgy posturing of other morally compromised videogame protagonists through a sense of black comedy and an icy, calculating focus in which the most heinous acts, from poisoning food to throwing pensioners of tall buildings to throttling children’s entertainers in order to steal their costumes, can make a perverse kind of sense in its own bleak, nasty little context.

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Lord Foul the Despiser

  Stephen Donaldson’s epic fantasy trilogy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant bear a superficial resemblance to Lord of the Rings, with magic artifacts, world-saving questing, and blatant Sauron and Mordor analogues. This might lead to the casual assumption that Donaldson is just another one of Tolkein’s countless slavish imitators, lazily aping the basic elements of the master’s intricate, genre-defining cosmology, but this is Not The Case At All. As well as his infamously dense prose, Donaldson distinguishes himself from Tolkein with a truly colossal cynicism, paradoxically shot through with a vein of battered, desperate idealism. Donaldson also has a habit of treating his characters to his personal brand of gruelling torment, with heroes and villains alike suffering from vividly sadistic physical and mental trials. The most frequent instrument of that pervasive brutality is the Chronicle’s main antagonist, a Dark Lord archetype of transcendent malice called Lord Foul.

  Once you get past Donaldson’s habit in his early work of giving evil characters luridly cheesy names (Lord Foul is one of many, ever more unsubtle appellations, with “Satansheart Soulcrusher” being the worst), you get to one of the most compelling fiends in fantasy fiction. While Sauron’s inhumanity stemmed from his inscrutability, as a grim yet impersonal presence for which mortals seemed mere scurrying insects, Foul’s brand of inhuman evil is founded upon how gruesomely, invasively personal he is. His mocking, commanding voice violates the heads of his targets, skewering their most fundamental insecurities and belittling their efforts to defy him with crushing finality.

  Foul is the incarnation of hatred and loathing, implied to be a manifestation of series protagonist Thomas Covenant’s own primal horror towards his leprosy-tainted flesh. His back-story and motivation are suitably epic; The Creator (nameless deity of the fantasy universe that Covenant finds himself transported to) cast down his malevolent brother in some cosmic brawl, trapping Lord Foul inside the Arch of Time that contains and supports the created world. Foul’s goal is to acquire the raw power necessary to shatter the Arch, unmaking the planet as the Creator’s metaphysical laws break down, but leaving Foul free to ravage the celestial realms once more. While in theory this should make the affairs of the Earth dull and parochial to his timeless intellect, it doesn’t stop him from playing warped games with the mortals that stand in his way. The Despiser never hesitates to express a depraved satisfaction at the misery wrought by his various tools, from the demoniacal Ravers, to the monstrous hordes of the First Chronicles, to the nature-corrupting horror of the Sunbane in the Second Chronicles.

  Relentless, blasphemous, psychopathic and legitimately Satanic in the scope of his machinations, the Despiser is a case study in how to make your fantasy overlord more than a generic Shadow.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Norman Stansfield

  Aka The Ultimate Ham. One of the greatest action movie (or “violence movie” as I like to call them, more honestly) antagonists ever, Norman Stansfield is the sort of character that provokes either eye-rolls or excited giggling at how outrageously diabolical he is. Gary Oldman pulls out all the stops to portray a rogue cop so utterly over-the-top in his corruption and self-aware depravity that he murders families and threatens children with all the laviscious flair of a circus ringmaster working an invisible audience of psychopaths and deviants. The very idea that someone of Stansfield’s ilk could get employment as a law officer in the first place, let alone rise high enough to be able to pull the necessary strings to cover up his murderously hypocritical involvement in the drug trade, is so ludricous that any suspension of disbelief is instantly pulverised, setting Stansfield-heavy scenes at odds with the more serious tone of the rest of the film. Yet there’s something so morbidly fascinating about Goldman’s leering, perversely hedonistic, flamboyantly violent performance that you can’t help but be entertained. His absurd affectations (classical music plays inside his disturbed mind, acting as some sort of soothing counter-point to the bloodshed he and his posse of pliable cop-accomplices deal out) come across as some sort of black joke that only he and some imaginary demonic spectators (that’s us, film-goers) can appreciate. So many action movie foes are stock monsters without any noticeable traits beyond pedestrian nastiness, so it’s refreshing to get a colourful mini-Mephistopheles played by a slumming heavyweight.

Friday, 18 May 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Jupiter

Appears in: The Deptford Mice, The Deptford Histories

  Robin Jarvis was a huge influence on me growing up. The man was (and doubtless still is, though it’s been a while) a natural storyteller, who never shied away from writing the darkest, strangest, most eerily vivid children’s and young adult stories imaginable. He plundered history, folklore, and (presumably) fevered childhood nightmares in order to create richly detailed supernatural worlds. There were the haunted sewers and cornfields of the Deptford Mice trilogy, and the even more terrifying twilight past of its sprawling prequel trilogy, the Deptford Histories. There were the gruesome secrets of Whitby and the pagan terrors of the Wyrd Museum.

  One of Jarvis’ most noteworthy abilities (apart from his gift for making readers both afraid of and afraid for anthropomorphic animals) is his knack for writing villains. Rather than garden-variety crooks and fiends, he took evident relish in conjuring up the most over-the-top, hateful, gloating, irredeemably ruthless villains, who for all their Satanic excesses are still somehow completely serious and convincing threats. Jupiter, the shadowy, sorcerous god-king of a particularly vile reach of London sewer, is the original Jarvis villain. Cunning, savage, pitiless, steeped in supernatural mystery and horror and utterly lacking in the slightest trace of any softer emotions, he makes the most brutal verminous warlord Brian “Redwall” Jacques ever penned look like a particularly mischevious Care Bear.    

  Jupiter’s first appearance, as a pair of hideous, brooding crimson eyes boring out of the subeterranean darkness in 1989’s “The Dark Portal” was a mission statement; Jarvis had every intention of inflicting the chills on his young readership, and warned off the more timid child reader by sending his plucky mouse hero to a nameless doom in Jupiter’s clutches at the end of the first chapter. This wasn’t going to be a ride of cheery hi-jinks and daring scrapes for the anthropomorphic cast, where the villain is humbled and thwarted at every turn, but nature red in tooth and claw, heightened by creative use of evil magic and some exploration into the eeriest buried secrets of England’s landscape, where embattled colonies of cute animals face up to the remnants of a superstitious heathen past that are still very much alive and hungry. Jupiter’s exploits got worse and worse with time, culminating in a Ragnarok-like confrontation that brought the trilogy to a suitably shattering conclusion. 

50 Greatest Fictional Heroes: Gordianus the Finder

“Meto stared blankly at the wall and bit his lip. A tear spilled down his cheek. A good, stern Roman father would have slapped the tear away, shaken him until his teeth rattled, and then made him go stand in the courtyard and keep watch all night, to face up to his fears and beat them down, and the more miserable the lesson the better. But I have never claimed to be a good father by Roman standards. I embraced him for a long moment…”
-Steven Saylor, “Catilina’s Riddle” (1998)

  The nature of a hero, as opposed to a mere protagonist, is a tricky thing to pin down, particularly in historical novels and even more so in history in general. Modern ideals of heroism, as filtered through popular culture, can seem wrongheaded and oddly twee compared to the far messier reality of countless clashing value systems that make up the endless, bizarre, brutal saga of the human race. This isn’t solely a contemporary problem; the more saintly paragons of Victorian literature can seem absurd in the harsh light of history, where the villains aren’t always obvious cads and grotesques and the heroes aren’t always rewarded for their second act travails with everlasting comfort and security. The grubby tragedies that are real life wars are often sanitised by the victors into pat narratives of Righteousness upper-cutting Vice, with examples ranging from the divinely-sanctioned genocides of the Old Testament to Shakespeare’s posthumous transformation of Richard III into a gruesome, bloodthirsty hunchback.

  In truth, there are almost no actual saints in history (apart from the actual saints obviously, but the true natures of older saints are usually shrouded in the fantastic legendry of medieval Christendom), just the occasional driven, brilliant man or woman who is often just as much ruthless as noble (the realities of leadership during tumultuous eras being what it is), and whose reputations are jealously preserved by nationalistic admirers. What place is there for the bottomless benevolence exemplified by pop culture icons like Superman and Batman in the harsh epochs of Ancient Rome or Medieval Europe? Do the iron-clad, fastidious sensibilities of such modern hero-archetypes not look excruciatingly daft compared to the past’s endless vistas of human cruelty and indifference?

  Yet there is a sound place in fiction for men and women whose keen sympathies put them out of step with the bleaker standards of their time periods; handled well, it can be a rich source of drama, as the hero struggles to effectively make his way through the snake-pit of a sinful mortal world and emerge reasonably unstained by the experience.

  Steven Saylor’s creation Gordianus the Finder, star of his “Roma Sub Rosa” series of mystery novels, is a prime example, being an eccentrically decent man in an age of indecency. A low-born native Roman, Gordianus is able to transcend his humble origins thanks to his keen analytical mind and his ability to hunt down elusive truths in seemingly baffling cases, which make his services much in demand with Rome’s moneyed patrician elite. Whether it is solving particularly shadowy murders or unravelling affairs of the heart, Gordianus gets to see much of the seedy underbelly of Roman society during the corrupt, passionate, endlessly dangerous days of the Late Republic.

  Yet, while Gordianus’s financial need to please the whims of his mighty patrons by doing what he does is usually at the forefront in the earlier stories, this is only flimsy camouflage for a far more profound side to his nature; an overpowering, almost irrational need to bring some measure of justice to the most wretched and downtrodden members of his highly-stratified society. Hapless slaves, anonymous victims; the faceless, voiceless, struggling ciphers whose very memories evaporate into obscurity while the reputations of the likes of Caesar and Cicero ring down the ages; these are Gordianus’s people, the people he is prepared to cross some of history’s most celebrated names to help, even if only to bring some closure to their restless ghosts. His ever-growing family are an unlikely mixture of exotic characters; his wife and second son are freed slaves, his firstborn a mute waif adopted in order to save the lad from the mean streets of the Eternal City.

  It would be easy to see Gordianus’s un-Roman preoccupation with the lowly over the glorious as a dubious attempt at creating a sleuth with thought processes palatable to a delicate modern readership, who might be alienated by, say, a typical Roman’s casual contempt for a quarry-slave. If Gordianus was some sort of wide-eyed social crusader, it would indeed fall flat. But instead he is a sly, streetwise, deeply cynical and guileful investigator, who carries a broad streak of decency and empathy through the dark heart of a troubled century.