Villains of Note: Insights from WonderCon’s ‘Legacy of Evil (DC Villains)’ panel

By the Collected Canadian

“Find what you’re afraid of most and go live there.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

The Collective had the fortunate opportunity of attending “A Legacy of Evil: Creating DC Villains” panel at this year’s WonderCon, moderated by John Kourounis (DC Daily Co-Host) and featuring masterminds Scott Snyder (Justice League, Dark Nights: Metal, Batman), Josh Williamson (Nailbiter, Justice League vs. Suicide Squad), Cecil Castellucci (Female Furies, The Changing Girl), Joëlle Jones (Lady Killer, Catwoman), and Adam Glass (Suicide Squad, Teen Titans). Are villains as villainous as they seem? Here are some things we learned about crafting these vile-but-valuable characters.

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DC villains have been embedding themselves in readers’ brain tissue since the 1930’s (back when the publisher was known as ‘Detective Comics’). What better way to contaminate an audience than through a writer? Even now, it’s suspicious that those mentioned above shared stories of experiencing itchy needs to create, and challenges as formidable as Barbatos. No mind is safe.

Lesson #1

What makes villains’ stories as compelling as a hero’s? Relatability.

As Scott pointed out, writing compelling villains means “being afraid of them yourself.” Make it personal. This means also confronting those aspects of yourself that you fear most or, as Joëlle stated, what you believe to be “your worst self.” Joëlle followed this idea with a story of being trapped in gridlock and wanting to slam her car into the person ahead of her, to which the entire room uttered sympathetic laughter. It was a perfect segue for Adam’s reminder that “there’s evil in all of us,” a concept he employs while writing villains. Compelling also appears to further smudge the line between good and evil, igniting a love/hate relationship with a character. Cecil’s comment of “understanding [villains’] motives” and “finding the humanity in the evil,” coupled with Josh’s admiration for “jerk characters,” whom he tries to kill-off then save from one day to the next, seem to support this notion.

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Dark Nights: Metal #6 via Polygon

Lesson #2

Personal fears and experiences provide a treasury of creative ideas.

Josh summarized this best when he compared his work to an autobiography. By reflecting on a character’s story, he stated to be able to recognize personal hardships he was experiencing at the time. We’ve seen similar evidence of this elsewhere, in Stephen King’s The Shining for example, and King’s own battle with alcoholism, guilt, and anger . For Scott, his fears related to fatherhood and “the best superhero” expectation surrounding it, have aided in the creation of terrifying material. We see this fear manifest in a villain’s story by watching the character become worse vs. better, a common feeling of parents, as we seem to fall shy of the image we want our children to have of us. Cecil pointed out the reverse of this by comparing Shade, The Changing Girl to witnessing people you’ve admired, disappoint and shatter your respect of them.

harley quinn
Via Quora.com

Lesson #3

Villains guarantee excessive challenges.

Writing iconic villains means everyone will already have an idea and expectation related to that character. So how do you write iconic villains with a fresh spin? According to Adam, this is one of the biggest challenges. He mentioned encountering initial rejection with the pitch to include Harley Quinn in the Suicide Squad. What idea could alter people’s interest?  Recollecting that “smudged line” from earlier, we now see anti-hero Harley Quinn making “her own choices on her own agenda,” apart from Joker (yes please, thank you Chuck!). Joëlle expressed needing to highlight other character traits of Catwoman that have otherwise gone unrecognized. Scott, having written iconic series for more than a decade, encounters overwhelm by the library that emerges in his mind when meeting a blank page. When writing villains, he asks the question, “What could they do that would make me afraid and need Batman to break through?'” Josh expressed facing the ritual challenge of voice acting, which he uses to create his characters’ voices. He then plays the recordings back to himself and others for fine-tuning. For all panelists, establishing rapport and trust with their artists can also be a challenge (it’s always difficult to trust another with your work). Fortunately, this has been achievable for all of them.

Upcoming projects?

Cecil and Josh both hinted they have new content to be soon revealed. However, these works remain “top secret,” in what Cecil dubbed “The DC Place.” In the meantime, you may want to check out Mary Shelly, Monster Hunter by Adam Glass and Olivia Cuartero-Briggs, featuring artist Hayden Sherman.


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