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The Contours of Catastrophe:   The Villain I

The Contours of Catastrophe: The Villain I

Top hat, frock coat, pale skin, and a long curled moustache. His posture is hunched and he rubs his hands together (antes-hoc plotting) or palms are together, fingers pointing skyward (post-hoc plan success, a sort of malevolent namaste).

The Perils of [Insert Damsel’s Name Here]
This is the villain, Snidely Whiplash edition. While we know him from Rocky and Bullwinkle, he’s a meta-child of numerous 19th and 20th century archetypes of villainy, paticularly In silent film. Snidely’s objectives appear to be more tactical and without broad ambitions: Nell Fenwick serves as a pawn to thwart the Dudley Do-Right’sdoing-right, Dudley’s benevolence is predicated on thwarting Whiplash’s efforts. Feedback ensues, and Nell’s adoration is maintained; in Jungian terms they’re a coniunctio oppositorum.

Snidely’s most infamous act consists of tying Nell to railroad tracks with enormous quantities of rope (really, just binding Nell in a cocoon of rope and laying her across the tracks), thus bringing a modicum of suspense to the story.

This post-industrial damsel in distress trope appears to have beginnings in a silent film called “The Perils of Pauline”. In a pre-industrial iteration of that trope, Pauline is tied to a log which is conveyed toward an enormous rotating saw (a variation of this appears most recently in Sherlock Holmes, where Sherlock rescues an erstwhile flame from conveyance to a band saw used for sectioning pigs). That’s merely the 20th century cinematic record; earlier versions appeared on stage and in printed fiction.

The Perils of Pauline


The Villain’s Wardrobe
The Moustache
The moustache is one key variable in the evil equation (though the value can be 0–take Blofeld again). Moustache >1 is most important when we’re depicting a villain of yore–contemporary bad guys completely unencumbered by past convention don’t rely on them to telegraph their villainy.

A few villains and their facial hair: (from left) Gangs of New York, Boris Badenov, V for Vendetta

The Hat
Snidely accompanies the frock coat and cape with a top hat–this version of the ensemble often includes a cane. In “Coming Out Party”, Snidely and Dudley trade hats and their roles come with the objects rather than inherent ethical motives–Dudley engages in villainous acts and Snidely works to thwart him (go to 12:52 if you prefer not to tolerate the whole thing; if you’ve read this far, I do recommend the Dudley Do-Right episode).

In the case of “Spy vs. Spy”, the morphological congruence is part of the joke, as only colors of their hats and coats (in this case, there’s no moral linkage between the “black hat” and the “white hat”) distinguish them. Indeed, even their actions (which is of necessity partial, the comic panel acts like a telescope with a narrow view) are undistinguished morally. The near-ubiquitousness of objects like the bomb only reinforces the repetitiveness of their relationship. They’re another instance of the coniunctio oppositorum.

The Monocle
Originally more of a symbol of wealth or sophistication (Monopoly, Charlie McCarthy, Mr. Peanut), once it’s common use as an essential eyepiece faded, it became a more niche item to be employed by a certain flavor of villain.

The monocle is so ubiquitous a trapping that a Homestar Runner (I carpooled with Strong Bad for a while, BTW) macro-Bad Guy goes by the name of “Baron Darin Diamonocle”. In fact he carries another character as a pet a la Blofeld.

The Mask
The mask is an essential accoutrement of a certain sort of villain. As a disguise disguise seems to have magical properties; the mere addition of the mask to an otherwise unaltered character seems to have a capacity to conceal far exceeding its surface area.

The mouth-mask is another variation sported by numerous cultural bad guys, and probably one of the oldest in the villainy wardrobe. My most recent exposure is G.I. Joe’s Cobra Commander (the face mask/goggles/helmet combo is a Cobra standard of course).

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The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

The Contours of Catastrophe: Bombs and “The Bomb”

How did we get here? How did the referent of this icon most of us have never seen, held, or operated become the iconic “bomb”?

Bombs in the Looney-verse

Until some young age, most of my “understanding” of explosives derived from Looney Tunes (a questionable reference when it comes to the operation of weapons and deadly objects, to be sure). While even the most obsolete objects and interactions therein depicted became more familiar, one remained elusive longer than the others.

Though they were also essential explosive furniture in the cartoon lexicon, most others (the stick of dynamite, the time bomb–i.e., the cluster of sticks of dynamite with a clock and curly wires attached–and the plunger detonator) had some overlap with movies and TV: miners, bandits, hostage-takers. And of course, there’s the perennial variant: a ticking box (perhaps presented to the antagonist with a bow affixed), at once both innocuous and ominous from our usually omniscient perspective.

So for this young boy they were more clearly anchored in “reality”. But the cartoon bomb with that familiar form, like a small bowling ball with the protruding plug and dangling fuse, where did that come from? I barely saw it anywhere except in the hands of Bugs Bunny.

Outside of the Looney-verse, it was more often in the arsenal of a frock coat- and top hat-clad ne’er-do-well with a curling moustache (I’m not going to belabor the morphology of the villain; he’s further down in the Contours of Catastrophe hopper), though it could sometimes fall into the hands of a hapless innocent like Buster Keaton (speaking of silent movie stars and phony bombs, there’s actually a spot-on germane Harold Lloyd story on the topic.)

Then there are a few odd variations. This one has an embedded clock:


And it even features in one of the notorious Danish Mohammed cartoons.

Consider both the pre-20th century grenade (and when I say “pre-“, I mean that one might go back as far as a millenium) and an 18th century mortar. Something like it could indeed be lit, and handled/thrown manually, or, in the case of the mortar, be dropped down a tube to be propelled in the direction of the enemy. With regard to the grenade, it’s long-since been superseded by the more familiar “pineapple” form factor, or, in the case of depictions of battle with Germans, the “stick grenade”.

This is probably a unique opportunity to mention the similarity of this device to the petard (as in “hoist by own…”):

Where, when and how did it embed itself in the collective unconscious?



Harper's Weekly, 1886

Those who’ve read the prior installment will be familiar with my assertions that the outline of the bin Laden compound, or the abortive vector of the Challenger, asserted themselves with their power and through the ubiquity of repetition, as well as the singular viewpoint. In the case of the “bomb” one source might be the accounts of the Haymarket event and subsequent trial, where images of similar bombs from the home of one of the conspirators were trotted out and printed repeatedly.

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry’s assertion that Haymarket is one of the sources of the “bomb-throwing anarchist” (As well as the origin of May Day) sort of overlaps with this and the promised forthcoming “Contours…” post. Indeed, the “bomb-throwing anarchist” is a bit of a trope of its own, captured even in song:

In an anarchist’s garret, so lowly and so mean

Oh, smell the pungent odor of nitro-glycerine.

They’re busy making fuses, and filling cans with nails

And the little Slavic children set up this mournful wail.

Oh, its Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb;

The last one it was thrown by Brother Thom.

Poor Mamma’s aim is bad and the Copskys all know Dad,

So it’s Sister Jenny’s turn to throw the bomb.

Other Explosives in the Looney-verse

Here, Foghorn Leghorn bequeaths an odd hybrid of the globular cartoon bomb and the time bomb:


The stick of dynamite is nearly ubiquitous. These are often somewhat helpfully labeled “TNT” (though they’re nitroglycerin sticks, at least the label indicates something analogous to “dangerous” to someone who can read and parse), especially in the Road Runner bits (Wile E. Coyote being an avid user of mail-order explosives), where everything seems to be labeled.

Here Bugs produces a rather unique IED in the form of poultry:


I was going to segue into the next bit by citing aerial explosives in cartoons, and the morphological similarities especially to the Little Boy bomb, but alas, I’ve run fresh out of YouTube-scouring gas.

“The Bomb”

The last Contours of Catastrophe entry referenced the Challenger disaster and the telltale shape of smoke, vapor, etc, especially when viewed and captured from a distance, which lends an archetypal sameness to the images and flatness of vantage point. In each case, the active agent (the shuttle, the bomb-dropping plane, the bomb itself) has been obliterated. The iconic image is that of a trace, a footprint, a “signature”. And the ultimate instance of this (along with the cross occupying nearly the apex) is the mushroom cloud. It’s an artifact of not only a singular destructive act but also a distinct physical process, yet when it comes to the identification and association of the image, neither seem to matter.

Look closely, and see a classic instance of the Mushroom Cloud Meme at work...

On the other end of the semiotic spectrum, and perhaps as a palate-cleanser, theres this bit from an Oppenheimer interview in 1965 (apologies for the brevity and sensational score):



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