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The Contours of Catastrophe: The Villain II

The Contours of Catastrophe: The Villain II


Good Guys Wear Masks, Too
The mask is not, of course, solely a furnishing of villains; good guys need them too–for them anonymity allows them to function free of social entanglement. In Pixar’s The Incredibles (itself a melange of reference, meta reference, and meta-meta reference), while capes may be a point of contention,  the mask is obligatory and ubiquitous. Mrs. Parr (whose marital status is an essential point of conflict, a fulcrum between the quotidian and the spectacular, as is post-super weight gain), when cutting the family loose as superheros, gives the mask over to her daughter like a royal scepter with a speech about the preciousness of her anonymity.

The Lone Ranger wore a mask, so essential to the story as to be invisible, possibly more so than Silver, the William Tell Overture–certainly not Tanto. So much so that Clayton Moore (the actor who played the original TV Lone Ranger) refused to part with his when signing autographs at car shows or presiding over the openings of shopping malls. Litigation ensued; ultimately stripped of his mask Moore opted for a pair of Foster Grant sunglasses.

Zorro, Robin, Green Lantern, et al. While for good guys the mask is a component of the secret identity they guard so jealously, in the case of villains, the need for a disguise is more self-evident.

There are of course more elaborate disguises–such a Captain America’s striped cowl, or Batman’s–which include a pair of quasi-skeumorphic ears–or Spiderman’s total coverage. As noted in the prior installment, while a mask’s capacity to disguise seems to exceed its surface area, in Superman’s case it suffices to remove articles of clothing to disguise himself! Suspension of disbelief or confirmation bias?

The Everyday Villian
And there are famous non-disguised villains throughout history, among them Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth (who, though largely uncostumed, did have the long moustache of Snidely’s ilk, and of course, Lee Harvey Oswald.

As a disguised but still “regular guy”-bad guy, the bank robber is an exception, for a number of reasons: the fact that they might like to repeat the act, the ubiquity of electronic surveillance and eyewitnesses, and the likelihood that they won’t stray as far. Their disguises are nevertheless quotidian: a simple hardware store-balaclava will suffice. Or sunglasses. A surgical mask. The classic nylons. Or, almost nothing at all. Oh–in a pinch, a simple plastic bag will suffice.

The balaclava--de riguer for TV and real bank robbers alike...

The Villain Denuded
Dillinger (and other infamous “career” thiefs like Clyde Barrows) and Patty Hearst are exceptions to the necessity of disguise. In the case of the former, their notoriety had a sort of terrorist and cause célèbre effect–plenty of either cowed or supportive eyewitnesses and little in the way of electronic surveillance of course. In the case of the latter, evidence of a kidnapping victim’s co-optation may have been seen to lend some additional legitimacy to the SLA’s rather muddled cause .

(Wikimedia Commons)


The Identi-kit and (The) Unabom(ber)
For an older set, the broadest exposure we might get in a concentrated amount of time was a gallery of wanted posters in a post office. A great many of these would be only sketches–where a photograph wasn’t available, a sketch from verbal descriptions would be made. And when an official artist wasn’t available, the “Identi-kit” might have been employed. Before computer software versions of basically the sqme thing, the Identi-kit was a combinatorial system for constructing images based on a finite series of facial features–a more everyday version of the “props of evil” combinations cited above.

One of the classic (and, hung in a post office, a bit meta-) suspects to be presented via sketch was the Unabom(ber). Though it’d be his writing style that ultimately led to his conclusive ID and capture, the sketch is a classic, combining a number of quotidian Bad Guy elements cited above for bank robbers, particularly the hoodie and the sunglasses.

The Luddite and the Internet Wunderkammer
In a “final” irony, the U.S. Marshals auctioned off part of the evidence hoard online (including not only the manuscript of the manifesto, but most germane, a set of aviator-style sunglasses and a hoodie), and posted a Flickr set of the lots. At least from a spin perspective, the irony is deliberate:

We will use the technology that Kaczynski railed against in his
various manifestos to sell artifacts of his life. The proceeds will go
to his victims and, in a very small way, offset some of the hardships
they have suffered.

The photos have an evidentiary (with the requisite ruler–labeled “FBI” even) aspect that lends them a a curatorial beauty; virtually anything presented in this way is oddly engaging. The patina of time, the folds and wrinkles of use, the everyday presented without shadows or secrets gives even the most mundane objects a curious beauty.


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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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