The Face of the Supervillain

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Masks in comics are very common. They are an essential part of the superhero’s equipment, protecting their identity so they can lead ‘normal’ lives. The mask is so intrinsically linked to heroism that the hero rarely uses their powers without it. Although it’s never taken that far (that I’ve seen, anyway) it’s almost a direct link between mask and power. Without the mask there is no hero.

Conversely the villain hardly ever wears one. Granted, I’m not that well versed in comics, but the only masked villain I can think of off the top of my head is the Joker in Batman and, by the time he starts wearing one, there’s no private identity left to protect. Oh, and Spiderman‘s Green Goblin, where the evil personality (at least in the film) is portrayed as being IN the mask.

I’ve been trying to think of reasons for this division. Do we believe that people have the ability to be villainous at any time, with no need for assistance from a magical mask? Or is it simply that we want them to be caught and so never hide their faces?

If you turn the question on its head, you come up with a much more interesting answer. Why are most heroes portrayed with masks? The protected identity thing is a narrative convention. I think the real reason is that it makes them more relatable. Bear with me on this. By making superheros anonymous, they become a kind of Everyman. Regardless of who is actually under the mask, it has the potential to be anyone, even the reader. The mask enables us to project our own faces onto the hero.

By keeping villains bare faced, we define them as that specific individual. We cannot therefore be the villain, because we don’t look like that.

In comics, this need to define the villain as ‘not me’ can result in extreme caricaturing. This makes us feel safer – after all, we will never risk meeting such absurd people in real life. The really scary ones are those that aren’t that different. The Everymans who think at only 10° from us. It is all too easy to believe that we will meet them or, worse, could be them. When you’re playing the ‘what superpower would you like’ game no one ever says a villain, because you don’t want to be associated with that kind of behaviour. But let’s be honest – Dr. Octopus was cool.

This division of ‘self’ and ‘other’ is an important key to understanding, well, rather a lot of things. International politics for a start, but I’m not going to go there. In writing, it is vital to give your readers a villain. Your hero has to be someone that the audience can relate to in some way – without empathy, there is no interest. That means your villain must be ‘other’, and that delineation usually needs to be fairly obvious. Otherwise there’s a risk the reader will go off piste and decide on an antipathetic character for themselves. You don’t want to lose control of the reader that much – there’s no telling what else they might do.

But how do you define ‘other’? Well, an excellent place to start is by making sure you have properly defined ‘self’, aka the hero. And this brings to light another point that should not be neglected – heros and villains exist symbiotically. Without one, the other is meaningless. Elijah Price in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable put this rather well:

Now that we know who you are, I know who I am.

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5 responses »

  1. There’s something about simplifying personality that comes with a mask. It lets a hero be defined by a few larger than life characteristics rather than being complicated and with a divided purpose like a normal person.

    • That’s a fair point, but possibly a fault of the graphic medium? Caricaturing tends to be more common in comics because getting complex in-depth characters across is a bit tougher due to space restrictions. That’s a massive generalisation, I admit, and I’m willing to be proven wrong.

      Possibly (thinking out loud here) the mask brings simplicity to the surface by hiding the complexity beneath?

  2. I’ve always found that the hero usually has a mask so that they can shed their mundane problems for that of the life of a hero. Spiderman in particular plays with the idea of the busy life and the carefree life (peter parker/spiderman).
    Part of me thinks that the difference between the mask and not mask is to do with normal life and escapism which mirrors the readers own feelings.
    For examples of maskless superheroes check out Ironman (the current interpretation), Captain America and the Fantastic 4.
    If you are looking for the mask actually giving power check out Thor/Donald Blake on Wikipedia or The Mask (like that movie with Jim Carey) though the latter was an antihero and was a metaphor for control issues.
    As to Villains with a mask, I agree with your point about them and us. But there is also an element of “Villains get not backstory”, we don’t have time in comics to get to know a villain to great depth at first so they usually start off as just a persona that comes out later or as a straight up villain. Have a look at the Wikipedia article on a Marvel comic called The Thunderbolts. I think you’ll find it interesting.
    I can think of a baddie who was masked for ages. Him losing the mask made a HUGE difference to his character; Darth Vader.

  3. There’s absolutely the element of separate lives / dual personality / escapism. I do think that ties into the Everyman thing though – the idea that anyone, including the reader, could put on a mask (or event *that* mask) and be a superhero.

    Not sure I agree with your examples of maskless heroes though. The Ironman suit has a mask, and when he’s not wearing the suit Tony Stark is just a genius playboy billionaire philanthropist. Not terrible Everyman. And Captain America has a mask – http://themightyshield.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/4th.jpg. F4 I will grant you. 😉

    The Jim Carrey Mask is a bit of an anomaly, because it contains the power of both hero(ish) and villain. Interesting, psychologically, and an excellent way of combining the power of an anonymous artefact with the power of the individual.

    Darth Vader: point.

  4. In terms of Ironman, he used to have that Ironman is the bodyguard thing. But I’d submit this http://www.allmoviephoto.com/photo/2010_iron_man_2_029_big.html and the quote from IM2 “I am Ironman, the suit and I are one” :-p
    My point on Cap was that although the costume features a mask he’s never really been a secret identity hero in that sense. So the question becomes when is a mask a thing worn and when is it about a shift of personality/identity? And more over where is that line drawn for the reader that wishes to insert themselves into the fantasy.

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