#WitchWeek2019 Day 2: Graphic Villainy


Lizzie Ross, co-convener since 2018 and last year’s co-host for Witch Week, blogs about reading and writing at LizzieRossWriter.com. In this post she rightly draws attention to villains in graphic novels, the range of which may prove surprising to those not familiar with this genre.

Yesterday, Laurie from Relevant Obscurity set the tone for Witch Week 2019 by providing us with a list of despicable qualities found in evil rulers. In this post I apply Laurie’s points to villains of all sorts in fantasy graphic novels. Some of these villains are leaders or want to be; others use/enslave/kill characters to gain power or wealth or longer life; still others just seem to get joy out of causing mayhem. But whatever their motivations, they’re all heinous enough to provide frissons of horror.

Watchmen: The Deluxe Edition, Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, 1986-1987/2013

Lately, the distinctions between hero and villain in graphic novels have grown nebulous, with sympathetic villains and troubled heroes making it difficult to decide who we’re rooting for. Unlike Jadis in Narnia, whose icy demeanor hides nothing more than a cold lust for power, characters like Watchmen’s Rorschach and Monstress’s Maika Halfwolf have so many flaws their very clothes and skin seem to writhe in agony. And yet, neither is a villain. Nimona kills her enemies with barely an afterthought, finding it more expedient to wipe them out than to negotiate or try to go around them. And yet, we can’t help rooting for her, and she is most definitely not the villain of the story.

Beowulf, Santiago García / David Rubín, Image Comics, 2018

Of course there are still many traditional – that is, unredeemable – graphic novel villains. Grendel in García’s and Rubín’s Beowulf, based on the 1000-year-old Old English poem, is as relentlessly blood-thirsty as a reader could wish and, when finally revealed in a snowy two-page spread, seems to glow with internal fires of hatred. And those teeth!

The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang & Sonny Liew, First Second Books, 2014

Ten Grand and his gweilo cronies, in Gene Luen Yang’s and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero, are traditional noir villains, greedy and ruthless, preying on Chinese immigrants to enrich themselves via bribes and protection money, never hesitating to kill uncooperative “clients”. Then out of the tenements comes the Green Turtle, a reluctant hero who avenges his father’s death and then returns to his quiet life as Hank Chu, shopkeeper. The Green Turtle made his first appearance in the 1940s, joining other Marvel heroes to fight Axis spies, and in their 2014 prequel, Yang and Liew propose an origin story for this superhero – a “tiger mom” and an ancient spirit provide the push, and the superpower, that turn Hank into the Green Turtle.

Norroway: Book 1 The Black Bull of Norroway, Kit & Cat Seaton, Image Comics, 2018

Drawing on traditional tales such as Beowulf and well-known fairy stories often results in archetypal heroes and villains. But not always. Sisters Kit and Cat Seaton collaborate as author and illustrator of Norroway: The Black Bull of Norroway, a graphic version of a Scottish fairy tale. The Seatons give us the heroine Sibylla, a stubborn and angry teen fated to marry a bull. At first, we suspect the bull itself – huge and stubborn and easily riled – might be the villain, except that we soon recognize that Sibylla will eventually fall in love with her bull. But before that can happen, she loses him. That’s how Book 1 of this proposed trilogy ends – the subsequent volumes will follow Sibylla on her search and, no doubt, let us know what Brom the Bull is doing in the meantime.

So who, then, is the villain in the Seatons’ tale? Is it Brom’s father, who used his children to lengthen his own life? Is it the Old One who caused Brom’s taurine metamorphosis? Or could it be Sibylla herself, who, as a typical teen, resents every burden placed on her and throws periodic destructive tantrums? Only the first volume of this series has been published, so I have no answers yet. Cat Seaton’s dark and muted palette for her illustrations sets a somber tone, making me wonder if the expected happy ending might not arrive after all. We’ll see.

Blackbird: Book 1 The Great Beast, Sam Humphries / Jen Bartel, Image Comics, 2019

Sam Humphries and Jen Bartel in Blackbird give us another angry teen story, set in a modern LA troubled with territorial violence. Cabals of Paragons (magical zombies who look really good for dead people) fight each other for power and new recruits. Nina Rodriguez, the pill-addicted heroine, gets caught up in the battles when her sister is kidnapped by a giant tiger-like beast. Nina’s mother is dead, her alcoholic father AWOL – so Nina’s on her own to rescue her sister. Who can she trust? The handsome flashy guy from the Zon Cabal, or the gorgeous punk blonde from Iridium? As with other villains discussed so far, the evil-doers here seem to be motivated by lust for power. But there’s much still to be revealed as Nina’s tale unfolds, with surprise appearances and the usual plot twists.

Nimona, Noelle Stevenson, Harper Collins/Harper Teen, 2015

Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona began life as a web comic. Dedicating her book “To all the monster girls”, Stevenson turns heroic and villainous archetypes on their heads. The eponymous protagonist, a chubby girl with a punk haircut, talks her dark idol, the evil Lord Ballister Blackheart, into letting her be his sidekick. “Every villain needs a sidekick.” An orphan with shape-shifting powers, Nimona wants to kill all Blackheart’s enemies, who include Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin (Stevenson isn’t coy with her characters’ names), and manages to kill several of them and destroy a lab on her second day of work – to the dismay of Lord Blackheart, who doesn’t believe it’s necessary to kill anyone just to defeat his enemy. Nimona reluctantly falls in line, but we know there’s more mayhem in her future.

Yes, this is a comedy, and yes, from the start there’s no doubt who the real bad guys are. But Nimona’s actions remind us of a few questions for which there are probably no answers: Can you be a hero if you kill people without regret? Is collateral damage ever justifiable? Is it okay to do the right thing for the wrong reasons? Nimona sets the tone within the first few pages: “We’re villains!” she says to Blackheart. “Villains kill people sometimes!” Later, when he protests her love of violence, she points out, “No one’s ever going to take you seriously if you’re too afraid to kill anyone.” She takes “villainy” seriously, and we can only laugh as we see her unintentionally allied with the good guys. She seems always to be doing the right thing for the wrong reason, even if she’s overly bloody in the process.

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, Marvel Comics, 2016

As with Nimona, moral ambiguity underlies Black Panther, Watchmen, The Sandman, and Monstress, but all four are serious graphic novels, about who should hold power over the rest of us, and whether anything justifies such power. In Monstrous and The Sandman, that power guarantees longer life; in Black Panther, it leads to increased wealth. And in Watchmen, that power allows one man to create his version of Utopia. He wants a better world, but he doesn’t care who dies to get us there. In all of these, the heroes and heroines are constantly faced with choices – what does each fight demand of them? What are they willing to give up, or compromise, in order to win? Only Black Panther, the rightful ruler of Wakanda, escapes with the least compromised principles, but early on his father tells him, “You’re a good man, with a good heart, and it’s hard for a good man to be king.” It’s a warning to us all.

The Sandman, Neil Gaiman /Sam Kieth / Mike Dringenberg / Malcolm Jones III VertigoComics, 1988-89/2010
Monstress, Marjorie Liu / Sana Takeda Image Comics, 2016-2018

To round out this list to an even 10, I close with Shaun Tan’s lovely and enheartening The Arrival, a wordless picture book about the wrench of leaving home for a new life elsewhere. There are no villains in this book, unless you want to count the challenges of being a poor immigrant in a new country whose language you don’t know and whose wife and child are still in the old country. But the story is glorious, with otherworldly sepia-toned artwork. Monstrous tentacles twine around the stone buildings and through the streets and skies of a town in the old country. The new country is like something out of Hieronymus Bosch, full of steaming smokestacks, pyramidal skyscrapers, giant beasts (harmless, mostly), and teeming streets. Terrifying because it’s all so strange. Each page needs several minutes to examine. Perhaps most revealing of Tan’s intent here are the endpapers – 60 passport-like “photos” of people of all ethnicities. These, Tan seems to be saying, are the citizens of the new world; get used to it.

The Arrival, Shaun Tan, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2006

I’ve had fantastic fun re-reading old favorites and discovering new graphic authors and artists for this year’s Witch Week. Have I inspired you to pick up one or two of these books, or at least to tell me about your own favorite graphic novel villains? Let me know. And HAPPY WITCH WEEK!

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Lizzie Ross

Hopefully Lizzie has persuaded you that graphic novels have a wider range of villains than conventional wisdom claims for the comics genre!

35 thoughts on “#WitchWeek2019 Day 2: Graphic Villainy

  1. Pingback: Images most horrifying | Lizzie Ross

  2. Wow, Chris. This post made me wish for more time and availability. It’s left me wanting to read each and all of the graphic novels you share.

    One could almost see our new worldview in the way villains and heroes are being presented right now. I find it so interesting, you did a great analysis that also highlighted each of the books and made me think about the old folk, and the new treatment. It’s undeniable that our teens and young people live in a world with different values. It’s not that truth has changed, or right and wrong, -for those of us who still hold those values at heart-, it’s that people around and culture are not the judeochristian or protestant world we grew up at.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks, Silvia, though you will of course note that this guest post was written by Lizzie Ross, and not by me!

      I’ll leave her to reply to you in detail, though I can’t help observing that the world order has changed massively and that the ones who hold the power — economic, technological as well as political — exhibit few morals except those favouring self-aggrandisement.

      And that of course is the antithesis of any human, humane or humanitarian values that many of us, of whatever religion or with none at all, hold dear.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. A stunning insight into the myriad aspects of graphic novels. My favourite image from this lot is The Shadow Hero. But like other readers, while intrigued, I sigh and ask ‘Is life too short?’ So much to read I don’t know if I can cope with another genre.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Thank you, Gertloveday. I have to admit that The Shadow Hero is one of my favorite books, of any genre. And I can understand your reluctance to add to your TBR list — mine gets longer almost daily, and there’s no way to keep up. But if you happen to see a graphic novel in a library, give the first few pages a try — the images are, indeed, stunning, and the stories surprisingly varied.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, Sylvia — I hope you’re able to locate the graphic novels that appeal to you. Watchmen and Sandman are classics, but the newer ones, especially Black Panther, are definitely worth tracking down.

    As for the “new world view” that you mention, there’s much to be admired in anything that values diversity and recognizes that most things can’t be easily categorized — good and evil don’t just share the same coin, but are often on both sides of it. New York Magazine publishes a weekly “Approval Matrix”, placing the week’s news events somewhere on a 4-quadrant matrix, with Despicable/Brilliant as the x-axis, and Highbrow/Lowbrow as the y-axis (think -10 to +10 for each axis). For instance, in the 19 October issue, the all-female space walk scored +5,+7, while the closing of 2 landmark NYC bakeries scored -9,-7. Yet, it’s still too simple.

    Reading these novels, and then writing the review, made me even more aware of the choices and concessions any principled politician must make, and the difficulty of understanding human behavior.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome. And thanks for the interesting comment. I’m taking note of your recommendations for sure. (I believe we may have Sandman at home, but I will surely have to track the other ones)

      That Approval Matrix sounds fascinating.

      That’s such a great take away from your reading and reviewing.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Sorry for misspelling your name, Silvia. “Brain’s in my feet,” as my grandfather used to say. As for the Approval Matrix, it’s mostly silly (the Kardashians and Jenners make frequent appearances, not always on the negative ends), but the concept is interesting — much better than a simple 1-10 scale.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Ha ha ha ha, no worries, Lizzie. Chris can attest to my constant typing blunders when typing comments. It bothers me when I make mistakes, but I honestly don’t mind them in others at all.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. Beth @ Beth's Bookish Thoughts

    I read the first three volumes of Monstress and I am kind of on the fence about continuing (there is a 4th one out), but it is an intriguing series. I’m definitely a fan of Sandman (there’s a great antagonist in volume 2 as well, but perhaps I shouldn’t give away who it is!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment, Beth. I’m certainly not in a hurry to read the rest of the Monstress series, but visually it’s very appealing. Thanks also for the encouragement to move ahead in Sandman. I first read Vol 1 about 10 years ago; I guess it’s time to pick up Vol 2.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve had a handful of graphic novels waiting for reads, rereads and/or reviews, including this first volume of Gaiman’s Sandman, and I’m now encouraged to get on with one or two of these before the year is out, thanks! Maybe V for Vendetta would be the one for these dark days…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Graphic novels are not usually high up on my reading list, but from time to time I do enjoy them. Some of these look really intriguing, especially Monstress and Norroway. I like the cover of Beowulf with hero and monster images superimposed.

    I’ve been interested to find that “Bandes Desinées” seem to be hugely popular and respected here in Swiss/French culture. The local library has a whole room full of them — intended for adults!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When I think of “Bandes Desinées”, Lory, I think of Tintin and Asterix, but if there’s a room full of graphic novels at your library, then clearly the French and Swiss have gone well beyond those two early series. I’d be interested in learning what else is on offer. If they have any Chris Ware in their collection and he’s new to you, take a look.

      Blackbird, Norroway and The Shadow Hero are aimed at the YA market, but the others (because of violence and matures themes) strike me as meant for adults — although teens have been reading books meant for adults for centuries, and plenty of adults read YA lit, so “age-levels” are always misleading.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Bandes dessinées have always been a thing in France, at least they were when I was with a French family in the 60s: nobody was sniffy about them, and there was a huge range to choose from, not just Hergé’s Tintin and Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix but also Lucky Luke and others whose titles I’ve forgotten. I got a laugh out of the French family when I referred to French BDs (pronounced ‘bay-day’) as bidets

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I shall certainly share any interesting discoveries! Right now I have a version of Agatha Christie’s “The Body in the Library” checked out to help with my attempt to learn French. (Most everything is in French there, hélas.)

        Liked by 2 people

  7. What a great post, Lizzie. I love the look of The Arrival – absolutely stunning! – and being a huge Gaiman fan already have always thought I should try Sandman. And of course, graphic novels make great gifts and Christmas is fast approaching … Thanks Lizzie for writing and to Chris for sharing

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, The Arrival struck me as a work of art in its own right (or even write!) and one I’d love to have a copy of. Glad you’re liking these guest posts, Lynn, as it was a pleasure to co-curate them.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you, Lynn, I’m glad I’ve inspired you. The Arrival absolutely grabbed me when I first saw it (I used to teach immigrants and children of immigrants, so that was one immediate draw). Every page is gorgeous and worth viewing and re-viewing.

      I’m not sure who you’re considering giving GN’s as Christmas presents, but I’d recommend Blackbird, Norroway and Nimona for teen girls, and the others for any fans of great fiction and fantastic illustrations — if they can take the occasional blood-filled pages (especially Beowulf and Monstress).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ola and Chris — I heard Shaun Tan speak at SCBWI’s Winter Conference in 2013, and it became clear that Tan is more than a illustrator, and his books are more than “picture books”. I don’t have time to locate my own notes from that conference, but here are a couple of quotes I found at Mike Curato’s blog (https://mikecurato.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/the-main-event-the-2013-scbwi-winter-conference/): “The purpose of storytelling is to remind us of something very ordinary.” and “The page acts as a mirror.”

      Anything by Tan is a joy to explore.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I loved the wealth of examples here! It’s been a long time since I read The Arrival. I need to hunt down that edition of Beowulf, too. Thank you so much for this journey through the grey lands of morals and motivations. xxxxxx

    Liked by 2 people

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