“You don’t understand these things because you’re not under the influence of factor x.”
Despite what you may think, this is not the deranged taunting of a primary-colored comic book heavy. This is an excerpt from a letter that serial killer Dennis Rader sent to his local news station in 1979. In the letter, he bragged about the sick pleasures he derived from hanging, choking, and raping his victims. At the end of the letter, Rader leaves off by christening himself as BTK, his name in villainy.
Ever since those few chilling months in turn-of-the-century London, when the streets of Whitechapel were stalked by the dark figure that has become the rock star of serial killers, Jack the Ripper, our society has been preyed upon by numerous diseased maniacs. Each one a psychological disciple of the Ripper, vying among their fraternity for the highest body count, while leaving police nothing to go on but twisted notes and calling cards.
Their crimes are so disturbing that they invoke in us the primal fear that the crime and the killer are almost supernatural. The criminals turn into true life bogeymen, their stories are told over and over again. Their visages become iconic. They fascinate us with the mystery of how a person could be so cold and unremorseful.
It isn’t hard to see a parallel between the weird criminals in our world and the super-villains in comic books. From a certain point of view, these men (and women) can be classified as super-villains, their motives ambiguous and their crimes vile. Cleverly concealing their identity, these criminals adopt, or are given by the police and newspapers, villainous alter egos. Often they are caught only when they want to be. Otherwise they go down in history as another freak criminal that slipped through the fingers of justice.
In comic books, a super-villain provides a foil for the virtuous superhero. Just as the superhero is meant to be the ideal protector, the super-villain is meant to be the ideal criminal, someone who could commit a plethora of the worst possible crimes and still elude the typical authorities. Only a superhero could possibly bring them to justice, and then, only sometimes. Just as superheroes give us the proper inspiration to be heroic, super-villains give us the face of evil, the devil that makes the heroism necessary.
The super-villains of the comic book realm run the gamut of possible nasty traits. Captain America’s foil, Red Skull, is a murderous Nazi patriot. On the other hand, the X-Men’s main nemesis, Magneto, is a survivor of the holocaust that wants to save mutants from a similar mass genocide. You can empathize with villains such as Magneto, even though his ideals have corrupted him into the spitting image of the despot that oppressed his countrymen as a child. But then there are villains such as Carnage, the psychotic alien entity that plagues Spider-Man, who is so megalomaniacal that it would be impossible for any reader in his/her right mind to see things from his point of view.
In reality our villains consist of psychotic criminals that terrorize their communities, such as the BTK Killer, and more global threats such as the late assassin, Carlos the Jackal. We’ve even seen demented mad scientists such as Josef Mengele of the Nazi party, who performed a wide range of torturous experiments on live prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Each of these individuals was clever enough to stay one step ahead of the authorities, earning themselves a perverted type of celebrity.
One case that has been seeing a bit of pop culture limelight recently is that of the Black Dahlia Avenger, who in 1947 murdered an aspiring actress (known by her friends as the Black Dahlia) by bisecting her and leaving her body in a vacant lot in Hollywood. Nothing but vague speculation has ever come from the search for the Black Dahlia’s killer, who went on to taunt police in several untraceable letters composed of words formed from magazine clippings. The story of the Black Dahlia’s murder has been the subject of several books, including a partly fictional novel that has been recently adapted into a major motion picture.
The fascination with the weird and the deranged extends to the comic book world, where super-villains gain as much notoriety as their vigilante counterparts. In certain cases, they are sometimes emulated, even idolized, by the counter culture. This happened in Batman Beyond with the Jokerz street gang and in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, where the militant views of Magneto inspire the formation of the Omega Gang. We as readers seem to find ourselves rooting for the bad guy from time to time due to their vampiric charisma. It’s the same charisma that draws us to the books and movies inspired by our real-life villains, and even lead to some women marrying the killers once they’ve been caught.
It’s interesting that, in most comic book continuities, Batman for example, the villains become supernatural as a response to a trend of super vigilantism that originated first. In real life however, the super-villains arise from their own personal demons, not to fit a super trend. It makes one wonder what could have happened if Jack the Ripper had actually been a costumed hero and the ripples that would have made. According to the FBI, there are at least 35 active serial killers in the U.S. at any given time. With this many “super-villains” in the world, a superhero trend is way overdue.