The Care and Feeding of Supervillains

Suppose you’ve decided to become a superhero. You’ve acquired the necessary abilities, whether through training, technology, magic, genetics, or the everyday method of licking random meteors until something interesting happens. You’ve made or purchased an eye-catching costume, adopted a colourful moniker, and selected a patch of rooftops on which to lurk. Success! You’ve caught your first miscreant. What do you do now?

There would be a certain visceral pleasure in simply dropping the fellow off the top of a skyscraper. Before you do that, consider the feral cat model of miscreant management.

Back in the 1990s, I worked across the street from a church with a wheelchair ramp; the underside formed a den just the right size for a small animal. A feral cat moved in and began to have litter after litter, each of which prospered until the kittens were old enough to wander out into the street, where they were usually run over. I took it upon myself to start catching and taming the little guys, which I then gave away to interested customers. Finally, I caught the feral female and found her a much safer home far from the madding crowds. Problem solved!

Except the den was still there. More cats moved in. When I caught and tamed them, they were replaced by more cats. When those were sent off to new homes, they were replaced by raccoons and skunks. The raccoons and skunks were much harder to manage than the cats. I’d solved the issue of the cats without doing anything about the core issue, thus creating a worse problem.

If you read comics, you can see a similar process with antagonists. Work on the muggers, bank robbers, and jaywalkers hard enough, and the low-lifes move off to some neighbourhood without a friendly neighbourhood costumed vigilante. But unless something is done to address the underlying social issues, there will still be a niche for criminals. Only now they will be people whose executive functions might be just a smidge diminished, because if they weren’t, the crooks would work somewhere less challenging. Hence the origins of the flamboyant eccentric villains with catchy names and outré methods, methods more effective at generating headlines than at acquiring loot or evading capture.

At this point our costumed vigilante might be congratulating themself. After all, it’s a lot easier to track down people in bright, garish costumes whose mental quirks compel them to leave riddles, jokes, maps, and large billboards hinting at crimes to come. This is the moment where our roof-runner should stop and think.

Mishandling these eccentrics means the difference between living somewhere like the Silver Age Central City, where rogues were willing to follow rules of engagement, or living somewhere more like the Punisher’s New York, where every encounter is going to end with a corpse.

The more violent the vigilante’s methods, the stronger the selective pressure favouring criminals who either think they have some edge that will let them survive meeting the local superhero, or who are prepared to escalate straight to lethal violence in the hope they will get the vigilante before the vigilante gets them. This is how a fellow starts off trying to rid his town of muggers and finds himself hip-deep in murder clowns.

Of course this works both ways: snuffing the local mask doesn’t remove the niche for a superhero. It just means whoever (or whatever) moves into the now empty space will be comfortable with the established level of violence. Put a bullet in Mr. Parker’s head and the person who replaces him might be the Otto Octavius Spider-Man. Frequent homicidal violence can generate a hideous cycle that ratchets its way from troubled community to war zone.

The crucial step is to convince the first wave of eccentrics that it’s in their interest to treat the conflict as though it has rules. Think of the matter as an iterated prisoner’s dilemma: use gentler methods for the crooks who play nice, limiting their depredations in ways that leave the community livable, and reserve harsher options for the guys who refuse to follow rules of engagement. Aim for a Nash equilibrium that doesn’t involve endless violence. Both sides and all the innocent bystanders will benefit from this.

Granted, by definition costumed crooks will have executive function issues that might make them hard to convince. Happily, anyone who sets out to be a superhero probably has issues of their own. Let yours blind you to the failure modes of an iterated prisoners dilemma and guide you towards Silver Age commensal relationship with your rogues gallery. The bystanders will thank you.

Photo: Paulo Barcellos Jr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He was a finalist for the 2019 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.



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