As a society, we’ve been fascinated by villains in literature and drama for thousands of years. Greek playwrights gave us the concept of protagonists and antagonists, good versus evil. Every good guy needs a bad guy to provide “moral dissonance.” But not all villains are purely true evil. Many classic villains have been molded by adversity in their lives. Great examples are Victor Frankenstein, Javert from Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Spider-Man’s Doc Ock, and even Darth Vader (okay, so maybe we can’t feel too bad for Darth Vader). What happened to turn them into villains? Chance meetings, life experiences as youngsters, personal tragedies, being misunderstood, poor life choices, and, quite possibly, poor personal hygiene molded them in their formative years.
The same is true for two of the dastardliest villains to plague Gotham City: The Penguin and the Riddler. The Penguin entered the world as Oswald Cobblepot; The Riddler as Edward Nygma. Ed’s parents obviously had a twisted sense of humor. The name E. Nygma was too good to pass up. With a name like that and an obsessive love for puzzles, little wonder that Edward chose Riddler as his nom de la criminalité. Twists of fate and circumstance caused these Gotham residents to turn to lives of depravity. Yes, I realize depravity may sound a little harsh, but come on! Riddler has tried every way under the sun to kill Penguin after being practically blood brothers, to which Penguin promptly responded by turning Riddler into a block of ice. Sorry, spoilers.
The early years of Oswald Cobblepot of “Gotham” fame are somewhat shrouded in mystery. What is known is that he was raised by a seriously over-protective mother. Adding to young Oswald’s difficulties, he inherited his father’s short, stocky stature, and something his mother lovingly called “a Roman nose.” Actually, it looks more like a beak. Turns out PeeWee Herman is his long-lost dad. I can’t help but think, poor Oswald. But I digress.
His physical features surely caused him no end of problems on the schoolyard. His classmates teased him and called him “a stupid puffin.” “Oh, Oswald dear,” his mother would say trying to comfort him, “if anything, you look more like a penguin. An emperor penguin at that.”
Experiences during his adolescence honed his cunning nature and hurried his development toward acts of unbridled malfeasance. He would open his school locker and find it filled with fish. After serving at the feet of some of Gotham’s true villains, Oswald discovered that revenge soothed a lot of his ruffled feathers…no pun intended. Okay, so maybe it was a little bit intended. At any rate, the point being he decided that a life of crime brought him great joy.
Penguin’s ex-friend, Edward Nygma, followed a somewhat similar path, although his metamorphosis occurred somewhat later in life than Oswald’s. There is an old saying that goes, “There’s a thin line between genius and insanity.” Edward was living proof.
After graduating from Gotham University, Ed was no doubt recognized for his brilliant work in criminal science writing essays such as “Just the Facts Ma’am!” He worked closely with the Gotham Police Department to help solve crimes, often giving them clues in the form of riddles. Indeed, his brilliance is unparalleled. But things went off the rails for Ed when he fell for a woman who worked for the department, and, oddly enough, after his friendship with Penguin began.
I’m not too shy to say that Riddler and Penguin are my favorite characters on Gotham. They remind me a bit of Loki. Oh sure, they’re evil…but also maligned and misunderstood. Who knows what they would be like if they had only been accepted by those around them? If society had been nicer to them, would they still have gravitated to a life of crime and underhanded devilry? Would their cunning and brilliance have been contained to the side of good instead of forwarding their goals of petty revenge or feeding their delusions of grandeur and dastardly ambition?
Being a villain, however, is not all bad. They get to do bad things, which seem a lot more exciting and fun than the hero’s lot in life. Comic book villains often take great pleasure in performing their wicked villainy…often laughing as they do it. I mean, hey, at least they enjoy their jobs, right? We should all be so lucky.
Thanos, Red Skull, and their genuinely malevolent ilk aside, villains are terribly underrated and underappreciated. AND they perform a valuable service. Do you think Batman and Superman would be considered superheroes if all they did all day was to act as crossing guards and pick up dog poop in Gotham City and Metropolis? No. They need villains to fulfill their life’s work as superheroes. Their very status in the world relies on the Penguins and Riddlers of the underworld. Villains on the other hand don’t need anyone to be…well…villains. So, who’s the better character now, hmm?