Sunday, September 28, 2008

Origins of Dr Horrible

The blog's been on an unofficial hiatus. I've been off my sleep schedule and no energy for the last few weeks. Apologies to my loyal readers (both of them)...
Last time I talked about Joss Whedon's online musical DR HORRIBLE'S SING-A-LONG BLOG (still recommended).
Since then I've realized that there seem to be some references to comic book and literary figures in that story.
The ones that stand out the most (at least to a comic book geek like me) are Captain Marvel and his arch enemy Dr Sivana. Dr Sivana appeared in the earliest Captain Marvel stories in 1940 and continued to plague him throughout his career into the 50s. The physical resemblance is true in all respects but one. Sivana is short and wears a white lab coat and thick, bottle-bottom glasses. Dr Horrible at least seems shorter than his heroic nemesis Captain Hammer, wears a white lab coat - though unlike Sivana he sometimes wears normal clothes - and the goggles on top of his head are counterparts of Sivana's glasses.
Comic book characters wear costumes for reader identification. Even non-superheroes tend to apparently own one suit of clothes, like Archie, Dennis the Menace and Charlie Brown. Clark Kent usually wears the same blue suit. Costumes are coded to define characters: the white lab coat tells us that Drs Horrible and Sivana are mad scientists.
The one physical aspect where Horrible and Sivana differ is that Sivana was grotesquely ugly: misshapen bald head, bad teeth, crooked nose, stunted body. Sivana was the villain of the piece, not a leading man like Dr Horrible, and ugly is a comic book code for evil. The message was not that ugly is evil, but the opposite, evil is ugly. DICK TRACY's creator Chester Gould said that he drew villains like The Brow and Flattop ugly to reflect the ugliness of crime.
While Dr Horrible is obviously a supervillain name - I doubt he was christened "Billy Horrible" - Sivana was the character's real name. Sivana was like Superman's enemy Luthor, another lab-coated mad scientist, although they appeared nearly simultaneously in early 1940. The motif
was an evil genius with a sinister, foreign-sounding name.
In a twisted way Drs Sivana and Horrible's relationship with their heroic enemies is similar. From Sivana's point of view Captain Marvel was just an overgrown bully ("the Big Red Cheese") picking on Sivana and breaking all his toys. Dr Horrible feels the same about his arch-Captain, although in Hammer's case he is a bully. Dr Horrible's motives were good but bent, at least at first. He saw the wrongness in society and thought he could change the world for the better by ruling it. Sivana declared himself "Rightful Ruler of the Universe" by virtue of his genius, but he never had any inclinations to save society.
DHS-A-LB is an example of Joss Whedon's turning a stereotype on its ear. In BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER it was the blonde girl killing the monsters, in FIREFLY/SERENITY it was "bad guys" as heroes. Now we have the villain who wants to right wrongs versus the hero who only cares about himself.
The "benevolent villain" concept is rare but it has been used before. I don't mean rogue heroes like Robin Hood, Zorro or The Saint, but as far back as Jules Verne, whose Robur the Conquerer wanted to be Master of the World because he thought he could do a better job of it, and Captain Nemo who sank Navy ships to end wars. Their flaw was that they were ruthless about it and megalomanical enough to think they could save the world singlehanded.
Another similarity worth noting is that at one time Sivana was a member of The Monster Society of Evil - not a far cry from Dr Horrible's Evil League of Evil. Both groups had non-human leaders, the ELE's Bad Horse and the MSE's "bad worm," Mr Mind.
Dr Horrible's sidekick Moist is a parody of the type of character, seen most commonly in X-MEN, with a realatively obscure super power and a one-word code name. In place of flamboyant names like Wonderman or Mr Terrific and standard powers like strength or flying we have characters like Marrow, who uses bits of her bones as weapons, or Skin, with extra folds of stretchable skin. Moist with his ability to "make things damp," sounds more at home in the Legion of Substitute Heroes, heroes with powers too ineffectual for the Legion of Super Heroes - with Stone Boy (turns to stone but can't move) and Polar Boy (makes things chilly).
Captain Hammer is the archetypal superhero. He fits the mold of Superman the way he was originally conceived in the 30s: super-strong, possibly super-fast and invulnerable. We see no direct evidence of the last two, nor of flying. But the original Superman didn't fly, he leaped ("over a tall building in a single bound") and wasn't completely invulnerable ("nothing less than a bursting artillery shell can penetrate his skin.") Of couse the biggest difference is that Superman and Captain Marvel were nice guys. Captain Hammer is a jerk.
It's not that there are elements of older stories in DHS-A-LB that matters. STAR WARS borrowed heavily from old movie serials, Japanese Samurai movies and World War II dogfight movies but it was still a unique vision. So is DR HORRIBLE. There are no new stories. Genius isn't in inventing new ideas, its in building on and re-inventing the basics.
If you haven't seen it yet, it's still at or at