Marvel has traditionally been the vanguard of giving a villain their own book once they reached a certain level of popularity. Deadpool, Magneto, Hawkeye, and Venom all started out on the wrong side of the law and all, at one point or another, had their own ongoing book. Even Sabretooth got in on the act and bounced back and forth between right and wrong up until his death in the pages of Wolverine. Most of these hinged in the villains turning over a new leaf and developing as characters, fighting the good fight and all that. And while DC has dabbled in villainous books they were often either limited series and told from an outsider's perspective (Joker) or there was someone keeping the baddies on a tight leash, ensuring they didn't succumb to their villainous ways (Suicide Squad/Secret Six), they've rarely given an unleashed villain their own book. But can villains sustain regular readership while still remaining essentially badguys?
With DC's New 52, we're seeing a whole host of badguys not just featured, but starring in their very own self-titled books. From what we've seen already in the pages of Deathstroke and Red Lanterns (and even Suicide Squad, leashed as they are), there won't be much leaf-turning nor moments of introspection. In fact Deathstroke guns down a group of unarmed teenage mercenaries at the climax of his book. Even if they were mercenaries, the fact remains that he wasn't exactly under any kind of immediate threat from them, they had just helped him accomplish his mission, and again: they were unarmed and herein lies the problem: even if he develops in some way and becomes a better person, which isn't looking terribly likely at present, how are we ever supposed to empathize with someone who has such a casual disregard for human life?== TEASER ==
The argument can be made that people enjoy rooting for villains. Just look at Batman: most of the villains are more memorable and have had greater impacts on readers than the rest of the "Bat-family" (Batman himself being, of course, an exception) and the argument can be that the villains are actually the greater draw. But ask yourself this: would you continue to buy a book on an ongoing basis that featured Black Mask torturing people to death? How about the Penguin's trials and tribulations with less-than-savory club ownership? Or even just the Joker being the Joker?
The problem across the board is that it becomes difficult to empathize with people who, on a fundamental level, lack their own capacity for empathy. Brian Azzarello found a solution in Joker by introducing a narrator that the reader could actually relate to and even support to a lesser extent, despite being a criminal. He comes off as a man simply caught up in the maelstrom that is the Joker's every day existence. Most of the best bits of media involve a transformation in the protagonist, they learn and thus they grow, but with villains, their entire purpose is to stay the same.
So far there is no such relatable narrator in any of the New 52 books, again going back to Deathstroke: his handler takes us through an introduction to who Slade is and what he does, but there doesn't seem to be much conflict beyond Slade doesn't really like him. The handler seems perfectly content to let Deathstroke be "The Terminator." Then again, it might be poetic justice to see Deathstroke follow a similar redemptive arc as a Deadpool, a character who allegedly took more than a little inspiration from him, but it doesn't seem very likely as Issue #1 seems to be setting a very definite tone.
Atrocitus and the Red Lanterns bring up an even larger issue in that most of the potential protagonists are fueled by blind, seething rage to the point that they're barely coherent or even sentient in a few cases. I think DC's taking a big chance here. I don't want to denigrate anyone's tastes more than I already probably have, but reading about badass dudes blasting their way through any problems that stand in their way isn't a formula that can stand up in the long term.
Just look at Mark Millar's Wanted for instance. It was a progenitor of a book that seemed like it was going to star a hero, and then turned out to star a villain. Its protagonist indulges every depraved, twisted, id-fueled whim without a second thought and we're supposed to root for him once he uncovers the even-more-evil conspiracy. Even as a fan of most of Mark Millar's books, I had a hard time getting onboard with a character like this, but I knew if I'd found this book at a younger age, a more angry age, I'd have absolutely been for it.
While Red Lantern's concept may not be as hard-edged, it certainly doesn't seem to be for DC's more grown-up readers. It'll be cool to read about Atrocitus vomiting acidic blood on whoever stands in his way in his quest to rule the Red Lanterns for about six issues, but unless the character manages to better understand and wield his power, perhaps a schism between his more controlled methods and the more wild neophyte Lanterns, I don't see reading issue 50 of watching them STILL slaughter whoever crosses their path, but never actually harming the named Green Lanterns.
Then again there's something to be said for targeting different demographics and not having every telling the same stories the same way, I just think those should be the exceptions rather than the rules. And I'm not saying that every villain needs to see the error of his ways, though. One of the most appealing things about Joker is that he, as Alfred put it in The Dark Knight, "just wants to watch the world burn."
There's never really been a better summation of how Joker works on a fundamental level: there is no motive, there is no why, it gives Bats a challenge unlike any other he's faced. His villains are almost always motivated by some bigger force be it money, power or influence, but Joker? Joker just wants people to die.
Would those machinations be enough to form an entire book around? Frankly: I'm hoping they find some way to make these villains more relatable since, at this point, the books rely on us forgiving the villains for being...well, villainous.