Necessary Evils

The need for justice.

It’s a concept we can pretty much all get behind.

In comics, with a flash of a cape, good deeds are done all the time in the name of it. Colorful heroes pop from pages left and right to deliver innocents from the machinations of crooks, villains and other general ne’er do wells.

They even have a league.

But are heroes the only ones to represent the concept? After all, the bad guys always want the same stuff, don’t they? Glory, power, cash, prizes and even the odd world to bow before them–these are the things that a comic book villain covets. Still, every now and then, someone from the wrong side of the tracks will come along who embodies those very virtues. Truth, justice and all that. And really, that is what I would like to discuss here. Not the bank robbers or the power grabbers… but a few rare and memorable comic antagonists who might just be doing wrong for the right reasons.

First up is a personal favorite of mine. A character far more complex than his name would suggest.

DC Comics’ Sinestro was created in 1961 to serve as a foil for the company’s “silver age” reboot of Green Lantern. Admittedly, like many characters of the day, Sinestro’s name is a bit on-the-nose–and after considering his general appearance, it’s easy enough to imagine the character twirling that David Niven ‘stache, whilst plotting world domination. But what separates the character from other notable mustache twirlers is a single key factor.

Thaal Sinestro didn’t want power for power’s sake… he needed it to save his world.

For those who aren’t familiar with the source material… The Green Lantern Corps are an organized force of what can most easily be likened to SPACE COPS. Each member is given a super powered ring and a jurisdiction to protect, which often includes numerous inhabited planets. ‘Nuff said.

Sinestro was introduced pretty much as the golden boy of the Green Lantern Corps. His designated sector (which just so happened to include his home planet of Thanagar), was completely at peace and the Guardians of the Universe (a council of small, blue skinned, nigh-immortals who long ago took it upon themselves to protect all that was) couldn’t be happier. That is, until a smart-mouthed rookie from Earth uncovered the truth. See, instead of policing Thanagar, Sinestro had actually been ruling it with an iron fist for some time.

Now, as far as the actions of comic book villains go, world domination is hardly an original motive. Many a would-be tyrant has been driven by just that over the years… but where Sinestro differs from all the rest lies not in his actions, but in the reasons behind those actions. Sure, the guy had ego enough to fill that ten gallon skull of his, but at his core, Sinestro believed himself to be the ultimate patriot. A man who loved and wished to protect both his home and its people. Granted, total world domination may have been a bit on the extreme side, but that was just his way of showing he cared.

And that wasn’t the only time.

Years later, when Sinestro returned with a shiny new yellow ring and his own matching CORPS to go with it, he declared war on his former brothers in arms. The motive of such a bold move seemed crystal clear: he wanted revenge.

As generally is the case with any war, things got hairy for a while there. As if the yellow ring slingers weren’t bad enough, they released a couple “evil versions of Superman” and yes, some green lanterns died along the way. Fearing the cost of losing the war, the Guardians of the Universe (not the Galaxy) made a rather brash decision. They repealed a very old law, which stated that all Green Lanterns must only ever protect life and never take it. It was a soul crushing move for the Guardians, but proved the strategic equivalent of “pulling the goalie”, giving them the edge they so desperately needed.

In the end, armed with their new ability to wield deadly force, the green did defeat the yellow, finally tossing their mustachioed leader in a cell once and for all. But was that really the whole story?

Turns out, not so much. Revenge, as was revealed by a defeated and deeply pensive Sinestro, was only a means to an end. Apparently, he had long regarded the ban on deadly force as the one fatal flaw held by his old outfit. And so… he decided to present a threat so dire, the Guardians would have no recourse but to alter that ancient law. It was a move that, in his eyes, would serve to strengthen the one force capable of maintaining order in the universe–his sworn enemies–the Green Lantern Corps.

For those keeping score, that is two cliched villain motives (world domination and revenge) that Sinestro somehow managed to add a new dimension to. The character’s methods, while questionable, always had layers. There were reasons behind his reasons and justifications behind those–even if he happened to be the only one that fully understood them.

Next up is another complicated fan favorite. A character who like Sinestro, has often straddled that precarious edge between savior and despot.

Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men first faced the man called Magneto in 1963. The character has gone by many names over the years (Magnus, Erik, Joseph & others) but his ultimate goals have remained constant. Much like Sinestro, Magneto desired to protect his people (mutants)–or more specifically, to deliver them from the evils of bigotry and persecution. Also like Sinestro, the man managed to cross back over into the hero category many times over the years–even taking leadership of his original foes (the X-Men) when the need (or alternate timeline) arose.

For those who aren’t familiar with the source material… By the 60s, Marvel comic’s chief writer Stan Lee, had essentially grown tired of crafting unique origins for his slew of characters. After all, there are only so many radiation based accidents the populace is gonna swallow, am I right? So, wily Stan devised a way that would allow for many different powered characters to not only suddenly exist, but to continue coming out of the woodwork as time went on. He simply decided that these characters were born with their powers–as evolutionary anomalies called mutants. Beyond that, all you need to know is that the X-Men represent Dr. King (seeking peace and acceptance with the humans) while Magneto is more of a Malcolm X. ‘Nuff said.

The fact was, whether he was seen as champion or terrorist mattered little to the so-called master of magnetism. One of the more powerful mutant characters at the time, Magneto could manipulate magnetic fields to varying and astounding result. On the surface, he was an angry man whose actions came off as more “mutant terrorist” than anything. But at his core, he was a deeply troubled individual who was secretly fighting two wars at the same time. There was mutants vs. humans for sure, but there was an older fight as well, one which he could never win. As it turned out, the boy who would be Magneto was born to a Jewish family in 1920s Germany. And like so many others, he had eventually been captured and shipped like so much cargo, off to a Nazi prison camp.

In this writer’s opinion, choosing Auschwitz as a point of origin for the character has to be considered one of Stan Lee’s most shining strokes of brilliance. The backdrop allowed Magneto’s crusade against humanity to echo not only racism and persecution, but the all too real, penultimate conclusion of those hate-fueled doctrines. As more and more of his tragic backstory was revealed, we began to understand that what the man truly hated was not humanity itself, but rather the ugliness it was capable of.

For any medium, these are some seriously heavy issues, but for funny books of the 1960’s this was groundbreaking stuff.

Magneto didn’t want riches or power or even a world to bow before him… what he wanted was justice. Same as anyone. With many readers, the character simply struck a chord. A very real, very deep chord (maybe an e minor). After all, he wasn’t just trying to stop the persecution of his people from happening, he was trying to stop it from happening again.

Point is, if he hijacks some missiles or overthrows a made-up nation in Brazil, maybe you cut the guy a little slack. Besides, most of the time Magneto was trying to set up a sovereign nation for mutant kind. A home that would separate them from the race of humans who feared and detested them. Problem was, not everyone appreciated being shipped off to some uncharted island or asteroid that happened to be in orbit at the time.

But I guess, that’s gratitude for ya.

Characters like Magneto, and Sinestro believed one thing above all the rest. That whatever evils they wrought were not only justified but were of the necessary variety. In their own ways, each understood that old adage about the omlette. It was a path neither revelled in walking, but one they ultimately embraced with near fanatical fervor. As readers we may not have agreed with their specific actions, yet whenever misdeeds are motivated by love, they have a tendency of drawing out our sympathies and sparking our imaginations. Striking that e minor, as it were.

Make no mistake, these characters are the bad-guys. They are the destroyers, the fear mongers, the would-be tyrants… but in the scope of a good story, the “what” doesn’t matter half as much as the “why”.

Some grab power only because they can.

Others do so because they see no other choice.


Steve Van Samson is a graphic designer/dad/nice guy by trade. He is also a part time podcaster, singer of the band Enchanted Exile, and a great lover of all things GEEK. 

So far, Steve has written two unpublished books: “Broken Guardian,” which is intended to be Book One in a YA fantasy/adventure series called “Shatterscale”–as well as an adult horror novella (about vampires in Africa) called “The Bone Eater King”.

At this moment, he is more than halfway through a third book called “Marrow Dust” (a sequel to “The Bone Eater King”). When that one is finished, he plans on self publishing the two books at once, while continuing to shop around the first novel. In addition to that, he maintains a monthly column over at Cinema Knife Fight called “Monochrome Manor”. 

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