May 4th, 2009
So I was reading Living Between Wednesday’s Justify Your Existence column and I just couldn’t help myself. Red rag to a bull.
This is the first installment of our Mindless response, an attempt to justify the existence of each and every one of those limbo bound characters: rogue’s reviews, on the crash cart!
Dr No-Face really is a gift, isn’t he? The name’s a little hokey, but that’s not much of a problem, in fact my take on the character would position hir as someone who had very little use for names. I imagine the appellation hailing from the press as part of an effort to create a knowable tabloid entity, rather than being the character’s self-designated super villain identity. Seems to me that Batman would simply refer to hir as No-Face as a matter of convenience and conventionality, after all, bat-foes have those sorts of names, don’t they?
Subtracting the “Dr” makes sense to me on a number of levels. First and foremost it’s superfluous, the detritus of the naming conventions of another era, and just adds drag. Secondly and on a related point, No-Face is a clearer expression of the character as I conceive of hir (more on that below). Thirdly it echoes a character we all know and love (Two Face for all you slower Mindlesses), and consequently provides a light sprinkling of instant gravitas. And finally I’m just used the idea that No-Face is a threatening dude because my kid likes to watch Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in which a mystical bath house is at one point besieged by a scary monster-chappie who goes by the same name.
But why no true name? It comes down to the conceptual basis on which I would want to build the character. With the Question, Ditko removed the face in an effort to symbolically excise the character’s subjectivity. The Question doesn’t deal in partiality, s/he doesn’t have a point of view. In Ditko’s schema the Question is a purely objective force, not merely an agent of objectivist justice, but it’s very manifestation (there might well be a philosophical contradiction at work in this analysis, but this isn’t the time or the place for that discussion). Something like that would probably work here – No-Face as the embodiment of some evil morality – but I’d prefer to go with something purer and more obvious.
In the Living Between Wednesdays article Johnathan (yes, that’s how you spell his name, apparently. Unusual) puts forward the idea that No-Face should be found threatening famous faces with vials of acid, and disfiguring beauties, I’m down with that as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s more like a signpost, a direction of travel. The question is begged: why? Because he lost his face so no-one else is allowed to keep theirs either? That might have been satisfactory back in the 50s or whenever it was that No-Face made his first appearance, but it’s a bit slight, a bit bland, and crucially doesn’t leave much room for a grander vision – themes on an epic scale worthy of the Batman*.
*Okay, not everything has to be about epic scales, but I think No-face warrants this treatment. I’ll get to the question of more trivial villains my next post
If No-Face is about anything, then surely he’s about identity. A villain themed around identity is a bloody no-brainer for a superhero comic. Identity is, afterall, a theme that riddles the entire genre, even if it seldom gets the 5 star treatment (Hey, it’s superhero comics, what does?). The Face is shorthand for the self (see two face’s split personality for genre based evidence), and a guy with no face, well surely he’s about the negation of the self? Of course he’s not interested in names, in fact you would probably want to rework his origin to make it very unclear exactly who this character was originally, before the tragic accident. Or was it an elaborate hoax*, a performance, a way of demonstrating some demented principle (shit, I’m tripling my sentence subjects. Out, Steve Ditko!)? Was there ever a Dr Paul Dent?
*Dr Paul Dent? Surely the coincidence embodied by that surname suggests something fishy?
This is another case of a supervillain who looks better without a psychological explanation, or at least could function very well without one. I hope we’ve all adjusted to this notion now. The villain without rational or irrational motive has long been a staple of horror, and has certainly cropped up in other genres, most recently and notably in the biggest movie of last year. The one with the superhero in it. How better to manifest the horror of No-Face than to paint the character as a kind of existential void? We don’t know who ze is, why ze does what ze does, and ultimately what ze wants. This isn’t like my thinking for the Riddler, I’m not gunning for mystery here, there should be something nightmarish about this blank creature, the feeling that if you peer too closely at that horrific, empty face you might not be able to turn away for fear of leaving something important behind.
So yes, No-Face could threaten beauties with razors, but that would be the soft stuff. I see the character operating on a higher level, as a kind of black hole for the soul. Hir schemes (for lack of a better word – did Sadako have a scheme?) would involve the dissolution of personality, full frontal assaults on the self, not entirely unlike the events of RIP. Superheroes, with their god-like super-identities, would naturally attract this kind of villain, but I like the idea that No-face’s plans wouldn’t normally run to large scale attacks on the population. If you want someone to enslave the souls of a world you’ve got Darkseid. You could play No-Face in a more subtle way when it comes to Gotham’s ordinary citizenry. A writer could, for example, simply take care to frame the contemporary Gothamite’s consumerist lifestyle as essentially empty when No-face is around. Not in an effort to make a political point, but as a way of making the reader uncomfortable, and submerging them in No-Face’s world. A world of faceless crowds and empty streets, of starless skies and abandoned skyscrapers.
I imagine him not to have henchmen, but instead to rely on bizarre sleeper agents who all of a sudden start to demonstrate radically altered personalities, values and moralities when called upon to act in No-Face’s interests, and then just as suddenly revert back to their everyday selves, with no memory of their actions. Perhaps they do their best to hide their faces when acting out his wishes, perhaps they alter their appearance in strange and disturbing ways, whatever, it should be as if they’ve suffered a kind of non-sequiter of the self. I like the idea of his helpers splaying the fingers of one hand across their faces, their eyes peering out from between the cracks. Creepy.
The other thing that strikes me as a no-brainer is that No-Face would as a matter of course know all about any and all superheroes’ secret identities. Not as the product of investigation (well maybe ostensibly) but simply because that’s how it should be. What would be particularly fun here would be to bring back those stories where Batman’s secret identity is exposed and he has to find some convincing way of re-establishing it. With the advent of realism that kind of plot has largely gone out the window, but I feel sure it could be made to work, the trick would be in keeping it believable and yet enjoyably absurd. I don’t suppose, however, that simply exposing secret identities would be No-face’s endgame.
But what would his endgame look like? All sorts of things. Crikey, you could have so much fun. How about a plotline where Bats attempts to take down No-face but it ultimately turns out that No-Face has somehow managed to switch identities with the Caped Crusader and Batman has to find his way back to to his superheroic persona? Or, I dunno, maybe No-Face manages to convince the world, and Batman, that Batman has never existed ala Amy’s first 666 arc, the story culminating with Bruce battling his way back into being? The arc could begin with Batman simply trying to stare down No-Face. Wrong move.
No-face should possess a kind of physical intangibility to go along with his existential ghostliness. I don’t mean literally, he’s not Shadow Cat, but nevertheless he should be difficult to get hold of. Just when you think you’ve got him captured, turns out you’re holding a trench coat stuffed with a mannequin. The guy in the shadows is a defaced (I do mean literally) corpse, that sort of thing. It should certainly be the case that ze’s almost supernaturally elusive. In fact this elusiveness should even stretch to hir voice and mannerisms: sometimes ze sounds like a woman, other times a man, other times ze doesn’t speak at all, and other times ze only signs, or uses semaphore. Actually, I’d like to go even further: perhaps he only talks when he’s wearing a mask. Ah, and maybe the masks dictate a personality. This could get very weird indeed – scary in a Lynchian way. Imagine an issue where No-face is permanently wearing one of those glasses, nose, mustache get-ups – what the fuck kind of personality does one of those freaky things prescribe?
The question of a costume has me slightly stumped. While I can see an argument for eschewing an identifiable look beyond the blank visage and instead have the character simply don a series of plot specific outfits (aviation hats, frilly dresses, Robin costumes, surgeon’s smocks, business suits, etc…), I must say that the idea of occasionally coming back to a set of core visual motifs does appeal. Whether they would add up to a costume, or a number of thematically linked outfits ala the Riddler’s various get-ups, I’m not sure. Something as simple as a plain black badge might do the trick. Whatever the case, it seems to me that the character must remain consistently creepy. No-Face as I’ve conceived of hir is inherently disturbing; ze represents the dark side of losing one’s sense of self. This isn’t the blissful dissolution of personality to be found on the Eed-up dancefloor, or in deep meditation, this is the terror that underpins death and madness and disease. This is the guy without a face you know from horror films and your own nightmares.
No-Face? I think No-Face is the real deal. A serious villain waiting to happen.
Next time: The Signal Man