Villains from the Toy Box

Villains from the Toy Box

(pop culture)
Most children encounter clowns, dolls, puppets, marionettes, and various other toys during their youth. Toys are usually considered playthings— harmless diversions that provide children with a creative way to explore and focus their imaginations. But children have vivid imaginations, and the little figurines they use to enact their fantasies frequently turn against them in their dreams and fancies. Clowns and dolls often create an early fear factor in humans that lasts well into adulthood, and many supervillains exploit this fear when they create their criminal identities. Supervillains from the toy box have their origin in the concept of the “carnival,” a period of excessive celebration (such as Mardi Gras) prior to Lent in the Christian tradition. In 1940, a Russian writer and theorist named Mikhail Bakhtin wrote a dissertation entitled Raselais and His World in which he applied the concept of the carnival to the social arena. According to Bakhtin, carnival is not just associated with festivals of costumes and revelry, but also with social class. Carnival festivities provide a period of time when social laws and norms are put on hiatus. During carnival, all classes of society are equalized, reducing the power of the upper class and elevating the power of the working class. This period when commoners are valued more than the aristocracy might be especially dangerous and troubling to millionaire playboys and authority figures whose are responsible for maintaining social order. The idea of the carnival is crucial to understanding supervillains who dress up in bright costumes, face paint, and red noses. In a curious historical confluence, the year Bakhtin wrote Rabelais is also the year that the Joker made his first appearance in Batman #1 (Spring 1940). The Joker, the “Clown Prince of Crime,” taps into deep-rooted collective fears about clowns, fools, and jesters. His actions are guided purely by madness and excess. Liberated from social norms and mores, he lacks any sense of conscience or repression. The Joker's one goal is the complete, unbridled pursuit of sensory satisfaction, and he usually finds this satisfaction in murder and chaos. He is the full embodiment of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's concept of the “id.” Most supervillains represent the concept of the id (in relation to superheroes' superego), but villains from the toy box take this role to an extreme. They merge chaos and disorder with childhood fantasies to create a truly frightening image of uncontrollable, infantile madness. The toy-box motif has made its way into a wide variety of popular cultural media, including the clown villain from Steven King's It (brought to TV in miniseries form in 1990), Chucky from the movie franchise Child's Play (which began in 1988), the title villains from cult classic movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), the murderer in the film Saw (2005) who dresses as a marionette and rides a tricycle during part of the movie, and a roomful of “possessed” toys (particularly the clown doll) in the classic horror film Poltergeist (1982). The Insane Clown Posse, a hip-hop duo, use clown identities in their public appearances, and their live shows are characterized by the chaotic frenzy their name suggests. One of the oldest and most revered forms of the toy-box motif is a British puppet show called “Punch and Judy.” Made popular to contemporary audiences through Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's graphic novel The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch (1994), Punch and Judy actually date back to the Commedia dell'arte tradition in sixteenth-century Italy. In the Punch and Judy story, after Mr. Punch murders his wife and child, he tricks and kills every single authority figure who tries to bring him to justice. The horror of Punch's murderous, maniacal rampage is enhanced by the fact that the story is enacted with hand puppets and dolls. The toy-box motif in comics dates back to the origins of the form. In Winsor McKay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, a popular comic strip that began in 1905, Nemo's adventures were often complicated by a pesky, troublesome imp named Flip who looked like a clown and accompanied Nemo through Slumberland. This tradition continued when supervillains emerged to plague superheroes in comic books in the early 1940s. The Joker was followed by a slew of villains based on dolls and clowns. The Dummy, so named because he resembled a ventriloquist's dummy, appeared in Leading Comics #1 (1942) to fight the Golden Age Vigilante. The Dummy was actually inspired by a wooden puppet named Charlie McCarthy who frequented films and radio in the 1930s and 1940s. The Dummy serves as a prototype for the more contemporary Scarface, the 1920s-style gangster puppet who is controlled by the Batman villain Ventriloquist. In addition to the Dummy, several toy-box villains surfaced during the early age of comic books to harass the growing number of superheroes. The Harlequin fought the Golden Age Green Lantern (Alan Scott) before reforming and actually marrying him. DC has introduced several villains named Harlequin, including a woman named Duela Dent (aka “The Joker's Daughter”), who fought and later joined the Teen Titans in the 1970s and 1980s. Another Golden Age Green Lantern villain, the Fool, looked like Pinocchio and used toy inventions to play dangerous pranks on Green Lantern and his supporting cast. The Prankster, a gap-toothed practical joker named Oswald Loomis, used trick toys such as squirting flowers and pop guns to harass Superman. The Prankster was once called “Superman's most annoying foe,” suggesting the general silliness and harmlessness of the Golden Age's villain contingent. As comics matured, toy-box villains were updated for a more modern audience. The Prankster was recast as a children's television show host who went on a crime spree after his show was canceled. Punch and Jewelee, professional puppeteers who wore harlequin costumes and fought Captain Atom, joined a covert government organization called the Suicide Squad before reforming, marrying, and retiring to the suburbs to raise their children. The Jester, a former actor turned criminal, sought media and public attention by staging a series of intricate toy-related crimes that also drew the attention of Daredevil. Rag Doll, a circus contortionist who fought the Justice Society of America during the Golden Age, was succeeded in the modern age by his son. The modern Rag Doll, a much darker reflection of his father, artificially altered every joint in his body so that he might have the flexibility and contortion abilities that his father had naturally. Despite his grotesque backstory, the Rag Doll joined the Secret Six, who fought against a reunited society of supervillains in the 2005 miniseries Villains United. One of the most popular contemporary examples of harlequin-type villains first appeared in animated form before making the transition to comics. Dr. Harleen Quinzel worked as a psychotherapist at Arkham Asylum before going insane and adopting the new identity Harley Quinn. Harley troubled Batman for several years in Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures (1992–1999) before she was introduced into comics continuity in Batman: Harley Quinn (1999). Another clown-like villain who has appeared in several media incarnations is Clown, the darker, more sinister and grotesque version of Joker from writer/artist Todd McFarlane's Spawn. The Toyman, once a member of the Legion of Doom in the 1970s cartoon Super Friends, was updated in the post–Crisis on Infinite Earths DC continuity. The Toyman was recast as a former British toymaker named Winslow Percival Schott who, after being fired from his job in London, moved to Metropolis to seek revenge on the man he blamed for his misfortunes: Lex Luthor. In 1996, Toyman was updated again for Superman: The Animated Series—this time as the son of toymaker Winslow Schott, who dresses as a diminutive grinning doll, turns his warehouse headquarters into a giant dollhouse, and seeks revenge on the those responsible for the imprisonment and death of his father. This embodiment of the Toyman is the creepiest, most sadistic and maniacal version to date. Other villains who adopt toys and games as the basis for their identities are frequent Justice League villains the Royal Flush Gang and Astro City villain group the Chessmen. Perhaps the most self-referential, postmodern versions of villains from the toy box are toys based on villains based on toys. Action figures patterned on comics-based villains have been popular since the mid-1970s, beginning with the 8-inch-tall Joker poseable figure from Mego's World's Greatest Super Heroes line. The Joker has been cast as an action figure dozens of times, including a high-quality marionette produced by DC Direct in 2003. Harley Quinn and Clown have also appeared numerous times in three-dimension form.