Time has plundered the name of the comic book champion -- could it have been Mighty Mouse? -- but the villain stands clear. He often exclaimed "Curses, foiled again!" and was named Oil Can Harry.
Since then, I have made the acquaintance of many more villains, in and out of books. Yet the fundamentals established by Oil Can remain true for almost all print villains. First is that the villain is quickly identifiable, so that no matter how talented the author, he or she invariably paints the villain of the piece as broadly as possible. Secondly, without evil, goodness cloys. Who's Robin Hood without the Sheriff of Notthingham or Popeye minus Bluto?
So let's examine some literary no-goods and see just how tough it seems to be to slip the bonds of cliche.
We can start at the start: "Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?' Cain answered, 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?' The Lord said, 'What have you done? Hark! Your brother's blood that has been shed is crying out to me from the ground. Now you are accursed, and banished from the ground which has opened its mouth wide to receive your brother's blood ...'"
Aside from a fine metaphor, what is most interesting to me about this tale is the twist assigned by Hebrew myth. Seems like Cain and Abel were assigned to marry one another's sisters, but Cain incestuously preferred his own sister Lebhudha. Somehow, I was always sure there was a dame involved.
Speaking of involved dames, here's Lady Macbeth pleading with the spirits for the proper homicidal temperament: "Come you spirits, / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here; / And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top full / Of direst cruelty."
Of course, Shakespeare's lady coveted only the throne of Scotland. Even more ambitious was the Ian Fleming sociopath who pushed James Bond to his limits: "Goldfinger was short, not more than five feet tall, and on top of the thick body and blunt peasant legs, was set almost directly into the shoulders, a huge, and it seemed, exactly round head. It was as if Goldfinger had been put together with bits of other people's bodies. ... To sum up, thought Bond, it was the face of a thinker, perhaps a scientist, who was ruthless, sensual, stoical and tough. An odd combination."
Of odd combinations, none was odder than Oscar Wilde and his ageless degenerate Dorian Gray: "Yes, he was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as youth's passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world."
But Wilde's beautiful young man is an exception. Far more common is Harriet Beecher Stowe's description of Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin: "His large, coarse mouth was distended with tobacco, the juice of which, from time to time, he ejected from him with great decision and explosive force; his hands were immensely large, hairy, sun-burned, freckled and very dirty, and garnished with long nails in a very foul condition."
Some villains radiate their villaining even without such authorial exactitude. Take Robert Louis Stevenson's portrait of the hideous half of his Jekyll and Hyde creation: "There is something wrong with his appearance; something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn't specify the point. He's an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way."
Not so with Bram Stoker, who named quite a bit about the redoubtable Count Dracula. "Strange to say there were hairs in the centre of the palm. The nails were long and fine and cut to a sharp point. As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me, I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me."
By now, astute reader, you are doubtlessly thinking that descriptions of notable fictional villains are rather simple and easily spotted. Who is the dastardly fellow being talked about in the following passage?
"He was never more sinister than when he was most polite, which is probably the truest test of breeding ... A man of indomitable courage it was said that the only thing he shied at was the sight of his own blood, which was thick and of an unusual colour."
Puzzled? One hint is that the end is like the start, a cartoonish character. Another hint is in the final sentence of the paragraph: "But undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw." That would belong to Captain Hook of James Barrie's Peter Pan. And if you didn't get it right, you probably now have a villainously appropriate thought. Something on the order of "Curses, foiled again!"