META: Nemesis as opposite, nemesis as mirror

Tom Russell joltcity at
Sat Jul 20 16:46:18 PDT 2013

   I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good nemesis, and in particular about two concepts I'll call "nemesis as opposite" and "nemesis as mirror". And I thought it might be useful, if only to myself, to collect a few of those thoughts here to see if they inspire any discussion.
   I should begin by noting that I'm using the word "nemesis" somewhat incorrectly but very specifically to refer to a villain that "belongs" to a hero, but not necessarily his or her "arch-nemesis". The Joker is Batman's nemesis, yes, but so is the Penguin, Two-Face, and even the Ventriloquist. They are "Batman Villains", his rogues gallery.
   Compare this to, say, the Circus of Crime. They're villains, yes, but they don't "belong" to any hero. Mention Doctor Octopus or even the Big Wheel and I'll say he's a Spider-Man villain, but if you say Circus of Crime, I don't pin them down in the same way. They're free agents as it were.
  I have a great deal of affection for such characters (and, truth be told, the Circus of Crime in particular), who never really have some grand revenge scheme or pose much of a threat. Instead, they'll squander their powers on some petty crime, the hero will most likely accidentally happen across the crime in progress, and they will provide a diverting external conflict that allows the story to be about and explore other and more important things. (At least, back when a superhero story always had a villain to speak of, rassum frassum "decompression".)
   So, back on point, when I say nemesis, I mean a villain who is defined by the hero they torment. They might dabble with others on the sly-- Bizarro might land in Gotham for twenty-two pages-- but they pretty much exclusively hassle the same guy or gal. Many are what you could call a de facto nemesis; Electro is a Spider-Man villain simply because he fights Spider-Man more often than he tangles with other heroes, not because he has some particular and driving hatred of Spider-Man. Electro was created for a Spider-Man comic, but he could have just as easily been a Daredevil villain, and Stilt-Man, one of Spidey's.
   Others, and this is especially true of an arch-nemesis, feel like they're "constructed" from the get-go to challenge a specific hero. Thor's villains, for example, really couldn't have been invented for any other hero. They're big and cosmic and meant to challenge someone big and cosmic.
   But sometimes a nemesis goes further; sometimes, they're not only "defined" by their hero, but their whole gimmick or concept is defined in relation to the hero's gimmick or concept. A "nemesis as opposite" has a gimmick that is the opposite of the hero's gimmick, and a "nemesis as mirror" has the same gimmick/power-set, but is "evil".
   I haven't done an exhaustive survey, but it seems that the latter is far more common. Just a handful of examples:

The Doctor/The Master
Captain Marvel/Black Adam
Green Lantern/Sinestro
Flash/Professor Zoom
Iron Man/A bunch of other dudes in tech armor

The list goes on-and-on. Whereas "nemesis as opposite" is pretty slim pickings:

Iron Man/The Mandarin (High tech versus high magic)
Superman/Luthor (superpowers versus none)
Flash/Turtle Man (speed versus slowness)

I'm sure there's some more I'm missing, but I'm drawing a blank. I think the reason why "he has all my powers, but is evil" is more prevalent isn't that it is necessarily more compelling (though Turtle Man is pretty ridiculous), but that it's hard to define the "opposite" of some gimmicks. Like, what is the opposite of "proportional strength and sense of a Spider?" Or "naked dude in space on a surfboard"?

More information about the racc mailing list