The Webcomic Overlook #27: Evil Inc.

In the wacky world of comic book superheroes, the supervillains are usually far more interesting than the superheroes.

Look at the respective rosters of the Justice League and the Legion of Doom. At the Hall of Justice, you have a bunch of fit, handsome do-gooders clad in tight spandex and blessed with a winning smile and perfect hair. They’re heroic, no doubt, but kinda bland. (Well, except for the Batman.) Who do we find wandering the halls of Legion HQ? There’s a genius talking ape, a purple alien with a long forehead, a lady in a kitty suit, a bald megalomaniac, and … Bizarro. Seriously, who would you rather be meeting over strawberry daquiris?

Villains almost always get the best lines, too. Dr. Doom prattles on in third person and issues grandiloquent dialogue like, “Doom commands that you kneel before him!” Unlike most top tier heroes, villains can be supremely goofy. What possessed the Riddler, for example, to rationalize that the “sea” in his latest clue was supposed to stand for “Catwoman”? “Sea,” “C,” “C for Catwoman,” get it? And villains tend to approach their work with a maniacal glee, like when Joe Quesada diabolically ended the marriage between Spider-Man and Mary Jane. (Ooohhh! Snap! Burn! Take that, Marvel Editor-in-Chief! You son-of-a- … *sob*)

And say what you will about supervillians, but they have a better record for equal opportunity employment than the good guys. Can you imagine the Superfriends admitting a chalky-white, super-strong zombie into their ranks?

Perhaps Brad Guigar harbors a similar affection for supervillians. After all, he’s the creator and artist behind Evil Inc., a webcomic about a corporation run by supervillains for supervillains.

In fact, there’s a very good chance Mr. Guigar is himself a supervillian. Wikipedia states that he was born in a place called Bad Axe, Michigan, which — I shouldn’t have to tell you — a wee bit suspicious. To get any more nefarious, you’ve gotta travel 150 miles down to Hell, MI … and don’t think that thought hasn’t crossed Mr. Guigar’s fiendish mind.

Guigar’s “Evil Inc.” is one of the few webcomics that has also been syndicated in daily newspapers, the biggest one being the Philadelphia Daily News. Mr. Guigar has been nominated for the Eisner Award for a different webcomic (“Phables“). “Evil Inc.” itself was nominated for the 2007 Web Cartoonist’s Choice Awards for Outstanding Superhero/Action Comic, but lost to the formidable coming-of-age ninja tale, “The Adventures of Dr. McNinja.”

“Evil Inc.” is a spin-off of Mr. Guigar’s earlier project, “Greystone Inn.” As I understand it, some of “Evil Inc.”‘s characters originally debuted in “Greystone Inn.” Helpful readers have informed me that some webcomics reviewed in previous entries — “Shortpacked!“, “Butterfly,” and “Pibgorn” — might have made more sense by reading some earlier works. However, I’m a lazy pig. So, to make a long story short … no, I haven’t read “Greystone Inn.”

The comic begins with Lightning Lady, a “Greystone Inn” character, arriving at Evil Inc. HQ. She’s there initially to settle some bad credit incurred by her supervillain ex-boyfriend. After making her way through some corporate rigamarole, she gets to meet the company’s begoggled CEO and founder, Evil Atom. He’s a legend among supervillains, but now he far removed from his glory days and he’s developed a slight paunch. It turns out that Lightning Lady is looking for a job, and when a position for receptionist suddenly opens up, she’s indoctrinated into the fast-paced corporate world of Evil Inc.

The foundation of “Evil Inc.” is a unique blend of superhero and corporate humor. I personally think it’s a risky combination. Most business people I know are serious types who don’t usually read comic books. (Take it from me: a guy with a business degree who’s ridden shot-gun with another B-school grad on Free Comid Book Day.) However, the world of villains in a corporate setting is ground that’s been covered before. On the Adult Swim TV show Venture Brothers, for example, a villain-run organization called the Guild of Calamatous Intent acts primarily as a staffing service pairing professional villains with suitable heroes.

Similarly, Evil Inc. supplies several services for supervillains, such as gadgets, loans, retraining, and psychological treatment. Guigar shows villians in mundane and decidedly un-super corporate enviroments, such as marketing, accounting, and legal departments. Dilbert meets the Legion of Doom. Heroes and villains rarely fight over moral hang-ups and now regard their rivalry as a necessary professional courtesy.

And within this corporate framework, Evil Atom proves to be surprisingly moral. Evil Inc. turns out to be a completely legal entity. It’s not a clandestine organization. Rather, it’s a publicly traded company. Heck, they’re probably complaint with Sarbanes-Oxley. The twist here is that everyday corporate practices could, in fact, be rationalized as “evil.” Evil Atom parlays this same rationalization by being good to his own employees. He supports the worker’s union (which he founded) and donates to charitable funds. It’s not very maniacal — an old school villain like Lightning Lady is confused by the policies herself — but it’s done in the name of retaining top name villains under the Evil Inc. brand.

In fact, the real villains of “Evil Inc.” are the ones that business pundits on CNBC or Business Week would regard as heroes. In a pivotal plot that started in late 2005 and would extend to most of 2006, an investment group becomes majority shareholder. They pressure the Evil Inc. board to sell the company — and, consequently, lay off several employees — despite the company’s proven track record at reporting decent profits. (I have the same problem with the stock market. How come stocks, which are fueled by public perception, don’t rise unless a company is constantly expanding and consuming every resource on the planet?) Evil Atom eventually realizes that the move is essentially fueled by the investment group’s greed. The story was a grim reminder of real-world collapses like the Enron scandal and the dotcom bust, and how the financial market is stupid, destructive, and far more sinister than any comic book villain.

Evil Atom, though, is only one character in the comic’s vast ensemble cast. For example, there’s a super-genius brain attached to the body of a dog who is always trying to oust him from his company. The bulk of the focus, though centers on two other characters: the aforementioned Lightning Lady and Miss Match. Lightning Lady is featured in a running gag, where she answers a help line for villains. It’s the part of the webcomic that reminds you that, yes, this webcomic was written by a total geek. Let’s just say that if you’re not much of a comic book reader, some of the gags are going to go completely over your head.

The second character, Miss Match, evolves to become the heart and soul of the series. She seems rather bland at first: she’s a pyromancer, the company’s most competent worker and inventor, and the unwilling object of desire for co-workers who probably need a life. She strikes an easy sister-like friendship with Lightning Lady. On the surface, she’s little Miss Perfect. (For a villainess, anyway.) However, as the webcomic progresses, she becomes the character who delineates the real differences between heroes and villains in the Evil Inc. world. For her, villainy is a trade to be proud of. While she’s tolerant of the moral high ground superheroes take, she seems them as hippy-dippy types who have no idea how things work in the real world. Heroism is not the sort of lifestyle that makes ends meet. In a way, it’s no different from how some office workers view the Haight-Ashbury types. Miss Match also turns out to harbor a big secret, one that threatens her cushy job at the big corporation.

At some point in the story, Lightning Lady and Miss Match eventually become the series’ main characters. And I wholeheartedly approve! Evil Atom is an interesting guy … but I’m all for putting the spotlight on two shapely women wearing tight, form-fitting spandex.

The comic’s style is disarmingly old school. It harkens to 1970’s and 1980’s newspaper icons like Doonesbury, Bloom County, and Funky Winkerbean. (The familiarity of the style, by the way, was probably a strong factor toward getting picked up by newspapers.) The style feels traditional, matching “Evil Inc.”‘s traditional pacing: a gag-a-day strip that frequently engages in long-term storylines. Guigar’s style also makes the heroes look less heroic and villains look soft and cuddly. The good guys look no different from the bad guys, and in the end everyone’s just a normal joe trying to make it in the world.

The characters of “Evil Inc.” are mainly Guigar’s creations, but from time to time Guigar exposes his geek roots and he features a cameo appearance from a Marvel or DC character. Needless to say, it’s pretty fun to see
Red Skull or Aquaman rendered in Guigar’s style. I am curious, though, whether these proprietary characters appear in the print version. I’m certain there’s all sorts of legal wangling involved.

With regards to the ongoing story, I have to tip my hat to Mr. Guigar for his mastery at creating legitimate suspense. I don’t want to expose too many spoilers, so I’m going to be intentionally vague here. There one mystery involving Evil Atom’s archnemesis Captain Heroic that kept building merely through candid scenes of the hero in civilian garb. It was a page turner, and I clicked through the strips with building anticipation. It was not unlike reading a novel and staying up until 3 in the morning because you want to see a certain plot point carried through. When we finally arrived at the dramatic reveal, the payoff was a complete surprise yet made total sense in retrospect. It also wasn’t just a cheap plot device: the resolution managed to change the relationships of several recurring characters and controlled the future direction of the webcomic.

That’s not to say that it always works. The revelation of the identity of Evil Inc.’s majority shareholder was built up over several months, yet I guessed the identity months in advance. However, there’s a chance that the identity was never supposed to be a mystery in the first place, since the silhouette was a dead giveaway. If that’s the case, then why would you waste several strips putting on a charade that it’s supposed to be a mystery?

Now, while I’ve focused on the superhero spoofs and corporate parody aspects of “Evil Inc.,” the comic does feature another story element: domestic humor. Evil Atom, for example, joins a lodge full of retired villains at the insistence of his wife. On the other hand, Captain Heroic has to deal with the diabolical perils of child-rearing while dealing with his nosy parents.

Sometimes it’s a refreshing change of pace, and it gives readers a glimpse how characters who are gods in the corporate world deal with the brutally normal pace of home. However, this aspect is also the furthest removed from the superhero motif and feels the most out of place. If some strips were taken out of context, for example, a casual reader could conclude that “Evil Inc.” was a treacly family strip in the tradition of For Better or For Worse and Baby Blues. I respect Guigar for shoehorning tales of family life in a webcomic predominantly about corporate raiders and superhero struggles. However, I discovered that during several domestic storylines I was willing myself forward to get to the good stuff.

But don’t let that scare you away from “Evil Inc.” Judging the series based on its artwork and format, I’d expected a light, gag-a-day series that wouldn’t merit much in-depth analysis. In fact, I had originally planned to do Evil Inc. as a “One Punch Review,” perhaps pairing it with “Lethargic Lad” and “Wonderella” in an all-superhero special. Brad Guigar surprised me. There’s character depth, fluid storylines, and criticism of the modern market-based economy. That was far more than what I was expecting.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on January 22, 2008, in 4 Stars, comedy webcomic, pop culture caricatures, spoof, superheroes, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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