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Saturday, January 24, 2015

True Villains: A Case Study in Moral Nihilism

Imagine a world where evil wins.
Picture it. The heroes are defeated. The bad guys are triumphant, making wisecracks and pumping fists. Their heinous deeds are splashed across the canvas of your imagination, brought to fruition and on display for all to see. And those wicked sots are actually proud of their actions, feeling justified by them. But there's more: In this scenario, evil deserved to win. In fact, the bad guys are actually the good guys, and the people you thought were the good guys aren't actually all that good. In fact, they're humorless, self-righteous prigs at best, and oafish bullies at worst. What kind of world is this? It's nothing short of a nightmare. 

But it is, in a perversely profound way, right on the mark about what things would really be like without reality's single defining factor: God. 

I've talked a little about my faith on this blog before, but it's mostly been something of sideshow. I'd throw in a Bible verse on the weekends, fill in the people who actually read this thing on the sermons at my church, maybe name drop Big G on occasion, generally in a humorous manner. But now I'd like to talk about something serious. Ironically enough, the spark of this serious discussion comes from a frankly silly and ostensibly lighthearted source: a webcomic called True Villains.

My good buddy Nathan (the other Nathan; not the one who thinks that the Richard Donner Superman movie is the greatest superhero movie ever made) recommended this webcomic to me as a possible source of inspiration, and for a good laugh, in writing my own webcomic. In fact, both my own webcomic (Currently in the works. More on that in the future!) and True Villains have a similar premise; a satirical take on the conventions of genre fiction from the vantage point of the bad guys. To be specific, True Villains takes the standard tropes of your average fantasy world (like, "the good guys always win" and "crime never pays" and "bad guys don't wear yellow."), and turns them inside out and flips them upside down. 

To be honest, this webcomic is fun stuff, with a style of humor that zigzags from raunchy to ridiculous, though never to the extreme of either. In addition to being funny, the characters are admittedly likable. You've got adventurer-turned-apprentice-to-the-evil-bad-guy Sebastian Jalek, Elia the Necromancer, Mia the magical child, Bayn the kid sorcerer, and Xanith the aforementioned evil bad guy. I swear, the makers of this strip could make a truckload of cash on T-shirts of Xanith saying, "I have a plan," or Mia smiling.

But remember what I said earlier, about imagining a world where evil wins? That's pretty much what this strip is, complete with the heroes who aren't heroes. I don't want to sound like some kind of killjoy, but the tail end of Saga 5 made me feel a lump in the pit of my stomach. In it, Sebastian tells his old adventuring buddies, including his sister, to basically shove it, complete with his own explanation of how he sees morality. For the sake of brevity, I will not include the full outpouring of bullcrap that spewed forth from the character's mouth (even Xanith, who's a flipping demon, agrees with me), but I will summarize it. In the scene, Sebastian essentially says that good and evil are two equally valid choices, and that morality is defined by the whim of the chooser. He isn't nearly that honest, wrapping his perversely self-justified twaddle in doublespeak, equating his lack of a definite moral compass with "freedom." 

Freedom. Freedom to do what? Freedom to do whatever Xanith, a sadistic liar, tells him? Freedom to kill and destroy whenever it's convenient? Freedom to aid a psychopathic murderer like Elia in various acts of wholesale slaughter? Near the beginning of the strip, Xanith orders the pair to burn down a whole village for a laugh, with Elia melting the faces off of the survivors. Sebastian admittedly saves Mia from the catastrophe, but only based on an arbitrary notion of morality that he readily discards at will, such as in a recent strip when he's assigned to kill a child said to be "the Chosen One." What kind of freedom is that?

Sebastian goes even further, claiming that it's pointless to fight for good, because there will always be evil. Here's where he turns from moral relativism to outright nihilism. Nihilism is the belief that nothingness defines reality, that life is simply futile. Sebastian has embraced nihilism, declaring that he is glad to be on the side of evil, because it makes him feel "free." He sees himself as above good and evil, doing thing not because he should, but because he can. In other words, he believes that he can do whatever he wants with no consequences. 

Of course, in the world of True Villains, it's vaguely possible for Sebastian to have a point, if only because in that world, there is no "God" as we understand it. There are said to be many "gods," such as a god of progress, a god of stability, a god of fear, a god of tall grass, etc. In fact, there is said to be a "god" for every aspect of reality. (Logically, this would imply that there are gods for good, evil, justice, truth, etc., but these "gods" are also said to be "unbiased" towards good or evil. How a possible god of justice could be "unbiased" toward either good or evil is beyond me.) Again, this is perversely profound, in that if there were a world wherein no supreme, objective standard of morality existed, then the logical extreme would be that there would be no supreme, objective standard of morality at all. Any honest atheist philosopher would say just as much, if not more so. Therefore, Sebastian and his cohorts are perfectly justified in committing acts of injustice, and have no reason to pretend to have a moral code, because there is no basis to have such a code if there is in fact no God, or even many gods. In the words of Fydor Dostoevsky, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted."

This is all rather ironic, as there are plenty of "good guys" who mainly consist of the aforementioned humorless, self-righteous prigs, and also plenty of bad guys who readily admit that they're "morally bankrupt" and on the side of evil, including Sebastian's boss, Xanith. It's even acknowledged that Hell exists, and that all of these "gods" have both angels and demons working for them. The convoluted nature of this invented theology is nonetheless quite disturbing if given sufficient thought. It doesn't help that there's a lot of attention given to the various acts of necromancy and "dark magic" employed by our villains, which is disgustingly portrayed in agonizing detail. Good grief, I'm beginning to understand why people like Jack Chick don't like D&D. 

In sum, we have a mildly intelligent, well-written and illustrated, yet at the same time quite disturbing webcomic, where good and evil are equivalent to blue and orange in difference. It's a world where basic concepts of morality rest upon the whim of the individual, where good is a word and a word is air. (Thanks for the quote, Shakespeare!) That does sound like a nightmare. As the good book says, "Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!"

Image courtesy of tvtropes.org