A Misunderstood Villain

It’s been said that heroes are only as good as their villains. Batman had the Joker, Austin Powers had Dr. Evil, and Luke Sykwalker had Darth Vader. These villains shape the ethos of their moral counterparts, and without these villains, archetypal heroes would simply have no true definition of character. Without the Joker, Batman would just be a man in a costume dolling out his unique brand of vigilantism. However fun that may be, ultimately, there’s no cosmic battle of good versus evil present in beating up common street thugs: he needs the Joker to truly be Batman.

With Chuck Klosterman’s latest release, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), the author explores our collective act of vilifying certain public figures, as well as our shared understanding of the villain. By doing so, Klosterman delivers some complex observations regarding what it is about the villain that society loathes so much. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Chuck Klosterman book if he didn’t build an amusing and sometimes sympathetic case in favour of the villain.

Klosterman’s essays in cultural studies and previous books have cemented his status as a pop culture expert. Combine this with his self-deprecating sense of humor and intellectual stoner mentality, and one can see why readers loves his unique insights into the celebrity-obsessed world we live in. Klostman makes us chuckle while showing us how insane our fixation with popular culture can be. After all, this is the man who argued about the true musical legacy of Billy Joel and did it with keen conviction. Luckily for us, with Klosterman’s latest book, his cultural dissection and absurdity have never been more potent.

Klosterman’s thesis in I Wear the Black Hat is this: the villain is “the person who knows the most but cares the least.” Through a series of interrelated essays, he attempts to comprehend the dark shadows cast from such infamous characters as Joe Paterno, O.J. Simpson and Joseph Stalin, among others. Klosterman ponders why we as a society vilify some and celebrate others. He argues that it all comes down to his aforementioned thesis about the antihero. For instance, ex-president George W. Bush didn’t know the most, even if he cared the least, so he can’t be a villain. However, don’t worry if the overly simple example I’ve given doesn’t convince you, as Klosterman does a better job in his book of explaining his thesis than my crude example, and his explanations are much more comical. Furthermore, he makes it an enjoyable and entertaining analysis for the reader, pulling in quirky pop culture anecdotes to back his societal theory of the villain.

As usual, Klosterman offers up some amusing and probing hypotheticals as he examines what it is about the villain that we despise so much. His arguments for the existence of the villain help corroborate why we as a society point the finger and lay blame at certain celebrities, politicians, and public figures. Lastly, the author leaves us to ponder if being the villain might be a necessary evil and often more enjoyable than the alternative. However, I’m left wondering if the real villain here is the person who decided the cover price of $29 for a 200 page book.