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Dr. Horrible and How to Be a Villain

on Fri, 09/10/2010 - 00:00

In July 2008, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog took the Internet by storm, crashing servers and turning millions of fans into minions along the way. The main protagonist, the Dr. Horrible of the title, is a scientific genius armed with both Freeze and Death Rays as well as a specially designed app for his iPhone that can commandeer security vans by remote control. By the end of the three-act web series, the budding villain has achieved his dream of ascending to the ranks of the Evil League of Evil alongside such luminaries as Dead Bowie, Fake Thomas Jefferson and the “Thoroughbred of Sin” himself, Bad Horse.

But how did young Billy, as he had previously been known, reach such lofty heights? How does any evil wannabe, for that matter? In 2003, freelance writer Neil Zawacki attempted to answer that question in his humorous, tongue-in-cheek book, How to Be a Villain: Evil Laughs, Secret Lairs, Master Plans, and More (Chronicle Books). Accompanied by skilled illustrator James Dignan, whose drawings have appeared in the New Yorker and Wall Street Journal, Zawacki put together a step-by-step guide on how to achieve the level of evil success that Dr. Horrible himself reached a half decade later. Although Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is the original creation of television producer Joss Whedon and members of his immediate family and has no connection to How to Be a Villain, it is still worthwhile to explore the rise of Dr. Horrible through the strategies and guidelines advocated by Zawacki.

“Getting Started: Broadcast your evil plans on public access television.”

While public access may have been in vogue amongst budding supervillains in 2003, the world had definitely changed a mere five years later thanks to the increasing technological advances of the Internet and the rise of blogging. The word “world,” after all, is in the phrase World Wide Web for a reason and it is no wonder that Dr. Horrible chose the video blog medium to broadcast his evil plans—as well as answer viewer e-mails—instead of relying on the less potent vehicle of public access television. Although he may have reached a larger audience, however, Dr. Horrible also discovers the negative effects of revealing his agenda in such detail to the world-at-large. “I need to be a little bit more careful about what I say on this blog,” he acknowledges in one of his entries. “Apparently the LAPD and Captain Hammer are among our viewers. They were waiting for me at the mayor’s dedication of the Superheroes Memorial Bridge. Captain Hammer threw a car at my head.”

“There are a number of excellent ways to enhance your evil persona, from feigning a foreign accent to exaggerating a physical defect or tick to cultivating a clannish following among teenagers. However, the most essential skill by far is an evil laugh.”

This is one piece of advice that Dr. Horrible obviously took to heart as Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog opens with the future member of the Evil League of Evil demonstrating his vocal skills when it comes to the art of villainess laughter. “A lot of guys ignore the laugh and that’s about standards,” he tells his online following. “If you’re going to get into the Evil League of Evil you have to have a memorable laugh. You think Bad Horse didn’t work on his whiney?”

“To get your evil career launched with flair, you’ll want to choose an evil name for yourself. A good one is memorable, pithy and conjures up images of endless torment.”

The reasons for Billy choosing the name “Dr. Horrible” as his evil moniker are unknown but no doubt relate to his high level of intelligence and love for scientific experiments. His lair, after all, is a conglomeration of test tubes and Bunsen Burners that the aspiring supervillain uses to concoct his many inventions. The name also has the added benefit of spawning a trademark catch phrase, another “must have” for any potential villain—“I hold a PhD in horribleness.”

“Mad science has never gone out of style among the intellectually gifted and socially awkward. Its practitioners, primarily introverts, are in a unique position to rain down unimaginable terror on the world at large.”

Neil Zawacki lists numerous careers that future villains should consider as a vocation—including “night manager of a deserted warehouse,” “voodoo princess” and “telemarketer”—but if there ever was an occupation suited for the lead character of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, it is the classic profession of “mad scientist.” Not only is Dr. Horrible a genuine genius who likes to play with test tubes and build ray guns, but he also fits the description of “socially awkward” as well. It turns out that Billy, the real-life persona of alter-ego Dr. Horrible, has a crush on a girl at the local laundromat named Penny but cannot seem to muster the courage to speak with her. He even daydreams of singing that he “likes her hair” but changes the words to “likes the air” when she overhears him. Billy is also more apt at stalking Penny, like when she goes out on a date with Captain Hammer and the would-be supervillain hides behind both large bushes and fake mustaches in order to keep an eye on them.

“Some mad scientists try to rule the world, others to destroy it. Many delve into organized crime, using their inventions to rob Fort Knox or vaporize a favorite city. A few content themselves with unleashing their creations upon mankind. Whatever you choose, you’ll feel confident in your role as a superior being who knows what’s best for the world.”

For Dr. Horrible, it is the goal of controlling the world that most drives him to become a true supervillain. Right from the start of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, for instance, he professes that “the world is a mess and I just need to rule.” Ironically enough, he also attempts to steal the gold from Fort Knox with his TransMatter Ray but is only able to teleport a single bar that was subsequently transformed into liquid during the process. “It’s not about making money, it’s about taking money,” Dr. Horrible comments. “Destroying the status quo, because the status is not quo.”

Dr. Horrible’s desire to make the world a better place through the use of evil also manifests itself during the initial conversation between Billy and Penny. It turns out that the girl of his dreams works at a soup kitchen and spends her time helping the homeless. “You’re treating a symptom and the disease rages on,” Billy tells Penny in regards to her endeavors. “The fish rots from the head as they say, so my thinking is why not cut off the head. I’m talking about an overhaul of the system, putting the power in different hands.”

As further evidence of his evil motivations, Dr. Horrible also has the goal of someday giving Penny “the keys to a shiny new Australia,” again proving he is bent on nothing less than total world domination.

“Now that you’ve begun an evil career, you need to understand that there are individuals who will try to stop your nefarious deeds. Known as the forces of good, they will arrive time and time again just when you’re ready to unleash your robotic army on an unsuspecting continent.”

Dr. Horrible knows those words of wisdom only too well as he is continually thwarted by his arch-nemesis Captain Hammer. Not only does the self-obsessed superhero arrive at the most inopportune times but he inevitably gives Dr. Horrible a good ass-whooping in the process. To add insult to misery, Captain Hammer—who Dr. Horrible refers to as both a “corporate tool” and “Mister Cheesy on the Inside”—is able to successfully achieve the one thing that the fledging supervillain wants more than anything else when he begins to date the aforementioned Penny, breaking Billy’s heart and inspiring Dr. Horrible to even further acts of vengeance in the process.

“It is time now to deal with the most agonizing decision of your evil career. What to wear? How to display yourself? How to look ‘bad’ and yet so damn good?”

The fact that he has “a PhD in horribleness,” coupled with his love for science, no doubt made Dr. Horrible’s costume decision easy. No cheesy latex, flashy attire or cheap masks for this supervillain, just a simple white, full-length smock with matching gloves and boots, and the added feature of large goggles fashionably affixed on his forehead. No doctor—from George Clooney’s Doug Ross on ER to even Doogie Howser—has ever looked this good in such basic attire. Add furled eyebrows with a menacing glare and it becomes obvious that Dr. Horrible indeed has what it takes to look both bad and “damn good” simultaneously.

Although Neil Zawacki’s book How to Be a Villain had no influence on the web series created by Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Zack Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, it is still obvious that the humorous guidelines Zawacki establishes are universal in nature and reflective of many classic villains, including those featured in James Bond movies, Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers trilogy and even the latest entry into the Rogue Gallery of Villainy, Dr. Horrible of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. If there is any doubt that the latter belongs in the same breath as the aforementioned, there is one final piece of advice in Zawacki’s book that should ultimately put the matter to rest. “If a legacy of evil is important to you,” the author writes, “be sure to find your way into fables, lore, literature, song and even film.”

On that point alone, Dr. Horrible is sure to stand the test of time as a truly great villain.

Anthony Letizia

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