I’ve been reading quite a few children’s books recently. The other day I picked up one called Dark Lord: The Teenage Years and proceeded to devour it over two long train journeys .
The two are relatively similar in story, style and at times, tone. Firstly and most simply is the story. In one, an alien is sent to Earth to conquer it. While there he must disguise himself as a human “worm baby” and attend school whilst finding a way to conquer the planet, enslave the human race and destroy his sworn enemy Dib. The other sees The Dark Lord (AKA Dirk Lloyd) ruler of the Darklands propelled to Earth and trapped inside the body of a “pitiful human child”. He must attend school whilst finding a way to restore himself to his former glory, reclaim his home land and maybe enslave the human race if there is time. The differences are in the details: Zim seeks to disguise who he really is where Dirk seeks to prove himself. Zim makes enemies where Dirk makes friends. Etc.
But the very basic premise is almost identical: ‘An alien Invader/Dark Lord takes on human form, attends school and deal with the mundane day-to-day problems of human life whilst continuing with their evil plans and dark purposes in secret.
The biggest similarity is in character. On the surface Zim and Dirk are very, very alike. So much so, that when reading Dirk’s dialogue I couldn’t help doing so with Zim’s voice. Every cry of “Cower before me pitiful humans!” rang around my head in Richard Horvitz’s wicked tone.
However, surface likeness aside, there is also a huge difference between Dirk and Zim which I found extremely noticeable whilst reading Dark Lord. That difference lies in the level of malicious intent, or ‘evilness’ if you like.
So the big question is; who would win in a fight between Zim and Dirk?
Well, Zim has his advanced technology, but this usually proves to be less than functional, and to counter this, Dirk had his magic, which one can only assume will grow stronger after the close of book one. Also, Dirk is far more intelligent than Zim, who let’s face it, is as thick as two short planks.
So far, the odds are stacked in Dirk’s favour. But there is one more very important factor to consider. When the battle is done, and the victor stands tall over his fallen opponent, what then? Both Dirk and Zim would chant an evil Mwa ha ha! I’m sure. Both would taunt their enemy and proclaim themselves the glorious victor. But I think it is only Zim who would crush his enemy under the heel of his boot. Only Zim who would kill Dirk.
Throughout reading Dark Lord, I have been given no reason to believe that Dirk is actually capable of any sort of evil act. We are told that in the past he has crushed cities, enslaved entire races and driven some creatures to extinction, but we are never given evidence of this. I think the mos evil act Dirk is guilty of in book one is petty theft, gluing someone’s shoes to the floor and sending his unattached arm to shave the beard off of someone’s face.
Zim, on the other hand, constantly gives us examples of just what he is capable of. In one episode he harvests the organs of all his class mates, replacing them with inanimate objects. In another, he brainwashes a child by ripping his eyes out and replacing them with robotic ones, the child is then attacked (and presumably killed) by a squirrel. And the absurd list goes on. All these things may be completely obscure and ridiculous but they are without a doubt, pretty evil. They really do solidify Zim as a particularly nasty character and allows for to be quite scary when he wants to be also.
Dirk unfortunately lacks this. The closest we get to any sort of evidence that he is capable of anything even remotely nasty, is in the first few chapters where he attempts (without any effect) to summon various spells of destruction on people.
What’s more, the Dark Lord’s evilness is again called into question during the tail end of the book, when he scrys his army of Orcs and Goblins being executed by his enemy’s army of white paladins. He states that even he would not stoop so low, that even he would show mercy, only killing a few of them to set an example, that even the so called Dark Lord, ruler of the Nine Hells has more honour than the supposed good guys (because remember; Dirk is supposed to be the bad guy! Even if he is the protagonist!) But now, we’re not even following the exploits of the bad guy!
In Zim, it’s always apparent that although stupid and incompetent, Zim is the bad guy. It’s why we love to see him fail and are secretly delighted to see him victorious. It’s also why it’s a genuine surprise if he does anything even vaguely noble. With Dirk, I was never surprised to see him express feelings of happiness or compassion because I’d never really been given any real evidence that all he usually feels is hate and anger.
There is a scene in every James Bond film where we see the bad guy kill somebody who was powerless to save themselves, in Bond, this is usually a woman. This scene exists simply to solidify in our minds that he’s a horrible person, and this is all we actually need to justify James dispatching him as violently as possible.
In any story which features a bad guy who finds redemption, or even becomes the good guy we’ll be shown something similar, so that we have something to compare his new found goodness to. For example, Zuko’s transformation in The Last Airbender, wouldn’t be convincing if he hadn’t hounded the Avatar so ferociously to begin with.
Dirk needed something like this. He needed than one act which makes us think ‘Ah yeah, he is pretty evil actually’. It’s not enough to simply mention something that he did in a former life when he was a giant demon. We need first hand evidence that he is what he says he is, and we need it now, while he is in the form we know him in.
I don’t know exactly what it is Dirk should do to prove this, and Dark Lord isn’t as absurd as Invader Zim, so I doubt it could get away with some of the things Zim does, but even so, we really do need something.