Celebrating The Secret Supervillainy Of David Bowie

12 January 2016 | 12:57 pm | Mitch Knox

As the world grieves over the loss of an icon, we shine a light on his little-known work for the international community of calamity and chaos

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Since the dissemination of yesterday's news that legendary musician David Bowie had passed away after a year-and-a-half-long secret battle with cancer, the internet has been awash with heartfelt tributes from people of all colours and creeds as we collectively struggle to understand how to mourn someone so much bigger than life, and death, itself.

To that end, all facets of Bowie's existence, and the furthest reaches of his influence, deserve recognition, and his crucial role in shaping cult-favourite Adult Swim series The Venture Bros, now only weeks out from its sixth-season premiere, is no exception. The reality is that, without Bowie, there wouldn't have even been a Venture Bros, or certainly not as we know it; show creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick essentially admitted as much in a beautiful eulogy-cum-interview with CBR overnight.

"He’s more than a human being; he’s this thing that we’ve all had since childhood," Hammer said. "None of us got to call him up and have lunch with him and stuff. And that hasn’t changed. That will never change. The music and what he did to style and our hearts is untouchable. There’s so much of David Bowie that lives in us that never goes away. I think his influence is immortality. He lives in anybody who has a fucking idea about culture. At least we have that, and we always have that. He gave that to all of us."

Indeed, Bowie and his tunes are woven into the very fabric of the show — quite literally, in the case of central supervillain organisation the Guild Of Calamitous Intent — but we have a feeling that many people, even among the most hardcore of Bowie fans, mightn't be aware of just how broadly the man's influence runs.

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Warning: spoilers for seasons 1-5 of The Venture Bros below.

In the universe of The Venture Bros, the worlds of super-science/superheroism and supervillainy are mediated by two bureaucratic organisations — the "protagonist" side is represented by the S.H.I.E.L.D-esque Office Of Secret Intelligence (OSI), while on the "antagonist" side (they really hate the term "evil"), there's the C.O.B.R.A-like Guild Of Calamitous Intent.

Along with the OSI, the Guild acts as moderator for the generally non-fatal games of cat-and-mouse played by both sides, brokering the assignment of protagonists to antagonists, or "arches" (arch-nemeses), as well as enforcing the rules of arching, providing certified supervillains with health and dental benefits, and generally implementing a policy of "controlled costumed aggression" in their operations. After all, as their motto says, they are a brand of "Hate You Can Trust".

See? They're totally professional.

At the very top of the Guild is the faceless Council Of 13 and their mysterious leader, The Sovereign, who initially appears by way of telescreen as a giant, disembodied head. It's later revealed, however, that this is basically one big Wizard Of Oz move, and that the man at the top of the tree of international organised villainy is none other than David Bowie himself (not actually voiced by Bowie, though) — or so it's believed.

Usually appearing in his disguised form, Bowie makes his first appearance in season two's two-part finale, Showdown At Cremation Creek, where he attends the wedding of supervillain The Monarch to his long-time partner and #2, Dr. Girlfriend (now Dr. Mrs. The Monarch). 

As it happens, Bowie also demonstrates his awesome, hitherto unacknowledged power as a shapeshifter for the first time at the ceremony, which is violently interrupted by Dr. Girlfriend's jilted ex, the nefarious Phantom Limb, and his turncoat operatives, Iggy Pop and deceased opera singer Klaus Nomi (God, this show is so fucking nerdy; it's amazing).

The Thin White Duke ultimately defeats both and saves the day, blessing the marriage of The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend before turning into an eagle and flying off towards the horizon, while The Monarch's ever-reliable henchmen, 21 and 24, debate the merits of Changes One ("Could you be a bigger poser? Changes is a best-of!"). 

Yes, Bowie is not only revealed as the world's greatest supervillain, but also possesses the ability to shapeshift — leading several characters in-show to speculate on his true identity, with one later even suggesting that his real form is not even human, but that of the creature on the cover of Diamond Dogs.

Bowie's next significant appearance comes in season four's The Revenge Society, when Phantom Limb — driven insane by his defeat at Cremation Creek — attempts to undermine the Guild by obtaining a mysterious, seemingly all-powerful weapon known only as the Orb, which just happens to have fallen into the possession of series protagonists Hank and Dean Venture, along with their father, Dr Thaddeus 'Rusty' Venture.

Amusingly, the only person at this stage who doesn't seem to know that everyone knows that Bowie is The Sovereign is, well, Bowie himself, who still — despite the events of, and his public outing at, the showdown at Cremation Creek — uses his telescreen to appear as a mysterious entity, even instructing his underlings to "pay no attention to the handsome and ageless rock star hiding behind the couch" when they walk in on him unannounced to discuss Phantom Limb's plans (and Hours).

Ultimately, the deranged Phantom Limb launches an assault on the Venture Compound with the goal of retrieving the Orb and declaring himself Sovereign, arguing that — since his grandfather, Fantomas, co-founded the Guild  — he is the rightful heir to the title. However, Bowie once again saves the day, arriving in the nick of time to calmly explain that it is Dean — as the great-grandson of Colonel Lloyd Venture, original protector of the Orb — who is the rightful Sovereign, thus having the title passed back to himself by the boy.

Bowie (and The Sovereign) remain largely in the shadows throughout season five, appearing only once, in head form, to chastise Phantom Limb as he attempts to further develop his own evil organisation in the fledgling Revenge Society. However, he ultimately steps back out in a massively chaotic way during the show's most recent episode, last January's hour-long season-five-to-six holdover special, All This & Gargantua-2!.

In this episode, revelations and game-changers come thick and fast: Bowie, paranoid about heightened investigations at the hands of the OSI, essentially nukes the Guild from within, killing the entire Council Of 13 (save for a handful of lucky escapees and defectors) and planning to wipe out the rest of his enemies — including the vampiric Investors, multiple generations of Team Venture, several members of the OSI, and even the now-capable Revenge Society — with one fell swoop when they gather for the opening of the Venture-built Gargantua-2 space station. 

His plan ultimately fails, and long-held suspicions are confirmed about the powerful shapeshifter — The Sovereign is not, and never has been, actually David Bowie, but... 

Oof. That's a whole new gut-punch today.

It's not just Bowie's literal presence in the show that demonstrates how important he is to the Venture Bros canon, however; in addition to Bowie's likeness being used by the show's highest-ranking supervillain, The Venture Bros wears its love for the man on its sleeve in myriad ways, including The Sovereign's use of robotic attack dogs known as "Diamond Dogs", the inclusion of a flashback to a swingers' party at which original 1960s Team Venture member Colonel Gentleman (himself based on Sean Connery) spies a much-younger Bowie and declares, "Oh, you pretty thing!", resident albino Pete White dressing up like Ziggy Stardust for Halloween... and probably several other blink-and-you'll-miss-it throwaways to the late icon over the show's run.

However, perhaps Hammer and Publick's greatest achievement in terms of weaving Bowie into their show has nothing to do with The Sovereign or the Guild at all, but rather an entire scene in season one's Ghosts Of The Sargasso in which they seamlessly worked the tragedy of Major Tom — and lyrics of Space Oddity and Ashes To Ashes — into a canonical historical event, directly linking to the original Team Venture and even giving rise to the recurring character of ageing hero The Action Man. It's one of the most overt homages on the show, and one of the earliest indications of Bowie's inescapable influence on its creators.

There you have it; demonstrably, there simply couldn't have been The Venture Bros as we know it without David Bowie. That's not an aspect of his influence that will be as widely reported as his indelible contributions to the world of music, fashion and wider pop culture, but for the die-hard cluster of Venture fans that exists today, it's as important a facet of his incredible reach as any. 

As Publick poignantly summarised to CBR:

"I don't know if it will ever feel real, because his influence is so much larger than we could understand. Like, I'm saying, some 14-year-old next year is going to find out about David Bowie, and his world is going to change just like ours did. And we never got to sit with David Bowie and have him as a man affect our lives. We just had his deeds and the promise of Bowie."

Added Hammer: "He'll be affecting us for a very long time to come. He's part of the pantheon, you know? Ultimately, I feel bad for his kids and Iman, and the people who knew him, and had the luck to have them touch their personal lives. I didn't have that luck. I just had-- what he did affected me deeply. And that's still out there. That's still affecting me and it always will."

The Venture Bros' sixth season premieres on 31 January in the US.