The Cape and Cowl
Welcome to the age of the anti-hero folks! Gone are the days of purity and paternal pride, full bore are those of loner heroes and vengeful spirits. Why have we become so enamored with the anti-hero? What has changed in our cultural psyche to cause this fascination?
Rewind the clock about 80 years, back to when the first Action Comics were beginning to emerge, the American culture is still planting roots and war has become part of life. It is in this time that we start to see our fearless heroes and heroines begin to take shape.
The American psyche is far different then. The structured basis of American government and the rules purveyed by said government are accepted as fair and superior by a majority of its citizens. Going to war meant fighting for the freedoms of those at home and was considered righteous. Fully accepting all that was sent forth by the media was equally as patriotic and righteous.
We are America! The greatest nation on this here world! What reason would the government have to hide anything from its people? Why would an American citizen doubt the structures in place when all they see tells them their view of the world is correct and ordained by a god?
I find it hard not to look back at that time and shake my head, but why would people doubt the power of America then? Things were going pretty well. We had proven our military might and were an economic force to be reckoned with. Our elected officials and the citizens they represented seemed to be on the same page. Things were good, and when things are good, the heroes of the day tend to reflect that. Enter characters like Superman and Captain America, putting the beat down on Communists, Nazis, and mobsters wholesale, all while rocking the American colors.
These characters were pure manifestations of American pride and arrogance. Their one-liners were chock full of propaganda and people at it up.
"I fought your kind every day of that war, Zemo! You mocked democracy and said that free men were weak! Well feel this grip, Zemo - it's the grip of a man who loves liberty! Look into the eyes of your foe, and know that he will die for his freedoms! The world must never again mistake compassion for weakness! And while I live - it had better not!" - Captain America
That's all well and good Cap. World War II was an excellent time for America's righteous fury, but "while you were doin' time as a Capsicle," things changed.
Enter Seduction of the Innocent and Vietnam.
Seduction of the Innocent was a book written by Fredric Wertham and was published in 1954. Much like the video game witch hunts of today, Wertham put forth the idea that comics were corrupting America's youth, driving them to juvenile delinquency. Never to be left out in the cold during a witch hunt, Congress put together a panel of out-of-touch, caucasian gentlemen, and got to work. The American Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency led directly to the comic industry setting up the Comics Code Authority.
The Comics Code Authority allowed publishers to censure the comic industry without government regulation, but this didn't mean anything, the fear of government wrath was planted deep. It took until 2011 for the last comic book publisher to move out from under the oppressive umbrella of the CCA.
This government interference and forced regulation directly undermined the patriotic nature of comics up until this point, and began a rebirth of the characters occupying each colorful page.
Not one year after the CCA was established did the Vietnam War begin, and comic book readers began to shift their attention away from mainstream comics to underground comics.
Found in head shops and other avenues of the "less than reputable" persuasion, underground comics became a platform for commentary on the war, drugs, sexuality, and politics, fueling an already growing movement with vivid imagery and poignant prose. These underground comics never overtook the sales of the mainstream, but they fundamentally changed the view of many of the countries prominent authors and illustrators, as well as giving birth to a new era of the same. Stan Lee and Alan Moore should be enough as far as name drops go. Not only were these men sucking down the illicit substances, but they were beginning to see that a hero needed to take a different, much more complex form. This insight, combined with imagination now fueled by billions of bytes of world-wide terror and violence has led us to today's ideal warrior...the anti-hero.
The anti-hero, by definition, is a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.
Now, I understand that this is the definition, and to argue a dictionary entry is blasphemy, but this definition is so far from how I see the anti-hero that I can't let it stand.
There are three main tenets that define the anti-hero for me. Not only do these tenets define the character, but they point to why the anti-hero has risen in popularity over the years.
First and foremost, the anti-hero walks alone. Sure, there are instances when you find them teaming up to take down big-dog villains, but, for a majority of the time, the anti-hero operates under their own set of rules.
For the introverted section of the populace, this is an instant win, and is certainly an alluring characteristic for the rest. The reason being, a lone wolf serves to illuminate the hero and to make him/her so attractive through their inner struggle, their moral conundrum. The anti-hero answers to no governmental body or corporate structure, only their own pained and fragmented mind. The character lives on a raw nerve at any given point in time, leading the reader to suspect they could snap and do the unthinkable...become a villain.
This raw nature does two things: Firstly, it establishes the character as broken; and since the character is a loner, the only way they can mend is through their inner thoughts and actions.
Secondly, this raw nature allows the reader to know that the character understands both fear and pain, setting them on a very human plain.
These two very important attributes lead to one very important question: Why is the anti-hero not a villain?
The anti-hero is not a villain because they approach fear in a far different light. The villain uses fear to dominate the subject, turning the most primal of human instincts into a weapon. Instead of fighting against the fear, the average normal human hides away from the villain, thinking themselves too small to make a difference (sound familiar?).
The anti-hero uses fear to inspire greatness in those that understand the fear. Instead of subjugating, the anti-hero encourages a following, a renaissance of human aggression if you will. Only Bruce Wayne has set out to achieve this end, but all the others do it without any effort towards the same. They do this by always directing their fear and anger at a single source, where as the villain vents anger without limitations.
I hear the argument that both of these are the same, and in many cases, the outer perception of the heroes actions can seem this way, but as a reader we know better. As a reader, we have the ability to glimpse private motivations, to grasp histories, to love the broken spirit. In doing so, we come to find the heart of our hero.
Make no mistake, the hero that straps on the suit and takes on the villain is just as crazy as said villain. They share the same depth, but differ greatly in will. Will is what allows the hero to remain true, to remain whole. The anti-hero is no different.
The anti-hero may not have the high-brow moral convictions of a Superman or Cap, but they understand innocence, and they understand their own power. The anti-hero dwells in darkness, allowing them a deep glimpse into the eyes of the people they protect. There are no far off ice palaces or mansions that protect the anti-hero from knowing humanity.
In this knowing, they come to understand that very little of them remains that they would call happy, or innocent. Upon this realization comes the promise to hold tightly to this innocence, and to protect it from villainy whenever possible.
This is why we love the anti-hero. Through the constant barrage of greed, lust, and violence, they find us and whisper that we need not fear the coming day. They tell us to stand strong, to be vigilant, to guard those small ports of hope that still remain. They let us know it is okay to be broken.