When nineteenth century English poet Lord Byron created the protagonist of his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, he gave birth to what we now know as an anti-hero or Byronic hero. An anti-hero, unlike a standard hero, lacks conventional heroic attributes, like selflessness and valiance. Namely, anti-heroes are typically cunning, ruthless, manipulative, reckless, self-destructive, self-serving, violent, and often pursue matters of justice over legality.
One example of an anti-hero is in Todd McFarland’s “Spawn.” A man named Albert Francis “Al” Simmons, a military assassin, is murdered and ends up in hell. There, he makes a deal with the Devil Malebolgia, a demon, to come back to Earth to exact vengeance on the employer who had him killed and to see his wife, Wanda. Unfortunately, Al is resurrected five years later as a hellspawn, a villainous creature from hell, unaware he is to fight for hell against heaven using his newly acquired powers. Instead of doing so, though, he goes rogue and begins a complex, bloody one-man battle against both heaven and hell, fueled by his anger and hatred, and inadvertently ends up defending humanity by sending demons back to hell and angels back to heaven. Eventually, he unintentionally becomes the guardian of New York City.
While Al Simmons displays many characteristics of an anti-hero (including most of the aforementioned qualities), the most notable are that he is spiritually doubtful (hence his battle with heaven and hell), traumatized (being murdered and going to hell would be enough traumatize anyone, I think), and suicidal (he commits suicide in “Endgame” by using his powers). However, he has an immeasurable love for his wife and surprising dedication to his self-appointed duty to protect the human race.
Another example of an anti-hero, and a somewhat surprising one, is “Batman’s” Harley Quinn. While she’s a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, Dr. Harleen Quinzel (who will later become Harley Quinn) becomes fixated with The Joker after he feeds her false tales of his traumatic childhood and flirts with her and soon believes she’s in love with him. She eventually begins donning a costume and becomes Harley Quinn, his self-proclaimed girlfriend and henchwoman. She does whatever she can to gain his approval, even helping him escape the asylum, though it is clear to readers and viewers that she is being manipulated (or that he loves her and abuses that love).
The anti-hero characteristics that Harley Quinn exhibits are that she is reckless because she causes havoc for fun, she’s emotionally tortured (perhaps by her love for The Joker), and self-destructive. She doesn’t do much, if anything at all, to help others, though. In fact, Harley Quinn seems to have total disregard for human life and is only loyal to herself and The Joker, even claiming “My love for my Joker was stronger than their madhouse walls.” She is a character who can live out our darker impulses and we connect with her flawed, but human moral compass (because she wasn’t always bad – she became that way through The Joker’s manipulation). “Harley has bite to her, and that’s what we want,” Barry Morris, professor of Pace University’s Media Studies, explained. “You get to be sort of a bad guy.”
Okay, so maybe Harley Quinn is a bit of a stretch.
But a more obvious example of an anti-hero is in Marvel’s “The Punisher.” After his family is brutally killed by the mob during a shoot-out at a park, Special Forces Marine veteran Frank Castle wages a war against organized crime. He had been failed by the justice system, so he set out on a mission to exterminate the mob and, well, all criminals. He is, by all accounts, a vigilante who uses murder, extortion, martial arts, stealth tactics, guerilla warfare, and many weapons. Frank Castle is driven by his need for revenge.
Another anti-hero, Rorschach of “Watchman,” named Walter Kovacs, is similar.
Rorschach is a masked vigilante (with an inkblot print over his face, hence his name) who dons a fedora-style hat and trench coat and has a good understanding of right and wrong. He believes evil should be violently punished and he uses gruesome means to execute those who do wrong. For example, after a man named Gerald Anthony Grice kidnapped and murdered a young girl in 1975, Rorschach used a meat cleaver to split the heads of the dogs who ate the pieces of her body after Grice butchered it. Then, he throws the carcasses at Grice. It can be said that he suffers from Paranoid Personality Disorder because of suspicion, general mistrust of others, and withdrawn nature. However, we get a glimpse into his psyche through his journal entries.
“The character of Rorschach has been well received by critics, reviewers and readers; he has also been awarded. In 1988, the character won the “Character Most Worthy of Own Title” category in the American Section of the Eagle Awards for comics released during 1987. Rorschach has been labelled the “obvious fan favorite” and the “flagship” character of Watchmen, and is often regarded as the most iconic and popular character of the series. Rorschach has also been frequently mentioned as one of the most memorable comic book characters of all time.” (Wikipedia.org)
In fact, Rorschach has been ranked the “6th Greatest Comic Book Character of All Time” by Wizard Magazine in 2008. He is important because can allow us to do all these things without sacrificing our humanity.
The above anti-heroes don’t even begin to scratch the surface of those in the Marvel and DC Universes. But they all have one thing in common: an insatiable need for revenge and to right the wrongs committed against them and others. Why do we need anti-heroes? Because, though most of us have a good understand of right and wrong, we all have a secret desire to be the “bad guy” and can do so through these characters. We need anti-heroes because they show us the dark parts of ourselves we refuse to acknowledge. We need anti-heroes because we need people to do the “dirty work,” to show us what bravery, empathy, and passion look like. We need people who will do what we aren’t able to.
We need heroes.
So, who is your favorite anti-hero and why?
Written by Alexa Linger