As a kid I became aware of the classification ‘anti-hero’ relating to 70s movies (Travis Bickle, Paul Kersey), but my definition of the term starts with a paperback ‘pulp’ novel series, Don Pendleton’s The Executioner.
Begun in 1969, The Executioner told the story of Mack Bolan, a decorated Viet Nam vet, whose family is destroyed by the Mafia (father gets in with the sharks, kills mother and self, brother is killed by mobsters, sister is forced into prostitution). Bolan returns to the States and, using his military skills, declares war on them. He spends the next thirty-eight books (from #1 War Against the Mafia to #38, Satan’s Sabbath) murdering hundreds, thousands of mobsters and causing all kinds of mayhem among organized crime. However–he never kills civilians, and always goes out of his way to save them. He’s known as ‘The Executioner’ on the battlefield, but also as ‘Sergeant Mercy’ because of his concern with the innocent victims of war. He never hurts cops, and always plans for getting the non-combatants out of harm’s way. Brave, honest, dedicated to his friends and his sense of honor, Bolan is a perfect ‘classical’ hero…plus, he kills a lot of bad guys.
That is an anti-hero.
See, I agree with Chuck Norris (this post’s title) and with this week’s topic, ‘Anti-hero Doesn’t Mean Bad Guy’. To me, there’s a world of difference between ‘bad guy’ and ‘anti-hero’. I’ve always believed that since the base of ’anti-hero’ is ‘hero’, the heroic underlies everything the anti-hero does. The ‘anti’ describes the perspective of society on the hero because of his actions. Sort of like what’s legal and what’s just: the hero does good within the framework of laws; the anti-hero pursues justice without regard to society’s legal niceties. The hero represents the will of society; the anti-hero, the will of a higher authority.
There was a terrific take on this in one of the many ‘Untold’ origins of Batman, and helps to define some small part of Batman’s perspective:
Bruce Wayne is in law school, and a professor offers a situation for analysis. “A man and his friend rob a convenience store. The man drives the getaway car, hits and kills a pedestrian. Is the friend liable for murder?”
Bruce says no; he’s an accessory to the robbery, but he had nothing to do with the auto accident. He’s wrong–both men are equally guilty. Bruce asks, “But is that justice, professor?” The professor replies: “No, Mister Wayne, that is the law.”
Batman knows the difference between the two. As a good anti-hero, he acts accordingly.
I used to enjoy anti-heroes, like Mack Bolan, Sapir and Murphy’s incomparable Remo Williams, Graham Masterton’s Harry Erskine or George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman, but somewhere along the line, Pop Culture decided to throw a curve and, instead of focusing on ‘hero’, focused on ‘anti’. Suddenly criminal characters, cruel and violent characters, were dressed up with families and ‘normal’ concerns and called anti-heroes. I declare shenanigans on that. Tony Soprano was an evil man who murdered and tortured people; feeding ducks and having mother issues might make him more relatable, but not heroic. Despite how charming he is, Hannibal Lecter can never be a hero. And don’t get me started on Tony Montana.
(I’d reference The Wire here as well, but…dammit, I tried to get into it! I watched the first season, and it just didn’t hook me.)
I’ll say it again–anti-heroes are still heroes; bad guys are not, even when pop culture tries to tell us differently.
I think this redefinition of ‘anti-hero’ reflects a shift in societal perspective. In a culture that lionizes drug dealing rappers and pimps, that lauds the overly-tattooed and angry as visionary, it’s no longer enough to be good. That’s boring. It’s no longer enough to be a hero with flaws (a term I think is sort of redundant–all humans have flaws, and heroes do as well). Now it seems the hero has to be fallen, on the same level as the villain or below, and I just don’t agree with that. I think trying to stay good, especially in today’s world, provides more than enough drama and challenge for us as writers and the hero as character. I want to root for my heroes to do the right thing, not just do the wrong thing a little less. Give them all the choices, and see what they do. Heroes do the right thing, bad guys don’t. ‘Anti-’ is only a perspective.
Until next time.