Vigilantes, anti heroes and the spaces in between.
By Ian Wells
Anti hero – A protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities. These individuals often possess dark personality traits.
Why as a population of comic collectors, book readers and movie goers are we continuously attracted to the story of the anti-hero? Where did the popularity begin? How have anti heroes evolved over the years? How have the lines between vigilante and anti-hero been blurred through the years? I will look to answer all these and more.
The Punisher and Daredevil are two vigilantes depicted as representing two very different philosophies in what they do. The Netflix series summed it up perfectly when Frank told Matt “Your just one bad day away from being me.” One aspect they do have in common is the changes their respective characters have under gone under different creators. Punisher made his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #129(1974). A series not famous for its violence and a far cry from the character portrayed by Jon Bernthal. He was initially not seen as more than a secondary character. Maybe it was the white go-go boots or maybe it was due to Death-wish hitting the big screen two years later. Either way he proved popular. Inevitably solo series followed. The biggest change ever in The Punisher’s publication history was the birth of the Marvel MAX line and the pairing with writer Garth Ennis. Although Ennis steps on the title of this blog by stating Frank only sees the world in black and white I’ll let it slide. The first story arc entitled ‘In The Beginning’ fleshed out Franks motivations and dedication more than ever before. Punisher and Daredevil are set apart by ones willingness to kill and the others faith in the justice system. How much dedication does Matt Murdock show to go out night after night to illegally aid the justice system he so strongly believes in and yet he sees it fail time and time again. That’s what takes us back to “Your just one bad day away from being me.” Matt Murdock is the side of you that thinks the best way to deal with a bully is through a show of determination and courage. Where as Frank Castle finds it better and maybe easier to sink to their level and give as good as he gets!
Everyone regards Batman as a ‘good’ vigilante. So I won’t be dwelling on him too long. In the early Kane/Finger years Batman used a gun. I know shock horror. Have stories ever been retconned or because they happened so far back in continuity they are just forgotten? Batman is more a Daredevil than a Punisher. Aiding the law of Gotham City with tactics of fear and incorruptibility. Even in Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns we get a Batman returning to fight crime and pushed to the limits. He beats a younger stronger adversary in the shape of the Mutants leader. He sees Harvey Dent return to being Two-Face and meeting his demise. The Joker tries one last attempt to destroy Gotham and the Bat. He fights government stodge Superman and during all this he still doesn’t kill. “There are seven working defences from this position. Three of them disarm with minimal contact. Three of them kill. The other hurts.”
Ben Affleck in his foreword for ‘Guardian Devil’ wrote he “would often route for Bullseye” if he was centre stage in the story. If all comic readers adopt this philosophy it explains how a character like Deadpool upon getting a solo series can go from antagonist to protagonist. Do you think all the people who have latched on to the ol’ Merc with a Mouth in recent years know he started as a villain. In fact in New Mutants #98 he’s more a henchman who gets his arse handed to him. He still walks the grey line. Obviously the Merc side of him has to actually partake some mercenary deeds. But in recent years his tried to join the X-Men and been an Avenger. The most heroic act I’ve read of his was in Rick reminder’s Uncanny X-Force. Come on we all thought if anyone was going to kill Kid Apocalypse it would be Deadpool. Every now and then though reminder would throw something in from left field. Like Wade chewing on Wolverine’s flesh while he was unconscious. So while Deadpool might not be the orthodox vigilante, he is still a character that has come from a dark place and faces adversity to make a difference.
The conventions of anti heroes being the cooler characters reaches far. Even as far as a galaxy far far away. Han Solo for all his roughish charm is a criminal. Well right up to the point where he volunteers to lead the assault on Endor’s forest moon. I’m not trying to upset people here I’m just telling it how it is. In Episode IV he’s there for the money! Did he shoot first? Of course he fucking did! In Empire he is ready to jump ship only for a cave in to change his plans. Yeah he’s got a price on his head but it’s there for a reason. What does he return to thirty years after the Rebellion has won? Being a smuggler. The scruffy nerf herder just can’t change.
Why has the popularity of Boba Fett endured for as long as it has? There are seven Star Wars films. Soon to be eight, then nine, then ten (A Star Wars film every year till we die). He has been in what 20 minutes? Oh and a whole film as baby Boba. In the original trilogy he is referred to by name once! So what’s the appeal? Paul Dini has always put it down to the black faceless T in the mask. It’s a fair point. If you lived on Tattooine would you rather dress like Luke or Boba? I’ve never been into cosplay but if someone was to give me a fully authentic Boba Fett costume I would wear it to every convention and never take the mask off when buying comics. I suppose having the expanded universe on his side has given Boba the same effect as Deadpool. If you have read ‘Enemy of The Empire’ he goes toe to toe with Darth Vader and at one stage has the edge. Your so close to forgiving him for nearly killing Han. I hope with these anthology films Bobe Fett isn’t plunged awkwardly into the Han Solo one. He deserves his own to make up for the Sarlacc Pit death! The night before I saw ‘The Force Awakens’ I dreamt a post credits scene of him escaping that bloody pit.
You can not talk vigilantes without going to Rorschach. Walter Kovacs a man more off the scale than Frank Castle. If any part of his character appeals to something inside of you please stop reading now and book yourself into see a shrink. But then again his heart is in the right place just not his head. He is affected by two horrific incidents that lead him to protecting others. It’s not really fleshed out in the story but we don’t know how violent he was while serving with the Minute Men. Rorschach seems to operate well with NiteOwl, more good cop, bad good. But again never touched upon how violent his bad good was. Maybe his violence is heightened when working alone? Rorschach takes us to another son of NYC. Travis Bickle. At the start of Taxi Driver he is portrayed as a good guy. He is good at his job and fairly well-respected. He has no fear as its stated he will drive anywhere. Travis is clearly not racist either as he will drive anyone in NYC’s melting pot culture. As the movie progresses Travis declines into his own world, believing his actions normal. But man isn’t he fucking cool while he’s doing it? Travis Bickle transcended the movie anti-hero to become a style icon! The coat, the Aviator sunglasses and the Mohawk. Everyone knows that look without knowing the plot of the movie.
In closing I could throw a rock into any medium and hit a decent vigilante/anti hero story. Equally I got hit a bad one. But the fact these types of stories have endured and are hugely diverse shows they aren’t going away anytime soon. I believe the popularity of these characters and the countless others like them is due to a number of factors. They appeal to any sense of injustice we may have faced. They appeal to the part of us that always wants to do the right thing. Standing up for the little guy and other good vs bad stereotypes. Mainly I believe it is down to the naive way of thinking we had as adolescents. Our younger selfs who thought a living of fast cars, fast food and fast women was a viable option. Nowadays I just use a vigilantes sense of dedication for inspiration when I work out!
About Ian Wells
Ian currently runs the THEBLOGOFCOMICSHOTTOPICS blog. Check him out on Twitter @IanWells87.
About Language of Bromance
Together Richard and Shawn formed the podcast The Language of Bromance and from there it has been nothing but fun. The duo laugh about things they go through, stories in the news and even getting serious discussing net neutrality along with other issues. Every so often their friendship turns to a bitter rivalry with their nerdiest creation the draft episodes. An original take on a best of or a top 10 list. The draft episodes are done like an NFL Draft 7 rounds where Richard and Shawn flip-flop picks on various topics.
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