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Let’s Hear It For The Anti-Heroes!

I churn through a lot of images in my relentless internet search for art to fill my Pinterest Galleries and Instagram photo stream, but something about this particular pinup (source unknown) made me pause and think about my comic book preferences.

my personal (anti) heroes

I love Marvel and DC the way I love Betty and Veronica — it is impossible to choose! The differences between the two groups of heroes is a whole ‘nother column (or a whole blog!), but a big part of that difference comes down to the nature of Marvel’s heroes …

… or, more precisely, Marvel’s anti-heroes.

TV Tropes offers as good a definition of anti-heroes as any — “… an antihero is a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero. (S)he may be bewildered, ineffectual, deluded, or merely apathetic. More often an antihero is just an amoral misfit.” That description certainly applies to the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and Sub-Mariner above, all of whom are among my favorite Marvel characters.

melodramatic Ben Grimm

The notion of the anti-hero seems baked into Marvel’s DNA — not surprising, given that so many of Marvel’s heroes were conceived as reactions to those pre-existing DC icons. Marvel’s heroes are not unique in their shades of gray, but the anti-hero trope is too central to Marvel’s heroes to be an accident: Spider-Man was hunted by the police; the Fantastic Four revolved around Ben Grimm’s troubled soul; characters like Hawkeye, the Black Widow, Quicksilver, the Vision, and the Scarlet Witch all began as villains. Luke Cage was an escaped convict. The Defenders boasted Subby, Hulk, and the Silver Surfer as charter members, and prided themselves on being a collection of misfits. Marvel had a whole stock of supernatural characters that weren’t always good guys — Ghost Rider, Werewolf By Night, Morbius, Tomb of Dracula, Son of Satan. The X-Men made being a shadowy outsider their raison d’être, and Marvel is working hard to introduce us to yet another group of roguish quasi-good guys with the launch of their Guardians of the Galaxy movie.

Batman -- anti-hero

DC has their anti-heroes too, of course. Batman was an anti-hero well before Frank Miller got ahold of him, and Swamp Thing is the greatest monster comic of all time. Many of Jack Kirby’s DC creations fit the mold — the Demon, and some of the most deeply troubled New Gods. But for the most part, when I think of DC, I think of sunny, Silver Age sentinels like the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Superman. I love DC’s characters — I just love them differently than Marvel — and didn’t really decode how different they were from Marvel’s core approach until coming across this random pinup …

Tell me about your favorite anti-heroes in the comments section, below!

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on July 16, 2014, in Pinups and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I think that Wolverine, Hulk, and Namor should be on the Mount Rushmore of anti-heroes. Maybe Batman is on there, too. He’s a bit tainted by the 60’s, though.

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    • DC does anti-heroes … there is certainly Batman, as you note, and Swamp Thing, Spectre, Doctor Fate, the Demon, and many others might qualify … but there is something about Marvel that seems to do that particular bit better. Sometimes it seems like EVERYONE is an anti-hero (as in most X-Men books), and it can get a little tiresome. But, still.

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  2. I agree Marvel does the whole anti-hero thing much better. But I dont like anti-hero title I like realistic heros instead. With the older DC comic the hero delt in black and white or good vs evil where Marvel said in the real world we deal in grey. The Thing is a great hero but he hated being what he was. He was powerful and invulnerable but he was a freaken rock! Marvel created heros but gave each of them their own morality. The Punisher believes in truth, justice and the American way and hell blow your head off to get it!

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    • I may have applied the “anti-hero” tag too broadly here. Certainly, a “more realistic” approach was key to Marvel’s growth in their earliest days — they caught the old DC napping and made the Big Three look like Your Dad’s Superheroes, while all the cool kids were plunging into the new world of Marvel. In the decades that followed, all comics have moved toward that “more realistic” mean, and overall I frankly don’t see a lot of difference between Marvel and DC in this regard, at least since the 1980s.

      Where I do see a difference, at least in terms of core character DNA, is in that idea of an “amoral misfit,” which I think we see a bit more on the Marvel side of the aisle. And here I think we need to define “amoral” as “not sharing mainstream morals.” I wouldn’t suggest that characters like Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and Punisher (a good one that I failed to mention!) are without their own morality — in fact, it is their various moral codes, however different from the mainstream, that make these character fascinating. But it is precisely because their moral compass points in a different direction that we like these characters in the first place.

      (Plus, Hulk Smash and purple pants — that would work regardless of moral orientation).

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  3. So, would Punisher qualify as an anti-hero? Or is he just a criminal who happens to kill bad guys? The same could be said for Vigilante (Adrian Chase) at DC; Or maybe the Kate Spencer version of Manhunter…lawyer by day, killing criminals by night. I think Marvel tried to make Venom into an anti-hero, though whether they succeeded or not is another question.

    For that matter, what about the Spectre and his harsh punishments for evildoers (especially when Fleisher was writing him)? Or even Jonah Hex…he could probably be called an anti-hero.

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    • These guys go against the grain because they break the “no killing” ethos that has been part of comics since the Silver Age, but I’m not sure it’s enough to make them anti-heroes all by themselves. I think deeper flaws and a more ambiguous moral compass is required. Rorschach from the Watchmen? Definitely an anti-hero. And those guys are on the spectrum, to be sure.

      Not really related, but it is interesting to note that the “no killing” aspect of superheroes — which feels so edgy when it is violated by guys like the Punisher — was grafted onto the original Superhero DNA that flowed out of the pulps. Guys like the Shadow had no problem splashing blood, and that violent nature was reflected in Batman’s early adventures, too. It was only in the Silver Age (and especially under the aegis of the Comics Code) that superheroes really started to clean up their act. (And because less interesting, in the main).

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