A Few Reasons to be Pro-Anti-Hero

On the at-the-most annual occasion of starting a role playing videogame, say Mass Effect, I pretty much always play the “good” version of the character. Oh, sure, once in awhile, when the option presents itself, I get a little rude or manipulative, but you look at my RPG characters and you’ll see a score card that point overwhelmingly to “Paragon”.

I like being the good guy.  I figure I am never going to have enough time to play the game more than one time fully through, so I might as well go the way I “should” go.  I hear about other friends going through the same games in “bad” mode and part of my envies their ability to so completely commit to being the bad guy, while the other part of me wonders about their emotional life.

A few weeks ago, I picked up the last 9 issues of Punisher MAX, largely based on the rave reviews the book has been getting from the guys on the Pick of the Week Podcast.  I had avoided the book because…well..I mean, I just sort of thought I “got it” with the character. Angry guy, kills a lot. I sympathized with his origin, at least the part about going freakin’ crazy after watching his wife and children get killed in front of him.

When I finished  Punisher MAX #16, I had to hand it to Jason Aaron–he got me thinking about Frank Castle in a very different way, which I was both appreciative of and mildly frustrated by.  First, he spun that pivotal moment in a very different way than I had imagined in my head, which changed, very much the…noble? understandable? motivation that was in place for the character before. Frank is now much more complex, more scary and less relatable, at least to me, than before. Now we have Frank less driven by revenge and more from almost this unrelenting need to…well, punish, I guess.

Will I still read the book now that I am even less comfortable following his antics? Oh yeah, totally. I’m hooked. It’s such a look into a truly specific state of mind and a kind of pain that is just so insanely seductive to get a glimpse into.  That and Ennis just continues to hit it out of the park, book after book. Punisher MAX strikes me as this fascinating hybrid: part deconstruction of why a man is the way he is and a redefinition, changing things just a bit to make the character that much more engaging.  Now that Aaron and Ennis have kind of hit the emotional and narrative climax of the story, it should be really interesting to see where they take it.  Part of me almost feels like they could have ended it on book 16, but obviously a larger part of me is happy that this not the case.

My experience with this story really got me thinking about what the whole “anti-hero” thing was all about.  The dictionary entry I’ve got here is almost laughable: a central character in a story, movie, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.  And while it is tempting to just wave a hand and say, “Well, everyone loves the villain,” that’s not entirely true either.  The villain, I think, is fun because you know that the badder this bad guy or gal is, the more insane the punishment–usually. The best kinds of villain provide you just enough stress for you to really get worried so that when the villain does get his comeuppance, the release you feel makes an impact, a relief, that makes the story that much more memorable and compelling.

I was talking to a few folks about the concept of the anti-hero, and it was odd, it actually took us awhile to kind of start naming a few of them. We all knew about them, but when pressed, we kept falling back into the definition to give us some grounding. Of course, you start talking about this too long and you can start making the case that Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm is sort of a post-modern anti-hero. I do kind of think that, by the way, oddly enough.

One of the reasons people like Larry David as a character is because he says what everyone else is thinking at the time they are thinking about it, situation be damned, and doesn’t care if people think he is being rude or a jerk. He is a hero for us, to be doing something that we want to be done, that does address a wrong, he’s just doing it in a way that, well…we may not be comfortable with. Push that a little harder (okay, a lot harder) and you have Frank Castle.

Wolverine is another anti-hero that came to mind. He’s charming once you get to know him and I do like him as a character, but every once in awhile I have to force myself to realize that the thing he’s the best at is killing people.  Yes, I take some anemic comfort that the people he is killing (and yes I know this is all made up but I am just talking here) probably deserved it, but, like, in my normal life killing doesn’t make it on my list in terms of dealing with most problems, unless you are talking about bugs and/or doing really well in a creative activity.  I know that writers have gone and investigated Wolverine’s past quite a bit and have done a good job explaining how much of a cold killer he used to be, but still, at the end of the day, I just like that he likes to drink beer with Captain America. Love that.

Anti-heroes seem to have a strong sense of duty, or, at least, some kind of consistent morality that “even they” abide by. That is clearly what differentiates them from the villains, that they have a code that makes them that much more reputable, that much more honorable – even if they keep the specifics of that code to themselves.  I guess the classic line would have to be killing innocents, specifically children; I am reminded of the scene where Kingpin is yelling at Bullseye to stop killing women and children as Bullseye works to “understand” Frank Castle.  Makes sense, we can take violent actions to a point, but truly destroying innocence is villainy.

I have been going back and forth with Kingpin being an anti-hero, and I come up on the side of villain pretty consistently. The only real reason why I was even thinking about it was because I really enjoyed the issue of Daredevil when Kingpin is just living in Italy (or was it Greece?) and hanging out with this woman and living a really nice, quiet life, where he was unencumbered by the expectations of being an evil crime boss, and living by the sea. That idyllic story was cut short–it had to be, this is comics — but I did enjoy it…but it doesn’t make him any less a villain. He’s just a bad guy whose humanity came out for a second, but, for whatever reason, is never to be fully embraced.

Last night I had some really crazy, frenetic, just way out there dreams featuring the latest (and one of the most insane) anti-heroes in my life, Butcher Baker, the star of Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker, which is the latest book from iFanboy favorite Joe Casey and madman/artist Mike Huddleston.  This is an acid drenched, booze-fueled explosion of a book, and the character Butcher, is, for me, one of those characters you’re just happy to be around to meet.

For those of you not reading this book (and it’s not for everyone, certainly not for kids), Butcher Baker is a retired American super soldier/hero who is called out of retirement (by Jay Leno and Dick Cheney, no less), to take care of some business.  As I write this, we’re only five issues in (should be a gorgeous trade–Huddleston’s artwork is amazing, and it must be said that iFanboy friend Sonia Harris does some really gorgeous design work in each issue) and the plot is just really starting to boil, but as an anti-hero, Butcher really fits the bill. He’s the kind of guy you want at a party, just not at your party, where your stuff might get broken, and the kind of guy who you’re happy to see leaving the party (though you might be tempted to go out the door with him to see what’s next). He’s crass, rude, has a high opinion of himself and terrifically violent…but he has a sense of duty and responsibility that is endearing. And like many good protagonists, he’s got personal flaws and problems, which makes him sympathetic.

Anti-heroes have our sympathy. It’s often only because something really bad happened in their lives that forced the world to add “anti-” to “hero.”  I sympathize with Frank: his personality type was perfectly designed for the horrors of hell, and once there, it was impossible for him to leave it behind. Wolverine is not all that different, though I sympathize more for his many lifetimes of pain and ghosts and murder and solitude. Butcher is the invention of a country that made him a hero, but robbed him of a real foundational way to, find, ahh…release and peace.  Release and peace.

But we can’t sympathize with the anti-hero too much, because guess what? They don’t need your sympathy. They don’t want it.  Jonah Hex certainly doesn’t care about you or your feelings or whether or not you are grateful to him or whether or not you want him dead. One of the real wonderful accomplishments of Jonah Hex was giving audiences a chance to really get to know one of the most endearing anti-heroes out there, once forgotten, and now almost an icon (at least in comics, I don’t think the movie did much of anything for him).

In the end, the anti-hero is alone, by choice or by circumstance, and prefers it that way. The anti-hero is bad, and he knows it, and knows that he will never not be bad, and accepts it. This willingness to accept oneself for who one is, whether it be beautiful or terrifying, is, I think, one of the reasons the anti-hero is such a captivating, enduring and seductive character. We idealize him at our own risk, we seduce him at our own peril (ladies apparently love them), and we can only blame ourselves when – not if – he disappoints us.


Addendum: Clearly, there are several fantastic female anti-heroes to write about, including Elektra, Catwoman and Black Cat. I just got on this kind of a male anti-hero roll, I guess. I regret the omission and look forward to writing about these amazing characters soon.


Mike Romo is an actor in LA who has lots of pros…and cons, if he’s going to be honest. Find him on twitter and Facebook, or drop him a line via electronic mailings.



  1. That might be the most PC Addendum I’ve ever read. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    I may have to grab some PunisherMAX issues tomorrow.

    • If your not reading Punisher Max your definetly missing out

    • I’ve never been a big Punisher fan, but I’ll give it a shot.

    • I gotta agree with Neeks – PunisherMAX is one of the best books around. There are no powered superheroes or supervillains in any of the MAX stories – these are more like crime/adventure/mafia stories than the traditional Punisher stories in the Marvel U. I personally do not like it when he interacts with super-folks. This also applies to the previous Ennis run that started in 2004 under the MAX imprint. Fantastic stuff.

      If I were you, I would go back and read the Garth Ennis run that started in 2000 (Volume 4), even though it is pre-MAX, because it has great characters and writing. It’s still messed up, just not as overtly graphic and with less dirty words.

    • I can never understand the praise the book gets. It wasn’t terrible, but it has some of the most gratuitous “comic-booky” writing this side of Garth Enis. Here’s how Jason Aaron sets up his villains:

      “So this Stilt-Man is supposed to be some hot-shot?”
      “You don’t know man, he had a contract where the target was in hiding so he kidnapped his septugenarian mother, raped her and then kidnapped his daughter and raped her and then had her have sex with the mother and then posted the video on youtube.”

      So this is not a quote from the book, but it isn’t any less ridiculous.

    • My only experience with Pun Max is picking it up about a year ago and there was an entire sequence with a man walking around with his eyeballs dangling out of his head wondering why he could not see. It didn’t feel “extreme” or “over the top” or “ultra-violent.” It just seemed silly and ridiculous, and it’s kept me from trying out that book all this time.

  2. what? no love for the Mega City One’s finest, Judge Dredd?

  3. I’m one of those who can’t seem to play as a renegade in video games given the choice. I feel like I would be missing out on the ‘real’ ending if I played the character as bad.


  4. Judge Dredd! totally — he’s awesome.

    Sorry if I sounded too PC–I just am usually better about balancing out my pieces, you know?

  5. I have always been partial to anti-heroes. However, I also love a true blue hero, like Spiderman, who always always tries to do the right thing for the right reason. I don’t think that there are really a ton of anti-heroes in traditional comics, but there are plenty in the indie books that are excellent.

  6. Anti-Heroes are the best kinds of Heroes. I mean really who is more entertaining to follow? Superman or Batman? Bats wins almost all of the time. It is because of that fine line that these types of heroes walk on that is one bad step away from becoming a straight up villain. I guess the only way to really sum the idea and the attraction of the anti-hero would be from The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” So tragically true.

  7. Catwoman is a character that I can’t never quite define if she is criminal or a anti-hero.

  8. I think that space where a character’s intention doesn’t quite match up with his/her execution is where the most interesting personalities lie. Whether it’s a bad guy doing “good” for selfish purposes, someone insane who thinks she’s doing a good thing even though it’s “bad”, or someone who wants to do the right thing, but goes about it in the wrong ways, that struggle is what I want to read about.