Antiheroes

A quick survey of the geek landscape reveals that geeks love a good tale of heroics. Whether it’s warriors rescuing damsels, rebels fighting the evil Empire, superheroes punching villains, or sexy chicks kicking vampires, geeks are always happy to see some good old Manichean duels.

Or at least, they used to be.

At some point it was decided that out-and-out heroes were “lame” and “boring” and heroes needed to be darker. In the comic books, characters such as Wolverine (slices with razor-sharp claws) and the Punisher (shoots people) became the new breed of anti-heroes, and the geek world has never looked back. These days there’s no point in presenting a new hero to the masses without first having him kick a kitten or set a baby on fire to prove how badass he is.

The badassness of current heroes is not to be understated. For geeks, a hero should dress in black leather and/or a trench coat, be a loner, be ultra violent, have little mercy for his foes, and make supposedly witty wisecracks constantly. In other words, he should be a projection of how the geek imagines himself to be. It goes without saying that women should throw themselves at him for no fathomable reason.

For the geek, this sort of antihero is more realistic and less childish than heroic heroes. It’s a known fact that as far as geeks are concerned, “darker” means “more realistic and mature,” even when such darkness is taken to ridiculous cartoon levels.

Of course, every antihero must demonstrate that he’s more badass than the rest, providing an ever-lowering bar for them to slither under. Since geeks never know when enough is enough, this has resulted in all sorts of despicable persons being labeled as heroic by geeks.

A hero mows down innocent bystanders.

A hero mows down innocent bystanders.

This is compounded by the fact that geeks don’t know the difference between “hero” and “protagonist”, so they assume that the lead character in any work of fiction is supposed to be admired and emulated. As a result, many so-called anti-heroes are actually villains, with few redeeming features. There are two notable examples of this. The British comics character Judge Dredd began his life as a parody of ultra-violent dark “heroes” and now is considered one. The other notable character is Alex from A Clockwork Orange who is a sadistic criminal, yet is seen as an “antihero” simply because the system opposing him is somewhat worse.

For geeks, the trend towards antiheroes and villains means that they are free to remain self-interested assholes and still feel they’re the “good guys.” They don’t have to feel bad about themselves for not trying to act like decent people, and instead can congratulate themselves for being more mature and honest. As an added bonus they get to wear clothes that they believe make them look cool and dangerous.

So because they convince geeks that assholes are really cool, geeks LOVE antiheroes.

30 Responses

  1. Excellent blog, painful because its true. I especially appreciated the bit about how antiheroes are more “mature” than heroes :)

  2. Just found your site. Funny stuff. But while I appreciate the humor of what you’re saying here, and realize that “it’s only funny cuz it’s true” (to quote Homer Simpson), I have to say you kind of overstep yourself a bit.

    For instance, you reference Rorschach, but don’t seem to grasp that none of the characters in Watchmen are meant to be taken seriously — Alan Moore deliberately wrote that series as a deconstruction of the comic book genre. Bottom line: Moore was essentially making the same point you are, but in an artistic way. Rorschach is intended as an exaggeration, and I’m fairly certain that most geeks who have read that series understand this, and don’t honestly think of him as a hero. Likewise for Miller’s dark future version of Batman.

    Characters like Wolverine and Punisher, though — you’re dead on there. Those two in particular have gotten way more interest than they should have in the past 20 years, and probably for some of the reasons you list.

    But you also seem to be ignoring some of the truly effective anti-heroes in comics, which predate the ones you’re talking about by as much as 50 years, and still remain relevant today. Like Batman. Or Catwoman. Or Sub-Mariner.

    Anyway, funny stuff. But kind of an oversimplification. You could have used better examples to make your point.

  3. I’m fairly certain that most geeks who have read that series understand this, and don’t honestly think of him as a hero. Likewise for Miller’s dark future version of Batman.

    Thanks, kid, I really needed some yuks this morning. You should try doing standup!

  4. Andrew, seriously? Have you actually ever read the Watchmen? If so, do you honestly think it would make sense and/or be entertaining to anybody who didn’t understand that it was being satiric? It’s not like reading a bang-bang-shoot-em-up Punisher book, or chuckling as Wolverine says “bub” for the umpteen-thousandth time. As written, it’s a story that isn’t going to appeal to somebody looking for a superficial adventure/wish-fulfillment fix — in fact, it almost dares you not to like it.

    Anyway, I get it — HA HA, very funny, most geeks are too stupid to understand irony and satire, therefore any distinction between Alan Moore’s watershed work and the ten million appearances of Wolverine is lost. Point made. Don’t you feel superior now?

  5. “Now?”

  6. So it IS geek-baiting after all! That’s a relief, I wasn’t sure up until now. That’s lucky, because now I don’t have to make a geek-centric argument. (I had one too – did Captain America shoot people? Hrm, I think he did. Was Batman a cruel mammajamma even back in the 1940s? Hrm, I think he was. But I digress.)

    But instead, I can point out that people (read “geeks” if you wish) lost interest in the Tolkien-style struggle against Manichaean Evil because it was trite and morally simplistic, and allowed scenarios where entire groups of people were deemed inherently evil and deserving of death.

    But you said this yourself, in a roundabout way, with your picture of the Matrix above. Why does Neo gun down everyone in sight? Because, in that setting, every single person in the world can suddenly turn into a killer sunglasses dude and kill you. So he had a good reason – but it’s still wrong and sad! Away goes our pure vision of Manichaean Computer Evil as we realize that killing the unwitting tools of an evil authority has pathos of its own.

    So you are, in fact, calling for a reflection on a more complex morality even as you say that morally complex characters are ungood. Shame be upon your self-contradiction!

  7. I’m dying to know what’s morally complex about Neo.

  8. Geeks lost interest in Tolkien.

    Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha

  9. Also, to count literary coup on you, I will ask you to notice the difference between an ANTI-HERO and a FLAWED HERO. Ignore for a moment whatever Wikipedia may say, and recall to yourself these definitions:

    HERO = n heroic qualities (strong, more strong, nice, strong et cetera. What they don’t have, doesn’t matter.) Example: I dunno, Captain Marvel or something.
    Note: Pure heroes generally experience little inner conflict except when they have to make difficult choices – which are then outwardly expressed anyway.

    FLAWED HERO = n-1 heroic qualities (heroic except for violent temper or too much ambition or blind obedience to authority or whatever.)
    Example: Macbeth, Achilles, Batman, insert many action heroes here.
    Note: Nothing adds dimension to a character like the suggestion that they actually have to think about the things that they do, or have some kind of internal dialogue beyond “la la la kittens”.

    ANTI-HERO = 0 heroic qualities (weak, weak-willed, vacillating, annoying, pathetic.)
    Example: Willy Loman, Holden Caulfield.
    Note: Provide plenty of examples for characterization and suffering and angst – but, they don’t really do very well in action stories because they don’t have a lot of energy.

    The “anti-heroes” you describe above are generally actually flawed heroes (when they exercise their morally-grey options under their own power) or regular heroes (when they’re forced into a morally-grey position by circumstances).

    In other words, you’re using the word wrong. Or should I say, incorrectly. :)

  10. Still waiting to hear about Neo!

  11. Hey SGL host, I think you have a new topic. “Crushing Pendantry.” Because there’s nothing geeks love more than quibbling over definitions while avoiding the larger point.

  12. Also, to count literary coup on you

    Stuff Geeks Love: Appropriating Native American Culture and Mixing Metaphors.

  13. C’mon, guys, vicariously living through fictional sociopaths is hella kewl!

    Put on a black trenchcoat and get with the program, already!

  14. I suppose I was hoping way to much in assuming that people would just accept the jokes for what they were and move on with their lives.

    I have no earthly idea why I thought that, as nothing I’ve seen on the internet thus far has led me to that conclusion…but still. It was nice to hope.

  15. Stuff Geeks Love: Defending their interests without a hint of introspection or self-awareness.

  16. bg, just because it’s humor doesn’t mean it’s beyond constructive criticism. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’m not saying the things I’m saying because my “geek pride” is wounded. I see the humor, and have openly laughed at least once during each of the posts, either because I see myself or see people I know in the jokes.

    My point is usually that in each of these posts, the humor tends to overstep itself by either: A) overgeneralizing too much; or B) using bad examples. One moment it’s clever and funny, the next moment it sounds kind of bitter and uninformed. Humor is hard to pull off, and I’m just pointing out where I think it falls flat.

    If the author isn’t open to constructive criticism, or doesn’t want to hear responses from the geeks he seems to be baiting, he doesn’t need to accept or post comments.

  17. If the author isn’t open to constructive criticism, or doesn’t want to hear responses from the geeks he seems to be baiting, he doesn’t need to accept or post comments.

    Or, conversely, you could stop playing the victim of an anti-geek conspiracy and simply stop leaving comments at a site that apparently offends you deeply.

  18. I’m with GeekBoy here. Those jokes about how airline food isn’t any good are totally unfunny because sometimes airline food isn’t so bad. I seriously doubt Jerry Seinfeld is even qualified to make such an observation anyway! Has he eaten food on EVERY airline? Come on.

  19. I like those cookies they give you on Southwest, but hate the cattle-call boarding.

  20. Dorian –

    A) I don’t remember ever inferring that there was an “anti-geek conspiracy”. Do you know of one that I’m not aware of? You know, besides high school football players.

    B) I haven’t once characterized myself as a “victim”. I’ve made constructive criticisms about the humor. I’ve maybe even defended some of the things being made fun of. But we’re all entitled to our opinions, aren’t we? If I disagree with you, does that make YOU a victim?

    C) I haven’t once said I was “offended”, deeply or otherwise, by anything said on this site. On the contrary, I’ve made it clear many times that I find the site funny … just not consistently so. I like the site so much that I included a link to it from my own site. Sounds to me like you’re the offended one in this scenario.

    Anyway, if my opinions aren’t welcome, all the author has to do is tell me so, and I’ll happily go away and remove the link from my site. I kind of thought the point of a blog was to build traffic, so more people will read it. But if the author is only interested in having a limited audience that kisses his ass and tells him how funny he is, that’s fine too.

  21. A) I don’t remember ever inferring that there was an “anti-geek conspiracy”. Do you know of one that I’m not aware of? You know, besides high school football players.

    Yeah, see what you did there? I hate to have to break it to you, but the high school jocks didn’t pick on you because you were a geek. They picked on you because you were an obnoxious, easily offended jerk that nobody liked, not even the kids that pretended to be your friends.
    Nobody likes a cry-baby.

  22. I think Neo was just chosen for the picture. If anything what makes that element of THE MATRIX disturbing is that it is kind of black and white morally- they work for the bad guys so kill they ass. (I think they cut down on this or at least de-emphasized that for the sequels.)

  23. Wow, Dorian … anger issues much?

    First of all, for better or worse, IT WAS A JOKE. I thought your “anti-geek conspiracy” comment was silly, so I was joking that the only people who might fall under that category are high school football players. You know, in keeping with the whole satirical generalization theme of the blog. Or is it okay to stereotype geeks, but not jocks?

    Secondly, “They picked on you because you were an obnoxious, easily offended jerk that nobody liked, not even the kids that pretended to be your friends.”

    WTF??? Who the hell are you to presume you know anything about me and/or to pass judgment on me? For the record, your portrait of me as a teenager couldn’t be more off the mark — but that aside, what kind of sociopath are you that you’re getting so angry about this? Why do you feel the need to resort to name-calling? It’s just stupid a blog. We’re talking about ideas. Lighten up.

  24. Wow, GeekBoy, projecting much?

  25. Projecting what exactly? So far, all you’ve done is call me names over and over. What I’m trying to figure out is why. Where’s all that anger coming from? Because I dared to criticize the author of the post? What’s that to you? Because I dared to have an opinion other than yours? God forbid.

    All I can guess is that I’ve ruined your experience of the website by going against the grain? If so, my apologies. I’ll try to be a better “house geek” from here on out, so I can live up to your high standard of intelligent discourse.

  26. “Stuff Geeks Love: Appropriating Native American Culture and Mixing Metaphors.”

    My goodness Dorian – You’re coming off as a bit of a pedant there yourself! Good work!

  27. And let us not forget the illustrious Ken Lowery, who clove through the unimportant literary discussion about antiheroes to address the Real Point: What about Neo?

    Neo is not morally complex in the least; he shoots everyone because everyone is an enemy. But, for the purposes of this discussion, Neo makes US reflect: would we really kill hundreds of people, fellow humans that we are supposed to be saving and who are only our enemies by circumstance, without the tiniest twinge of guilt or loss?

    Neo feels no guilt and that makes the rest of us wonder… well, some of us, anyway. And the titanic struggle between Good and Evil tarnishes somewhat as we wonder whether Bob the Security Guard is better off as a slave to the machines, or being capped by Neo and flushed down the toilet.

    So, to answer the Real Point of this discussion which you so keenly directed us towards, The Matrix is a treatment of the Good vs. Evil conflict that is so thoughtless, shallow and violent that it makes any reasonable person yearn for a story with complex, well-thought-out motivations and a conflict that rises above “kill or be killed because – killing!”

    Well, now that’s taken care of, we can get back to quibbling!

  28. bg,

    You are absolutely correct. This is the first time I have read comments here and like you, I don’t know why I didn’t expect it to turn into yet another episode of “When Wounded Geeks Attack!” Not only proving the author of these hilarious pieces right but also providing fresh meat for future posts. I’m almost afraid to read the comments on women characters.

  29. How true – look at the poor creatures respond to conjecture about themselves! It’s *almost* as if inciting drama were a common activity on the internet.

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