“At midnight, all the agents and the superhuman crew come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.”
Why Our Culture Needs Anti-Heroes
Over the recent years we have seen an increased acceptance of anti-heroes in pop-culture. From Din Djarin in The Mandalorian, to Marvel characters such as The Punisher, Deadpool, Wolverine, and even Thanos — it is more normal today to have characters who do not exhibit the same traits as that of a conventional hero or villain. Rather, they are morally ambiguous, and could not be easily pigeonholed as either one.
The idea of anti-hero isn’t exactly new. It can be traced back to its early usage in Ancient Greek dramas and other works of literature including Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and The Stranger by Albert Camus.
In a similar vein, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche conceptualized the Übermensch, or superhuman, who transcends conventional definitions of good and evil and in turn, establishes his own values in his aim for humanity’s enhancement.
It’s important for us as a society to embed anti-heroes into our culture, as they render a truer representation of the world we live in. As human beings, we are primarily motivated by our self-interest. We don’t always act altruistically, at least not as consistently as how it is portrayed in superhero stories.
It is in our human nature to struggle between our ideal values and our instincts, and it is this struggle that makes anti-heroes relatable.
Creating an Anti-Hero
So, how do we set out to create an anti-hero? Let’s take a look at one of the most critically-acclaimed graphic novels of all time, Watchmen.
While it is more common to see anti-heroes today, Watchmen was perhaps the first to extensively present them for a mainstream audience. And when it did, it broke its readers and breathed new air into the well-worn genre of comic books.
Watchmen teaches us that to create relatable anti-heroes, we must first make them more human. Nearly all the superheroes in Watchmen are not only without superpowers, but they inherently have their own tragic flaws.
Secondly, there must be internal struggle. Watchmen is set in an alternate history where superheroes are outlawed, nations are caught in a Cold War and the Doomsday Clock nears midnight as the world stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation. The central characters have a common struggle in overcoming their nihilism, as they have their own ways of dealing with what they perceive to be a morally bankrupt world.
It’s ultimately debatable who the real hero or villain is in Watchmen, or whether they exist at all.
As the writer Alan Moore remarked, “I think we must get away from the idea of heroes and villains so that we can see our world is made up simply of people, sometimes weak people, sometimes strong people, people working for their misguided ends or whatever…What I was trying to say in Watchmen is that we all make the world.”
Watchmen is essentially the sum of the individual perspectives of its central characters. As we have a glimpse of each of their radically opposing worldviews and their struggles, we slowly attain a more holistic understanding of the story.
We have The Comedian, who sees the madness of the world and chooses to embrace his nihilism. As his name implies, he sees life as one big joke. He doesn’t take his actions seriously and is willing to commit violence. In this alternate history, he works as President Nixon’s personal assassin, even averting the infamous Watergate scandal. In spite of his supremely nihilistic exterior, the story shows that he does exhibit knee-jerk reactions, particularly remorse in several events.
Dr. Manhattan is the only character with superpowers. He could see through time, teleport, and bend the world to his will on an atomic scale. Yet, with all his power, human life is of little concern to him. He sees the world in very cold, objective and logical terms. He could easily alter the outcome of events, but chooses not to, because he knows that human nature never changes. Slowly, however, he does come to realize the value of human life.
Ozymandias is known for his vanity and ambition. Just like the other characters, he had to confront the reality that being a superhero makes little difference — because nuclear warfare is inevitable, and human beings are going to kill each other anyway. However, this only stoked his ambitions of bringing world peace. He adopts a utilitarian worldview and masterminds a plan to unite the world, at the cost of sacrificing millions of innocent lives.
Rorschach is broken by the world due to his abusive childhood, and his experience of investigating horrific crimes. As symbolized by his mask, he has developed a black-and-white worldview of morality. People are either good or evil, and evil must be punished with no compromise. Rorschach might sound like an ideal hero, but he isn’t — he brutally murders criminals out of his own judgment, and accounts for his actions as justice. Eventually, as the story demonstrates, his black-and-white morality fails in the evidently complex world.
Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are perhaps the most normal among the Watchmen’s central characters. They acknowledge the world’s absurdities, but unlike the other characters, they triumph through their nihilism by finding a sustainable meaning — and that is, their selfless love for one another.
As reflected in Watchmen’s central characters, anti-heroes are definitely complex, at least compared to the one-dimensional heroes and villains that we might be more used to seeing.
And as I’ve mentioned, anti-heroes struggle with themselves, just like the rest of us do. If we reflect this truly in our work as creatives, this is how we can touch a vulnerable part in our audience — this is how we leave an indelible mark in their lives. And this is worth all the sweat that goes into our work.
To reiterate the great Southern novelist William Faulkner’s advice to young writers, “The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
“He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
“The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things…The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”