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A fitting ending for his kind, the hero remarked without compunction, as the adversary he just assaulted flailed toward a grisly demise into a vat of acid. This was, surprisingly, the Batman, at the conclusion of his first story—The Case of the Chemical Syndicate—in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). Granted, his foe, a murderous rat named Stryker, certainly deserved a comeuppance, but Batman's action was shockingly excessive. By conventional standards, heroes do not kill.

Nor did Batman for long: In under a year his editors at DC Comics forced the character's creator, Bob Kane, to align Batman with the law—The whole moral climate changed, Kane said; You couldn't kill or shoot villains.—and paired him with a buoyant Boy Wonder, Robin. For decades Batman was a costumed cop and a father figure, before being returned to his foreboding roots as an anti-hero, beginning in the 1970s in a creature of the night movement orchestrated by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams.

By definition, an anti-hero is a protagonist possessing qualities customarily considered non-heroic. An anti-hero may exhibit personality flaws such as self-absorption or pity, emotional extremes like rage or introversion, a distrust of accepted values, or a lack of social decorum. Conversely, a hero cut from the traditional cloth is altruistic and dedicated to righting wrongs while following the letter of the law.

Literary authors have long been enamored of anti-heroes: Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, for example, was a mischievous runaway who broke the law to liberate a slave. On radio dramas and in pulp magazines of the early twentieth century, the Shadow frightened criminals with his unholy, disembodied laugh, leaving a trail of corpses behind as he exacted justice, and the Green Hornet perpetuated the myth of his mob alliance to sting gangsters in entrapment ploys. In film and on television, anti-heroes are common, from the suave but roguish James Bond, to Clint Eastwood as the gun-slinging Man with No Name in the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), to Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackley, the brutal L.A. cop in the TV drama The Shield (2002–present). These anti-heroes engage in actions that are illegal, rebellious, or scandalous, but their motivations for doing so resonate with readers and viewers.

Sometimes, the line demarcating anti-heroism and villainy is blurred. The two sides are divided, however, by the understanding that the anti-hero is driven to attain a higher ideal. There's a little bad in everyone, be it the result of original sin or an innate desire to nurture self-indulgence. Hence, the popularity of anti-heroes: Their methods may be taboo, but their goals are (usually) laudable.

Namor, the pompous undersea superhero better known as the Sub-Mariner, was Marvel Comics' first anti-hero, premiering in 1939. The offspring of a human sea captain and a denizen of an aquatic race, Namor harbored venomous hatred toward the surface dwellers for underwater bombings that nearly exterminated his people (his very first story in Marvel Comics #1 concluded with the caption And so Namor, the Avenging Son, faces the surface men of the world, in what promises to be mortal combat!). With his awesome strength, his ability to fly (thanks to tiny wings on his ankles), his command of the seas, and his unbridled rage, Sub-Mariner regularly attacked the city of New York, toppling bridges and destroying buildings. During a momentous 1941 clash with the Human Torch, Namor flooded Manhattan with a massive tidal wave. These heinous measures never categorized the Sub-Mariner as a villain, however; as Peter Sanderson observes in his book Marvel Universe (1996), Readers understood that he abided by his own moral code, according to which he was a lone avenger and defender of his people. Once the United States became involved in World War II, Namor directed his ire toward the Axis powers, even rescuing Allied seamen. In 1962, after an absence from comics along with many other superheroes, Sub-Mariner returned to attack New York. Over time his hostility quelled, although readers of Marvel comics can never be sure if this unpredictable anti-hero will resurface as friend or foe.

Amazing Man, Centaur Publications' barely remembered superhero first seen in September 1939, was not adverse to stealing police vehicles and dropping bombs during his initial appearances, but, like Batman, was soon watered down and paired with a sidekick named Tommy the Amazing Kid.

Materializing in DC's More Fun Comics #52 (1940), the Spectre was the next anti-hero to appear in comic books. The Spectre was actually Jim Corrigan, a hard-edged gumshoe who was the victim of a gangland execution. Corrigan was turned away from the Pearly Gates by an ethereal voice: Your mission on Earth is unfinished You shall remain earthbound battling crime on your world, with supernatural powers For the first phase of his career in the early to mid-1940s, the Spectre was essentially a ghostly guardian who fought criminals with a bizarre array of occult abilities; he returned in the mid-1960s to tackle magical menaces. In an early 1970s revival by writer Michael Fleischer and artist Jim Aparo, the Spectre became a wrathful spirit, disposing of evildoers in an array of ghastly manners that included conjuring a giant pair of scissors to cut a man in half. This anti-heroic interpretation of the Spectre has propelled him through several revivals in the decades that followed.

MLJ Publications, best known for its wholesome line of comics starring teenage Archie Andrews and his friends, uncharacteristically published the adventures of two anti-heroes during comics' Golden Age (1938–1954). The first was the Comet (1940–1941), a volatile chemist named John Dickering who created a gas that enabled him to fly. The Comet also wielded destructive eye beams, which he used to disable and sometimes slaughter his foes. After seventeen stories, the Comet was waylaid by mobsters and murdered. His brother Bob swore to avenge his slain sibling as the cowled and cloaked Hangman (1941–1944). The Hangman terrified his prey by projecting his symbol, a noose, against a wall or even a foe's face, and was merciless in his missions. Both of these bleak anti-heroes originally appeared in a comic book titled, oddly enough, Pep Comics.

Shortly after the end of World War II, superhero comics suffered a precipitous plunge in popularity and most fell by the wayside. Cultural climates shifted as the United States lived in paranoia of the spread of Communism and of nuclear war. Heroes of that era represented traditional values, from Superman's truth, justice, and the American way to the old-fashioned prairie righteousness (shoot the bad guy) of popular Western TV shows and comic books. Then came Stan Lee.

In 1961 Lee had written and edited various Marvel Comics series for twenty years and was creatively depleted, ready to find another job. A corporate mandate to produce a superhero team (based on rival DC Comics' renewed success with the Justice League) inspired him to give the medium one last chance and create something different: superheroes with real personalities. With Fantastic Four #1 (1961), Lee and his partner, artist Jack Kirby, introduced the FF, a family of four often quarrelsome figures banding together as a force for good. While none of these characters were anti-heroes in the strictest sense, the FF's success encouraged Lee and Kirby to combine monster and superhero into one anti-heroic form with their next creation.

Is he man or monster or is he both? queried the cover copy of The Incredible Hulk #1 (1962). The Hulk, the strongest man of all time!!! as that same cover proclaimed, was a green-skinned behemoth (although gray in his first tale) who was actually a meek but repressed scientist named Dr. Bruce Banner. Banner was exposed to a devastating blast of gamma radiation, which should have killed him, but instead gave him an even worse fate: Whenever his anger consumed him, Banner would transform into the rampaging creature of rage, the Hulk. Like the Frankenstein Monster, the Hulk just wanted to be left alone, but the U.S. Army had other ideas, their efforts to apprehend the Hulk always goading him into destructive retribution. The dichotomy between Banner and the Hulk was originally portrayed as a Jekyll-and-Hyde switch, but in the comics of the 1980s it was given deeper significance by writer Bill Mantlo. Mantlo established that Banner experienced physical abuse as a child and repressed his rage for years, that anger later exploding uncontrollably as his Hulk persona. Director Ang Lee nurtured this concept when he brought the emerald anti-hero to the big screen in the blockbuster film The Hulk (2003). In the 2000s Bruce Jones, writer of Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, regularly explores the mental anguish suffered by Banner when contemplating the annihilation caused by his alter ego.

Throughout the 1960s Stan Lee continued to create a Marvel Age of problem-plagued superheroes, but competitor DC Comics simply followed tradition with altruistic characters—until Deadman. In Strange Adventures #205 (1967), sharp-tongued, arrogant circus aerialist Boston Brand was shot to death while performing a trapeze act. Like the Spectre, Brand, as Deadman, was assigned an after-life mission: to find his killer. Tough to do, given his disembodied form. Deadman's self-absorption in his search for his assassin made his motivation anti-heroic, although Brand experienced some level of redemption during his journeys, frequently using his eerie ability to possess humans' bodies to assist those in need.

Also in 1967, Charlton Comics took a radical step with one of its action heroes. In creator/artist Steve Ditko's Question backup series in Blue Beetle #4, the Question willingly permitted his enemy to drown by refusing to rescue him. Dick Giordano, the comic's editor, admitted in his biography, Dick Giordano: Changing Comics, One Day at a Time (2003), That was over the top for the time. I thought, 'we're trying to be different, we're trying to be bold,' so it didn't bother me. This story kindled bitter controversy and vehement letters. While Marvel's Hulk was an anti-hero by circumstance, Charlton's Question was one by choice. DC Comics acquired the rights to Ditko's creation in the 1980s and produced a critically acclaimed series starring the anti-hero (The Question, 1987–1990).

Marvel Comics introduced a pair of characters in 1974 that would ultimately reshape the mold for superheroes. In The Amazing Spider-Man #129, Spidey was targeted by a black-clad, heavily armed combatant with a white skull shirt insignia: the Punisher. Originally conceived as a relentless hired gun (It's you again! Won't you ever quit? asked Spider-Man as the Punisher dogged him; Not while you're still alive, punk! was his answer as he kicked Spidey in the head), the Punisher was soon converted into an anti-hero, a dangerous enemy of organized crime whose methods were sometimes more brutal than his enemies'. In November 1974 the Hulk encountered a gaudily garbed gentleman with claws beared, teeth clenched, his face awash with almost feral fury: Wolverine. Brandishing retractable claws forged of the unbreakable metal adamantium, Wolverine's natural inclination was to disembowel an antagonist without a second thought, notes Les Daniels in Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (1992). Wolverine struggles to resist his untamed proclivities, although he has killed foes in the past.

It is interesting to note that both the Punisher and Wolverine premiered during the year that U.S. president Richard Nixon resigned from office due to his role in the Watergate scandal. The American people, particularly its youth, had grown jaded by a leader who lied to them. Readers knew exactly where they stood with visceral heroes like Wolverine and the Punisher: There was no talk, no compromise, no manipulation, only quick, decisive action. This attitude similarly played out on the silver screen in two prominent film franchises, the Death Wish movies starring Charles Bronson as a vigilante mopping up street crime, and the Dirty Harry series with Clint Eastwood as the no-nonsense San Francisco cop packing a .45 magnum and little patience.

Frank Miller's Elektra continued this trend. Introduced in Marvel's Daredevil #168 (1981), Elektra, superhero Daredevil's former lover, is an assassin for hire, proficiently trained in martial arts. Her marks are always evildoers, but her flair for carnage puts her on the opposite side of the law from Daredevil. Her brazen methods and uniqueness immediately resonated with readers. In the 2000s Elektra stars in her own monthly Marvel comic series, and actress Jennifer Garner portrayed the assassin in the live-action film Daredevil (2003), with the prospect of a spinoff Elektra film franchise. Shortly after Elektra's debut, Sylvester Stallone's vigilante war vet Rambo drew first blood in a 1982 film, followed by two sequels. Americans were held captive by anti-heroes.

1986 was a pivotal year for anti-heroes in superhero comics. Elektra creator Miller distinguished himself with his gritty reinterpretation of DC's first anti-hero in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986), in which a grizzled, older Batman emerged from retirement and adopted extreme measures to battle rampant crime in Gotham City. DC Comics also published Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen beginning that year, a twelve-issue series exploring the darker side of superheroes. In the mid-1980s Marvel published a limited series titled Squadron Supreme, a thinly disguised riff on DC's Justice League about a band of superheroes who benevolently ruled the world, until one of their legion led a rebellion to unseat their power.

Many new characters who have originated since the mid-1980s exhibit anti-heroism rather than standard heroism. From Matt Wagner's engine of aggression Grendel to DC's greatest mass murderer ever known, Lobo, anti-heroes represent the new breed. By the 1990s they became the norm: Image Comics published the hell-born Spawn and raucous teams Youngblood and WildC.A.T.S, Dark Horse Comics' X and Ghost blasted away bad guys without thinking twice, and even the classic heroes were altered to reflect the times, including Superman, who was butchered in 1992 and rose from the dead with a black uniform and a meaner attitude (though this was one of the few such grim reinventions that didn't last for long).

The ultimate commentary on this shift in the heroic ideal was made by author Mark Waid and painter Alex Ross in their four-issue DC Comics miniseries Kingdom Come (1996). Kingdom Come envisions a near future where the conventional superhero is outmoded and a new wave of anti-heroes, many of whom are descendants of older heroes, have inherited the earth, spoiling it in the process. The series evolved into a cataclysmic conflict between the old guard and the new blood.

Beyond comics, the heroes of mass-media pop culture also reflects a brazen, take-no-prisoners attitude: Witness Tomb Raider Lara Croft of video game and movie fame, as adept with guns as she is with archaeology, and the violent, feisty anti-heroes that pepper most Japanese manga and anime series.

A devastating real-life catastrophe on September 11, 2001, helped restore some semblance of time-honored principles into the world of superheroes. Terrorist attacks on United States soil inspired a resurgence of altruism, reflected in the comics medium with new leases on life for paragons like Captain America and Superman. Those and a few other examples aside, anti-heroes, with their human foibles and penchant for swift reprisals, remain the norm. This is unlikely to change, unless human nature's unspoken impulse for permanent retribution changes as well. —ME


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