Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bad Guys Rool, OK?


It's Saturday, again, and I have nothing intelligent to contribute, again, but I'll write on anyway.

I want to focus on the appeal of bad-guys or antiheroes. Bad-guys come in all sorts of guises. A favourite is 'the policeman who doesn't play by the rules', a character so clich├ęd that comedians run skits on them. In real life, Policemen who break the rules tend to be associated with corruption and make defence barristers think all their Christmases have come at once. In fiction, they are the life-blood of the police procedural.

Apparently, almost any low life can be turned into an anti-hero if it’s done right. For example, the A-team were a cuddly bunch of heavily armed mercenaries. How did they become sympathetic characters? Then there is Dexter, your local friendly psychopathic murderer, or how about the Man-With-No-Name, Clint Eastwood’s bounty hunter. While on that subject, why were they called spaghetti Westerns when they were filmed in Spain? Should they not be Paella Westerns? I’m a geek, these things bother me.

So what distinguishes a bad-guy hero? They have one defining feature in common that I have already mentioned. They break the rules. They don’t give a damn for the law or conventions of society. Most of us live in fear and trepidation of ‘them’, the man, our masters. Our cars are insured, taxed, serviced and MOTed. We creep around at the speed limit in case of radar traps, terrified of points on our licence. We swear impotently at scrotes who cut us up, but not too loudly in case they hear.

The Saint, on the other hand, treated the road network of England as a giant race track laid out for his personal benefit. When a road lout tries to cut up his Silver Hirondel sports car, Simon Templar floors the throttle and puts the swine in the ditch. When said swine catches up with The Saint in a country pub and expresses his displeasure, The Saint puts him to sleep with a straight right to the jaw. That’s the way to do it! All men want to be Simon Templar and all women want him to make love to them.

The Saint is brave, charming, handsome, strong, sexy, intelligent, educated and lethal. He cuts through life like a bullet through a pumpkin. What makes him so appealing is that he protects women and the weak and humbles the arrogant. Crooks are his chosen prey. He is the Robin Hood who robs the wicked rich to give to the poor, less ten percent fee for his trouble. He is everybody’s big brother. The fact that he cocks a snoot at polite society and the pompous, hypocritical establishment makes him all the more appealing. He has high morale standards despite his rebel nature and he is never mean or petty.

Read a Saint novel and you buy a ticket to a dream where you are all those things and beautiful women compete for your company or, if a lady, you are the heroine who wins his heart, at least for a while.

In one story, a fat, ugly rich woman is tormented on the Riviera by the beautiful people who make fun of her. The Saint befriends her with a view to stealing her fabulous necklace but he hears her singing to herself in her bedroom, remembering when she was young and beautiful and a man loved her so much that he bought her the necklace. The Saint moves on the next day without the necklace.

I was very impressed by a scene from Conan that demonstrates the same qualities. A girlfriend has betrayed Conan so that he is imprisoned, awaiting execution. He escapes and goes looking for the girl. Her new boyfriend draws a blade so Conan kills him without compunction. His revenge on the girl is to drop her in a cess pit. As Conan leaves, she is dirty and humiliated but clearly and very vocally unhurt. Conan has his revenge but rejects any idea of hurting a girl, even though she tried to get him killed. To do so would be beneath him.

To me The Saint is the ultimate bad-guy hero to me, but then, one is an Englishman and he is a very English hero.

So, what are your criteria for a bad-guy hero? Do different cultures have different perspectives?

Let’s have your thoughts.

John

12 comments:

Jason Cordova said...

My criteria for the anti-hero is a sense of humor. Or maybe it's just the desire to see a bad guy who doesn't twirl his mustache and laugh mencingly all the time, I don't know.

I love how some authors always portray the anti-hero as a brooding sycophant to his emotions. It's almost as though they went around, picking their most desirable traits from the current "popular" stars from television and the movies. Then using a rudimentary cut-and-paste methodology, they create their version of the anti-hero.

The more I get into this subject, the more I wonder what would constitute an honest to goodness anti-hero. Would it be a villain who seems to get locked in with the good guys because his (or her) own goals match for the time being? Or a fallen hero looking for redemption while still giving the establishment the middle finger?

matapam said...

I think an anti-hero has to be as trustworthy as your dog.

Don't think about human legalities, think about the law of the pack. I don't care how trustworthy Fido is, if he's hungry you can't walk out of the dining room to fetch a soda and expect your sandwich to still be on the plate when you get back. And he doesn't always come when called, gets into barking feedback with the neighborhood dogs and so forth.

But he's absolutely trustworthy, you love him and never, ever, think that he would attack you. You know that he would kill for you, and if necessary, die for you.

It's that basic bone deep trust that makes an anti-hero possible, no matter how many times he runs off with any female that smells - I mean, winks at him.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I think Matapam has it.

The Anti-hero must be honourable. It might not be the honour of society, but it is a higher code of honour that he or she (I LOVED Modesty Balise) follows.

Sometimes an enemy you can trust is a better than a friend you can't trust.

Chris McMahon said...

I am definitely go for the tough guy with the iron code - its why I'm such a die-hard David Gemmell fan. That can be loners, operating outside the rules of society, but have that deep loyalty to their chosen friends that matapam was talking about. And even though they might be rough on the outside, and ready to fearlessly deal with the immoral bastards who get in their way, they a driven by a deep sense of compassion - defending the weak and going out of their way without a thought to protect others (particularly the defenseless).
That high moral character, and the courage to apply it regardless of personal cost, is what attracts me. The old Louis L'Amour books always had that guy - whose determination to pull though just could not be broken - who stuck to the code no matter what.
I guess the other thing the heroes on these books is that they often judge themselves harshly and don't actually see themselves as heroes - in fact the reverse - often damned by some past deed.
I wish David Gemmell hadn't died so young!

WangZheng259 said...

Antiheroes-The first that comes to mind is Rorschach from Watchmen. Despite the fact that I have never seen it, or really read it, my reading of the secondary sources is that he is the best character of the piece. Writing Excuses did a review of Watchmen, observing that none of the actual characters was a strawman. I think it was the setting that is the actual straw man, seemingly designed to have all of the leftist bogeymans of the age be true, while whitewashing people like Mao Zedong and Pol Pot in comparision. Because of this, the guy designed to be a crazy loser with political views somewhat to my right, comes off as sane and rational compared to everyone else.

Next that comes to mind is Alucard from Hellsing. It isn't clear whether he is actually looking for someone who can kill him, or if he just likes fighting and killing others that much. Certain of his statements indicate that if he wasn't enslaved to another of the protagonists, he would not operate under what few restrictions he does. His M.O. is to allow his opponents to kill him, perhaps, say, by blowing him to shreds. He then recovers and brutally dispatches his opponents. In most versions he fights Nazi vampires who eat babies. One should not expect solid background research in this series.

The Emiyas from Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night at least start out as proponents and fanatic followers of an ideology that favors becoming a Champion of Justice by killing one to save a hundred and so forth.

Tom Kratman's Pat Carrera and Wes Staur probably count. Pat is essentially out for revenge for his murdered wife and children, and builds an army to kill everybody in the way. I do not know how much detail is appropriate. Wes is trying to rescue a kidnapped boy, and uses an approach not too different from Carrera's. Carrera and Stuar mostly manage to follow an inner yet of rules, related to the true laws of war. I think my favorite character of Tom's is Pat Buckman from Caliphate. I like to describe him as an ordinary everyman. The narrator describes him as a madman. Buckman is a person who does much of what I would be tempted to do in his position, and I don't know if I can see a cleaner way out of it. However, he does an unforgiveable thing in breaking the constitution.

I think the Punisher and Deadpool would count. Also Mack Bolan from what the secondary sources say.

Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist, although it may be a bit close to the release of the second television series to talk about the details.

An Anti-Hero makes you wonder if he is less destructive than what he is opposed to, and you conclude that he is not. You might also ask if he could cause as much purely evil and useless destruction and answer no.

An Anti Hero might either do what you would do in a situation, or might do what you or part of you would want to do.

Looking at the other answers, I notice a mechanism for realistically ensuring that an anti-hero follows some measure of proportion. I also see some ideas for appeal in some cases. I do not notice a general mechanistic definition. If the anti-hero is partly a subjective measure, trying to pin it down with the tools of math and the physical sciences likely defeats the purpose of the exercise.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Jason

Hm, the Spiderman syndrome. Anti-heros with angst. I agree, that can get overdone. The Saint never had a moment's self doubt when he gave a politician a concrete overcoat, baited plod, machine-gunned the villians or lifted a rich man's jewells.

John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Matapan
I like the dog simile.
The likeable rogue type.
John

PS David Niven said that you always knew where you were with Errol Flyn - he would always let you down.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena
That's it exactly, a sense of personal honour - whether the law or society agrees or no.
John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris

I used to have another life designing computer games based on books.

My first commercial contract was for David Gemmel's first book - Legend. David lived in Kent down on the South Coast (I live on the North Coast). We met for th first time when we were interviewed together by Invicta Studios. He was a very decent man.

John

PS Did you know he gave the profits from his first book away to charity?

John Lambshead said...

Dear Wang

You are more widely read than me but i did like the early Bolan novels. I agree that he was a classic anti-hero. It got a bit samy after a while but he was a good character.

John

WangZheng259 said...

John,

I don't know that I actually read any more widely then you. A good amount of what I read is from secondary sources, like wikipedia, more fiction oriented wikis (I don't know how to properly make that plural in English.), and fan writings. Kratman's books are the only examples I cited where I have seen all of the primary sources out so far. I have never read Mack Bolan, and there are a number of other gaps in my reading. Furthermore, the Kratman examples and Mack Bolan are the only ones that cannot be described as having come from a cartoon, a comic book, or a video game. As an aside, Pat Buckman is arguably neither a hero nor an antihero as he is backstory rather than a protagonist or antagonist.

Another issue relates to what definition of Hero you are seeking an opposite for. The original definition seems to describe an ancient accomplished warrior or chief. An antihero in this sense might be, oh, one of the sons of the Trojan priest of Neptune, who get killed by a snake, IIRC. Of course, Odysseus and Alcibiades would be heroes by this definition.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

John,

The original Bolans were quite good -- up until Don Pendleton stopped writing them around 1980 or so. As for the books following that point, your mileage may vary (and boy, does it vary).

I think the key thing with the anti-hero is that he has all the heroic qualities, except he doesn't work and play well with others. Definitely not a "team player." He doesn't mesh well with an organization and has little or no tolerance for all the petty rules that manifest in that organization ("Hey, nice job saving the world, but I see you forgot to use the new cover sheet on your TPS reports. Didn't you get the memo? Also, we're gonna need you to come in on Saturday...")

Also, the anti-hero usually finds himself at odds with the mindset that the purpose of the organization takes a backseat to the perpetuation of the organization and does whatever he can to undermine that mindset.

And we love him for it.

One other thing I've noticed about anti-hero stories is that the villains of the piece are often authority figures -- the corrupt cop, the evil CEO, the politician that wouldn't stay bought. More often than not, the villain is an organization gone bad. The evil law firm, Wolfram and Hart, from "Angel" is a prime example. Demonic lawyers, how can you beat that? Shoot, they make even better villains than Nazis.

We just eat that stuff up -- the suspicion of authority meme runs deep in our culture.

Oh, and on Spaghetti Westerns; it's because the folks actually making the movie were Italian. They just filmed in Spain because the area looked more, well, western. They also filmed "The Battle of the Bulge" there -- for some reason, the producers must have felt that Spain looked more like Belgium than, well, Belgium. Odd fact: many of these westerns were shot as silent films so they'd be easier to dub. (Man, I love IFC)