Thursday Comics Hangover: Villains are not anti-heroes

Last week, Fernando Alfonso III wrote at the Lexington Herald Leader:

An Eastern Kentucky police chief has removed large decals with the Punisher skull and “Blue Lives Matter” from eight police cars after a backlash following the publication of a Herald-Leader story.

The Catlettsburg Police department, which employs eight full-time and two part-time officers for a population of about 2,500, featured the images on the hoods of its 2013 and 2017 Ford Interceptor sedans and sport-utility vehicles, assistant police chief Gerry Hatzel said. The stylized skull was from “The Punisher” comic book series.

The Punisher, of course, is a mass murderer. Created in the 1970s as a pastiche of the gritty Death Wish and Dirty Harry films, the character murders criminals without any semblance of a fair trial. He considers himself to be a soldier, but he works alone, without any commanding officers to keep him in line. He answers to no one. He is, in short, not a role model for police officers.

When comics writer Mark Waid argued that the Punisher is a villain, a number of Twitter users fansplained to him that the Punisher is an “anti-hero”. “[H] e IS one of the good guys. He's an anti-hero. As a comic book writer, you should know the difference,” one person told Waid. Another lectured the comics veteran, “Learn your terms before using them.”

For thirty years, superhero comics have continually blurred the definition of “anti-hero” to the point where it now basically means “protagonist.” A mass-murderer is not an anti-hero; a mass-murderer is a villain. An anti-hero is a character who reluctantly upholds noble causes or otherwise behaves in a courageous manner that is against type. (As another Twitter user explained during the Punisher discussion, Luke Skywalker is the hero of Star Wars, while Han Solo is an anti-hero and Boba Fett is the villain. This is a pretty good rule of thumb.)

This confusion is a trend that can be traced back to the days when the Punisher, who started as a villain in Spider-Man comics, first starred in his own mini-series. It’s a confusion as old as kids misreading Rorschach as the hero of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, when in fact he’s intended as a horrific parody of cartoonist Steve Ditko’s Objectivist leanings. It’s what happens when 13-year-old boys read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as a cool Batman story instead of a parable about the creeping fascism of the Reagan era.

Of course, this isn’t a problem that’s exclusive to comics. Blockbuster movies have had a hard time identifying heroes for the last 40 years or so. But comics have been singularly obsessed with heroism for almost a century now, and so the problem seems more egregious within comics somehow.

And I’m not saying that every fictional story needs to center on a hero who unfailingly commits good works. But the fact that fandom that can’t recognize the difference between an anti-hero and a villain is troubling. And the fact that police — people who swear to protect and serve the American public — celebrate the logo of a murderer should be worrying to everyone.