A Most Dubious List of ‘The Best Antiheroes’ In Comic Books

The Inverse website, run as it is by liberal millennial type reporters, published a list of 50 antiheroic characters from comics, films and video games they consider the best, and while there are some who can qualify as good choices, there’s also others who just don’t. And the following paragraph relating to TV shows honestly makes me cringe:


On TV, the age of the antihero really began when The Sopranos made mobbed-up murderers into the kind of folks viewers wanted to spend an hour with each week. But the comic book industry’s antihero wave rose even earlier, inspiring a similar “grim and gritty” approach in video games and comics-inspired movies. Modern superhero, science-fiction, and fantasy stories have their origins in the old pulp magazines and paperbacks, where crimefighters, soldiers, and cowboys didn’t always play nice. And these prickly protagonists — old and new — have become some of the most memorable in any genre.


Well if this is supposed to imply comics offered up the kind of “anti-heroes” the Sopranos were known for spotlighting long before, I find it distasteful. Mainly because of how, as time went by, villains became far more of a focus, with stories at times running the gauntlet of becoming sympathetic to them, and worse, their causes. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to spend time in the company of crooks like the Kingpin and Justin Hammer. And, as the following examples from Inverse’s list make clear, there’s so-called anti-heroes I’d rather not either. For example, from Garth Ennis’s The Boys:


Amazon’s TV adaptation of the violent, raunchy comic book series The Boys has drawn some overdue attention to writer Garth Ennis and artist Darick Robertson’s corrosive social satire, all about celebrity superheroes allowed by the government and public to do more or less whatever they want. Fighting against them: Billy Butcher, whose band of revolutionary vigilantes may not be morally superior to “the good guys,” but who are at least more honest about their sketchiness.



If the character lives up to his ghastly name, there’s one we could honestly do without. (Of course, I’d already written about The Boys before, so the point is pretty moot.) And the following example from the now defunct Vertigo line is another we could also pass on, if only for other reasons:


In the ‘90s, DC Comics’ adult-oriented Vertigo line generated antiheroes en masse, as a cadre of hep British writers filled their books with chaotic eccentrics, navigating weird worlds of sinister supernatural shenanigans and techno-dystopian troubles. One of the oddest is writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, anchored by Spider Jerusalem, an anti-authoritarian gonzo journalist — modeled on Hunter S. Thompson — who courts danger as he speaks truth to power.


Gee, I wonder why this counts, considering Ellis has, in the past few months, been accused of abusive behavior towards women, at least a few who might’ve been underage when he had affairs with them, certainly if they lived in the US? How come no mention of the slang “filthy assistant” and how it’s possibly a figure of speech for “slutty”? It’s certainly bound to take on a whole new meaning when viewed through the eyes of women worried about disrespectful attitudes, which this late 90s-early 2000s series might’ve influenced. Chances are by now that Transmetropolitan’s lost some of Ellis’ prior audience, and will be viewed very differently in the future, even by the far-leftists Ellis was courting back in the day. There is an argument that, no matter how hard you pander to an ideology as leftists like Ellis have done, they’ll dump even that much in the scrapyard later on. The next example doesn’t impress me either:


Writer James Robinson’s 1990s version of the Golden Age superhero Starman was a Gen-X hipster, nostalgic for the characters and adventures of his father’s generation. One of his closest confidants was the ageless rogue the Shade, a former Injustice Society villain who could kill people with shadows if he wanted to — but who, in the Starman comics, mostly drinks absinthe and feeds his friend’s appetite for anecdotes and arcana.


Forget it, this doesn’t alleviate how overrated Robinson’s unpleasant vision of superheroes is. If anything, it served as an early example of a writer getting rid of characters to suit his narrow vision going forward (or backward, if you prefer), as he did with David Knight, in order to replace him with Jack Knight. And at the end of the 1994-2000 series, which was intended to be finite not unlike Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, he got rid of original Starman Ted Knight in a final battle with the Mist. Based on the pretensions sadly lurking in much of the series, that’s why I find their citation appalling. Robinson was also a precursor in some ways to Geoff Johns, whose employment of nostalgia was overrated, though not as noxious as the violence and other questionable content in much of his writings from the past 20 years.


Maybe if they’d tried basing their choice of the Shade on previous iterations, I’d be more impressed, but alas, I can’t be. And I’m not pleased at the next choice either, which is Lobo:


The version of the alien bounty hunter Lobo that became wildly popular in 1990s comics was intended as a lampoon of the kind of ultra-violent action heroes who dominated the industry at the time. But fans so enjoyed the carnage this motorbike-riding egomaniac brought to nearly any story that he quickly became a ubiquitous DC Comics guest star.


As I’d noted in the past, the whole notion a character established post-Crisis as guilty of annihilating much of his own race is sickening. If it was meant as some kind of nod to Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, whose Soviet regimes led to the deaths of many subjects (Lobo’s planet in the 90s was called Czarnia, surely an allusion to Czarist Russia), that makes it all the more distasteful, and having read some of Lobo’s 90s appearances some time ago, they haven’t aged well viewed through the retconned lens. I particularly disliked the appearances he made in Gerard Jones’ scripts, including one of Guy Gardner’s solo books, which I wrote about earlier. Inverse also cites a manga:


In every version of the Japanese fantasy/thriller franchise Death Note, the main character Light Yagami is — to put it mildly — “problematic.” A smart and charismatic youngster, granted the power to exterminate anyone he deems unworthy with the help of a supernatural notebook, the kid re-fashions himself as a vigilante named “Kira” and finds that killing at will clouds his moral judgment.


I know this isn’t USA stuff, but I’d say it’s best not to overlook how frustrating and aggravating a vision like this can be.



They also bring up Venom:


The freaky Spider-Man villain Venom is ostensibly an alien superhero costume with a mind and a mission of its own, realized by possessing various human hosts. Introduced in the mid-1980s, Venom proved too exciting to consign to a few story-arcs. The concept quickly spread to its own comic book series, and then to other media, making the idea of a morally slippery “dark Spider-Man” incredibly popular.


I don’t think Eddie Brock ever killed many innocents in his early years (although he did asphyxiate a policeman to death in his first official appearance in 1988), and the villains he put to death were more notable (including those in a short-story from ASM Annual #25), so maybe this isn’t as troubling, unless you ponder that here, they run the gauntlet of promoting a villain with a deadly record as though that’s preferable to promoting the Punisher, although Frank Castle does come up on the list later on, which I’ll get to ASAP. For now, here’s something I just don’t get, based on lack of story merit, if anything:


In the early 1980s, X-Men writer Chris Claremont introduced the idea of a dystopian future timeline, and by the end of the decade, deeply damaged mutants from that X-universe started journeying regularly into their past, trying to change it. One of the most enduring time-travelers was Cable, the son of original X-Man Scott Summers (sired with the clone of another original, Jean Grey). Cable’s complex plans sometimes look to his colleagues more like indiscriminate war-making than justice.



Honestly, Cable’s solo adventures looked awfully pointless in retrospect, and if his goal was to prevent the dystopian future he’d grown up in from happening, even that became less clear as it went along. If he was depicted taking the risk of warmongering, that was no improvement. I also notice Dave Sim’s Cerebus was cited:


Launched as a straight-faced parody of Conan the Barbarian — and later as a more outrageous spoof of grim ‘n’ gritty superheroes — the warrior aardvark Cerebus would eventually become a statesman, a pope, and a pawn in a never-ending struggle between the forces of dark and light. Throughout, cartoonist Dave Sim’s creation he maintained one unshakable principle: What’s in it for Cerebus?



Whatever’s not in it for anybody with sanity, that’s what. Sim’s personality has long been suspect, and his attitudes towards women were dreadful, some even turning up in the comic itself. What makes this a great choice? On the other hand, as noted before, it’s amazing to find the Punisher listed here, in one of the better choices (and pretty amazing a left-leaning site would consider him worth a pick):


Though the character debuted in a Spider-Man comic in 1974, the Punisher became a phenomenon in the late ‘80s, when his no-quarter-given approach to crime-fighting synched up with the tough talk of the Reagan era. Later takes on the character have restored some moral ambiguity to an antihero whose militancy makes him a fascinating case study in what we’re willing to accept in exchange for security.





Well at least here’s something I can agree with them on. Then again, can I? If a guy who usually intends to terminate the most deserving of criminals is depicted as “morally ambiguous” that could make it difficult to appreciate this entry in their list. Most later takes post-2000 were bent on depicting Frank Castle as a lunatic, and I recall there was one time in the early 2000s when Garth Ennis depicted the Punisher going after George Bush Jr. while in a MAX title, Frank was unwilling to go after terrorists. In hindsight, the forced politics were stupefying. Frank was a fine creation, and it’s regrettable he fell victim to political correctness much like every other corporate-owned character. Since we’re on the subject of heroes who kill vile criminals, let’s decidedly take a look at the last entry on this list, Wolverine:


There were rough-hewn, willing-to-kill heroes in comics before Wolverine joined the X-Men in 1975, but the arrival of that particular character (a charismatic loner with a working-class ethic and a poet’s soul) on that particular team (a colorful band of bickering misfits) at that particular time (when superheroes and superhero audiences were maturing) helped transform the genre. Forty-five years later, the creators of comics, movies, TV shows, and games are still seeking the next Wolverine.




And thanks to modern political correctness, they won’t find them. See, there’s something funny about putting 2 different characters in the MCU who have no qualms about slaying the most deserving criminals on the same list: on the one hand, the Punisher was looked upon negatively by liberals who disliked the idea of a hero who was willing to terminate evil scum like murderers and rapists with extreme prejudice, and Frank’s own co-creator, Gerry Conway, won’t stand behind him either.




On the other hand, these same liberals gave Wolverine a pass in almost every instance, and Logan rarely ever got the kind of unkind viewpoint Frank received; you can be sure that had little to do with the time a few years back when Wolverine was sent to the afterlife (which the Punisher probably visited at least twice). I’d guess part of the difference in reception had to do with status and recognition. Wolverine was part of a larger franchise, the X-Men, his solo books notwithstanding, while the Punisher’s were a whole separate one, and he rarely worked with a whole team of different heroes. And in the end, it’s clear that any double-standards held to both these characters will continue for as long as Marvel is still around, though they probably won’t be much longer with the way they’re going about business now.


So that sums up a look at what a rather PC site like Inverse has to say about anti-heroes, not all of which are the greatest choices, and even those that are get hampered by un-altruistic positions.
Originally published here.

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Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1