Antiheroes

Tagged: Theme

Although the name suggests a simple opposition to Heroes, antiheroes are not synonymous with Villains. They range from merely unsympathetic protagonists whose downfall or comeuppance provides satisfaction – typically at slick short story length – to figures of some stature and personal attraction who are dark complements of heroes. Satan is often viewed in genre terms as the antihero counterpart of God (> Gods and Demons). Early Scientific Romance antiheroes of note include Jule Verne's brooding Captain Nemo in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870; trans Lewis Mercier as Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas 1872; vt Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea 1873) and the megalomaniac self-experimenter Griffin who plays the title role of H G Wells's The Invisible Man (1897).

In E E Smith's Skylark sequence opening with The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946; cut rev 1958), the initially merely villainous Blackie DuQuesne approaches antihero stature through a kind of ruthless intellectual integrity; perhaps the first notable example in Genre SF. Alfred Bester produced two influential antiheroes in the protagonists of his first two novels: Ben Reich of The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) and Gully Foyle of Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996). They, especially Foyle, are saturnine, vengeful, obsessive malcontents, for all the world like figures out of a seventeenth-century revenge drama; Foyle also explicitly echoes the eponym of Alexandre Dumas's Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (28 August 1844-15 January 1846 Journal des Débats; 1844-1845 18vols; trans anon as The Count of Monte-Cristo 1846 2vols), a darkly manipulative player of vengeful Godgames. Both Reich and Foyle carry out monstrous schemes with an energy and ingenuity that makes them attractive despite themselves. Harry Harrison's Slippery Jim diGriz, introduced in The Stainless Steel Rat (fixup 1961), hovers between antihero (he has a genuinely, instinctively criminal nature) and merely lovable rogue (even in extremis, he never kills); like Leslie Charteris's The Saint, The Stainless Steel Rat spends his later career paying lip-service to criminality but working almost exclusively on the side of the angels.

A particularly complex and enigmatic antihero – half in love with Entropy, driven by anarchic impulses that seem to baffle even himself – is Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius in The Final Programme (August and December 1965, March 1966 New Worlds; 1968) and its sequels. Since 1977 in Comics, Judge Dredd has upheld the law of his stamping-ground Mega-City One so uncompromisingly and with such firepower that he seems entirely capable of destroying the City in order to save it. The superficially unattractive vigilante Rorschach dominates Watchmen through a fanatical refusal to compromise, even to save the world. The eponymous Robot of John Sladek's Tik-Tok (1983) carries out multiple murders with almost irresistible wit, charm and panache. Gordon Dickson's Bleys, the disrupter of human galactic history in latter volumes of the Childe Cycle from The Final Encyclopedia (1984) onward, is a consciously created antihero who truly believes his own version of the future will be objectively better than the hero's aims, and is initially a sympathetic protagonist in Young Bleys (1991). The protagonist of Iain M Banks's Consider Phlebas (1987) determinedly wreaks much spectacular destruction in various skirmishes of the background war, but is gradually revealed to be fighting on (in terms of the author's own sympathies) the wrong side. There are many further examples.

Antiheroes take centre stage in the animated Superhero films Despicable Me (2010) and Megamind (2010). [DRL]

see also: Diabolik (1967); Francis Godwin.

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