Sunday, March 4, 2012

Examples of a Well-Done Anti-Hero

So, after reading Foolamancer's post about Heroes and Anti-Heroes, it came to my mind that even though readers and writers seem to prefer the anti-hero, not many of them can pull one off well. Most, as Foolamancer put it, come across as "amoral sociopaths," the staple of the Dark Age of Comics.

Well, I'm here to show two examples of good, well-written anti-heroes. Both, actually, were written by the same person: Garth Ennis.

Now, Ennis's work has his ups and downs. I, personally, love Preacher, but some of his other works I just could not get into. He seems to have a particular hatred of superheroes. Or so I thought. It's more than he hates stupid heroes.

The first anti-hero is one that is well-known: the Punisher. Yes, Ennis wasn't the only writer to write him (and, in fact, he was created decades before Ennis even got his hands on him), but Ennis's run is the most well-known run of the Punisher and the longest of any writers - nine years.

Today, I will be looking at one storyline, perhaps one of the best Ennis ever wrote, called "The Slavers" (The Punisher MAX #25-30.) It's only five issues long, but it boils down the essential of what Frank Castle is and why he is a true anti-hero (instead of a sociopathic asshole).

Whatever he was jabbering, it wasn't English. Pavla was Albanian — maybe he was too. But I'd know the Lord's Prayer in any language. Gave him a moment. To just before the line about forgiveness.

Now, first a little backstory (although you probably don't need it): Frank Castle was a Vietnam War vet who came home to his loving wife and children. However, during a picnic at the park, they were caught the crossfire of two rival mobsters and only Frank came out alive. He put on a black t-shirt with a skull, got a lot of guns, and went to work killing as many criminals as he could.

Before Ennis's run, Frank Castle had been a lot of things. At first, he was simply an anti-hero who killed criminals. Then he became a crazed villain who killed people for the slightest crime - i.e. littering, jay-walking, et cetera. Then he died and became a supernatural agent for heaven and hell. This was completely and utterly stupid, so Ennis reversed that all and made it what he was in the beginning.

In fact, Ennis did more than that. He wanted to tell more realistic stories, so he made sure that Frank Castle not only was back to who he was, but that he also had an internally consistent backstory. He was a Vietnam vet...and he stayed a Vietnam vet throughout his run. This made Frank age in real time, something very rare in comics. We got to see Frank in his forties and his fifties. (Marvel got around this by doing the usual thing - making two Punishers, the one in the Marvel universe and the one in the MAX universe, who ages in real time.)

"The Slavers" was an arc that delved into some very dark stuff. Not that the other stories Ennis wrote about weren't dark (the one before "The Slavers," called "Up is Down and Black is White," involved an enemy digging up Frank's dead family and pissing on them), but this was more real world darkness. Frank, about to shoot some mobsters, is beaten to the punch by a lone woman who tries to shoot them and then breaks down crying. After Frank saves her, she explains that she was taken from her home in Eastern Europe and brought to America as part of a sex slave ring. In America, she gave birth to a son, but wasn't allowed to see him, so she tried to run away. She was caught and her son killed.

Now, the story has been set up. Frank has a mission to accomplish and an enemy to kill. Here's the important point about Frank Castle: his enemies are always worse than he is. He is a killing machine, yes, but he will never kill anyone that he believes doesn't deserve it. He avoids at all cost civilian casualties. At one point, a cop draws a gun on him - Frank takes the gun away, but doesn't do anything to the cop. He just leaves him alone. He makes it a point to help the women in the sex slave ring as well.

And his enemies? Well, his enemies run a sex slave ring. There's a good reason that the arc is called "The Slavers" - they are all complete and utter monsters. At one point in the story, Castle has just horrificaly killed one of them...and we, the reader, have cheered him on. That is how evil they were. As Castle himself says: "It was in that moment that I realized something. A dull, blurred feeling that I’d had since this whole mess began, all of a sudden crystal clear. It had been a long, long time since I hated anyone the way I hated them."

And that's what it boils down to: Frank Castle isn't a hero, because he kills people. He is an anti-hero, not because he only kills bad people, but because he still feels for those they hurt. He takes care of the woman in the beginning, he tries to take care of the women he saves, because he knows that just killing people isn't enough. Oh, he still kills people and kills them very, very badly, but it's shown time and again that just killing criminals isn't going to stop crime.

And now we come to the next anti-hero: Hitman.

We are such little men.

So, okay, well, you've probably never heard of Hitman. And if you have, it's probably the video game or movie made from the video game. But that's too bad, because Hitman was also a great comic book series by Ennis that ran from 1996 through 2001. It was a hell of a lot more humorous than The Punisher, but it still had it's quite serious moments.

Now, for the backstory: In 1993, DC Comics had a crossover called "Bloodlines." It was stupid and fit into the very center of the Dark Age. It's whole purpose was to create idiotic anti-heroes that were "dark and edgy." The only good thing that happened because of it (and I do mean only good thing) was the creation of Tommy Monaghan, the titular hitman. He was attacked by a parasitic alien and, as a side-effect, got the power of x-ray vision and telepathy. What does he used those powers for? To kill people. Well, okay, bad people, but still.

Hitman was a funny book. It didn't take itself seriously at all. Tommy's best friend and fellow hitman was called Nat the Hat and Nat had sworn off swearing due to a dying grandmother. So all instances of "motherfucker" were replaced by "motherlover." They also had an idiotic friend called Hacken and they all hung out in an Irish bar. It was a fun series.

However, Hitman never shied away from the seriousness of actually being, you know, a hitman. The reason Tommy was an anti-hero and not a villain wasn't just because he only killed bad people. He also tried to protect the Cauldron (his region of Gotham) from supervillains and his friends, from any of the people who had grudges against them. And, moreover, Tommy Monaghan knew what he was doing (killing people) was not the right thing to do, knew that it created more problems than it solved, knew all this and still did it because he didn't have anything else to do. He was stuck as a hitman.

The issue I'm looking at today is #34 called "Of Thee I Sing." It is often cited as one of the best Hitman issues ever, for good reason:

That's right: Tommy meets Superman.

You think they are going to have a big fight, right? That Tommy will criticize Superman's methods and Superman will be angry about Tommy's killing and all that? No. No, in fact, what happens is that they sit down on a rooftop and have a nice chat. (Actually, Superman doesn't even know who Tommy is, but in a later Hitman/JLA crossover, he does come to grips with the fact that he still considers Tommy a friend even though he was a killer.)

What do they talk about? Well, Superman has had some trouble lately. He just failed to save someone. It's not like he even had a chance of saving them, but he still had to watch as they died. Tommy rightfully points out that he can't save everyone. And here's where the Anti-Hero and the Ideal Hero meet: Tommy is a great fan of Superman, because, at the end of the day, he is a symbol of everything that is right and good about America. He is the immigrant who came from the stars and became a hero for good. He helps people; he saves people; he's Superman. And so, Superman has a bit more confidence now. After all, here's a random stranger telling him that, even knowing that he can't save everywhere, he still considers him a hero and symbol: an ideal. So Superman thanks Tommy and flies away.

And Tommy goes and shoots a mobster. Sure, Tommy loves Superman and considers him a symbol for hope and good; but it's a symbol that he himself can never be. He looks up to him, but still has to face the realities of his own situation. He's not an Ideal Hero. He's an Anti-Hero.

And there we go.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


I like reading creepypasta. It's sort of like reading a horror story in a very short format. Anyway, I was looking through the Creepypasta thread on SlenderNation when I found this one:

Man, that is a good one. Better than the "Please wake up" one that creeped me out before.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Twin Peaks

So last time, I wrote about the ontological mystery and The Prisoner. But what is the spiritual successor to The Prisoner? Is it Persons Unknown? No, that was kind of stupid. Is it the Prisoner remake? No, aside from Ian McKellen, I heard it wasn't that good.

No, the spiritual successor to The Prisoner in my opinion was a television show from 1990-91 called Twin Peaks. And yet it was not an ontological mystery.

Twin Peaks: it's filled with secrets.

Why are the connected? How are they similar?

Well, that's easy enough to explain: both are Mind Screws where the show's identity is completely tied to its location. With The Prisoner, the location and the mystery were one and the same: where is the Village? How do you escape? With Twin Peaks, the location and the mystery are two different things, but they are intrinsically tied together. If Laura Palmer had not lived in Twin Peaks, would she have died? What was it about Twin Peaks that made it such a hotbed of danger?

Perhaps I should explain what Twin Peaks was about first. In the first episode, the body of Laura Palmer, prom queen, is found wrapped in plastic. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper is quickly tasked with finding out who killed her, especially since he believes that this is the work of a serial killer. The show was directed by David Lynch and written by Lynch and Mark Frost, so it had Lynch's trademark quirkiness mixed with intense creepiness.

However, the central mystery of Twin Peaks is not what Twin Peaks is about. No, only part of each episode focused on Dale Cooper's investigation. The rest? The rest was about the citizens of the town. Each episode had multiple subplots focusing on affairs, secrets, and the like, including the ever popular Log Lady. (She carries a log around with her.)
Her log knows many things.

And then there was the magical realism aspect. You see up there where I said this show was a Mind Screw? Well, so far, all I've described has been a quirky murder mystery show. And yet, that's like saying The Prisoner was about a guy trying to get away from a village. It's just not right: while The Prisoner had increasingly dreamlike elements (culminating in the almost incomprehensible series finale), Twin Peaks isn't just dreamlike: it's nightmarish.

An example: in the Pilot, Laura Palmer's mother receives a vision of a man at the foot of her bed. This man turns out to be BOB (which stands for Beware of BOB), a malevolent spirit. BOB is the creepiest motherfucker you will ever meet ("Catch you with my death bag! You may think I've gone, but I will kill again!"). And then there is the other touches of strangeness that surround the town of Twin Peaks. In the second episode, Cooper has a dream that involves the Man From Another Place and a woman identical to Laura Palmer ("She's filled with secrets!"). One character's father is affiliated with Project Blue Book and tells Agent Cooper that he has received a message for him: THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM.

And there's the other connection to The Prisoner: the unexplained. Certain things are never explained in either show. In The Prisoner, the only thing that is explained at the end is who Number One is (well, sort of).

Not even what this gesture and "Be seeing you" meant.

And though on Twin Peaks, we did eventually learn who killed Laura Palmer, most of the other mysteries went unexplained. In fact, the end of season two ended on a huge cliffhanger, which was never resolved. (There was a movie that was supposed to clear it up, but it ended up being more of a prequel to the series and adding even more questions.)

Twin Peaks was another huge influence on my writing. From my love of dreams to my love of Mind Screws, this is where it came from.

And, so, to conclude:
Through the darkness of future past,
the magician longs to see.
One chants out between two worlds...
fire, walk with me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Ontological Mystery

Some of you may know that I wrote the blog Ontological (and if you don't, now you do). This came about from my deep-seated desire to write an ontological mystery. And what is an ontological mystery, I hear you ask?

Easy: an ontological mystery is where the main character(s) finds themselves in an unknown place and they have to figure out why they are there and how to get out. Ontology is the study of existence, reality itself. An ontological mystery is a story where the mystery is tied into the reality of the world around the characters.

Here's a famous example: The Prisoner. The main character, who doesn't even have a name, just a number to designate who he is, is trapped in the Village. Where is the Village? Why is it there? Who runs the Village? How do you escape it? These are all questions that Number Six has to figure out.

I watched a lot of The Prisoner when I was a kid. My dad had the VHS tapes of the "important" episodes - the pilot, "The Chimes of Big Ben," even "Living in Harmony." The one episode I didn't watch until I was much older, however, was the very last episode, "Fall Out." That may have been because my dad didn't have it or it may have been because it was balls out insane.

Seriously: if you haven't seen the show, you should. It is one of the best shows ever and it contributed a lot my taste in fiction and my love of Mind Screws. It's one of the few shows that could make a weather balloon into something completely terrifying.

Meet Rover.

You can see aspects of The Prisoner in Ontological. For one thing, I knew I wanted to make a Mind Screw. I didn't want things to be easily explained. I didn't want to tie things up in a neat bow. Was Martin a Nightlander all along? Did the City turn him into a Nightlander and then the Nightlanders made him believe he had always been a Nightlander? One of the last posts is called Eikasia - which is Platonic concept. It means an inability to perceive a dream or memory or reflection is not the real thing. How does Martin now he is real? How does he know that he is not?

And here's another question you may not have consider: at the end, the Nightlanders rearrange a person's mind to their liking. What makes you think they didn't do this with Martin? All we have is Martin's word that he was always a Nightlander.

And if you have any questions, I shall direct you to this sign from the Village:

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Review: The Complete Annotated Oz Squad

So on Sunday I picked up The Complete Annotated Oz Squad by Steve Ahlquist. I've always been interesting in Oz, ever since I was very young and read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  and found it to be much more interesting and gruesome than the movie ever was.

The Oz Squad was a ten-issue comic book series that dealt with Dorothy Gale and her attempt to reconcile Oz with Earth. The "Gale Force" (consisting of an older Dorothy, a more Terminator-ish Tin Woodsman, a more emo Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion) were tasked with investigating magical or Fortean events and, if Ozian people or artifacts were involved, to bring them back to Oz.

The first issue was actually fascinating (and why I picked it up): the Tik-Tok Man, newly arrived on Earth, has gone beserk. Dorothy and the others have to figure out a way to bring him down, while also figuring out why he went insane.

The first three issues of The Oz Squad are actually very good and feature some really interesting world building. There are references to events we don't know of yet (I also love a Cryptic Background Reference) interspersed with some great action scenes.

And then it goes off the rails. It's still well written (even though the artwork suffers), but there is one major flaw with the later issues: it never slows down. It goes "Here's something new" and then moves on. For example: in one very jumbled issue, we are presented with an interesting fact about the JFK assassination: apparently, God was not watching at that moment in time and without God's infallible eye, the events of that date are left to human eyes. And since people's accounts are contradictory, so is reality: every single theory about what happened is true, all the conspiracy theories, all the potential assassins are competing to be the actual assassin. And so even though everyone has their ideas about what happened on that day, nobody can know.

And what does this have to do with the Oz Squad? Well, Dorothy was friends with JFK. We are shown on flashback with them. And then...nothing else. All of what I wrote right there? It would have been super-fascinating to see, to show the consequences of an event that can never be known, but it's never mentioned again.

Another example: in one issue, the Tik-Tok Man becomes a crime boss. I thought "Okay, here's a nice storyarc. They can't just leave him to be a crime boss forever. They have to come back and stop him." But they don't. They make one attempt and then the story moves along, forgetting all about the Tik-Tok Man.

Even with these problems, there are interesting stories. The last issues are concerned with the present Dorothy received for her 100th birthday: a Time Train. We are given accounts of what happened to various character did when they were thrown out of the Time Train and into various time periods. Except it still has the same problems as before: these momentous plots that could sustain a comic book for entire arcs are condensed to one issue and never mentioned or brought up again.

So, would I recommend this book? To those who like reading about Oz, yes. It's a fascinating take, even though it does take some liberties, and it has a lot of great ideas (most of which, however, it leaves by the wayside). To those who aren't interesting in Oz: Fables would be a better read. The same type of concept (fairy tale characters try to live in the real world), but with better plotting and art.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This Is My OOG Blog

Where I shall review books, movies, television shows, and other various and sundry things.

Thank you.