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.