To Hero or Anti-Hero, That is the Question
I readily admit to struggling with writing and maintaining a blog. It takes time to think about topics and then write the post and then edit the post. That is all time that could be used for actual writing. I don't even have that many readers, so who even looks at this? My analytics say at least thirty people read my five part short story all the way through, so that's cool. But still, not a lot of people.
And admittedly, I have struggled a lot with my writing of late. While I have a good job with benefits that is seemingly Covid-proof, my fiance has lost her job due to the pandemic and it has been stressful. Like by our thirties we should at least have things relatively figured out, right? I know that's wrong, no one ever figures out life. We just have to roll with the punches. But that doesn't make these kinds of roadblocks any easier.
"How does this all relate to headline?" you are probably asking.
I'm getting to it.
In times like these, ones that test your mettle and patience, I often find myself looking for a
hero. Like a real one. Not an anti-hero. Not a criminal forced into a situation where he has to do good. A real, honest to Crom hero. Inevitably and unsurprisingly, I come up empty
handed a lot of the time. I feel like entertainment has fallen deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of darkness under the guise of the much repeated term "grit". What the hell does that even mean, "grit"? Where I come from, true grit comes in the form of a one-eyed fat man with a rough exterior and a heart of gold.
Kudos to those of you who got that reference. I imagine few people my age did.
To me, grit is not just what a Pathfinder Gunslinger uses as a point resource. It's that quality that makes someone hold on just a little while longer, fight that much harder for something, stand up straighter when the world wants to push you down. It sure as shit isn't a Superman that is borderline evil, and you won't catch me advocating for a Batman that brands dude's faces. When did "grit" become synonymous with excessive violence? I just don't get it.
Sticking to the Western theme for a moment, probably the "grittiest" character that I adore is Clint Eastwood's iconic Man With No Name. He's a cigar smoking, poncho wearing, fast-draw of a an 1860's samurai packing heat. He's a bounty hunter, at least ostensibly. He does the job for money. Little more than a sometimes thieving mercenary. That's pretty anti-hero, right? Chock-full-o-Grit?
I don't think so.
I know a lot of people are probably rolling their eyes and are about to click to Facebook or PornHub right now, but stick around and hear me out.
The Man With No Name is a hero. Capital H in my book. He is a good man. A GOOD man. Sure, he has a sometimes unsavory job, but a practical one in a lawless West that never was. Who are the bounties on? Bad dudes. In most cases, really bad dudes. In Fistful of Dollars, he has evidently been tasked with bringing down a pair of rival gangs that make this small town a living hell. We see a woman brutalized, and her child taken from her. Clint doesn't like that. No, sir, not one bit. Yeah, he takes payment. Yeah, it becomes personal. But do you honestly believe that he wouldn't have stepped in at some point? Money or no? I sure don't. In A Few Dollars More he tackles a mission to hunt down a literal psychopath, a man who rapes and murders and then laughs about it. Was money involved? Yup. But did Clint right some wrongs? Did he do it JUST for the money? Or did he do it, at least in part, because he is a good man? A hero? I think the most telling event is actually at the end of the prequel, he didn't have to save Tuco from the noose, but he did. Tuco had back stabbed him and tried to kill him, but Blondie let him go in the end because he isn't a cold blooded killer. He's the Good, not the Bad. Even the spiritual successor, Charles Bronson's Harmonica, in Once Upon a Time in the West is a good guy. Is he weird? Sure. Is he probably Death incarnate? Maybe. But he still helps the girl and even goes so far as to turn a bandit leader to the light side.
Another character that I think get's thrown in with the anti-hero bunch more than he deserves is Robert E. Howard's own Conan the Cimmerian. Some of you reading this are probably familiar with the podcast Rogues in the House, where myself and two of my bestest mates yammer on about nerdy stuff for an hour and half. Our major focus is on the genre of Sword and Sorcery in popular culture. If you were to Google up the term "Sword and Sorcery" surely you would also find the the term "Heroic Fantasy". Maybe sometimes its used as a synonym or maybe its not, differentiating itself ever so slightly. Regardless, my argument here is that Conan is a hero, not an anti-hero.
Again I hear the moans and the eye rolls.
"But Logan," you say. "Conan murders people for money! He's a pirate and an outlaw! He can't be just a hero!"
He can. Here's why. (At least what I think.)
First, I want to tackle Conan the murderer. The only story I can think of off the top of my head where Conan actually takes money to kill someone is in "Rogues in the House" where he is offered coin to kill the Red Priest. But is the Red Priest a good person? Nope. So we have a Blondie situation here. Do you think he would have played assassin had the Red Priest been an innocent man? Sounds to me like the guy has whatever nameless city they're in choking with fear of blackmail. And he also enslaves a sub-human animal. Conan even goes on to say "I slew a man this night" after killing Thak. Slavery is pretty low in my book, even if the dude looks like a gorilla.
We see far more of Conan as a pirate/outlaw and time and time again he rises to the occasion, doing good in a clearly harsh version of prehistoric Earth. While a little brusque with Devi Yasmina, he treats her well and keeps his word when he definitely didn't have to. He tries his best, in his own brutal way, to save Natala from a death in the desert, even giving her the last of the water. While it is heavily implied that his time with Belit in "Queen of the Black Coast" was blood-soaked we don't get a whole lot of details so it's hard to speak on that. In "Tower of the Elephant", Conan is the instrument of vengeance for an alien being that has been tortured and enslaved by an evil sorcerer. Lastly, in "A Witch Shall be Born", he joins a bandit tribe only to seize control and retake a city from a madman and a demon humping witch. Sure, he is driven by a desire for revenge, but it is also clear that he did it to save the people of a city he had vowed to help protect. That's something a good guy would do.
Finally, we see Conan become King and what does he do? Abolish slavery, puts an end to a corrupt dynasty, and even lowers taxes on the poor. Seems like some good guy shit to me.
I readily admit that "Frost Giant's Daughter" is #2 on my least favorite list, mostly because rapey Conan (He WaS uNdEr A sPeLl is a shallow brush aside) and also because I give zero shits about Viking stuff. It is also the story that actually points most to Conan not being a hero. Sure, he beats up some Frost Giants, but were they really in the wrong? Conan was trying to forcibly jump their sister's bones. I mean, it was also supposed to be a trick and ambush for some reason that is not clearly defined to me. I don't know. I hate that story. There's a reason it wasn't initially published. That being said, "Vale of Lost Women" is the worst. I'm not sure there is much to be said in favor of the story. No matter how you look at it, its just not very good. However, it does have a something worth pointing out as far as Conan being a good guy. Despite the thinly veiled rape-vibe in "Frost Giant", Conan gives a monologue on how consent is important when sex is involved in "Vale". If rape is objectively wrong, and it is, then making sure you have a consenting partner is objectively right. It has to be.
The way I see it is that Conan is a good guy that works with the tools he's given. Those tools happen to spring forth from a brutal world filled with ancient monsters, evil magicians, petty gods, slavers, pirates, outlaws, and corrupt kings. I can't think of a story, other than "Frost Giant" (and yes, I understand it's arguable) where Conan out right does some bad stuff.
Compare that to a couple other pieces of the Sword and Sorcery foundation and Conan practically looks like a knight in well-worn armor. For example, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane is a villain. Wagner says as much. Kane is on an endless quest for world domination (and to also kill the God/Alien who made him into a unstoppable cyborg or some shit) and will ruin whoever and whatever to achieve that. And it's friggin' awesome. But I do not look up to the things Kane does like I do Conan. We know that Kane is a murderer, he says so, readily admitting it and baring the blue eyes and hands of a man-slayer. He is also a rapist. We know this from the story "Raven's Eyrie" where he finds himself back at the inn of one of his victims and meets the daughter he conceived through violence. Kane is a bad dude.
Next, we have Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. I am definitely less well read on these two, but I have read a handful of stories and done a lot of research for the podcast. In the beginning, the duo are a pair of lovable rogues that find companionship over the loss of their loved ones. Later in the series, Leiber gave them a "soft reboot" and all of a sudden we have Mouser "ravishing" (read raping) a girl. Yuck. I don't think there is a coincidence that the quality of stories declined after this foray into "grit" (gasp!).
I wish I had some commentary on Elric here, as he is probably the most complex character of the foundation, but a las I have only ever managed to read books one and two so I don't feel 100% researched enough to talk on him.
And I'm sure I'm growing long winded.
The other day, the podcast guys and I were chatting on the Facebooks. Like a broken record, I was stating how I don't like anti-heros all that much, and find myself turning away from that aspect of the fantasy I enjoy. Another of the trio said something to the effect "you like Heroic Fantasy then." I mean, he isn't wrong, but I don't believe one needs a "morally gray" or "gritty anti-hero" to be Sword and Sorcery. You can. And most often they are. But it's not required. In the end of the conversation, two of us decided that Conan is Chaotic Good in D&D terms. And that's good enough for me to call him a hero.
Ultimately, as a purveyor of entertainment, I have had it up to my eyeballs with "grit". Yes, I understand that it is supposed to be some kind of buzz word form of the dingy, morally ambiguous characters/world we often find in Noir. I don't care. I am tired of seeing Walter White as some cultural icon. He's a drug dealer and killer, you aren't supposed to root for him. And the people gallivanting around Social Media with photos of the Joker as their profile pics, missed the point. Joker is a BAD GUY. Hell, the Punisher is a BAD GUY. That's what makes them interesting, that they are bad, but they aren't supposed to be propped up as heroes. They aren't. They never were. The Punisher is at his best when juxtaposed with other characters like Captain America. One of the most telling scenes in Marvel comics for me is during the Civil War arc where Punisher joins Cap's team and proceeds to kill two villains who joined the cause. Cap explodes and beats Castle to a pulp, all the while screaming for Punisher to fight back. But he won't. Not against Cap, the one hero that he looks up to above all others.
Listen, I'm not advocating for white knights to travel around and spout Shakespeare while obeying the Scout's Law. Paladins are my least favorite class (other than Monks, of course). A hero doesn't have to be a Boy Scout. Heroes have baggage and burdens and make poor decisions from time to time, but they always do the right thing. In a world where so many things are wrong, wouldn't it be nice if there was something right? Something good? I sure think so.