The Difficulties of Being “Just” Good and Bad in Comics of the New Millennium

In 1974, Frank Castle—also known as The Punisher—made his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #129, and the comics world was introduced to what would become one of the most popular anti-heroes—though he certainly was not the first in comics or the only one during that period of time. Over thirty years later, comic readers’ are still fascinated with protagonists who refuse to conform to the mold of the conventional “good guy.” One recent series that turned this trope of the anti-hero on its head is Ed Brubaker’s mini-series Incognito. Brubaker’s series takes a unique perspective on the gray areas between heroes and villains asking what would happen if a bad guy became a good guy and why that might happen?

The term “anti-hero” might seem like something of a misnomer as it literally translates to someone who stands in direct opposition to heroes and their values. For many protagonists, this is not always the case. In general, these individuals still possess a higher purpose for their lives and/or actions. In his article, “The Definition of a Superhero,” Peter Coogan states that there are three characteristics, which set the superhero apart from all others: mission, powers, and identity (77). Frank Castle has a code name—The Punisher—and he demarcates himself from other heroes with his all-black costume with a large white skull on the front. And while he doesn’t possess radioactive or mutant powers, he more than makes up for this with his uncanny knowledge and skill in firearms and all things explosive. Finally, Castle is motivated to clean the streets of crime after his family was killed by the mob…even if his attempts to clean the streets involve far more lethal methods than that of other NYC-based superheroes such as Daredevil and Spider-Man. Yet, his aim is still the same: prevent the same crimes that happened to him from happening to others so the tragedy of his life ends with him. This shows the anti-hero is still a hero; the difference lies in how he or she performs his or her role—not the result they work towards. And it is this sort of moral ambiguity that caught and captured the attention of readers who were moving into a postmodern era that was marked with far less rigid boundaries and more problematic gray areas.

In December 2008, Ed Brubaker began publishing his take on the popular anti-hero genre with Incognito. This entry in the anti-hero genre attempts to answer the question of whether it is possible for a villain to change sides and become a hero. In this series, the protagonist—Zack Overkill—is an ex-super villain who is placed in the witness protection program for testifying against the crime boss, the Black Death, who was responsible for the death of Xander Overkill—Zack’s brother and partner-in-crime, in addition to leaving Zack for dead. In a nod to the quiet desperation of white collar working men of America as depicted in Fight Club, Zack is bored and dissatisfied with his domesticated life, and salvation appears in the form of drugs that allow full use of his old powers: “Did I enjoy saving morons clearly too stupid not to walk in front of a hail of bullets? / Not really. People weren’t exactly growing on me. / But like I said, those nights made my days survivable” (Brubaker Part Two). In fact, this line is fairly similar to Pixar’s 2004 film The Incredibles that also features superheroes in a witness protection program, yet still perform their hero duties to feel the “high” from the old days. In this instance, however, Brubaker conveys a much more perverse response for Overkill in saving others as this reluctant hero says he “didn’t even need to get high anymore…” (Part Two) clearly indicating the satisfaction from being a “good guy” lies not in being on the side of “right” but through simply exercising his increased strengths and abilities without being caught. Zack is still able to break the law, find thrills and adventure, and not show up on the S.O.S.’s radar. What more could he ask for?

This disinterest in the intrinsic rewards of morality on Zack’s part is what makes him truly stand out as a unique anti-hero. Prince Namor, arguably one of the earliest anti-heroes from the Timely and Marvel eras is still concerned about he welfare of the Atlanteans—even if this brings him into conflict with the surface dwellers. Frank Castle ultimately wants to prevent the murder and tragedy that befell his family, even if he implements the same destructive tools of his enemies to enact change. Even Alan Moore’s Rorschach is motivated to end violence against the innocent; even if he employs severe brutality and takes a sadistic sort of pleasure in the pain he doles out, he continues to fight against the evils of the world even when it becomes illegal for him to do so. Yet, Zack Overkill has no such driving motivation to perform good acts. At the end of the series, he confesses to Zoe Zeppelin when she asks which side he is on: “Honestly? / I’m not sure anymore. / What am I?” (Brubaker Part Six). Of course, Zack does leave with Zoe—probably not accidental that their names both begin with “Z” and they end the story together literally flying into an orange-colored sunset—and this seems to suggest to the reader that Zack is now a “good guy” who will be a government-sanctioned superhero. However, he makes a particular comment immediately after Xander’s death that is telling. It is important to recognize Zack rips out Xander’s heart—for all intents and purposes, his own heart since they are clones of one another—and he realizes he too possesses one: “I was a little relieved to find out for sure I had one” (Part Six). This isn’t a confession that he found a superhero within himself, but instead, a recognition that he is human and not a constructed machine. Considering the big reveal earlier that he was cloned and bred for the purpose of being a part of the Black Death’s army of super soldiers, this must have been a real relief for him. But it’s important to not equate this discovery of humanity with a discovery of innate morality—these concepts are not the same[1]. Further, Zack tells Zoe “I almost feel like we should kiss or something…” (Part Six), and this suggests the artificial nature of the superhero identity to Zack. Although he has been performing the behaviors expected from a superhero, it is not natural to him.

In her seminal work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler further deconstructs our traditional notions of gender, biological sex, and sexual desire—components of identity. Because language and physical actions allow individuals to represent themselves in ways they want, Butler finds room in this paradigm for the “possibility of self-determination, or worse, room for “the ‘relevant’ culture that constructs” (Butler 8) the formation of individuals over time without their explicit knowledge or consent. What this means for individuals—including characters like Zack Overkill—is that many are find themselves trapped into believing there is only one set of possibilities—such as being either a super villain lackey or sanctioned superhero—for how they represent themselves when, in fact, there are far more options available. This helps us understand his relief at finding a human heart in his brother, because it also means he is not locked into the constructed role of being a tool of violence for the purposes of others. Butler opens this idea of multiple options for self-representation to more than just gender and sexuality, and this argument can then be extended to other areas of discourse. In the case of Zack, he is no longer forced into the dichotomy of being either a super villain or super hero. It is, as he states, a “huge question” but one that he is able to begin exploring now that he is “free of the lies” (Part Six). Obviously, Brubaker suggests to the reader Zack will work with the S.O.S. through his “final” confrontation with the Black Death and departure with Zoe, but it is equally clear that this protagonist’s new mission is far more oriented towards serving his own needs and interests with the welfare of the community being only a secondary concern; if his interests happen to coincide with those of the “good” guys, then he is all the better able to “kill those who deserve it” and satisfy his need to exercise power (Part Six).

Where superhero films like Pixar’s The Incredibles provide audiences with a unique insight into what happens “after the cape,” so too does Brubaker’s Incognito answer the same question for the villains. In this instance, he provides readers with more than just an opportunity to look behind the curtain, but to also question the unshakeable ground that the heroes stand upon. The world is not made up of Lex Luthors and Supermen, but instead, is a far more nuanced place. It is the place where the anti-hero now resides.

Works Cited

Brubaker, Ed and Sean Phillips. Incognito. Parts 1-6. New York: Icon, 2009. Print.

Butler, Judith. “Gender Trouble.” 1990. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: Norton, 2001. 2485-2501. Print.

Coogan, Peter. “The Definition of the Superhero.” A Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: UP Mississippi. 77-93. Print.

[1] I argue that possessing humanity means one has the free will; possessing morality is more than merely discerning between right and wrong, but also acting in accordance with what is generally considered acceptable by society and communal standards.

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Forrest C. Helvie lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons where he is chair and professor of developmental English at Norwalk Community College. His literary interests are broad-ranging from medieval Arthurian to 19th-century American, and most importantly, pedagogy, comics studies, and super-heroes. In addition to academic publications, he writes a variety of comic short stories, including his own children’s comic series, Whiz Bang & Amelia the Adventure Bear. He regularly writes for Sequart and reviews comics for Newsarama. Forrest can also be found on Twitter (@forrest_helvie) discussing all things comics related.

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Also by Forrest Helvie:

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  1. Ben Marton says:

    Another articulate and well-researched piece, Forrest. I’ll just preface a couple of talking points by admitting ignorance of the source material, however; while I have enjoyed Ed Brubaker’s work on ‘Captain America’ and share his fascination with classic pulp, I have resisted picking up ‘Incognito’ thus far (possibly due to some speculation on my part over the thematic bent of the work, which you go a long way toward confirming in this very article).

    Firstly, you cite a ‘postmodern era…marked with far less rigid boundaries and more problematic gray areas.’ While far greater minds than mine are probably able to confidently articulate how far the sociological jurisdiction of postmodernism extends, I always find myself lingering over the question as to whether or not this is an ‘ism’ whose ideas about reading and representation have any business occupying the same space as issues of morality and ethics. It feels a little jarring to me every time someone tries to force an association between these very different areas of discussion.

    Secondly, I both like and am puzzled by your final statement, because for me it highlights just how problematic any discussion about so-called ‘realism’ in fiction can be. When you say ‘The world is not made up of Lex Luthors and Supermen,’ to which world are you referring? If it is the world of the reader (as I assume it is), then yes, this is a complicated place in which Manichean notions of right and wrong are rarely applicable when exposed to the harsh light of moral relativism. But the world of ‘Incognito’ is a specific diegetic space, and there are many other such spaces that are indeed ‘made up of Lex Luthors and Supermen,’ and who is to say that these are not also ‘comics of the new millennium’?

    My question is, if ‘it is the place where the anti-hero now resides,’ what is the ‘it’ in this final statement? If it is that ‘world’ you declare to be free of Lex Luthors and Supermen (the world of the reader), why does the ‘anti-hero’ (a term for a fictional construct) now reside here? Is there an implication in your article that a work like ‘Incognito’ comes closer to a state of true mimesis than, say, an average issue of ‘Superman’? Because if so, your invocation of postmodernism becomes problematic in itself.

    I tend to feel that a fictional space, once created, can only ever really make representational claims on itself, which means that ‘Tiny Titans’ has just as much right to the ‘New Millennium’ label as ‘Incognito’ (although it didn’t sell nearly so well). May I humbly suggest the title ‘The Difficulties of Being “Just” Good and Bad in Ed Brubaker’s ‘Incognito’ may have worked better?

    …Or maybe ‘realism’ just doesn’t push my buttons in comics anymore and I just have some…things…to work through. In any case, keep ‘em coming, Forrest, because once again you have provided me with much food for thought and I relish the opportunity to engage with fellow readers who really, really know their stuff.

  2. Ben,

    Thanks for such a thoughtful, and well-reasoned out response. And while I’m not sure I really, really know my stuff… I sure to like to think about these things in the greater context of comics.

    Now, let me address the “it” first, as I *think* it will help respond to your first and second point about ethics, moralities, and “isms” and Luthors and Supermen. When I say “it,” I am essentially referring to the superhero genre–the world where the capes fly, so to speak. My argument here is that the world of the superhero, that is the superhero genre, is no longer so easily defined in black and white terms of clear cut good guys and painfully obvious bad guys. Now, I realize I might be painting with a slightly broad brushstroke here; *some* writers did allow for greater nuance to their characters, and I’m thinking of the Pre-Robin Batman years here in particular. But even then, you’ll notice, he is quickly brought in line with codes of behavior. Will Booker does a nice job of documenting this in what I believe is called “Batman Unmasked.” The Comics Code and the efforts of Wertham best exemplify this rather formalist, codification of behaviors. But with the rise of the Civil Rights period, feminism, and postmodernism, we also see the rise of the anti-hero in much of literature–comics not excluded. Formal boundaries of how good guys looked and behaved were no longer as easy to distinguish from the villains they fought. In essence, the world of the superhero (again, I use world and genre interchangeably here in a broad sense) became muddied and and boundaries were blurred. No longer was the medium subject only to the Superman and Lex Luthors of the world, but it would also include Punishers, Millereque Batmen, and Rorschachs.

    I think this is why I intentionally kept the title more broad in scope because I see this as a phenomenon occurring throughout the genre. HOWEVER, you very correctly point to an example such as Tiny Titans where we’re aren’t really going to see this taking place. It goes to show that the poles are still present where there are good guys who look and act like good guys, and the bad guys look and act like bad guys as well. There is still space for this. No doubt about it. So I’m not trying to show preference for Incognito over the average issue of Superman, as you put it; instead, I’m trying to argue that we need to recognize the average issue of Superman isn’t as average as it used to be because of other entries in the comics field.

    I hope this makes sense and answers some of your questions. Can I ask one of my own? You mentioned: “I tend to feel that a fictional space, once created, can only ever really make representational claims on itself.” I’m in the midst of a conference right now, so perhaps my brain is experiencing some sensory overload :) but I feel like I’m only partially following you on this. Would you mind “unpacking” it a bit more?

    Thanks again for such a thought-provoking response!

  3. Ben Marton says:

    Hey Forrest. Thanks for the clarification. I see where you are coming from, and agree; there is space for all sizes and complexities of moral spectra in the modern superhero comics field, and it is all the richer and more challenging for it. On a personal note, your essay reminded me that I am less often enamoured of ‘shades of grey’ type stories now than I used to be. Perhaps it is a more curmudgeonly reader’s reaction to an industry in which morally instructive tales have become marginal curiosities? In any case, and as Bob Dylan so eloquently put it, ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’

    So to your question, let’s just say that my comment about fiction and representation was a case of my picking up that broad brush of yours. It was really just an attempt to articulate the increasing suspicion I have that ‘realism’ is anathema to a mode of storytelling ideally suited to iconography, mythologisation and fable. So perhaps those ‘difficulties’ implied in your title work both ways, ontologically speaking?

    I hope you are recovering well from your conference, and that you have something in the pipeline for your next article. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond.

  4. You know, Ben, as I reread my article, I began thinking about the fact that while the anti-hero is a more contemporary convention than the traditional superheroes out there–like Superman–it’s still decades old at this point. It’s not really *that* much more fresh and new, so to speak. And this leads me down a path of thinking of how literature can often serve as a litmus test of the culture it comes from reflecting its values. Politically speaking, our country is far less “gray” and far more “black and white”-or should I say red and blue? I wonder if now isn’t a time to reexamine our comic book heroes to see if this same shift is taking place in mainstream superheroes? I’m just thinking out loud here, but you have me thinking….

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