As a linguist, I am professionally devoted to the scientific study of language. But I have a confession: I used to be a literature major. As an undergraduate, I studied in a traditional English department, and I only accidentally found out about linguistics when I took a grammar class. In those literature courses, professors lectured about the different kinds of hero that have been discussed for thousands of years. In Greece, Aristotle wrote about the hero, and in the Middle Ages, the hero was construed differently. In the twentieth century, the notion of the anti-hero became possible, and writers in the postmodernist style exploded the notion not just of hero but of narrative as well.

Of course, this was the 1980s, and my professors weren’t talking about comics, and they weren’t talking about superheroes. They talked about John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice Walker, Eudora Welty, Jane Austen, and Walker Percy, among others. As in the world of literature, the list of heroes in comics is quite long, of course, and stretches across a wide range of character types.

Several months ago, I picked up a trade paperback of No Hero, by Warren Ellis and Juan Jose Ryp (Avatar, 2009). In many ways, this book reiterates other interrogations of the (super)hero construct, and in so doing references Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among others. For instance, it questions motivations, and it questions the nature of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’

Super Human?

detail from cover of trade paperback

Notably, on the cover of the TPB, the title is underscored by the epigraph ‘How Much Do You Want To Be A Super Human?’ In a nutshell, the comic tells the story of how a scientist created a chemical drug that alters human physiology and psychology so that anyone who took the drug was vested with superhuman strength, endurance, flight, or other abilities.

The two central characters of the book at first are seen in a mentor/mentee relationship, but this soon turns to one of struggle, of conflict. The mentee, the most recent human to become a super human, changes physically to such a degree that he becomes unrecognizable. His superhero uniform makes him look like a hero, not only by functioning similarly to the uniforms the other super humans wear, but also by covering up his disfigurement. The image below shows the super human unmasked.


Real Hero Now

The superhumans in this comic book have abilities that no others on Earth possess. It is a world without Wonder Woman, without Superman, without Spider-Man, without Storm. But ‘Who Watches the Watchmen?’ is a tag line that seems appropriate here.

It seems that in comics we have heroes who are recognizable as heroes only on the surface. They can achieve super human feats, and they pull on tight, form-fitting costumes to signify their membership in the super human club. It is clear, though, both from the comics themselves as well as reviews of the comics and interviews with the artists, that these characters are not in any sense heroic. This type of character wouldn’t qualify as an Aristotelian tragic hero, or even a deconstructed postmodernist hero (like ‘Rocket Man’ Slothrop in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow).

I would argue, instead, that they are much more likely to be substantively villainous creatures masquerading as heroes. I would argue that Warren Ellis may have named something that comics readers have been looking at for a while: the no-hero. The epigraph of the book doesn’t use the term ‘super hero,’ but instead uses ‘super human.’ The no-hero is the character who looks like a hero only under certain circumstances, only in a certain light, only when subjected to a kind of rhetorical stance that makes it seem so.

Is there such a thing as a no-hero? And does this kind of character exist in other places, outside comics?


About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

5 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    I am struck by how this post intersects with a number of discussions I engaged in or overheard this weekend at the Fabletown and Beyond comic convention, which was devoted to comics (such as Fables, by Bill Willingham, who hosted the event) based on mythology or folklore (and which conveniently occurred only 1 1/2 hour away from my home!) One recurring theme was why these sorts of stories – often with very clear cut moral lines – have become so popular recently. One suggestion that was made more than once is that these fairy tale stories allow one to write about, and read about, more traditional heroes (and villains), whereas the current deconstructed superhero climate is reluctant to tolerate such old-fashioned-seeming, white hat versus black hat themes.

    It’s certainly something to think about.

  2. Hrm, seems like an interesting book and I trust Ellis to make entertainment engaging. That said, I think that the comic “Bratpack” by Rick Veitch, from way back in 1990, tackles elements of this duality between public persona and whoring for power, without the disfiguring elements of chemical induction. I don’t mean to disrespect you or Ellis and Ryp, but this isn’t exactly original, and definitely isn’t a capital N “new” kind of hero. I think that you might need to revisit 1980’s and early 1990’s superhero dissections a little more closely.

  3. Hey, Modurndaeozel. Thanks for stopping by Pencil Panel Page and adding to the conversation.

    You’re right of course, that Ellis isn’t doing anything ‘brand new’ with interrogations of hero. I try to make that point very clearly when I refer to ‘Watchmen’ and ‘V for Vendetta’: that the book ‘No Hero’ “reiterates other interrogations of the (super)hero construct, and in so doing references Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among others.”

    One claim that I do make is that Ellis may have given a name to the kinds of characters that inhabit various comics (like your example of ‘Bratpack’). That is, the title of the book ‘No Hero’ could be used as the name of the type of character (rather than hero or antihero, for example).

    I don’t take your post as disrepectful at all. The purpose of this blog is not to make definitive statements about comics but to ask questions, to generate discussion. Thus, with my question about a ‘new’ kind of hero, I invite readers to explore the way that comics artists use traditional conventions of the hero as well as explore alternate (and sometimes darker, destructive) modes of heroism.

    • I don’t want to go too far into how Alan Moore’s benchmark works are rather boilerplate when considering a time when mainstream comics were being challenged from within and without from many different creators. I will say this, however; for every “The Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” that was floating around, there were plethora of other transgressive, critical comic books being published that took the superhero to task. The only difference being, that a lot of that other stuff didn’t capture the sexed-up appeal and cynical indulgence needed to transcend the genre of comics; they didn’t achieve pretention and spectacle on the same level. So, in my mind, citing those two titles is like citing the film “Network” instead of citing something like “Shock Corridor” or “Woman Under the Influence” when attempting to cite films that track the breakdown of existential awareness as it intersects with the oppressive conformity of society. Sure, “Network” may be a brilliant film, but it often dismisses sincere invective in favor of populist, romantic spectacle that’s simply turned on its head; and as with “The Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta”, it conducts a circus to reach an often surreal end, devoid of the very humanism it seeming set out to promote drawing attention to in the first place.

      And yes, I did not miss what the point of your article was about. I simply wanted to prod you indirectly, to see if you’d bite the intellectual bullet. To that end, as someone who has supposedly studies literary archetypes, you should also recognize that the term “No Hero” doesn’t really pass muster. Attempting to promote as new language just plays into the ant-modernist/post-post-modernist trend in retarding language in service to fashionable distillations (exempli gratia: something easier to tweet). This archetype already exists and has been in critical fiction since Shakespeare, at least; that is, “the conspicuous benefactor”. This archetype is often the subject of political satires and dissections of public figures, and when married to the generic pablum of “the fool”, it is often used to dissect celebrity in many iterations.

      As with most literary forms, this archetype resonates or even imitates life, to the degree that feedback loops occur. That’s fine. However, calling the idea of the “no-hero” a new sub-permutation of heroic archetypes (like the anti-hero) is just repackaging a preexisting idea in less precise jargon. As a refusal of post-structuralist ethics, it’s just inviting people to expect less of the intellectual points of contact they have with their media consumption. If you disbelieve what I say — i.e. that everything you purport to have any level of even marginal originalism is, in fact, heavily linked to an unoriginal path of historicity — then one need go no further than Sally Field.

      Sally Field’s acceptance speech for winning the Oscar for best actress in 1984 might as well be the exact panel you quoted from “No Hero”, above. Here, we have a perfect example of real life as tragic satire; we have the ambition for celebrity and power reaching its only cathartic displayed through an earnest expression of pride in Machiavellian avarice and devotion to vanity. The “fool” as “conspicuous benefactor” shows just how catharsis can only effect her when it manifests via explicit reward on a grand scale. In saying, “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it—and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”, she communicates the same willingness to deface herself for power and fame that the above “no-hero” displays by saying, “I guess I’m really a hero now. Thanks.”

      It’s a repeat. It’s simply not original, at all. There’s no new term. Well, that is, unless you want to willfully dispose of previous language that more precisely describes the archetypes at hand.

      Further, the play of archetypes is something that is far too often focused on at the expense of narrative originality when concerns critical comic books that dissect the superhero. “The Watchmen” wasn’t brilliant because it played with the humanity-behind-the-mask by putting a middle-class, bourgeois face super heroes. That sort of thing had been done in the X-Men, Daredevil, and Iron Man years before (Kitty Pryde first appearance in the X-Men, 1980; Frank Miller’s runs writing Daredevil, 1981 and 1986; Iron Man’s, “Demon in a Bottle” storyline, 1979). “The Watchmen” was brilliant by predicting the aftermath of political allowance and fascistic consolidation that might occur after something like 9/11, and how that can lead to atrocity in the name of “unity”. “V for Vendetta” wasn’t brilliant because it was a humanist screed against totalitarianism and authoritarianism on a governmental level, or even that it played with the idea of how symbolic heroism can be more important than the person behind the symbol. Those themes are as old as Charlie Chaplin’s, “The Great Dictator” (1940) in film, Batman (1939, who is also a fascist) in comics, and Fantômas in literary fiction (1911, on which “V for Vendetta” is very closely based). No, rather, “V for Vendetta” is brilliant for pointing out how the fey, idealist, anarchist, artist is capable of being just as much of a fascist totalitarian as the institutional authorities they rebel against. It is no coincidence that he chose the mask of a Christian Puritan dissident who wanted to blow up English parliament out of a hatred for moderation and diplomatic approaches to complex issues; it’s not because Guy Fawkes was a rebellious sort who wanted freedom for *all* people, it’s because he was the perfect symbol of a narrow-minded idealist who wanted to destroy power to make way for him and his kind to dominate others (the spin in the film version is quite different).

      “No Hero” might be biting satire, but it is not a call for a new term to be added to the academic lexicon of literary archetypes. Also, it definitely doesn’t hold any prescient insights, as others in its comic book sub-genre might. The thing that it does have in common with all of that, however, is fashion and cynicism. Something that I suspect even Alan Moore never hoped would catch on (if his America’s Best Comics imprint was any indication).

  4. *Sorry about the typos.

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