Steal the World: The Antihero

Being a semi-edited dump of my thoughts as I prepare for a presentation at ROFCON later this month. Expect more in the coming days as I continue planning my talks. 

The Antihero

An essential element of many adventure stories is the hero… rather, the antihero. While there are certainly adventure stories that feature genuinely heroic characters (TinTin, Robert Langdon, Wil Turner in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie), it’s more common to find a main character who is an antihero. That is: somebody we cheer for even as they commit crimes and occasionally act as a terrible person.

Crimes? Of course. Setting aside for the moment all of the colonialist subtexts of the adventure genre… and there are plenty… just remember that most iconic of scenes from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark: Our “hero” is so exhausted from fighting through hoards of sweaty locals and overdressed nazis that he throws a disgusted look at the crowd, pulls his gun, and shoots a swordsman in the chest with callous disinterest.

I’m not even critiquing it: This is iconic Indiana Jones, as much as punching nazis and claiming that relics “belong in a museum.”

This is an classic element of the adventure story: In many stories we need a hero who is willing to kill, steal, and otherwise break from social norms in order to drive the narrative of exploring exotic locations and capturing cool artifacts.

It’s not 100% essential. There are some successful adventure stories in which other justifications are given for the adventure, and we’ll talk about these when I overview some of the high points of the genre, but for now… let’s focus on the more criminal sort of story, since those are some of my favorite.

The protagonist in most adventure stories generally fits into one of four archetypes: Thief, Scholar, Explorer, or Agent.

Many of the most successful series will combine these elements to differing degrees, such as:

  • Nathan Drake is a thief who pretends to scholarship.
  • Indiana Jones is a scholar and thief in equal measure, with strong elements of agent in his frequent confrontations with archetypal villains such as nazis and soviets.
  • Alan Quatermain is of the older style: A guide to the undiscovered parts of the world with only small elements of thief, scholar, or agent. As suggested by Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Quatermain is a relic of another time: A fragment of the past when British exceptionalism was taken for granted and much of the world had yet to be explored by white men.
  • Cotton Malone is a former federal agent turned bookseller, combining agent with scholar.
  • Flynn Carsen of The Librarian is a consummate academic, with traces of agent and thief.

You’ll note that these examples have all been men… and that’s because with a very few notable exceptions, adventure is a genre which has long been driven by male characters. Women exist in this genre, and are often essential as sidekicks or villains, but they are rarely the focus. Exceptions include (almost exclusively):

  • Lara Croft
    • Began as little more than a sexy Indiana Jones knockoff, but has developed more over the course of two (soon to be three) movies and several games to be a strong character with a detailed (and twice rebooted) backstory.
  • Amelia Peabody
    • Lesser known outside the fan circles of mystery and romance, Peabody is the hero of a series of books by Elizabeth Peters. Aided by her sprawling family and network of associates, she hunts for treasures and solves mysteries in early 20th century Egypt.
  • Les Adventures Extrodinaire d’Adele Blanc-Sec
    • Virtually unknown in the USA, the heroine of a French comic series. (I need to watch the Luc Besson movie and add some more comments about her before the event. Will update this post when I do.)

This wraps up the antihero section of my presentation. Obviously the full presentation will have images and I may need to expound further on the characters or my love for all of these stories. 

Thoughts? Questions? Points where I am wrong?

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