Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Cassidy Conundrum

This is Proinsias Cassidy:

Cassidy (he doesn’t like the given name much) is the Irish vampire sidekick of Jesse Custer, hero of the comic series Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. (Cassidy’s presence is a bit odd, actually, since all the other supernatural aspects of Preacher derive directly from God or the angels. It kinda seems like Ennis wanted to write a vampire character but didn’t have a story for him, so he stuck him in Preacher. But anyway.)

Cassidy’s a good guy. More or less. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call him simply “a lead character”, and he comes into conflict with Jesse later in the book, but he’s a character who we’re at least initially supposed to like and relate to.

This despite the fact that he drinks human blood. Which he kills to attain.

I bring this up because Cassidy is a good example of an aspect that shows up throughout popular fiction, and comics in particular, which has been bugging me lately. I call this archetype The Righteous Asshole.

As an audience, we have certain expectations from a hero. We expect them to have a moral code, to do things for reasons that aren’t motivated by pure selfishness or stupidity, to avoid taking pleasure in killing or raping or doing other horrible things. There are, of course, no hard and fast rules here. Some protagonists behave in an unheroic manner—perhaps they’re cowardly, or foolish, or have some inner conflict. Sometimes you even have outright evil protagonists, a la Patrick Bateman, but of course these are antiheroes, not heroes. Heroes are a distinct breed of main character. We expect to find them in genre fiction, in stories that involve action and life-or-death stakes. On the rare occasions where we encounter them outside of this context, they’re still quickly recognizable: the hero is “the good guy”. There are grey areas here, of course: a hero who is flawlessly competent and morally impeccable can be pretty boring…though not always; Superman, when written well, can be quite compelling, for instance. I’m reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s comment about his creation Father Brown, who was also created to be a walking exemplar of virtue: “white is also a colour”.

But the idea is that the hero is distinguished by his or her desire to “do right” in the face of an extreme physical or moral challenge. If we get to the climax of a story and we’re uncertain whether the lead is really going to let someone else die to save his or her own skin, it seems fairly safe to say they’re not a hero. That’s not to say a protagonist might not do the right and noble thing, but with a non-heroic protagonist you would have some honest doubt. With a Hero, you know going in that they’re going to do the morally laudable thing (whatever the author thinks that is) in a given situation.

An awful lot of heroes kill people.

This really ought to be a bigger deal than it is usually treated as, to me. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’m by no means declaring that Killing is Always Wrong and that Any Protagonist Who Kills Is Evil And A Bad Influence and THINK OF THE CHILDREN. In real life, people kill each other, and sometimes that killing can be said to be justified or even heroic. If some dude comes at you with a knife because you looked at him wrong, and you end up reflexively turning it around on him so he stabs himself…that seems like a pretty clear-cut case of self-defense. Likewise, if the hero is being hunted by a Shady Organization that’s Out To Get Him for reasons beyond his control, and they’re firing 2,000,000 rounds per minute in his direction (never hitting him, of course), I think you could excuse him picking up his own gun and returning fire in order to get them to stop. Witty quip optional.

And of course, if it’s 1943 and the Shady Organization has a swastika on their shoulder…well, nuff said.

Speaking of which, part of the brilliance of Inglourious Basterds was the way Tarantino went out of his way to make the Nazis, apart from Landa, as sympathetic as possible—even Hitler was mostly portrayed as a human being—while painting the Basterds as sadistic douchebags at every turn. This makes us confront our feelings about the rightness or wrongness of killing, specifically killing on screen. The Nazis were about as close to pure evil as the real world ever got; does that make it OK to root for the violent slaughtering of specific, human individuals?

I don’t know. But the far more puzzling thing is the way certain authors seem to go beyond the idea of a hero who’s required to get his hands dirty, and turn heroism into an excuse to do awful stuff.

I started writing this blog post a while back, and I’ve been chewing it over on and off for a few weeks now. What inspired me to come back to it was a post on Andrew Breitbart’s infamous Big Hollywood site by a fellow named Leo Grin, posted about a month ago. Grin is apparently involved with a Robert E. Howard fan club in an official capacity, and the post was about how far downhill “secondary world” fantasy has fallen in the years since Howard and Tolkien. Specifically, he was bemoaning the supposed lack of virtuous true heroes, and the fact that fantasy had apparently given way to subversive narratives in which the protagonists weren’t all that heroic.

Again: the guy was using Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, as an exemplar of virtuous, heroic fiction.

I really, really don’t want to link to Big Hollywood—it’s a site devoted to cultural conservative breast-beating and cherry-picking all the supposed ways that the values of “secular humanism”, transmitted via Hollywood and the eeeeeeevil liberal media, are destroying society just for the hell of it, or something—so I’ll instead link to a couple of people who take Grin’s argument apart pretty effectively. If you really must, the link to the original article is included in both those pieces, but really, if you’ve read one Big Hollywood essay, you’ve read them all.

What interests me is that I’m saying things that seem to overlap with what Grin is saying, and yet, even taking things out of the political context, we clearly see the world very differently. Because to me, Conan is a perfect example of a character whose status as a “hero”—something that even his own author had trouble proclaiming—is simply not backed up by his behaviour.

Conan drinks, whores around, steals, and, you may perhaps have heard, has been known to kill people on occasion. Also beasts. And monsters. And Elder Gods from the dark backwards and abysm of time. Generally speaking I’m not going to complain much about the killing elder demons thing, so, y’know, yay Conan, but the context for the stories isn’t what I would call “heroic”. Conan’s status as a hero is predicated entirely on the fact that his author tends to remove moral obstacles from his path.

What I mean is, Conan will kill an elder god because it’s threatening his life; he’ll destroy an evil sorcerer because he’s hoarding a precious gem that Conan wants to sell on the black market; he’ll rescue a princess because he wants to fuck her. Occasionally he’s compelled to go on a heroic mission via money or threats, but the point is that he doesn’t do heroic things for the sake of being heroic; he occasionally saves the life of someone he likes (or wants to fuck) but he doesn’t act to save lives in the abstract. He acts to serve his own interests first and foremost. (Well, that’s not quite true—later, King Conan acts a number of times to save his own kingdom. But even there, you get the sense that he’s doing it not because he actually cares about his people’s welfare, but because fighting off threats is the kind of thing a king does if he wants to keep his kingdom. And even then, we’re pretty clearly shown how kingship has beaten Conan down and interfered with his life as a “natural man” and free spirit.) Conan does what he wants, and the universe—the one crafted by Howard and Farnsworth Wright and, later, divers other hands—obliges by making sure his interests coincide with the greater good.

I haven’t read any of the later, non-Howard Conan stories, but I’d be really interested to know if there are any examples of, for instance, Conan robbing and killing a good sorcerer, or letting an elder demon run amok because he’s not personally affected by it, or in any other way confronted with a moral choice that pits his self-interest against other people’s welfare. But somehow I doubt it. Conan is the archetypal Righteous Asshole. He’s righteous because his author wants him to be.

That brings us back to Cassidy. (Some minor SPOILERS for Preacher follow.) I chose to focus on Cassidy as opposed to his friend and protagonist, Jesse Custer, because Jesse is essentially Conan—he’s always in the right, always awesome and admirable, and he always wins, because that’s how Garth Ennis wants it to be. And while that’s what we expect from an action hero, he falls once more into the Conan trap of having the universe provide a constant string of moral excuses—those guys in the bar whose faces he mutilated, they picked a fight with him! That cop he beat up, he was an asshole to his horse! Those cars he stole—well, actually, there’s no real excuse given for Jesse’s life as a car thief aside from “car theft is awesome”. (And even the mere fact that Jesse’s up against some truly vile villains who want to wreck the world could be seen as a moral out for him to do whatever he wants—the Inglourious Basterds effect again, but without the moral reflection.) But this is par for the course.

What’s interesting about Cassidy is that he’s not, ultimately, given the same moral free pass that Jesse is, even as he seems to make use of it more in the short term. The people whose blood he drinks tend to be (sometimes rather hastily) established as douchebags. If Cassidy’s in desperate need of a blood fix, you can always count on some cartoonish jerk staggering along in the next few pages, probably picking a fight with Cassidy, to provide a convenient excuse.

But Ennis does acknowledge some of the problems with Cassidy within the narrative. As soon as Jesse discovers that Cassidy is “a fuckin’ abomination” In the first book, the two part ways, reunited via the typical Han Solo-style last-minute reunion that saves everyone’s hide. At which point…Jesse and Cassidy become fast friends. Wait, what?

Jesse, dude, you’re hanging around with an undead, blood-drinking monster. I mean, it’d be one thing if it was Angel, and he was raiding blood banks or butcher’s shops for his fix, but the guy murders people to drink their blood, numerous times, in Jesse’s presence. Again, they’re usually the same people who are busily trying to kill Jesse and Tulip (Jesse’s girlfriend), but come on—wouldn’t that raise a few flags? The suggestion is that Jesse had a knee-jerk, negative reaction to Jesse being one of the undead, but got over it. And while I applaud the idea of getting over false preconceptions about people, when you’re presented with evidence that your best friend kills people and drinks their blood, I think we’re on somewhat firmer moral ground here.

Later in the story, Jesse stumbles across evidence of some of the scummier things Cassidy’s done over his unnaturally extended life, and even before that, Tulip ends up being exploited by him during a vulnerable time—and all I could think of was, “Dude. Blood. Drinking. Monster.” Not only did I see Cassidy’s eventual heel turn coming, it made Jesse seem kind of hapless, even as Ennis paints him as an ultracompetent manly hero. It seems like Ennis honestly, truly didn’t see anything wrong with the idea that one of his protagonists kills people to suck their blood—or rather, that he anticipated Jesse thinking the blood-drinking thing was gross and wrong, but the “kills people” aspect doesn’t seem to have bothered him at all.

I guess the point of all this is that here we have a story that’s quite blatantly undermined by its author’s failure to consider the morality of the universe they’ve created. I don’t mean this to sound hectoring—people may have different ideas of what constitutes morality, and what’s “realistic” in this context—but simply to note that this is a matter of practicality. When you make friends with a bloodsucking murderer, you don’t have much of a right to act surprised and hurt when he stabs you in the back.


  1. I've already said my piece on Leo's article at length on my blog, but suffice to say, I think a lot of people are misunderstanding the point he's trying to make about heroism and nobility, but his actively confrontational manner is bound to get hackles up. Leo isn't talking about some black-and-white division between "all noble and heroic protagonists" and "shades of grey," he's talking about fantasies where there is no heroism to speak of, and if there is, it's either quickly killed off, or utterly undermined. Of COURSE it's patently absurd that, if he was indeed talking about "the supposed lack of virtuous true heroes, and the fact that fantasy had apparently given way to subversive narratives in which the protagonists weren’t all that heroic" and then uses a character described by the author as "the Damnedest Bastard There Ever Was" as an example, but he wasn't doing that. He was bemoaning the utter lack of heroism in selected works of fantasy, not the pollutions of black and white morality with shades of grey.

    Nonetheless, I'll say that Conan is indeed a hero, but in the original sense of the word - the way that Achilles, Herakles, Beowulf, and the morally ambiguous heroes of ancient mythology are heroes. The idea of a hero being a paragon of virtue who represents the best morality in humanity is a very modern phenomenon: back in the day, what made someone a hero is incredible feats of bravery, ingenuity, cunning, strength, endurance, skill, intelligence, and other such fields. Ancient heroes did these things, but they could also be petty, selfish, brutish and violent. Conan is thus most definitely a hero in that sense of the word.

    Conan's acts of heroism in the modern sense are definitely there, though.

  2. Well, that’s not quite true—later, King Conan acts a number of times to save his own kingdom. But even there, you get the sense that he’s doing it not because he actually cares about his people’s welfare, but because fighting off threats is the kind of thing a king does if he wants to keep his kingdom. And even then, we’re pretty clearly shown how kingship has beaten Conan down and interfered with his life as a “natural man” and free spirit.

    No, there's definitely more to it than that.

    "He cursed himself for his refusal of their offer, even while his stubborn manhood revolted at the thought, and he knew that were he taken forth and given another chance, his reply would be the same. He would not sell his subjects to the butcher. And yet it had been with no thought of any one’s gain but his own that he had seized the kingdom originally. Thus subtly does the instinct of sovereign responsibility enter even a red-handed plunderer sometimes."
    - The Hour of the Dragon

    "Again Conan shook his head. “Let others dream imperial dreams. I but wish to hold what is mine. I have no desire to rule an empire welded together by blood and fire. It’s one thing to seize a throne with the aid of its subjects and rule them with their consent. It’s another to subjugate a foreign realm and rule it by fear. I don’t wish to be another Valerius. No, Trocero, I’ll rule all Aquilonia and no more, or I’ll rule nothing.”"
    - The Hour of the Dragon

    Conan clearly cares about the welfare of his people, to the point where he instinctively rejects an offer to become a vassal to a sorcerer with imperial designs. Indeed, Conan undergoes something of a crisis later in the book, where the lure of the sea, and freedom from the constraints of kingship, beckon to him, but he rejects them, for his people need him:

    Conan felt the old tug of the professional fighting-man, to turn his horse and plunge into the fighting, the pillaging and the looting as in the days of old. Why should he toil to regain the rule of a people which had already forgotten him? – why chase a will-o’-the-wisp, why pursue a crown that was lost for ever? Why should he not seek forgetfulness, lose himself in the red tides of war and rapine that had engulfed him so often before? Could he not, indeed, carve out another kingdom for himself? The world was entering an age of iron, an age of war and imperialistic ambition; some strong man might well rise above the ruins of nations as a supreme conqueror. Why should it not be himself? So his familiar devil whispered in his ear, and the phantoms of his lawless and bloody past crowded upon him. But he did not turn aside; he rode onward, following a quest that grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until sometimes it seemed that he pursued a dream that never was.
    - The Hour of the Dragon

  3. Conan does what he wants, and the universe—the one crafted by Howard and Farnsworth Wright and, later, divers other hands—obliges by making sure his interests coincide with the greater good.

    Not necessarily: in more than a few Conan stories, Conan is an outlaw, and predates on honest working folk and settlements. Howard did a good job in keeping his most heinous stuff off-stage - the sacking of settlements, piracy, massacres, what have you - so the reader isn't totally alienated by his savagery. Nonetheless, whenever Howard cast Conan as a bandit, pirate, thief or assassin, he didn't sugar-coat it by making him out to be some sort of Robin Hood: he portrayed Conan as just the sort of ruthless, dangerous, merciless man one had to be in order to survive in such an occupation.

    I haven’t read any of the later, non-Howard Conan stories, but I’d be really interested to know if there are any examples of, for instance, Conan robbing and killing a good sorcerer

    While Conan was a believer in the freedom of religious expression:

    "But Conan’s was the broad tolerance of the barbarian, and he had refused to persecute the followers of Asura or to allow the people to do so on no better evidence than was presented against them, rumors and accusations that could not be proven. “If they are black magicians,” he had said, “how will they suffer you to harry them? If they are not, there is no evil in them. Crom’s devils! Let men worship what gods they will.”"
    - The Hour of the Dragon

    In his "Conan the Throat-Slitter" days, I think he'd kill anyone for a price. He certainly didn't seem to have any problems killing Nabonidus in "Rogues in the House," even though he didn't know he was an evil sorcerer.

    letting an elder demon run amok because he’s not personally affected by it

    "I'm not going out of my way looking for devils; but I wouldn't step out of my path to let one go by."
    - "Beyond the Black River"

    Even a barbarian has limits, I guess.

    or in any other way confronted with a moral choice that pits his self-interest against other people’s welfare.

    In "The Servants of Bit-Yakin," Conan must choose between saving a dancing girl he isn't particularly enamoured with - she'd actually been driving him insane with her yammering - or priceless gems of untold value, both of which are slipping towards a precipice. Conan doesn't even hesitate, and saves the girl.

    In "Beyond the Black River," Conan risks his life to save a group of settlers from the Picts: no treasure for a reward, no babe to score, just Conan doing the right thing.

    In "The Black Stranger," Conan's even willing to help men he actively hates, because leaving them in the hands of the Picts would be unforgivable. At the end of that story, Conan gives the treasure he managed to pilfer - enough to buy a noble estate in a civilized country - to an impoverished woman and her ward, with no promise of carnal exchange, or any recompense at all, merely because he "knows what it's like to be penniless in a Hyborian land."

    The above examples are from the original Howard stories (Farnsworth Wright had nothing to do with creating the Conan stories: just editing them by softening curses at most, altering spelling and grammar at the least). It's true that Conan's no knight in shining armour, but neither is he the scum of the earth.

    (Hope you don't mind the three comments, but Blogger only allows for so many characters)

  4. Hi, Taranaich. Sorry I'm responding so late--I don't check my blog for comments very often.

    It seems to me the problem with Grin's essay is that he picks and chooses what makes for a "hero" as it serves his greater point about the EEEEEEEEEVILS of secular humanism and how it's invading the fantasy genre. I haven't read most of the books Grin references, but further down in the comments Grin contemptuously attacks the Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones books, which I HAVE read, and claiming that they're devoid of heroism is just absurd, especially when you're holding up Conan as an example of heroism. Ned Stark or Jon Snow are far more heroic, to my mind, than Conan, even if Conan could lick them in a fight, and even though Conan tends to succeed and the ASoIaF characters tend to fail. These are separate issues from how "heroic" they are (as is Grin's dislike of "scatological" realism), but Grin nevertheless claims that they somehow celebrate moral bankruptcy. There's a difference between portraying the tragic failure of the good and actively celebrating it, though.

    Likewise, given Abercrombie's eleoquent defense of his own books, which I link to above, it's pretty clear that Grin is cherry-picking and goalpost-moving with great abandon. This is the problem I have with Big Hollywood on the whole--they do this ALL THE TIME. They start with a premise and force the facts to fit.

  5. I think you're downplaying Farnsworth Wright's role in shaping Conan--let's not forget that he rejected certain stories and accepted others, which is a big part of why Kull, a more intellectual series, didn't take off the way Conan did. I see Wright as pushing Howard towards writing more "bastardly" heroes (as Howard himself put it) because that was what he thought would sell. At any rate, editors definitely play a big role in a story, one that's frequently unacknowledged.

    You're right that Conan frequently acts heroically; my issue is that of "author fiat", in which the writer of a story uses his power to shape things in a way that favours certain characters. Obviously every story does this to a certain degree, but at its extreme this is what leads to the infamous "Mary Sue" of fan fiction, in which the author basically inserts themselves into the story and turns it into a vehicle for making themselves look cool and/or living out their fantasies. And yes, Conan has a whiff of the Mary Sue about him. That's not fundamentally bad--the stories are good, and there's nothing inherently wrong with creating a character that everyone wants to be. I love Batman and James Bond as much as the next guy. But I think really good fiction has an obligation to test itself, morally--to put the heroes in situations where they're forced to make choices that are more complex than "how do I escape this deathtrap?" Most of the Conan stories skirt this issue; Conan does indeed bravely risk his life for his people, and does what he can to be a wise ruler, so I'll give him props there, but it's not actually that hard to write "'I'll go kick ass for my people!', said Conan, and then proceeded to kick ass for his people."

    The reason I bring up the "did he ever kill a good guy and take his stuff?" question is that if we're expected to accept Conan as a moral paragon--I don't think Howard wants us to, but those seem to be the terms on which Grin accepts him--then we're brought up short against Conan's tendency to steal, murder, and whore his way across Hyborea. And Howard tends to slant things Conan's way by making sure the people he robs and murders are bastards who have it coming--monsters, evil sorcerors, or just abusive aristocrats or rich people. This lets him have his cake and eat it too--Conan's an admirable hero, AND he gets away with doing whatever he feels like. Again, Howard's writing hints at greater nuance than that, but Grin seems to want to ignore that and hold up Conan as an old-fashioned hero, while condemning modern fantasy with characters who are, frankly, more well-behaved. This, to me, makes no sense.