One of the most pervasive archetypes in literature is the hero. The Greeks presented a complex and very human type of hero, often referred to as the tragic hero. Readers can relate especially to tragic heroes because tragic heroes have flaws. Their flaws make tragic heroes more human, and are effective protagonists even when their plans fail. The hero who is semi-divine or divine is a less compelling story, given that few if any human beings can relate to a figure who is flawless, immortal, and possessing of unlimited strength. Graphic novels present complex characters including some that fit the definition of tragic hero. Modern literature teems with examples of heroes who are just like us: they have good intentions, they are far from perfect, and they sometimes fail. Yet embedded in the definition of hero is the imperative that the individual must be able to put aside egotism, and reach deep inside for an altruistic spirit. Heroism is about overcoming great obstacles. Often the hero’s biggest enemy is herself, or himself, via internal issues like anger or fear. Sometimes the hero overcomes external obstacles: ranging from torture to racism. For example, in “The Train from Hate,” John Hope Franklin writes about overcoming racism. Heroes may exhibit unique flaws and character traits, but they share one universal quality in common: all heroes remain true to themselves and their dreams in spite of any obstacles.
Even the concept of the anti-hero fits the definition of a character that remains true to himself or herself in the midst of great obstacles. Anti-heroes are popular in modern literature, film, and television. Take Dexter, the hero of the namesake television show. Dexter is a quintessential anti-hero: the audience technically should not root for someone who kills. Yet Dexter does not kill discriminately. Dexter is a hero because he rids the world of bad guys: serial killers who would go on to wreak further havoc on the lives of individuals and the community. The protagonist is deeply flawed, but he owns his flaws. He is keenly aware of the monster inside him, and keeps that shadow self in check by developing a code of ethics that guides when, how, and why he kills. Thus, the writers of Dexter manage to create a hero that is darkly comedic and yet totally fitting of the historical archetype of someone who is true to himself. Dexter is also portrayed as a hero who overcomes. Frequent flashbacks to his childhood show that Dexter experienced tremendous, nearly unbearable trauma watching his mother’s murder happen right before his eyes. Overcoming the trauma, and the urge to kill indiscriminately, are also what make Dexter a hero.
In “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane,” Etheridge Knight begins by introducing the hero as someone who has already been through hell and back but remained strong and true to himself. Hard Rock was “known not to take no shit / from nobody, and he had the scars to prove it,” (lines 1-2). The narrator proceeds to describe Hard Rock’s “split purple lips,” and the scars cutting across his entire face to his hairline (line 3). Immediately the reader sympathizes with the hero, and wants to learn how Hard Rock got the scars. His scars show that he possesses one of the central traits of heroism: the ability and motivation to overcome tragedy. Because he is introduced immediately at the start of the poem, the reader believes that Hard Rock is the good guy. Just as with Dexter, Hard Rock might do bad things, but those bad things do not preclude him from being a hero. Hard Rock and Dexter both have tragic flaws, but they own those flaws and remain true to themselves while achieving their goals.
Hard Rock is portrayed as the defender of the underclass. He did not “take no shit” and was known to be a “mean nigger,” someone who reached the status of a superhero colloquially known as The Destroyer (last stanza). Hard Rock was the “doer of things / We dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do,” because “the fears of years…Had cut deep bloody grooves / Across our backs,” (last few lines of the poem). The speaker makes sure…