In honor of the upcoming release of the superhero flick Kick-Ass this Friday, I’m counting down the greatest self-made heroes that human ingenuity and imagination has to offer. Why the focus on self-made heroes rather than superheroes in general? The comic book series by Mark Millar upon which Matthew Vaughn’s film is based rests on the idea that superheroes don’t need superhuman powers or abilities in order to fight crime and serve justice, so I’m focusing on the best heroes and “superheroes” that rely on technology in conjunction with their own intelligence and strength in order to do battle with the forces of evil. Without further ado, here’s today’s greatest self-made hero: the Comedian.
Representing Alan Moore’s 1986 comic book series Watchmen is the Comedian, real name Edward Morgan Blake. The Comedian began his career as a “vigilante,” as costumed heroes often are referred to in the Watchmen universe, as a teenager in the 1930s. Although deeply flawed, the Comedian became a patriotic hero for the United States by helping the government in Vietnam, and for that reason he became one of only two costumed heroes to be government sanctioned in his actions — both honorable and dishonorable. The Comedian relies heavily on weaponry, including a flame thrower and a variety of automatic weapons, although it’s clear that he can also hold his own in hand-to-hand and street combat.
Characterizing the Comedian as a hero is a controversial move, to say the least, but it is a move that inevitably makes sense upon further inspection. Undoubtedly, some of the Comedian’s actions are less than heroic (specifically the attempted rape of his fellow costumed heroine, the original Silk Spectre, as well as his involvement in Vietnam on behalf of the U.S. government), but these lapses in moral judgment illustrate one of the most important characteristics of the self-made hero: imperfection.
Generally speaking, the self-made hero is a self-made hero because he or she feels inherently flawed — that is one of the reasons that the more popular self-made heroes became the enduring icons that they continue to be to this day: people can identify with them. Among their various origin stories and franchise reboots, many self-made heroes have deep, dark secrets that they feel obligated to pay for, and they do so by sacrificing their own personal lives and safety for the greater good of others.
The Comedian stands as the penultimate example of a flawed self-made hero — one who has actually committed crimes. The Watchmen story compensates for this fact, however, and exacts the ultimate price from the Comedian: death. While condemned by his fellow heroes for his gritty sense of human nature and emphasis on reality, the Comedian was nevertheless hailed as a hero by the masses. But the masses cannot be allowed to idolize a self-made hero whose faults are acted upon in a criminal manner; thus, the Watchmen story begins with the Comedian’s death, and readers/viewers discover the truth about various aspects of the Comedian’s personality and flaws already aware of the punishment he ultimately faced as a result.
Whether the Comedian could beat the crap out of the Green Arrow or the Punisher is unclear, but the fact remains that he is one of the greatest self-made heroes ever to grace the pages of a comic book (and now, the silver screen as well). He is controversial, he is flawed, and he is great because, unlike his fellow costumed heroes in the Watchmen universe, the Comedian feels the true weight of what a costumed hero represents for the general public and willingly accepts that role, regardless of the personal consequences.