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The Chaotic Champion – Part Four: The Outsider Hero

Batman by AndyFairhurst (detail)Just when all seems lost, the Batmobile screeches to a halt and the Caped Crusader leaps out to put paid to the latest dastardly scheme of the Joker, the Penguin or Catwoman. “Who is he behind that mask?” wonder the grateful people of Gotham City. Well, according to my Chaotic Champion terminology, he’s an Outsider Hero.

Of the six categories, the Outsider Hero is the one perhaps most associated with modern popular culture. He* doesn’t wander the world seeking for causes or adventures, whether for honour or profit; he lives amid the society he protects but – as Chaotic Champion, at least—isn’t entirely part of it. He may even have a dual identity: ordinary citizen most of the time, hero when needed.

Of course, pretty much every superhero with a secret identity is an Outsider Hero, masquerading as a mild-mannered reporter or a millionaire philanthropist until the hero is called for, but not all Outsider Heroes quite fit this description.

This is one kind of Chaotic Champion that’s rare in traditional legend, and the reasons for that reflect both the reasons for the Outsider remaining at arm’s length and the differences between traditional and modern values. Occasionally, a traditional hero may live wild in remote places for a while, coming to the aid of those who need it. In Arthurian legend, Lancelot goes through this phase, but it only represents one episode, not a permanent life-choice.

Strider by AnthonyFotiNevertheless, even in modern stories, not all Outsider Heroes are superheroes behind masks. In Lord of the Rings, for instance, Aragorn in his role as Strider the Ranger exists on the edge of society, coming and going—familiar enough to drink in the Prancing Pony at Bree, but not trusted. None of those who look askance at him know the danger they’re in: “Strider” I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.

A more familiar type of Outsider Hero is the private detective, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe and beyond. This is someone who certainly has a place within society—within order—and remains on the right side of the law. Well, mostly. Nevertheless, he has no official role for offering protection against the chaos of crime, and is usually at odds with those who do. Inspector Lestrade might call on Holmes’s expertise but distrusts him as a man, just as the people of Bree distrust Strider.

At times, the role might take the Outsider Hero completely outside the law, into a role that’s similar, though not identical, to the Outlaw Hero, whom we’ll examine in the next article. An example is the TV show The A Team. The team are certainly outlaws, having broken out of a military prison (for a crime they didn’t commit, of course); but, where the Outlaw Hero combats the chaos at the heart of the system, the A Team’s only concern with the system is not to be caught. Their heroic activities tend to be aimed against the chaos from without rather than from within.

north by northwest by groundfishThe typical Hitchcockian hero is in a similar position. Films like North by Northwest and The Thirty Nine Steps deal with ordinary people who find themselves pursued both by the bad guys and (mistakenly) by the law. It could be argued that these characters aren’t exactly Chaotic Champions, since they’re normal guys who have heroism thrust on them; but that’s one way it can happen, as Frodo Baggins found in a different context.

Most typically, though, the Outsider Hero hides his identity behind a mask, whether literally or figuratively. In the case of the Lone Ranger, for example, this is completely literal. Like most Outsider Heroes, the Lone Ranger is a figure who might, in the real world, be termed a vigilante, fighting the chaos of crime without any sanction from law or establishment. This, of course, is the wild west where, if westerns are to be believed (which they shouldn’t be, outside the myth) the official lawmen were spread far too thinly to be any kind of match for either outlaws or devious businessmen riding roughshod over the decent, honest settlers.

The Lone Ranger originally donned his mask to retain his anonymity while tracking down the bandits who’d massacred his brother and comrades, leaving him too for dead, but he kept it forever afterwards. Perhaps he felt an unknown nemesis would be more terrifying to wrongdoers.

Superman VS Batman by Jim LeeThis was certainly one reason that Bruce Wayne adopted a bat-like costume, to prey on the fears and guilt of criminals—not that the Joker, the Penguin and the rest seem to possess an ounce of guilt between them—but he also had the twin motives of protecting the people he cared about in his ordinary life and making it harder for the wrong people—whether evil or just misguided—to get their hands on the impressive array of technology on which Batman depends for his superpowers.

Superman, too, might have wished to protect people he cared about—though it doesn’t stop Lois regularly getting into trouble—but he has fewer practical reasons than Batman, since his superpowers arise purely from his own alien nature and can’t be stolen like a Batmobile. Moreover, whereas Bruce Wayne is a highly respected figure in Gotham City society, Clark Kent has taken on a persona which leads him into regular humiliation.

This seems an odd decision; but Superman, like the demi-gods of Greek mythology such as Herakles, is fundamentally more than human. If he chose, he could rule the world, and no doubt the idea is occasionally tempting. Perhaps the indignities Clark puts himself through, rather than admitting who he is and being worshipped, are designed to keep him humble.

Buffy by pungangThe temptation is all the greater because, in Superman’s fictional reality, the people of Metropolis are used to the concept of a protector with alien superpowers. This isn’t always the case. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the citizens of Sunnydale are no more aware than those of Bree of the vampires and demons that would freeze their hearts. As for laying their little town in ruins, one episode, set in an alternative timeline, shows a Sunnydale without Buffy only too aware that it’s been conquered by chaos.

This places Buffy Summers in a position that’s different from either Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. Like Strider, she has to wage a war those she’s protecting know nothing about. Unlike Strider, she also has to go to school, and later find a job, while she’s doing so. In this context, the same kind of indignities Clark Kent suffers become more focused, and the show becomes explicitly what many superhero stories are implicitly: a satire on our society’s success ethic. Just as happens more sedately in real life, someone who makes a real difference to people’s well-being languishes in obscurity, watching others lionised for being able to kick a ball or afford nice clothes.

St. George and the Dragon by Donato GiancolaSo why are Outsider Heroes an almost exclusively modern phenomenon? I think this has a lot to do with changes to the predominant view of fame, modesty and power in the modern world. Modesty was emphatically not a characteristic of the traditional hero, and the audiences for the tales wouldn’t have expected it of them. In a world of kings and military aristocrats, extraordinary people were supposed to know they were extraordinary, and trumpet it. This was, after all, fundamental to a Greek hero or Arthurian knight’s place in the “batting averages”.

In modern western culture, although we’re obsessed with the fame of nonentities who’ve done nothing to deserve it, we’re paradoxically embarrassed when those who do deserve fame capitalise on their achievements. How many times have we seen, say, a fire-fighter who’s risked their life to save someone insist they were “just doing their job”? Even though we disagree, we tend to feel it’s right and proper for them to say so.

If using heroism for fame is considered tasteless, using it for power is even more so. Again, in the ancient world of military aristocrats, heroic acts were supposed to be the way to gain power. In reality, it was more often achieved by back-stabbing, shady deals and outright banditry, but that wasn’t the explanation for public consumption, and consequently not the explanation that got into most of the stories.

ballad for a tired superhero by theumbrellaWe, though, have seen a century where the horrific consequences of unbridled power have been only too obvious and a century where Tolkien redefined The Quest as a renunciation of power. The Outsider Hero is in a precarious position, by modern morality: he doesn’t come and go, leaving behind a conveniently finished legend, but nor does he have, like the Protector Hero (whom I’ll come to later), the structure of an officially sanctioned role in his society.

In a sense, it’s the result of a uniquely modern problem: how does a Chaotic Champion live among the people he protects without tastelessly benefiting from his heroism? The answer: he becomes an Outsider Hero.

*Chaotic Champions can be male or female, of course, but for the vast majority of human story they’ve tended to be male, so I refer to the generic figure as “he”. This isn’t meant to devalue any female characters.

Title image by AndyFairhurst.

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