No. 1 | Allow Us To Explain
We try to do special grids each year for moms and dads, since the parent/child experience is one of the most universal themes in fiction. And this year, after thinking about how most of the parent figures in the things we watch and read and play are secondary characters, antagonists, or just plain missing, we wanted to feature parents who were none of those. We wanted to talk about parents who are protagonists.
Our seven Momtagonists are here, but today we'll be covering seven Protagidads, all men who are either the main character of their story or, if it's more of a team narrative, at least as important and vital as the other members of the core cast.
Unlike last time, our list of runners up is pretty strong here, includine Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible), Ogami Ittō of Lone Wolf and Cub (pictured), Dominic Cobb of Inception, and adoptive dad Darkwing Duck, and we had to restrict ourselves to dads who are actively performing the role of father in their stories, rather than, as Cobb, simply motivated by fatherhood. Both our dads grid and our mothers' grid contain about the same number of characters that anybody might recognize, characters that nerds will recognize, and characters who most of you have probably never heard of before. But the biggest difference, so far as we've noticed, is that protagonists who are bad fathers are far, far more common than ones who are bad mothers. And I don't think it should be surprising to anyone that we're less comfortable with the idea of a woman who doesn't take naturally to motherhood than the dads on this list like Rusty Venture and Marlin (of Finding Nemo) who make serious parenting mistakes. On the one hand, men get presented as less-than-perfect parents way more often, on the other hand, we're trapping female characters in a stereotype that doesn't allow them to have the same fears, conflicted feelings, or opportunities to make mistakes and show character growth in the same way as male characters.
What we do like to see in our heroes who are bad fathers, however, is an attempt (sometimes redemptive) to be a good parent and an obvious love for their child. We still don't like rooting for folks who are terrible parents all the time.
No. 2 | Apollo and Midnighter
How do we love thee, Apollo and Midnighter? Well, we put you on pretty much every list we ever make about dads or badass gay characters for one. Why? Well, you're badass reinterpretations, or homages, or, well, to put it bluntly, well characterized parodies of Superman and Batman. You're also super in love. And super strong, fast, smart, and durable, not to mention the laser vision and the flying and the back-up organs.
And since we've talked a lot before about the unique challenges of raising a former teammate's reincarnated self who might just be the savior of all existence some day and has weird super powers that may not actually have any limits on them, lets talk about our favorite superdads moments.
Like anytime that little Jenny has looked up at a bad guy and said, with an innocent grin "My daddies are going to kill you." Like the time you two were really trying to get some "daddy time" in, and Jenny (functioning as her own nightlight) had a dream about giant space bugs invading your orbital home and insisted on sleeping in your bed. (The giant space bugs showed up later.) Like the time that a corporate sponsored super team captured everybody in the Authority, except for Midnighter and baby Jenny, and we got to see Midnighter plotting revenge from a sweet underground bunker filled with explosives and disposable diapers. Like the time that Jenny decided to accelerate her age from about six to about fourteen, and Apollo told her to "get back to your real age right now, young lady," and kept destroying her cigarettes with his laser vision whenever she tried to light one up. Like the time that Midnighter tore the spine out of a bad guy for fooling his family into splitting up.
You may just be a badass new couple in the New 52, instead of badass adoptive dads, but we still love you.
No. 3 | Ned Stark
Eddard Stark is the father of six children. His wife Catelyn, the mother of five. While Catelyn mostly ignored Ned’s bastard son, Jon, Ned himself treated him just like his other children. Except in public when, you know, he couldn’t.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. Ned was unlucky enough to have his own father (and brother) beheaded at the command of King Aerys II. He was fostered by Lord Jon Arryn, who he came to love and respect as a father, and who most likely gave him a lot of ideas on how to rule.
The Head of House Stark, Lord of Winterfell, and Warden in the North is a lot of responsibility for one person but Ned was spectacular at it. And all of his children adored him. Think about that for a minute. A family of six, four boys, two girls, and not one of them held any resentment toward their father. A father who considered his entire realm his children. Children in need of protection, care, and growth. That’s a lot of attention to spread around, yet Ned made sure his children weren’t forgotten.
Yes, in the HBO television series we witness young Bran seeing his first execution. It was absolutely a step into manhood but more so it was a lesson in honor for the young boy. Ned also allows his bastard Jon to convince him that the direwolves they find are meant for his children (including himself), something that will serve them in the future. And let’s not forget the situation between Sansa and Arya. Ned knows what really happened but he allows Arya to get off the hook when confronted with her crime. Unfortunately, he also does what is asked by him of his King and institutes the punishment meant for Sansa’s direwolf. He also tries his best to communicate with Arya, in a way he think she’ll understand. Little did he know she is nothing like her sister Sansa and has zero interest in marrying a Lord.
Even when his childhood friend and King, Robert Baratheon, came calling, Ned was reluctant to leave but he did his Lordly duty and went to King’s Landing. It was the last time he would see any of his sons and the last days he would spend protecting his daughters. Ned Stark was beheaded like his father, on the order of King Joffrey. But no one can say Ned didn’t love his children or didn’t die protecting them.
No. 4 | Rusty Venture
Dr. Venture might not be your traditional dad, unless you live in a world in which superscientists and their archnemeses exist side-by-side and TV shows are created about your family's adventurous exploits. T.S. "Rusty" Venture is dealing with the aftermath of such a life, and now he finds himself a single father of twin boys. Are they the rightful heirs to the Venture name?
Now, while a list of "dad-tagonists" should include "good dads," Rusty is a bit tricky. He's certainly not a "bad" guy, but he might not be the most, um, nurturing of fathers. In fact, sometimes it's hard to tell if Hank and Dean are standing in the way of his happiness or success. Not that Rusty Venture was ever going to be a successful superscientist, but anyway... We can give him credit for one thing only: he tries to protect them. Sort of. He did start out by keeping a warehouse of clones on hand because, as we learned, the Venture brothers are death-prone. But as more and more of those clones were "used," it definitely felt like Dad got a little complacent about their well-being. Until there were no more clones. Then he just felt sorry for them. And then he realized he really has to raise them now. Oh, bother.
True, he does exhibit some feelings of parental concern for his sons, like how he sees Dean as his rightful heir while Hank is more like him (trying to live up to the Venture name while not being able to handle the pressure). But as the boys have finally reached a point at which they're going to age and there's no backup plan, it seems like Rusty is more prepared to check out than be truly concerned about how his kids are going to fare as adults. They have Brock for that, anyway, right?
No. 5 | Batman
Many words have been spilled about the loneliness of Batman, of his dark errand and how it separates him from humanity, leads him to live a loveless life, and makes him that guy in the Justice League meetings that nobody wants to lock eyes with. But he's also the guy with a ton of sidekicks, orphans, and otherwise displaced children in his care, and so just as many words have been spilled about this contradiction. The character entirely founded on an inability to properly deal with loss, who sometimes deals with that by refusing to form emotional attachments that he knows could be taken away at any moment, and sometimes deals with that by trying to help others who have experienced similar losses by becoming their new family.
Specifically, by adopting (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally and legally) Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown and Damian Wayne. Yes, I'll be talking about the Post-Crisis, Pre-52 Batman, for many reasons but mostly because it's the period in Batman's existence where the most time has been spent talking about Batman and his affiliates as a family (and not in a silly 1950s sort of way). A messed up family, but a family nonetheless.
And while we as fans can look at the Bat-family and enjoy its weird politics and interpersonal relationships, the angst and the pathos and Alfred as a sort of worried-but-never-showing-it over-father, it wouldn't be complete without comics telling us how everybody else in the DC Universe, specifically normal Gotham citizens, view it. Which brings us to one of my favorite issues of Gotham Knights, a comic that ran from 2000-2006 and was exclusively about Bat-family interpersonal relationships. The issue's main character isn't actually a member of the Bat-family, but instead a social worker who begins the issue by pointing out to his coworker that Bruce Wayne was just acquitted of a very nearly conclusive murder charge, he's notoriously flakey and documentedly accident prone, he's had four child wards in the past fifteen years and one of them died in an "Ethiopian warehouse fire" that went pretty much without investigation. His coworker tells him to cool it: Wayne is old money, and nobody messes with old money in Gotham city if they value their lives. It's good advice, independent of the fact that Wayne is secretly a very upstanding citizen. The guy doesn't listen.
And so that's how Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Cassandra Cain find themselves being interviewed by a social worker concerned that they may have been raised or are still living in an unsafe environment as Bruce almost doesn't make his interview on time because he's out being Batman. Everybody winds up telling the guy the truth (not counting a lot of great big lies of omission), Bruce sheds honest tears, and the social worker ends up walking away without pressing any charges.
No. 6 | Commander Sisko
Benjamin Sisko was unlike all the other Star Trek captains we were introduced to through the years. Sisko was the only one to have children.
In reality, Captain Kirk probably had lots of kids floating around the galaxy considering what he got up to on a regular basis. Yes, we met his son David in the Star Trek films but in the original series, he was all about running the ship and running around with the ladies. Captain Picard had some significant love affairs during his time but never got around to having children. And Captain Jainway, well, she managed to have three, hyper-evolved, amphibian-esque children with Tom Paris but they left them on a remote planet at the end of the episode so obviously we’re supposed to pretend that never happened.
Regardless, it was an intriguing plot device in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to have the newly introduced Commander Sisko not only have a son, but have a son living on board. Jake was the only offspring of Benjamin and his wife Jennifer, but the two lost her to a battle with the Borg when Jake was just eleven. Benjamin saved his son from the same fate and eventually they made their home on Deep Space Nine. But he did put his Starfleet career on hold for a time, overseeing ship building on Mars, in order to raise his son.
But just because he was in command of the station, didn’t mean he stopped being a father. Benjamin was constantly worried about his son’s schooling, friends (he didn’t approve of Nog but helped the two reconcile), and hobbies just like a lot of father/son relationships. In truth, the relationship between Jake and Benjamin is mirrored, and perhaps strengthened by, Benjamin’s relationship with his own father, Joseph. He teaches Jake how to be a good, heroic, and responsible person and was supportive of his decision not to follow in his career footsteps but become a writer instead.
Benjamin certainly had opinions on Jake’s love life but it’s Jake who wound up finding his father love in Kasidy Yates, the woman he goes on to marry and conceive another child with. What was great about the characters Benjamin and Jake was that they were given a lot of fantastic father/son moments without being too after-school-special, or taking away from the sci-fi environment. And we can’t forget to mention that seeing the two play catch with Benjamin’s favorite baseball was probably one of the most heartwarming things ever on Star Trek.
No. 7 | Rick Grimes
Most dads wouldn't wake up from a coma during the zombie apocalypse and risk death and infection to search for their son and wife, but most dads aren't Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead. Rick Grimes is a former sheriff's deputy who stumbles through a hellish zombie infested city and ultimately finds his wife and child amongst a ragtag group of survivors, a group that he ultimately becomes the patriarchal figure of. From then on, he dons his trusty deputy hat and protects his son and his survivor group from zombie and unruly human alike.
Granted, Rick's fathering can sometimes be a little questionable in the television show – the series relies heavily upon the plot device of Rick and Lori being inattentive parents for just long enough for Carl to go missing and get into serious trouble, until their parental instincts kick back in and Rick puts on his deputy hat and sets off to find him. However, Rick loves his kid, and even the kids that aren't his own – when Sophia, the daughter of one the survivors, goes missing, he forces the entire group to search for her for days, ultimately being the one to kill her when she is found later as a Walker, putting her (and consequently her mother) out of misery and honoring her as the child she was. When he finds out that Lori is pregnant, he is upset with her not because the child is Shane's, his former best friend and resident asshole survivor, but because she had planned to abort it, not wanting to bring it into this world. While he is obviously not taking into account how Lori might feel about bringing a child into a zombie-riddled world, it's clear that he is coming from the position of a genuine love for children and for the survival of his group.
Rick may not always be the best father in the world of the The Walking Dead, but he is one of the few fathers left, and he has certainly tried to make the best out of a scary situation for his kid and his community.
No. 8 | Marlin
Finding Nemo isn't the only movie Pixar has made about fatherhood, no, there's Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, and even, it could be argued, Toy Story 3. But it's the movie with fatherhood as its most central theme, featuring Marlin as the reluctant and nervous father to his only surviving family, little Nemo.
Nemo's mother, like so many parental characters before her, is pushed out of the picture early on, along with all of Nemos brothers and sisters, by a predatory barracuda. And so Marlin's paranoia is fueled early by loss, and later by his son's less than stellar health. And of course, the first day that Marlin finally allows him to attend school (har har, Pixar) Nemo gets kidnapped, and then Marlin's odyssey begins.
To Marlin's credit, he never actually seems like a bad father in the movie, just a stressed out, overprotective one, and by the end both he and Nemo have been taught some valuable lessons about family. And we got Ellen Degeneres as Dory, and found out how to talk to whales.
Protagidads: 7 Dads Who Get to Be The Hero