Justice is served!
Startin’ right in with Steve
Time for Ron and me to talk about one of my favorite vigilantes, the Scourge of the Underworld. (For those of you late to the show, you can read our previous vigilante discussions in : Eat hot lead, comics reader, What was the question again?, The Big Bang, Wicked good, Vigilantes R Us, In Darkest Knight, The not so secret cabal, A pretty butterfly, Jet and silver, Red goggles at midnight, and Irish rage, Catholic guilt.)
I’ve loved the Scourge from the minute he showed up in Iron Man #194 and blew away the Enforcer. The idea of a vigilante using disguise to sneak up on his victims wasn’t something I’d given any serious thought to before, but the idea really “clicked” with me. It combined with the inspirations from the Punisher and Rorschach already stewing around in my brain, leading me to create the Champions character that eventually inspired me to write Dark Champions and launched my career as an RPG designer. So I owe the Scourge a drink or two, at the very least.
This guy’s not so well-known, so I’ll start with a little background. In 1985-1986, Marvel ran an event called “the Year of the Scourge.” From out of nowhere a new vigilante, skilled at disguise and information-gathering, appeared: the Scourge of the Underworld. He showed up in most major titles of the period, but just for a panel or two, where he’d get close to a villain by impersonating someone harmless, shoot them with his trademark high-powered pistol (with its distinctive Pum-SPAK! sound effect), pronounce his battle-cry, “Justice is served!”, and then vanish. In this manner he knocked off a whole bunch of third-tier villains like the Basilisk, the Hatemonger, the Human Fly, Megatak, the Melter, the Miracle Man, and Titania.
But he was primarily intended as a Captain America villain, and it’s in Captain America #318-320 where his story truly plays out. He knocks off a couple of minor villains (Death Adder and the Blue Streak), by this time inspiring such fear among costumed criminals that they’re committing penny-ante crimes to raise money so they can hide out, or even turning themselves in for protection. This culminates at the end of #319 at an underworld dive called “the Bar With No Name,” where the Scourge, disguised as the bartender, guns down eighteen supervillains in one fell swoop. The list of victims features such luminaries as Bird-Man, Commander Kraken, Cyclone, Firebrand, Mirage, the Ringer, Shellshock, Steeplejack, and Turner D. Century.
After first considering the Punisher and the Foolkiller as suspects and dismissing them, Captain America finally lures the Scourge into a trap and captures him — only to have that man killed in a way that suggested (as had a few other clues along the way) that “the” Scourge was actually an organization of vigilantes, not just one crimefighter. Marc Gruenwald, who created the Scourge, later wrote a USAgent mini-series that clarified a number of matters pertaining to the character, including that “he” was in fact an organization, and that organization’s secret source of funding. (Though whether all that was the actual truth, or it’s changed since then in comics I haven’t read, I can’t say.)
So, what’s so great about all this? Quite a few things, from my perspective:
1. It’s a “big crossover event” that crosses into a bunch of titles (not the whole Marvel line-up — the X-books are notably absent, for one thing) without screwing those titles up. Even by the mid-Eighties the big crossovers were starting to mess up the flow of the ongoing story in some comics, because the individual writers’ ideas and agendas had to play second fiddle to the marketing-driven crossover event. The Scourge creates an “event” that takes place in tiny, dramatic bits, thus tying the heroes together into a “Universe” without making them slaves to the concept. Kind of reminds me of early Marvel, when the “Universe” was defined by one hero occasionally making a brief appearance in another’s book.
2. It’s a brilliant way of making a cool story out of a necessity. Let’s face it, the Marvel Universe is mighty overcrowded with villains (according to one statement in the USAgent mini-series, they outnumber the heroes twenty to one). A lot of them have become pretty much useless due to hero power creep (Commander Kraken, for example) or were pretty much just plain stupid to begin with (I’m looking at you, Turner D. Century). They’re basically wastes of creative space — until someone had the awesome idea of getting rid of them as a story, in-Universe.
(My main complaint here is that they haven’t kept doing it. If I were Marvel Editor-in-Chief, every year the Scourge would gun down four or five villains in various books across the main superhero line. Then, about once every five years, a major storyline featuring Scourge would crop up for 2-4 issues in Captain America or another appropriate book. That way you could keep culling the dead weight and drive stories.)
3. It finally gives us an actual ruthless vigilante for the Marvel Universe. Sure, the Punisher sometimes fills that role. But as we discussed in previous columns, just as often he’s not as violent as we think, or circumstances work out in his favor so he doesn’t have to mercilessly gun someone down in cold blood. And more and more over the years the comics show him only fighting real world-type crime, not supervillains, despite the fact that there are lots of villains out there in desperate need of a bullet to the face.
The Scourge gets around all those problems. He targets only villains, and his creator’s motivation is a straightforward one: to make the world a better place, as a way of making amends for what he sees as his failures during his own costumed hero career in the 1940s. He even uses a method that doesn’t endanger innocents: up-close shooting. When confronted by Captain America, the Scourge refuses to shoot him (despite having a couple of chances to do so) and insists the two of them are on the same side. He points out that not only does he put an end to crime permanently, but claims he’s never shot anyone who hasn’t previously been convicted of a crime by a court of law. Assuming we accept that as true (whether for that one Scourge, or the organization as a whole), it sets him apart from the other vigilantes we’ve discussed in these columns, who don’t feel the need for such niceties. (It also raises the question of what the Scourge would do if confronted by a new villain in the midst of committing a crime.)
In short, the Scourge of the Underworld is just about the purest distillation of the vigilante concept you can imagine in a superhero world.
Nevertheless, he raises some issues. The first is: why invent a new character for this? Admittedly he ends up having an intriguing backstory, but that in and of itself doesn’t justify adding to the Marvel Universe’s population. Why not use the guy they already have who’s known for gunning down criminals: the Punisher? To adopt the same M.O. the Punisher would have to learn a new skill set — but Frank Castle’s a good soldier who can do what it takes to complete a mission. Training to disguise himself and impersonate people for brief periods of time is well within his capabilities. And that assumes you keep the M.O. at all. Most of the Scourge’s kills could be achieved just as easily with precision sniping, which we know the Punisher’s good at. Substitute in his pal Microchip for Scourge’s detective Domino, and you’re good to go.
If I had to guess, I imagine that even if the idea occurred to Marvel, it was rejected partly for marketing reasons and partly for story reasons. But I still think it has some merit. If nothing else I’d like to see what the Punisher thinks of the Scourge’s methods and results, and whether he adopts some of the same methods. (As far as I know the two characters have never encountered or even mentioned each other.)
Second, it fascinates me how the Scourge is a bellwether of his time. Someone at Marvel wants to get rid of a bunch of largely useless villains. What’s the method he comes up with? Kill ’em all. In the Sixties or Seventies I don’t think such an extreme solution would have ever received serious consideration — at that point I imagine Marvel would simply have created a super-prison, chucked all these guys into it, and then forgotten about them for good. But in the Eighties — with crime on the rise (thanks in part to the crack epidemic), the Bernard Goetz incident fresh in everyone’s mind, and a wave of new action movie stars gunning down bad guys in every cineplex across the land — solving the villain problem with a series of high-speed lead injections was just the thing.
Time to hear what Ron thinks. Ron?
I missed this whole thing in the 80s. After getting back into comics in 1986 or so, most of my attention was focused on pre-Vertigo DC titles (e.g. Swamp Thing), First Comics, Comico, Eclipse, et al., and – perhaps not uncommonly – the only mainstream superhero stuff I followed were the X-titles, although not for long. All that is to provide “wasn’t there, can’t see it from here” context for saying …
… I pretty much hate the whole idea. It’s not really the morality of it, although more on that in a moment, but rather that the villains – for whom, you understand, my heart beats more fondly than for almost any hero – shoot, even my favorite heroes are all ex-villains – were conceived to be so fundamentally stupid.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t about “realism” because much as I’d like to pretend it is, it’s more about what’s going on – the nuts and bolts of stories. I’ll toss out a few related points rather than write an essay, with any luck prompting (i) a rejoinder from Steve and (ii) unstructured collective insights in the comments.
The first is death as spectacle, which by this point had become nearly self-parody. The form I’m talking about started with the shock of Elektra and Phoenix, both taken terribly seriously and which remain fandom-dividers to this day. These were followed by the various individualized knock-offs mandated probably as sales-boosting tactics as well as a certain shift to focus on the top-marketing heroes without distractions, e.g. Spider-Woman, which at least pretended to be dramatic. But next? Death neithe ras drama nor even sales-booster, but as an expected feature, and also as a running joke – well into self-parody territory.
I’m not saying it utterly lacks appeal. I’m especially taken with the all-white costume which generates the effect of a black-and-white magazine character who has somehow escaped into the four-color world, which does match the themes perfectly.
Couple that with exactly what you describe in the movies and in general, the idea that a certain subset of society are criminals and the rest of are emphatically not. My take is that this simply removes the story from grounding with reality. It becomes confirmatory of a specific world-view rather than a reality-shock to anyone’s. I’m a huge supporter of even the most extreme material in service to the latter. I am generally disgusted with the former even when the world-view being supported matches my own (examples available upon request).
And that’s why “the villains are stupid” is part of this. Not because “they wouldn’t be, in reality,” which is more of the illogic that Steve criticized when people bitch about Batman and due process. But because villains are about things, and common as it is for this quality to be badly served in application, it’s a rare villain indeed who is completely lacking in potential. Here, though, they’re converted into the made-up construct called criminals, malevolent-meets-stupid people who do nothing but prey upon society, which itself, without them, would be excellent. Peaceful. Safe. Secure. Prosperous. Rewarding to the hard-working. Just, or rather, beyond justice because that’s not needed in a land finally purged of bad two-legged cockroaches.
It so happens that I think there do exist people who have committed to harming others to the extent that I can’t really think of anything to do with them beyond a quick cattle-bolt. But few of them are those who are called, in modern real life as well as in the media entertainment, criminals. It’s right in the guy’s name: there isn’t any “underworld.” The term literally makes no sense. Making him the scourge thereof turns the whole thing uninteresting – unengaging, irrelevant. If he decided there are Bad People who need taking out, I’d like to know what Bad is to him, and to see how it shows up – and this means he identifies it accurately, which is fine – across the range of the general population.
I’ll be happy to deal with the romanticizing of Goetz – which applies even to the most basic “what he did” unquestioned narrative – without clutching pearls and in full acknowledgment that any of us might kill another person, in the comments.
STEVE FIRES BACK
Fair enough. Not everyone has to like everything, after all. It would be a mighty dull world otherwise.
But I can’t agree with much of your perspective on this vigilante. I think the point you raise about the deaths of Phoenix and Elektra is an interesting one, but I also think that the fact that later deaths aren’t as deeply considered, or have such a strong impact, doesn’t mean that those latter deaths are “bad” or “less interesting.” In this particular case I think they’re just as compelling, in their own way.
For me, the observation that “a certain subset of society” is defined as criminal, and the rest are not, falls short. For one thing, it invalidates a huge percentage of great pulp stories, comic books, and movies over the past century, if not before. I don’t think that making such a distinction for entertainment purposes is a problem in and of itself (though of course a creator could abuse that power to advance an agenda other than entertainment). Even in the real world, a certain subset of society is, in fact, criminal. The issue for me is who defines “criminal,” and that is what makes the character concept of “the vigilante” such a fascinating (and analyzable) one.
Moreover, even if I accept as valid the idea that the “defining certain people as criminals” is per se bad/counterproductive, I can’t see how any such objection pertains in this case. At least in the primary storyline I wrote about, the Scourge (despite his name) doesn’t take on the entire “underworld” the way the Punisher, the Vigilante, Rorschach, and other heroes we’ve written about do. He specifically targets costumed criminals — or supervillains, to use the parlance — who have previously been convicted of a crime or crimes in a court of law. He doesn’t have to “define certain people as criminals” because his targets define themselves as criminals. They put on gaudy costumes to draw attention to themselves and commit crimes while wearing them. We as readers, and the fictional people in the Marvel Universe, have seen every single one of them commit serious crimes — usually multiple times.
This also touches on the issue of “what is Bad to [the Scourge], and to see how it shows up… in the general population.” He’s told us exactly what he thinks is Bad, not only by his actions (which are much more constrained and focused than any other vigilante we’ve written about) but by explicit statements in the story. Would it make the story better if we somehow dug into his psychology more? Sure (assuming that’s possible given that multiple Scourges exist — the guy who really needs closer examination is the founder who gives the orders). But the fact that the story doesn’t do this doesn’t mean it’s a poorly-done tale; it just chooses another focus.
The topic of “who are the real criminals” (or “who really deserves to have Justice served to them”) is definitely one worth discussing — I’m sure it’ll come up in our discussion of the Foolkiller in our next column, for example. But I think that taking issue with “the idea that a certain subset of society are criminals and the rest of are emphatically not” simply doesn’t work with regard to the Scourge. Sure, someone else not wearing a costume may deserve the Scourge’s brand of Justice just as much as, or more than, his victims. But that doesn’t invalidate the Scourge’s actions, or render them immoral or foolish when his targets who are, in fact, criminals beyond any shadow of a doubt. At worst it’s a waste of good crimefighting resources.
Nor do I think that the purpose of “reality shocking” the world-view of a reader is, or should be, the only/true purpose of comic books, or any other form of entertainment. For one thing, I think the idea that every story has to be “shocking” or “transformative” does a disservice to entertainment as a whole — particularly so with regard to popular entertainment forms like pulp stories, comic books, and TV shows that have to generate a large amount of content on short deadlines. Not everything can be new and exciting and impactful in the same way as, for example, the death of Jean Grey.
I don’t think that criticizing stories, characters, and events in entertainment for being “confirmatory of a specific world-view” accomplishes much. It seems to me that virtually every story confirms some world-view, even if it’s a world-view held only by a small number of people (presumably including the creator of that story). For example, the death of Jean Grey confirms the view held by Jim Shooter, and a lot of other people, that serious actions should have serious consequences — in effect, that you have to sleep in the bed you’ve made. And the fact that it confirms that world-view doesn’t make it any less a good story.
I certainly agree that every villain, at least in theory, has potential. In an ideal world, every villain would not only have potential, he’d get to realize it at the hands of a talented writer and artist. But if we become upset that some villains end up getting treated as disposable, we’re simply shouting at the rain. The reality is that if you publish dozens of comics for dozens of years, you end up with some villains that just aren’t nearly as interesting — or who have nearly as much potential — as others.
Finding a way to clean your house of a few dozen — out of thousands — of these less intriguing villains that generates an interesting story is a good thing, in my opinion. That’s why Gruenwald never shows the Scourge killing anyone who even remotely matters in the Marvel Universe. If he disposed of someone the writers and editors felt they could craft a good story with, he’d be making the MU worse in the overall scheme of things. But when the most prominent villain he kills is Death Adder — who can’t even talk — it seems to me that we don’t need to waste any time or brain space worrying about the lost potential in these villains.
In conclusion I have to say: clearly we picked the correct vigilante to write about just before we wrap things up with the Foolkiller, where all these issues come center stage in a really compelling way. See you next column. 😉
Next: Not a dream