Steve Long and I are gearing up for our showdown to conclude the jointly-written series on comics vigilantes, or at least a particular cultural wave of them, but I decided I was just not feeling done. Here’s one more – that is, before the finale – for a brief look at other strong contributors, responses, and alternatives within the 80s-90s more-or-less mainstream comics vigilante scene.
If you’ve been eatin’ beans outta cans and making bad puns instead of paying attention, the series so far includes 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, Irish rage, Catholic guilt, and Justice is served!
I plaintively hope you’ve been reading these with dates in mind, seeing how a certain gestalt formed among a relatively few creators, especially Denny O’Neil and Marv Wolfman, which was then refined into a distinct form during a period of striking political change in the U.S. Here I’m focusing on other creators – I don’t want to say “secondary texts” so much as parallels to, alternatives to, and offspring from the most visible set.
A semi-parallel, important vector to the O’Neil/Wolfman one developed at First Comics, in two titles. The Badger by Mike Baron and a variety of artists, which actually started at Capital in 1983, and Whisper (1986). Baron would go on to contribute greatly to the re-imagined Punisher of the late 1980s and Grant would be the one to re-invent Moon Knight by upping the ante on the character’s schizophrenia. These earlier titles deserve a lot of attention, as I see it, because they both started deliberately grounded in realism, then exploded or expanded into oddities. I also see them as similar to Miller’s mid-80s work in navigating and possibly getting suffocated by the changing U.S. mainstream language about political visions.
Alan Moore’s and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta originally began in 1982 in Warrior, to be finished much later as a 10-issue series at DC in 1988. Steve and I probably should have done a whole post on this one in order to fight about it, but here, I’ll say that it’s important because it is absolutely not derived from or about any of the tensions and confusions which generated the American vectors, thus providing a perfect Other Kind of Vigilante concept for comparison. Another important piece from the Brits is Judge Dredd (1977), not because he fits the 1980s vigilantes text – he emphatically does not – but because he was oddly repurposed into that mold in the U.S. via reprints beginning in 1983.
The Longbow Hunters (1987) by Mike Grell gets my vote for “let’s do it like the Dark Knight” editorial policy at DC. It should include a nod to his First Comics title Jon Sable, Freelance which isn’t a vigilante title but overlaps the vigilante body of work strongly via one of the most developed gun fetishes in comics at that point. I confess I didn’t like this one at all; it seemed a hodgepodge of tough-guy cliches and a series of “look, moral dilemma” that weren’t dilemmas. Black Canary, stripped, hung on a hook, tortured, bleeding? Gee, should Ollie shoot the guy? What, is that supposed to be a moral question? But I’m open to correction as I haven’t seen it since publication and can’t say I remember the story.
The Crow (1989) by J. O’Barr, which I would stress is worth checking out strictly as its own text, as a particularly focused and ultimately quite bleak pure vigilante story. It makes no pretense whatsoever regarding the protagonist being “right” or out to battle against society’s ills, but rather grades into straight-up cathartic horror, made more shocking by its poetic touches and classical-art visual style. Its purity is such that the story is automatically over, defined by its ending – it’s grounded in the pulp story (that’s “classical American short-form” to you highbrows).
The Black Hood (1991) (mentioned in I, said the Fly) created and scripted by Mark Wheatley, and drawn mostly by Rick Burchett, which, in recent re-reading, struck me as even more well-done than I’d remembered and surprisingly heart-wrenching. This iteration of the property (there have been at least three) isn’t coherent enough for me to want a collected version, but it might be my vote for best distillation of the relevant concepts as far as hero definition, motivation, and characterization are concerned. Especially, and in contrast with The Crow, since in this case we’re talking about the by-definition semi-successful hybrid between serial fiction and long-term story arcs that comics often do. It’s not the “the hood is a character” concept – it’s the “what does this guy vs. that guy consider to be good?” concept.
Ghost (1993/1995) written mainly by Eric Luke and drawn by many, probably most memorably by Adam Hughes; and X (1993/1994), created by Joe Philips but mainly written by Grant and as with all his work, a weird mix of intelligence at the start followed by almost immediate collapse. Both titles are like that. First, there’s the striking if somewhat confusing visuals (my long-standing nickname for Ghost is “Boobguns”); second, there’s the incredibly unsuccessful attempt at world-building across the titles which obviated attempts actually to write stories; and third, at least my impression anyway, is that they started with “ooh! mysterious!” with no real idea of what the “uncover the mystery” would do, or even what kind of thing it might be. Ultimately I think they were “market this image” teases and attempts at movie option contracts rather than real titles, compilations of tropes rather than characters.
There’re lots more I’m sure, some of whom I’ll probably remember and smack myself for not including, and others that I’ve permanently forgotten or never knew about. If you want to include them via the comments, please do – add pretty much any “above the law, obsessed with rough justice” character from the 1980s or 1990s, who wasn’t a throwaway but rather an apparent effort to land a character into the popular eye.
Looking over some and thinking back over others, a few things occur to me, presented here more as free-association than a reasoned point.
- When the writer gets lazy, the story always falls back on the Yellow Peril. Pick one: yakuza, ninjas, or hashish-addled Arabs, and they show up from “out of town” for a guaranteed half-year of irrelevant mayhem.
- The protagonists are resoundingly white, and more, whiteness loses all its ethnicity, in a way I can only describe as “Canadians playing Americans in nominally-American TV.” I’ve already mentioned how the Punisher is literally de-Italianized; conversely the Question is the only one to be given an ethnicity, not that it does or means much.
- Female heroes are all about the amnesia and paralysis, and in general, women characters are prone to maundering, bitching, and “sudden hostage syndrome” way, way more than in the 1970s.
None of those are my main concern, though. More generally – what is crime? Unless you’re Steve, stop right there. This is a rhetorical question to everyone except him; please do not tippity-type your explanation to me. I’m saying, whatever it is to you, is what defines the potential resonance and relevance of a vigilante character. It’s your response to the Steve-and-me debate I’m anticipating that I’m interested in. What follows is directed to him for that purpose.
Social definition (better: accusation) of crime and social action against it, by which I include everything possible, good and bad, exist as realities independent of “law.” Let’s dispose of law, there is no such thing; the papers and procedures thereof are a ritualization of the real things, and as such, are defined as much by corruption and co-option as by what they ritualize. None so much as the almost-entirely fictional institutions of “the police,” which needs to be a topic of its own, and “prison,” which is simply and only a euphemism for slavery.
I submit that the mid-80s brought an utter breakdown of any meaningful discourse about what we, as U.S. citizens, are going to call “crime,” and also about what on earth any possible social action to deal with it might be. New York City in particular was subjected to an arrant propaganda campaign about “decent people living in a sea of savages” which was unsurprisingly propagated through its expat colony Hollywood, and various myths become what “everyone knows.” So-called bystander syndrome, which got lots of play at that time, is a perfect example: no, people did not casually watch Kitty Genovese murdered as they lounged on their balconies with drinks in their hands, and I’ll lay good odds against more than 1% of people who know the name also knowing that she was killed in 1964.
Another and critical example is branding crack cocaine as something special and demonic – it’s not, it’s merely more finely powdered, less-effective, and cheap cocaine. The term “crack baby” is more fiction. And no, crime rates did not “spike” – arrests for possession spiked, specifically for crack rather than the expensive coke white people buy.
Here’s another: the wide support for “no-knock” warrants followed upon multiple television depictions of police officers being shot through doors by vicious drug dealers when they knocked. The number of actual such incidents? It’s known. Look it up.
That’s why, I think, pop media became saturated with almost unbelievably bizarre constructions of crime. One is the absurd “gang” concept composed of a black guy, a Korean guy, and a white guy with a mohawk, running around like the droogs in A Clockwork Orange, talking in some weird patois of jive and 50s greaser. Or if it’s the mob, then a lot of guys in suits carrying out gaudy murders but with almost no factual content concerning what a “mob” really is or does. The other is the corporate villain concept which is incredibly confused between whether corporate culture and priorities are ipso facto evil, or whether it’s cursed with some rotten apples, which implies that it would be a fine thing without them. The construction of cops and courts that accompanied all this is no less fanciful.
The comics are no exception, losing depth and genuine contact with real people’s lives and aligning with the same images and catch-phrases as TV and movies far more than they had in the prior two decades. More and more, they supported the construction of the criminal, a person who lurks among the frightened and would-be decent citizenry, ready to wreak havoc for or not-for profit, who obviously needs to be identified and winnowed out, and “politics” being merely a matter of whether you kill him outright or lock him away forever.
I’m not saying crime doesn’t happen – I’m saying it’s a social designation in the moment, and although in stepping way out in scale, its range corresponds to subsets of human social behavior at a universal level, its immediate identity is very much a matter of power and designated status, not an axiomatic “this thing is wrong no matter who does it.” It feels like that but isn’t. I’m also saying that legal text is no indicator for it – you, the reader, broke about ten laws in the past week; it’s impossible for you not to. And if it suits the D.A. to mark you for death, he or she will simply do it and the courts will oblige – there’s no “trial” worth the name. Such individuals and systems are keenly attuned to whom they’ll do this to, who will get a plea bargain, and whose case will be dropped (“J.K.!”), for precisely the same reason: social consequences to them.
The vigilante character of this period strikes me as a cry for help, collectively – that this character does know what “crime” really is, unlike the rest of us, and it makes perfect sense that he (usually he) is racked with mental and/or emotional crisis about it, or acts in such a way to prompt such crisis. It’s not the protagonist’s moral ambiguity which matters; it’s ours, which we would very much not like to be experiencing.
JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALT THOU PURSUE, SAYETH STEVE
Hmmm, looks like you’ve given me a lot to think and write about, Ron. Diving right in….
You’re right, we probably should’ve written about V For Vendetta separately, given the political text/subtext involved, but we can’t touch on everything, I guess. Our pal V will have to wait until we can discuss him in person over dinner at a con, no doubt disturbing fellow diners as we gesticulate, Kirby-like, in an effort to make our respective points.
I have to agree with you on Ghost’s nickname. I’m baffled by the blinders that let the character rail on, and on, and on, and on, and on about the horrors of pornography, male exploitation and degradation of women, sexism, et cetera, all while taking her costuming cues from the Victoria’s Secret catalog.
I have one entry to add to your catalog of parallels and offspring:
Written by Timothy Truman and published by Eclipse Comics in a couple four-issue series and other special appearances, the Prowler had a lot of potential as a vigilante character if he’d gotten an extended treatment, but sadly that was never to be. The titular character is Leo Kragg, who fought crime as the Prowler back in the Forties (or thereabouts) but has long since retired. The rising tide of crime apparently inspires him to get back in the game — though given the subtext of the words and art I think that a lot of what’s motivating him is fear of encroaching age and his own weakness. He recruits an art student, Scott Kida, with the intention of training him to become the new Prowler eventually. Unfortunately Scott has a lot less crimefighting drive and refuses to employ the Prowler’s lethal methods (twin .45s, a Tommy gun, shotguns…). He’s a little freaked out by the whole thing, and keeps trying to leave it behind, but ultimately finds that he can’t turn away from people in need. The byplay between the two of them provides a glimpse into differing philosophies of vigilantism that I wish we gotten more of.
Plus, their main adversary is necromancer/voodoo priest Murder Legendaire, who seeks the secret of immortality — how can you not love a villain with a name like that?
And speaking of philosophies of vigilantism, now it’s time to turn to the real meat of your post. Forgive me if I have occasional flashbacks to my Jurisprudence final in law school.
You posited the question: what is crime? I want to phrase it differently, and perhaps broaden it a bit, to get at the issue that lies at the heart of vigilantes and vigilantism: what is crime, and who is entitled to define it and take action to prevent or punish it?
When people form a society, they do so by defining the terms of what’s sometimes called a “social compact.” A person may enter into this compact voluntarily, be born into it, or be forced into it by someone stronger than himself (such as a dictator), but he’s still a part of it.
The term “social compact” is basically just an easy way of saying, “What do I have to contribute/give up/sacrifice to become a member of this society and gain its benefits?” For example, you agree to contribute part of your wealth in the form of taxes so the government can provide things no one person could easily create, such as roads. The most stark example, and the one most relevant to this discussion, is that you give up your right to take private vengeance for wrongs committed against you (a common practice in early societies such as tribes and chiefdoms). You agree to turn to the state and its methods of redressing wrongs (the police, courts, and penological systems, for example) instead. This has numerous benefits, including the prevention of endless cycles of “revenge killings” that can inhibit social and economic progress.
At some basic level I can agree with you that crime is essentially a sociological construct, insofar as each society’s social compact may declare different acts to be crimes via each society’s code of laws (or equivalent pronouncements). For example, Saudi Arabia makes it a crime for women to drive, something few other nations do. In traditional Papua New Guinea, killing a member of your clan was murder, but killing a member of another clan was just good common sense because those guys are subhuman enemies. (Modern “imperialist” rule and its successors define all such killings as murder.) Some countries conflate religious proscriptions with law, a concept the United States generally forbids via the First Amendment.
Nevertheless, if we look at states and societies around the world and over time, we can see certain commonalities in the definition of “crime.” Virtually all states in all times have declared the following forms of conduct to be crimes:
- murder (the unjustified killing of another human, though societies’ definitions of “unjustified” can differ wildly)
- rape (though again, different societies may define this concept differently; for example, some don’t consider “marital rape” to be rape)
I’m sure there are other examples, and that criminologists have studied this issue in great detail, but I don’t want to turn this column into a graduate seminar. I simply want to argue that this commonality over time, place, and culture suggests that there is, to some extent, a “universality” to crime — some acts are always considered crimes regardless of time, place, or culture. This provides us with some guidance in our effort to define the concept of “crime” and the nature of vigilantism.
The textbook definition of crime is something like this: an act declared unlawful by the state, and thus punishable by the state. While accurate for most purposes, this definition leaves us unsatisfied for at least a couple of reasons:
- Actions that the law declares a crime aren’t necessarily harmful or unjust. In an ideal world Law and Justice would coincide perfectly, but of course humans are imperfect beings and thus their institutions lack perfection as well. We’re all aware that far too often selfishness, corruption, bureaucratic pettiness, prejudice, and other unpleasant factors influence what the state calls a “crime” and how it punishes it.
- It places ultimate authority in the hands of the state, which may have motivations other than ensuring Justice and Public Safety.
So I’m going to attempt a broader definition of crime, one that ties in with the concepts of vigilantism that we’ve discussed over the past few months: a crime is an unjust or harmful act that has, or could have, a negative impact on society such that it deserves to be prevented and its perpetrator deserves punishment. That’s not really elegant, and it still leaves an awful lot of wiggle room — for example, some people would include abortion as a crime under that definition, while others vehemently would not. But for my purposes it succeeds at two things:
- It encompasses the “standard” crimes (murder, arson, robbery, reckless driving, kidnapping…) that are the fodder of popular entertainment such as comics, film, pulp fiction, and television shows.
- But it also includes actions that often aren’t illegal under a given code of law, or which aren’t punished as crimes because of a corrupt system. Examples might include the destruction of crucial environmental resources and certain forms of stock market manipulation. In many cases these crimes are too complicated or inchoate for most popular entertainment to tackle. (“In our next issue: Batman finds himself tangled in stock market red tape when he faces the Financial Felon, the Crime Prince of Capitalism… BULL MARKET!”)
Using these analyses and definitions, then, I can in turn define what a vigilante is, at least in a comic book context. A vigilante is a person with the capacity to accurately perceive crime and the willingness and means to prevent or punish it. To put it another way, a vigilante can perceive Justice/Injustice where others might not (or might not care), and is driven to uphold the former and punish the latter.
This, too, is not all that elegant a definition, since a vigilante’s perception of crime may not be accurate. The comics are full of vigilantes cast in a villain mold because their perception of “crime” is skewed, or their crimefighting actions go to an unjustified extreme. Off the top of my head I can think of the Electrocutioner, the Vigilante Squad, the Hangman, the Mikado, and the Reaper, but there are plenty more I’m sure.
This points at the central moral dilemma of the vigilante crimefighter character: by what “right” does he enforce (often fatally) his perception of crime on society, and what makes him any better at rendering those judgments than the state he (by implication if not direct statement) thinks has failed society? Why should we trust him to “do the right thing”? We have even less control over him than we do over the apparatus of the state (at least in theory).
Thus, to my mind, being a vigilante doesn’t just mean you have a lot of guns and are good at shooting thugs in the street. A true vigilante has the capacity to perceive Justice correctly and the willpower to enforce it regardless of the potential cost to himself. While the rest of us are constrained and blinded by self-interest, hatred, fear, and other base emotions, he knows what Justice is and pursues it diligently. Thus, the vigilante’s “right” to judge and fight crime comes from the simple fact that he perceives it, has the means to oppose it, and is willing to do so. To quote Rorschach:
“Once a man has seen, he can never turn his back on it. Never pretend it doesn’t exist. No matter who orders him to look the other way. We do not do this thing because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled.”
A false vigilante, on the other hand, has a skewed or wrong perception of Justice, and thus incorrectly enforces it. For example, the Holy, a member of the Vigilante Squad, defines crime in Christian religious terms, conflating it with sin.
(Of course, that raises the question of what is Justice and who defines it, but I’ve got to leave that one be or I’ll never get this column finished. For our purposes it’s usually accurate to say that “the acts of a true vigilante usually qualify as Just acts, and if he later finds out they don’t he attempts to correct that fault.”)
Ron, you said that, “I submit that the mid-80s brought an utter breakdown of any meaningful discourse about what we, as U.S. citizens, are going to call “crime,” and also about what on earth any possible social action to deal with it might be.” I would put it a little differently. I would say that the rise in crime in the Seventies and Eighties, coupled with the rise in the presence and influence of the modern mass media, meant that more people were receiving more (often flawed) information about more things, and that more people had a voice where in prior decades they’d had little or none. The result is the (accurate, if sometimes media-exaggerated) perception that crime is a serious problem, coupled with dozens of interest groups arguing about how to handle that problem. The sturm und drang — your “breakdown” — led to confusion, despair, mistrust, cynical apathy, and some level of paralysis by the state regarding What We Should Do.
You also argued that popular entertainment’s depiction of crime, criminals, the police, the courts, gangs, and other such institutions is highly flawed, and with that I generally agree. Unfortunately that’s the nature of mass media entertainment: simplification of complex issues to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and sensationalization of the facts to ratchet that appeal up and up. Add in deadline pressures, profit pressures, and the other factors affecting the working creator, and that’s the “reality” we “know.”
In the face of all this victimization and seeming helplessness comes the vigilante: the man who perceives the problem quickly, correctly, and insightfully, and who acts to stop it without the need for boards of approval, paperwork, or a convoluted legal code. Effective where the state has failed to live up to its obligation under the social compact, he’s a temporary, colorful, guns a-blazing balm to the anxiety modern life and media have thrust upon us.
In closing, I feel compelled to say that I disagree, to varying degrees, with your statements about the law, the police, the court system, the penological system, Kitty Genovese, crack cocaine, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster, and the theory of Atlantis. 😉 But those are matters we can save for another time rather than turning this column into some weird version of Point-Counterpoint.
RON IS WAITING IN THE SHADOWS … HSSSS …
I hope to have avoided the sterile issue of sophomoric relativism, “gee it’s just a construct and something something culture” which infects way too much of modern discourse. I completely agree with you regarding the underlying human commonalities in judging what is crime. My view of “law” raises the question of whether social institutions of prevention, accusation, and enforcement manage to address the actual (for lack of a better word) crime at all, or if instead, they more often provide means of exploitation and brutality to hide behind the veil of stopping crime – in other words, raw authoritarianism.
It strikes me now, in the course of working on this post, how odd it is that an actual police officer is so rarely one of our costumed vigilantes, or even a superhero period. The original Barry Allen (one of the early Flashes) was, right? The first Nite Owl in Watchmen too. But I’m thinking more of a bone-mean vigilante like Rorschach, the Prowler, or Batman in Year One being developed for a cop character, and the closest I’m coming is Adrian Chase, a district attorney. Wait – briefly, there was Rage, a character in Hero Alliance, not developed much.
Speaking of the Prowler, that is a great premise. I wish it had gone somewhere, but I can see why it didn’t. Eclipse was a publishing disaster in the late 80s in direct contrast to its previous meteoric rise, and I think Truman was always at his best with a strong fellow creator to provide some plot-direction.
My rejoinder regarding the crime/vigilante concept, if it is one, concerns the word true. Clearly we’re talking about fiction and I know you don’t mean “true” as in “walking about the midnight streets for real.” I choose to read your usage as resonant, provocative, relevant, and, all right, important. I suggest that for the vigilante to merit this, and I’m not talking about literary elevation but about reader engagment, the tension between real/false Justice(s) is more important than the vigilante’s own stated brand of Justice.
If, on the other hand, the vigilante is simply and obviously correct, and his or her actions match precisely what the reader thinks is right and wants to see happen, then the compelling, or (that word again) important components of the concept simply vanish. Unless the Punisher can be wrong, or even, his current action of the moment construed as wrong, reasonably, then he’s not a meaningful character, he’s a Mary Sue. That’s the real “abyss” he and Batman skirt and unfortunately too often fall into.
My take is that your “true” is marked better by uncertainty than by certainty, but with the cautionary tale of the Vigilante before us, the uncertainty is best invoked in the reader by actions and events, and less experienced or articulated by the character. A little of that latter goes a long way.
All right, you lot. Steve and I left blood in the alleys for this one. Let us see what you got.
Next: Mind in the gutter
Posted on May 19, 2016, in Heroics and tagged Alan Moore, Badger, bystander syndrome, cocaine, crack, crack baby, Eclipse Comics, First Comics, Ghost, Kitty Genovese, Mike Baron, Mike Grell, Oodles of titles, Prowler, Steven S. Long, The Crow, The Longbow Hunters, Tim Truman, V for Vendetta, vigilante, Whisper, X. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.