Is your hate pure?
Posted by Ron Edwards
Some game design thoughts percolated recently. Can it be there yet breathes life in the superhero vigilante? Last year’s blog series with Steve Long, and my recent revival of thought about it, suggests to me there is – or at least, that I want to design a role-playing game about such things. And produce some more comics.
My patrons have already seen some promotional ideas about it, and even received the prototypical system design, so they can start playtesting on their own. Want in? Sign up for the Patreon please (over there on the right, at the top) – no minimum level. I’m aiming at a better Patreon/blog process for play and discussion.
As a reader, the vigilante hero has rarely been attractive to me, and I found nearly all the late-80s comics/supers versions kind of shitty, sometimes outright stupid. For example, the whole upholding the law by breaking the law, the alleged “moral ambiguity,” was framed all backwards – instead of going, ooh, contradiction, my response is that there’s nothing good about “upholding the law” as such in the first place. I’d be more impressed if you simply set the standards for what you’ve avenging or whom you’re punishing without “Criminals! Criminals!” (this is why Milgrom’s litterbug-punishing Punisher makes more sense rather than less, to the horror of the readers)
The laziness, as opposed to a productive tension, turned into the new normal around 1986. Shooting people as the best way to make things right? Sure, if coincidence and being right all the time are on your side. Unshaven and grim? Very cool, if you’re fourteen. At its worst, it veers into a pissed-off white guy blowing away “scum” who happen to be low-income and nonwhite.
But after last year’s counterpoint project with Steve Long, I think I found why I do, in fact, find the characters compelling some of the time, and why some creative people have been creatively itched by it to the point of defining their careers. One solid point – perhaps the grain – essentially an irritant – around which the pearl forms, is that what looks like law-and-order preservation of “the system” against those who would disrupt it, is most effective and admirable when it is shown to be disrupting an unjust system, fighting corruption. My points about Captain America vigilante turn in Born Again are about that grain, and as was Steve’s insistence that we finish the series of counter-posts with the Foolkiller.
It also illuminated the history for me: specifically that this … complex of ideas, or system of identifiable satellites around an idea or itch … is intrinsic to American comics and even to comics-as-literature, and that the resurgence in the mid-80s wasn’t a one-off deviation. At the risk of invoking naturalism (which I do not want to do), the deviation was the 1940 DC Code, and its more visible expression, the 1954 Comics Code Authority, and the reappearance of blazing pistols, ice-cold/white-hot ruthlessness, and an at-best troubled relationship with the law was a restoration.
I also took a closer look at vigilantism by the strict meaning of the word. From my comment on one of the earlier blog posts:
I’m talking about the relationship of a person to institutionalized law. The first part of the definition means conducting the activities of that instititution without its support.
By that definition, all “masked crime-fighters are vigilantes!” Yes, they are. Also by that definition, a cop who murders someone isn’t a vigilante if the department and the general justice system supports him. This part of the definition is flatly amoral.
The second part brings in the common feature, for many terms, that assigning the label is part of the definition. If someone can make the label stick, on for example the murderous cop, then whoopsie, he is a vigilante and outside the law. Which is of course reversed in reality from how we say it, meaning if the law as an institution doesn’t support him (and brazen out the accusation, effectively saying “whaddaya gonna do about it, he was cleared”), then he’s a vigilante.
So yes, all costumed crime-fighters (which is not all superheroes; Thor isn’t, for example) are potential vigilantes insofar as the label sticks. And it’ll stick if they lose the public trust. The first 100 issues of Spider-Man are an exquisite, beautiful portrayal of every side of this argument, including its limitations. And before you say “Spider-Man never crosses the line,” consider the drug pusher beatdown and the time when he frightens Jameson into a heart attack. Neither is played for laughs in the slightest.
There’s a larger picture too which helps to establish a much more coherent matrix to include the Dark Knight in the same set of questions. It is when the entire legal institution is considered by the populace, or a great deal of it, to be inadequate – whether “not enough” or “illegitimate.” In this case the term vigilante takes on its root meaning, from vigil, to take on the actual role of desired/real/legitimate law enforcement in terms which either cannot be acknowledged by the overt institution, or are treated by it as raw anarchy and rebellion.
To separate those two branches:
The first goes like this: (i) the legal institution is hobbled or weak and needs the people’s help, (ii) a bunch of us will help it do its job or do the job that it is too weak to do at all, and (iii) some of us are insiders in it and thus make the rest of us doing is “real” anyway = the Klan.
The second goes like this: (i) the legal institution is nothing more than organized crime and victimizes us, i.e., we are subject to banditry and abuse and there is no actual law here; (ii) a bunch of us will police our own community as it needs, and (iii) we act in direct defiance of the Law-in-name when we can and with no apology for using force = the Deacons for Defense.
Each of them purports to represent the real Law in the absence of institutional integrity.
See how it ties back to my point about criminality? “Crime fighting,” basically acting as a proactive deputy, is a very weak context for the activity. Hiss about the “the weed of crime” as the Shadow might, he’s striking against forces and foes who are in no way defined by this-or-that malfeasance in legal terms. It does, however, make for interesting characters: the Punisher’s conviction that he and the cops are really on the same side is part of his personal pathology and keeps him from unloading on more people than he might.
I submit that many of the tropes associated with “comic book vigilante” are not defining features. The only one, or rather, once vigilante is properly defined, the only one is the … see, there it is. You can call it the rage, the pain, the drive, the will, the edge, the ruthlessness, but what it really is, is the hate.
Hence my provocative post title. It’s a slight paraphrase of a famous quote by the late Alexander Cockburn, which you can read about here. It recently received some reflections regarding intelligence rather than purity, which I found useful, here. For present purposes, I’m aiming at a mix of purity and intelligence I’ll call clarity: that the vigilante hero isn’t confused, or striking out reflexively, or for lack of a better word, stupid. The hate is ruthless because it’s utterly articulate. He or she has standards both for the chosen targets and for what exactly he or she will and will not do about it. I’m not saying “and therefore it’s OK!” or “and that’s why he’s a hero!” Those standards are specifically tuned toward the … (here it comes) problematic; you’re not supposed to accept them as “really OK” or justified. I’m simply and strictly saying that the vigilante hero is identifiably focused, unswervingly so, rather than louting around.
Couple points about how this interacted with superheroes as such. First, I don’t think it has anything to do with powers or their magnitude. Going by the three characters who, in and out of comics, represent the “pure” strain, they are superheroes: the Shadow, the Spider, and the original Spectre all have explicit powers, especially those which brood at the edge of the occult and mystical. And all the alleged “no powers” versions have so much coincidence and perception on their side that they qualify as powers.
Second, although there is no clear boundary between the costumed heroes with their echoes of science fantasy and physical culture and the “ssss! I fight evil from the shadows!” guys, explicit versions of the two occupied the same stories through the vagaries of ownership rather than authorship, and co-existed uneasily. The obvious solution was to bowdlerize the vigilante, as quickly seen with the original, very short-lived Spectre and as thoroughly seen with Batman (remember, the 60s TV show was a parody of the good-guy 50s comics hero, i.e., there was something there to parody). The Shadow and the Spider, not owned by comics companies, escaped this fate.
Then there came an extended halfway-period in which the Comics Code and the (I hate this word) archetype did a curious and often compelling dance, turning the uneasy co-existence into a feature. It strikes me now that it was heralded by the Ditko’s Mr. A and the Question, and the Fleischer/Aparo Spectre in 1968, but is best known through the O’Neil, Goodwin, Wolfman, Conway, Wein track, with Miller joining it: “the” Batman of about 1970, the Conway/Wein Punisher of 1974 and a while after, the Moench/Sienkiewicz Moon Knight, the Miller Daredevil (and Punisher), and arguably Cloak and Dagger. In the mid-80s, add Baron and Grant by way of the Badger, Nexus, and Whisper, and Dixon, for the 1986-and-after Punisher and amped-up crazier Moon Knight. Elaborate and twist things with the Dark Knight Batman, Rorschach, the re-tooled Question, and the Vigilante.
In looking this fifty-year experiment over, certain variables are revealed to be dials: occultism/mysticism, the facial mask, a special or iconic outfit or symbol, the full range of lethality (with guns at the far end), sanity relating to rage or identity or both, ordinary human function (which isn’t the same thing as sanity), the full range of wealth, and super-powers as such. The one thing that’s not a dial is the Cockburn-style hate – and that switch is on.
I’m intrigued and compelled to stay with this zone, but also to get off the dedicated O’Neil track a little, not because it’s bad, but because it’s .. well, it’s complete. Further work of this kind on Batman, Daredevil, et al., is iteration, not experimentation. It’s more-or-less the same for the Punisher, perhaps even more so because he’s already a commentary on himself. And not to be too nasty about it, but that particular track happens to be a very white one and framed in a specific set of political terms which I don’t think are very helpful.
That takes me to the lesser-known or at least less-cited characters: Tim Truman’s Prowler, introduced to me by Steve; Cloak and Dagger, perhaps more so as pop-up or interfering characters than protagonists; the Impact Comics brief run of the Black Hood; Ghost … to me, the unrealized potential and/or less-effective stories among these are far more inspiring than polishing the Daredevil apple yet again.
It also brings me to the more-recent and the now, like Luke Cooper’s Hollow Girl, Joe Casey’s Codeflesh, Elijah Henry’s Striker, and my Sword of God, which I’d very much like to get back to one of these days. Looking at these and similar titles, I find them striking and compelling – despite indubitably belonging to that co-existence between vigilantes and comics-heroes, not retreads at all.
Now, didn’t I say something about role-playing? It turns out that the system I’d like to develop is already extant: Ram Hull’s The Path of Journeys, which appeared at the Ashcan Front booth of GenCon 2007. It was printed in 40 copies only, and is not otherwise available, except for what Ram’s permitting me to distribute on the QT for playtesting only.
Briefly, it’s a game in which your character becomes much more effective by focusing and abstracting their motivations – and whether that’s a good thing or not. To reinforce the latter, the system is also strikingly effective at generating “oh really?” situations and reflecting upon what happened. Why I haven’t been playing Daredevil sensu lato with it for all these years, I can’t say.
Whether I’m merely skinning the existing game, using it as a departure point for writing a new one, or something in-between, is currently a design question of its own. At the moment, I’m going with it precisely as written in 2007, paired with this promotional prep-for-play page, to see what people do with it. People meaning patrons, who have access to the PDF of the rules. I know the system pretty well through play, so I have my notions of what can be tweaked (not much actually) and what’s missing in practical how-to terms – but this step of playtesting is intended to discover what others find along those lines.
Hey, try this: make a quickie character for me. Pick one specification per row, even more-or-less at random.
- mask / outfit / mask + outfit
- non-lethal / lethal but not guns / guns
- homeless / regular Joe-or-Jane / wealthy
- “plot” powers / minor super-powers / big ol’ super-powers
But also, crucially, tell me what the character hates. Make it intelligent and pure. It won’t count unless you feel it in your guts too. I’ll use the comments to show you what the character looks like in Path of Journeys terms.
Personal news: We’ve been in Sweden for a whole month! The house renovations are done for now, or at least, paused until we cut a hole in the back and add more rooms later this year. We’re enjoying electricity, plumbing, dishwasher, laundry machines, and more – the kitchen counters and tiles are done, so it just needs wiring. And all that stuff from the States arrived safe, now filling the two main rooms on the lower floor. Swedish car, internet, bank account, underwear. Kids visited the school and loved it; wife’s job starts in mid-July. Residency application proceeds step by step.
Next column: No pants necessary (June 25)
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on June 18, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged Alexander Cockburn, Batman, Codeflesh, Daredevil, Foolkiller, Hollow Girl, Punisher, Ram Hull, Shadow, Spectre, Spider, Steven S. Long, Striker, The Ashcan Front, The Path of Journeys, vigilante. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.