Spotlight on Vigilante

Vigilante 08Vigilante #8

Vigilante was a train wreck of a comic – a baffling, mesmerizing, kamikaze train wreck of a comic. Published between 1983 and 1988, this was DC’s answer to the Punisher, only grittier and more depressing, spiraling as it did from a self-destructive premise all the way down to an even more self-destructive ending (which I will totally spoil below). I can’t tell you it’s a fun read, but it is a series I’ve found myself revisiting, if nothing else to make sure it’s as fucked up as I remembered.

The comic revolves around Adrian Chase, an anti-hero if there ever was one. Although Vigilante is mostly a standalone crime series and gives you all the background you need in the first issue, fans of the Dynamic Duo may be interested to know Adrian Chase first appeared in the superhero extravaganza The New Teen Titans, by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Chase was a hotheaded district attorney who became a recurring character in that book, occasionally asking the Titans (led by Dick Grayson, aka Robin) to help him circumvent the rules…

New Teen Titans 26The New Teen Titans #26

Adrian Chase didn’t come across as a bad guy so much as a frustrated idealist trying to seek justice. The comic even drew a parallel between him and a certain Caped Crusader:

The New Teen Titans #26The New Teen Titans #26

Indeed, for a while there it seemed as if Adrian Chase was going to take Batman’s place as Dick Grayson’s crime-fighting partner. However, Dick soon found out that the only reason Chase brought him along as they broke into the house of a notorious drug lord was because Robin was legally deputized, so the D.A. could collar the mobster while engaging in a dodgy strategy of intimidation…

By the way, did I mentioned that Adrian Chase had a wife and kids? Yeah, I’m pretty sure you can guess how it all turned out:

new teen titans 34The New Teen Titans #34

Having survived the explosion, unlike his wife and children, in The New Teen Titans Annual #2 (‘The Murder Machine’) Adrian Chase created the identity of Vigilante as he tracked down the man responsible for the attack and then killed him, albeit sort of in self-defense. Chase later spun off into his own series, Vigilante, where he went after criminals who had been proven guilty yet were released on technicalities (a ‘technicality’ being right-wing fiction’s code for ‘rights of the accused’).

With New York’s rampant street crime as background and his family tragedy as a trigger to brutally take the law into his own hands, Adrian Chase basically came from the same tradition as characters like the Punisher and the Executioner, except that he found himself stuck in a comic that treated him like shit. This was a series about a street vigilante where the stories didn’t always validate his vigilantism – an attitude that was either more coward or way ballsier than usual. Typically, this subgenre of fiction asks the audience to accept that all the hero’s targets deserve what they get… Yet Vigilante put a revisionist twist on this by acknowledging that the protagonist’s actions could cause all sorts of horrible side effects but, hey, that was not enough to stop him! Or was it?

Vigilante 1     Vigilante 5     Vigilante 18

While the first fifteen issues were written (and edited) by Marv Wolfman in his signature over-the-top, melodramatic style, with ham-fisted exposition and gratuitous wall-to-wall action, they already showed some nuance. In the very first issue, the Vigilante keeps going after people whose motivations are more complicated than he initially assumes, even though he still gets to finish the story on a badass note, complete with some heavy-handed ironic juxtaposition and a callback to an earlier line. In the second issue, the Vigilante viciously beats up a man accused of having raped a nun but who turns out to be innocent (although he had previously raped someone else) – regretful, Chase then gives up his mission for a few pages, joins his father’s law firm, but changes his mind again when he is asked to defend a rapist, and gets back in the game. By the third issue, though, Chase decides he has no right to kill except in self-defense, so he spares the life of yet another rapist.

You may have spotted a pattern there. If you know one thing about ‘80s fiction is that it’s more likely than not to involve rape (no, it wasn’t just Alan Moore, even a witty, lighthearted comedy like Back to the Future had its share of sexual assault). Still, Vigilante must have set some kind of record! Seriously, at first Adrian Chase’s two partners were research assistant Theresa Gomez, a rape victim, and computer and weapons expert J.J. Davis, whose fiancée had also been raped!

I guess it helped that this was a direct market series which was not sold on the newsstands and didn’t carry the stamp of the Comics Code Authority. Making the most of this, Wolfman included some consensual sex as well:

Vigilante 05Vigilante 05Vigilante #5

Those first issues are all over the place, with Marv Wolfman throwing everything at the wall to see if it sticks. There’s exploitative sleaze and social commentary, but also entertaining mysteries and even some ventures into more traditional superhero territory, including a few other costumed characters running around… Wolfman introduced the gay hitmen Cannon and Saber, brought back the Electrocutioner (whom he had created in Batman #331), and wrote a story where the Vigilante punched Cyborg in the balls! He also gave Vigilante a weird, mystic origin that involved being trained by the spirits of the dead victims of evil, which the rest of the series largely ignored.

Some of this inconsistency may have been merely Wolfman trying to keep up with readers’ contradictory responses to the comic. That said, whether by design or popular demand, and for all its lack of subtlety, Vigilante deserves credit for addressing some of the complexity inherent to the topic of violent, outlaw justice, spurring heated debates in the letter columns. The extremely dark issue #12 (‘Journal’) summed up key contradictions of vigilantism concerning its visceral appeal, practical implications, and ethical considerations. By that stage, Adrian Chase was himself so conflicted that he decided to give the system one more try, this time as a judge.

The series had a nice second year. ‘Locke Room Murder!!’ is a fun whodunit and it culminates in a long, insane chase scene that makes about as much sense as the put-on-your-glasses fight in They Live. ‘Send in the Clowns’ is an odd little tale about a miserable circus clown. ‘Shadows’ features stylish, angular art by Trevor von Eeden, with a neat use of negative space:

Vigilante 14Vigilante #14

Wolfman gave way to other writers. Paul Kupperberg wrote the annual ‘Guilty until proven…’ and the fill-in ‘Under the Sidewalks of New York.’ Alan Moore wrote the two-parter ‘Father’s Day.’ Predictably, the results were just as twisted!

Moore, then well into his deconstructionist phase, totally ran with the notion that Vigilante was all about exposing the inadequacies of the titular character. In ‘Father’s Day,’ Adrian Chase is repeatedly beaten up, insulted, and humiliated… he even gets his motorbike stolen! More provocatively, Alan Moore takes the classic trope of a father who sexually abused his underage daughter and implies that the feelings involved in this awful situation may not fit comfortably with the black-and-white worldview at the core of this kind of stories.

‘Ups…and Downs!’ (Vigilante #19) inaugurated a new era, with Paul Kupperberg becoming the series’ regular writer (although working from Marv Wolfman’s plots in the first couple of issues). Now a judge, Adrian Chase once again threw away his mask. Shortly afterwards, though, a dude claiming to be the Vigilante hit the streets of New York and went on a killing spree, which didn’t do any favors for Chase’s precarious sanity. On the other hand, at least this prompted an appearance by Dick Grayson, then in his Nightwing persona:

Vigilante 20Vigilante #20

What followed was an ingenious mystery that lasted until issue #27 (‘Insanity’s End!’) and whose ramifications continued to echo as yet *another* Vigilante showed up!

Although Adrian Chase still hung around, he was effectively replaced as the titular hero…

Vigilante 29     Vigilante 30     Vigilante Annual 2

In fact, Vigilante dropped the earlier episodic structure and turned into more of an ensemble piece made up of ongoing, interwoven subplots. Along with the convoluted main saga, mostly illustrated by Tod Smith, Kupperberg threw in some gritty backup stories spotlighting different cast members, with moody art by Denys Cowan. One of his lasting creations was Lieutenant Harry Stein, an old school, chain-smoking cop with family troubles who headed the police task force seeking to apprehend the Vigilante:

Vigilante 24Vigilante #24

While Paul Kupperberg did his damnedest in terms of making Vigilante a legitimately hardboiled crime comic, he wasn’t exactly Dick Wolf when it came to writing about law. It’s no wonder Adrian Chase felt more and more frustrated as a judge, given that he was so shitty at it, actually letting criminals off the hook for silly reasons that defied common sense and basic jurisprudence. Yet Chase directed his anger at the system he misrepresented rather than at his own incompetence! Between this and his all-consuming guilt over the murders he had committed, he became even broodier and more unhinged…

Vigilante 31Vigilante #31

In any case, it was of course only a matter of time until Adrian Chase broke down and got back into the Vigilante’s skintight outfit, now with even more of a Travis Bickle edge. He did so in the last fifteen issues of the series, edited by Mike Gold. And if things had been rough before, Paul Kupperberg made them positively nightmarish in this final stretch of stories, which are soaked in blood, drugs, sexual violence, and socioeconomic decay, not to mention traces of Islamophobia. Starting with ‘Mommy Said Never Talk to Strangers…!’ (Vigilante #39), the series earned a ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’ label.

Despite the insistence on grim realism, this was also when Vigilante felt more comfortable with its place in the DC Universe. Kupperberg had largely disregarded the connection so far, apart from a few notable exceptions early on, such as the lingering presence of the Electrocutioner and vague references to Crisis on Infinite Earths in issue #22. Judge Adrian Chase had also met Superman in DC Comics Presents #92 (where Chase had refused to believe Superman’s testimony on the basis that nobody could be concentrated enough to witness anything while making out with Lana Lang).

Late eighties DC, however, was full of dark reboots, so even though Vigilante was still quite extreme, it didn’t seem as strange that the series could overlap with the rest of the shared universe. With that in mind, Kupperberg worked in some passing references to the ongoing Legends crossover and brought in one of his creations, Soviet defector Valentina Vostok (aka Negative Woman from Doom Patrol), as a semi-regular supporting character. He also introduced more costumed crime-fighters into the mix, including Adrian Chase’s kinky love interest Black Thorn (complete with a couple of steamy sex scenes) and the lunatic Peacemaker, who believed that souls stored in his goofy-looking helmet were guiding him down a path of peace-through-violence:

Vigilante 36Vigilante #36

Gotham City made its contribution as well. Commissioner Gordon had a small cameo, Sgt. Harvey Bullock played a prominent role near the end of the series, and Batman himself popped in to repeatedly kick Adrian Chase in the face.

Meanwhile, Chase was growing more and more out of control, especially after having murdered a policeman who got in his way. In the infamous Vigilante #50, self-doubt finally took its toll as Chase made one wrongheaded move too many, so he decided it was time to put a definite end to his mission.

A *definite* end:

Vigilante 50Vigilante #50

In the final issue, the Vigilante, aka Adrian Chase, killed himself. This was certainly coherent with the tone and themes of the series, but it’s got to be up there as the most downbeat ending of a pre-Brad Meltzer DCU comic. Just to make it clear: Chase didn’t die by sacrificing himself in the heat of battle or to achieve any kind of purpose other than personal closure. He just straight-up put a gun to his head and committed suicide!

It wasn’t the absolute end of the saga. Marv Wolfman tried to revive the concept by having others follow in Adrian Chase’s footsteps and dawning the Vigilante identity, first in 1992, on the pages of Deathstroke the Terminator, and again in 2007, on the pages of Nightwing.

Deathstroke 10     Nightwing 134     Vigilante 01

The true follow-up to Vigilante, though, was Checkmate!, a high-pitched spy comic created by Paul Kupperberg and Steve Erwin, which ran from 1988 until 1991. This was a pretty cool series, revolving around a shadowy organization specialized in covert operations. Kupperberg brought back various familiar faces from Vigilante, including Harry Stein and his former partner Gary Washington, the deranged Peacekeeper, and Black Thorn.

Checkmate 26     Checkmate 23     Checkmate 14

Most notably, Paul Kupperberg delivered a suitably sick coda to the tale of Adrian Chase in an issue where Black Thorn’s apartment was robbed and she asked a Checkmate agent for help in recovering her stuff. Guess what she cared about the most?

Checkmate 14 Checkmate! #14

NEXT: The Punisher MAX.

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