Friday, October 25, 2013

1987 and all that 016: costumed crime mongering

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Vigilante #37-48 (DC)
by Paul Kupperberg, Tod Smith, Dave Cockrum, Steve Erwin, Rick Magyar, Greg Brooks, Rick Burchett, Jack Torrance, Tatjana Wood, Liz Berube, Bob Le Rose

There’s something fundamentally crazy about the whole superhero thing. Putting on a weird disguise and using a fake name to inflict violence against criminals is not the behavior of someone who’s totally sane. I’m not at all the first person to acknowledge this, and in fact it’s become something of a common trope in superhero stories. But in 'Vigilante', or at least in the issues from 1987, the title character’s madness isn't just something that’s occasionally recognized or discussed. It is the key component of the series, the concept on which the rest of the narrative is founded. The book is about what happens to a lunatic when the people around him enable his lunacy, endorse it, even, for their own gain. And when he embraces it as well, committing himself to his mania with no desire for any return to normalcy. It’s not a pretty picture, because mental instability never is, but it’s an honest, enticing, thorough look at the fluctuating patterns of the protagonist’s craziness.

The titular 'Vigilante' is judge Adrian Chase, and I guess if you want to get technical about it the word “superhero” does not really apply, since he’s neither super nor all that heroic. He has a mask and an alias, but no extra-human powers, just a couple of guns and a wild determination in combat. Though he chooses criminals and terrorists as his primary targets, he pays no real mind to collateral damage, because what truly drives him isn't a sense of justice but a love of violence. He’s so furious at the world over the death of his family, the only real pleasure he has left is the joy of killing. It makes him feel powerful, in control, and alive. Then the most shadowy, morally backward part of the government grabs ahold of Chase and transforms him into a living weapon for the USA. The fictional agency that recruits Vigilante isn't actually ever named, I don’t think, but all of their missions are unsanctioned killing sprees. When they assign something to him, there’s an understanding on all sides that he’ll run in guns blazing with little to no preparation, and that seems to be exactly what his bosses want. It’s certainly what he wants, so everybody’s happy, save for the dozens of people Vigilante shoots to death.

That’s the frame upon which the stories in these issues are built: mad gunman hired by the government to be an agent of destruction against their foes. Everyone is upfront about the fact that Chase is bonkers, including Chase himself, and they all evidently agree that rather than trying to help him find some peace or sanity, the best thing to do is point him in the direction of the bad guys and let him go nuts. He gets lucky and manages to do some good once in a while, shutting down a major drug operation and thwarting an enemy spy from stealing sensitive information. These positive achievements are tempered, however, by all the hate and chaos he spreads around in the name of his unfocused cause. Shoot first and never even have questions— that’s the Vigilante approach. On the rare cases he does have some questions, he brutalizes the person he’s asking, torturing them sometimes even after they have told him what he wants to hear. He loves his new job as self- and government-appointed executioner, and his enthusiasm makes him dangerous and (in his world) famous. Or infamous, depending on who you ask. He kills a police officer at one point early on, and when he finally gets arrested for it some time later, his handlers break him out right away, so he never truly has to answer for the crime. A gang of angry barflies with makeshift masks and improvised weapons takes to the streets to emulate Vigilante, their new icon of hate. Vigilante kills a houseful of child pornographers and self-satisfactorily declares the problem solved, when in fact he’s failed to significantly affect anything. But since he got to gun down a bunch of people in a really showy way, he’s satisfied, and moves onto the next randomly selected (or invented) threat. The problems he creates or exacerbates greatly outweigh the few-and-far-between solutions he provides.

I clearly don’t approve of Vigilante’s tactics or their results, but I appreciate that Paul Kupperberg is intentionally writing a flawed, delusional lead character who’s only partially fooling himself into thinking he’s a good guy. The book is not bashful about its protagonist’s broken mental state, lack of self-control, or ugly inner rage. It overtly paints him in many negative roles: aggressive thug, callous loose cannon, self-aware serial killer, self-righteous hypocrite. No one is expected to like him or cheer him on, because he doesn't even care for himself enough to be concerned with whether he lives or dies. He understands the immense risks of the profession he’s chosen; he expects and even sometimes wants it to kill him. As long as he survives, he’ll keep on trucking, but his recklessness in the field is fueled by a death wish. He recognizes his own emotional damage, and the damage he causes in the world, and he’d be perfectly happy to be put out of his misery. Until that day comes, he’s determined to murder as many baddies as he can.

'Vigilante' #37 was the first to be published in 1987, and it has Chase stepping back into the costume for the first time in a long while, after his bailiff and predecessor Dave Winston is killed in action. From the moment he commits to being Vigilante again, Chase’s moral compass and connection to reality steadily worsen. We see him sign up with the aforementioned government agency, leave behind his former life entirely, slay countless crooks with intense zeal, and hide from the law (and the rest of society) in a series of squalid apartments. He immerses himself in his alter ego and his misguided war on crime, and the few “friends” he has all support him in these horrid life choices. All of which culminates closer to the end of the year, in September ‘87’s 'Vigilante' #45, the first appearance of Black Thorn.

Thorn is, for all intents and purposes, the female Vigilante, taking it upon herself to decide who lives and who dies in the criminal underworld. And even though their missions are so obviously aligned, before he meets her Chase sees Thorn as an enemy, another villain to be taken out by his overeager hand. To her credit, Thorn realizes right away that the two of them should be allies rather than opponents, so she convinces Chase to see things her way through rather aggressive sex, kicking in his door one minute and seducing him the next. It’s clear from the beginning that Thorn is at least as messed up as Vigilante, enjoying her kills as much as he does and throwing herself into dangerous situations with even greater abandon. The more we learn about her, the more unhinged she seems, like when she invents on the fly a very detailed and moving back-story about her father sexually abusing her as a child. She tells this huge, complicated lie because Chase pushes her to reveal more about herself, and though she’s not willing to actually let him in, she is determined enough to keep him on her side that she’ll make up a history designed only to play on his little remaining empathy. By the time she arrives in the series, Thorn is the perfect, inevitable love interest for Chase, a more confident but less trustworthy version of himself. Perfect because she’s precisely what he’d be attracted to (i.e. she agrees with his extremist views and methods), and inevitable because the more insanity he puts out into the world, the more he invites into his own life.

Thorn isn’t the only member of Vigilante’s supporting cast to mirror the title character in some way; she’s just the last to join the book and the most extreme example. Others include Peacemaker, sometimes a friend but usually a foe, who also believes he’s killing the right people, but has very different reasons for doing so. Or Harry Stein, a former cop hired to be Vigilante’s handler by the government. Stein isn't necessarily crazy, but he operates with the same absence of planning or strategy as Vigilante does, so that he’s more often cleaning up messes than preventing them. Valentina Vostok is Stein’s superior, herself a former superhero who now, as the head of a shady government organization, uses secrets, misinformation, unstable operatives, and other ethically questionable tactics to defeat her perceived enemies. Like Stein, Vostok seems to have her wits about her, but what she shares with Vigilante is a lack of concern for other people, be they good, bad, or in-between. Her supposedly noble ends justify any means, and even when she screws the pooch, she emphatically defends her actions and refuses to acknowledge her mistakes.

The point is, the people around him only add to Chase’ personal problems. There’s no one in his life who was there before the mask, so nobody has any vested interest in seeing him sort himself out. On the contrary, pretty much everyone is actively working to keep him the way he is now, broken and furious and sliding ever downward into deeper darkness. So he gets more and more blood on his hands, quickly creating a pile of bodies that does nothing to quell his anger. The futility of his efforts is apparent to the reader all along, as each new criminal he kills is replaced by several others, like the scariest and most depressing hydra ever. Yet Vigilante incessantly keeps up the fight, lying to himself that he’s helping the world when all he’s really doing is contributing to its chaos and pain.

I shouldn't technically mention it, (since it doesn't take place until February 1988) but in 'Vigilante' #50, Adrian Chase commits suicide, turning his gun on himself for a change. It’s a terrible way to go, but not one that surprises me considering the character. As I said before, he was never overly worried about dying, only about first killing as many opponents as possible. When that kind of self-destructive attitude is given such ample room to fester and grow, nurtured by anyone and everyone in a position to do something about it, then it’s only a matter of time before the person feeling it is irrevocably ruined. Chase reaches that point of no return fairly quickly, and the rest of these issues show the hideous results of him rushing past it to even lower lows. He’s not the uplifting, hope-inspiring role model many of his costumed comic book contemporaries are, but his story is well worth studying for the opposite reason. It’s a warning against ignoring our limits or indulging our worst impulses. That way lies madness, inescapable and deadly.

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