Issue #18 of 35   INDEX

Joel Grineau
by: Joel V. Grineau
Vigilantes: Reflecting Our Dark Needs?

If you or I lived in a big city in a comic book universe, we could sleep soundly at night because we know that somewhere in the night a vigilante is standing guard over us. Yet, in the Real World, we fear vigilantes.

Why this dichotomy? Well, lets take a stab at it.

In the real world, cities are dangerous. Gangs, drugs, prostitution, violence, cab drivers, and pollution are a "natural" part of the environment. They also happen to be very bad for our health. And just in case you forget how just bad they are for a moment, the mainstream media gleefully devotes their resources to reminding you on a regular basis. It is impossible not to be informed of these dangers, if not in your own city, than in the next. . .

The result? We are constantly being told to "keep our eyes open", to stay out of situations which are potentially harmful, and to avoid "becoming a victim". All well and good, but how do we accomplish all this?

Well, many believe that some form of physical training can help, and I don't mean Curling. Yes, I'm talking about martial arts. Some punk comes at you with a knife - no biggie - just disarm him, incapacitate him, and give your statement to the police (and the media!)

Even I spent a few years and obtained a few bruises in martial arts classes. Of course, I've never had to use these skills. But I live in Canada . . . you know . . . the country the United Nations consistently places in the top three of their 'best country to live in the world' lists? And I've lived in cities for almost half of my life. Heck, I think Saskatoon (population 200,000) had 4 murders last year. Is there any American City of similar size that can boast that they've had less? Of course, being nearly 6 ft tall, and weighing over 200 pounds has probably been a deterrent. In any case, the best defence is a good offense.

Those who take defence one step further, into offense, are vigilantes.

Real life vigilante's are scary. Anyone remember Bernard Goetz? How about lynch mobs, or para-military organizations (and I'm not talking about the Boy Scouts here). These individuals and groups are as dangerous as the criminals they say they're defending us from. In the Real World, that's plain as day.

Yet its the opposite in comics. Comic book vigilantes are popular. Let us not forget that New York City, the very creche of comic book civilization, is a city who's crime rates, real or imagined, are quite high. Batman, who is probably the most recognizable hero in the world (next to Superman?) is the premier vigilante of comicdom. Criminals fear to even speak his name. In addition, he is also one of the few non-powered individuals who has no trouble holding his own amongst demi-gods. Case in point: He's a star member of DC's premier team magazine, the "Justice League of America".

Vigilantes in comics seem to fall into one of two categories. The first group are preventative, and do not believe in the use of deadly force, (i.e. NO GUNS). This group includes: Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Gangbuster, El Diablo, and the Outsiders. They are preventative in that we often see Spider-Man stop a mugging, or Gangbuster bust up a gang (heehee!). Seeing this, we feel good, for all is right in the world. They also aid the police against super powered thugs and madmen.

The second group of vigilantes are punitive and believe in the use of deadly force (i.e. GUNS). This group includes the (aptly-named) Vigilante, the Punisher, Deathstroke and Solo. They are punitive in that they feel that justice must be dealt to those who are beyond the law, the unrepentant and the truly sick. Said justice is quick, harsh, and about as final as you can get in a world where being raised from the dead is about as common as getting up in the morning. Of course, that really only applies to "major" characters; street thugs and mobsters are mowed down in these books like long grass, and are about as common. But heck, most of us don't mind seeing the Punisher blow away drug dealers, or the Vigilante killing some mobsters.

In the superhero world, vigilantes are bottom feeders. They're usually non-powered individuals or low powered individuals who help us ('the little people') out most often. Yes, they have been known to go into space and battle giant robots, but really, Batman's home element is dark, dirty and dangerous Gotham City.

And that's where our collective psyche wants him and his colleagues to be - acting as our urban protectors, striking back at the fear and helplessness driven into us by the media. Viligantes fight disorder with greater disorder, and fullfiling our own dark needs to make things "safe" and "right" at any cost. In fiction it's a great release; In the Real World that cost is often at our own expense.

Joel Grineau is a former Writer/Contributing Editor for "Chaos" Magazine. "Iron Man" 146 (purchased in the spring of 1981) was his first comic book, and time has not worn down his enjoyment of them. Joel holds a BA from the University of Guelph and an MA from the University of Saskatchewan. He is currently an officer with the Canadian Forces.

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Text © Joel V. Grineau, 1997,1998.
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