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The Vigilante(pop culture)
It will probably surprise even the most devoted comics fans to learn that one of the longest-lasting heroes of the Golden Age of comics (1938–1954) was not Captain America, the Flash, or the Green Lantern, but the Vigilante. This character was a backup feature in Action Comics, from late 1941 (issue #42) onward, created by legendary DC editor Mort Weisinger and pioneering artist Mort Meskin. The first adventure relates how Sheriff Sanders is gunned down by a band of outlaws led by one Judas Priest, in the dying days of the Old West. Vowing vengeance, his son Greg Sanders systematically hunts down the killers, one by one, and then decides to become a permanent “vigilante.” Sanders soon becomes a successful country singer with his own radio show, but by donning a blue cowboy costume, topped off with a white Stetson, and a red scarf to cover his mouth, the “Prairie Troubadour” becomes the crime fighter known as the Vigilante.
In one of his earliest tales, the Vigilante came upon a crime scene in Chinatown, where a young boy’s parents had been killed by gangsters. Our hero quickly decided to adopt the lad—seemingly known only as “Stuff”—as his ward and crime-fighting partner. It is worth noting, incidentally, that “Stuff” was the first significant Asian hero in comics history. The strip was in many ways an updated Western, with Greg Sanders and Stuff roaming the country from one radio show or concert to the next, invariably coming across wrongdoers wherever they went. The Vigilante rode a motorcycle rather than a horse, and relied on his lariat or six-guns to get him out of trouble. In more traditional superhero manner, he built up a stable of his own arch-villains, including the Fiddler, Dictionary, and the murderous, top-hatted midget, the Dummy.
The Vigilante strip had barely started before the character was recruited to the ranks of DC’s second superhero group, the Seven Soldiers of Victory (in Leading Comics #1-#14, from 1941 to 1945), along with the Star-Spangled Kid, Stripesy, Green Arrow, Speedy, the Shining Knight, and the Crimson Avenger. The team was relatively shortlived, which perhaps indicates that the chief appeal of the Vigilante strip was its punchy brevity. Weisinger came from the pulps and had a real gift for packing his short, ten-page stories with both action and plot, and his strip was usually a highly entertaining read. Meskin was one of comics’ first superstar artists, with a true talent for movement, and his artwork really flew off the page.
By the 1950s, Greg Sanders had moved onto television, and his Vigilante alter ego had acquired a very modern-looking, jet-powered “vigi-cycle.” The strips were still well written and stylishly drawn (by Flash Gordon artist Dan Barry, among others) but in late 1954, after over 150 episodes, the strip was finally laid to rest, a victim of Action Comics cutting its page count. The character was reintroduced to comics readers years later, in a 1970 issue of Justice League of America; it seems that he had simply been in temporary retirement. A few new, well-crafted strips slipped out later in the decade, in the pages of Adventure Comics and World’s Finest, revealing a strangely ageless Sanders still plying his trade on the concert circuit. The last of these stories (which appeared in World’s Finest #248 in 1978) killed off the unfortunate Stuff (now a grown man) and introduced his son, Stuff Jr., who was last seen riding off into the sunset with the Vigilante.
In 1995, the Vigilante was finally given his own comic—albeit only a four-issue miniseries— although this featured an “untold” tale from the 1940s rather than a new set of contemporary stories. In the interim, another, wholly different Vigilante had risen from the pages of the Teen Titans and enjoyed a degree of success in his own self-titled, mid-1980s comic. This character was Adrian Chase, an ex-district attorney by day and a ruthless killer by night, hunting down the criminals whom the law could not touch (“It’s time for the little man to win”). This Vigilante was one of numerous so-called anti-heroes who sprang up in the wake of Marvel’s Punisher.
Chase was killed, but he was succeeded by a new Vigilante, Justin Powell, in a 2005-2006 Vigilante miniseries. Yet another Vigilante debuted in Nightwing, and graduated to his own Vigilante series (2009–2010). This Vigilante is Dorian Chase, the brother of the late Adrian. Greg Saunders, the original Vigilante, was apparently killed in Seven Soldiers #0 (April 2005), but turned up alive once more in Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #1 (December 2008).
The Columbia movie serial The Vigilante: Fighting Hero of the West (1947), starred Ralph Byrd in the title role, and was loosely based on DC’s 1940s version of the character. The original Vigilante (Greg Saunders) has also appeared in two animated TV series: Justice League Unlimited, usually voiced by Nathan Fillion (of the TV series Firefly and Castle), and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, voiced by John DiMaggio (Futurama), who even sings a song in his role in the episode. —DAR