Random Musings: A look back at I, Claudius

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Every few years, I re-watch the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius. In light of the recent death of John Hurt, who played the emperor Caligula in that production, now seemed an appropriate time to revisit that series.

I, Claudius also stars Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus, Siân Phillips as Livia, George Baker as Tiberius and Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, to name just a few of the key players. It aired in 12 parts in Britain, including a 90-minute first episode. On PBS, that first episode was divided in two, so it was broadcast as 13 parts in the U.S. Video and DVD releases prior to the 35th anniversary DVD reflected the 13-part version.

With scripts by Jack Pulman, I, Claudius is based on the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves and concerns the machinations of the members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in the early decades of the Roman Empire.

The series, told in flashback by the elderly Claudius, opens in 24 B.C. seven years after the battle of Actium, in which Augustus defeated Marc Antony.

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Augustus and Livia.

Over the course of the first four episodes (going by the British episode count), Livia orchestrates the deaths of everyone with a prior claim to the purple before her son, Tiberius. She’s determined that Tiberius will succeed Augustus, regardless of what Tiberius himself wants.

Livia even goes so far as to tricks the chief vestal into letting her see Augustus’ will, which she then alters in favor of Tiberius.

As for Augustus’ intended successor, Postumus (John Castle), Livia has Sejanus kill him. Then she poisons Augustus’ favorite figs on the branches, since he refuses to eat anything he hasn’t picked himself.

Before his death, Augustus comes to recognize that Claudius— considered half-witted because of his stammer, an uncontrollable twitching, a limp and other infirmities— is not such a fool as he appears. It’s an observation shared by the historian Pollio (Donald Eccles), who advises Claudius to exaggerate his stutter and his limp, and to play the fool. Claudius does.

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Augustus and Claudius.

Once Tiberius is emperor, Sejanus maneuvers to make himself indispensable, becoming the true power behind the throne. With Tiberius living on Capri, removed from the heart of the empire, Sejanus is able to keep him isolated, controlling who he sees and what communiqués he reads.

Sejanus wants to be the next emperor. To that end, he attempts to strengthen his ties to Tiberius’ family. He conspires with Claudius’ sister, Livilla (Patricia Quinn) to murder her husband, Castor (Kevin McNally), Tiberius’ son. Some time later, when he seeks permission to marry Livilla, Tiberius refuses, thwarting that family alliance.

On the other hand, Sejanus persuades Claudius to marry into his family.

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Claudius and Sejanus.

In a scene that showcases some of the amusing dialogue that peppers the series, Claudius, who has come to visit the ill Castor, is intercepted by Sejanus. He asks if Claudius knows that his wife is pregnant. Claudius says he doesn’t; he and his wife have lived apart for some time.

Sejanus points out that Claudius will have to divorce his wife.

“What for?”

“Well, you can’t be married to a woman who’s going to have someone else’s child. What an eccentric fellow you are.”

He adds that Tiberius would expect him to get divorced.

“Of course,“ Claudius says. “I’ll divorce her.”

“Whom will you marry?”

“Marry? I’m just getting divorced?”

Sejanus then suggests that his sister would make an ideal wife for Claudius. Ever the survivor, Claudius agrees.

But when his mother, Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) learns what Livilla has done, she arranges for Claudius to smuggle proof of Sejanus’ treachery to Tiberius. The emperor discusses how to deal with Sejanus with Claudius and Caligula. The latter offers a solution and Tiberius responds by naming him his heir.

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Claudius, Caligula and Tiberius.

Caligula descends into madness, declaring himself a god, forcing Claudius to tread very carefully when dealing with him. When Caligula summons him in the middle of the night, Claudius can only fear the worst. But it turns out to be a performance by the emperor— in drag— about the dawn. When Caligula asks what Claudius thought of it, Claudius gives the only safe (and politically correct) answer he can:

“It was indescribable.”

After Caligula’s assassination, the praetorian guard find Claudius cowering behind a curtain and proclaim him emperor. It’s the last thing Claudius wants. All his life he’s yearned for a return to the Republic.

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Claudius declared emperor.

Claudius, who views himself as a mere historian, finds himself in a position he never wanted. His lifelong friend Herod Agrippa (James Faulkner) advises him to “trust no one.” It’s advice Claudius will soon have good reason to heed.

I, Claudius was made more than 40 years ago, but it remains timeless. If you haven’t seen it before, you should. If it’s been a while since you last saw it, you should revisit it some time.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: The Wave: A cautionary tale worth revisiting

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Recently, Jerry Chandler mentioned the book and movie, The Wave when commenting on Peter David’s blog entry “Repeating history and the Muslim ban.”

I remember The Wave from having seen it in high school and was planning on writing a blog entry about it. But then I found that Jerry already has, so go read his. Go to his site, scroll down a bit and click on the link entitled “beware the Wave.”

I’ve been contributing to Needless Things for a while now, but I’ve recently become a contributor out the horror themed e-mag Gruesome Magazine as well. My Needless Things pieces drop every Thursday while my Gruesome Magazine work drops whenever it’s ready. Today both sites had work go live.

via A Thursday 2 for 1 — Chandler’s Bar & Grill

Random Musings: A look at The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

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In 1938, pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin), come into possession of a remarkable device: a rocket pack that allows a man to fly. The crook who stole it had hidden it in their hanger while being pursued by the FBI.

The chase resulted in the destruction of both Cliff’s plane and the airstrip owner’s fuel truck (for which he wants reimbursement from Cliff and Peevy). After seeing what the rocket pack can do, Cliff realizes it’s a way for them to make real dough, since people would pay good money to see a man fly.

Peevy doesn’t want anything to do with it, given that A) it’s like strapping nitroglycerin to a person’ back and B) the feds are mixed up in it.

Cliff promises to return it in a few weeks, as soon as they can afford a new plane, but a pilot in trouble during the air show the next day forces him to strap on the pack and take to the skies. He becomes the Rocketeer.

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“Looking like a hood ornament”, the Rocketeer prepares to take flight.

He soon becomes caught between the government, which wants to use the rocket pack (know as the X-3), invented by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn); mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and actor Neville Sinclair, (Timothy Dalton), a secret Nazi agent. Sinclair also has Cliff’s unsuspecting girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), in his sights.

Adding to their troubles, the feds believe Cliff and Peevy shot at them when agents came to their home.

Saturday 7th September 2002, 6pm.

Strapping on the jet pack.

With rocket in hand, er, on his back, Cliff takes to the skies to stop the bad guys and rescue Jenny.

The Rocketeer (1991) is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Dave Stevens (who co produced), which first appeared in 1981 and is a homage to the Republic serials. The film gives special thanks to Republic Pictures and the Rocketman and Commando Cody characters.

In the comics, Cliff’s girlfriend is Bettie, not Jenny, and she’s drawn to resemble pin-up queen Bettie Page.

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Cliff and Jenny.

The Rocketeer is a fun movie that captures some of the optimism of the late 1930s.

There are also a few in-jokes. The movie scene Neville Sinclair is filming is an obvious reference to the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, while another scene explains why the famous “Hollywood” sign no longer says “Hollywoodland.”

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In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), when giant robots attack New York, the authorities call in Sky Captain, AKA Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), to deal with the problem, since military resources are stretched thin across the globe.

Joe soon finds himself crossing paths with his old flame, Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a reporter for the Daily Chronicle investigating the disappearance of elderly scientists. They soon discover there’s a connection.

They also learn that similar armies of robots have made occasional “smash and grab” attacks over the past five years and that a mysterious man named Totenkopf (a digitally resurrected Sir Laurence Olivier) is apparently behind them.

His robots have also abducted Joe’s assistant, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), prompting Joe and Polly set off on a round-the-world adventure to rescue Dex and stop Totenkopf— with some assistance from Francesca “Franky” Cook (Angelina Jolie), commander of a mobile reconnaissance outpost for the Royal Navy.

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Joe and Polly.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which was filmed (primarily in sepia tones) entirely on sound stages in front of blue screens, is an enjoyable film that, like The Rocketeer (but in a different way; it was originally meant to have chapter titles), evokes the old serials.

Sky Captain takes place in an alternate timeline in which the May 6, 1937 Hindenburg disaster either never occurred or didn’t spell the end of airship travel (the Hindenburg III docks at the Empire State Building), but what year does it take place?

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The Hindenburg III.

It would appear at first glance to be set in 1939, given that The Wizard of Oz is playing at Radio City Music Hall, where Polly meets Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) (and another theater advertises Wuthering Heights, also released that year), but The Wizard of Oz was released in August and Polly and Joe depart from Shangri-La on March 2.

(Wuthering Heights, which starred Olivier, was released in April).

On top of that, another theater marquee advertises King’s Row (released in April 1942). Also, Dex says “Shazam” in one scene, but Billy Batson and Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2, cover dated Feb. 1940.

What’s more, Polly reveals that Totenkopf worked on something before World War I and was last heard from more than 30 years ago. At the latest, that would set the movie in 1943 or early 1944.

Unless these anachronisms are mistakes, I think the film either takes place, at the earliest, in March 1941, with King’s Row rushed into production in this alternate timeline, or March 1943. The second part of the movie’s title is The World of Tomorrow, which was the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair. Joe, Polly, et al are living in the (near future) tomorrow predicted by the fair. Dex has a working ray gun, for one thing. For another, Joe’s plane has some great features, including really impressive gas mileage.

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Dex with his ray gun.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow also has a number of Easter eggs. When Polly phones her editor (Michael Gambon) and reports that the robots have crossed Sixth Ave., Fifth Ave. and are 100 yards away, she’s quoting from the Oct. 30, 1938 Mercury Theatre broadcast of “The War of The Worlds.”

Also, the newspaper montage scene references Citizen Kane; the scene where Polly recovers her camera from a storm sewer echoes a similar scene in Strangers on a Train and we see King Kong’s silhouette on the Empire State Building in another scene.

One of the commentary tracks suggests there are many (mostly film-related) Easter eggs. The Wuthering Heights marquee probably counts as one.

In addition to exciting adventures, Sky Captain also entertains in the bantering relationship between Joe and Polly. One amusing subplot involves her camera. After her camera bag is destroyed, it’s all she has left— and she only has two shots remaining. A running gag has her encountering so many remarkable things (like Shangri-La), she’s constantly unsure what to shoot.

If they’re not already part of your home movie collection, both The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would be welcome additions.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A review of The Mystery of Cabin Island

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Frank and Joe Hardy, along with their friends, Chet Morton and Biff Hooper, spend their Christmas vacation in the eponymous cabin on Cabin Island, a small, private island in a cove near their hometown of Bayport and find themselves embroiled in mystery.

There are two versions of The Mystery of Cabin Island, the original, ghost written by Leslie McFarlane (considered the best of the Hardy Boys ghost writers) and published in 1929; and the revised version, ghost written by Andrew Svenson. I read both versions and both were enjoyable, but I liked the original slightly better, despite some purple prose and unnecessary narrative flourishes.

The mysteries were much the same in both versions, but in the original, Frank and Joe never returned home during the course of the story, unlike the revised version. All the action took place on the island, on the ice of the bay or in and around a small village.

In both versions, the owner of Cabin Island, Elroy Jefferson, offers the boys the use of his cabin and tells them a man named George Hanleigh, who’s eager to buy, has no right to be on the property.

The revised Mystery of Cabin Island gets into the story much faster than the original. Frank and Joe learn on page 1 that Jefferson has granted them permission to stay on Cabin Island. A few pages later, while checking out the island, they have a confrontation with Hanleigh, one which combines their first and second confrontations in the original.

Also, in the revised version, a confrontation with another ice boat takes place after the boys’ run-in with Hanleigh, which makes more sense given that the boys in the other ice boat are relatively minor characters.

In the original version, Frank, Joe and Chet decide to check out Cabin Island while ice boating, are chased away by Hanleigh, whom they assume is a caretaker and later, by in one of those amazing coincidences that seem to follow Frank and Joe Hardy everywhere they go, Mr. Jefferson contacts the youthful sleuths because he wants to give them a belated reward for having recovered his stolen car.

The original version involves a stolen set of valuable stamps, which aren’t even mentioned until chapter 11 (and not by Jefferson, but by a minor character with no direct connection to either him or the Hardy brothers); in the revised version, Jefferson tells the boys (in chapter three) that his grandson, Johnny, has disappeared and mentions that the boy loves Cabin Island. He doesn’t tell Frank and Joe to look for him, but does say he has a feeling it’ll take a boy to find a boy.

He also happens to mention a set of stolen medals, though only because he’d brought up the subject of other detectives, whom Frank and Joe had asked about. Later, he tells Frank and Joe not to bother with searching for the medals and admits that Johnny is probably chasing after clues.

Ironically, the boys would never have learned about the stolen stamps in the original version if Hanleigh hadn’t broken into the cabin and hidden their food while they were out, causing them to stop in the little village for supplies. In the course of their conversation, the storekeeper brought the subject up.

Why the missing items were changed from stamps to medals, I’ve no idea, but the latter are brought to the boys’ attention in more realistic circumstances.

The stakes are higher in the revised version of the story, because not only do Frank and Joe know early on about the missing valuables (though they have no reason to believe there’s any direct connection to Cabin Island), but they also discover that Mr. Jefferson’s home has been burglarized.

The next day, they discovered that someone had broken into their boathouse and scattered the supplies they’d put in their ice boat in preparation for their trip.

In both versions, the boys find and solve a cipher, which leads them to the missing valuables. However, the code messages were different in each version of the book, as was the means of decoding. The second version of the code was actually a bit more clever.

One of the weaknesses of the Hardy Boys books is that their father, Fenton Hardy, usually has some connection with their current case. While that held true in the revised version of this book, it wasn’t true in the original. He simply made a brief appearance. I liked the fact that he wasn’t connected to the case in the original story.

Why two versions? Starting in 1959, Harriet Adams, daughter of Stratemeyer Syndicate founder Edward Stratemeyer, began revising the then-38 Hardy Boys books, bringing them up to date. Unfortunately, many of the revised books were watered down, some all but eviscerated, compared to their original versions.

The revised Mystery of Cabin Island is one of the better updates. It reads at a faster pace and offers several mysteries to challenge Frank, Joe and their friends. Still, it could have retained some of the ancillary adventures of the original.

In any event, The Mystery of Cabin Island is the sort of book to read on a late December day.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: Why the 1990 and current Flash series are part of the same multiverse

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The Flash of 1990.

It occurs to me that the existence of multiple Earths introduced in The Flash allows the 1990 Flash series to be part of the same multiverse as the 2014-present Flash series.

How so?

In the 1990 series, John Wesley Shipp played Barry Allen (AKA The Flash). In the current series, Grant Gustin plays Barry and Shipp portrayed Barry’s father, Henry. However, we don’t know whether he’s Henry junior. In the 1990 series, Barry also had a father named Henry (played by (M. Emmet Walsh). I don’t recall any mention of Barry’s grandparents in the present Flash series, so the Earth One Barry’s grandfather could be the doppelganger of the Earth 90’s— let’s call it (for 1990)— Barry’s father.

So, in 1955 (assuming Henry Allen is the same age as John Wesley Shipp) the Allen families of both Earth One and Earth 90 welcomed a baby boy. On Earth One, they name him Henry; On Earth 90, they name him Barry. For whatever reason, Henry went into medicine while Barry followed his father into police work.

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Barry hit by lightning.

But wait, you say, there are various differences in the two shows. The 1990 series had STAR labs, but it wasn’t the source of a particle accelerator explosion that gave Barry his powers; he got them when he was doused by electrified chemicals, as in the comics. Also, the Central City of the 1990s series had a very stylized, 1950s look, considerably different from the Central City of the present series. What about those difference?

First, how a city is laid out isn’t necessarily going to affect one particular family that lives there (and who knows how many generations of the Allen family have lived in the city?) and second, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that different people on different Earths (and in different generations) could come up with the name STAR Labs. Maybe on Earth 90, it was built by someone with the last name of Star.

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Tina McGee and Barry Allen.

Another connection is Dr. Tina McGee. Amanda Pays has played a woman by that name in both series. The Earth One McGee could easily be the doppelganger of the Earth 90 one. On Earth 90, Tina McGee was employed at STAR Labs, established (let’s say) by Mr. or Ms. Star. On Earth One, Star was never born, never lived in Central City or went into a different line of work, so it wasn’t until decades later that a different incarnation of STAR Labs came along, established by Harrison Wells and Tess Morgan. By which time, the Tina McGee of Earth One would have found employment elsewhere, eventually ending up at Mercury Labs.

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Tina McGee and the Flash.

Shipp himself provides still another connection. In the current series, he also plays Jay Garrick, the Flash of Earth Three. And one of his adversaries, seen in the mid-season finale this year, is the Trickster (Mark Hamill), who could very well be the doppelganger of the Trickster fought by the Flash of Earth 90.

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Barry Allen and Jay Garrick.

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Jay Garrick and the Trickster.

Hamill also plays the Trickster on Earth One in the current series, with clips from the original show showing him in his prime, suggesting the Earth One and Earth 90 Tricksters had similar careers, except the former didn’t have a Flash to fight in 1990.

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Henry Allen and the Flash.

Henry Allen of Earth One told Barry that Henry’s mother’s maiden name was Garrick, while the Barry Allen of Earth 90 had an older brother named Jay (Tim Thomerson). Maybe Mrs. Allen’s father’s name was Jay. On Earth 90, the Allens named their elder son Jay; on Earth Three, Ms. Garrick was a single mother who named her son after her father; and on Earth One, Henry Allen either has the middle name of Jay or has a brother or cousin named Jay.

It’s implied that Jay Garrick has been the Flash for years. If he’s still active, maybe the Barry Allen of Earth 90 is still racing around on his Earth.

The Barry Allen of Earth One should never meet the Barry Allen of Earth 90 on screen (having John Wesley Shipp play both Henry Allen and Jay Garrick are sufficient nods to the old show), but there’s significant, if circumstantial, evidence the 1990s Barry Allen is still running around out there.

There’s also historical precedence. The multiverse was originally established to explain why DC superheroes hadn’t aged over the decades. It’s because the “Golden Age” incarnations of The Flash, et al. lived in a separate universe from their “Silver Age” counterparts and were also a generation older.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A look back at the Vigilante

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Last night’s episode of Arrow introduced the Vigilante, a man who, unlike the Green Arrow, seems to believe the only good criminal is a dead one. He also doesn’t care about innocent people caught in the crossfire, calling them “collateral damage.”

The character of Vigilante first appeared in the pages of New Teen Titans in 1982 before spinning off into his own eponymous title, published between 1983 and 1987. This time, I’m going to talk about that DC Comics series, which painted a realistic picture of what happens when someone takes the law into their own hands.

Adrian Chase was a crusading Manhattan district attorney who frequently crossed paths with the Titans. He was frustrated by the number of criminals who went free due to legal technicalities. After a bomb blast meant for him killed his family, Chase donned a black costume, put on a mask and became the Vigilante (in New Teen Titans Annual #2, 1983).

At first, Vigilante went after those criminals who were obviously guilty, but had been freed on technicalities. From the very beginning, however, Chase had doubts about what right he had to take the law into his own hands. In the second issue, he nearly killed an innocent man. Later, when he became a judge, Chase decided he couldn’t continue to live outside the law.

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Vigilante attacks an innocent man.

Adrian Chase gave up being Vigilante, but Vigilante refused to die. Soon, another man was wearing the costume. Unlike Chase, however, this man went on a bloody rampage. That’s exactly what would happen in real life. If any of us, for whatever reason, adopted a costumed identity and took the law into our own hands, someone else would be more than wiling to carry the torch after we’d given it up. And who knows how extreme they’d be by comparison?

Although he had the best of intentions when he began his career as Vigilante, Adrian Chase was indirectly responsible for loosing a madman on the city. He hunted the man down and was forced to shoot him in self defense. Only then, to his horror, did Chase discover that “Psycho Vig”, as readers liked to call him, was his best friend, Judge Alan Welles.

Welles had suffered a nervous breakdown and had been unfortunate enough to see Chase throw away the Vigilante costume. He took his presence at that significant event as a sign that he was meant to carry on Chase’s work.

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Adrian Chase confronts Alan Welles.

Chase now had to deal with the death of his best friend, for which he’d later be brought to trial, as well as the realization that his example contributed to Welles’ madness. On top of that, Vigilante was back. This time, the man behind the mask was Dave Winston, Chase’s idealistic bailiff, who’d witnessed the confrontation between Chase and Welles. Winston revealed himself to Chase and told him he believed Chase’s original intentions were good. However, Chase tried to convince him that he’d been wrong to start the whole thing in the first place.

Winston wouldn’t listen. He felt certain he had the answers. However, he made the mistake of underestimating another man and ended up dead.

That was the last straw as far as Chase was concerned. He once again became the Vigilante, but his sanity was slipping. He felt that the only way to keep the people close to him from dying was to remain Vigilante. From that point on, his world quickly collapsed. While fighting Dave Winston’s killer, he was unmasked on live television, forcing him to give up his old life.

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Adrian Chase becomes Vigilante again.

Later, a government agency he’d unwittingly crossed paths with gave him a new identity. For a short while, it looked as if things were returning to normal. But that was just a facade. Adrian Chase, overwhelmed by guilt over the deaths of his family and friends, committed suicide.

Some of you are no doubt asking, “What kind of role model is that?” He wasn’t a role model. That’s the whole point. Adrian Chase was a man who meant well, but in the end caused more grief and suffering than he prevented. What’s more, his suicide didn’t guarantee the end of Vigilante (a woman would later assume that identity); it merely ended his awareness of the problem.

Throughout its 50-issue run, Vigilante explored several controversial issues, ranging from capital punishment to gun control to (obviously) vigilante justice. The various issues were not only explored in the stories but also in the letters from readers. Whatever your political persuasion, Vigilante gave you food for thought.

The book wasn’t without its problems, however. Some of the storylines haven’t aged very well and some of the legal arguments in various storylines had major real-world flaws, based on some articles I’ve subsequently read. But despite those shortcomings, Vigilante at least attempted to show the consequences of people taking the law into their own hands.

In Arrow, Star City District Attorney Adrian Chase was introduced earlier this season and a rhetorical comment by Chase in last night’s episode implies he is the Vigilante of the TV series. He probably is, but given that superhero-based TV shows have made changes from the source material in the past, it could be misdirection.

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Green Arrow confronts Vigilante.

If Chase is the Vigilante of Arrow, it’ll be interesting to see how the Green Arrow will react if he succeeds in actually unmasking the Vigilante, something he failed to do in last night’s episode, despite having temporarily immobilized him. Likewise, the reverse. You see, unlike the Green Arrow and the Vigilante, D.A. Chase and Mayor Oliver Queen have a good working relationship.

So far, the Vigilante of Arrow seems more like Alan Welles in temperament than either Adrian Chase or Dave Winston (neither of them viewed innocents as collateral damage). It’ll be interesting to see why the TV version of Vigilante seems more extreme than his comics counterpart.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.