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.
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.
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.
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.
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.