The first in a regular series exploring the great standards of comic book fiction, starting with the vigilante detective.
THE BATMAN - He wasn't the first vigilante detective, but he's certainly the most famous. In fact, one of his magazines shares its name with the publisher itself; DETECTIVE COMICS. When he was young, Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down by a mugger outside a theatre. It was a defining moment for the boy, not only because it shaped his attitudes to crime and injustice, but because it made him very, very rich. Batman is not just a man in a cape and tights, but a man with the means to achieve his ends. Batman has money. That is where he gets all hiswonderful toys. It may seem inconguous for a man living in a mansion to wage his war on the impoverished streets, but it is this combination of glamour and grit that truly makes the man. He is a playboy by day, an avenger by night. On top of this, he is also a great detective, and it is this side of the character that makes Batman work. It is his criminal genius which justifies his presence on the streets. Batman is not just the best man for the job;he is the only man.
THE SHADOW - Lamont Cranston was Batman first. Originating as the mysterious narrator of a 1930s radio show, the Shadow was eventually fleshed out as another wealthy socialite who donned a mask to fight crime. Though his mask was just a scarf across his face, his costume no more elaborate than a hat and overcoat, and his toys just a pair of humble six-shooters, he is clearly Batman's antecedent. In fact, Cranston bridges the gap between Batman and his pulp predecessors in the crime noir novels. The Shadow is one of the grand-daddies of comic book superheroics.
THE SPIRIT - Will Eisner's characteristic take on the Shadow certainly looked a little less grim, given the cartoon style and lone ranger mask, but it was no less ingrained in the sort of urban noir that gives the vigilante character his shape. Based in a graveyard hideout, and doing battle with duplicitous dames like P'Gell and nefarious villains like the Octopus, the Spirit clearly stands shoulder to shoulder with Batman, both as a great character, and as a great detective.
JUDGE DREDD - Dredd is not a true vigilante, because, as he has famously declared on many occassions, he is the law. However, 2000AD'S notorious fascist policeman embodiesthe worst excesses of the character type. He is everything a vigilante could be but worse, because unlike a true vigilante, he has a badge. All vigilantes have their own moral code. Dredd's is the darkest and the most brutal. It is also the only one which will stand up in court.
MOON KNIGHT - A wealthy bachelor sits brooding in his mansion, attended by a loyal servant. Night is falling, and at night this disturbed, schizophrenic character dons his mask and cape and rides his high-tech chariot towards the ill-lit streets, where monstrous horrors lurk, engaging in unmentionable acts of evil. No, it's not the Dark Knight, but the Moon Knight, one of Marvel's many attempts to emulate the success of one of DC'smost profitable licences. Of course, Frenchy is no Alfred, and the helicopter is surely a lot less practical than the Batmobile, and furthermore, Bruce Wayne was never a hard bitten mercenary, much less the fist of Khonshu, Egyptian god of vengeance. Yet the fact remains, Moon Knight does come across as little more than an anaemic Batman. Then again, even Batman can't match him for therapy bills.
V - Alan Moore so rarely gets it wrong. The political premise of the V FOR VENDETTA novel provides us with another crazed masked vigilante with an Aladdin's cave hideout and a junior sidekick in tow. A lot of the trademark signs are in place, but V is more like Batman with the safety off. Perhaps a British Batman in a fascist future London would indeed have donned a Guy Fawkes mask and fought for anarchy. One cannot help feeling, though, that a British Bruce Wayne would have ended up on the other side of the war.
THE SHROUD - A less high profile Marvel take on the character type, Maximillian Coleridge vowed to wage war with injustice when he witnessed his parents' murder. Max then went on to spend the de rigeur period of martial arts training among strange mystic types (cultists rather than monks, in this instance) and returned to America to fight crime. But Max did have one original twist to his story. He chose to fight crime from the inside, by infiltrating the criminal underworld in order to undermine their operations. The flaw in this curious plan was that this pseudo-Batman actually had to commit crimes, meaning he was forced to do battle with Hawkeye and other superheroes, whilst also hooking up with loser villains like Gravedigger and Gypsy Moth.
GRENDEL - Taking the outlaw idea embodied by the Shroud to its naturalconclusion, Matt Wagner's vigilante did not fight crimes for justice, but to remove the competition. Hunter Rose was trained to the pinnacle of physical ability and mental acuity just like so many others before him. Yet Hunter did not use his advantages to become a hero. Though Grendel is clearly a villainous character, he shares with all other vigilantes an intense faith in his own personal morality, and that is enough to win over most readers to his adventures. Everyone loves a good bastard.
PUNISHER - Before Hunter Rose, there was Frank Castle. In the days before he became a byword for grim n' gritty, the Punisher was a frighteningly fresh take on the vigilante character, and one which has subsequently been run into the ground. In fact, the Punisher is remarkably 'back to basics'. He is the vigilante purely distilled; an angry, violent man with no faith in the justice system to do what's right. No mask, no car, no mansion, and not much in the way of great detective wit. Just rage, and all the normal kit afforded to a guerilla soldier.As a foil and nemesis to the eternally responsible Spider-Man, the character worked beautifully. It is only since then that he has proved difficult to handle. Cast as a hero, Punisher falls flat.
THE MIDNIGHTER - Notso much a new spin on an old archetype as a direct corollary to DC's great detective, the Midnighter first appeared in the STORMWATCH story "A Finer World", alongside Apollo, a corollary to Superman. The Midnighter is really just Batman at his most superhuman, with his unnatural physical abilities and computer-quick brain. The idea behind the character is that he is what Batman would be if he really did intend to go out there and change the world. The Midnighter is truly beyond Batman. The question then must surely be; what comes beyond the Midnighter?
Next: Beyond Typhoid.