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April 26, 2017

V for Vigilante

by Ross Kitson

Modern society has an uneasy yet interesting relationship with vigilantism, and this is reflected nowhere better than in our literature and media. Indeed, the title of today’s ‘A to Z’ blog is paraphrased from the ground-breaking comic/graphic novel, V for Vendetta by Alan Moore.  The comic reflected Moore’s increasing dissatisfaction with the right wing government at the time and the evolution of a concept of a police state. It bore much resemblance to Orwell’s 1984, although with a rather more able and aggressive protagonist.

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Cover of V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Our relationship with vigilantism goes way back into the past of both UK and US history. If we regard a vigilante as an individual or individuals that act out with the law in order to prevent, capture, or punish someone who has committed a crime, then legendary outlaws begin to spring to mind. In English folklore, Robin Hood ‘robbed from the rich and gave to the poor’ rallying against the mean King John, and his taxmen. In the tales, Robin often fights for virtue and the ‘common good,’ regarding the establishment as corrupt and self-serving (a good job he never lived in Westeros, I suppose).

Robin Hood Statue, Nottingham Castle, England
(photo by David Telford) source: Wikimedia
Of course, the greatest pool of vigilantes arrives with the Wild West, where gunslingers would take law into their own hands to avenge wrongdoings, and lynch mobs would dish out their own version of justice with a rope and a tree. In this era, vigilantism was common in settlements where the law had yet to become established, but also occurred in towns where the law was considered ‘weak’ or ‘too soft.’ The 1851 San Francisco Vigilantes formed in response to the boom in crime rates that came with the Gold Rush in the city, and their perception of a weak government. Yet the history of the Wild West gives a sobering lesson in vigilantism getting out of control, as occurred with both Montana and Dodge City vigilante activity.

Despite this darker, uncontrolled edge, the idea of taking the law into your own hands has pervaded in popular culture. Indeed the crux of superhero comics, most famously in the form of DC’s Batman, and Marvel’s Spiderman, is that the crime fighter works outside the police force in the larger part, dealing their own perception of justice. In both universes we have anti-heroes who take the principle too far, dishing out more lethal justice than our more moral heroes enact. Marvel’s The Punisher is a prime example. A special-forces veteran driven to vigilantism by the murder of his family, he merrily massacres all villains he meets. That the recent Netflix depiction of the Punisher on Daredevil season 2 has earned him a spin-off series illustrates our ongoing fascination with the vigilante. Mark Millar’s remarkable and grisly comic, Kick Ass, provides a post-modern parody of the superhero genre having normal people donning masks and weapons to fight crime. The film achieved notoriety and popularity due to its language and violence, but once again showed our fascination with vigilante justice.

Batman in The Dark Knight Returns
In the cinema, vigilantism grew in prevalence during the 70s and 80s with films series such as Deathwish, and iconic movies such as Taxi Driver and Desperado, and the many works that attempted to emulate them. On the TV, we had the A-team and the Equaliser, all building on the tradition of black-and-white vigilantes such as Zorro and the Lone Ranger.

Why? What is our ongoing fascination with vigilantes? In many ways, our Western culture can trace this back to a biblical sense of justice, namely that a wrong committed against us should be balanced with a punishment of equivalent severity: ‘an eye for an eye’ (from Leviticus (Lev. 24:19–21)). Yet this earlier harsher teaching, which in truth probably refers more to appropriate compensation rather than gory vengeance, was often countered in New Testament teachings of ‘turning the other cheek’ (Matthew: 5:38-39). Our persistent sense of retribution, of lex talionis, relies on our lawmakers and guardians (the police) to enact an appropriate punishment for the crime. Yet in our modern lives, saturated by social media and more news than we can handle, we are given the impression that the law is somehow impotent. We see criminals apparently escaping justice; we see sentences handed down that seem (in our own perceptions), inadequate for the magnitude of crime; we see our police secretly filmed stepping beyond the constraints of their roles, acting like criminals. Ironically, the occurrence of any of these is very rare, yet each one is magnified by re-tweets, Youtube likes, Facebook re-posts, to give the erroneous impression that the entire police force of the First World are racist, fascist, corrupt, psychopaths. And when our faith in our guardians is falsely eroded, then acting outside of that system of guardianship becomes far more appealing. Snowed under by the tirade of miserable news, and doomsayers telling us that crime is out of control and every backpack is a bomb, we gradually feel more and more disempowered. These are things beyond the control of most of us in normal lives, where many as they grew up would rather back down or walk away than enter confrontation (turning the other cheek, I suppose).

So perhaps we live our lives vicariously, through our films, our comics, and our books. Batman, or Spiderman, or Daredevil, or whichever superhero we choose, acts how we’d want to—faced with a system we are being told lets us down. In a way we need our heroes as mythic entities, arising in time of crisis, like a King Arthur returning from Avalon in Britain’s darkest hour (he’d better hurry up).
As a last note, of course, all vigilantism isn’t Charles Bronsen and a big gun. The Internet activists Anonymous provide their own brand of vigilantism, depending on our views of them, and ironically are depicted wearing Guy Fawkes masks, as the lead character in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta did. And, as you’d expect from the UK, we have our very own Grammar Vigilante. For the last 13 years, this mysterious individual has been correcting grammatical mistakes on signs in the city of Bristol, most usually apostrophes.

So perhaps the best place to leave this topic/ can of worms is a quote from V:
‘Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense.’

Image from V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Ross Kitson is a doctor, occasional blogger, full-time geek, and sporadic author of fantasy and YA sci-fi. Connect with Ross on Twitter.

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  1. I think you're right, it's all about wish fulfillment. Which heroes we want to emulate depends on our darkest wish and what we think justice should look like. Some fight for big ideals (Superman's trust, justice, American Way, etc), some want to fight discrimination through punching and eye lasers (X-Men), some have very personal, single-minded vengeance in mind (The Crow). It's what we think is important to us.

    V - Vancouver Beer Parlous

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting.
      That sense of wish fulfilment seems imprinted at an early age, with that emulation of the rebelliousness of vigilantism- almost a rebellion against an establishment of law that our parents are surrogates for. Here we have idols who don't do what society tells them... and are cool, driven by a moral almost higher than the rest of us.

    Leave it to clueless, Dory brain me not to know V for Vendetta is a book! I loved the movie so I just added it to GR!.
    I agree we have a fascination with vigilantes and that is born of need of justice. History has shown that power tends to concentrate. The most power you have the more you get and people with power are often not that kind. So the oppressed always hoped, wished and dreamed of a superpower, superhero or vigilante to avenge them

    1. Thanks for reading, and glad you enjoyed it. Yes, V for Vendetta is a remarkable work. Although V dances essentially on the edge of terrorism, we root for him as the regime he fights is so oppressive and draconian. I did feel major sympathy for Eve in the book.
      It'd be fascinating to know how a modern (often politically allied) media would deal with a vigilante such as V if he were real. Or indeed other vigilante.
      Thought Marvel addressed aspects of the question surprisingly well in Civil War (comic version) which made a good third Captain America film. Namely with super powered vigilantes the state would seek to regulate/licence them in some way.

  3. I love graphic novels since they combine both the visual along with a story line too.