It’s Time For Comics to Move Past Vigilantes

We know too much about the nature of crime and the terror of real-life vigilantes to think superheroes need to beat up muggers to change the world

Photo by Serge Kutuzov on Unsplash

I was on my third run-through of the incredible video game Spider-Man, originally released for the PS4 in 2018, when it hit me. If you’ve played the game, then you know that about two-thirds of the way through the story, there’s a prison breakout. As a result, the streets of New York are terrorized by escapees committing crimes and firing bazookas into buildings. I didn’t think much of this plot development the first couple of times I played the game, but, this time was different. It was the Summer of 2020 — the Summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and protest and the mainstreaming of police abolition. I was experiencing Spider-Man anew against the backdrop of a reckoning with how this country interacts with crime, who is actually responsible for crime, and how we treat America’s prison population. It all left me unsettled. I kept thinking: wouldn’t most people who broke out of jail just…go home? See their families? Go to Red Lobster or something?

I understand why these plot devices exist in video games: video games have to manufacture villains to keep them interesting and keep the hero fighting, gaining new skills and badges. The exact same plot device fuels the entire Batman: Arkham game trilogy, for instance. Creating danger to justify the existence of superheroes is actually no different from the way the history of vigilante stories is about manufacturing crime — something inextricably linked to America’s history of oppression.

In 2016, in an interview with a Brazilian writer, comics legend Alan Moore connected the idea of superheroes to the very American nature of White supremacy. “Save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators),” he said, “these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race…In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.”

Birth Of A Nation’s premise hinged on the idea that if you freed Black people from slavery, they would terrorize white folks. As a result, the vigilante KKK was a necessity to maintain safety. And therein lies the common thread between racist paranoia and the modern vigilante: an inflated and fantastical representation of crime. The irrational fear of free Black people in the early 20th century is the same fear that demands “law and order” from streets ravaged by Black and brown kids. However, there just isn’t enough actual street-level crime in major cities to warrant the existence of vigilantes patrolling back alleys every night.

For instance, in New York City, where Spider-Man fights crime and what Gotham City is based on, there were 318 murders and 772 shootings in all of last year. Even if you assume that all 10,000 or so burglaries are the type of crimes that a vigilante can do something about, we’re still only talking about 30 crimes a night. That’s hardly enough crime to require the existence of dozens of superhero vigilantes.

Now, granted, long gone are the years when Batman and Spider-Man and Daredevil (etc. etc.) comics consist of stories of them beating up muggers, but the assumption is that when they’re out at night and run into Killer Croc or Sandman or whoever, they’re doing so while out on patrol stopping a nonexistent wave of crimes.

The elephant in the room is, of course, race. The idea of streets overrun with crime is a central component of America’s anti-Blackness and mass incarceration. Jails have been built based on the idea of the danger of Black criminals roaming free. Politicians have been elected and governmental policy has been enacted as a response to anti-Black stereotypes about crimes that simply don’t have any basis in fact. Finally, this year saw the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world show the gruesome reality of the racism behind so much of what it means to seek vigilante justice in America. We’ve simply seen too much of what vigilantism means and have a greater understanding of nature of crime to believe that people in spandex can make any marked positive societal change.

That’s why so much criticism has fallen on Batman’s shoulders. Billionaire Bruce Wayne has the power to do more to curb crime in Gotham than Batman ever could. If Wayne actually wanted to prevent the violence that killed his parents, he’d improve education, pay more in taxes, and help close the racial wealth gap. Simply dressing up as someone who beats up people with mental health issues is counterproductive to his supposed goal of making his streets safe. Not to mention we know that real-life police have tanks and Captain America shields and it’s hard to imagine even someone like Bane standing a chance against militarized police departments.

Given what we know, there’s just no place for vigilantes. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way for these superheroes to transform into something better. One reason the X-Men franchise has been so captivating and popular is because their goal has always been something bigger than fighting crime. It was about racial equality and the government entities using the power at their disposal to prevent that from happening. The X-Men villain is systemic racism, and the franchise has the most expansive and complex rogues gallery in all of comics.

Superheroes can do the same. If Bruce Wayne did try to pump his money into the parts of Gotham that would depopulate prisons and defund police, you can imagine the level of villains he’d face and have to take down as Batman. What if Superman dedicated his life to denuclearization (the less said about Superman IV, the better) or ending world hunger? What if he tried to turn the tide on global warming? If there’s anything we know about society it’s that the true supervillains are the people standing in the way of humanity reaching these goals. Again, Superman isn’t roughing up muggers in actual comic book panels anymore, but the conceit is that many of his nights are spent doing just that off the page.

That doesn’t mean writers are flying blind. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, the sequel to that 2018 game, came out last month and offered a look at what the future of vigilantes in comic books can be. Early in the game, Miles and his buddy Ganke develop an app that allows people in Harlem to reach out directly to him instead of going through the police, the way they had in the previous game. Miles’ neighbors send messages and get help with things like pulling trucks out of snow, finding lost cats, and other tasks that don’t involve fighting wayward criminals (though, again, there is plenty of that). It’s community policing with the consent of the actual community—a central tenet of arguments for defunding the police.

Comic creators can rethink the nature of crime, criminals, and the superhero itself—and in the process, reimagine the nature of vigilantism in America. While these changes may sound restrictive to some, the possibilities for future stories can reveal some captivating ideas with infinite potential. There are compelling stories to be told about superheroes ditching their vigilante roots and turning to lives dedicated to real, societal betterment and, as a result, we’ll learn more about the identities of the actual looters, thugs, and thieves that need to be stopped. Because more often than not, they’re not the ones breaking out of the jail. They’re the ones putting folks inside it.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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