Mort Weisinger and Mort Meskin introduce a really successful blend of the western and superhero genres in Action Comics 42, with the Vigilante, another of the clean and simple heroes that proved so much more popular than the darker heroes at this time. A modern day cowboy who fights crime in the big city, his first case centres on a supposedly executed felon, whose death was faked.
Vigilante's origin is covered briefly in his debut tale. Greg Sanders was the son of a sheriff, who taught him gunslinging and gave him his taste for justice. After his father was murdered, Greg adopted the guise of the masked Vigilante. In his everyday life, he is a country music singer, the "Prairie Troubadour." Greg has a girlfriend in this story, Betty Stuart, but she gets quickly phased out.
Meskin's art is extremely dynamic, and the story is fun to read.
His second tale, more Action 43 introduces a villain, the Shade, who is not the same as the later, and more famous, Flash villain. He does spend most of his time in the dark, and seems to have the power to disappear.
The Shade is pursuing an old man, Billy Gunn, although Gunn has no idea who the Shade is, or why he is after him. Billy Gunn meets Greg Sanders while appearing on a gong show that he is hosting. Gunn gets gonged fast, and Greg feels sorry for him.
Although Billy Gunn dresses and talks like a cowboy, he is an easterner, who just admires the west. Still, when Vigilante gets captured by the Shade, it's Billy who comes to his rescue, and sticks around, becoming his sidekick.
Billy had inherited a mine, and the Shade had been out to kill him and get it.
The Shade is back in Action 44, having his men kill horses, for unknown reasons. Vigilante tries to protect the animals, but winds up accused of killing them himself. Billy Gunn comes to Vigilante's help when he's being accused of being the horse killer, and Betty Stuart is also around, but does little.
The Shade gets captured, and is revealed to be a radio announcer, who had been around throughout the last couple of stories. The horses had been used to smuggle in maps of stolen bonds. This Shade never appears again. Billy Gunn leaves the series at this point, but does return a few years down the road.
Action 45 alters the supporting cast of the series.
The villain of the story is the Head, who sometimes appears as a giant head. The story seems to be a "yellow peril" one, set in Chinatown, although it deals with silk thefts rather than opium or white slavery.
Betty Stuart makes her final appearance. Can't blame her, she has been sidelined in every story so far. Stuff, later to gain the nickname the Chinatown Kid, enlists the aid of the Vigilante when his grandfather is framed for the thefts. He also rescues the Vigilante after he is captured by the Head and subjected to Chinese water torture. Ironically, despite the water torture and the Chinatown location, the Head is actually Japanese. He is a foreign agent, sent to try to stir up a gang war.
Stuff will stick around for the remainder of Vigilante's series, the somewhat mandatory child sidekick. But at first, he has no idea who the Vigilante is. Stuff is clearly not the most observant boy. Greg finally reveals his identity to the boy in Action 52.
This leads, quite logically, to Greg relating his origin. It does not change anything from the origin related in his first appearance, simply expands on it. Greg's grandfather was an "Indian hunter," who nonetheless was so admired by those he killed that they gave him an honourable burial. We also discover that Greg had begun his singing career before his father's death, which makes more sense than beginning it at the same time he became Vigilante. The earlier version of this tale left that sequence of events unclear.
Vigilante had three major enemies during his run in Action Comics, all of whom debut in this era.
His most frequent foe, also created by Weisinger and Meskin, is all but unknown now, the Rainbow Man.
The Rainbow Man looks and acts nastier than his name would imply. He has his men commit crimes according to colour themes in Action 46. The Rainbow Man captures Vigilante and Stuff, but his murderous machine is really just a colourful light globe, so it's not too surprising that they manage to escape, and prevent his "white" crimes, as they pose as doctors.
The Rainbow Man returns in Action 49, escaping from prison by using cans of paint as a distraction.
He wastes no time launching into another colour-coded crime spree. Greg Sanders has been associated enough with the Vigilante that the Rainbow Man sends a note to Greg, relayed by Stuff, to challenge Vigilante.
In Action 53 the Rainbow Man fakes his death during a prisoner transfer by boat, but starts his new crime wave so quickly, the faked death is kind of pointless.
Possibly because his colour scheme for these crimes is black, the story just doesn't have much "rainbow" to it, although there is a great page of Vigilante and Stuff suspended over a vat of boiling tar. Ultimately, the Rainbow Man is done in this time by one of his own men, who is colour-blind, and lights the wrong spotlight. The Rainbow Man kills him for his mistake, but why hire a colour-blind hood for colour themed crimes?
In Action 60 the Rainbow Man is using models of the city to plan out his gang's crimes. Among the crimes is stealing the things needed to build models of the city, so it's a bit of a circular thing.
What really makes this story notable is the deathtrap, worthy of the 60s Batman tv show. The Vigilante and Stuff are tied to toy train tracks, and trains with poisoned needles are approaching them. Vigilante's escape from the trap is reasonable, and plays out beautifully. Better than the rest of the story.
The Rainbow Man escapes from prison to pester the Vigilante again in Action 71, his final appearance in this era.
Greg Sanders is performing at a society function, and spots the Rainbow Man from the stage. But he does nothing, simply finishes his set, before leaving and changing to Vigilante. Rainbow Man spots the hero, but rather than fleeing, gets a group of fans to start talking to him. Vigilante stops his pursuit of Rainbow Man to chat with his fans.
This is so low-key it's almost laughable. Nevertheless, the Rainbow Man has more outings against the Vigilante later in his run.
Action 59 sees the debut of another of Vigilante's recurring enemies, the Fiddler. Although superficially similar, this is quite a different character from the better known one, the Flash villain introduced a few years down the road.
This Fiddler passes himself off as a harmless old street musician, while secretly communicating with his criminal gang through his music. Even after his gang winds up in a fight with Vigilante and Stuff, they have no idea that the "witness" they question is really the leader of the gang. Later, as Vigilante and Stuff stop a shipboard robbery, Greg hears the same music, and recognizes the man's voice. Stuff appears to get shot, but misses the bullet by falling overboard, and swims back in time to save Vigilante.
The Fiddler returns to face the Vigilante again in Action 61.
This time the Fiddler accompanies his men to their crimes - no more need for subterfuge now that his identity is known. He plays his music for inspiration and mood, rather than communicating instructions. We discover that the Fiddler hates cats, and a howling kitten does a lot to help Vigilante and Stuff in this story. Notice Vigilante's motorcycle in the final panel. This has become a much larger machine than it started out as. There were no big dramatic changes with the cycle, more like small modifications from issue to issue, which will eventually create his famous cycle.
There is another interesting deathtrap, an electric bed, which Vigilante and Stuff get tied to. The cat proves critical to escaping it.
Joe Kubert inks the next Fiddler story, from Action 67.
It's one of the Fiddler's better schemes, as he impersonates a music teacher, after arranging for him to go out of town.
He cases the houses of the wealthy people he instructs, and then returns with his gang in the evenings to rob them. Greg Sanders is asked to perform at one of these houses, and he and Stuff wind up on the scene, taking the Fiddler down.
The Fiddler's last appearance in this era takes place in Action 73.
The Fiddler teaches his gang to sing, part of his scheme to worm them into the house of a well-known millionaire with a soft touch. In fact, the man is so willing to help the needy that he gives Stuff $50 when he sees him on the street, assuming the boy to be a homeless waif. Perhaps Vigilante should buy Stuff some new clothes. The poor kid has been wearing the same thing for years.
Stuff then happens across the Fiddler and his men. In a really touching scene, Stuff gives the Fiddler the $50, in hopes that it will deter him from his next crime. It doesn't, but you have to admire the simple faith of the boy.
The Fiddler and his men get taken in and fed by the millionaire, after hearing their plaintive songs. But this is just part of their plan to steal his art treasures. Stuff tells Vigilante about running into the men, and they arrive at the millionaire's house just in time to stop the thefts.
The Dummy is the most enduring villain of the Vigilante. He had been introduced in the pages of Leading Comics, battling the Vigilante as he functioned as one of the Seven Soldiers of Victory. The story in Action 58, by Don Cameron, Mort Meskin and Charles Paris, was the villain's second appearance, and first in the pages of Action Comics. Chronologically, this story follows the Dummy's appearances in All-Star Squadron.
The Dummy breaks out of prison with the help of Bobo, a relatively dumb criminal. He is content to follow the Dummy's instructions, as he begins a new crime spree. The Vigilante and Stuff get on the Dummy's trail. Bobo traps the heroes, but gets tossed into the pit himself by the Dummy, who has tired of him. Bobo quickly switches sides, helping the Vigilante escape. In turn, Vigilante allows Bobo to give the Dummy a spanking before taking him back to prison.
In Action 63 the Dummy is now part of an act, with two other identically dressed men - or are they actually dummies? The story introduces this idea, but really doesn't play on it much until the last few pages. The set-up also has the Dummy and Greg Sanders performing at the same venue the same evening, but aside from the Vigilante seeing the three Dummies perform, nothing happens on that night either.
Stuff gets captured, in typical sidekick fashion, and Vigilante discovers that the middle dummy really is a dummy. The tallest one seems to be a real person, but we never get that confirmed, or find out who he is. Definitely better in concept than in execution.
Kubert does the inks on the Dummy's last appearance in this period, in Action 69.
The Dummy steals an experimental machine that can make people smaller. He first uses it on himself and his gang, so they can pull off an impressive in-flight robbery.
Vigilante and Stuff get on his trail, but the Dummy uses the machine on them, and leaves them prey to a chicken. I just love that sequence. Vigilante and Stuff manage to survive until the effect wears off, and then turn the tables on the Dummy, capturing and shrinking him (again), and bringing him to jail in a birdcage.
There is one other notable story from this period, a tale that touches on the exploitation of song writers, in Action 56.
It features a character almost identical to Billy Gunn. A singer and wanna-be cowboy, the grizzled old man looks very much like Gunn, and even has similar dialogue when he explains that he has never been to the west. Greg Sanders plans to hire him to write songs for him, but some sharks get the man to sign a contract for far less money.
Vigilante gets into the action, scaring and threatening the men who signed up his writer. It's a little bit shady, as Vigilante is doing this simply to ensure that the man will write his songs for Greg, so he is directly profiting from this. But it's clear the old man is being used by the other men.