Comics / DC Comics History

DC Comics History: Vigilante (1948 - 1951: End of an Era)


By Deejay Dayton
Mar 6, 2016 - 16:50

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The Vigilante continues his series in Action Comics, but also briefly gains a strip in Western Comics during the period 1948 – 1951: End of an Era.  There are some great stories along the way, one of which even features Billy Gunn, his final appearance in this strip.  But the biggest event during this period is the creation of the Vigilante-cycle, a gradual, almost inevitable, development of his motorcycle, which had increased in size and ability slowly over the years.

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Action 119 brings back the Rainbow Man for an adventure so demanding, it requires Vigilante to use BOTH his sidekicks!  Yes, Stuff and Billy Gunn, together at last!

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To be fair, Stuff falls into the hands of the Rainbow Man right at the top of the story, so Billy Gunn gets most of the actual sidekick time in this tale.  Rainbow Man captures Stuff more or less at random.  He does not recognize the boy, which is very odd, considering how many encounters they have had, and that Stuff wears no disguise.  Perhaps it’s just that Stuff has become increasingly white which throws him off. Vigilante’s motorcycle shows itself to be as good as a sidekick, as it becomes a “jet-aquacycle” – capable of travelling on the water. And the Rainbow Man? Some more colour crimes, of course, but he almost gets lost amid everything else in this tale.

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The Rainbow Man is back in Action 123.  Vigilante must be getting really tired of this guy.  I do like the colour wheel on the splash page, though. And the Rainbow Man does pull off an impressive “white” escape, blending in with his cell walls.

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He uses a colour organ to spin the colour wheel, and later, as a device of, umm, torment?  Vigilante and Stuff look like they were possibly given psychedelic drugs before being put in front of the colour organ’s screen.  Vigilante holds it together enough to throw the wheel into the screen, and save them from becoming hippies.

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It’s kind of amazing that this is the very first Rainbow Man story to end on a rainbow bridge, with the villain landing in a pot of gold.  There is another Rainbow Man story in Action 135, before the Vigilante-cycle is introduced, but it’s not very exciting, notable only because it brings the villain out to the wild west.

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Among the other notable stories that precede the introduction of the Vigilante cycle is his first outing in Western Comics, which pits the hero against a modern Jesse James. The tale gives a lot of background to the villain.  His name was chosen by his dying father, who apparently wanted his son to be teased and tormented through his early years.  It works, and the boy becomes obsessed with his famous namesake.  He decides to embark on a life of crime, basing his thefts on those of the original Jesse James.

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The Vigilante, along with Stuff, his child sidekick, figure out that James is updating his namesakes' crimes, and eventually get one step ahead of him.  Stuff gets captured, and then the Vigilante does as well, with both trapped in a burning barn.  But Vigilante escapes and captures the bad guy.

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The fourth, and final, Vigilante story from Western Comics is also quite good.  The tale is a particularly dark and violent one, beginning as a man uses a newly acquired gun to kill the one who was selling it to him.  He then kills the sheriff, and makes notches in the gun for each murder.  Vigilante gets on his trail, and there is a great scene using a log flume at a lumber mill.

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The killer kidnaps Stuff, and uses the boy as bait to lure the Vigilante to an elephant shaped rock for the big finale.

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The story comes to a bitterly ironic climax.  The man had an extra notch on his gun, thinking that he had killed the hero - but the notch turns out to be for him himself.
 
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Joe Kubert lends his unmistakable art to the Vigilante story in Action 127, as he faces El Boleadoro, while travelling in Argentina. El Boleadoro is named for his trademark bolas.  He is a dangerous thief, who thinks nothing of causing a train wreck in order to loot the gold being transported on it.

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Stuff looks pretty definitely white now.  Vigilante displays his exceptional skill at shooting, as his bullet splits his enemy’s bolo in half.

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I also quiet enjoy the Vigilante’s outing in Action 131. It opens with a chef, and a fan of Vigilante, inviting him to his nebulous South American country.  The reference in the story to “pampas” would seem to indicate that Argentina is the location. The story is really fun.  Vigilante has to deal with rampaging cattle, and rustler, and other typical problems, but the focus of the tale is the cooking.  The tortillas the chef is so proud of are all but inedible.

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Eventually, the source of the problem is discovered.  The river the chef got his water from has oil running through it.  The ostrich has nothing to do with that, but looks just great.

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Action 146 contains one of the earliest Vigilante stories I recall reading, as a reprint in the 70s. The mysterious ship in the desert, an actual legend, is called the Donna Louise in this story.  An expedition is mounted to find it, and Vigilante rides a special sort of tank-cycle to navigate the desert sands.

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The Fiddler, not seen in many years, returns in this tale.  The ship is a fake, as is the treasure found on it, and the Fiddler is pulling a huge scam.

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The story clips along, lots of action and twists, and great art throughout.  One of the best Vigilante tales.
 
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It’s in Action 149 that Dan Barry takes the gradual development of the Vigilante’s motorcycle a dramatic step forward with the introduction of the Vigilante-cycle. An inventor presents Vigilante with a new, upgraded version of his bike.  He is hoping to make money selling copies, with the Vigilante’s endorsement.  There is a rival businessman, trying to buy the rights to the bike for less than they are worth.  He insists the cycle is unsafe, so Vigilante runs a series of highly publicized tests.  The rival tries to sabotage these.

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That’s the plot in a nutshell.  The rest of the story demonstrates the impressive array of abilities this cycle has – everything but flight, though it can do rocket-powered leaps.  A successful “upgrade” of the series, in an increasingly technophiliac age.

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The Rainbow Man is back again, in Actin 156, which puts the villain back in the urban setting he is more suited to. The colour wheel seems to short out, sending a kaleidoscope of colours into the sky, neatly warning Vigilante that his old enemy is back.  Kind of like a reverse Bat-Signal, announcing a villain’s intent.

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The story isn’t bad, but neither Vigilante nor Stuff is given anything great to do – the Vigilante-cycle gets to star.

Vigilante continues in the next period, 1952 – 1955: We Don’t Need Another Hero.

Vigilante: Action Comics 116 – 163 (Jan. 48 – Dec. 51)

Western Comics 1 – 4 (Feb/March – Aug/Sept. 48)

Next up – Wonder Woman!


Last Updated: May 15, 2017 - 12:13

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