Review by Adam Prosser
American pop culture is in love with the concept of vigilantism. It’s kind of hard to deny it. From pulp noir to Westerns to martial arts stories to, of course, the superhero genre, the idea of a lone hero operating outside the law for the sake of higher justice—usually killing arenas full of bad guys along the way—occurs over and over and over again in movies, TV, books, and comics, and it’s rare indeed to find an example of the form where it’s portrayed as being purely, or even mostly, a bad thing. Even a real-world incident like the recent death of Osama Bin Laden, which absolutely played out according to badass action revenge movie rules instead of the much less sexy international laws of engagement and conflict, is seen as filling a need in our collective psyche. We respond instinctively to the idea of a dark hero, or group of heroes, who can take out our anger at the state of the world by proxy. And at the risk of sounding like I’m coming down with premature old-man syndrome, with our pop culture currently stuck in full pander mode, something that strikes such a deep chord in us is less and less likely to be portrayed as anything but positive.
Interestingly enough, the superhero genre is the one that’s probably taken the hardest, most disapproving look at the idea of an unaccountable badass using brute force to clean up the streets, despite supposedly being a pure fantasy. Meanwhile, “realistic” noirish crime stories seem all too happy to take the simplistic world view and run with it, serving up a full-course meal of criminal scum to be flambéd by some tortured but righteous avenger. It’s an almost inevitable by-product of the noir genre, which basically starts from the most blackly cynical attitudes about institutions and human civilization; when that’s your starting point, it’s all too easy to slip into siding with the vigilante mindset.
Fortunately, Damaged seems like it’s going to take a more nuanced look at these themes, even as it serves up a heapin’ helpin’ of the brutal, bloody action we all plunked down $3.99 to read about. In fact, the opening sequence of this first issue (“executive produced” by Sam Worthington—yeah, the guy from Avatar—and created by Michael and John Schwarz, but written by David “Stray Bullets” Lapham, and no, I haven’t been able to find out why the “creators” of the book didn’t actually write it) gives us a vigilante character who’s one skull shirt away from being The Punisher. He walks into a bar and identifies a quartet of rapists whose guilt can’t be legally proven, then proceeds to mow down these worthies but also the people who nodded assent when they gave their half-assed alibi. “That makes you an accessory,” growls Not-Frank-Castle before torching the establishment with everyone in it. Four weeks later, we pick up in San Francisco, where a young police lieutenant, Jack Cassidy, is about to be handed his dream job on the special task force of organized crime—over the metaphorical body of Cassidy’s hero, Captain Lincoln, who’s being “retired” due to some embarrassing incidence involving acts of vigilantism among his men. But Lincoln still believes in the law and due process, a faith that’s seemingly due to be tested when our cod-Punisher arrives in town, and reveals a surprising connection to Lincoln.
To anyone raised on a diet of Frank Miller comics, I suppose it’s possible to view the acts of Damaged‘s Lone Gunman—his name is Henry—as simple revenge fantasy, and it’s possible that I’m misreading it in that regard. After all, this is a comic published by a newly created imprint and overseen by a bunch of Hollywood people—which almost certainly means it’s being generated as a possible movie project, and as I said, Hollywood loves its simplistic revenge fantasies.
Yet it’s pretty clear to me that Lapham is setting the stage for something a lot more morally complex; Henry is clearly out of control, killing relatively regular people for pretty dubious reasons, for all that we’re conditioned to root for characters like this. Furthermore, Lincoln’s own relationship to vigilantism—he’s not guilty of it himself, but he may have condoned it or at least allowed it to fester—seems to indicate someone who’s aware of the moral cost it entails.
It’s possible that Damaged will revert to yet another story where the protagonist strides in slo-mo through a hail of bullets to execute deserving bad guys while the audience cheers. But, as the title seems to indicate, I think Lapham’s aware that a vigilante is just as likely to be a troubled, impotent person who creates just as many problems as he solves.
Click here to go to this article at Chud.com. Click the image to learn more about Damaged #1, now available at your local comic shop.