In DC's Vigilante: Southland, Gary Phillips Explores Underbelly of L.A.

The hero known as Vigilante has a long history with DC Comics.

First introduced as a backup feature to Superman in "Action Comics" #42 in 1941 and created by Mort Weisinger and Mort Meskin, the motorcycle-riding Golden Age western hero was reimagined as a New York district attorney/street level crime fighter named Adrian Chase in the 1980s by Marv Wolfman and George for "New Teen Titans" Annual #2. the character proved popular enough to soon lands his own series, and though it didn't last long, he's popped up now and again throughout the subsequent years.

While Chase is now appearing as a non-costumed supporting character on the hit TV series "Arrow," on the comics side, a new Vigilante debuts this week in a new miniseries titled "Vigilante: Southland," written by crime fiction writer Gary Phillips and featuring art by Elena Casagrande.

CBR News connected with Phillips, most notably known for his series of detective novels starring Ivan Monk, to discuss his comics work and learned that while "Vigilante: Southland" is set in the current DC Universe, superheroes, magic and other masked characters exist 'way at the edges' of a story that features Donny Fairchild, a washed-out pro basketball player, who is now working as a maintenance technician at a private university. When his girlfriend Dorrie, a student and political activist, is killed, Donny sets out for revenge and redemption, hallmarks of the Vigilante character. And yes, the motorcycle is back!

CBR News: The solicitations posit an age-old question: If you witness bad things being done, how far would you go to set things right? What's the answer?

Gary Phillips: The answer in comics is that circumstances will invariably pull you into doing something that you never thought you were capable of. [Laughs] Also, the good thing in comics is that allies will show up or at least, come to you for different reasons and aid you in your pursuit. That doesn't hurt in this case because our hero, Donny Fairchild, finds himself in something that is deeper than what it appears on the surface as he gets more and more into it. And once you're in, you can't walk away. [Laughs] It also helps that he has Nina and Manny to help him. Manny is good with tech so that doesn't hurt.

While this story is set on the West Coast, it is most certainly not a western, though the original Vigilante was a Golden Age western hero in the 1940s. With themes like revenge and redemption -- hallmarks of classic western novels, comics and movies -- at the center of this story, are there parallels between western and modern crime novels and comics?

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Cover for "Vigilante: Southland" #2 by Mitch Gerads

That's a great point. I'm mostly a crime/mystery fiction prose writer, so of course, I know that the private eye is an extension of the old west gunslinger. There have been a few private eyes who have also been superheroes, so the private eye is the next in the lineage to the masked vigilante. Our guy doesn't have any particular powers other than his own determination, so yes, he's certainly a callback to the original Vigilante, Greg Saunders. Remember, he was a modern cowboy. He rode a motorcycle instead of a horse in the '40s. We picked that up with Donny, because he also rides a motorcycle throughout L.A. Frankly, that's the only way to get through traffic in L.A. unless you have your own helicopter. [Laughs] But you're right; in terms of that lineage of the old westerns, Donny is definitely motivated by revenge.

When we first meet Donny, he's an easy going guy. Life is good. He's a b-baller. He has kind of a low-level job, he's a maintenance man, but it's at a fairly large private college, so it's a pretty sweet gig. And he's got a great girlfriend. Life is nice, and then something happens to his girlfriend and everything gets disrupted. All of sudden, it's all topsy-turvy. He's pushed by revenge, initially, but he's also pushed by the notion that he asks himself, "Can I rise to the occasion?" That's one of the through-lines of the miniseries, even for the folks that are helping him who have their doubts. He's not a real gung ho guy. He's not politically or socially motivated like his girlfriend, Dorrie. So the question is, can he do it? Can he make this thing happen? And will he stand up to the pressure? That's part of the answers we look for in his arc of this series.   

The original Vigilante as Greg Saunders, was created by Mort Weisinger and Mort Meskin in the 1940s. Were you aware of the character before you landed this project?

Oh, yeah, man. Absolutely. I'm a long-time comics fan, so I've read the reprints of the old Vigilante stuff, and there have been some great retcons and revamping of the Greg Saunders character that I have read, too. I've also read the Adrian Chase version, which gives way to a female version of the character, Pat Trayce, which was all during the Marv Wolfman years. I am very conscious of the iterations of the character. On one hand, I am reimagining the character Vigilante for the modern era and certainly for the west coast of Southland where he hasn't been before, but I also want to pay, in a certain way, homage to what has come in the past.

Rather than a lariat, he has a Kung Fu martial arts weapon that he is learning to use. [Laughs] Some of those iconic tropes from the past find their way, at least in a certain way, into this modern version.

I wanted to ask you about his weapon of choice, because his morning star appeared to be glowing in one panel sequence. Is that just a visual effect, or are we going to see magic and mysticism in this comic, as well as superheroes?

Magic and superheroes are not overt, at least in this outing, but it is, at least in my head, even though it's an R-rated book because of the language, set in the DC Universe. It's a DCU, as we have discussed, that you haven't necessarily seen before. There's certainly been other DCU efforts set in the West Coast, and even set in Los Angeles, but I think that this is a kind of L.A., or a kind of Southland that you haven't seen before.

In the events of the story, Donny encounters some illegal cock fighting. There's some kinky stuff going on, too, so this really the underbelly of the wider Southland that you haven't encountered before. To answer your question, yes, other masked characters and superheroes and magic is here but it's way at the edges. It's not really even there. This is more of a street-level masked crime story but definitely those other elements of the DCU are there, if not overt, in this outing.   

There is actually a classic DC character named Doctor Spectro from the 1960s that was created by Steve Ditko and Joe Gill. Is there any connection to Spectros, your main villain?

No, there isn't. I didn't even know about Ditko's character -- that's pretty interesting! When you are creating these characters and fleshing them out, you always have to get a name that's memorable. For some reason or another, I locked onto the name 'Spectros.' I just like the way it sounded, and I like that he may have been, in another incarnation, a Bond villain. That's what I was really grasping at. [Laughs]

How, if at all, does Donny relate to your other leading man, Ivan Monk?

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Cover for "Vigilante: Southland" #3 by Mitch Gerads

That's an interesting question. When you have these characters and you set them in motion... I've done this before in some stories where it seems like a parallel world or arena, but I salt in -- in a tertiary way -- a mention of a character from another world. I haven't specifically done that here in "Vigilante: Southland," but if sales warrant and I get another bite of the apple with Mr. Fairchild, I want to fool around a little bit with that and plant a few Easter eggs.     

Finally, what can you share about your partner in crime, artist Elena Casagrande?

Comics are a visual medium and I think Elena is terrific. She's an Italian artist, though I do think that she lived in L.A. for a while, but she really uses reference material and source material that I turn her onto to watch like " Straight Outta Compton" or "Collateral" to get that look and feel of L.A. that's not the L.A. of Beverly Hills and just palm trees. Her stuff comes alive on the page and I think how she embodies the various characters from Danny to his dad to Nina to Mike is so great. There is a reason that artists are the kings and queens of comics, as well they should be. As lowly writers, we just have to give them enough to let them go full throttle and deliver the goods in these pages. 

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