British Science Festival 2013: Supermen and the art of vigilantism

Posted on September 27, 2013


Super Barrio

Superhero comics and graphic novels have a lot to answer for. At least if you take their message as anything more than a colourful comment on society. Simplistically speaking, heroes like Iron Man, Spiderman, Elektra or Black Widow are fighters of the good fight meting out justice to criminals.

They dress almost exclusively in lurid costumes and often lead double lives. Any comic afficionado will tell you that they are complex, often flawed characters, and it’s no wonder. According to Gavin Weston, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths University London, comic characters have a troubled past.


Birth of the avenger
It stretches back to the beginnings of modern cinema and DW Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ in 1915. Griffith’s film lionises the Ku Klux Klan and portrays African Americans as both unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Unsurprisingly, the film’s popularity led to the re-founding of the Klan with its message of racial purity and perhaps indirectly to the birth of the masked avenger.

Weston speaks with barely concealed fascination about the relationship between the media, comics and vigilante justice as part of his British Science Festival lecture ‘Dark Knights: What comic book characters tell us about the world’. As a researcher he moved to Guatemala after hearing of lethal mob justice handed out to ‘criminals’ in remote villages. It turns out that real or fictional role models, plus the quality of a country’s justice system, play a big part in whether citizens use vigilantism to solve their problems.

Wannabe generation
So should we be surprised when movies like ‘Kick Ass’ spawn a generation of ‘hero wannabes’? Well, it’s a little more complex than that. Just look at Peter Tangen’s Real Life Super Hero (RLSH) project. RLSH heroes are real people, complex people, motivated by injustices they see in society. Many of these costumed folk can be found doing charitable work, helping the homeless and feeding the hungry, rather than beating up petty thugs or fighting a new breed of super criminals. Incidentally they have great names like ‘Master Legend‘, ‘The Crimson Fist’ and ‘Civitron’.

Phoenix Jones

Rain City Superhero Movement
Phoenix Jones (right) is probably closer to the comic image of the masked avenger. Jones set up the Rain City Superhero Movement in Seattle to combat crime in urban areas. He and his wife, nicknamed Purple Reign (a teacher and a finance manager respectively), patrol neighbourhoods seeking out wrongdoing and catching criminals. Their group consists of mixed martial artists, ex-policemen and soldiers. They do not intervene on the victim’s behalf without their permission – a crucial aspect in the eyes of the law – but Jones has an uneasy relationship with Seattle law enforcement.

Alt justice
Neither of these projects fits with the definition of vigilantism and yet they do raise questions about the future of peacekeeping and private provision of justice. Bringing business outfits and ideologically driven individuals into community policing could lead to varying quality in law enforcement and motivate arrests that fall outside the strict need for social justice. When asked by the Telegraph if the UK needed real-life superheroes, Jones said: “They are needed everywhere. Any time you see something wrong, you need someone to stand up and say that is wrong.”