ByEmily Haase, writer at

OK, you got me, this one isn’t strictly hard science. But if this true theme of this blog is comic books reflecting on real life (and vice-versa), then it deserves its own spot amidst our talk about cryogenic stasis and spider butts.

We’re not going to focus on the biological or physical reasons we don’t have vigilantes today -- we will be talking about the legal reasons.

Vigilante laws.

Let’s define what a ‘vigilante’ is first.

I hate when essays start off with pulling up good ol’ Merriam-Webster and glancing across a definition, but I’m about to do the same thing.

A self-appointed doer of justice.

In the area of comic books, there’s been some talk about the difference between a superhero and a vigilante.

I would suggest that ‘vigilante’ is a catch-all term that can be placed objectively. Anyone who dispenses justice without the backing of law enforcement/law, whether it’s Batman or Dr. Freeze or Captain America or Dr. Doom, is a vigilante. It doesn’t imply any sort of moral connotation.

Superheroes and supervillains, then, are subjective terms that place people on moral sides. That’s where you get ‘Superman is a superhero’ versus ‘Luthor is a supervillain’. Does that imply all superheroes and supervillains are vigilantes?

I would argue that that’s not necessarily true. Some supervillains don’t ‘dispense’ justice. Those bent on world domination aren’t necessarily looking to right a wrong. In a similar vein, some superheroes don’t always act as vigilantes. At least in the MCU, Bruce Banner doesn’t act as a vigilante, and the Hulk acts only out of anger.

To get back to the real world, we don’t generally place labels like ‘superhero’ and ‘supervillain’ on real-life people. In terms of vigilantes, absolutely, we’ve had a long history with those.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Until 11th century England, law enforcement consisted of gathering 10 families together. Between them, they were responsible for maintaining order. This little system was called a frankpledge, and every ten frankpledges had one constable.

So, technically, were they backed by the law? Yes. Was it 1 constable for every 100 families, making it incredibly decentralized and encouraging vigilante justice between the families? Of course.

Fast forwarding a couple of hundred of years (and after the English policing/bobby system was adopted to the US), we get the first American example of vigilantism.

And we’re gonna Debbie Downer all over this for a second.

In fiction, we generally see vigilantism as something positive. Any awesome revenge story or Robin Hood-esque character can be seen as a vigilante, and that’s not a bad thing. To a degree, fictional vigilantes teach us to stand up for what we believe in, to rebel against a broken system, to always protect the less fortunate.

Real-life vigilantism usually doesn’t work out that way. It’s usually people who see a very small group of other people as the enemy and wants to enact justice on them without any social or legal consequences. Think KKK. Yeaaaaah, that counts as vigilantism and those tend to be the most popular (and common, unfortunately) examples.

So you can see why vigilantism is illegal, especially with hate groups as your most prevalent form if vigilantes. However, there are other reasons.

You know how Batman sort of beats people and eventually they just lay down and give up? That doesn’t usually happen. Usually one person beating another person up just causes more violence, maybe even rioting. It’s never just one isolated incident and it’s very rarely a fair fight.

Is this post going to be all depressing ‘life isn’t like the comic books’ stuff? Of course not! I want you to leave this post smiling a little, because there are a couple of neat stories associated with this. Don’t get me wrong - the majority of vigilante groups tend to have terrible purposes in mind, but some of them aren’t that bad. I’ll just talk about the one that’s hit news recently.

A vigilante who calls himself ‘Phoenix Jones’ operates in the streets of Seattle along with the rest of the ‘Rain City Superhero Movement’. His gear includes a bulletproof vest, stun baton, pepper spray, handcuffs, and some first-aid. Since he first started operating in 2011, he’s stopped kidnappings, ended fights, and generally apprehending people. The Seattle Police Department hasn’t come out in support of him, and there have been several allegations that he’s maybe a little too happy to use pepper spray.

When he’s not Phoenix Jones, he’s Ben Fodor from Texas. Fodor’s an MMA fighter known as ‘Flattop’, working professionally since 2013. So far, he’s has 6 wins, 1 draws, and 1 loss.

That being said, there’s a ‘DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME’ sticker slapped all over this. It’s dangerous, it’s generally unhelpful, and there are better ways to go about it if you want to start helping people.

There’s a large difference between encouraging people to be good via the use of vigilante characters and encouraging people to be vigilantes. Superman can teach you how to be good and kind to people, but hopefully, he’s not encouraging you to don your favorite pair of red underwear and try to go flying around the city.

Conclusion (TL;DR)

Vigilantism is something that’s existed in our history for centuries. Back before we had centralized law enforcement, we trusted on vigilante justice via frankpledges to get the job done. Once we got that centralized law enforcement and started to frown on citizen-initiated justice, though, we started to run into problems. Most of what we would call ‘vigilantes’ tend to be thinly disguised hate groups who don’t want the social or legal ramifications of their actions.

That being said, there are a fair few examples of real-life vigilante, and some have even got famous enough to hit the news. While it’s incredibly inadvisable, there are some good lessons to take from the fictional vigilantes we read in comic books in terms of fighting for the little guy.


Vigilante History

Definition, Merriam Webster
Legal Definition, Legal Dictionary
Batman Vigilante Justice, Artifice
Vigilante History, Princeton
Frankpledge, Historymedren
Frankpledge History, CUA

Phoenix Jones

Phoenix Jones Returns to MMA, USA
‘Superhero Arrested’, NBC
Vigilante Justice, ABC
Phoenix Jones Stops Car Theft, CBS


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