RETRO REVIEW: Villains & Vigilantes #4 (of 4) (July 1987)

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Or – “It’s Strange The Things That Stick With Us From Days Gone By…”

It’s interesting to remember that, a couple of decades ago, the city in which I currently live, where I met my wife and saw my kid born, was just the far-off Big City home of my college roommate.  My first visit to Topeka involved a visit to the comic shop (one which changed hands in the ensuing decades, but eventually became known as Gatekeeper Hobbies) and the purchase of an ENORMOUS stack of comics out of the Five-For-A-Dollar bin.  This book was one of ‘em, and it has stuck with me ever since…

VILLAINS & VIGILANTES #4
Writer(s):Jack Herman, Jeff Dee (co-plot)
Penciler: Jeff Dee
Inker: Patrick Zircher
Colorist: Marcus David
Letterer: Kurt Hathaway
Editor: Sean Deming
Publisher: Eclipse Comics
Cover Price: $1.75
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $2.00

Previously, in Villains & Vigilantes:  Shatterman and The Condor have come to Indianapolis to try out for The Crusaders, the Midwest’s greatest superhero team.  Unfortunately, they were beaten to Crusaders Citadel by the Crushers, a group of criminals led by the mysterious Mocker, who had already taken the heroes hostage.  Initially crushed by the rejection, the young heroes found themselves attacking the villains and saving the day…  almost.  Now, Shatterman and Condor are chained to the rocket ports of the Crushers’ stolen escape spacecraft, soon to be burned to cinders, while the Crusaders themselves die in the massive explosion of their headquarters.  This might not go well…

What’s interesting about this issue (and the miniseries as a whole) is that it’s adapted from the Villains & Vigilantes RPG adventure, ‘Crisis At Crusader Citadel,’ published a few years earlier with the first edition of the Villains & Vigilantes role-playing game.  (The art in this issue is provided by Jeff Dee, who drew the first V&V supplements, and was one of the original artists back in the days when TSR still owned Dungeons & Dragons.)  As such, the plot is kind of straight-forward Saturday morning serial fodder, with tyro heroes Shatterman and Condor tied up in mortal peril…

The two young heroes are resourceful, though, and they quickly find a way out of their jam…

Heh.  I love that bit, for some reason.  Just the dismay on Condor’s face as he watches his lockpick set fall is entertaining as heck to me, even though I’m pretty sure we’re not going to see a couple of teenagers roasted to death on panel.  (This isn’t a Bendis book, after all.)  The most awesome part of the series is the hints of a greater continuity that we haven’t seen, with hints of backstory for each of the characters, such as Shocker, a minor member of the Crushers.  He is clearly in love with Evergreen of the Crusaders, and has only joined up with the villains to try and save her for himself.

He’d be more intimidating with pants on, though.  As for the other Crushers, they are each double-crossed by their boss, The Mocker, and his right-hand man, the Mercury Mercenary, and either put in stasis, sent away, or beaten down.  “One less way to split the money,” gloats the villain, not realizing that the heroes have escaped, thanks to Shocker.  The size of the cast is another double-edged sword, as members of both the Crushers and the Crusaders are pushed aside for plot-related reasons throughout the issue, leaving the novice heroes as the only ones who can stop Mocker’s plan by sneaking onboard the stolen Crusader space shuttle.

This is as old-school as old-school gets, with a superhero team who apparently has the clearance to launch a %&@#$ing spacecraft out of an office building in Indiana.  Mocker’s betrayals serve an important plot point for our story, as well, setting up a situation where the two heroes only have to face two villains in the final battle sequence.  The issue actually FEELS like an RPG game (in ways both good and bad) as Shatterman & Condor manage to foul up the villain’s heading, sending the ship spinning out of control through space…

Condor is absolutely right, as the satellite they’re attacking is NOT the Statcom communications satellite, but in fact a secret government spy satellite.  This does not go unnoticed by the U.S. Army, who launches their own secret weapon: THE INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MAN!  (That, by the way, is without a doubt one of the single coolest superhero names EVER.)  The battle makes its way to space, as The Mocker tries to set up his mind-control device (or whatever it is, the story never really makes it clear) as Shatterman leaps into action!

Questions, questions, questions.  Such as, ‘If he’s got those powers, why didn’t he just bust out of the chains?  Did he just rip off the villain’s head?  Is ICB-Man a living bomb?  And what about Naomi???”  A little internet research has confirmed that The Mocker is, indeed, an android (which doesn’t explain why his head is a smiley-face, mind you) which makes me feel somewhat better about Shatter decapitating him, but things get weird quickly, as our two young heroes are about to be blown to radioactive smithereens…

Hey, it looks like the Crusaders survived after all, just in time to play Deus Ex Machina!  Yaaay!  I love the 1980’s Cold War vibe of this issue, with the Army trying to blow up what they think are Russian spies (the Berlin War still stood for about five years after this issue, for those who aren’t historically astute) and the last-second reprieve makes the whole thing feel accurately like a kinda goofy role-playing session, especially in the denouement of it all…

Aww…  The poor guys.  The issue closes with the hopeful news from the issue’s writer that he has more V&V adventures ready, perhaps answering some of the many tantalizingly unanswered questions of this issue, but, sadly, it was not to be.  Of course, that’s not to say that other V&V comics didn’t get made, exactly, as two of the other modules (‘Death Duel With The Destroyers’ and ‘The Island of Dr. Apocalypse’) ended up being adapted by their original writer into comics form.  You and I know those stories as the early issues of The Elementals, and as for the writer?  You’ve probably heard of him; his name is…

…Bill Willingham.  (And NOW you know… The REST… Of The Story.)

Even given my college-age affection for this story, it’s not the greatest comic book of all time.  There are some serious problems with dialogue, the plotting is weird, and you have to giggle as they winnow down the huge cast to a little more than half a dozen guys throughout the four-issue run of the series.  Jeff Dee is an artist that I love, but his costume designs throughout this series are simple, which works for some (Manta-Man & The Enforcer) but just fails for others (the silly short sleeved-jumpsuit of Shatterman and the garish Mocker.)  All in all, Villains & Vigilantes #4 hasn’t exactly aged well, but then, neither have I, and I still love it in a totally non-ironic way, allowing it to earn 3 out of 5 stars overall.  Whether or not some of that score comes from nostalgia goggles is up for grabs, but if you run into this one in your local quarter bin, know that it has the Fat Man Seal Of Approval.

Rating: ★★★☆☆