For sheer visual inscrutability, nothing matches Tony Salmons on James Robinson’s graphic novel Vigilante: City Lights, Prairie Justice. The book is about a Golden Age favorite of mine, namely the Vigilante, a cowboy-suit-wearing galoot, who was, in his actual fictional life, a movie-star singing cowboy named Greg Saunders, who, when moved by crime and the compulsion to stamp it out, donned a white broad-brimmed hat, a blue tight-fitting cavalry blouse (the kind with a fold-over front that can be removed  after having protected the actual shirtfront from accumulating dust raised by the horse’s hoofs), and matching jeans and boots and then tied a red bandana across the lower half of his face to obliterate his identity. Then he’d jump on his motorcycle and roar off to damage the bad guys, followed, usually, by a kid sidekick named “Stuff.”

Vigilante cover My memory of this colorful character with his razor-sharp jaw as defined by the red bandana is determined by the way Mort Meskin drew the character. Meskin deployed a lively line and Caniff-like shadowing, producing memorable visuals. Salmons’ visuals are likewise memorable: his line is erratic, sometimes thin and fragile, sometimes clotted and lumpy, and he splashes blotches of black ink around, obscuring facial detail to such an extent that characters are impossible to identify in subsequent appearances, even on the same page. The artwork, in short, is all about technique: artsy has displaced storytelling as the operative principle.

Robinson’s story, set in the 1940s, sends Vig after a historic figure, the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the man who created Las Vegas as a gambling hell by opening the Flamingo Hotel and Casino there in about 1942-43.  Vigilante is on a mission of vengeance: Stuff has been killed by one of Bugsy’s goons because the kid fancied the goon’s girlfriend, so Vig spends most of the book laying waste to Bugsy’s henchmen as he relentlessly tracks Siegel down. When he finds him, he kills him — blasts him to hell with a shotgun. By then, we are ready to applaud this morally dubious action by a comic book hero because Robinson has convinced us that Siegel is subhuman, another morally dubious artistic achievement. Completing this appalling enterprise, Robinson introduces a DC villain, the Dummy, to no purpose whatsoever. The story, in short, is as much a mishmash as Salmons’ art is. Salmons manages two or three stunning pages of action and a couple of moody sequences, but otherwise, his rendering is artistic to the point of utter incomprehensibility.

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