DC Comics' newest hero has an origin story pulled right from the headlines, with a young black man who turns costumed vigilante to investigate crime and corruption in south Los Angeles.
But its also pulled from the real-life son of the book's writer.
Vigilante: Southland, written by author Gary Phillips with art by Elena Casagrande, revives the classic "Vigilante" character, a Golden Age western hero of the 1940s. But for DC's "Rebirth" initiative, he gets a modern upgrade that turns him into a street-level crime fighter whose reluctant heroism was spurred by the mysterious death of his community activist girlfriend.
The story centers on Donny Fairchild, a basketball player who didn't quite make it as a pro baller, and his girlfriend Dorrie, who is passionate about organizing protests and confronting racial injustices. After the death of his girlfriend, Donny finds himself plunging into the mystery behind her death while also getting caught up in social justice.
Newsarama talked to Phillips to find out more about his revamp of the Vigilante, whether he thinks Donny's apathy is representative of more people, and what readers can expect next.
Newsarama: Gary, this story feels very current, because it deals with problems that are central in the news today. Do you feel like Donny, the main character, represents some people today?
Gary Phillips: Oh, yeah. Yeah. This is not a big secret, but the character Donny is, at least superficially, is based a little bit on my son, who's a tall, tatted-up, b-ballin' guy who's got a blue collar job and who's kind of going along in life and isn't really worried about a lot of things. And he's got this great girlfriend. And he's got steady work.
And then of course, in the story, something happens to disrupt that.
When we first meet Donny, he's supposed to be over at the campus for a rally - to meet up with Dorrie, his girlfriend. He blows that off, because he's at the courts ballin' with his buddies.
I feel like this is the reality of a young black man, coming of age in the hood, in South L.A.
Nrama: I want to talk about Donny's reality more in a minute, but let's back up and make something clear. This isn't your usual superhero story. There's a strong "crime story" feel about this comic book. Is that how you'd describe it? A crime story?
Phillips: Yeah, to me, it's a crime story, but in parentheses would be "street-level, masked adventure."
It's set in the DCU, but it's a DCU we haven't seen much of. It's a DCU that is lost in its environs, but not the L.A. of Hollywood or Beverly Hills.
This is the L.A. that I know. The Southland I know, with Compton and Southeast L.A. and South L.A. (or South Central, which is where I grew up, and that's what we called it then).
But yeah, it's a crime story, and obviously there's a mystery behind it, because it's about, who murdered Donny's girlfriend, and for what reason? Why did all this happen?
That's why our hero plunges into this.
And also, the story is about Donny's arc - his growth as an individual, gaining confidence as he puts on the mask of the Southland Vigilante. He has to grow into that job.
Nrama: OK, let's talk more about the type of person Donny is when this first starts. We've seen the story of a "reluctant hero" before, but Donny seems like a version of that set in modern times - less reluctant about heroism and more apathetic. It's not like he's forced into this, but it's more like he has to be woken up.
Phillips: Yeah. My background is, I was a community organizer around police abuse issues - this was years before Black Lives Matter - and that took me to the anti-Apartheid struggle. But I've also been a union organizer. So I've done these things that personally fulfilled me, and hopefully, to some extent, I helped to bring about some type of change, at least in an incremental way.
So for Donny, I think it was important that he was not in that kind of headspace. Dorrie, his girlfriend, is. We don't get to know a lot about Dorrie, although we get some sense of her because of her mom, who was also an old-school activist like me. She's there throughout the mini-series and plays a key role.
The hero's journey always about resolving that problem that the hero has to resolve, but it's also about his growth. What happens to him internally and their response to the external world?
So I thought it was important to start Donny where Donny is.
Nrama: So this isn't a metaphor for the world right now?
Phillips: I'm not sure. I'm not making a judgment one way or the other. People are people. Some are more involved than others. Some are involved in the PTA, or some are involved in church group. And that's cool. Whatever it is that, in a certain way, helps to fill you out as a person and also gives you a sense of duty and responsibility. There's nothing wrong with those.
So to that degree, because this is comic books, duty and responsibility generally means putting on a costume.
So in Donny's case, that's the arc he finds himself on.
Nrama: Let's talk about the art on this book, by Elena Casagrande. You spend more time in prose than comic books, so you probably have a unique perspective on this. But what do you think this artist brings to the book?
Phillips: Yeah, I've done some comics before, and I hope to do more comics. I've been a comic fan since I was a kid, and I still am.
This doesn't get old to me, this notion of, you know, when you go down to the comic shop and you get your little hand full of comics and you read them and, just the idea that — I don't know, the comic book experience, this marriage of the words and the images. It still knocks me out.
It was Jamie S. Rich, my editor, who had suggested Elena, and I wasn't familiar with her work. But man, once those initial pages came in, wow.
You know, she and I communicated through emails because she's Italian - she's in Italy. But she just got it. She really got what we were trying to do. We talked about different reference materials and different films to watch, be it Straight Outta Compton or Collateral — those kind of films that I thought showed you a different kind of L.A., the type of L.A. I wanted to put on the page in Southland.
And man, she just got it. It's been a great experience. It's been great working with her.
And obviously, artists are storytellers as well. She's had certain ideas or changes that she's brought to the table that I think have just made it stronger, both more visually appealing as well as, I think, helping to make the story more compelling.