Unfortunately, I don't know the origin of this trait, although I suspect it's derived from the roughly contemporary Zorro stories (Or both borrowed it from an earlier work) in which Zorro would mark his opponents with his trademark "Z".
In addition, Lobster Johnson, a neo-pulp character spun off from Mike Mignola's Hellboy comic series, brands his victims with the "Claw of Justice", in a nod to The Spider and others. (It's a lot less silly than it sounds)
Lobster Johnson is completely silly, but I still love him.
The more I read pulp action books, the more I find that the protagonists were psychopaths. As long as they were doing it "for Justice" (capital "J") and as long as it wasn't a woman or a child, they would happy mow down anyone in their path.
For example, in a recent Spider story I read (the one about the metal dissolving gas), he couldn't help from laughing as he drove his get away car back into the lobby of the bar he just escaped from. Why? Because most of the thugs that just captured him were standing out front and he had a chance to run them all over at once... for Justice!
On the subject of newer pulp comics, have you read Atomic Robo? There's no branding and he's not a psychopath, but he is a robot built by Nikola Tesla, so that more than makes up for it.
There's also supposed to be a comic reboot of The Spider. Don't know if that's started yet, but it's supposed to be written by David Liss.
Atomic Robo has been around for a long time, but I never got around to reading it. How is it?
As for the Spider comic, it's been going on for a few months now. The art is pretty cool, but once again, I haven't had time to pick it up.
Atomic Robo is a lot of fun. It's similar to Hellboy in that it rarely takes itself more than a little seriously, but it doesn't quite go off the silly-deep-end the way The Goon does. One thing I particularly like about it is the use of anachronic storytelling. The series jumps back and forth across Robo's very busy life, but it never feels unanchored for all that. One Volume even plays with the anachronic style of the series (via Lovecraftian abominations). The first issue of Volume 7 is out: She Devils of the South Pacific. It's very Diesel and, needless to say, I'm stoked for the rest of it.
Writing and art for the series are both brilliant.
Glad to hear from someone who has actually read it.
Usually, I see "critical reviews" of it that make it sound cool, but give absolutely no details about it. I do see some similarities with Hellboy from what I have been exposed to, so that's a good sign.
Should I start with the first book, or is there somewhere else I should jump in?
I'd start at the beginning, as there are some arcs that carry over as far as characterization. Like I said though, it's mostly anachronic, so if you can't wait you're not really worse off in jumping into whatever volume you can find.
I'm no expert either but I'd agree with Zorro having a lot to do with making the act popular.
The act itself is probably a political thing associated with the fundamental idea behind the pulp vigilante avenger type:
Holding the assumption in which 'everyone knows the law', 'bad guys' are aware of what they're doing, they just don't care. They try to advantage themselves by taking advantage of others. The police etc should be the ones who take care of this but the reader's ability to see the vigilante as a hero is testament to the belief that the system of law and order is not always functioning properly (for whatever reason - corruption within the system, a general inability to deal with a certain overwhelming problems, etc etc). What is required is an individual who, on behalf of the community, knows what is right and wrong (ie what the reader believes is right and wrong) and is willing to take the necessary action to stop them, no matter how dire it may be.
But if the system is unable to properly put away criminals and punish them for their crimes where is the consequence of crime?
Branding a criminal allows them to be seen for what they are - criminals. The community can then monitor them more effectively themselves, knowing that the person who just asked them for a job or was loitering out the front of their house is someone that has a criminal past. They understood what was wrong, they did it anyway, and all the other people who play by the rules want those people to be punished for trying to take advantage of everyone else. And that can't happen until they know these people and can, collectively, treat them/punish them accordingly as the outcasts they should be.
The branding of criminals is therefore a public service that they've not only been 'touched' by the informal justice system which is working but that the community can continue to apply justice to them long afterwards.
As for the unhinged nature of the vigilante - most of the dark avengers deal with the psychological. They're there to put the fear of Law into the criminals so that they know that there is indeed a consequence to their actions, regardless of how effective the law and order systems are. They're trying to stop generalised crime itself by making individual criminals too scared to do it in the first place.
But in order to scare the criminal you have to be able to understand the psychology of a criminal. Especially if the criminal is themselves psychologically unhinged. This becomes even more relevent if you believe criminality is a 'sickness' of some sort within certain individuals that should be able to participate as normal citizens 'like everyone else'.
This is why 'The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men'. He knows so he can not only understand how much they have to be stopped but also how to take them on and defeat them.
But this also makes the hunter a lot more like the hunted. The dark avenger goes to dark places in order to stop the darkness and, like the cowboy that must ride off into the sunset after each episode, the vigilante is therefore serving society but not a part of society. They are needed but in order to do what they do they have to be the unacceptable they fight. Rather than ride off into the sunset they melt back into the urban shadows and let good citizens continue on with their day, their hands unmuddied.
But this is only the dark avenger stuff. You should probably check out more of the Doc Savage style high adventure stuff. It probably doesn't feel as diesel-ly but it's also the lighter side of the pulp spectrum.
As I've combed through the original pulps I've discovered that much of the inspiration comes from mythology. In the case of branding or marking villains you can go all the way back to the bible, as in "the mark of cain." After Cain murdered Able, God cursed him. Then signed his handy work with a mark as a warning to others.
In 1909 the Scarlet Pimpernel signed his work with a calling card. But the earliest Pulp example of marking I can think of arrived in 1919 with the "The Curse of Capistrano". In the tale a certain masked spanish fox would sign his handy work with "Z". As in the Mark of Zorro.
If you've never read any of hero stories by Johnston McCulley like Zorro, Madam Madcap or the Crimson Clown, you may be surprised how much modern hero DNA sprung from them.