Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mutants and the Economy

The idea of mutation introduces some interesting concepts into the global economy. Marvel's conception of a mutant race introduces an entire populace that has extraordinary abilities. In terms of culture, these individuals are an ethnicity who have their own customs and shared identity. But the mutant race also represents an entirely new venue for economy.

Each mutant possesses a special skill which has its own inherent value. Because of this, a mutant can be viewed as a craftsman or a skilled laborer. Mutants with enhanced strength can work in construction, demolition, or even transportation. Storm could irrigate the crops of all the suffering farmers in the midwest and California when the droughts of summer are destroying their crops. Quicksilver could sort the daily mail output of the United States in 3 hours. And the extraordinary power of these abilities would only make the economic effect of using mutant powers that much more extraordinary itself. Time, labor, and machinery costs would all be cut dramatically.

Tragically, most mutants use their powers to either save the world or terrorize it. At least this is the popular depiction in Marvel Comics. Imagine what Magneto could do if he worked in construction. For one thing, all of those New York City public works project would have their completion dates moved up from 2018 to roughly five minutes from now. But instead, he spends his time sinking Russian submarines and making asteroid bases to live in. For the love of God, the man has the power to build himself a high-tech home in space. He could repair the Hubbell telescope with no trouble whatsoever.

The only time Marvel Comics presented a mass use of mutants for economic purposes, it was in the context of the island nation of Genosha. On this island, mutants were enslaved and forced to work for the government. This turned the troubled economy of Genosha around in the span of a few years, making it a thriving paradise (for those who were not enslaved and constantly tortured, of course). Naturally this brutal treatment of mutants could not stand and the X-Men destabilized the government (resulting in thousands of deaths, but that is the price of freedom and giant, bloody splash pages). Eventually Genosha became a haven for mutants. And with an all mutant population, the island did thrive, but in total isolation from the rest of the world.

But its strange how there haven't been any depictions of how mutant powers could be integrated into the modern economy. It seems like whenever mutants are given employment, it's usually because their powers can be used to murder someone. The government has an endless parade of mutant assassins at their disposal, yet somehow refuse to employ Scalphunter as a computer mainframe manufacturer.

Of course, there is the very logical reason why mutants are not integrated into economy in comic book stories. No-one wants to read 22 pages of Colossus moving girders to build an office building and then going home to watch "24." An ordinary, integrated life for mutants is not interesting. But tearing the head off a Sentinel while falling through the atmosphere. Now there's something special.

85 comments:

Ben said...

I'd like to see an American Splendor version of Marvel where Jean Grey helps Xavier through his cancer remission. Maybe getting off the chemo would get him out of the chair. Then they could go watch a movie and complain about how Jean's parents keep showing up unexpectedly at the mansion without calling first.

outlawpoet said...

Unfortunately, superpowers and their economic side-effects violate the status quo too much. It's difficult to see why the world would not rapidly change in it's everyday particulars, which the Big Two are very averse to. They prefer their universes to differ from the real world only in extraordinary contexts, while things people are familiar with remain the same.

The closest anybody came to this was the old Marvel comic about Damage Control Inc, the company that specialized in cleaning up after super-battles. I found the comic fascinating, but it has enjoyed very few return looks.

I would argue that the primary editorial rationale for Genosha's Destruction, then Decimation in the Marvel universe was to avoid the side-effects of mutants on the status quo. They were becoming very numerous, had an entire country, were becoming difficult to avoid in other, non-mutant stories.

Probably Derrill said...

PS238 contemplates the integration of mutants into economic life. Though some students are clearly training to be superheroes and villains, others are training to turn rocks into gourmet meals or grow plants faster and so forth.

bigBOX said...

The comic that best intergrates the economy and super powers is Asterix and Obelix. Obelix has a menhir moving business which suits his mutants abilities to a T.

Mutants affecting the economy by creation of new industries has always seemed interesting also. Such as the costume making inustry who have to make costumes to suit the mutant`s powers. The requires a new re-allocation of resources.

Adamu said...

IIRC, there are several mutants who worked in carnival sideshows. And didn't Wolverine have some a lumberjacking career at some point?

This blog is awesome btw

Steven Attewell said...

I imagine that one of the problems with including the economic affects of mutancy, similar to that of including magic or extremely advanced technology, is that sooner or later you hit a degree of efficiency such that everyone's unemployed.

Consider Magneto and the public works thing. Yeah, it sucks that NYC public works take nine years to build, but they employ thousands of people to do so, who go out and spend money, which employs other people, etc. Hiring Magneto would make construction massively efficient, but then you have the problem of a huge number of unemployed former builders, contractors, architects, manufacturers of earthmoving equipment, and so on.

At one point, Archangel's blood had the power to cure all diseases and bring people back from the dead. There's a reason that got retconned in a hurry.

ajay said...

Consider Magneto and the public works thing. Yeah, it sucks that NYC public works take nine years to build, but they employ thousands of people to do so, who go out and spend money, which employs other people, etc. Hiring Magneto would make construction massively efficient, but then you have the problem of a huge number of unemployed former builders, contractors, architects, manufacturers of earthmoving equipment, and so on.Bastiat and the fallacy of the candlemakers, I think. Very Luddite, anyway.

But I don't think it's a real problem: Magneto's time and attention are limited, so there's only so much he can accomplish (maybe he gets tired, too? Or bored?); plus there's all the (many) bits of construction that can't be reduced to "moving big pieces of metal around". Magneto can't lay bricks or pour concrete or apply plaster or fit windows.

And a lot of them don't actually have any really valuable powers. Cyclops can't really do anything that can't be done by a main battle tank, which can also move faster further, and can't be taken out by a rifle shot. Wolverine is even less useful. Neither of them are much good outside combat situations, anyway, which is also the case for a lot of the others. Colossus moving girders? Well, we already have cranes, and Colossus could only really replace one of them at a time, and not as well. I don't think that's exactly going to change the construction business.

dspitzle said...

At the risk of pulling things a bit too far afield, the out of print "superhero" roleplaying game Aberrant addressed many of the economic consequences of superpowers, including their use not only as mercenary military assets, but as media figures, backbones of Fortune 500 companies, and creators of world-changing industrial materials. I can't recommend it highly enough in this context.

Sherm said...

Outlawpoet- Originally, Damage Control was supposed to play heavily into the Civil War event. The whole conflict was going to be motivated at least partially by the desire of Damage Control's shareholders to keep superpowers fighting in order to keep the money flowing. Of course, once they got the moronic Skrull idea, that got dropped.

Jesse said...

Can an Genosha real thrive without being connected to the global economy? It seems to me that answer would be no, even with all the fantastical power of the world you still won't be able to produce or consume all the services, good and experiences that a nation needs or wants. Also what about community resilient, what happens to a particular market sector when say your wheat growing mutant decides to leave or croaks?

leoboiko said...

For the record, Tempest (as Queen Ororo of Wakanda) was shown a number of times using her powers to improve crops in the African continent. Also, it’s stated that the general African populace consider her a goddess, which isn’t that far off IMHO — for such powerful mutants, we begin stepping into “gods and the economy” territory.

LoneSnark said...

Consider Magneto and the public works thing. Yeah, it sucks that NYC public works take nine years to build, but they employ thousands of people to do so, who go out and spend money, which employs other people, etc. Hiring Magneto would make construction massively efficient, but then you have the problem of a huge number of unemployed former builders, contractors, architects, manufacturers of earthmoving equipment, and so on.Try to follow the money. If Magneto does the work for free, then the city of new york does not need to spend the money, so the city can instead spend the money on expanding the city's beurocracy, all the layed off construction workers would be needed there.

On the other hand, maybe magneto demands full payment, so the city saves nothing. Well, now magneto has all this extra cash which he will either put in a bank, which lends it out creating jobs for those layed off, or magneto will spend it himself, creatings jobs for those layed off.

Steven Attewell said...

LoneSnark:

One, that assumes that the New York City government has a policy commitment to maintaining full employment. Which would be nice, but we haven't seen politics of that kind in New York City since Fiorello LaGuardia.

Also, what makes you think that Magneto's propensity to consume is equal to that of the combined building trades of New York?

Finally, I have a moral objection to hiring what amounts to a superpowered scab to wipe out an entire industry of unionized workers.

Chaos Motor said...

It's because comics are a period piece. The mutants aren't ever well known or common enough to be fully integrated. Consider Genesis or the 30th Century where they are fully integrated - a thriving, super-high tech civilization. We as a society in the past hundred years have undergone rapid change, and comic books are a fantasy representation of our society dealing with that change.

Douglas said...

Well, District X was an, unfortunately short-lived, attempt to show how the mass of the mutant 'body politic' exist in the real world. Discrimination against mutants prevents them from finding employment, so their talents go unutilised. And MOST mutants don't have flashy powers, but rather unusual, bizarre mutations more akin to curses -- for example, big fleshy flaps under the arms, or sprouting roots, or having giant rats burst out of your skin.

So -- rarity and discrimination, that's your answer.

GregM said...

Granted, they're non-Marvel, but Kurt Busiek's "Astro City" and Brian Michael Bendis' "Powers" do a much better job of placing superhuman characters in realistic human situations.

AxelDC said...

Marvel actually provides an internal logic reason for why this never happens: discrimination.

Mutants are discriminated against. Rather than rewarding these individuals for their extraordinary talents, the public punishes them. The only time they try to use their talents, they do it through slavery, not by rewarding them. Imagine putting Da Vinci in a coal mine or pour acid down the throat of anyone with a decent singing voice.

The theme of X-Men has been that discrimination is a huge loss for society, let alone a tragedy for individuals. If you fire someone for being gay, the US military suddenly cannot read Arabic texts in the midst of the War on Terror.

Ogrebear said...

What about the charity sector though? Couldn't someone like Storm, Thor, Reed Richards etc make a HUGE contribution to world hunger, poverty, etc etc?

Yeah Storm was seen as a goddess but when was the last comic featuring her flying over Ethopia helping?

Marvel once put out a book called 'Big Town' which was a 'What If... Reed and co really did effect the world. I recommend it. http://www.mania.com/fantastic-four-big-town_article_25689.html

Dspitzle mentioned Abberant the rpg- I can second that! One of the major things in there is the effect of superhumans on the world- one invents a hyper fast replacement for the internet for example.

Anonymous said...

This blog just caused me to imagine a comic book battle involving Magneto and hitherto unknown supers Captain Union and Teamster.

Scott said...

This is true of all superpowers, not just those derived from mutation, of course. Even discounting superspeed construction, how much money could Superman make (for a worthy charity, of course) just launching satellites at a million bucks a pop?

Most comics just don't explore these topics for the sake of keeping the setting roughly similar to 'the world outside your window'. Whenever they (or at least the more mainstream, Marvel and DC ones) diverge from this pattern, either by making things futuristic ala the Brainiac-altered Metropolis, or with a post-apocalyptic storyline as with Wildstorm or the current Ultimatum storyline in the Ultimate line, it doesn't seem to stay popular for long.

dmh_phoenix said...

See also Reed Richards Is Useless, at TVTropes.

(Warning: That site will eat your brain. ;-) )

Generic Viagra said...

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RJ Moore II said...

The person commenting on Magneto causing unemployment is way off base. Yes, Magneto building buildings would cause construction workers not to be employed. However it would conserve real resources, drive investment out of construction-related capital goods while lowering wages/costs of capital goods for industries which could use those now free resources more efficiently.

I intend to actually write a comic series detailing a lot of this, and I also recommend the Aberrant books.

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On the other hand, maybe magneto demands full payment, so the city saves nothing. Well, now magneto has all this extra cash which he will either put in a bank, which lends it out creating jobs for those layed off, or magneto will spend it himself, creatings jobs for those layed off.

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