Thursday, June 18, 2009

Question for Readers: How Can We "Reign" in Superhumans?

Reprinted from my.spill.com
If there is anything we can glean from recent comic book events, it is that superheroes are no longer friends to the public. In fact, it would seem that, particularly in the Marvel universe but certainly not limited to it, this could not be further from the truth. For example, the recent events that have taken place in Secret Invasion have led to widespread public discontent with Tony Stark and SHIELD, followed by the installation of Norman Osbourn, aka the former Green Goblin, into a highly powerful political position (Dark Reign).

The reasons for such resentment are clear. In an ideal world, a bad guy would try to rob a bank and a handsome, strong man in a cape and tight blue spandex would show up and apprehend him before anybody is harmed. He would then hear thundering applause from bystanders, smile for a photo-op, and deliver the bad guy to the local authorities before going on his merry way.

Unfortunately, the world is not so simple. There are negative externalities imposed by superheroes. In other words, there are external costs to the public that accompany their very existence and continued fight against evil. In the case of the superhuman community, these costs come in several forms. One involves the damage to public and personal property caused by super-battles, which we discuss at some length in our post about superhero insurance. Another is the constant violation of civil liberties. Often superheroes, such as Batman, will forcefully "coerce" criminals for information and will use sophisticated spy technology (see The Dark Knight film) to monitor suspicious citizens. A third involves the notion of escalation (this is particularly evident in Batman -- see Batman Begins, The Dark Knight Returns, Ego, the Killing Joke), whereby the mere existence of a superhero actually breeds more creative and dangerous supervillains. Another still is the potential that at any given moment, a being as powerful as Superman could choose to enslave or destroy the world (a fear exhibited in particular by Lex Luthor). Mark Waid has a wonderful new series, Irredeemable, which addresses this very concept.

The point is that comic book universes are becoming less black-and-white, and public opinion on our traditional superheroes is waning. We have briefly touched upon some ways in which the public could minimize these externalities. It seems as though the most commonly used means (albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness) involve the legitimization of superheroes and supervillains. Here are a few examples from recent comic history.

The Thunderbolts. The concept of the Thunderbolts has always fascinated me. Basically, it is a group of "former" supervillains who have been enlisted to work for the government, and most recently during post-Civil War delegated with the task of hunting down unregistered superheroes (below). The most recent line up prior to Dark Reign included Norman Osbourn, Venom, Songbird, Bullseye, Penance and others. Indeed, this was conceived as an effective way to deter villains from a life of costumed antics, pumpkin bombs, and eating people, by offering former bad guys a chance at redemption. If successful, this would reduce the damage that supervillains impose on the community.

The Superhuman Registration Act. The Superhuman Registration Act of 2006 was a bill that was passed during Marvel's Civil War series. The law requires that those with superhuman abilities--acquired naturally or through science--, access to magical powers, or possession of sophisticated technology (i.e. Iron Man) officially register their identities with the government, thereby declaring themselves weapons of mass destruction. Their identities would become public knowledge, but they would be given the right, by law, to continue as superheroes. This has many implications. Superheroes would have to adhere to state and federal laws, and would no longer have the unregulated ability to violate civil liberties. More interesting, superheroes would be more accountable for damage and destruction that they cause. This means that if Spider-Man registered (which he did not) and accidentally destroyed a civilian's apartment, the government could then locate Peter Parker and force him to pay some damages. Beyond this, tax codes could be amended to include a "superhero tax" or simply a larger tax for known metahumans. So, the idea of the Superhuman Registration Act is to simultaneously provide incentives for superheroes to minimize externalities and to provide a sense of security to the public.

Spider-Man will claim that his opposition to the law stems primarily from his concern for the safety of his family. Yeah, right. He's worried about being taxed.

Advertising and Branding (The Boys and Booster Gold). If nothing else, The Boys is all about superhero excesses. From the very first issue, we see a careless hero kill an innocent civilian, without so much as an ounce of interest or remorse. We discover later in the series that most of the superheroes in this universe have endorsement deals and exist primarily as a money-making function (incidentally, mostly through the selling of comic books and action figures). In this particular series, the goal was not to minimize any externalities. In fact, the money-making schemes by evil corporations are apparently what launched and exacerbated the whole superhero mess.

Reprinted from comictreadmill.com
But, the notion of branding is applicable even in other comics. For example, during DC's 52, Booster Gold maintains several corporate sponsorships, acting as the poster boy American hero (and making money from it). Despite the fact that this tarnished his reputation with other heroes, Booster did have an extremely large incentive not to be careless. Should he have needlessly imposed exorbitant costs on the community for property damage or had been discovered for a civil liberties infraction, he would have likely lost some sponsors. Instead, he had to maintain his public image.

These are just a few examples of externalities and possible solutions in comic books. Anybody have any other examples or potential solutions?

15 comments:

Adam Gurri said...

Here's one: since supervillains are often too powerful to confront directly, supervillains have an incentive to take hostages, imposing a cost (in time and discomfort, if not injury or death) on those taken hostage and the ones who care about the hostages.

The only possible way to offset this that I can think of would be for superheros to punish hostage-takers more severely than those who confront them directly. Direct confrontations may lead to injuries incurred during the battle followed by jailtime, while hostage-takers might be given additional broken arms or legs beyond what happens during the rescue.

Greg Sanders said...

On the DC side, there's the Suicide Squad that is a team typically made up of 50% heroes and 50% villains working off their sentences. Typically C-listers. They're led by Amanda Waller, a skilled and commanding bureaucrat who is non-powered and my favorite DC universe character.

Ricardo said...

Actually, there are two prior (and better) examples of sponsored teams/heroes: The Conglomerate (the first team Booster Gold tried to assemble when he left JLI) and American Flagg!, where everything was pretty much sponsored.

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest incentives for metahumans to become superheroes (Advanced medical and dental programs provided by the government, maybe an insurance package for their families) and further incentives for heroes to join teams (Funding for HQs and vehicles, access to government databases on supervillains, basic law enforcement training, maybe some form of minimal pay).

Most metahumans will probably never put on a pair of colourful tights. Combine an incentive program with normal legal penalties for bad behaviour, and we should be able to get most active metahumans to become heroes rather than villains. And we can do it without giving raving psychopaths a mandate to hunt and destroy their enemies, or penalizing those who want to help people.

doktorholocaust said...

I agree with the above Anonymous comment on the incentive program, and i have one thing I think should be added to it: tax breaks for metahumans who use their powers in a constructive but non-crimefighting way, like Magneto getting a tax deduction if he used his magentic powers for construction rather than terrorism.

some might complain that metahumans who use their powers commercially could drive human competition out of business, but I believe the demand for their services would far exceed the supply, allowing them to charge a hefty premium for their super-service that would still leave plenty of budget-conscious customers for the human competition.

and yes, I would be willing to pay extra for pizza delivered by mutant teleportation.

Anonymous said...

This is probably the first post of yours which deeply disappointed me with its careless thinking.

The primary reason why superheroes object to registration laws (which technically violate the 2nd Amendment anyway) and superbeing overview organizations is obvious to anyone who's read enough comics:

in superhero worlds, the most powerful villainous organization is usually part of the United States government.

For example, arch-villain Lex Luthor was elected president of the U.S. at one time! If there had been a hero registration in his world before he'd been made president, every hero on that registration list would quickly found themselves either assassinated or blackmailed into obedience to Luthor while that hero's children or grandparents were the guests of Guitanamo Bay.

Even without Luthor as president, agencies in the U.S. government have been responsible for torture and imprisonment of anyone identified as a mutant, no matter how law-abiding or innocent.

No, the greatest supervillain organization in the comic books is not the Maggia, or the Hand, or the Overgang, or the Legion of Supervillains; it's one of the agencies of the U.S. government or, at one time, the Oval Office itself.

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