Thursday, June 18, 2009
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.
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?