Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Drug War and Comic Books

Batman and Robin #3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly

The war on drugs in comic books is interesting for a variety of reasons, including that there are actually many differences between the trade in comics and the trade on real-Earth.

One thing I realized while reading Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly's latest issue of Batman and Robin, is that villain motives are usually different. When we think about criminal activity and drugs, we tend to think that dealers, gangs and mobsters are primarily interested in making money. They use the profits earned from drug dealing towards gaining power, prestige, and influence in their respective cities. We reason that these drug dealers commit crimes in addition to the illegal sale of narcotics as an unfortunate externality to the illegality of the business (if you watch The Wire, you know these crimes include but are not limited to extortion, racketeering, several types of fraud, and even murder). Organizations have to "take care of" potential snitches to prevent the authorities from becoming wise to their operations. Mobsters often start phoney businesses and front companies to launder money made through illegal activity, thereby hiding it from the authorities. Police and politicians can often be bribed. All of this seems to exist in order to ensure the continued success of the business and to maximize profits.

Yet, in comic books, most supervillains (I'm not talking about your run-of-the-mill drug dealers) in the drug trade have reasons that go far and above making money and gaining prestige. Particularly in Gotham City, it can be argued that these villains are using drugs as a mechanism to fuel their insanity and commit even more crimes! If the Joker were to start selling his laughing gas in the form of a drug (which had happened before), do you think it would be so that he could settle down in a nice home in Nantucket? He would use that money in order to construct elaborate schemes of producing chaos in Gotham and capturing the Batman. If the Scarecrow began selling a low-potent version of his fear gas to gangsters, he would probably just take all that money to develop a substantially more dangerous version of the gas, which he would then unleash upon the city and watch it degenerate into panic. If Two-Face made all the money in the world, his neuroses would not be able to stop him from robbing a Double Mint Gum factory. In the panel above, who even knows why Professor Pyg is selling his drug? Other than him being completely insane.

What we see here is that the sale of narcotics in Gotham City seems closer to a front company for the real crimes. And, as it happens, these supervillains are the ones controlling the trade; most mobsters have been marginalized a long time ago.

So, what would be the effect of decriminalization in these two worlds? Note that I'm not talking about full-blown legalization, including government regulation of narcotics, taxation, and the ability to buy marijuana from your local supermarket. This would simply put most former suppliers out of jobs. I'm referring to decriminalization in the sense that it would allow the drug dealers to continue controlling the supply and sale of the narcotics. This is sort of like what goes on in Amsterdam with marijuana sales. Holland never technically legalized the sale of the drug--the authorities just don't enforce their laws against them. So despite the fact that there are now shops, there is still an illegal market for the drugs.

Now, I confess that I, myself, have never led or even been a part of any drug organization or criminal gang. Yet, I think if legality were no longer a concern and that these dealers were given a free pass by the authorities to continue their operations without hassle (and assuming they could make the same profits), these sorts of extra crimes would diminish. No snitches, no murdering witnesses. And I'm not the first to make the argument that decriminalization could potentially reduce crime. However, in comic books, crimes could potentially increase, since decriminalization would actually be providing supervillains with an even easier means of obtaining funds!

Of course, this need not necessarily be the case. In fact, with the reduction of criminal penalties for selling drugs, this would surely increase competition on real-Earth. New, underground organization would spring up, now unrestrained by the possibility of being incarcerated. This means that the supply of drugs would increase and prices would go down, which could imply that individual dealers would be making less than they were previously. If this is the case, then it is entirely possible that the increased competition would lead to an increase in crime.

However, it is also possible that the market size would increase such that even with the diminished price, dealers would still be selling more quantity and making the same, if not more. Furthermore, the increase in crime generated by the new competition might not be as significant as the reduction in crime from decriminalization. So, there could indeed be a net reduction.

Here's another reason why the sale of drugs is particularly fascinating in comics: there are much harder and much more dangerous drugs on the market. Again, since the major trade is controlled by our most notorious supervillains, many of them happening to be mad scientists or chemical geniuses, there is a constant influx of new, extremely sinister narcotics. One of my favorite examples is from Kevin Smith and Walt Flanagan's Batman: Cacophony miniseries, in which Maxie Zeus obtained some of the Joker's patented laughing gas and combined it with ecstasy to form an extremely potent new drug, called "chuckles." He then proceeded to make a fortune selling this drug on the black market, much to the Joker's anger.

Some of these drugs don't even have a market among the general populace, but rather with gangsters involved in other activities. In the panels depicted above, Professor Pyg had developed a drug/virus that served to actually destroy people's identities. I imagine that even most drug users wouldn't exactly hop on this train. However, gang lords and leaders of prostitution rings who need to poison their enemies/women? There's your market right there.

Even if the sale of drugs was completely legalized in comic books, there would still be a black market for this stuff. I highly doubt that the FDA would approve a drug that erased people's identities. Even still, one of the reasons these drugs are in such abundance and do so well in comics is, again, because they are illegal. Both suppliers and buyers have more of an interest in potent drugs. If the purchase of illegal drugs is such a high-risk endeavor, then it would generally be more worth it to the buyer to get something more substantial. Similarly, it is quite risky for suppliers to transport more low-potency drugs, when they could also transport the harder ones and sell them for a higher price.

Consider the era of Prohibition in the 1920s. As Norman E. Zinberg and Kathleen M. Fraser wrote, "People did not take the trouble to go to a speakeasy, present the password, and pay high prices for very poor quality alcohol simply to have a beer. When people went to speakeasies, they went to get drunk."

In conclusion, drugs in comic books is a more complicated business than i initially considered.


jamused said...

I wouldn't expect to see supervillains continue to dominate a legal drug trade for the much the same reason that we don't see supervillains dominate pharmaceuticals, insurance, finance or any other legitimate sectors of the economy even if their talents would otherwise seem well-suited (with the possible exception of Lex Luthor). In the context of legitimate business a comparative advantage in delivering violence and credible threats of violence doesn't have as much of a pay-off.

Will said...

One thing to keep in mind is that with most decriminalizations of drugs, the possession of personal use amounts is decriminalized, but the sellers/pushers can still be charged. This would still allow the Gotham police to target Joker or Scarecrow for distributing, but not tie up resources and prison space on the victims of the bad guy's plot (even if they are somewhat willing victims). Additionally, in a Portugese town (I think) where decriminalization happened, they discovered many users were more willing to seek aid. Considering the risks of a supervillain drug, having people (or their families/loved ones) willing to seek help earlier and not fear criminal reprisement, might allow the GCPD to respond quicker and cut off the drugs before they become too spread out.

James K said...

who even knows why Professor Pyg is selling his drug? Other than him being completely insane.

I'm reminded of the immortal words of Magnus Shale-Fist from Arcanum:

"Why do madmen do anything? Because they're bloody madmen, that's why!"

Rick said...


It wasn't a Portuguese town that decriminalized illicit drugs, it was the entire nation of Portugal.

One of the effects has been much higher treatment rates for drug addiction. Partly because police direct users to treatment rather than the courts, and partly because seeking help isn't a ticket to jail.

Will said...

@ Rick

Thanks for the information. It is a fascinating case study. I think Gotham should follow Portugal's lead. Picture the NA sessions: Hi, my name is Jonathan Crane and I am addicted to fear.

ShadowBanker said...

Jamused -- But what if it wasn't full on legalization so much as maybe an authoritative pardon? See Season 3 of The Wire.

Will - I'm not really sure how it works, but isn't the punishment for dealing also much less harsh in these circumstances? If so, then it is conceivable that drug business would expand anyhow.

By the way, kudos on the Crane/Fear joke!

jamused said...

I haven't seen The Wire, but I think that the logic still holds. To the extent that the authorities stop enforcing laws against drug possession and sale and that allows victims of drug-related violence, extortion or even theft to seek help from the authorities while freeing up police resources to concentrate on those things instead of mere trafficking, the super-villains Ricardian advantage in violence and scariness in that sector is reduced. It wouldn't put supervillains out of business, but the drug trade would become just one more kind of business to prey on, not necessarily any better or worse than something like the restaurant business or construction (to take two businesses that are famously subject to mob influence but aren't generally seen as being run by mobsters).

ShadowBanker said...

Jamused -- I think you're right. True legalization or not, businesses would probably pop up that would be more reputable than, say, the Joker.

But I still think it's a possibility that the market size will increase such that villains can still make lots of money. After all, if they continue to dominate in terms of product, people will keep buying.

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RJ Moore II said...

I find it interesting how often comic book characters will go after drug dealers when many comic book readers are copious consumers of marijuana. What's the economics on that?

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Vichy said...

"However, in comic books, crimes could potentially increase, since decriminalization would actually be providing supervillains with an even easier means of obtaining funds!"

Basic economics fail. Without the legal pressures:
1) More regular people (non-criminals) will enter the trade, as it is criminals will tend to it because of high profits and because they already face legal penalties.

2) This means supply expands, operating costs go down and profits pluge.

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