Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Bennett Bailout

Amazing Spider-Man #612 by Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta (2009)

The latest tale in Spider-Man's never-ending struggle demonstrates just how powerful the economy is as both an instigator of public discontent and as a motivation for supervillains. If we think about it, many supervillains form because they are either down on their luck or run into some sort of trouble with their finances. As Ezra Klein noted, the Sandman turned to a life of crime in Spider-Man 3 because he was unable to afford medical treatment for his daughter. Most ordinary thugs you see in comics (and a fairly large amount of brand-name villains too) commit crimes that are financially motivated. Even the Joker, depending on your interpretation has origins stemming from financial peril. A struggling comedian trying to support his family, he pulls a heist at a chemical plant to make some cash and...well, you know the rest.

Obviously the state of the economy is important here. We've discussed before how it's possible that an economic recession could lead to more crime. This applies mostly to your orindary street-thug types (remember this guy?), but if left unchecked we know that these low-tier criminals could escalate to be formidable opponents.

But now to top it off, we have a new way that the economy can affect the state of superheroics: public opinion.

Dexter Bennett, former construction tycoon turned newspaper owner, has just engineered the first official federal government bailout of the newspaper industry (specifically, his own newspaper The DB). If you think that this is ludicrous, recall that back in September President Obama hinted at doing something like this. To be fair, Obama was mainly looking at proposals to give extra tax breaks to struggling newspapers if they agreed to restructure as nonprofits. Waid doesn't go into much detail in Amazing Spider-Man, but it looks like what's happening is that the feds are just throwing money at The DB with no expectation of restructuring, public ownership, or...anything. This sort of makes you think about what the federal government is getting out of keeping The DB alive. Or how exactly Bennett pulled it off in the first place.

However, this is all besides the point. Far more interesting is the unintended result of this "Bennett Bailout." Remember the classic Spidey villain, Electro? The one who can...electro-ize stuff? The one we haven't seen in a while? I wonder how he can the federal government's actions to his advantage:

You see, NYC isn't exactly happy with the Bennett Bailout. Citizens feel that their taxpayers' money is being wasted to support greedy, capitalist fat cats sitting in their mansions as they suck the life out of the middle class. If anyone has read the supervillain instruction manual, they know that praying on the fears of the public is by far the easiest way to attack a superhero. And what do people fear more than anything else in the world right now? It's not a crazy former villain who shoots electricity out of his eyes. It's Wall Street.

Interestingly, this is precisely what J. Jonah Jameson has been trying to accomplish for years. By writing scathing critiques of the webcrawler in the former Daily Bugle, he was trying to instill a permanent sense of fear. He argued that Spider-Man increased crime. He argued that Spider-Man was a danger to society. He tried everything and only marginally impacted the public's perception of Spider-Man.

In one day, Electro managed to change all of that. He managed to completely change his own reputation from being a terrorist to being a servant of the labor force. He also managed to persuade the public that Spider-Man was part of the capitalist conspiracy. AND he did it without any intention of involving Spider-Man at all! Turns out Electro had lost the fortune he had in various investments when the economy went sour. He's out primarily for personal gain.

What's the difference between Electro and Jameson? Jameson never thought to use the great instigator of fear. The...economy!

The lesson here is that if superheroes want to be thorough, they better start getting their PhDs and involving themselves in public policy.


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