Heroes: Bought and Paid For

Yesterday, friend of this blog Calamity Jon tweeted an intriguing thesis that he's letting me borrow. Here it is, in his own words:

No story is more boring to me than the government creating superheroes or the government managing superheroes, or big biz doing it. Part of the appeal of the inherent escapist fantasy in superheroes was that powers were democratic and meritocratic, anyone could get em. You were rewarded for inquisitiveness, courage, kind-heartedness, or you acquired them when your need was greatest. Sometimes you gained powers instead of dying, the greatest escapist fantasy of them all. But now the superhero stories are largely about monolithic authority figures granting powers and taking them back capriciously. The distinctions the corporate comics make are matters of good government agencies versus bad, benevolent or embittered tyrants. Anyway, in summary, it's almost like corporate comics promote the message that the individual possesses nothing, Happy #CreatorOwnedDay!

This struck a chord with me, identifying part of why I was equally unimpressed with government-owned (or controlled) superheroes, and superhero teams in particular. There have been characters and teams like this since the early days of the genre of course - that's what Captain America is - but they haven't been the norm until a trend I guess started with the Ultimates(?). Marvel pioneered it with the Avengers Initiative and heroes working for SHIELD, and now it's making big bucks on movie screens, so no surprise DC's Marvelized New52 is overusing the trope. When the first wave of books hit the stands, I was among those complaining that there were way too many different government agencies in the new DC Universe, each one heading a superhero team.
Now, I'm not entirely sure exactly which characters Jon means when he talks about powers given and taken away by those agencies. We might think of the Marvel heroes built by governments (Cap, Winter Soldier, Black Widow), or all those Lanterns made and unmade at the whim of the Guardians or other Battery Bosses, or Superboy grown and raised by some shadow agency in a test-tube and VR reality, or OMAC, or SHADE's Creature Commandos. I don't think it's that prevalent myself (or I might be reading the wrong books). Where I DO find it prevalent is in what we might call the Boy Band formula. Characters may come by their powers "naturally", and may keep them for the rest of their lives, but what these agencies hold over them is membership in any particular team. You can only be a member of the Justice League of America, the Suicide Squad, and yes, the Green Lantern Corps if some authority figures ask you and you do what they say. These organizations don't necessarily give out super-powers, but they do give heroes powers under the constitution, so to speak. Law enforcement powers. And what they can give, they can certainly take away.

And whether we're talking about powers or membership cards, I do agree with Jon that this obsession with shadow organizations running the superheroic show is representative of something in the comic book culture. Whether it's how editorial have come to think of themselves (where mandated) or how writers perceive company-owned creations (where pitched), these government agencies stand in for the heroes' "owners". In truth, all these agencies should be corporations, but that would be too obvious. The concept has, in fact, been conflated with the general distrust in government, or interest in special ops, which has been with us since the Bush years. They seem a product of the time, and remind us of things we don't really want to be reminded of (losing a measure of their "escapism"). At this point, there are too many people simply attempting to reproduce a certain formula, they don't even realize they're commenting on creators' rights anymore. Characters are slaves to the State/Company as a matter of course, which is seen as neither good nor bad. It just is.

Or are we reading too much into it?


Jayunderscorezero said...

Moreover, isn't the very *concept* of a superhero kind of an anti-institutional one? Isn't the idea that people (say, *Batman*) become superheroes *because* big organisations like the police or government are corrupt, inefficient or ineffectual? People are speculating about Blake!Batman being in a future Justice League, but can you really picture someone who's become so disillusioned with the police as an organisation joining up with something that would no doubt look a lot like the cinematic Avengers?

snell said...

I think part it may be a tapping into the current political/cultural zeitgeist. When a distinct portion of the populace seems eager to believe that (dictionary aside) the current U.S. government is run by socialists intent on taking over everything, perhaps it is inevitable that would seep into our heroic literature.

The same can be seen in the nu52's distrust of super-heroes (and Superman especially)--when you look some people's response to otherness (he's an alien! Where's his birth certificate!, etc.), you can see the vein being tapped for comics.

Of course, you can argue that that's the wrong vein to tap, that we should want a more aspirational and idealistic milieu for our heroic fiction. But that's obviously not how DC sees it. They wanted a nu52 where Henry Peter Gyrich is the rule, not the exception, it seems...

Anonymous said...

Here's what I think happened. At a certain point -- say, with the introduction of Henry Peter Gyrich in Marvel comics -- somebody acknowledged that there's no way the government would allow superhero teams to exist without having some influence over them. The problem with that was that Gyrich, or whoever, proved to be a foil in the worst ways: got in the way of the action rather than expanding it.

Then the Suicide Squad came along, and their new formula worked, in large measure because the government was throwing the heroes at missions, rather than telling them what they couldn't do. So, that became the go-to model for superhero teams.

Maybe it's a phase. I remember a time when all the antagonists were evil corporations, especially if you lived in the Ultraverse. Evil corporations are still around but they're not quite so pervasic.

Anonymous said...

"PERVASIVE". I blame a shadowy government conspiracy.

Siskoid said...

Definitely, Snell. It's a confluence of events, fads and cultural attitudes. For example, the distrust of superheroes is just as much a reflection of our distrust of our political leaders as it is an attempt to give the DCU its own Mutant Hysteria.

Anon: Corps were the big evil in the 80s, and I think they are much better villains today than shadow government agencies (who aren't used as villains either, more like amoral bosses). Of course, mainstream superhero comics are corporately owned, so it's no wonder their villainy is underplayed.

Craig Oxbrow said...

The most literal example is Marvel's Initiative, where Evil Tony Stark (remember that? neither does he!) was giving people temporary powers and putting them in teams after a lengthy vetting and training process, like a modern-day Strikeforce Morituri without the acknowledgement of how dangerous it was.

Martin Gray said...

Well said everybody, in the old days the Avengers didn't need Maria Hill to tell them to go fight that giant stepping on Manhattan.

What was the first example of a government interfering with a team? I suppose the Silver Age Legion could always have paid more taxes, rather than restrict their membership to 30.

Siskoid said...

Yeah, Legion could be the first, although it had its own constitution. I suppose it was interference more like that suffered by the current Justice League or Justice League Dark.

I know exactly how the Legion feels too. I work for a youth-run independent organization that nevertheless "rents" space from EarthGov--I mean, a university. Just because you're autonomous and incorporated doesn't mean you don't have to follow someone else's rules.

F. Douglas Wall said...

I think it's supposed to be about "realism." Since comic books these days are skewing more towards adults, the readership is less likely to accept "Hey, we just fought a big bad guy together. Let's team up!" And as you pointed out, getting a license to operate rather than just showing up in a mask and tights and assuming that people will just go with it builds on that believability.

And nobody trusts corporations to work towards the common good, so a corporate sponsored superteam is going to have difficulty being accepted.

So government it is.

Siskoid said...

Definitely. But like Jon, I think I'm bored with "realism". It's fine in some comics, just not MOST comics.

You know what? I've already accepted a man can fly, I'm ok with him flying without a license.

Martin Gray said...

'You know what? I've already accepted a man can fly, I'm ok with him flying without a license.'

I am soooo jealous right now!

Siskoid said...

Of the wordsmithing? Don't worry, you've had some good days too.


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