In his essay “The Embarrassments of Science Fiction,” the late great writer Thomas Disch offers a diagnosis of SF that seems to apply even more to mainstream superhero comic books. His thesis is that SF is a branch of children’s literature, and, as such, is emotionally and thematically restrictive. The taste for SF is acquired during adolescence, and only the most hard-core stick with it as they age chronologically. As a result, SF is escapist literature that is meant to appeal to our adolescent side; stories are simple, without examining the real-world implications of the concepts explored:
The emotional limitations of children’s literature are even more restrictive. There are, here and there, children bright enough to cope with the Scientific American or even the Times Literary Supplement, but crucial aspects of adult experience remain boring even to these prodigies… Other subjects commonly dealt with by mainstream writers are also presumed not to be of interest to sf readers, such as the nature of the class system and the real exercise of power within that system. Although there is no intrinsic reason (except difficulty) that sf should not venture into such areas, sf writers have characteristically preferred imaginary worlds in which, to quote Sprague de Camp, “all men are mighty, all women beautiful, all problems simple, and all life adventuresome.”
(ON SF, page 5)
When comic books were first published in the early 1930s, they were regarded as ephemeral juvenilia, to be read and thrown away, long forgotten before dinner time. The earliest comic books were collections of newspaper comic strips, but even when material was finally being produced specifically for the format, the stories presented concepts that were not thought through. They weren’t supposed to be — they would fall apart under too much scrutiny. Take for example the simplistic tale of Superman tearing down tenements in order to fight the problem of youth gangs in Action Comics #8. Superman’s logic is that if he destroys the decrepit buildings in which these disadvantaged youth live, the government will come in and build all-new, shiny apartment buildings that will automatically change their lives for the better. In the story, the government does — in just a few weeks. And, presumably, everyone whose home was destroyed by Superman (where were they staying while the apartments were being built?) get to move in, at the same rental rates.
At best, you could call this story a metaphor. Or, perhaps, a wish-fulfillment fantasy. At heart, that’s what mainstream superhero comics are. And things haven’t changed all that much in the years since. Superheroes are still knocking down buildings while making simplistic moral and political statements — Marvel’s Civil War miniseries being a notable and popular example. Superficially, the latter miniseries seems more sophisticated and nuanced. Really, it’s just longer, and has more splash panels and two-page spreads. The comics of the earliest years packed just as much story into 12 or 22 pages as modern creators cram into six issue, paperback collection-friendly arcs.
Things really haven’t changed all that much, attitude wise. Comics are basically children’s literature, exploring the same themes over and over again.
Not long after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States federal government rounded up people of Japanese ancestry and placed them in “internment camps.” This shameful action was taken because of widespread fears that certain American citizens might take action against the US government during World War II. Superheroes might have sold war bonds, but none of them said anything about the internment camps.
From 1932 to 1972 the US government tricked poor black people in Alabama into believing that they were receiving treatment for syphilis. In fact, they were being used to study the effects of untreated syphilis.
Today, the president of the United States has a Kill List — excuse me; it’s now being called a Disposition Matrix — in which he uses top secret information to decide who will be annihilated by bomb-dropping flying robots.
Try to imagine what the government would do if there existed people who could level entire buildings with just one punch. Or who could build suits of armor that allowed them to fly, and shoot lasers out of their hands. Most of the time, the real-world implications of superhero activities are ignored by the creators charged with telling the stories. They have characteristically preferred imaginary worlds. Occasionally, some halfhearted reference to current events is thrown in, with noticeably clumsy results. For instance, when Tony Stark was Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, or when Captain America took on the Tea Party. Or, perhaps most notoriously, Dr. Doom’s bout of melancholia over the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Superhero comics are escapist wish-fulfillment fantasies, whose writers are poorly equipped to handle real-world issues. If in fact this is a problem, is there a solution? Here is one proposal: Send in the lawyers.
Since November 2010, James Daily and Ryan Davidson have been running LAW AND THE MULTIVERSE, one of the best and most entertaining comics-based websites in the world. The authors, both lawyers, explore the legal issues that arise from the stories and situations presented (and rebooted and reimagined) in mainstream American superhero comics. By covering these issues so exhaustively, they celebrate the art form and subtly indict the comic book creators for their lack of imagination.
Their website has spawned a book, THE LAW OF SUPERHEROES, which is one of the most subversive and nefarious books of the year. I came away from it feeling like I’d actually learned something about the history of American jurisprudence and how our laws actually work, while at the same time feeling even more demoralized about the state of modern comic books. Take, for example, this footnote from page 184, regarding Marvel’s Civil War:
The specifics of the law are never really worked out all that well, and S.H.I.E.L.D., the fictional Office of National Emergency, and the real-life Department of Homeland Security are inconsistently depicted as having responsibility for varying aspects of the law’s implementation. It seems likely that the editors never sat everyone down and decided how this was going to work, which would explain a lot of consistency problems in the event.
That footnotes appears in Chapter 8, which concerns Administrative Law. Seriously. It happens to be one of my favorite chapters in the book, dealing with some of the IRS issues surrounding the uses of Superman’s powers (if Superman squeezed a lump of coal into a diamond and presented it as a gift to Lana Lang, there are massive tax implications; if, however, Superman presented Lana Lang with a lump of coal and then squeezed it into a diamond, Lana wouldn’t owe any gift taxes), and whether or not Mr. Fantastic would have to get FDA approval for all of those drugs he gave to the Thing, while trying to cure him of his rocky complexion (“unlikely,” they decide, drily).
Unlike the creators of mainstream comics, the authors really do work out “the specifics.”
One of the best sections of the book concerns the potential hazards of shape-shifters testifying in court cases. Overall, the authors are fairly blasé about the prospect, since there are already safeguards built into the trial system that would root them out:
Cross-examination is the part in a trial in which a witness is questioned by the opposing attorney, a process that witnesses universally report is No Fun At All. The attorney is deliberately attempting to catch and exploit inconsistencies, however minor, in the witness’s testimony, and even an entirely truthful, honest witness can be made to appear pretty silly by a skilled trial lawyer. (p. 89-90)
Lawyers, you see, are tougher than shape-shifting super villains. Or, super heroes, as the case may be.
Another concern: Transporting weapons across state and international lines. Iron Man’s suit probably wouldn’t be legal in any state, but let’s say just for fun that Tony Stark lived in a state with an extremely liberal conceal-carry law. What if he wanted to fly from his state (let’s just call it Texas for the purposes of this illustration) to New York? During the flight, he would be carrying his suit — which happens to be a full-body weapon — across several states, all of which he would have to get permission from. It would be even worse if he flew to England, which recently denied a US government request to use its bases for potential air strikes against Iran. The authors cover this concept from every angle you can imagine.
The most insidious aspect of the book is the fact that you will actually learn something about the laws under which we live. For instance, on pages 134-135, while explaining how the innocent bystanders who are occasionally drawn into the backgrounds of comic book panels might get “super villain insurance,” the authors give an overview of how residual insurance markets work. On pages 16-17, the Commerce Clause is invoked to explain how superhero registration laws might work. On pages 73-76, the authors explain how defendants use insanity as a defense, and show that from a legal standpoint the Joker would not qualify as “insane.”
If the creators of mainstream American comics took their work as seriously as Daily and Davidson, mainstream American comics would be a joy to read. On the one hand, creators reference real-world events in an attempt to ground their stories in some kind of relatable reality. On the other, they show little interest in examining what the presence of super-powered beings would do to a world in which bomb dropping flying robots already exist. Daily and Davidson occasionally state that what happens in comics “depends upon the imagination of the comic book writer.” In a way, the same could be said of THE LAW OF SUPERHEROES. Perhaps, for a sequel, the authors could create a book in which they examine what kind of “class system” and what kind of laws we would have if superheroes really existed. For consideration as a starting-off point: Four years after Superman made his first appearance, and started tearing down tenement buildings to solve the problem of youth violence, president Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9102, which established the War Relocation Authority, to administer the Japanese internment camps.
What kind of Executive Order would Roosevelt have signed once human-looking super powered beings started popping up? And how different would our world be today?
Full disclosure: My copy of THE LAW OF SUPERHEROES was a review copy provided free of charge by the publisher.