THE LAW OF SUPERHEROES: a subtle indictment of mainstream comics

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.

See? Comics can deal with the “real world”!


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.

See? Comics can deal with the “real world”!

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.”

Actually, Joker, you might just be legally responsible. So be more careful what you do.

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.

S#!T Talking Central

  • Joshua Thirteen

    Speaking more about the original issue of SF than comics, this seems to really about the kind of writing one enjoys more than anything else. (That said there is a great deal of SF that does not fit Sprague de Camps’ lighthearted description, if that’s your taste) Some enjoy so called “escapist literature”, (SF, detective, fantasy, romance novels, comedic stories and adventures), and others love to read what I call “fictionalized reality” – usually but not always things that could actually happen, either way presented with much more of the details and difficulties that reality entails than the former. No “escape” from those, you see. The fans of the latter tend to believe it is superior to the former, and dare I say think perhaps therefore they are themselves more intelligent, educated or refined. The words make them think and feel troubled sometimes, and perhaps make them better for it. They believe that is what literature is for. Others find that stories can be rich and intriguing, and yes adult, while ignoring numerous unanswered questions, and bypassing political, legal and social complexities that would distract from the telling of the story. They think telling and hearing good stories is a good unto itself, like good music, or beauty. It requires no justification. It does not need a so-called higher purpose. Not much delving into the social or economic structure or real, deep, human emotion in the Lord of the Rings, no concern about the British class structure or colonialism in the novels of Agatha Christie, nor indeed the legal implications of a lot of things her detectives such as Hercule Poirot do or say. Can you imagine the police actually letting a citizen muck about with evidence, question suspects, and the like? But it’s ok for Christie to ignore the real world as needed to tell a great story, and it’s ok to enjoy it, without calling it escapist or “for children”.

    • crzhrs

      I share your sentiment. I’d like to add however, even in escapism there is deeper meaning. Lord of the rings for example delves allot into the society we have today. The hobbit on through out the series deals with greed, in the form of the Gold coveted by the Dragon Smaug and the Dwarves, (I’m referencing the book not the movie) and of course the lust for power represented by the one ring. Those are simplistic allegories yes, however the rises, and falls of the characters through out are not so simple. Smeegle is the clearest sharpest example, he never over comes his greed and in the end is swallowed by Mordor’s evil. In the movie it’s the fires of Mordor.

      In that as well I can see further the correlations, the great evil and plague of death that is Mordor, could be an allegory for the systematic abuse of our environment, the hell fires released are an allegory perhaps for the Flammable water which results from fracking. I can see all these possible allegories, be they true or not, woven in the tapestry of this beautiful Epic.

      Also I’d like to add to your comment with works of science fiction that are at once simplistic/campy yet draw deeper more complex ideas. Take Star Trek for example a series that has dealt with issue’s of race, indifference among peoples. Star Trek was the first on screen kiss between a black and a white person, and it was its SF identification that made that possible. In Star Trek Rodenberry also tackled politics, The Federation of Planets, Starfleet (based in San Francisco) was the United States, The Volcans, being British are the mighty Democratic countries.

      The Klingon Empire being Russian. were the enemy ‘communist’ nations. That was the original series, flash forward to The Next Generation, communism has fallen, Klingons no longer communist, and no longer white. The change was addressed once in the Deep Space nine Star Trek, but wasn’t explained until the prequel Enterprise. Even in DS9 which tackled cultural indifferences overall. DS9 was about a people the Bajorans who after years of fighting had freed themselves from the occupation of the Cardassian Empire. The station had a Black Commander (later Captain, the first in the series) they dealt with Space Terrorists, War, and even delved into interspecies relationships. Star Trek in all its series delved into serious topical issues in line with current events at the time.

      Sci Fi masquerades as Simplistic, but only on the surface, from Novels to Graphic Novels, comics, Anime, Films Cartoons TV series’ and so on. Science Fiction allows writers to present a topic, current or longstanding. It by nature asks you to suspend disbelief and escape to a whole other world, to step out side of yourself, and imagine, well for lack of a better word ‘this’ and then the story unfolds. One such story was a Captain kissing one of his shipmate and many of the fans that watched it for one second did indeed forget if but for only a moment that this was a black woman and white man kissing and a historic moment.

  • crzhrs

    It seems the author of this is at best skimming through a few comics while presenting a false deeper knowledge, or they just cannot see the forest before the trees. To say comics are childish and sophomoric is incredibly subjective. Comic books deal with extremely sensitive matters in away that is open and fair, by using simplistic allegories so that it is relevant by a vast majority of its readers. Not everyone can read “War and Peace” and have the desire and want to commit themselves to finding its meaning, and even so find like minded individuals willing to do the same. The “hero” as it were often serves as perhaps an allegory to the everyday man (or men, and I mean the co-ed form of that to mean ALL humans). In one way showing the effect of the rhetoric of society/environment and how the ‘hero’ deals with it.

    ‘Hero’s have been called upon to deal with several issues relevant and VERY real to society. For Instance take Luke Cage Hero for hire. The author of this article may continue his rhetoric by taking the simple view, maybe Luke Cage is a brother trying to make a buck, and that’s an understandable view as on the surface he literally is that, in fact its one of his opening lines. However, stop for a moment and consider the times he was created in, the mid to late 70’s, the height of “blacksploitation”. He dons a flamboyant Yellow Shirt, a gold chain a ‘Fro like none other, with an attitude to match. And he’s supposed to be the 1st Black superhero (he’s published before the Black Panther T’Chala, I welcome correction if any) and yet he only represents some tiny portion of actual African Americans of that time. But that’s just one example. Allow me to offer more.

    How about in the issues leading up to the Death of Superman, “Crisis at Hand”….

    “Crisis at Hand.’ Superman is brutally reminded of the limits of his powers when a case of wife-beating in his own apartment building continues despite his intervention.” – (search ‘Crisis at Hand’)

    Superman the 1st Super hero if you don’t count Zorro, The Lone Ranger and the Shadow among a few, is powerless to stop domestic violence in his own apartment building. Here he is with all his power and he can do nothing to stop this, the wife takes the abuse, and defends her husband when Superman comes in she even calls the police on Supes. So he tries doing it as Clark Kent. This was in the 90’s when Domestic Violence became a mainstream conversation, as well as other domestic topics like cheating, divorce, etc. Supes had to grapple with the law as it stands, he had to consider all the ramifications of breaking this law which he could easily do. Think of the restraint placed on him. This is a kids comic book. How simply is this?

    The current hot topic is Sexuality, and lo and behold a Gay Green Lantern. Keep in mind most of my references here are D.C. comics heroes, DC is notorious for a rather linear story line, however it is one of depth. Marvel has characters that are asexual multi-colored etc. Dealing with issues of racism, sexuality and hate with a diverse cast of characters. The X-Men for example. Mutants who are suffering discrimination, trying to find where they belong, their cry is that “I was born this way”. Where have you heard that phrase, “I Was born this way” Thats comics dealing with that issue.

    On the surface it may seem simplistic, to a simple person. I could easily see Sigmund Freud relating the author of any comic book to their relation ship with their mother, or he would say his most (or 2nd most) line “Sometimes and egg is just an egg” – Freud ( disclaimer: I may not have it exactly but the jist is there)

    Furthermore we should not look at children as simplistic either. Children often ask the most complex of questions, i.e. what is the meaning of life, how are babies born, why do I have 2 mommies but no daddy? They can handle the deep explanations, its just the adults who have none to offer instead feed them some fantasy.