Last week, I did a piece on whether or not vigilantism in comics is a good thing. The original source for the article was a column by Josh Horwitz, in which he discusses that vigilantism, overall, is typically indicative of a failing trust in governmental and societal institutions. This failure of trust results in a belief that problems are best solved by an individual acting alone rather than by a system that has become ineffectual.
The more I thought about it, the more this made me wonder: do super-heroes help or hurt the overall trust of the societies in which they operate?
When Superman stops a tornado from destroying a small midwestern town, what is going to happen the next time that municipality votes on updating their early warning system? Will they see the necessity of protecting themselves or will they instead choose to believe that Superman will be there next time? Why choose to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into prevention that you may not need when the Man of Steel can send the tornado back up into the clouds the next time one appears?
When Batman uses his state-of-the-art technology to bring in a rogue villainous mastermind, what effect does that have the next time the city of Gotham is asked to vote on a bond issue to provide new equipment to the GCPD? Why should the citizens of Gotham vote to extend more funding to a police department that must rely on a maniac in a bat suit to solve its cases? That this funding would likely wind up back in the hands of Wayne Enterprises and by extension Batman is not a moot point, but is one for another day.
When heroes effectively replace law enforcement, disaster relief, even orbital protection, what reason do regular people have to trust in the governments of the world?
In certain sectors of the comic book medium, heroes operate in conjunction with their respective governments, often under their direction. Invincible, throughout much of the first half of its run, had the main character receiving orders from the Pentagon when it came to addressing potential global threats.
In the Marvel universe, post-Civil War, we now have several organized superhuman agencies that operate under the auspices of the US government, answering their call to deal with threats to the safety of the citizenry.
Aquaman and Wonder Woman are intriguing exceptions to both rules, their cases being that both are royalty of foreign nations, and thus diplomatically imune from prosecution.
In the revamped DC Universe, even the Justice League now operates under the watchful eye of the US Government, with an “authorized” international team working directly for and with the United Nations. In situations like this, the casecould be made that the participation of these heroes in the structure of government would actually enhance its efficacy.
Throughout much of comics history, however, the majority of characters have operated in a legal gray area, where they functioned outside of the parameters of law, meting out vigilante justice. Very few have any legitimate claims to authority or any standing permitting them to act with impunity. Granted, there have been cases where heroes have been officially deputized by their local municpalities, but that has been the exception rather than the norm. Instead, these heroes operate extralegally, free from prosecution for what are, essentially, vigilante activities.
Thoughout comics history, this has been a largely unquestioned dynamic. By and large, those few characters that do place themselves in opposition to unchecked vigilantism are there as plot foils or ongoing comic relief. J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of The Daily Bugle, is a perfect example of this, as is Denis Leary’s Captain Stacy in the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man. These are characters who are portrayed as ridiculous and, by extension, their ideas and (somewhat) legitimate criticism of the lawless heroes are rendered ridiculous as well. Their motivations are reduced to petty jealousy and revenge, their reasoning skewed, and even the depictions of them are often rabid and frightening. It is as if only a madman would question the hero’s right to do as they wish, regardless of the law.
So what effect does this have on society’s faith in its human governments?
This is a topic that has only been rarely addressed in books themselves. At the close of the Pre-Crisis era, there was an excellent story entitled “Does the World Need a Superman?” which showed Superman being questioned by the Guardians of the Universe. They put him to the question, positing that his very presence on Earth is impeding human progress. They point out that whenever he solves a problem for humanity, be it large or small, he is robbing them of the opportunity to make that mistake, learn from it, and derive a solution that is independent of a otherworldly intervention. It is the superhuman equivalent of teaching men to fish, rather than providing them fish out of hand.
When the answer to any pressing question becomes “[hero of your choice] will save us!” then what impetus does mankind have to come up with new solutions of their own?