Menu Close

Review of Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice

By Thomas E. Simmons

Boucher, Ian, ed. Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice. Sequart Organization, 2017.

Ian Boucher has collected two interviews and eleven essays by up-and-coming critics in Humans and Paragons. The contributors’ credentials range from independent scholars, bloggers, and comic book authors, to a Ph.D. candidate. The essays span topics as diverse as an exploration of justice mosaics in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and repositioning the cast of Batman and Superman on the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system of moral positions (lawful good, true neutral, chaotic evil, etc.). (In case you’re wondering, Commissioner Gordon is a “neutral good” (78).) What the submissions may lack in polished prose and nuance, they mostly compensate for with sincerity and insight. A weaker entry for my tastes is Michal Siromski’s dissection of the Joker’s mental health issues, “Four Things You Always Wanted to Know about the Joker (but were Afraid to Ask).” The book’s coverage extends to superheroes in television and film (including significant attention devoted to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and Man of Steel (2013)) but in this review, I will concentrate on Humans and Paragon‘s treatment of comic book texts.

Boucher intends for his essayists to comment upon punishment, the criminal justice system, and morality in the semiotics of superhero narratives. He hopes, as he announces in the “Introduction,” for an opportunity “to start giving this conversation a permanent place among the rest of the timeless comic book questions with all of their magnificent possibilities,” but he acknowledges that initially, it may be enough if the discourse can just point us in the right direction (8). Picking at superhero tropes for legal drift is relatively virgin ground. This volume adds to a small outcropping of monographs studying legal themes in comic books, such as the bestselling The Law of Superheroes (2012) by James Daily and Ryan Davidson and Sovereignty and Superheroes (2016) by Neal Curtis.

In Boucher’s interview of comic book writer Mark Waid, his subject takes note of an inherent instability: although the superhero embodies exaggerated physical abilities packaged with infallible morality, these virtues are wrapped in a mask of identity concealment. Superheroes fortify deceptions of their own identities—secret identities. Waid explains that “the theme we’re dealing with is that honesty is a virtue and yet everything about super-heroes’ true identity is wrapped up in secrecy;” everything is covered with masks, obscured with lies (240). A superhero has punched-up physical strength and impregnable virtue but he hides his face. He deceives everyone.

Waid recalls his favorite Superman story published in 1961, “Superman Owes a Billion Dollars.” In the story, an IRS agent named Rupert Brand concludes that Superman has enjoyed generous amounts of income from his discoveries and labors (such as in turning coal into diamonds) and yet has never paid any income tax. Superman’s secret identity precludes it—Clark Kent can’t be expected to report income arising out of radium finds without risking disclosure of his Kryptonian origins. Clark Kent has only reported and paid taxes on his Daily Planet salary. The collections inside Superman’s Fortress of Solitude demonstrate the fruits of his unreported income. True, Superman donates the great bulk of his income to charitable organizations, but the Internal Revenue Code does not allow an unlimited charitable deduction; the deduction is capped at a percentage of the taxpayer’s income. As a result, Brand calculates, Superman owes a billion dollars in back taxes. “T-taxes!” Superman stutters, “But I’ve never been asked to pay taxes before!”

Superman’s tax problem highlights the extra-legal nature of his well-publicized feats as a caped hero. Superman operates outside traditional rules of law and there are consequences which, in the real world, would catch up to him. Predictably, Superman does what Superman does best in response to being caught in an IRS web, and uses his superpowers. He tries to generate sufficient coal-into-diamonds funds to satisfy his tax bill before the IRS deadline. Also, predictably, his efforts fail (for one thing, he’s generating more income which cascades into additional tax liabilities, but more importantly the narrative can’t resolve itself satisfactorily in this way). There’s a genuine tension in the story, as it suggests that the superhero’s masked identity could cause his downfall, yet the superhero story never permits this kind of reality intrusion. Could Superman really face jail time for tax evasion? The reader begins to panic as the defenses of the genre’s formulaic comforts seem to be crumbling.

At that last minute, a deus ex machina in the form of Rupert Brand’s superior enters a panel. As Waid recalls, the supervisor explains that “if you’re talking about the rules, then by the IRS code everybody gets a $600 exemption for dependents—and the whole world is dependent on Superman” (234). It’s silly but it’s also artful. It resonates with the “idea that Superman has done such good things and he’s been so selfless that the entire world feels indebted to him” (234). The narrative tension is relieved by folding the rule of law back on itself to achieve a just outcome, or at least the outcome required by formulaic convention, although the discomfort triggered by taking a superhero to the very edge of the genre’s rules lingers. Could Superman’s anonymity hold a trap? Clearly his super strength could not save him from the IRS. Only the law of dependents’ deductions could save him. The nagging questions derive from a near-miss. The story is unusual in its oblique acknowledgement of the genuine problems of secret identities.

As Paul Jaissle articulates in his chapter, “Defenders of the Status Quo,” this lingering discomfort also derives from the gap between “what is legal and what is ‘truly just'” (96). Superheroes represent goodness, yet they oppose a society’s legal codes which are designed towards the same end but often fail: “costumed heroes are, despite their good intentions, breaking the law” (96). Yet the superhero denotes more than just what is good. She “represents a purer or higher form of justice, one that contrasts the fragile and easily corruptible legal system” (96). It sounds a bit fallacious to equate brawny lads who wear underwear on the outside with a higher form of justice. I mean, we’re comparing Aquaman to the most dedicated jurist. But it’s a sound point; superheroes are emblems of justice. Law cannot invariably achieve just aims; the superhero, as extra-legal actor, is partly wed to conventional systems and institutions, but also steps outside of them to achieve a deeper justice, a perfect justice. The superhero represents and consistently attains a zenith, a target that’s never been acquired on Earth Prime: a justice which is free from error, every single time.

Superheroes represent infallible justice, but they conceal their true selves with costumes. There is a fine line between privacy and concealment, or perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. Some claim that privacy is primarily concerned with obscuring bad behavior and disreputable conduct. Others see privacy as an independent virtue. Superhero stories, however, don’t seem to consider masked identities as a privacy issue. Identity itself is typically remote from privacy. What one does may be private, but not who one is. Obscuring an identity—who is that caped crusader?—bespeaks of an anonymity value of some sort, if there is such a thing.

The expectations of fail-safe justice underpin traditional superhero narratives. Ross May, in a particularly strong essay titled “Super-Heroes: Threat or Menace? Why Super-Hero Justice Only Exists in Fiction” considers Batman and distills the superhero genre’s fundamental rule: “Batman is always right about things that matter” (115). Or as Paul Jaissle traces in Superman’s composition, “he always finds a way to do the right thing” (184). This is not to suggest that superheroes are faultless. There may be many missteps along the way. Superheroes may have weaknesses, such as kryptonite. But never once does Superman nab the wrong crook; never once does Batman accidentally mow down a toddler as he rockets the Batmobile down Gotham’s streets. Jaissle (also a contributor to the Green Lantern and Philosophy (2011) anthology) nails it. The appeal of superheroes is not adolescent boy wish-fulfillment (okay, partly). The appeal is Platonic justice personified in a world of crazy super villains and primary color sidekicks.

This always-being-right-about-things-that-matter is itself a super ability. Indeed, it’s much more fantastic than super speed or adamantium claws. It is patently unrealistic, but it is an unbending rule of the traditional genre. And it solves the problem of superhero identity deception. So long as superheroes enjoy error-free virtue and altruism, their flawlessness replaces the need for accountability. To even suggest that perfect justice needs to be accountable sounds faulty.

Take away the flawlessness, and the symbolism collapses. Without superhero flawlessness, superhero anonymity would cause greater problems than just omitted tax filings. Granted, the secret identity convention is not universally observed (consider the Fantastic Four), but given the anonymity that secret identities typically provide, accountability on every level would be jeopardized in a world with superheroes. May reasons: “The public would have no recourse against a man in a mask…” (119). If superheroes successfully shroud their genuine identities, they can never be held accountable. This problem doesn’t matter in the superhero genre because of the genre’s fundamental rule, identified above: Superheroes never err about anything significant, at least anything significant that relates to justice. But it would matter a great deal if the rules of the genre were to give way, as they were threatening to in “Superman Owes a Billion Dollars.” May continues:

If there were a costumed man running around, punching people out, is that the sort of person you would want defending justice? As readers, we know Batman is always right about things that matter. But there is the crux: we know as readers. We are real people looking into a fictional world. (117)

Granted, this outcome-determinative construction of perfect justice can be partly blamed on the Comics Code Authority. The comic book industry’s self-censorship and self-regulation modalities required of their narratives that good always prevail over evil and that institutions be treated with respect, guaranteeing a certain conventionality and monotony. But nothing in the Comics Code required that superheroes lie about their identities. Nothing required an anonymity by which superheroes could avoid accountability for a misstep. So why is superhero anonymity so pervasive in superhero comics?

Humans and Paragons‘s contributors all agree that superheroes function as metaphors in relation to justice. As Colby Pryor explains in “Keeping the Wolves at Bay: How the Super-Hero Keeps the Wheel of Fortune from Turning,” a uniform typically heralds that some higher authority has granted the wearer the right to wear it. A two-step hierarchy is indicated by a uniform. A sovereign authority enforces conformity and standards; it vests the wearer of the uniform with a regulated scope of powers made visible through the uniform. A police officer fits nicely within this rubric. The recognizable uniform of a police officer also works on a symbolic level; it signifies more than the wearer’s occupation. The community extends to the officer both the uniform and its approval of the officer’s exercise of law enforcement powers; the uniform marks sanction and the supremacy of the sovereign which grants it. The badge is not just an allegory for law and order; it announces the conveyance of law enforcement powers from the sovereign to the individual police officer.

But who is it that extends to the superhero the right to wear a costume? From whence does the authority to grant it derive? Perhaps, Pryor muses, it is us, the readers of comic books. If we recast the superhero’s costume as a uniform that demonstrates our collective endorsement of perfect justice, a superhero’s deception yields to something else entirely, and helps explain why—until Watchmen (1986-1987)—comic book narratives seemed mostly oblivious to the problems with legions of unaccountable costumed vigilantes. Instead of deceiving, the costume embodies our sanction of the superhero allegory of ideal justice. The superhero costume also signifies the power to grant this sanction and to determine how it is vested in the reader. The superhero did not don a costume, we the readers uniformed her, just as we would an elected Sheriff. So long as the superhero retains the ability to deliver error-free justice, our endorsement of her in her silly cape reinforces the worthiness of that ideal. And perhaps the silliness of the costume is a partial acknowledgement of the non-viability of ever achieving perfect justice. The costume is silly because we know deep down that ever expecting infallible justice is just as silly. If I reflect on this, I’m not convinced that this explanation allows us to totally sidestep the question of why anonymity is so widespread in traditional superhero narratives, but it may allow us to halfway circumnavigate it.

These kinds of interesting ideas ripple through Humans and Paragons. Future scholarship might pursue the opposition of costumed justice-seeking further. Despite some unevenness, the volume is a success. We should not expect flawlessness from the non-costumed among us, anyway. We should leave flawlessness to the caped ones. They do it best.

Related Articles