December 27th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Superhero Registration?

Way the heck back last May, Marvel Comics started one of their grand story arcs, one of those big tie-in series that affects almost every title they publish. It's an obnoxious marketing ploy that every comics fan is familiar with by now. They create these tie-ins so that if you really want to follow the story in full detail, you have to buy almost every title that comes out each month. And sure as heck, it's still going on, and by my count, it's up to just under 100 comic books so far. I didn't get started on it; I concluded that comic books weren't smart economically, as an entertainment buy, years ago before even the last round of price hikes. Fortunately, I haven't had to spend $200+ on comic books to follow this "Civil War" story arc, though, because Wizard Entertainment has maintained a set of synopses on one of their web pages (including scans of key panels), the Wizard Universe "Civil War Room."

It's interesting to me not just because JMS, the guy who wrote Babylon 5, is one of the guest writers for one of the series. It's interesting to me because they're tackling, head on, one of the most interesting questions to me about the whole "tights and fights" superhero trope: the legality of what guys like Spiderman and Superman do for a living. And to my taste, judging by the synopses, they're screwing it up. So (out of courtesy to a friend of mine who insists on having them all bought and stacked up before he reads the first one and who goes into psychological anaphylactic shock over spoilers), let's say no more than this, from the first few pages of the very first issue: the story begins when a superhero versus supervillain fight generates so much collateral damage that there is a widespread public hue and cry to outlaw superheros altogether. The compromise proposal is to get rid of secret identities altogether. The story relates the all out war between the pro-registration superheroes (and the government) versus the super-heroes who refuse to register. In this fight, Marvel is clearly and unambiguously taking the position that, as New Frontiersman magazine said in Watchmen, "Honor is like the hawk; sometimes it must go hooded." By June or July they had already made it clear that the pro-registration side are evil pure and simple, and all that remained to be seen was which of them was actually deliberately evil and which ones were merely stupid.

Now, in a world that had never seen superheroes and supervillains before, say the Marvel Universe of the 1940s, I can see why it'd be reasonable for us to assume that there's no clear law addressing the question of whether it's legal for a solo vigilante or a small vigilante team to dress up in brightly colored spandex with a face obscuring mask to stop whatever crimes offend them personally or that they happen to find while out personally looking for them and to use superhuman force to bring those villains to justice. Reasonable, but wrong. Because people putting on masks to defend their community from evils that the cops can't or won't deal with is not a new idea in America. The Committees of Vigilance, from whom we get the word vigilante. The Bald Knobbers. The Klan. And those are just a few that come to mind that pre-date the comic book superhero fad. And there's a reason why masked vigilantes have a bad name, why the word vigilante is an indictment.

Vigilantes are anonymous, and therefore unaccountable. If a cop goes rogue or even just makes a horrific mistake, he's accountable. But if Spiderman, in his rush to catch Doctor Octopus, were to negligently distract a bus driver and thereby cause the bus to run off the road and kill 50 handicapped orphans and 3 kind elderly nuns, who gets sued? If Doctor Octopus were to actually be arrested for a felony under conditions where his conviction would be upheld on appeal (something that Spiderman is almost certainly not going to get right), he could be further charged with murder for those orphans' deaths because any death resulting from the commission of any felony is murder. But Spiderman himself could, and should, be sued for his own contributory negligence, and who are they going to serve the subpoena for that on? So frankly, legislation requiring everybody to be clearly identifiable before they engage in the potentially wanton use of insanely deadly amounts of force on their own recognizance is, in fact, the bare minimum that's reasonable.

And honestly, how often is superheroic force legal, anyway? Do any of them even know the laws regarding the circumstances under which they are allowed to use force against another person and not have it meet the legal definition of assault? Do you? It's actually quite simple. You are allowed to use force against another person only if doing so is the only way possible to stop that person from committing imminent murder or imminent grievous bodily harm, and you are only allowed to use the minimum possible force in order to prevent that crime. Anything more than that, or under any circumstance than that, is assault. Doing so with superheroic force, even against an opponent you reasonably think can survive that amount of force, is felony assault with a deadly weapon. It's also reckless use of deadly force within city limits, almost certainly. Marvel has set him up as a dangerous buffoon, but J. Jonah Jameson is actually right: it set a terrible precedent that Spiderman wasn't arrested and brought to justice after the very first crime he intervened in.

God bless the Batman; he (and most of the writers who've written him) understands this. But then, Batman narrowly qualifies as a hero only in one regard. Gotham City, at the time of the beginning of his career, was a true Nightmare Town, a place where the fix was "in" so thoroughly that the entire political system, every judge and every elected official, was on the side of the criminals. (Except for one deputy DA, and look how long he lasted.) As were all of the cops who were enthusiastically engaged in protecting the criminals themselves, all but one who (as Frank Miller wrote into his now famous retcon Batman: Year One) was transferred there from another nightmare town specifically to be murdered. But it doesn't explain how Batman was able to keep operating once the era of Mafia rule in America's major cities was over, once marked-man honest cop Jim Gordon became the police commissioner. Unlike most superheroes, Batman actually remembers that the breaking and entering he does in order to collect evidence is illegal. (Again, Frank Miller, in The Dark Knight Returns: "Of course we're criminals. We've always been criminals.") And taints cases making them unprosecutable. And he doesn't care, because he gave up on trusting the legal system a long time ago.

People tolerate Batman for the same reason that they tolerate the Statesman and the superheroes he represents in City of Heroes, for the same reason that a grateful public tolerates Spiderman most of the time: because the Batman and the Statesman and Spiderman have saved their bacon before, and they're grateful. Why do we tolerate this fantasy? Because deep down, we trust the Good People with access to unlimited power to intervene and defend us from the Bad People. And that's a scary fantasy. It's the fantasy that gave us the PATRIOT Acts and a war in Iraq.

So you tell me what's wrong with a line that's come up in comic book history over and over again? "If you want to fight crime, put on a police uniform and join the police." The Marvel Universe has even toyed with that idea at one time or another. The US government did set up a system of voluntary registration, in which the government would assume limited liability for superhero negligence or misconduct if they registered and agreed to mostly-nominal supervision. It's called the Avengers, and something like, what, a quarter of the American superheroes in the Marvel Universe are already defacto, de jure, or reserve members of it already. What's wrong with requiring every superhero to at least join the Avengers, if not actually enroll in the local police and submit to police supervision?