Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Heroes and the Law II

Continuing my thoughts on the relationship between superheroes and the law. Previously I looked at how the real world would handle superheroes. Now I will look at how they related to the law in their own universes.

When superheroes were first created at the end of the 1930s, they were an extension of a long tradition of adventurers who either aided the law or took the law into their own hands. This tradition went back decades and included stories about the wild west, the pulps, and radio dramas. Superheroes were descended from heroes such as the Shadow, Doc Savage, and Sherlock Holmes. There were also newspaper comic strips that featured heroes who were costumed or at least wore distinctive dress who were nearly superheroes. These included The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician and the futuristic heroes Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. All of these characters fought crime on some level without official sanction. Beyond that, Prohibition and the corruption it caused left people with a poor opinion of the police. Naturally, people didn't spend much time thinking about the legal ramifications of super-powered vigilantes with all of these other characters in circulation.

The Phantom deserves special mention. He was the secret chief of the Jungle Patrol making him the first costumed hero to actually head a police department.

When Superman first appeared he was obviously working outside the law. In his first couple of appearances he ran a corrupt senator out of town and stopped a war. Just imagine the consequences of either of these acts today.

World War II began just as superheroes were starting to bloom. Most heroes joined the war effort in some manner. Some heroes like Captain America were officially working within the government. The Human Torch joined the police force early on then recruited the Sub-Mariner to help in the fight against the Nazis.

The Golden Age of Comics ended along with World War II and most superhero comics were canceled. The most notable exceptions were Superman and Batman. By the 1950s, Batman had been deputized into the Gotham Police Force and Superman was officially recognized by the UN and the various law enforcement agencies of the world.

In the DC universe, several Silver Age heroes had relationships with law enforcement agencies one way or another. Green Lantern was part of a galactic police force. Hawkman and Hawkgirl were extraterrestrial police officers on earth to learn human police methods. Martian Manhunter's secret identity was a police detective named John Jones. The Flash was a scientist for the police.

Things were a little different when Marvel started. The three original teams in the Marvel Universe all had ties with the government. Nick Fury, who still had both eyes and was working with the CIA sent the Fantastic Four on a mission to stop the Hate Monger. Professor X had an FBI liaison he regularly met with. The Avengers went several steps beyond this. Avengers authority could be used to order police. An Avengers id was an all-access card. Rick Jones used his to see the President without an appointment. Later on these relationships became strained. After Professor X's apparent death, the FBI ordered the X-Men to split up in order to present a smaller target. This only lasted a couple of issues and was probably a sales ploy. The government took a stronger role in the Avengers, ordering them to diversify their membership and making other changes.

Non-team heroes did not fare as well. No one really cared about Daredevil and Doctor Strange operated below everyone's radar but Spider-Man was actively wanted for general questioning and the Hulk was considered an enemy of any country he happened to be in. He was attacked by the military in the US and the USSR.

The next batch of Marvel heroes operated outside the law as often as in it. This included the Sub-Mariner (who had attacked New York a couple of times) and the Silver Surfer (who had attacked the entire world). The next team, the Defenders, was never officially recognized by anyone. At one point it got out that there was no formal membership and the team was overrun by would-be members. From that point on, most teams existed without any relationship to the government.

There were exceptions. The original X-Force presented itself as a private anti-mutant squad. This was actually a cover for the original X-Men to rescue mutants. After they merged with the X-Men, the team became a government-run team of mutants. The British group, Excalibur had an arrangement with the British government which eventually included having Peter Wisdom, a member of a British secret agency, as a member.

After the apparent death of the FF, Baron Zemo founded the Thunderbolts. This was actually made up of super-villains using new names in order to gain official access to the FF's headquarters. The core members eventually decided that they preferred being heroes and went straight.

Out of all of the solo heroes, Captain America has had the closest relationship with the government. He worked with SHIELD many times, more than any other hero. On the other hand, in the 1980s someone in the White House discovered that the government helds the rights to the name and costume and informed Steve Rogers that he was now reporting to them. In order to retain his status as a free agent, Rogers resigned and a new Captain America was recruited. This continued until President Reagan found out about it and he ordered his staff to give the role back to Steve Rogers.

The 1970s saw the rise of the monster comic along with several monster-related heroes. These included the Ghost Rider, the Son of Satan, the Beast, the Werewolf (by night), and a host of others. All of them were hunted by the police any time they became aware of these characters.

During the 1990s, the various mutant groups shifted membership and missions several times. They started resembling gangs fighting over territory rather than heroes and operated outside of the government.

1 comment:

Zack said...


Recently came across your blog and thought you might be interested in mine: Superhero Law (http://superherolaw.com/). I cover a lot of the topics you've been writing about lately.