- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

What’s the job description of a superhero? Often enough, it comes down to three words: Save the world. Traditionally, that has meant saving the world from the sort of sci-fi threats that might emanate from a little kid’s imagination: aliens, supervillains and great planet-killing machines cooked up by mad scientists.

Silly, grandiose plots still abound in the world of comics, but as superhero comics increasingly have targeted older readers, they have grown more comfortable showcasing mature content. Often that has meant graphic violence and moral ambiguity, but it also has meant that saving the world has evolved from imaginative flights of four-color fancy to literal interventions in the economy and world affairs.

The trend of superheroes messing around in real-world political affairs can be traced back in large part to Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” the much-anticipated screen adaptation of which opens nationally today. The classic graphic novel featured — warning, spoilers ahead — a superhero who turned out to be something of a villain when it was discovered that his plan to bring about world peace and prosperity in a period of impending war and economic decline meant killing about half the people in New York City.

J. Michael Straczynski’s “Rising Stars” affords another example of the new breed of public-policy-minded superheroes. The series chronicles a world much like ours but blessed with 113 superpowered individuals. Those heroes squabble for a bit but, after reconciling, set out on a mission to “change the world.”

Rather than fight off sci-fi menaces, they go after inner-city drug dealers and their South American suppliers. They aim to stop the violence in the Middle East not by force, but simply by using their powers to make all the area’s land arable. In addition, they turn around the fading Rust Belt economy by retrofitting the region’s factories.

Even well-known comic-book characters get involved sometimes. Mark Millar’s “Superman: Red Son” is an alternative-universe story in which Superman lands in Russia and leads the whole world into a communist utopia. Well, the whole world except those poor, struggling capitalist holdouts in America, anyway, who are led by Lex Luthor (here the smartest man in the world). Luthor solves the United States‘ economic crisis by, in the words of the story’s narrator, “ceasing trading with the rest of the world and creating a strict internal market where he had absolute control of every dollar bill.”

Luthor is the story’s villain, but his actions are presented as a path to genuine prosperity in a time of economic turmoil. Who needs a stimulus package when you’ve got Lex Luthor, crazed authoritarian protectionist?

Even in the legitimately brilliant “Watchmen,” the turn toward adult politics hasn’t made these stories much less silly. Indeed, the solutions on display are still simplistic and childish. The government already has tried refurbishing factories in towns on the decline without much success. Also, economists tend to agree that trade barriers reduce economic growth, as does centralized economic planning. Even a country as large and fertile as the United States would be severely limited by a lack of international trade.

Still, it sheds some light on the heroic notion of politics and economics — the prevailing idea that if an individual or small group of individuals just has the will, the strength, the supersmarts and the clarity of vision to fly in from above and save the economy, it can be done. None of the comic-book solutions has much to do with real-world economics or politics, but they might help us understand why we get trillion-dollar stimulus packages and multibillion-dollar industry bailouts.

We may be able to distinguish our political leaders from superheroes, but in both comics and the real world, we rely on this problematic notion of heroic economics, hoping that someone with enough will, power, strength and smarts — or maybe just an awesome costume and a well-muscled bod — will swoop in and save us.

“Watchmen,” of course, was a satire of that notion, an anti-utopian parable that suggested that a hero’s grandiose plans to save the world often are indistinguishable from a villain’s megalomaniacal plans to destroy it. It’s a warning that grand plans come with grand costs, that renewal and catastrophe are flip sides of the same coin. Anyone who thinks “saving the world” is in his job description — whether he wears a cape to work or a suit and tie — ought to take heed: It’s never as easy or tidy as we’d like it to be, and, in fact, the cost can be pretty great.

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