A Comic Book Entry – The Chicken or the Egg
Or, which came first, the superhero or the supervillain?
This has been a philosophical point of contention in comic books since, I don’t know, close to the beginning when fans sat down and thought about it. Namely, would supervillains be so dangerous if there were no superheroes to challenge them so? It’s a never-ending arms race and the question of “who started it” is often brought up. That also brings a related argument, which is whether or not a city is actually better off or not with a resident hero. While superheroes are a great asset to a city, it’s impossible to deny the amount of collateral damage caused by any super on super fight is pretty much the same as a natural disaster, if not sometimes worse.
The Flash comic, around issues 120-130 or so, had a good deconstruction of this idea. The mayor got it in his head that the Flash was bringing villains to Keystone City and eventually got him tossed out. So the Flash took the job of being the resident hero for another city. I’m not actually sure the writer made the point that the city was better with the Flash or not. A bunch of villains attacked while Flash was away but they probably would not have done so had he never been there.
For a while, Marvel had a group called “Damage Inc.” that was a construction company, with a bit of super-powered equipment, that was paid to fix up New York City after super fights. In the FF not so long ago, after the Baxter Building had been blown up yet again, the City sued Reed Richards for damages and he lost all of his money. Thankfully the Thing’s money was managed in a different account, so they got enough money back to continue to be the FF. However, Marvel never really answered the question of whether having superheroes was worth the trouble either.
Many heroes on their own do try to minimize collateral damage. Superman (before the wretched movie) in particular is careful about this considering if he sneezes he could accidentally knock down a building. His fights are incredibly destructive, even compared to super fights, and he does his best to get the fight out of populated areas. On the other hand, Reed Richards uses nanobots to rebuild his headquarters and says boo about it to the rest of the bashed city. What a guy. In the Marvel RPG, characters gain karma (to buy powers and stuff) by doing good things and lose karma by doing bad things, or failing to stop bad things, or by doing property damage. That means if my characters stops a villain by throwing someone’s car at him, I gain karma for defeating the villain but lose karma for wrecking someone else’s car. I might lose less karma for wrecking my own car, but damage is damage.
So where do I weigh in on this debate? Well, I think that the question itself is somewhat moot. Once there are superheroes and supervillains, who came first is not as relevant as stopping the villainy. But that’s not a fun debate at all. So here’s where I weigh in – humanity as a whole is capable of both good and evil. Good can exist without necessarily fighting evil; for example, someone who saves another person from a burning building is a hero and there’s no deliberate evil involved (assuming of course there’s no arson). But, in theory, evil can’t be stopped without good fighting it. Indeed good must actively fight evil, for as the saying goes, all it takes for evil to win is for good men to do nothing. So in a perfect world with no evil, goodness and heroism could certainly still exist. In that sense, heroes come before villains. But I would say it is the existence of evil, and therefore villainy, that would really drive the rise of heroes.
Does this mean a city is better off with a resident hero? I suppose it depends. If you live in the city of Townsville, which is near Monster Island, then you are definitely better off with a resident group of superheroes. That’s sort of like living in an earthquake zone; there will be a monster attack. But let’s take a generic example that’s less straightforward than the above. Assuming a city has a normal crime rate, a resident hero could be a great asset. A resident hero would definitely tip the scales to good and the villains would be more likely to go jail. I’ve always been surprised at the number of villains who are completely willing to go up against a hero that completely outclasses them, get their butts handed to them, and come back for more (many of the Flash’s villains fall into this category). If the villains were content to admit they were outclassed, then the city is better off with the resident hero. But if the villains feel they have something to prove, then they up their game and try again, and thus the damage escalates.
However, that’s a problem with the villain; clearly the villain is psychologically damaged in some way or else why would they continue to take such punishment? Did the hero damage them? Perhaps, but probably unintentionally. Does this mean the hero is responsible for the villain? No! People are responsible for their own actions. Sure, the hero may inspire fear and loathing in a lot of people, and odds are one or two may be powerful enough in their own right to turn to villainy, but they made that choice. If not inspired by the superhero to be a supervillain, I assume that the supervillain still would have been at least a villain. Again, the villain is making the choice to do wrong.
Sometimes I find the whole question of whether or not a city is better off with a hero or not to be as moot as which came first, the hero or the villain. To me, the hero is not to blame in a general sense for the collateral damage. Oh, sure, a careless hero shouldn’t be let off the hook, and a hero who is capable of cleaning up the damage should (that’s part of being a hero, Reed…), but the hero didn’t bring the villainy to a city. So that’s my answer – whether or not the city becomes worse is not dependent on the hero at all, but on how the villains react. A hero will be there to get cats out of trees and help little old ladies cross the street or whatnot, but it’s the presence of villainy that creates superheroes.