Free Market Superheroes
The global economy imploded in 2007-08 and has yet to recover. Indeed, capitalism and free-market neoliberalism have hardly been on shakier ground. In Spain, Greece, and Italy citizens fed up with status-quo, market-first policies have inspired demonstrations across Europe, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. In this country, the anger has been most visibly manifest in the Occupy Wall Street movement, but sentiments for a more just political-economic system can be discerned in popular protests in places as varied as Madison, Wisconsin, Quebec, Lagos, Cairo, Moscow, and Peru. The problems are very complex, the consequences dire.
One could be forgiven, then, for indulging in a chuckle now and again - even a bit of schadenfreude - to relieve the stress and anxiety. While the rich continue to increase their wealth, the rest of us could use a break from the onslaught of terrible economic news (and concomitant negative politicking). That does not mean, however, that we must sacrifice thoughtful discussion.
The first two issues of Super Corporate Heroes
Imagine that if in the fictional city of Gotham Batman only saves citizens who are insured. It seems ridiculous, but this is the premise of Guerra and Dias' acerbic - yet entertaining - series. In the opening scene of issue one, a man dangles precariously from a building engulfed in flames. In the nick of time, the superhero The Shroud arrives. The helpless man is relieved. But his situation quickly becomes precarious: he doesn't have "rescue insurance;" without this coverage, The Shroud cannot save him. Unless, of course, the helpless citizen immediately signs a contract for a package deal of rescues at exorbitant prices. What choice does the man have? When it's all over, the bewildered and bitter man asks, "Was I just rescued or robbed?"
Super Corporate Heroes is a terrific send-up of the American health care system, where the insured are afforded the privileges of care and the rest are left to seek assistance only at the last minute. Nearly 50 million Americans do not have health insurance, which means that when an emergency does arise, the costs for their care can be debilitating. One study found that in 2007, 62% of all personal bankruptcies were a direct result of a health problem. Remarkably, a staggering 78% of those who filed for bankruptcy had some form of health insurance. In 2009, another study revealed that 45,000 people die annually because they don't have health insurance. (Where is the outrage!?) The same study found that those without insurance are 40% more likely to die than those who are insured. The average annual cost for a family health insurance plan now tops $15,000 per year.
Who, then, could afford rescue insurance? At least 50 million Americans would not be able to ante up.
From the opening scenes of Super Corporate Heroes, Vol. 1, No. 1
While Super Corporate Heroes takes the absurdity of pay-to-live to its logical, fantastical conclusion, the focus is not entirely on an immoral health care system. Plutocracy, oligarchy, capitalism, and neoliberalism are obliquely addressed. In Issue 1, the filthy rich superhero American Icon is questioned by a television personality on being grossly compensated for his life-saving skills. American Icon responds:
"Superheroes don't take an oath of poverty. Doctors, nurses, firemen, police officers all get paid, so why shouldn't we? We have valuable skills and people are willing to pay for them. That's how capitalism works. If you don't like it, there's the door."
As the story unfolds, it becomes more clear as to who or what (but if corporations are people, then who is the operative word) benefits from rescue insurance: school districts, airlines, and - of course - financial institutions like big banks are covered. Superheroes are quick to put a halt to a bank robbery for their high paying clients, but woe to the uninsured man dangling from a burning building...
A rescue scene from Super Corporate Heroes, Vol. 1, No. 2
Elements of the corporate life are also touched on. The Super Corporate Heroes, after all, work for a living and must contend with their own office politics. In one memorable scene, Ms. Titanium confronts her human resources representative about unequal pay in her workplace. Although she boasts twice the rescue metrics of her colleague American Icon, she is paid half as much. Apparently in this alternate world, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act has yet to be signed (and enforced).
Aside the heavy stuff, there is much joy to be had in the Super Corporate Heroes comic experience. Superheroes are given memorably cheeky names with economic associations: Invisible Hand, Blue Collar, and Failsafe to name just three. The coloring of the comic also enhances the reading pleasures: the pages of are bold, vivid, and in the right light, the pages actually shine.
Comparisons of Super Corporate Heroes to Alan Moore's mind blowing saga Watchmen are inevitable: both series parody the superhero genre and overlay serious political implications for alternative takes on society. Stylistically, both series also feature supplemental fictional documents (in the case of Super Corporate Heroes, a tabloid newspaper) which provide essential story and character backgrounds. But because Super Corporate Heroes is in its infancy (only two issues so far), comparisons only go so far.
As Issue 2 closes, the sinister Invisible Hand puts into play a Machiavellian scheme, an apparent effort to gin up violence so as to create a greater need for corporate-backed superheroes. One can't help but think of parallels in George W. Bush's run-up to the Iraq War. For future issues, what do Guerra and Dias have in store for us? Will Greek economic turmoil somehow come into play in a future episode? Will an agitated protest movement akin to OWS shake things up? Will the scariest villain of all - the too powerful Vampire Squid - have a role? The possibilities make me giddy.
Guerra and Dias excel in bringing levity to an otherwise serious discussion. The topical subject matter and a biting critique of absurd economic systems and practices, combined with memorable characterizations and a glossy finish, make Super Corporate Heroes a must read (escape) for this political season.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol