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Committed: Superhero Job Satisfaction

051910_batmanSuperheroes don’t get career choices. They’re beings with powers which dictate what they’ll do. Unlike us, with our grab bag of vague skills and strengths, we’re asked to believe that having a super power is so overwhelming that it forces people into one specific career. They must be vigilantes, living outside of society’s rules… Really?

Personally I’m not convinced that having an extra sense or strength would be enough to get me off the couch, let alone loitering in dark alleys to fight crime. Realistically, if I had Aquaman‘s ability to telepathically communicate with sea creatures, or Daredevil‘s radar, I probably wouldn’t be much more motivated to battle evil than I am now. I’m not discounting it completely, I’m just saying that it’s highly unlikely. Obviously I’m aware of my responsibility towards my fellow humans; I donate money to various charitable organizations, and donate old clothes and books instead of chucking them out, I recycle and even compost (braving the horrible swarms of flies which populate my fetid composting bin.) Sadly, this doesn’t translate to actually physically doing anything dangerous (beyond the aforementioned flies, which don’t really count, do they?), and I just can’t imagine that having powers would force the issue.

051910_ocdThis means that we’re being asked to believe that simply because a person has a lot of power, they’ll definitely become really responsible, particularly for the health and well-being of people they don’t know. If this were true of human nature, wouldn’t more people be clamoring to work in the peace corps, be policemen, teachers, or even nurses and doctors? There would definitely be an overabundance of volunteer workers, since most vigilantes don’t get paid, they’re just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts apparently. Thing is, from what I know about teaching, there really isn’t enough money in the world to pay me to do that, let alone risking my life as a policeman, and as we established with the flies, I’m not good with bodily waste, so nursing isn’t the way to go either.

Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that this is true: For whatever reason, individuals who get a power feel that they have to become heroes and work outside of the law to do so. Obviously some powers can’t be hidden (e.g. being covered in blue fur, being large, green and monosyllabic, or having giant wings) and would force a person to choose an unconventional career. Then there are the heroes who have an emotional need to fight crime on their own terms. Outside those whose powers preclude them from living a “normal” life, there are the heroes like Batman. They fight because of a personal compulsion, and so have even less choice about what they do. He essentially has the hero version of obsessive-compulsive disorder, except instead of washing his hands repeatedly, he feels that he must fight criminals.

051910_aquamanWhat about the idea that these people have secret identities? They have time to engage in a consuming career of illegally fighting crime, and simultaneously sustain an entirely separate career and social life. I don’t know about you, but I’m lucky if I have time to fit in keeping to my work deadlines, let alone see friends, go out, buy groceries, and do whatever else it is that I’m supposed to do in order to have a healthy, balanced life. Okay yes, I could get rid of my television, that would probably give me an extra couple of hours ever day, but how much energy would I have for those two extra hours? No, even the people I know who don’t have a television would be extremely unlikely to find time for a secret life.

The only similarity between my own career motivations and those of a person who becomes a (fictitious) superhero, is that I have found work that I can do with the natural talents that I have – I write and I design. These are skills that I’ve had for almost as long as I can remember. I enjoyed them, and I always thought that I’d have a career that encompassed them. Realistically, with these talents came an obvious career choice. It’s hard work which I enjoy partly because I’m able to do it. I make time for both writing and designing because when I do both, I’m happier.

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The key here is happiness. Ideally, we do work which we feel we can do well, which will make us happy*. In life this isn’t always how it works out, and in fact, even the ideal career has it’s share of frustrations, so reading stories about people who do the work they love is incredibly appealing. The metaphor of the superhero is particularly apt, since it is, in a sense, a bit of a modern fairytale to wish for, this perfect joy in ones work. Being allowed to watch superheroes find their perfect path to doing the job they were made for, is a pleasure. Superheroes chose correctly, they did it right, and this is the crux of the superhero trope. They are good at something, and whether that’s because they have a physical talent for it, or an overwhelming desire/compulsion to do it, they choose the job which they can do best and that is a very satisfying thing to witness.

. . .

* Please note that I said “ideally.”


You hit it on the head…those characters who are fulfililng themselves being heros are the charcters who we, the readers, are going to bond to. Anti heros like Deadpool, Ambush Bug, and Lobo can be fun in doses, but when Wally West Flash, Batman, Superman and Spiderman, Capt America, Cyclops are written as people and not cliches, they are the characters that will never die, we are so bonded to them.

The Ugly American

May 19, 2010 at 10:18 am

What about those guys we hear about who have 2-5 different families stashed across the countries?

Good column and excellent use of the asterisk.

I figure that based on the hours of training, patrolling and fighting, recuperating, socializing, running Wayne Enterprises (even if a lot is delegated), conducting crime investigations, etc. that the days in Gotham City are 34 hours long. So Bruce has an advantage over the rest of us. That’s also part of suspending disbelief.

Actually, it seems like people who have powers are more likely to become villains. From a storytelling point of view, it’s because the superhero can’t fight the same bad guy month after month. You have to have a variety of challenges. But the result is that each hero has a set of numerous villains that he battles. The number of villains must far outweigh the number of heroes. Therefore, if you get powers, chances are you’re a bad guy. The heroes stand out because they are the few who receive superpowers and channel them in a positive way.

Well, if you think about it, the ratio of villains to heroes is quite high (every hero with his own book has a rotating cast of villains, multiply by number of heroes out there). So really, using your powers to become a hero is pretty rare. Most people who get powers use them for their own ill-gotten gains.

or… what Dan said. ;)

Secret identities are pretty common here on the internet. I’ve noticed a lot of people who comment on here use fake names. (Although I hear that Funkygreenjerusalem is in fact his real name– hippy parents or something, I guess.)
For example, I’m actually Jeff Loeb, but I discovered that when I use my real name, everybody attacks me.

(I’m kidding, of course. Jeff Loeb is actually Greg Hatcher.)

You’re really smart. Thank you for this. I’ll read you more often now.

You are discounting all the supervillains, people who get their powers and go “yeah, awesome, now I can do whatever I want.” As well as all those throwaway characters who say “I have superpowers and I’m trying to lead a normal life, I don’t even tell people I’m a mutant/found a weird comet once/can run 60 MPH under a full moon.” We just only glimpse that third group, but that’s because they are not that interesting, or weren’t considered that interesting back in the 40s and 60s when major characters and genre tropes were developed. Still, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and all that.

A possible great real-life example: professional athletes. They get riches and fame at 18-21 and some go bonkers, spending everything they have on everything they shouldn’t. Some lead rich and fulfilling lives and do their best to help others. And some just do their jobs, retire from sports, open a car dealership or restaurant in Podunk, and always get picked first when the guys decide to play touch football during a company picnic. Comics are about the first group and the second brawling in public, but we have seen time and again that their world is populated by lots and lots of members of that third group.

If I couild find someone willing to trade life-or-death plasma bursts during magic hour in exotic locales, I would find the time. The kid would still get fed, the dogs have to get a walk, or the wife’s rug would be ruined, but that is the kind of fun I could simply not turn down. I have found the meaning of life in a bottle of enfamil, and as gratifying as all that can be, your boy here could use an alter ego from time to time, even if all that accomplishes is some collateral civilian casulties and ancillary property damage. My escapism can be the midnight feedings, duels at dusks sounds like it might be a crackerjack reality.

What’s really interesting is that it’s either a villain or hero choice. Oh sure, some guys occasionally choose to do nothing an “try to live a normal life”, but they’re few and always get dragged back in. However, nobody decides, “Hey, I can legally make millions playing for the Yankees!” Telepaths don’t hang around Wall Street and pick up stock tips.

There probably are folks in superhero universes who have powers and don’t make a big deal about them. They just aren’t interesting enough to get their own series! Hmm, there’s a story there.

Would I fight crime if I had super-powers? Hell yes. And I would have business cards, too.

I agree. Man should take his work gratefully and with satisfaction. Become a good example to your co worker specially when you are an accountant.

Very interesting take on the situation, especially the comment about ” hero-compulsive disorder “. Characters like Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and many others seem like they’ve just fixated on saving lives as an expression of their issues, and are about a hair’s breadth away from going the opposite direction.

And Daredevil isn’t even a hair’s breadth away, anymore.

If I had powers like Superman’s or Green Lantern’s, I wouldn’t be fighting crime. I’d be solving the world’s problems: overthrowing tyrants, stopping wars, eliminating disease, feeding the hungry, cleaning up oil spills, etc.

If I had powers like Hawkman’s or Green Arrow’s, you’re right. I wouldn’t be anything different from what I’m doing now.

This article is actually touching on something I’m integrating into my own comic. Why does having a superpower automatically make someone a hero (or villain)? My cast of characters are made up of some who want to be vigilantes like their idols, and others who just want to live normal lives and not think about what they can do. Not every guy who plays football in high school joins the NFL, so why would everyone with powers become a superhero? Seems to me that it’s a desire in people to be something more, make a difference, etc. that would really drive them.

Also, just wanted to say that I always really enjoy your articles on here.

Has anyone read Irredeemable? This is a big part of why what happens happens. The biggest, best, strongest, etc superhero has awesome power, and his personality can’t handle it. He snaps due to the fact that he didn’t get the type of life he needed due to his powers.

He isn’t satisfied with his life or his choice of [superhero] profession. i enjoy it due to the real world implications. i work at a therapy school where we look at a person’s readiness to enter into this field. We find that just cause someone thinks that they are a good fit doesn’t mean that they are. i would imagine it would be the same if someone discovers that they have powers. Not everyone is a good fit for superhuman strength, now are they?


It’s a matter of perspective: many superhero universes -Marvel’s for example- actually have MILLIONS of superpowered people in them- but only a few dozens are active as heroes or villains. It’s just that the comics focus on the heroes, thus giving us the impression that it’s the main choice for superpeople. In fact as mentioned above most people give in to the temptation to abuse their powers and become criminals since every hero has his own rogues’ gallery. I find this sadly believable. (The fact so many choose to wear costumes or have secret identities, not so much.) Presumably that majority of people who almost never gets in a superfight just try to live normal lives (although in reality most would exploit their powers in LEGAL ways, but at least in Marvel with its anti-mutant hatred it makes sense people would hide their powers.)

Similarly the invincibility of heroes is also a matter of perspective- it isn’t that they solve EVERY case they get involved in, just those that we get to see. If supervillians lost each and every time, nobody would ever choose to become one.)

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