Obligation to Heroics: The Limited Job Market for Metahumans

So something happened and you wound up with some superpowers. It seems now you’re left with two options: good or evil. At some point it even became more or less unethical to use the powers for strict personal gain, probably around when Peter Parker attempted his short lived wrestling career, but why are the options for the powered job market so limited? When Superheroes attempt to use their abilities to get paid to be heroes the results are frowned upon, undercut by the free competition or, in the worst possible of all outcomes, boring to read.

Well let’s back it up a second and say you want to do “good” in the world, such as you’re able, does that have to necessitate punching people in the face? Why do the banks need you guarding their vaults? When Superman was first being written he was a social crusader as much as he was a crime fighter. He punished husbands who beat their wives, threatened slumlords for abusing their tenants, and put a stop to war profiteers. JMS’ current run seems to be an attempt to rekindle that spirit, but having read those early issues I can tell you Superman wasn’t nearly the polite boy-scout he is now, there was a righteous anger at the injustices of the world. But let’s back it up even farther, is justice the only way to help the world? Of course not! I could do a whole top 10 list about heroes that could use their powers for causes besides superheroing, and one may argue that ethically they should. Mark Waid wrote and interesting piece in the book Phisophy and Superheroes about the idea that it would be unethical for Clark Kent not to be Superman simply because he has the ability to be Superman. He is in some sense obligated to be striving to help his community in the greatest way possible. Well Clark is a bit of a simpleton farmboy, so hitting the bad guys is excusable but what if you actually gained powers and already possessed another skill set you could use to greater effect with those powers?

Here's why he's a physicist and you're not.I refer specifically to Bruce Gordon as written by Matt Sturges in the miniseries Countdown to Mystery but probably most easily obtained as the trade Eclipso: Music of the Spheres. I didn’t read this as it was published but having frequent talks with Sturges about science and comics convinced me to track it down. Sturges is a science enthusiast like few others I’ve met in the entertainment industry and it really comes through in his writing. Bruce Gordon is a solar physicist who is oft possessed by Eclipso, the spirit of divine vengeance and predecessor to the Spectre. However, in an interesting twist Sturges allows Gordon a measure of control over the powers of Eclipso. So what does Gordon decide to do with these powers? More physics!

I love this idea. In the DCU there are plenty of guys willing to run around fighting crime. Sending another amateur yet ultra-powerful brawler into the fray makes no sense. But taking someone with a skill set few other heroes possess and having him use his powers to further augment his field is a stroke of brilliance. It’s akin to having Clark finding ways of advancing farming technology, it sounds silly but think of the hungry people who might be fed if Superman put some time into a field he really understands like few other heroes.

Modern astrophysics and astronomy is limited by several factors. There are only so many telescopes that can only see so much. The strides these fields make each year regardless of these limitations is astonishing, but if you were able to fly right up to that impending supernovae and videotape it you’d be in Nobel city! I could probably (and very well might) do a Top 10 list about the things Superman could use his powers to figure out that would each win him a Nobel in different fields. It’d only take him a day or so then he could give millions to charity. It seems a far better use of his time than… walking.

It’s easy to argue that helping catch purse snatchers does more good for people than videotaping supernovae, but that’s the inherent problem in all basic scientific research. We can’t know what the results of these observations and experiments might be. Penicillin, plastic, and radioactivity were all discovered by scientists working on something else. Letting brilliant and creative people follow their urges and impulses wherever they lead can make the world better for a huge number of people.

With as many powered beings that exist in the DCU or any other comic universe it makes sense that they should diversify what they’re doing. However, this often means the difference between a covert “hit the bad guys first” strike team and a giant unwieldy society. I’m not arguing that heroes shouldn’t be heroes, there are many that multitask the punching with the publishing. Ray Palmer manages to teach at the university level, do scientific research, and maintain membership in the Justice League. Where he finds the time I’d love to know, but he pulls it off. Reed Richards also balances being a family man, “superhero” and researcher/explorer but he’s nothing if not flexible.

Ultimately I hope this is read as a message of hope. If you get superpowers but don’t know how to throw a punch there is more out there for you to do. If you’re a delivery boy gifted with super-speed well maybe you use that power to start a business delivering organs for transplant. You’re sticking with your skill set, helping people in a very real way, and filling a niche in the market to boot all without having to fight anybody. Rejoice in the possibilities, people! As for me, I’ll be doing some science, with or without powers (but with powers I’m totally doing research in a sweet costume!).


Ryan Haupt is just a mild mannered scientist by day, comic commenter and podcaster by night. As of yet he has displayed no extra-human abilities, but we're still keeping an eye on him.


  1. Great article.

    Love the picture of the Lucha libre

  2. I’m convinced Rey Mysterio, Jr. was bitten by a radioactive spider.  No one can convince me different.  And Samoa Joe was bitten by a radioactive Samoan.

  3. Great, great article, and that Superheroes and Philosophy book is a great read.

    This was tackled a bit in Invincible a while back. Atom Eve, quitting the tights game (albiet temporarily) launches into a speech questioning whether there were better, worthier things she could be doing with her control over matter. And, a few issues later, she’s seen flying around arid African deserts creating water and food for starving villages. Seems that Kirkman’s thought about this very topic himself!

    I’ve read quite a few stories in which someone asks Superman why he doesn’t just fix everything with his superpowers (this is a little bit of a different discussion, but the basic points transfer). His answer was that it’s no one man’s place to guide the future of humanity. Mankind needs to move forward and make discoveries at it’s own pace, otherwise not only might we lose our own drive to explore but we may also find ourselves with technology and knowledge unearned, and we may not quite know what to do with it yet.

    The analogy made is between humanity being "protected" and humanity being "kept." So, Supes spends all his time plugging up volcanos and stopping Mongul in order to allow us to live our lives and move forward as we are meant to. I’ve always found that to be an interesting argument.

    It’s subverted, however, in All-Star Superman, in which Morrison shows what would happen if Kal decided to put all his power and tech toward healing the world, and he uses his resources in fascinating and ingenious ways to improve life for us all. But then, the question again: Is that really helping mankind, or is he taking a Luthor-ian approach, guiding humanity with his gifts rather than allowing humanity to guide itself?

    Wally should totally start a courier business, though. OH, and Bart can deliver papers!

  4. Doesn’t Superman actually fit the bill for your argument? You say he should do work in farming, but that’s his parents chosen profession not his. Most Superman stories I’ve ever read that involved Clark Kent doing reporting in some facet, always showed Clark getting the scoop because of some of his super-snooping powers like x-ray vision or super-hearing. Or he’d use another power (suddently super-heating an object in someone’s hand being a reliable favourite) and then use his super speed to read every document in the room in the 3 seconds someone has left to grab a pack of ice.

  5. Wow this is a great article. I think I might pick up 

    Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way (Popular Culture and Philosophy). more articles like this please.