Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Metahumans as Ultimate Weapons

"Metahumans as Ultimate Weapons,"
(c) 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

I was recently considering the way in which comic book universes handle the issue of metahumans and warfare, or more precisely fail to handle this issue. Specifically, the case was World War II, and Superman's inability to win the war for the Allies. The excuse in that continuity was that Hitler had the Spear of Destiny (the blade that pierced the side of Christ on the Cross), while the Japanese had the Holy Grail: each of these mystical artifacts somehow neutralized Superman's power (because he is vulnerable to magic).

Which doesn't really make sense. Sure, either of these might be dangerous to Superman were he physically in their presence. But it's difficult to see how the mages of either the Nazis or the Shinto priests could be so incredibly powerful as to be able to protect all Axis forces, all over the planet against the Big S -- and yet not powerful enough to do anything significant against the Allies offensively with their Arcane Powers. This was clearly a hasty attempt at papering over a major gaping hole in their universe's logic.

But of course this is a more specific case of a more general problem in comic books. In universes where there are metahumans at the power levels of even Spiderman, let alone Superman, there is no logical reason why they would not be the primary instruments of state power, the most valued members of any national armed forces, indeed, why they would not become a new "warrior aristocracy" whose battles, rather than those of ordinary humans, decided the fates of empires. And in the long run, becoming an aristocracy in other ways, for instance enjoying special legal privileges and exemptions.

I have heard explanations of how this could be avoided. None of them hold water. For instance, while it's true that a particular nation might decide to avoid using them in this role, or choose a means of recruiting them so ham-handed that most metahumans powerful enough to make a difference refused to join and could make their refusals stick, the problem is that all it would take would be for one Great Power to discover a competent means of recruiting and employing metahumans, and other Great Powers would be forced to either follow suit or be reduced to Minor Power status. It's like the issue of gunpowder in the Late Middle Ages -- the nobles and knights would have been happier had it never been discovered, but once it was a reality, any state which eschewed its usage was quickly reduced to irrelevance. Historically, gentleman's agreements to avoid using truly effective weapons and tactics are not Evolutionarily Stable Solutions.

I've also heard it argued that metahumans aren't really powerful enough to make a difference. While it's true that the typical metahuman, or even team of metahumans, is not powerful enough to defeat the entire military establishment of a Great Power in pitched battle, this is of course not how one would employ them -- the objection is about as irrelevant as pointing out that siege bombards are useless as light cavalry. Metahuman teams would be used as extremely powerful special forces, offering the hitting force of a whole airborne division transportable like a normal infantry squad. They would be tasked against enemy strategic targets (such as nuclear weapons production facilities), chokepoints (key tunnels and bridges, supply depots) and commanders (such as the President of the enemy state). Most of the armed forces of the targeted Great Power would watch helplessly as the highly mobile superteams went in, wrought amazingly precise destruction to vital facilities, and went out. Think of it as airmobility on steroids.

And besides, in the case of the Marvel or DC Universe, there are superteams powerful enough to take on, in pitched combat, the entire armed forces of lesser Great Powers, such as Britain or India, assuming that these armed forces lacked metahuman support. The Justice League, of course, is the prime example. (Indeed, there are single metahumans in both the Marvel and DC Universe capable of casually destroying the whole human race, but they rarely intervene in human affairs -- Galactus or Morpheus are not available for hire as a mercenaries!)

Indeed, normal metahuman teams could be used in pitched battle, if used carefully. The metahumans would be used to reinforce a striking spearhead or threatened salient, and would be extensively supported by friendly normal-human forces. The friendly forces would make sure that the enemy couldn't sneak up on the flanks of the metahumans while the metahumans would make sure that any heavy weapons support (tanks, heavy artillery, airplanes) which the enemy tried to use would be swiftly neutralized. This is precisely how main battle tanks are used in real-world combat, except that some metahumans are much tougher even in a slugfest than any main battle tank ever really constructed.

The final argument often used is that all Powers would recruit metahumans in rough proportion to their non-metahuman strength, so the world order would not be markedly different. While the first part might well be true, what this misses is that the social structure of the Powers which did this would be changed by the compromises -- either with the metahumans or with their own political cultures -- which they would have to make to do this. Either the metahumans would have to be bribed with perks and at least tacit privileges, in which case they would be on their way to evolving into an aristocracy (are you really going to lose the power of Megadeathbeam Man because you want to put him in prison for non-fatally beating up innocent Joe Average?), or they would have to be forcibly pressed into service (how safe is innocent Joe Average from being enslaved by his own government if they create an impressment service capable of forcing Megadeathbeam Man to work for them against his will?). Think about how the switch from heavy infantry to heavy cavalry in the transition from Classical Antiquity to the Medieval Era affected society, and then reflect that the advantage possessed by (say) The Thing over ordinary troops is far greater than that possessed by pre-industrial heavy horse over heavy foot.

In short, metahumans would change the world, if they existed. And it's a shame that very little science fiction has seriously explored the implications, because most commercial comic books can't -- they NEED an "everything's normal" type world in order to hook the mundanes in to read them.  

This is an inherent weakness of the mass-produced long-running contemporary world fantastic fiction form:  you can see the same effect working in, say, Doc Savage or Tarzan, in which the wondrous inventions of Dr. Clark Savage Jr. or the amazing discoveries of Lord Greystoke have absolutely no effect on the world of the early to mid 20th century, outside their battles against villains.  This produces an (unintentionally) weird effect if one reads many of them in succession, because they don't even cause the changes one might expect because the protagonist was aiming to cause them (or his aims would obviously tend to produce them as a secondary effect).

For instance, "Doc" Savage supposedly fights habitual criminals, but there seems to be an unending supply of them:  organized criminal gangs are still able to operate in his city; he also does war research for the Allies, but none of his advanced weapons technology, such as his lightweight bulletproof vests or mercy bullets, are ever put into production and used on the battlefield.  Tarzan aids various explorers and scientists, but none of the lost cities or forgotten technologies they discover ever become public knowledge (ERB being a better writer than the collective "Lester Dent", Burroughs justified this by specific decisions on the parts of the characters involved).

This doesn't have to be a weakness of non-long-running serial written science fiction, however.  Science fiction writers could explore the possibilities of superpowered metahumans emerging in society.  It's even been done, though only with very limited sets of powers, such as in Anne McCaffrey's Pegasus series (about the emergence of the psionically-gifted in a near- to mid-term future world).  But it's not done very often, and rarely if ever with multiple metahumans of a typical comic-book hero power level range.  Usually, when that scenario is imagined, it's done ironically rather than seriously, with genre conventions in full effect.

It would be interesting to see it done seriously, and sans genre conventions, someday.


  1. Another like situation is the "masquerade" you usually get in urban fantasy. It's generally very ill-justified. (And it's not even always necessary; Anita Blake, however bad the latter books were, proved that.)

  2. Considering World War II -- Superman as the supply force for Bataan, or Corregidor. If they could have gotten supplies in those last stands could have been a lot longer.

    You could also send someone in to raid a death camp. Propaganda gold if they brought out the people and so had proof the stories weren't Allied propaganda.

  3. The urban fantasy "masquerade" usually boils down to Muggles Are Stupid or (better) Weirdness Censor


    in that in many such universes, the fantastic events happen in full view or have effects on such a scale that they should be arousing suspicion. In the typical comic book universe, though, the weird events include things such as full-dress alien invasions and battles between metahumans in the middle of downtown at rush hour, so no real masquerade would be possible.

    Yes -- a metahuman Powerhouse or even Flying Brick could run supplies through any plausible blockade, and in the case of one as powerful as Superman, could even run in quantities of supplies significant on an army- or corps-level scale.

    As for raiding death camps -- yes, precisely. And other kinds of high-propaganda-value humanitarian efforts, such as raiding POW camps of Powers abusing their prisoners, as in the case of North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

  4. I've always felt that a presidential bodyguard team would make an excellent superhero story, since obviously the US president will be the target of many politically motivated superheroes. They may eventually evolve into a praetorian guard, of course.

    Miracleman is the only superhero comic which treats this issue realistically.

  5. The Presidential bodyguard team is a very interesting concept. Since it's basically an "escort the soft target" mission, some metahuman(s) with heightened senses would be utterly essential, so that an enemy couldn't just sneak over and kill the President while someone else distracted the bodyguard(s).

  6. If you want to see a society based on metahuman aristocracy, trying the Tinker books by Wen Spencer. She gives the elves a history and social structure that makes at least enough sense to get by with the domana aristocracy in power because they have the power.

  7. I've read the first book of the Tinker series, and would be very interested in reading the others.