The Batman and the State

Posted: December 30, 2012 by Daniel Solomon in Uncategorized
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Superpowers and the State

A panel from Powers.

Pity the modern supervillain, Adam tells us. He’s a poor, decrepit figure, beholden to the deceptive whims of irrationality, distanced from the creative politics of his more practical predecessors. The grand image of global–or, better yet, multiversal–domination is a Mesopotamian artifact of superherodom.  The Joker’s low-tech banditry abounds in contemporary supervillainy, while Dalek “extermination” is little more than a charming, if impractical product of British public television. From a critical perspective, this shift is an unfortunate consequence of post-9/11 security cultures. If Judi Dench’s M is any indication–and s/he has been for a half-century–hero fandom should view the modern supervillain as a product of a more discreet Zeitgeist, of a less transparent, more opaque world of “shadows.” Hats off to Christopher Nolan, whose Joker is a mere interlude to Ra’s al-Ghul’s global League of Shadows, a happy marriage of Erik Prince (Bane, the mercenary) and young Emma Goldman (Talia al-Ghul, the vengeant anarchist terrorist spawn).

Superhero culture has a libertarian quality, which often interferes with an authentic understanding of state violence: indeed, the basic conceit of superherodom is the dominance of vigilante justice, which reigns over a bumbling state bureaucracy. State security forces are often incompetent, as in much of the Spiderman literature, or, even worse, hostile, as in the racially-tinged violence against the Marvel Universe’s mutant population. The Marvel Civil War is a partial exception: when the U.S. government passes the Superhuman Registration Act, the Marvel Universe’s superhero community engages in a destructive civil conflict, between the state-supported, military-industrial-complex-laden Iron Man faction and Captain America’s ideologically purist dissidents. Here, Marvel’s U.S. government is an obvious, if well-constructed commentary on the post-9/11 national security state, based on an impressionistic rendering of Bush-era counterterrorism policies.

When its constitutive agencies aren’t busy being goofy, the super-state is little more than a shell, which both superheroes and villains may evade with ease. J. Dana Stuster has artfully outlined the storyline of Batman Incorporated, a global network of batmen and batwomen that both combats global terror and bolsters regional crime-fighting. International legal approaches to transnational crime/crime-fighting control don’t fit easily alongside a KAPOW! onomatopeia, and so Batman Incorporated shirks the complicated question of state sovereignty. Similarly, both Nick Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D., an international intelligence organization, and the Avengers, at points a UN-mandated peacekeeping body, are more reflective of the limits and possibilities of global governance than its domestic contexts. It’s difficult to trace the origins of superhero organizations’ global outlook, but one may assume that the nature of villainy plays a role: if the villain, be s/he Adolf Hitler or Loki, seeks global dominance, superheroes must rise to the challenge.

While contemporary supervillainy may fall short in its political logic, this shift has positive dividends in a more complex concept of the state’s response. Consider Nolan’s Bane: in The Dark Knight Rises, Alfred makes a brief reference to Bane’s mercenary participation in a “coup in West Africa that secured mining operations for our friend John Daggett.” Bane’s personality profile may be a pithy dig at West Africa’s regional instability. For the discerning Africa-watcher, however, it functions as a surprisingly prescient reference to the nature of disaggregated governance in coup-prone West African states. In the aftermath of Mali and Guinea-Bissau’s early 2012 coups, a trickle of research has demonstrated the corrosive influence of organized crime in both countries. As Ken Opalo has demonstrated, opportunistic cartel networks have taken advantage of Guinea-Bissau’s pervasive corruption, using the small, unstable country as a staging ground for Euro-African trafficking operations. In Mali, according to Wolfram Macher, illicit regional flows–in cocaine, cigarettes, and humans–have created a lucrative revenue base for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and steepened informal links between Malian officials and AQIM operatives. So, when Nolan describes Bane’s mercenary activity as a driver of instability in West Africa, he’s not totally off-base.

Bane’s nefarious West Africa affiliations reflect a particular type of governance, one which is not often in evidence in the incompetent bureaucracies of superhero yore: the “disaggregated state.” Anne-Marie Slaughter popularized the concept of disaggregated states in her book A New World Order, which described the international legal problem of governance networks–communities of policy practice that, despite their formal affiliation with state institutions, claim links to professional groups, advocacy organizations, and similar non-state actors. As with most things in international politics, disaggregated states have their underbellies: Dan and Adam have written at length (as if there’s any other kind of Dan-and-Adam writing) about the ways in which illicit networks and cartel organizations challenge the basic ontology of state-building. Jay Ulfelder has also expanded on this concept in his empirical critique of the Weberian state-building literature, which, being Weberian, emphasizes “ideal types” of violence prevention, eschewing an anthropological understanding of actual, human interactions with state institutions, bureaucracies, and networks.

Batman’s politics of the state are steeped in this literature, in a way that should be instructive for students of international politics. Consider Batman: Year One, Frank Miller’s widely-acclaimed 1987 reinterpretation of the Batman origin story. Year One introduces Batman as a literary foil to Jim Gordon, an upstart outsider who struggles to counter corruption in the Gotham City Police Department (GCPD). Gordon quickly confronts internal opposition from the criminal underworld’s GCPD allies, including Police Commissioner Gillian Loeb and his lieutenant Arnold John Flass. Corruption is hardly new to Gotham; the reader is not surprised when Flass draws financial benefits from a cocaine delivery operation, rather than stopping it. What’s notable, however, is the extent of paramilitary violence that follows GCPD’s corruption. Gordon describes Branden, a GCPD SWAT team leader and a recurrent Batman antagonist, as the head of a “lunatic gestapo,” which regularly massacres civilian protesters. Branden’s force indicates the extent of disaggregated state authority, which Gotham’s corrupt police department uses to both enforce and evade legal restrictions on its formal authority.

In further renderings of counter-villain violence, superhero enthusiasts would do well to consider the potential applications of Batman’s disaggregated state model. In the meantime, disaggregated state theory offers an importance lens through which we can understand supervillains’ violence, as well as the state’s all-too-frequent complicity in its occurrence.

  1. […] to feature my debut on his excellent poliscifi group blog, Grand Blog Tarkin. Here’s the original link. For more SR analyses of international relations in pop culture, see here and […]

  2. Unending Improvement (@UnendImprov) says:

    Is there really anything new about this state of affairs though?

    The modern “state” is really a very new concept in the theme of things. The old state, the feudal states and the empires, were really little more than legitimatized organized crime.

    I’d argue organized crime is the left-overs of feudal and tribal politics.

    • Daniel Solomon says:

      No, there’s not, which is why it’s notable, if not particularly original–as I noted in the post, state disaggregation has been a subject of anthropological interest for several decades. It’s a matter of historical continuity, which runs counter to the ahistorical narrative of “feudalism and modernity” that often underlines popular-theoretical discussions of the state.

      As for your last point, I think it’s a bit more complicated than a matter of leftovers. Rather, I think it’s a recognition that the coercive reach of the state, far from having a legitimate monopoly on violence, evolves over time and space. Take a localized, domestic example: organized crime in Hell’s Kitchen during the 1920s and ’30s can exist because certain components of the state (ethnically-affiliated police officers, for example) enable it, but also because the state’s reach doesn’t extend to social services, security, and the rule of law.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I should note that many of these themes predate 9-11 by a considerable margin. There was a classic Avengers run circa 1977-78 wherein the team is basically taken over by the US Government and an Agent Gyrich.

    A quick Google search doesn’t reveal the issue but it does recall a bit of dialog that his stuck in my mind all these years:

    Upon being greeted with a series of demands from Gyrich, Iron Man (Tony Stark) asks: “Just who the hell do you think you are?” Gyrich coolly retorts, “I’m the Government, mister.”

  4. […] Daniel Soloman write about “The Batman and the State.” […]

  5. […] and foreign policy analysis from various indirect standpoints, including American history, science fiction, and popular culture. To the extent that Ennil’s critique allows me to continue this trend, […]

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