« Still here | Main | Women in Judaism »

Super Rescue


It occurs to me that most superheroes are, in a sense, super-cops. The main thing they do is fight crime.

But there are a couple of other areas of kind of action-oriented public service, such as firefighting, emergency medical, and search and rescue.

So has there ever been a comic book featuring a superhero or super team that's specifically and entirely oriented toward any of those areas? Certainly most superheroes do some of that kind of thing (like rescuing cats from trees, and rescuing kids from burning buildings, and carrying accident victims to hospitals, and finding hikers lost on mountains), but that's usually a sidelight to their main crimefighting activities; I'm looking for non-crimefighting superpowered people who do emergency work.

A quick search brings up a little bit of info about three connected Marvel comic miniseries collectively called The Call of Duty. Call of Duty: The Brotherhood was about firefighters; Call of Duty: The Precinct was about police; and Call of Duty: The Wagon was about EMTs. But they were all about normal human members of those forces; none of them featured superheroes.

Certainly a lot of the drama and action in superhero comics comes from the fight scenes, and you're not gonna get fight scenes with bad guys in a story about firefighters or EMTs or S&R. But I can see at least two possible responses to that:

  • Real police officers don't have that many fights with bad guys either. A lot of their work is routine, and even when they do make arrests they don't often have actual fights. So superhero comics aren't (and aren't meant to be) an accurate representation of police work; so a superhero comic focusing on helping people rather than fighting crime could greatly exaggerate and distort and focus on different areas than what actual emergency workers do.
  • In addition to the drama of dealing with emergencies, plenty of drama can come from interaction among the team members.

Both of which are, I assume, approaches that are taken by TV shows that focus on emergency workers. (I haven't seen Rescue Me, but I assume it uses both of those approaches.) So what I'm suggesting would be, essentially, adding superpowers to the mix.

This idea started with a conversation with Kam about superhero triage. If there's only a few superheroes in the world, then they each need to cover a lot of ground; they can't respond to every emergency everywhere. Astro City #1 touched on this roundaboutly, and certainly lots of comics have used the "[Hero X] can't save both his friend and random member of the public! Which! Will! He! Choose!" hook, but it seems like it would be a common daily problem: at any given moment, there are probably multiple crises going on. (NYC had, on average, a violent crime every ten minutes in 2004, and a property crime every three minutes; presumably some of those incidents took place at the same time as each other, and that's only the law-enforcement side, not the emergency-services side.)

So it seems like one good approach would be for a superhero to act as (a) a dispatcher (carry a radio to let police and emergency workers know about situations they might otherwise take longer to find out about), and/or (b) a teacher, helping train people to do this work. Only the superhero's advantage is their powers, which they generally can't train other people to have.

So now I'm thinking of a super team with "powers" based on technology, oriented toward EMT, firefighting, and/or S&R, who spend their downtime recruiting and training new members. It would take a lot of money, and if you have that much high-tech equipment there's a question of why you wouldn't just issue it to the existing emergency workers. But maybe you don't have that much money; maybe it's a situation where the do-gooder billionaire who's funding this project creates a few small elite teams (like SWAT teams) to handle especially difficult situations, working in parallel with the regular emergency services. You'd want to recruit from regular emergency services, most likely; and if it's a world that has superpowered individuals, sooner or later you're probably going to end up with some of them on the teams too.

I dunno; I'm not sure there's a market for something like this, and I'm not sure adding the superpowers (or comic-book ultra-high-tech) adds enough to make it sufficiently different from a non-super drama about normal human emergency workers. And I confess that I haven't come up with any actual plots--although, for example, rescuing people from a burning skyscraper is a lot easier if you have team members who can fly, whether under their own power or using high tech.

And if you really wanted to give them a tangible/personified Enemy, how about elementals? Air (tornadoes), Water (tsunamis, hurricanes), Earth (earthquakes, mudslides), Fire (fires, lightning strikes). And terrorists, of course. And bunnies.

At any rate, I think it's an intriguing idea.


The issue of superhero triage interests me too. On the TV show Justice League Unlimited (which is a pretty smart and cool adaptation despite many deviations from the comics), there is triage. Mr. Terrific (whose power, after all, is being really really smart) or Martian Manhunter sit in the League's orbiting space station and monitor world events, dispatching superheroes where they're needed. Big threats get major superheroes -- Superman, the Flash -- while minor threats get more minor heroes -- the Question, Vigilante, etc. It's a nice nod toward the complexity of the world.

So now I’m thinking of a super team with “powers” based on technology, oriented toward EMT, firefighting, and/or S&R, who spend their downtime recruiting and training new members.

You just described the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Sylvia and Gerry Anderson's most famous Supermarionation show.

I guess I'm not clear where the technological powers and/or origin story come in. What's wrong with having insert-silly-explanation-here powers and using them for, say, disaster relief? At least it would probably be legal, unlike dispensing vigilante justice...

— David M.

The thesis I was planning on writing for the graduate degree I couldn't finish was on the Doctor Hero archetype in science fiction. :)

Tim: Cool! The only thing I'd want to see added to that is another threat level where local non-powered authorities are notified for things that don't need superpowered intervention.

Jere7my: Aha! I haven't ever seen Thunderbirds, but I've heard about it now and then; reading the description at Wikipedia, it does sound exactly like what I'm talking about. Thank you!

David: Yeah, that would certainly be fine. The reason I threw in the techno-based powers and the origin story is to allow for training and recruitment, because I've been thinking a lot about scalability lately, and because Kam's been doing EMT training; it seems to me that if one "super"hero can train ten, or a hundred, other people to do the same work, that's a much better investment of their time than going out and doing it themselves. But if the only people you can train to do the work are other metahumans, then the pool is limited and you run into the same scalability problem. So I was looking for a system that has expansion built in. (Although once you postulate the billionaire backer, then expansion is limited in a different way.) But if you leave out the scalability aspect, then yeah, what you're talking about works fine; and in some ways it would be a neater undermining of the traditional superhero comic, to have superpowered heroes who almost never actually fight people.

M.C.A.: Nifty! What sorts of Doctor Heroes were you looking at?

What's wrong with having insert-silly-explanation-here powers and using them for, say, disaster relief? At least it would probably be legal, unlike dispensing vigilante justice...

Based on FEMA's behavior after Katrina, I think superheroes engaging in disaster relief would face significant official resistance.

Regarding superhero triage, the Justice League is all about coordinating and dispatching resources. (Although I have to say, I'm not a fan of the animated series; I don't think it holds a candle to the animated Batman and Superman series that preceded it.)

As for superheroes doing disaster relief, I think we don't see a comic focused on this because of the lack of an opponent. Heroes need villains to fight, and natural disasters don't make good villains. If you start personifying the forces of nature as elementals, then the superheroes aren't really doing disaster relief; they're fighting crime.

More broadly, I think non-scalability is intrinsic to the idea of superheroes. If the powers are common, they aren't super. Even for human crimefighters like Batman, it's not technology that makes him a superhero; it's the combination of his innate talent and willpower. Those are things which don't scale any more than Lance Armstrong does.

For the cops, I suppose most obviously there's Powers by Bendis and Oeming - which features "everyday" police work in a superhero society although both protagonists now have superpowers, they didn't in the early issues. And then there's Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top 10 about the superpowered police force in a city full of super powers - it's a cross between The JLA and Hill Street Blues but with jokes and is, imesho, the best thing Moore's done in years. There was a recent Black Panther run as well that featured the "new" Black Panther whose day job was as a cop.

The most memorable recent attempt at addressing superheroes as disaster relief was, I think, was The Authority Volume One (Millar and Quitely) - which had a superhero team setting itself up to take direct action against the causes of disasters and being attacked by frightened governments. Millar's run ended up getting pretty heavily butchered by DC's in-house censors. Less successfully The Authority Volumes 2 and 3 returned to a similar theme as the team take over running the US in the Coup d'Etat/Revolution storylines.

On the emergency services, Marvel published Damage Control - about a team who clear up after superheroes between 1989-1991 (recently returned in a cameo on Wolverine). There is a Marvel character called something like Lifeguard who has the power to save other people and used to be a lifeguard I think they appeared a few years ago in the X-men (who can keep up?)- I think she turned out to be an alien? Thor's alterego was, for a long time, Dr Donald Blake - but I don't think that counts.

Ditto Ted. Once you have the technology, you can commodify it.

Though the idea of a commodified superhero technology package could make for some interesting stories. I can see a superhero who does't own her own powers struggling against whichever corporation or government agency does.

I think nonscalability is more than intrinsic to superheroes; I think it's the whole enchilada, in a sense. The whole emotional context. Superheroes are a defiantly silly response to a commodified world.

I think the interesting angle here is one of personal superheroic psychology; I want to see a 1970s style "WHAT IF Superman refused to fight crime??" What if your heroes are pacifists? Or what if, like a briefly superpowered character in Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, they think the whole idea of dramatic vigilante crimefighting is morally bogus and socially counterproductive?

The other obvious angle to take superheroes -- besides that of being rescue-type personnel -- is as revolutionaries. That's what I always see straining to emerge, barely held in check, under the surface of the superhero comics; breaking through in occasional moments such as Dark Knight. If anyone, it's the supervillains who occasionally get to be revolutionaries -- e.g. Magneto. But really, if you had this tremendous personal power, and you wanted to advance social good, would you go after purse-snatchers? Would you just compete with the police? Might you not try to alter the status quo, not merely enforce it? To change the rules? This is of course a question of character, and much of the interesting tension between Superman and Batman, from World's Finest days on, has always been between the former's faith in the rule of law and the status quo and the latter's suspicion of it -- but it's usually held within pretty tame bounds. (A similar tension exists between Superman and Wonder Woman). It's also ironic given Superman's apparent anarchist, or at least Jewish-working-class roots as "Champion of the Oppressed" in Siegel's original vision. Apparently in his first episode he "and exposed a corrupt U.S. Senator and munitions manufacturer and halted the South American war they had engineered" -- try finding him doing that sort of thing after the 1930s).

Warren Ellis's Planetary is about superheroes as archaeologists -- they are uncovering the secret history of the 20th century, a fundamentally radical project.

I think a superhero as investigative journalist would also be an interesting take. Really, how much are you going to change by apprehending purse-snatchers? Or even fighting forest fires? And how much good is simply rassling other super-powered loose cannons? It seems like if you actually were bulletproof or could fly, an excellent place to leverage that would be journalism. Fisticuffs may be fine for defeating muggers or even (temporarily) druglords, but if you want to work on stolen elections, corruption, or the underlying causes of global human misery, you need to leverage the mass action of citizens and institutions.

Vigilantes, at best, can only stabilize society around already existing social consensus. Revolutionaries can only destabilize it. If you want to actually reshape consensus, you need to talk, not punch.

Among stories about superheroes as agents of revolutionary change, the most succinct one was probably the conclusion of Alan Moore's run on MIRACLEMAN. Then there was Warren Ellis's work on STORMWATCH, particularly the "Change or Die" storyline, and his work on THE AUTHORITY. Most recently, Ed Brubaker had The Authority take over the U.S. government.

It's interesting that both Spidey and Superman are journalists as their day jobs. I wonder if either have ever had storylines like "hmm, actually fisticuffs are not going to be much use here... this is a job for Clark Kent!"

Dudes. I want all of you to read my book.

The big super-groups -- the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the JLA, spend a lot of time on rescue and disaster response. Gaiman wrote that Superman's natural enemy is the disaster. But the disasters are usually some part of someone's fiendish plot, and the rescues usually involve getting into fights. There aren't a shortage of elemental-ish and terrorist villains.

One of the most fundamental tropes of the superhero genre is that the most important conflicts are personal and external: hero vs. villain. If your hero's not beating people up on a regular basis, but is, say, stripping, de-molding, and rebuilding houses in New Orleans, I'd say you've pretty much slipped into a different genre. Could well be interesting stories to be found there, but I think there'd be difficulties in finding their audience.

Post a comment