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CEOs in Comics: Villains Earn, Heroes Inherit

September 21st, 2011 · 64 Comments

While the ruthless corporate CEO as villain is pretty much a stock character in modern pop culture, superhero comics have always conspicuously placed successful businessmen on both sides of the hero/villain divide. Yet an interesting, and perhaps counterintuitive, pattern recently occurred to me. Just off the top of my head, here are some of the most prominent superhero characters who have, for some significant chunk of their histories, been portrayed as CEOs of large corporations:

  • Bruce Wayne (Batman)
  • Oliver Queen (Green Arrow)
  • Tony Stark (Iron Man)
  • Ted Kord (Blue Beetle)

Here are the first four CEO supervillains who spring to mind:

  • Lex Luthor
  • Wilson Fisk (Kingpin)
  • Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias)
  • Norman Osborn (Green Goblin)

Ok, comics geeks, pop quiz: What do the four heroes and the four villains each have in common?

The answer is that none of the four heroes founded the corporations that bear their family names: Each of them inherited their wealth. In some cases the heroes bear substantial responsibility for the success of their companies, but in the case of Stark and Kord, this is primarily a function of their scientific and inventive genius, not their business acumen. All but Wayne have, for some portion of their history, faced financial difficulties as a result, either losing or surrendering control of their companies at least temporarily.

For the supervillains, precisely the opposite is true. While the TV show Smallville and a handful of one-off comics depict Luthor as born to wealth, he has typically been portrayed as a child of abusive, impoverished parents who rose from the mean streets of Suicide Slum to found LexCorp. Fisk, too, grew up poor and bullied. Veidt describes his parents as an ordinary, unremarkable couple, and it’s implied that they are working or lower-middle class. [Update: As a commenter notes, I’m misremembering: Veidt’s parents were actually wealthy, but he chose to give away his inheritance to charity as a teenager in order to start from nothing.] Osborn’s father was an industrialist who raised Norman in relative luxury… but also an abusive alcoholic who lost the business and his fortune before Norman was college aged, requiring him to effectively start over from scratch. [Update: I could have added Stark’s bete noire Obadiah Stane—played by Jeff Bridges in the movie—whose “degenerate gambler” single father left him orphaned as a child thanks to a round of Russian roulette.] While Kingpin’s wealth comes almost entirely from his criminal operations, with the “legitimate business” of Fisk Enterprises serving primarily as a front, the others seem to have earned most of their wealth by more-or-less legal means.

Now this ought to be at least somewhat surprising. Conventional wisdom, and the vast majority of popular film and fiction outside the superhero genre, suggest that the heroic characters—the ones we admire and identify with—ought to be the ones who earn success through their own merits after a long struggle, while the villains are snobbish children of undeserved privilege. When it comes to the most famous businessmen in comics, though, we find that just the reverse is the case! While on the surface, for instance, the rivalry between Luthor and Superman pits cosmopolitan, urban corporate wealth against humble American rural values, it has also often been stressed that Luthor resents Superman for simply being born with spectacular abilities that dwarf Luthor’s hard-won achievements. What might be going on here?

While the pattern in comics inverts the meritocratic ideal that seems to rule in most modern American fiction, it fits quite naturally with a pre-capitalist aristocratic ethos, which persisted at least through the early 20th century in the form of Old Money’s contempt for the nouveau riche.  Jane Jacobs, in her book Systems of Survival, contrasted this aristocratic view, which she dubbed the “Guardian” moral complex, with “bourgeois” or “mercantile” ethics. In this worldview, while wealth and the leisure time it affords may be necessary preconditions of cultivating certain noble qualities (whether that’s appreciation of classical art and literature, or the martial, deductive, and scientific skills of a masked crimefighter), the grubby business of acquiring money is inherently corrupting. The ideal noble needs to have wealth, while being too refined to  be much concerned with becoming wealthy. It’s permissible for Stark and Kord to be largely responsible for the success of their companies because their contribution is essentially a side effect of their exercise of their intellectual virtues. Along similar lines, while the Fantastic Four have plainly become enormously wealthy from the income stream generated by Reed Richards’ many patents, I don’t recall many scenes in which we see Richards stepping out of the lab to apply his intelligence directly to their commercialization: His inventions are presumably sold or licensed to others who concern themselves with transforming Richards’ genius into cash.

A similar pattern holds for literally noble or aristocratic power in comics. Princess Diana (Wonder Woman) and T’Challa (Black Panther) are hereditary royalty. Doctor Doom and Magneto are members of despised and oppressed minority groups (Doom is Roma; Magneto a Jewish mutant) who actively seize leadership of Latveria and Genosha, respectively. Democratic power doesn’t fare too much better: Lex Luthor was briefly president of the United States.

The logic of this, as I apprehend it, is that the hero must wield enormous power in order to effectively perform the superheroic function, but cannot seem to seek it too eagerly, even for admirable ends—perhaps particularly when we consider that they typically make use of their great economic power by translating it into a superhuman capacity for physical violence. Spider-Man is always reminding us that “with great power comes great responsibility”—but the responsibility is the noblesse oblige of one who has (often reluctantly) found that power thrust upon him.

Bruce Wayne is perhaps the most obvious exception to this general pattern. While for Spider-Man, unasked-for power comes with the burden of responsibility, it is the burden of an obsessive sense of responsibility that comes first for Wayne, driving a protracted quest for hard-won mental and physical power. While every superhero has an iconic “origin story,” Batman is  unusual among costumed crimefighters in that his long and laborious efforts to acquire his skills and powers are themselves a major part of the narrative. In Wayne’s case, this deliberate striving after power is at least partially purged of its ordinary villainous connotations because it is itself depicted as an unwanted compulsion, thrust upon him unasked (like a radioactive spider bite) by the ghosts of his murdered parents. It is not, I think, an accident that this most calculating, ruthless, and unsentimental of the major superheroes is also the one super-CEO most commonly depicted as being exceptionally skilled qua businessman. He  is allowed this quality in part because, in sharp contrast to Tony Stark, he is not depicted as deriving much genuine enjoyment from the luxurious playboy lifestyle he uses as a smokescreen to cover his compulsive crimefighting. (It’s interesting, incidentally, to contrast the apparent business savvy of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster with that of Batman scribe and artist Bob Kane—evident not least in the fact that Kane is often given solitary credit as creator, though there’s a pretty ironclad case for considering Bill Finger an equal partner.)

Protagonists in ordinary popular fiction, like most of us most of the time, are allowed to seek their own happiness—and we’re allowed to share that happiness, through our identification with them—in line with ordinary bourgeois morality. But what makes superheroes “super” (and not merely heroic) is precisely their extraordinary capability to exercise coercive power and dominate others. In their case, bourgeois norms have to yield to the Guardian ethos—which, when their power is partly economic in origin, requires turning pop fiction’s ordinary meritocratic ideals on their head, at least in that limited domain.

Tags: Art & Culture



64 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jacob T. Levy // Sep 21, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Agreed all around about the aristocratic ethos. The gentleman-adventurer archetype may be relevant here, too– the Victorian-era pulps hadn’t been forgotten by the time of the Golden Age. And note that pre-Spider-Man superheroes basically had to have a lot of free time– whereas Kingpin or Luthor can be supervillains and CEOs simultaneously, since they run criminal businesses, the superheroes need to be able to spend time out of the office. That works better for inherited businesses than for built-from-the-ground-up businesses.

    I have the vague sense that neither Alan Scott nor Rex Tyler inherited, but I don’t know for sure.

  • 2 Mike // Sep 22, 2011 at 12:16 am

    Super-heroes are modern versions of old fantasy/mythic heroes. And fantasy and legend are built very strongly on the ideals of the divine right of kings – that some people are simply better than others by right of fate, birth, or god(s), and that these people will do great things.

  • 3 Sam // Sep 22, 2011 at 12:44 am

    While this is all quite true (and interesting), thinking about it more, I think you’ll find that most of the fabulously wealthy heirs to family businesses are over at DC rather than Marvel.

    Which makes sense when you consider the different eras the characters were created. As others have noted, DC’s heroes were very much in the vein of the old pulp heroes, and so you get lots of what are basically bored rich guys going out to fight crime in their free time.

    Marvel, several decades later, was much more interested in deconstructing the DC superhero concept, and so the only real prime example of the trope there is Tony Stark – and the character of Tony Stark is pretty clearly meant to play on the very ideas you’re talking about here. He actually *is* a spoiled, selfish, and arguably even villainous character until he has that transformative event in [Insert Period-Appropriate Brushfire War Here] and changes his ways.

    With only a handful of exceptions, virtually every other major Marvel hero is quite impeccably working class (or started out that way, in the case of the Fantastic Four). Then again, the idea of a superhero who needed to struggle to pay rent wouldn’t have been half so mind-blowing in the 60s if so many of the heroes from the 30s-40s weren’t aristocrats.

  • 4 Watoosh // Sep 22, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Charles Xavier (Professor X), although not a business tycoon, is also an aristocrat who uses his inheritance to run his academy. He’s not a straight example of this trope, because he had to study hard to earn his academic prestige, but given that his mental prowess is also a result of something he was born with (genetic mutation), he’s definitely no Cinderella either.

  • 5 Wilson // Sep 22, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Professor X and Thor immediately jump to mind as Marvel heroes that also fit this mold.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Sep 22, 2011 at 11:06 am

    Yep, noticed that same DC/Marvel disparity myself right after I posted, and attributed it to the really iconic Marvel heroes being developed in the 60s.

    Watoosh & Wilson-
    I thought about mentioning Prof X (and a few other trust fund babies) but he’s really written as an academic and activist, where the inheritance is a rarely-referenced throwaway that explains how he gets to run a school without being too central to the charaacter.

  • 7 DvisionByZero // Sep 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm

    The villains are villains because they are greedy, not because they make a profit or have good business acumen. I know you are making a point about earning wealth vs. inheriting it but I think it’s relevant that comic books are not anti-capitalist per se.

  • 8 Sam // Sep 22, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Yeah, on further reflection Marvel does have a few iconic non-working class types – but even they tend to fit the Tony Stark mold.

    Thor is of course the ultimate rich heir – but just like Tony Stark, it goes to his head and he becomes so arrogant, spoiled, and corrupted by his birthright that his inheritance is revoked and he is cast down to live life as a handicapped mortal.

    Dr. Strange also occurred to me… and once again, he’s a rich, arrogant doctor who’s basically a hubris-crazed monster until he suffers tragedy and learns humility.

    The closest one I can think of to ‘rich, priviliged, and OK with it’ is the Wasp, the Paris Hilton of Superheroes.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Sep 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that they were—just looking to explain an initially puzzling trend I’d noticed. Here it’s really just a special case of the more general rule of thumb heroes get their powers by accident, while villains (somewhat more frequently) acquire them on purpose.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Sep 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Stephen Strange, as I recall, is not born into a conspicuously wealthy family—he’s actually an instance of a hero who became wealthy through the use of his skills and, as you note, became a first class prick in the process.

  • 11 Sigivald // Sep 22, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Is Ozymandias really even a villain, properly?

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Sep 22, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    He’s admittedly a borderline case. But he does slaughter several million people, even if it’s for the “greater good”

  • 13 Tom C. // Sep 22, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Looking at my copy of Watchmen, Veidt says that his parents actually left him a lot of money, yet he chose to give it away “to demonstrate the possibility of achieving anything, starting from nothing.”

  • 14 Brian Gawalt // Sep 22, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    Relevant to this is Steven Padnick’s “Batman: Plutocrat” http://www.tor.com/blogs/2011/01/batman-plutocrat

    “Hugo Strange, Black Mask, Bane, and Catwoman are all villains from lower class, dirt poor backgrounds who want to be upper class, who want to be one of the rich and famous at one of Bruce’s fabulous fetes, but just can’t pull it off. (Well, Catwoman can, but Selina’s in a class all by herself.)”

  • 15 Jacob Pemberton // Sep 22, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    I should note that this dynamic is at the heart of the Pixar film “The Incredibles” – the heroes learn to be proud of their natural abilities, while the villian is shown to be evil because he strives to earn his superpowers through inventions. In rewatching this movie with my son, this inverted meritocratic moral has made me somewhat uncomfortable with the movie. And if I recall correctly, it was alternately criticism/praised as a “conservative” film at the time of its release for exactly this reason.

  • 16 Jacob Pemberton // Sep 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    … that should read “criticized/praised,” of coursem, and villain is also misspelled (writing and proofreading too quickly, since I’m supposed to be doing real work).

  • 17 antimeria // Sep 22, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    […] An excellent post on how superheroes and villains come to their wealth and power. […]

  • 18 Belle Waring // Sep 23, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Supervillains are like politicians in this respect; the fantasy candidate is someone who comes from another sphere of meritocratic success (the military) and then has to be forced to serve despite his wishes for the good of the country, and afterwards eagerly returns to the plow, etc.

    The grubby practice of running for city councilman and then state senate and so on is demeaning, and the inhuman self-control of one’s own self-presentation required to be a successful politician alienating. Wanting to be president very, very much is pretty much a sine qua non for becoming president, and yet we tend to regard people who want to become president very, very badly as morally suspect, and even probably evil. The chances that someone trying to get the powers of Silver-Age Superman on purpose is a megalo-maniacal, would-be dictator are about a trillion to one. (Cf. one’s own fantasy life, passim).

    Superman kind of is the Nietzschean superman, after all, although he’s been duped into upholding bourgeois morality by those corn-fed, sheep-like midwesterners. Ozymandias at least appreciates the scale of the problem, and isn’t running around stopping bank robberies.

  • 19 Ernesto // Sep 23, 2011 at 7:56 am

    I enjoyed your post; I’d just clarify that there’s a need to add “superhero” to the noun “comics”. Superhero comics are a fragment, a specific genre, of the larger medium of comics. Not all comics are like this. You also chose an image from an animated series (and not a comic book) to illustrate your post. Though you are referring to the narratives and characters in general, and they are shared, as transmedia properties, with animation and other media (you mentioned Smallville), the medium of comic books has specificities. How much is this ” pre-capitalist aristocratic ethos” specific to the history of USAmerican comic books, and how much is it an expression of a larger cultural plaintiff?

  • 20 gdfgt // Sep 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Largo Winch. Same.

  • 21 Mark S. // Sep 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I noticed the same thing in The Incredibles that Jacob mentioned. The bad guy talks about releasing his inventions to make everyone a super, while the good guys are trying to restrict it to only those who have natural powers.

    It’s a weird dynamic that isn’t discussed much in the film

  • 22 shorthope // Sep 23, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Yeah, the Incredibles is shot through with that theme, and not just with the villain; recall the conversation between the mom and the son in the car on the way back from the principal’s office: Mom: “Everyone’s special, Dash.” Son: “That’s just another way of saying no one is.”

  • 23 Julian Sanchez // Sep 23, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    The first sentence makes it clear that I’m specifically talking only about superhero comics. I realize I sometimes later refer to “comics” without explicitly using the “superhero” adjective every time, but I also assume that my readers are not so obtuse that they would assume I had suddenly widened my topic to encompass Joe Sacco and the Bros. Hernandez.

  • 24 Damien RS // Sep 23, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    And here I thought Syndrome was evil because he kept murdering superheroes.

    As for superheroes… early Superman was reportedly something of a socialist:
    ref 1, and ref 2. Primary source for welfare/public health care advocacy in 1952, including a comment

    “Of course, the earliest published version of Superman would probably have learned that Mr. Stanton keeps all of his money in a vault within his estate, would have torn the vault out bodily and would have made a donation to the hospital in Stanton’s name.”

    And it seems to me superhero comics originated back when “robber baron” wasn’t a quaint historical term, and the Gilded Age was in recent memory.

  • 25 Carl // Sep 23, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Leoboiko once pointed out that Japanese comics follow the opposite pattern: Japanese heroes have to train extensively to receive their powers (think of Goku going into the chamber of time or Naruto doing his thing), whereas American superheroes (except Batman) receive their powers from some outside source. This, no doubt, illustrates something about our different national characters.

    Looking back, at least ⅓ of Dragon Ball Z consisted of training for an upcoming fight.

  • 26 Damien RS // Sep 24, 2011 at 1:48 am

    Japanese heroes: eh, sometimes. Astro Boy was just built that way. Youko of the Twelve Kingdoms got possessed by a tame demon to have combat skills, and became immortal by mysterious choice of Heaven; what she had to learn was how to have a spine and then run a kingdom the size of China. The Elrics are part prodigy, part training, part raiding the library of the world expert on alchemy, part accident. Ichigo of Bleach has some training, but also various cheat codes. Don’t know about Naruto.
    Great Sage Monkey King learned his powers, but started life as a magical stone monkey carved by the rains of Heaven; there’s training, but there’s also special talent to train.

    X-Men have powers, but also train them up. Classic Spider-Man has accidental powers, but his web-slinging is from his chemistry genius inventor side. Luke Skywalker has the Force but needs training. Lancelot was just that good.

    I think it might be as simple as Western tradition not really having a tradition of Powers, and thus of any ‘plausible’ way to deliberately acquire them, especially outside science fiction. Asian literature is just more high powered for longer.

  • 27 Lj // Sep 24, 2011 at 10:27 am

    It’s much more convenient for the writers if the heroes have unlimited resources with which to pursue justice, but aren’t tired down with the day-to-day responsibilities of having to manage the family business. Villains on the other hand usually employ nefarious means for maintaining their market dominance.

  • 28 John Thacker // Sep 24, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Naruto? Naruto is complicated.

    There are characters like Rock Lee, who both doesn’t come from a famous family and lacks natural genius, but is the hardest worker/trainer of all (a fan favorite but tends to lose to the more genius characters), characters like Neji Hyuga who is disadvantaged because he comes from the lower branch of a family, but is a natural genius, Naruto, whose special powers are the result of being possessed by a demon when young (thus an accident), Sasuke, whose powers are the result of being the heir to a powerful family, and so on.

  • 29 DGR // Sep 24, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    I agree with Lj. Bruce Wayne et al are examples of the “Rich Idiot With No Day Job” trope. It is merely incidental that they are CEOs. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RichIdiotWithNoDayJob

  • 30 Julian Sanchez // Sep 24, 2011 at 3:31 pm


    Obviously part of this is that “rich playboy” is a handy superhero “occupation,” but it’s still interesting that they go with inheritance even for characters like Stark and Kord, who could just as easily have been written as founders of their respective businesses. And on the other side, that the villainous businessmen aren’t also heirs even though they logically could be. Of Stark’s evil mogul counterparts, I know Obadaiah Stane definitely didn’t grow up with money, and I’m not sure about Justin Hammer, though he’s always portrayed as a shrewd businessman.

  • 31 jeannine // Sep 24, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Batman isnt a superhero.He is a Hero.He has no superpowers.Without his wealth and gadgets he is just any other guy who can be killed like the rest of US.Nuthing “super” about that.Because of that he is what the reader wish’s the super wealthy were really like.You know, looking out for the little guy and protecting his city.

  • 32 Brian Nelson // Sep 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Interesting that you mention Justin Hammer, since the dynamic playing out right now in Fraction’s INVINCIBLE IRON MAN is Stark’s ongoing duel with other children of privilege, the Hammer family and Obadiah Stane’s son. It’s also notable that none of Stark’s closest allies (Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, Mrs. Arbogast) come from money. And his biggest romance with someone from money turned out to be the daughter of Count Nefaria.

  • 33 John Roberson // Sep 24, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Excellent piece, and a theme more comics writers, especially in this day and age, should be exploring. One small correction: Bill Finger was the writer of Batman, not the artist–the artist was Bob Kane, with Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang. Though he did not originate the idea of Batman, he fleshed him out and developed him beyond Kane’s rather meager first drawings(much of his backstory, and his costume design, as well as most of the major villains, come from Finger and Robinson) So it’s pretty much acknowledged that Finger was Batman’s co-creator with Kane, by everyone except DC, because sole credit for Kane was part of the rather lucrative deal he made with them over the character. And you’re right, Kane was a much more savvy businessman than the much younger Siegel & Shuster.

    Who both nevertheless worked on Superman and related projects at least till the 60s–in the 60s Siegel was writing LEGION OF SUPERHEROES, at the time a Superboy-related property. The irony of this is that the rights issue originally arose because of DC’s creation of Superboy itself, which Siegel sued over because he did not believe he had given rights to derived properties. That’s actually still an issue legally to this day, one reason DC plays a lot of weird games with the Superboy character(and why–though this turns out to have been a good choice–he was never called that, nor wore a costume, on SMALLVILLE).

  • 34 Moskow // Sep 24, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    I think part of the reason that supervillains often have what would generally be considered more sympathetic rests in the fact that many of these comics have something of a “paradise lost syndrome”, where the ostensible villain is the more interesting and sympathetic character (I think Ozymandias and Lex Luthor are good examples of this). I think the Paradise Lost parallel is also instructive in the way that the problem with a lot of these villains is that they commit the sin of pride like Satan. The problem with someone like Ozymandias isn’t simply the fact that he tries to gain power, otherwise he’d simply be the Steve Jobs of that comic universe. Rather, in his gaining power he commits the sin of pride and attempts to play god (killing several million people in order to ensure world peace).

    I also think that one reason superheroes must be born into their powers is that its hard to imagine a stable society in which anyone with the will could gain such power. This sort of power has to be limited to inheritance or freak of nature accidents because otherwise society as it exists now ouldn’t be able to survive the shock. The two examples where large amounts of people can gain such powers, the X-men and Batman universes, are instructive. In the first instance, the birth of tens of thousands of mutants results in the development of totalitarian methods of controlling the mutant population. In the second, Gotham city is poised on the brink of a total breakdown of law and order since the government no longer has the capacity to enforce the law in the face of villains like the Joker.

  • 35 Diana // Sep 24, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    “While this is all quite true (and interesting), thinking about it more, I think you’ll find that most of the fabulously wealthy heirs to family businesses are over at DC rather than Marvel.” I see everyone has mentioned Professor X; may I add Prince Namor and (from DC) his counterpart, Acquaman.

    Actually the more I think about it, the more I agree with Sam. Daredevil = poor Irish, self-made lawyer (although his legal office seems to morph from avenue D to Park avenue, depending on the needs of the story) vs. daughter of the rich Electra.

    I think maybe we should restrict this debate to superheroes of human origin. Gods are kind of automatically born rich (Thor, Wonder Woman, Namor, etc.)

  • 36 Diana // Sep 24, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    re Moskow: you’ve probably hit the nail on the head. re DGR: totally true. Maybe rooted in the fact that I think the first superhero with a hidden identity was the Scarlet Pinpernel, who rescued French aristocrats condemned to death by the French Revolution, as written around 1900, I think.
    So again I think Sam is right — the moral weight of the story reflects the circumstances that created the first one.

  • 37 Scott Koblish // Sep 24, 2011 at 7:33 pm

    I think another area of focus could be dividing the Smart People from DC and Marvel into evil or good. Over at DC – with the occasional exception of Batman (and he’s been frequently portrayed as manipulative) most smart people are evil – Luthor, Sivanna, whereas over at Marvel, smart people are the good guys – Reed Richards, Tony Stark, etc…

  • 38 Marie // Sep 24, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    All of this is very interesting, and I think that it’s a pattern worth contemplating. However, from the vantage point of the comic book writers, I suspect that there are two big reasons why so many heroes have inherited wealth:

    1) For the heroes’ adventures to be feasible enough to suspend disbelief, the hero must have a resource of time and/or money to pay for all the toys (i.e. the batmobile and computers in the bat cave, as well as Iron Man’s armor upgrades). Inheriting wealth saves the hero the trouble of having to work a day job to maintain that wealth.

    One reason why Spider-Man was always harder for me to buy into than Reed Richards is that Peter Parker was a brilliant kid who managed only one invention (the web shooters) and never invented anything else or thought of the financial potential of his invention. What’s more, Parker’s insecurities and poor job security made little sense given the confidence that would have to come with saving the world a few hundred times.

    2) A villain needs a big, unrealistic goal to fulfill his or her obsessive greed. A villain who starts with enough power to take over the world looks a bit less sinister (at least in the comic book sense), and logic would dictate that they’d take it over the old fashioned way: with multinationals and mergers.

    You can’t have many exciting superhero battles if the villain is capable of ignoring the hero to get what they want.

  • 39 Ann Marie // Sep 25, 2011 at 1:49 am

    Scott, if by “smart” you mean genius, that’s probably true, although Barbara (Oracle) Gordon and Brainiac 5 of the Legion probably qualify. DC has a lot of other very smart characters who are good — Barry Allen, Ted Kord, Ray Palmer, Saturn Girl, the modern Mr. Terrific, and more.

  • 40 Lee // Sep 25, 2011 at 2:17 am

    And Marvel has many evil “smart” people: Doctor Doom, The Leader, Mad Thinker, MODOK, Wizard, Dr. Octopus, Kang, etc.

  • 41 Julian Sanchez // Sep 25, 2011 at 11:13 am

    John Roberson-
    D’oh, thanks—fixed! This is what happens when I get on a tear and don’t stop to check Wikipedia.

  • 42 Daryll // Sep 25, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Magneto was made Jewish in the movies, in the comics magneto is a gypsy (who were also slaughtered by the nazis in both the comics and real life)

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  • 44 Graeme Burk // Sep 25, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I think one of your most interesting comments is a virtual throwaway– the comparison of Superman and Batman’s creators. Not only did Bob Kane retain, on paper at least, status of sole creator, he engineered a sweetheart deal with DC comics that gave him a somewhat bigger share of Batman and kept himself producing comics for decades later: he claimed the contracts he signed originally for Batman were invalid because he was a minor at the time. It probably was a brazen lie, but he had wealthy parents and family lawyers to help.

    Siegel and Shuster on the other hand, sold the rights to Superman for $130 and proceeded to get screwed by DC, and then screw themselves in a series of terrible business calls: quixotically launching lawsuits they couldn’t win instead of keeping a lucrative studio going where they could produce Superman probably for as long as Kane did. (In fairness, Siegel and Shuster had the moral high ground as they created Superman, but DC owned the character, and Siegel’s anger probably didn’t help)

    In the end Bob Kane demonstrates that inherited wealth lends the same advantages as it did to his co-creation.

  • 45 Julian Sanchez // Sep 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    The comics have retconned Magneto’s origins too many times to count, but I’m pretty sure he was switched from gypsy to Jewish before the X-Men movie. Googling quickly, he first appears to have self-IDed as Jewish in Uncanny #150 (1981).

  • 46 Jack of Spades // Sep 25, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    I think it has a lot to do with the importance of wealth to the character. For heroes, wealth is merely a means; Bruce Wayne is defined by his parents’ death, and Tony Stark by his inventions. Batman would not take time to become wealthy; being wealthy lets him be a better Batman. Stark, being the more flawed character, probably would do both – and is even now building up his fortune again in the comics, starting from scratch after bankruptcy.

    The villains are defined by their struggles to obtain and hold on to wealth and power. Their ruthless rise to the top demonstrates their character; rather than succeeding through sheer merit and doing good with their success, they succeed through dishonest means, and thus establish themselves as villains worthy of the hero.

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  • 49 Movie Monday: Is Making Money Inherently Corruptive in Comics?Silver Circle Underground | Silver Circle Underground // Sep 26, 2011 at 12:20 pm

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  • 50 Wesley Scott // Sep 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    I think everyone is forgetting one important aspect of this. While focusing on the writers, you are forgetting the audience. The popularity of these characters come from the readers of the time. The villainous characters of the 40’s and 50’s were likely to reflect the time period. Long work days, and horrid bosses were reflected in TV and at home. The 60’s were anti government (oppression of civil liberties). Think about the 80’s and 90’s reflection of the Cold War. How many secret government groups and experiments were written in?

  • 51 Accursed Interloper // Sep 26, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    “I have the vague sense that neither Alan Scott nor Rex Tyler inherited, but I don’t know for sure.”

    Alan Scott started out as a railway bridge builder, got into broadcasting, then broadcasting management, then broadcasting ownership, and seemed to be pretty big time.
    Rex Tyler was an underappreciated working-stiff chemist, in the golden age, but was recently retconned as having (mid-career) married into significant money.

  • 52 Georg Felis // Sep 26, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Stark and Wayne have a lot of parallels, probably enough to keep a stable of lawyers employed for decades yet to come, but the writers just seem to *love* to destroy Stark Enterprises, either by corporate takeover, or rampaging Super, or relative, or etc… All the way down to recently being so busted bankrupt he winds up conning a neighborhood into funding the re-opening of an abandoned factory to make pill bottles, and without a dime to his name. He really needs to call his company Phoenix, because it comes back from the ashes every time it burns.

  • 53 Pete // Sep 26, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    What a fun and thought provoking read… including the comments!

    Something to note: Both Marvel (pre-Disney) and DC are New York based companies, so the CEO as a villain thing doesn’t really surprise me. Gotta figure that there would be a few libs in the editorial mix.

  • 54 Dan D. // Sep 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I’m not convinced this is a conscious decision on the part of the creators of the comics, as opposed to a genre necessity. People who make their own fortunes tend to be heavily involved in their businesses, until they reach a point at which they nearly run themselves. Their children come of age in a world where that’s already happened, which gives them a great deal more free time in their prime crime-fighting years. It’s true that villains’ businesses seem to have reached that point already… but I’d claim this is a necessity again because it’d make for a boring story if Lex Luthor wasn’t cleverer than Superman, or if Doctor Manhattan wasn’t able to be blinded by Veidt (implying (along with a lot of other explicit evidence) intelligence and drive vastly greater than that of the majority of people). In fact, it’d make for no story at all.

    The only hero for whom this is not true is Batman, but he’s the exception that proves the rule; Wayne does have to struggle enormously to become Batman (that’s not inherited or given), and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to make it plausible that he could build a corporate empire to self-sufficiency and learn his crime-fighting skills, while still leaving room for him to be seriously challenged.

  • 55 The Nerd Hive // Sep 27, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Wait, didn’t Ozymandias inherit his wealth, then give it all away, go on a pilgrimage to learn about the world, then build an empire from scratch?

    Check’s complete anthology, found it, Chapter 11, page 8, and I quote:

    Ozymandias: I was determined to measure my success against his [Alexander the Great]. Firstly, I gave away my inheritance to demonstrate the possibility of achieving anything , starting from nothing.

    Next I departed for Northern Turkey, to retrace my hero’s steps.

    end quote

    So yeah, he doesn’t belong on this list. He’s just an evil CEO that built everything from the ground up. His inheritance doesn’t count.

  • 56 Shannon // Sep 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Wow! Not much love for the Incredibles! And a lot of misapprehension about Watchmen. Where to start?

    First: the entire setup of the Incredibles is a world that has rejected “supers” precisely because their powers make “normal” people uncomfortable. How “special” is running the 100m in sub 10, when “Mr 100” can do it in sub 1? The villain is not a “meritocrat” wanting to “give powers to everyone” — he’s a “super” fetishist sociopath, convincing himself his selfishness is “effective” or “right” because it will “prove” that his sociopathy is “normal”.

    Second: there is only one superhero in Watchmen, and that’s Dr Manhattan. The rest of them are mentally ill costume fetish vigilantes. Watchmen is *specifically* about the fact that even one actual factual superhero *changes the entire world*. It’s utterly ludicrous for “Superman” to limit his activities to “fighting crime” in one city — this is what Watchmen points out.

    And Dr Manhattan is _utterly alien_ and eventually takes himself out of the human world entirely.

    Likewise, Ozymandius is a _send up_ of the typical “inherit or self-make” comic-book CEO/villain/hero. He *consciously* both inherits and self makes. He’s consciously a hero-who-becomes-villain because the ends don’t justify the means.

    It’s a little silly to try and form every comic ever written to Julian’s otherwise excellent and interesting observations about some fairly widespread cliches and archetypes.

  • 57 Josh // Sep 29, 2011 at 10:53 am

    In then heroes case I think a lot of the motivation is that they were oblivious to the world outside there aristocratic upbringing. Especially in the case of Bruce, Oliver, and Tony, they never thought of the underprivileged until something spurred them to think differently. To me that’s a huge part of their stories.

    Like in Batman Begins, Bruce has to give up the things that anchored him to that world in order to really be this avenger of the innocent and downtrodden. Stark had to see the true horrors of war and what it does to real people for him to see that he could do something more. And Oliver had to become as basic as a human can be to really reach his potential.

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  • 59 Orthodoxy & Comics: Is Paganism and the Old Ways being brought back via Comics? - Page 37 - Christian Forums // Nov 10, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    […] more: Superheroes And Inherited Wealth v. Supervillian Entrepreneurs As said there, for an excerpt: Great, great post from Julian Sanchez on an odd divide among wealthy superheroes and villains, namely that superheroes in that category […]

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  • 62 Stock Characters and Tropes | Wiggins Street Destination Imagination // Mar 5, 2015 at 3:18 pm

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  • 63 Some Guy // Jul 31, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    It’s not even just CEOs, but as a general rule, heroes come from privileged backgrounds – the Justice League has only two guys who aren’t supernaturally powerful aliens mythical royalty, or trust fund plutocrats. Meanwhile, villains are of much lesser lineage – Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, Doom is a gypsy, Sinestro was born on a world rife with crime and so on. Fittingly, the word “villain” itself originally meant “farmhand” and was used to denigrate upstart commoners… like the kind whose work built modern democracies. It’s not surprising then, that villains often become more popular than heroes.

  • 64 The Same Guy // Aug 3, 2015 at 6:50 am

    In a way, the logic of the article is unfortunately backwards. It wouldn’t be like this if it was in regard to any other type of story, but in comics, everything is backwards itself, so the article hits the wrong track for the right reason.

    Instead, it should be pointed out that comics usually start off with characters fully formed in their permanent conditions – hero or villain, rich or poor etc. – while anything beforehand is tacked on later, as a frequently changing backstory. It’s just that being born into wealth is an easy way to have heroic characters gain vast resources without drawbacks, while growing up in poverty is the favorite armchair psychology excuse for sociopathy and megalomaniacal ambition later on.

    At any rate, next to the various other unwholesome themes permeating superhero comics – the casual sexism, holdover racism, and the generally unflattering portrayal of humanity as hapless lemmings constantly in need of spandex-clad helpers – the attitude towards hereditary and self-made wealth is among the least of concerns to begin with.

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