Making a Supernatural Living

Ah, capitalism! Someone sees a market for something and then acts to fill that need at a healthy profit for themselves. It works so well (on paper)! A personal hobby horse of mine is what often seems to be a failure of otherwise fascinating and detailed fictional worlds with meticulously developed supernatural or pseudoscientific powers failing to take the profit motive into account.

My most often cited example of this is the long suffering Peter Parker. The poor guy barely covers rent in a thankless job doing freelance work for a borderline yellow journalist. The psychological reasons for why he continues to punish himself year after grueling year have been well-documented, but still, I’ve occasionally wondered why a man of such scientific skills doesn’t get himself a better job. This is a guy who over what was essentially a long-weekend invented an incredibly compact liquid substance which when exposed to air would instantly harden into a powerful adhesive which would furthermore dissolve all by itself after a few hours. Consider the potential non-lethal uses of such a weapon in the hands of law-enforcement agencies as a legacy for poor martyred Uncle Ben. If you were willing to be a bit more mercenary, consider the industrial applications. I recognize that he has a deep need to do personal hero work, but it just seems that having a decent financial base to fund your vigilante efforts above the poverty line might make your life a little more bearable (not that it seems to help Batman much).

Still, an example of a well-thought out economic plan in an unusual setting always makes my day. Here are a few examples, though I’m hoping other people will share a few more.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Magic Shop: Prime example here. Sunnydale sits on a Hellmouth and a variety of factions want to hex most of the other factions. Seems like a great opportunity for a middle man to sell a variety of magical talismans, reagents, and reading material. However, it also comes with a fairly high mortality rate. Still this isn’t enough to daunt Giles, who needing gainful employment is stunned at the profit potential of such a place and immediately takes over. Does anyone else wonder if Giles and Anya sold materials to the very demonic forces which the Scoobies subsequently had to defeat?

Babylon 5 – Commercial Telepaths: I thought the telepathic politics of Babylon 5 were very well thought out, especially with the focus on making a living as people both suffering from a stigma and holding a special power. The commercial telepaths tried to navigate the murky water of meeting societal needs (judicial requirements for psychic corporal punishment, and business negotiations) as well as being pawns in a greater conflict involving quite a few different powers.

Harry Potter – Weasly’s Wizarding Wheezes: One of the very few explicit examples in the Harry Potter universe of wizards not actually obtaining their income from the Ministry of Magic, directly or indirectly, and the books are richer for it. What seems even funnier to me is that all their loot is coming from more than just kids, and they even branch out into what are essentially defense contracts with the Ministry as the series progresses (thus deepening the question on where wealth actually comes from in the Harry Potter universe).


15 Responses to Making a Supernatural Living

  1. Dana says:

    Does Iron Man count? Technically, Stark was already rich before he built the suit, but I guess technically Batman was already rich before he got all his toys, too. I guess really Stark’s “power” is more being really smart at building weapon-like things, and he certainly uses that to his monetary advantage.

    I definitely also found the Peter Parker issue irritating, too. It does rather follow in the model of Superman/Clark Kent, though, except with more room for frustration and drama, since the freelance photography is less stable than permanent reporting.

    So many other series tend to deal with the issue by making the superpowered people have governmental support/jobs, though. I’ll try to think of some more exceptions. If you want to get more into regular fantasy books, there are a lot of instances of mages that work with mercenary companies, have local shops, etc., but those series don’t incorporate elements of the real world the way your other examples do.

  2. matthewsayre says:

    Iron Man counts as a good rich superhero type, but he also doesn’t get much in the way of joy out of his cash. He’s got an ongoing battle against alcoholism and arguably clinical depression. Nor does his technology have much an impact outside of providing him with the means for superheroics. I think he’s even gone on crusades to make sure that no one else has use of his technology, for either the benefit or detriment of mankind. I can’t think of many rich comic book hero types that seem to get much fun out of their money (the only one that leaps to mind is Scrooge McDuck!).

    What I kind of had in mind, though, was a character or situation that seems to think its way through the socioeconomic implications of a supernatural situation. In general very few comic book, fantasy, or even science fiction take into consideration what they could do with themselves. I can only think of a few exceptions off the top of my head like Sandman, where fallen gods try to earn a basic living doing what they used to do, an idea explored later in American Gods.

    You could make an argument that this is to make the story accessible to readers, as if stories about alien creatures powered by yellow sunlight capable of taking tactical nuclear warheads to the chest really come under the category of anything except wish-fulfillment, but to that I could offer titles like Watchmen, where the social landscape of the entire planet is changed by one guy with one superpower.

  3. guyintheblackhat says:

    There’s always Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias, in which perfectly forgettable superhero Jessica Jones gives up her superpowers in order to become a private investigator… in cases dealing with superheroes (like with Bendis’ acclaimed series Powers or Jim Butchers The Dresden Files). Of course, these examples are transplantations of normal human activity into the paranormal/superhero realm, “humanizing” the supernatural as part of a larger cultural trend since the late 1980s. What you’re looking for, I think, are economic systems that evolve because certain supernatural principles are a given.

    In this case, I think the examples you provide are very good, and am also curious to see what others come up with.

  4. Dana says:

    Mark came up with the example last night of The Human Torch from the Fantastic 4 (at least the movies), who was definitely money-oriented and essentially made himself into a brand for endorsement purposes. That seems to fit.

    Professor X had the school, but I think that was more often presented as an altruistic move rather than an economic one.

    And Wolverine made a living prior to joining the X-Men as a prize fighter.

  5. kazinkas says:

    Booster Gold came back from the future with future tech to become a superhero for the endorsement gigs and such. Had his own manager, spent a lot of time worrying about his brand and image and such. The original 80s series was all about this. (Well, and occasionally about aliens from Dimension X kidnapping his twin sister. As you do.)

  6. kazinkas says:

    Oh! The Order is an interesting example of the reverse. Basically the idea was (and I don’t remember why this made sense, and sadly don’t have the first issue on me) to choose people who have contributed to the community, often through/becoming rich and famous (there’s a wealthy philanthropist and a former child actress, for example), and give them temporary superpowers as part of a government superteam. Needless to say they are the state team for California and based out of L.A.

  7. Melissa says:

    Jumper is a prime example of this. I’m thinking of the book, and not the movie–because at least in the book he’s foiling hijackers as well as stealing in order to live the kind of life to which he has become accustomed.

  8. Liam says:

    Shobha made me come post here, since it’s easier than giving her a list.

    Wonder Man is a superpowered actor who does his own stunts.

    The (third) Flash made himself into a brand, similar to the Human Torch, back in the day. He recently discovered that the majority of metahumans in the DC universe just use their powers to make money, though this is unlikely to be followed up on anywhere.

    Captain America and other military hero-types are paid by the US government. In fact, in the current Marvel Universe, almost every US hero is paid by the government.

    She-Hulk has played the ‘I saved the world this morning’ card to win court cases, and currently operates as a superhuman bounty hunter. The firm she used to work for also employed a shapeshifter to track people down and hand out subpoenas, a robot to do odd jobs, and a team of speedsters to deliver messages.

    Multiple Man uses his powers for detective work, and used them to cheat at Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in order to secure the start-up costs for his agency.

    Invincible’s dad, Omni-Man, made his living by writing books at super speed. He wrote down the history of his people and disguised it as sci-fi.

    The New Warriors filmed their superhero battles as reality TV for a while, until they got blown up.

    Daredevil uses his powers to win court cases, and has also used them to cheat at cards.

    Superman does everything that needs doing on the Kent farm whenever he visits, although that’s not really personal profit.

    In the new Shazam! series, little Billy Batson turns into Captain Marvel and impersonates his father whenever the principal wants to meet with him.

  9. Liam says:

    Oh, Heroes for Hire, of course. Who I don’t think ever actually got paid, but still.

  10. Dana says:

    Good catch, Melissa. Mark mentioned that one last night, too, but I forgot by this morning.

    Liam’s comment about Wonder Man reminded me of Tanya Huff’s spin-off Smoke series, which in various books has included a wizard from another dimension who used her powers as a special effects person for a TV show in Hollywood, and later there’s a woman who turns out to be the immortal avatar of a demon/god and uses her invulnerability to damage as a stuntwoman who isn’t afraid to do anything. Oh, and the vampire in that series, Henry, uses his original life in Henry VIII’s court as fodder for his romance writing career, but that doesn’t really count.

  11. Liam says:

    And Dazzler used her powers of turning sound into light to put on light shows as a disco performer.

    A fairly common origin story (usually for villains, but) is the one where they used to use their powers to make a living, but turned to crime/crimefighting when they lost their job/their uncle got shot/the Fantastic Four stole all the spotlight. See: the Wizard, Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man, Mysterio, Hawkeye.

  12. LE says:

    One of the things that makes a good fantasy universe for me is that the author has thought through the economic consequences of magic/future tech/superpowers, etc.

    Take the Recluce books by L.E. Modesitt (no relation). The Order masters use their magic to make excellent handicrafts and sell them at an enormous profit. Eventually, someone uses the idea of “ordered” metal (basically steel) to make steam engines. The Order masters can now rule the seas, and have a de facto economic stranglehold on all port cities.

    That’s a *systemic* use of magic for economic purposes, which is a little different than isolated supers gaming the system. Anyone have other favorites?

  13. E. Twieg says:

    In the first few Anita Blake vampire hunter novels, she was employed in a small consulting firm of professional zombie raisers who performed various resurrections to enforce contracts, clear up last-will-and-testament disputes, and provide information to murder investigation. Comparable to the Bab5 commercial telepaths. In essentially an alternate contemporary settng where supernatural powers have always been present to a varying degree. Later novels essentially drop this employment by the wayside in a flurry of vampire and were-critter boffing with the occasional murder and anti-magi predjudice thrown in. The author has another series featuring a part-faerie private investigator that I’v never been able to bring myself to read.

  14. E. Twieg says:

    More to add after browsing the back posts on Vampire lit. There is a distinct motif of vampire as (or associated with) private investigator/police detective (PN Elrod’s noir Vampire Files, Forever Knight, Angel, Moonlight). I like the set up in the initial Vampire File books. The protagonist is a Veteran of WWI who has been making a living as an investigate reporter. He looks into a Chicago mafia story–which inevitably gets him killed and in the process of adjusting to the after effects he teams up with a former Shakespearan actor who is now a private investigator with a fondess for disguises and in need of a partner.

    There’s also the first Diana Tregarde novel featuring a wiccan-style Guardian who pays the bills by writing romance novels–this is less apparent in the later two books, but comes to the fore in an associated short story which takes place at a writers’ workshop. In the very first Highlander movie the Lambert-McLeod makes his living as a dealer in antiques.

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