The Two villains column turned into a beast, so it’s still in production. (This paragraphis brought to you by the “experience the 70s again!” department. Imagine yourself at twelve, opening the issue that you just bought whose cover promised the continuation of the ongoing story, to find a substitute one-shot instead.) I’ll be adding images to this one as I get the chance, too.
In related news, the move to Sweden is moved! At this writing, I and the family are staying at a cabin on the shore of the Baltic (technically inland, archipelago-wise), as our house gets enough of its working parts installed to sustain us there while renovations continue. Bye-bye U.S. phones and car, hello to Swedish ones. Various applications proceed.
Back to the topic, wealth in comics. More specifically, wealth as a character component for protagonists. Since this is a quickly-written column, I don’t plan on busting out a thesis statement with an argument, so much as to raise the topic and see what happens.
I figure I don’t have to go into why “money” isn’t wealth, nor to spend pages scrubbing out a century’s worth of confusion about actual class structure vs. labels of upper/middle/lower, nor to talk about the societal shift from asset-based wealth to debt-based lifestyle which pretty much frames the whole period of my adulthood.
Here’s the thing about me and wealth – there’s no easy catch-phrase, as I’ve never had any and I’ve often been surrounded by it. I was born into something halfway between low-rent and dropped-out, and often in contact with either more extreme poverty or with more extreme deliberate rejection of material wealth. Neither of these is anything like TV; the former was often tough & limited, but not wretched (this is before it became inextricably associated with debt), and the latter was not stereotypically self-indulgent posing.
All this was in an area generally associated with affluence, from outside, which is to say, observers miss the meat-and-bones of a community with a visible high-income sector. Then add my education: in high school, a townie on scholarship among not only the affluent, but the very, very globally wealthy; in college, on scholarship and work-study among those who aspired very hard to be wealthy. I found myself simultaneously …
- Dismissive toward the notion that money turns into success or happiness, while practically exemplifying the stereotype of “townie kid makes good in the big leagues”
- More familiar with the trappings of wealth (and with people in that category) than others who really wanted it, or more of it, while having less than these same others
- Especially paradoxically, much more comfortable either among (if we must use labels) the have-nots and the really-really-haves, then among the majority of U.S. citizens
By the way, class, ethnicity, and gender don’t intersect, they’re all mixed up. Big difference, which seems to have eluded most of academia. Argh, this is getting way too boring! Suffice to say that one of my big priorities all my life has been to avoid debt peonage, and amazingly, given the nail-biting risky steps of student loans (a decision at 16) and a mortgage (at 37), I succeeded.
Now for the comics talk, thank God. What makes this topic impossible for a single column is not how many wealthy people are featured – they’re rare! – but rather how a nominal character is depicted differently at different historical moments. I can’t summarize it here, but I’d like to get started on trying, probably with your help in the comments.
Obviously, from the perspective of this blog, we’re talking about Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. What does wealth mean to either or both of them? I have no quick answer, but a couple points should be included in trying:
- That each displays far more genuine confusion, even schizophrenia, concerning the super-identity and the normal-guy one, and this confusion is potentially very strong for stories when it’s not wallowing in author-confusion
- That neither questions or otherwise dwells upon the naturalness or rightness of being wealthy, but rather treats it as an asset for being super and/or heroic; the key concept here is that rather than merely having lots of money, they are both conceived as gentry
Another topic I’ve dwelled upon ties in: that the classic bank-robbing comics/movies “crooks” are completely fucked; there’s no way that seizing bundles of cash at a bank will ever, ever make anyone wealthy, not in antiquity, not in the 1920s and 1930s, not now, not ever. It’s relevant to the current topic because it illustrates the divide between the characters I’m talking about and everyone else. Say there were no Batman; Gotham crooks could rob every dollar from every bank in town, and not one of them would become Bruce Wayne.
That’s clearly the source for the long-standing and ongoing critique of Batman as an elitist oppressor [I’ll add some links soon], and rather than a hip snarkfest, I think it’s a solid topic. The point of the moment is that Iron Man seems to escape such critique because he’s not a vigilante, and doesn’t run around stopping muggers in alleys. His 60s foes were all about the Cold War, for example, and his 80s foe was himself. (Granted, he leaned that way up against the Maggia in the 70s, which bears re-examination, as the danger of the Maggia was not wretched savagery and muggings and shooting your parents, but genuine societal power.)
Here’s a quick nod toward Nighthawk, perhaps the quintessential Marvel hero at least among one axis (see I like him anyway), who sometimes provided a stand-in for critiquing Batman. Ham-handed as the Sons of the Serpent storyline may have been, at least it still brought up the point that wealth itself is a potential source of crime, and that a wealthy person can’t just sit around not paying attention to what’s being done with it. Another quick nod goes toward Janet van Dyne and Henry Pym, both of whom have been so distorted since their original appearance and concept as rather more realistic American gentry, that I can’t do more than nod.
But hold on! Aren’t we forgetting some other characters and comics? Why yes. Let’s clarify that the long-standing claim that comics are dominated by superheroes, especially in the U.S., is a fandom artifact rather than economic or any other reality. You want to talk about comics success and dominance and prominent characters, then you want to turn to Harvey and Disney – I’m talking about Richie Rich and Uncle Scrooge. I can’t believe there isn’t an enormous academic tome about these two and related matters, as well as popular reader-friendly versions. These are insanely, globally popular characters, and each is explicitly not only wealthy and privileged, but filthy rich. And it’s not merely as a target for humor, but somehow a positive thing, which also manages to preserve the privilege and separation from the rest of us. Dammit, dissertation writers! Get on it!
And the final example tied to those two is Daddy Warbucks, and here’s where my comics-fu fails. There are people who know everything about newspaper strip comics and their many twists and turns of content, and I’m not one of them.
Get commenting, folks! Let’s make a little sense.
I found a moment to give this post some more weight. Let’s begin with the cultural touchpoints for celebrity wealth in the twentieth-century U.S., especially those which would have fed directly into newspaper and newsstand comics, and especially regarding three crucial terms.
Term #1: “millionaire,” which by mid-century had replaced the more politically-charged “tycoon.” It’s as if The Jungle and the Depression had been erased, leaving only the 1890s Carnegie-Rockefeller image-building in their place. The millionaire (the term is by no means quantitative and probably undersold itself considerably) is a patriot, happy to work with government especially when it comes to transport and military tech, and always good for some advice when the politicians need it. He’s dedicated to the common good both as happenstance (“creating jobs”) and as activist via philanthropy. It’s important that he made the million, rather than just having it. He’s always self-made, either a wheeler-dealer or industrialist or both, tough and canny, but fair; he displays that prosperity lies in the range of human grasp, that anyone can make it if they try, as long as they’re not lazy. Clearly he’s not a banker or financier as such, it’s not “hands-on” enough, but the term “businessman” overlaps without really going there. (I suggest that works like The Fountainhead merely display this image rather than inventing it.)
The historical figures, or rather, the people who took on the cultural role/perception, include Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst. The former adds the spin of the inventor and innovator, and latter ramps up the philanthropy.
Term #2: “playboy,” which I was surprised to learn is quite old and had acquired its modern meaning well over a century ago. By same time I specified above, it was fully in place: affluent and cosmopolitan, bon vivant, hip and progressive (a bit Beat in contemporary terms), promiscuous or at least polyamorous … the magazine of this name was founded in 1953 and certainly Hugh Hefner qualifies, but I think it also relies heavily on the popular image (rather than the reality) of Errol Flynn , who brings in the athleticism, combat, and daredevil aspects.
Some points about the comics/cartoon characters:
- Daddy Warbucks wasn’t a villain at all; his explicit capitalist-protagonist role is practically verbatim in my term #1 above, deliberately so, fitting in nicely with his introduction in 1924. And no surprise, he was diminished or absent in the 1930s adaptations, and has been smoothed into different shapes for the later ones. I think the biggest touchpoint for him must have been the 1930-1942 radio show (it’s constantly referenced in American lit and cinema, and must have been re-run for decades) – but I don’t know what he was like in that.
- Bruce Wayne dates all the way back to 1939, but the question is when his wealth became a significant feature of the comic or other media. I’m not enough of a Batman scholar to say, e.g., I don’t know when Alfred became a major character, but I know that Bruce and Dick hangin’ out in the fancy mansion was a feature of the 1940s and 1950s comics. The 1960s show didn’t invent any of this although it certainly played it up for comedy.
Uncle Scrooge comes in a lot later – 1947 – and sure enough, he started as a flat-out antagonist, the classic grasping miserly bastard. It’s a really complicated history after that, as Moreno points out in the comments, with at least three primary/seminal versions; suffice to say that in the U.S., he was softened up considerably and turned into the immigrant-makes-good, adventurer-philanthropist, especially in his own comic in 1952.
- Richie Rich was introduced in 1953 and got his own title in 1960 … scratch that, actually, he ran in fifty fucking titles as arguably the world’s most popular comics character. Yes, I didn’t know that either. He began, ran, and continues as an incredibly nice person, and I guess the cultural jury is out on whether this is due to or in spite of his privilege. I’m really interested in what his father is like in the comics; I’m betting he’s right in there with the other positive-philanthropist industrialist guys.
- Tony Stark started (1963) lock stock and barrel as the industrialist, inventor, patriot combination. I’m trying to remember when the “playboy” feature showed up in any substantive way rather than a thrown-in phrase or two – was it a 60s thing? I mean, when as an actual plot point. And I could be reaching here, but Errol Flynn’s mustache and his hidden health problems behind the veneer of hyper-competence do seem eerily present in Tony.
Next column: Two villains (I hope – seriously, tough post, people) (May 28)
Posted on May 21, 2017, in Heroics and tagged Batman, Daddy Warbucks, Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, Hugh Hefner, Iron Man, Nighthawk, Richie Rich, Uncle Scrooge, wealth, William Randolph Hearst. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.
Hi Ron! Talking about the difference between being rich and having money, a good example among heroes would be Reed Richards, that has to have tons of money to afford all his gadgets, but he’s always shown as middle-class (and there are a lot of stories about the fantastic four having money problems).
When comics fans began to ask how Reed could get all that money there was a somewhat unstated retcon that said that Richards get a incredible amount of money from patents, enough to be able to spend billions on gadgets… but he still was shown receiving visits from the owner of the Baxter Building asking to be paid past rent….
About Uncle Scrooge (that is a lot more famous here than the almost unknown Richie Rich), there were a lot of different interpretations during the years (are you familiar with the Don Rosa ret-con of Scrooge’s interest in money?), and even some (in)famous book like “How to read Donald Duck” in 1971 by Dorfman and Mattelart. But thinking about the comic book themselves, the most striking difference between USA and Italy Disney comics in the 60s and 70s, was that… the USA were really the only place in the world where RICH PEOPLE were the GOOD GUYS! I still remember how distasteful and “strange” that sounded to me at the time. In Italian comics books (and movies, and books, etc), rich people were the villains, always trying to increase their wealth by robbing other people (a much more realistic depiction IMHO than the one I found in American comics at the time). All this changed in the 80s, when a very big cultural push by all the TVs and media finally convinced the Italians too that rich people were the best (and the country went downhill after that), but before that, the depiction of Scrooge in Disney Comics made in Italy (allowed by a much more lax control from Disney Central than the one they have now) was of a true comic book villain. If the Don Rosa Scrooge today remember only one “bad deed” in his life (I am a big fan of Don Rosa by the way, but he obviously did never read italian Disney comics), the Scrooge in Italian Disney comics in the 60s was always about doing dirty tricks or even violating the law to get more rich, and he and Donald and the nephews were almost always against each other.
About Iron Man, I have not read these comics for a long while but I seem to recall that in the 70s in the comics he was depicted as questioning the way that he made money (this was around the time he stopped being an arms dealer).
All this talk about money made me remember a FQ villain whose power was literally “money”: do you remember “Gideon” in Fantastic Four #34?
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Hi Moreno! That’s exactly right about Reed Richards. One thing I had trouble articulating in the post was that I’m interested in characters who are specially designated to be wealthy, especially as intrinsic to their identities. So characters who can be inferred to be wealthy don’t count, and just as you say, Mr. Fantastic is designated middle-class with occasional money problems, and that’s that, even if the question “how does he afford to do the research” seems logical. The same goes for characters who are royalty and/or national leaders, as wealth is an adjunct to the status rather than being something they specifically wield or define themselves by. (I’m talking in fictional terms; in reality, the interplay among wealth, power, and status remains difficult to talk about.)
I don’t know much about the history of Uncle Scrooge as villain and not-villain, although my uneven but constant reading of the character (Donald and his family are unavoidable in the States) definitely includes both for him. The diversity of international publishing is really interesting, given that local authors were able to put their own spin into the Disney characters. I didn’t realize that any such comics were anything but translations. The Donald Duck franchise has long been hugely popular in Sweden – ha! I get to say here in Sweden now – and I wonder how much it’s taken on a local flavor and range of themes.
I think the 80s transition you’re talking about applies to the U.S. as well, at least somewhat. You can see an American romance with money-and-status all through cinema, for example, but it’s tenuous – a given story can turn it on its head really fast, especially during and just after the Depression. Comics seem to me to be even more critical – Daddy Warbucks started as a villain, didn’t he? Batman’s role as a rich guy was always either edgy or a source of comedy, and it seems to me that Tony Stark’s wealth carried a strong dose of “he’s a hero despite being rich” in it, even in the 1960s. I enjoy the fact that fully half the bad guys in the original Scooby Doo series are the bank owners and similar people, not lowlife crooks.
I keep mentioning them and will explain it one of these days, but the Pyms, or rather, Van Dyne and Pym, are the single example of genuine American gentry in comics. The Dutch name is no joke in the Greater New York region and it’s consistent with their generally easy, unreflective approach about wealth (they never show it off or think of it as an asset). Oh wait! Warren Worthington III needs to be in that discussion too – damn it, this post just keeps growing into more of itself.
I don’t remember Gideon, although it itches at me enough to think that in a few hours, I’ll wake up from a sound sleep suddenly remembering the whole thing. So uh thanks for that …
Hi Ron! Let’s see if I can jog your memory about Gideon. It was a one-shot tale and the character was never used again by Lee and Kirby (it was used again in the 70s but so changed to be in practice a totally different character). He is depicted a sort of Scrooge (he even has sack of money in his office…) but without any scruples. He is actually conquering the world, using money instead of armies, and there is a meeting between him and his last two rivals for economic world domination. The other two give Gideon a challenge: they will sell their proprieties to him if he will be able to defeat the Fantastic Four (it’s a very flimsy reason to go against the Fantastic Four, but I like the way they are keeping everything about money and only money: they don’t give Gideon any actual reason to hate and fight the FF, for him, killing them is only business). And he proceed to do exactly that. He actually first turn the FF against each other, toying with them , and then he set a trap that would work: so he is in effect doing what no other supervillain was able to achieve. But at the last minute, his own son, a kid who is a FF fan, rush to save them risking his own life, and Gideon forfeit the game.
At the time I did not see any hidden meaning in this tale (I was 9 when I did read the Italian translation…), but thinking about it now, it does take some symbolism… money and greed as the most terrible menace ever, so powerful to defeat even the FF, but the young readers who love the FF could defeat it by facing their own elders… it does seems like something Stan Lee would put in a story in 1965…
Talking about old movies, I did watch Stagecoach recently (the original one by John Ford with John Wayne, filmed at the end of the great depression) and I was surprised to see how… modern it was. Much more modern than most of 80s and 90s movies: the heroes of the story are a wanted fugitive, a whore, a drunk, and a gambler, the “dregs of society”, shunned and exiled from the “good people”… but the real villain is the banker, who is robbing these “good people” blind while inciting them against the others….
Janet Van Dyne: she was always shown as a rich heiress, but it’s interesting to note how the “Hank Pym is obviously shamed and humiliated by having a wife more rich than him” began to be shown only in the 80s (around the same time he became a wife beater), up to that point it was never shown as a problem between them.
(Jumping back to old movies – this post is starting to resemble a ping-pong match – compare with the shameless and self-assured behaviour of William Powell in “The Thin Man” and its 5 sequels: Nick even joke about how he did leave the work of a detective because spending his wife’s money is a full-time job… as if marrying Nora was not enough to get him the envy of every guy in the audience… )
About Disney Comics: for decades Disney was not particularly interested into what other people were doing with their characters on comics (just the way they did license them to other publishers not only abroad but even in the USA show how little they cared, they were much more interested in movies and TV and parks than in cheap comic books), and this allowed a lot of national variations among different licensee. The USA Disney comics were not produced in nearly enough quantities to satisfy the market abroad (and, to be frank, apart from Barks and very few others the quality was not adequate), so in South America, Italy and the north Europe the request for Disney stories gave life to a vast local production, each with local differences. And these differences were so tied to local taste and habits that they did not mingle a lot: Disney licensee can print any Disney comics from any part of the world, for free, but still the italian publisher preferred to pay local writers and artists instead than printing stories from north Europe and South America, and the other big marked did the same: there are very different Disney “styles” in different country that have only a small interface in the old Barks and Gottfredon stories, and only in the last years people are seeing stories from these other markets (the thing is sadly helped by the way Disney did stomp down on these regional variations in later years, making them much more homogeneous and “safe”: Scrooge is not a villain any more in italian stories and Donald Duck has not a double life as a thief and a supercriminal, Paperinik now it’s a superhero.
(Italy, in the late 60s: Scrooge is a villain, and the Italian comic book market is swamped by “Diabolik” imitations, with “heroes” that kill and rob the rich. So what do they do? In a famous and well-loved story – later censored – Donald Duck find the old refuge of a “Diabolik” clone that lived at the times of Fantomas (it was a jab at implying that Diabolik himself was only a Fantomas rip-off?), he adapt the costume and becomes PAPERINIK (Paper=Papero=Duck, Donald Duck name in Italy is “Paperino”, “Paperino+Diabolik”=”Paperinik”. And then proceed to rob Scrooge and foil his nefarious plans, acting against the law that protect Scrooge…)
Sadly, it could not last: even before Disney could take notice, Paperinik was quickly turned in later stories into a sort of superhero that fought the beagle boys and other criminals (This version it’s know in the USA as Duck Avenger). But some day I will play <a href="https://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net/paperpedia/images/3/3b/Paperinik_2.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20121004141030&path-prefix=it" target="_blank">the one true Paperinik as a supercriminal in a role-playing game! 🙂
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I think it might be worth noting that money alone is not the superpower, but there’s an implied connection that wealth = genius (gadgets/tech) = supreme self-mastery (as expressed through martial arts). I think there’s something to that, the notion that those three things would naturally go together. Like it plays into a very American myth.
Adrian Veidt seems to be riffing on these tropes, too.
Does Oliver Queen fit into this anywhere? Millionaire playboy crimefighter who got retrofitted from “Batman, with arrows” into a counterculture socialist type under Denny O’Neil.
There might be more examples, or an earlier one, but Errol Flynn (that is, his persona) seems so perfect as the touchpoint and influence that I’ll go with it until corrected. Which is to say, yes, I agree about the combined elements and the myth.
I have to warn against any “is” creeping into our discussion of the characters. It’s easy to do with this topic as the Stark and Wayne fortunes are so consistently present through multiple incarnations of the characters, implying a consistency to the characters that isn’t there at all. So I dunno how to deal with who or what Oliver Queen “is,” as Green Arrow is more typically whatever a given editor/writer does with him.
To stay with the specific versions, did O’Neil simply abandon the millionaire-playboy aspect, or did it play in somehow? And by contrast, I noticed in the recent TV show (I saw a few episodes, not the entire season 1), that his bad-assery did not derive from his wealth but rather from an exile from that wealth, in contrast to the pattern I described in the post.
I didn’t even think about Errol Flynn movies as an influence on comics characters, but he was all over the silver screen when the early creators were writing. Of course that cemented the trope!
On Green Arrow, yeah, that makes sense. I don’t feel like the “rich guy” trope shines through too much in the Green Lantern/Green Arrow series from 1970, so maybe that’s some other thing. I don’t think I’ve so much as looked at a Green Arrow comic from before this era, so I don’t know how he worked out as a vanilla millionaire hero.
In the current TV show* his power does derive from his paintrauma exile. He does eventually pick up the mantle of business leader and playboy, but that’s more of a front for his crimefighting operations and a source of “soap.”
There’s some subtle thing about the way these billionaire crimefighter characters end up portrayed in their recent, hugely successful media adaptations which bugs me too. It’s like the difference between a working class person’s fantasy about how cool it would be ultrawealthy, and a rich person’s fantasy about how cool it would be to engage in direct action activism. (I’ve got like a whole pent up rant about the limitations of well-capitalized corporate media to tell meaningful stories, and the repulsive worldview of the last Nolan Batman movie, but… yeah I’ll just stop.)
I had a bunch of Richie Rich digests when I was a kid and even then I thought they were terrible. One giant joke about how implausibly wealthy he was, as though the Sultan of Dubai was living by comparatively modest means. I guess I don’t understand the appeal. Maybe there was some subtext that was lost on me.
* I assumed the island flashback device was ripped off from Lost, but now that I look into it, it comes from a 2007 series by Andy Diggle.
Pent-up rant = guest post!
Wow! That is exactly it. I had not put it together myself, and this is key.
“If I were a rich man” is a good song, whose effect is charming, as it’s neither fully sincere nor fully pathetic. Trying to imagine the converse song “If I were socially relevant but got to stay a parasite too” is … well, it ain’t charming.
Couple thoughts …
I’ll point at Horatio Alger and “rags to riches” generally as an important background to the emergence of your “millionaire” characterization. I’m curious about how comics approach that aspect – I know of a lot more “wealthy family” than “by yer own bootstraps” comics-stuff, but as you know, my comics-background is thin. It seems like an important cultural theme, blowing its way (back?) into politics and etc. in disturbing (to me) ways through the 80’s and beyond, so a paucity/absence of self-made (from Poverty!) wealth in comics would seem … meaningful.
How about villains? Is their wealth-positioning in comics different than the heroes?
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One qualifier: to do this right, especially for this topic, we’d have to expand past the newsstand-style pamphlets into all comics, especially newspaper strips but also a lot more things, and well past the companies that emphasized superheroes. I don’t have the knowledge for a survey at that level, so that said …
I can’t think of any comics (of the kind I’m talking about) which depict the rags-to-riches process, as opposed to the apparently more standard depiction of its results. Uncle Scrooge does get such a sequence in one famous work, decades after his introduction, but that’s the only one I can think of. You don’t see Tony Stark make his millions, and although Richie Rich and Bruce Wayne were born into it, their fathers made the millions* and it’s not shown how.
* For Batman, it’s pretty vague unless someone knows of a story I don’t. It’s explicit for Richie. I’m pretty sure the whole “Tony inherits it from his father” thing in the recent movies isn’t from the comics.
The Horatio Alger message is awfully hard to depict as a process, now that I think about it. It’s perilously close to depicting how historically-contingent such an instance is, which would be off-message. Perhaps it’s safer to reference it with such characters as Daddy Warbucks and Uncle Scrooge, rather than to show it happening. Such a reference is pretty much an Underpants Gnomes account, but it doesn’t fall prey to being absurd right before your eyes.
I’m with you on the scope of doing-it-right, both in terms of the issue generally and my own (in)capacity. One name that popped to mind was Lamont Cranston from The Shadow, which I think got in my brain as a kid via rebroadcasts of radio serials on WMCA in New York. Quick googling reveals him as INCREDIBLY complicated, involving the radio serial, many comics, the pulps, and more. Apparently, in many versions, the playboy/millionaire Lamont Cranston isn’t even the “real” identity of The Shadow, just another alter-ego/tool in his mission. Which fits with your “more genuine [super vs. normal identity] confusion”, and with wealth/gentry status as an asset.
Hmm … maybe unpacking that wealth/gentry asset would be important. Wealth-as-superhero-asset might be a fairly strait-forward choice, with flavors and meaningful implications, but nothing that MUST be confronted (at least, not significantly more so than “you’ve got the luxury to be a superhero” already needs). Gentry-status-as-superhero-assest, though – that can’t be used without dragging a bunch of societal implications along with it, which would then be either examined (hopefully interestingly), or (probably awkwardly) ignored.
Wikipedia on Iron Man affirms both Howard Hughes (from Lee) and Errol Flynn (from artist Don Heck) as Stark-influences. I couldn’t find anything definitive about when inheriting Stark Industries from his parents was established. I mean, Wikipedia implies “after a car crash killed his parents” was always there, but a) Trust Wikipedia? Maybe not, and b) It still matters when that became a SIGNIFICANT part of his backstory.
Merging in the villains, rags-to-(a form of)riches maybe happens there? Maybe it even gets depicted? If the comics Kingpin is like the Vincent D’Onofrio portrayal, I’d think he might be a candidate.
By the way: now that you mention it, “all mixed up” IS better than “intersecting.” Thanks for that. But I do find intersecting is still WAY better than separate buckets with inherent, unalterable priority.
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I’ve realized that neglecting The Shadow is a big weakness of my whole blogging effort. He codifies tons of stuff that was (i) adopted as necessary trappings for pulp/super heroes and (ii) resolutely avoided, except when it’s revived.
I have never read Horatio Alger, but talking in general about “rags to riches” stories, the problem in doing them is that it’s very difficult (probably impossible) to do them “realistically” without showing that, to get money, you have take it from other people. Even if your character makes money by finding a cure that saves millions of children… then you have to show him selling it with a big enough price tag to become very rich, with people who can’t afford that, dying.
As far as I can recall, in the first Iron Man stories Tony Stark was depicted as becoming very rich thanks to his inventions. He was clearly born in a wealthy family, and from the beginning his mother’s name was cited (“the Maria Stark Foundation” that owned the Avenger mansion… I think it was made to avoid having the avengers financed directly by the selling of weapons).
I don’t know when his father was introduced as the one who REALLY made money selling weapons, but I believe it was done to move that “taint” from Tony, that in that way became someone who had only inherited a weapon manufacturing industry, and diversified it.
Don Rosa was able to pull it off with Uncle Scrooge, but it was a very particular case: he needed a historical setting where he could show Scrooge literally find gold simply by digging it from the ground, but in a Disney comic where these nuggets could be impossibly big, and a character that can make being in love with gold FUNNY. It’s a very unique case.
Or you can pull it off if your character was a criminal when he/she became rich, but then had a change of heart. A good example was Modesty Blaise: a poor beggar child that become rich by becoming a criminal, and then the head of an international crime syndicate (they try to tone it down by saying that she never entered the drug trade. OK, that’s leave murder, extortion and stealing as the way she became rich), and then she “retired” to a life of luxury… until, bored out of her mind, she decides to do good with her abilities helping the government as a super-spy.
But even in this case (and a characters that was absolutely not a do-gooder as the usual superhero – her bodycount would put the punisher to shame), they jumped over all her story in a few panels. They didn’t want the reader to dwell too much on what she did to become rich…
I look at other comic book “heroes” shown as rich, and it’s always the same: they inherited the money, or they found a hidden treasure, or a incredibly-rich gold mine. Not one hero that had become rich by selling stuff at inflated price and underpaying the people who work for him…
Even killers and criminals… there is a curious thing with “Diabolik”: this is a character that literally lives well by robbing other people. These days he is shown almost always robbing crime lords, princes, mob bosses and other distasteful people, but at the beginning he had no such qualms, and every issue he did kill and/or rob some guy whose only fault was having something that Diabolik desired. Is this guy the exception to the rule? Well… no. Diabolik is never shown as rich. He lives a upper middle-class lifestyle (so much that there are parodies that laugh at someone who stole so much and lives like that, in houses that are probably similar to the houses his readers see when they visit their doctor or dentists. He passes his evening watching a simple TV set with his wife). It’s OK to steal and kill, as long as you are shown as simply getting by, as if that was simply your day work, but actually GETTING RICH doing that would be too much even for his readers…
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In the 1920s, there was a big resurgence of popularity for Alger’s Ragged Dick and similar works, and I remember being surprised in English class when I learned they had been written almost 50 years before that.
Your point applies to them directly: any scrutiny of the actual plot of one of these seminal rags-to-riches stories shows pretty much the opposite of “work hard, do your job, and you’ll amass wealth piece by piece.” The point is all about seizing the moment of opportunity and bouncing “up” to the next level of patronage. You grab the runaway horse’s bridle, then speak respectfully to the upper-class guy while he’s realizing you saved his daughter’s life, and he’s impressed by your “dash” and your lack of presumption at the same time. Next thing you know you’re his chauffeur or something like that, and then repeat for the next elevation.
The hero is also always eager to please, unassuming, and generally a smug little shit, and even just one of these novels gives the impression that he’s a very tactical toady, rather than any sort of industrious “hard worker.” I can see why it’s much more sound to refer to the myth rather than to try to show it, for all the reasons you stated.
Oh yeah – about the villains, my planned post included some discussion of them, before I realized how meaty just these few protagonists were (partly because they are so few!). I decided to save that for another post.
Briefly, most of the villains who display wealth do so far less literally or socially-tagged than any of the protagonists. You see stuff they have or do which wouldn’t be possible without wealth, but they don’t seem to live or move in the social circles or status that corresponds to it. They’re not shown to be wealthy.
The Gideon character Moreno described is an incredibly far-off outlier. Another outlier from about that same time is the relatively sympathetic Norman Osborn as written by Stan Lee (very different from the straightforward psycho of the 2002 film), which again shows the conflict between privilege/power wealth and good parenting. Yet another with exactly the same theme from Lee is the original Kingpin.