Who Fills out the Paperwork When Superman Drops a Train?
Posted by: Sarah Hunter
There are plenty of mysteries in superhero comics; DC, after all stands for “Detective Comics,” which is the name of the series featuring possibly the greatest superhero detective ever, Batman. Superheroes are constantly solving mysteries: figuring out who stole which nuclear launch code, which villain infected the town reservoir with mutagens this time, or which alien race is plotting to take over planet earth. The job of detective, however, is remarkably easy for superheroes. If Sam Spade had a lasso of truth, you can bet he would have spent a lot less time wondering who had the Maltese Falcon. Since X-ray vision, super stealth ability, and telepathic powers make crime investigation a little too easy, I’m not going to list the many excellent mysteries solved by superheroes in comics, but instead focus on the little guys who have to live in a world of superheroes and still fill out department paperwork. Here’s a list of comics featuring law enforcement or bureaucratic agencies that solve supercrime, with or without the help of superheroes and super powers.
Chase, by J.H. Williams III, Dan Curtis, and others (2011)
While the Department of Extranormal Operations isn’t exactly a police department, they’re still a regulatory body. They have an office building, a jail, and even a prisoner rehabilitation program with one notable difference: their jurisdiction includes superheroes. The DEO is a bureaucratic body in the worst sense of the word, and frankly, they aren’t really the good guys. The titular agent, however, is a compelling character who is dedicated to her principles; namely, that rampant vigilantism doesn’t fight crime, it just creates more crime. It also doesn’t hurt that the art for the series was primarily in the hands of J. H. Williams III, one of the best artists working in the medium today. This series ran in the early 90s, had a few crossovers and fizzled out, but Chase often reappears in the Gotham City universe trying to catch the preeminent vigilante, Batman.
Chew, by Dan Layman and Rob Guillory (2010)
Tony Chu is not a policeman in a universe of superheroes but a detective with a convenient (and slightly disgusting) superpower of his own. He is a “cibopath, ” which means he can experience a vivid memory of the former life of whatever he eats. That means, of course, that his job as a detective is to taste murder victims in order to solve the crime . Gross! He’s a bit of a pariah in his department, especially since the near-fatal maiming of his partner (who later becomes a bit of a cyborg) and especially since he discovers what appear to be vampires. Oh, and he’s been recruited to be a detective for the FDA—that’s right, the food and drug administration—which is the most powerful governing body in the country. It’s a kooky but excellent story with an unconventional police department at its core. And yes, there is lots of paperwork to be done.
Gotham Central, by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka (2004)
In a city policed by the Batman himself, what exactly is there for a police department to do except turn on the Bat signal? Well, they’re not even supposed to do that. We follow pairs of detectives as they try to solve crimes involving freaks and super-villains before Batman beats them to the punch. Although Batman is certainly present in this series, the focus is almost entirely on the cops. Tensions between partners, competition between departments and a tough-as-nails captain make for a compelling and classic cop story.
Powers, Book 1: Who Killed Retro Girl? by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming (2001)
Detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim investigate the murder of America’s Superhero Darling, Retro Girl. This series raises the interesting and relevant question, how do you perform a medical examination on someone with bulletproof skin? Walker and Pilgrim dive into the gritty underbelly of super-villains and the aloof world of superheroes to find out who was behind the death of Retro Girl. There are plenty of secrets simmering below the surface—for instance, why is Detective Walker so soft on criminals with powers?—and lots to uncover in later installments.