I last interviewed Rob Salkowitz in 2016 to discuss his book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. For his latest project, Salkowitz was invited by Dr. Brian O’Roark (a professor of economics at Robert Morris University) to co-edit Superheroes and Economics: The Shadowy World of Capes, Masks, and Invisible Hands. Under the stewardship of O’Roark and Salkowitz, Superheroes and Economics is a fantastic collection of essays that examine how superhero narratives can illuminate economic theories.
Nicholas Yanes: Hey Rob, we last professionally talked when I interviewed you about Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture. How has life been for you since then? Do you finally have a reason why you and Batman are never in the same room at the same time?
Rob Salkowitz: You know, the usual…years of training in the Shaolin Temple, long nights in the lab developing nanobots and unnatural man-machine hybrids, advanced study of the Dark Arts. I don’t think you should pursue this line of inquiry any further.
One point I do want to clear up, though, is that this book is a completely separate project and completely different focus from Comic-Con or the stuff I usually write for FORBES and ICv2. Brian and his crew are actual economists and academics. I’m a guy who writes about business and teaches a couple of classes. Brian was kind enough to invite me to the party as a co-editor, but we are definitely playing in his sandbox.
Superheroes and Economics is an extension of comics studies into social sciences, which is not somewhere it has gone much despite its interdisciplinary nature. It uses superhero stories to explicate economic concepts, and sometime applies economic analysis to comics. If you find that kind of thing cool and interesting, by all means pick it up. But it is in no way, shape or form a sequel to Comic-Con or about the business side of things at all.
Yanes: Hey Brian, you have a fairly traditional academic career in economics. How did you become interested in superheroes?
Brian O’Roark: Let’s see… it all started one dark and stormy Tuesday morning. I try to get to class a bit early to make sure there aren’t any tech issues in the classroom, and much to my surprise a couple of early riser students were deep in conversation about this show called Arrow. I had never heard of the show, although I vaguely recalled a b or c-list character showing up in Saturday morning cartoons. What struck me wasn’t the story line they were chatting about, I don’t even recall what it was, but rather their review of the show was strewn with economic content and questions economists find interesting.
I’ve been looking at economics and pop culture for a number of years and was looking for some new material, so it seemed like a show I should be watching. I was hooked from episode one, which then led me to consider the comics as what you might call primary sources for research.
Yanes: On that note, what was the inspiration for creating Superheroes and Economics: The Shadowy World of Capes, Masks and Invisible Hands?
O’Roark: I’d like to say that it was money, but unless you’re Freakonomics, academic books aren’t going to make you independently wealthy. Actually, Routledge Publishing was starting up a new series on economics and pop-culture. By that point I had been working on a paper about using superheroes to teach basic economics courses and found that to be very limiting. Academic paper writing is incredibly restrictive, and necessarily so. None of us are Tom Wolfe clones. The Routledge series was a perfect outlet to expand upon that early paper – which was published in the Journal of Economics Teaching by the way. I read Rob’s book on Comic Con and thought, “hey, this guy really knows a lot about the business side of comics and it would be great to have his name on the cover.” Little did I know just how involved he is.
In the book the authors were able to expound upon ideas in ways you can’t in a journal. Not only this, but it allows us to shrug off the traditionally dry tone of academic writing. I guess you could say we all just wanted to have a little fun writing about two things we love: economics and superheroes.
Yanes: While going over the chapters for this collection, were there any insights into comic books or economics that took you by surprise?
Salkowitz: Many of the subjects are the kind of nerdy stuff fans discuss – like how much money does Bruce Wayne really need to support his lifestyle, or what would the government do if someone actually invented Iron Man armor – except explored by actual economists applying real economic concepts. All the contributions are pretty good. One that stands out to me is Bob Subrick’s chapter on economic development in Wakanda, which contrasts Black Panther’s kingdom with the real issues of politics and natural resources in post-independence Africa.
Yanes: In the process of developing this book, did either of you come across examples of economics in comic books that could be used to easily teach people?
Salkowitz: My chapter on economics in the early work of Alan Moore touches on that. In Miracleman, Moore explored questions about how the existence of superhumans would change our society and economy – questions our world may soon face as superhuman technology like Artificial Intelligence and robotics start to exceed human abilities. The fascist state in V for Vendetta is based on a corrupt ruling economic class maintaining power through force, drawing some very clear connections between economic consolidation and the need for both media control and oppressive politics to keep the rabble in line. And in building the meticulously-conceived world of Watchmen, Moore seems to apply a very sophisticated kind of forecasting that was being developed for business strategy around the same time. That’s probably a coincidence, but it’s an illustration of an advanced concept that students can sink their teeth into.
I think Moore was one of the first, if not the first, mainstream comics figure to think about these issues in a systematic way, so that’s worth studying. Most of the other contributors were looking more opportunistically at the subject matter for good analogies, even if they weren’t intended or explored by the comic creators. For example, John Robinson and William Wood’s piece on Captain America looks at how his financial portfolio might have performed during the years he was frozen in ice as a framework for looking at economic growth over time and how that affects personal investments.
Yanes: This manuscript has a chapter from James Bryan titled, “Wonder Woman: Feminist and Economic Icon.” How did reflecting on Wonder Woman’s decades of history help you both better understand feminism and economics?
O’Roark: For me this was the most surprising chapter of the lot. I never knew much about feminist economics despite having been in the business for over 15 years. That being said, I’ve recently been investigating the origin of the major economic indicators – unemployment, inflation and gross domestic product or GDP. One of the arguments feminist critics of GDP make against it is how sexist it is. You see, GDP doesn’t include the value of production that goes on in the household, and that work has traditionally been performed by women. I don’t think it was necessarily sexist to leave this out, I think it is merely too difficult to count, but feminist economists have a point, that the work is productive and by not counting it you vastly undercount the productivity of economies. Wonder Woman’s early advice to women in the comics was to go out and get a job, to not be dependent upon men. I know the intent there wasn’t to raise GDP, but it would have, just because of the way we count that data.
The early Wonder Woman comics are full of really poignant economic issues that are still facing women today and are researched by feminist economists. That bent was abandon when Wonder Woman’s creator William Marston passed away. For a long time the feminist story line vanished from the comic, but perhaps the most fascinating revival of those ideas is Wonder Woman #203, the Women’s Lib Issue. After running the boorish Mr. Grandee off, and closing his store down, Diana Prince and her friends are celebrating when their party is crashed by angry women who have lost their jobs. The issue ends with the promise of a resolution that never comes. DC immediately took an about face and stopped dealing with women’s lib topics. It would have been extremely interesting to see how these groups of women would have addressed their very different reactions to the elimination of so many jobs. It kind of makes you wonder what might happen if the minimum wage is raised to a level where jobs are lost. It will be good for those who make the higher wage, and very bad for those who are out of work.
Yanes: Given all the research that is present in Superheroes and Economics, what would be some of the immediate economic consequences be if superheroes suddenly appeared in our world?
Salkowitz: A couple of our contributors explore that question from different angles. But given where technology is heading, we may be about to find out.
Yanes: The intersection of superheroes and economics is such a rich area I’m sure there is a lot left unexplored. So, are there any topics you two would like to see other scholars investigate?
O’Roark: Well, I’m actually working on another book that approaches the subject from an entirely different perspective. The academic side of the current book focuses on how economics makes the hero stories more realistic. Take the Batman chapter. Even though Bruce Wayne seems to have all the money in the world, he still faces the same limitation on time that everyone has. If Batman had all the tech he could possibly use, and somehow managed to slow down time so he could be everywhere at once or fight all the villains who plague Gotham, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Instead, he faces restrictions on how much good he can do. It adds to the tragic nature of his story, but the scarcity of resources, in this case time, is something economists concern themselves with every day.
The new book explores oddities in the comics, things that a casual fan, or even some more serious ones, look at and say, “what’s up with that?”. This was inspired by the previews to the movie Batman vs. Superman. My wife kept asking, “I thought they were good guys. Why are the fighting each other?” I thought, that is a good question. I know there are seeds to this in the comics, but is there a solution that makes sense from an economic perspective? A few other questions I ask are “why do superheroes need day jobs?”, “why would you want to be a villain in a world of superheroes?”, and “why don’t superheroes take over the world?”. Believe it or not, economists have answers to these questions, but if you want to know what they are, you’ll have to buy that book too.
Yanes: When people finish reading this book, what do you two hope they take away from it?
Salkowitz: Strictly from the comics and comics studies side, I hope we’ve opened some eyes about how educators can use the familiarity and ubiquity of superhero mythology in 21st century culture to demystify complex subjects.
O’Roark: I’d like them to see that economics isn’t boring. We are primarily social scientists, despite the extensive analytics involved in the discipline these days. At the core of our work, we try to answer questions that will help people understand the world in which they live. A famous economist once said, that “economics is the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life”. That means econ doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be just equations and it most certainly shouldn’t be dismal. This subject matter is applicable to almost everything you see every day, including comics.
Yanes: Finally, what are you two working on that people can look forward to?
Salkowitz: This month, I have a long piece in IDW’s Full Bleed #2 called “Splashing Ink on Museum Walls,” about how comic art is getting wider exposure in museums and galleries. I’ll be doing a panel at San Diego Comic-Con on that subject with some awesome folks including Emil Ferris and Annie Nocenti. Later this year, the piece will be reprinted in From Panels to Frames, a book-length exploration of this same subject from scholar Kim Munson.
I’m also hopeful that some time in 2019, a piece I did on the ethnography of comic conventions will appear in a book put together by scholar Benjamin Woo. That one is a little closer to the work I’ve been doing for my consulting clients, and the analysis I write in ICv2. And, of course, you can stay up to date on my writing for FORBES and elsewhere by following me on Twitter @robsalk.
O’Roark: As I mentioned, I’m working on a second economics and superhero book. I’m also putting together a book that illustrates the economics in the fantastic music of Weird Al Yankovic with Dirk Mateer. Together with Wayne Geerling we’re finalizing a paper on teaching economic models with paper airplanes.