We certainly don’t claim any originality by having a Department of Super Affairs (DSA) in West Pacific Supers. This is a standard concept for most of superhero fiction; you logically need some sort of agency to handle issues related to super-powered individuals. Obviously, there’s a lot of ways to present such an institution; in West Pacific Supers we tried to make our DSA somewhat grounded in the reality of contemporary United States.
As an interesting aside, in the original version of West Pacific Supers: Rising Tide we had a major character who was a government super from DSA assigned to assist the team. Anthony Harris (Lockdown) was an important part of the plot and brought in a lot of information about DSA; the problem was that his presence slowed down the pacing and when we started a rewrite we realized his character was redundant. He was thus excised and DSA was pushed into the background though it has popped up from time to time.
Now why do we in the real world have Federal agencies?
The reasons are pretty obvious if you look at things objectively. Congress barely has the time to perform its basic responsibilities: financing the government, confirming judges and high-level officials, managing wars, providing oversight, and so on. Congress does not have time to address the little details needed for effective governance. We live in a complicated age. There are very few simple problems for the government to tackle. Due to the many competing interests, our advanced technology, and a complex legal and economic system, it’s not just time but also expertise that Congress lacks. If Congress tried to legislate every aspect of an issue in its entirety, it simply wouldn’t have time to do anything else and there are thousands of issues to be addressed. Thus Congress establishes an agency to write and carry out the necessary regulations to handle an issue. This agency is limited by the establishing statute, constitutional law, and other laws that regulate administrative agencies. Agencies also evolve as their funding, enacting statutes, and political reality change over time. This is how a modern government functions.
So let’s think this through in the context of the West Pacific Supers universe.
Supers are real. This would create problems; that’s a given in superhero fiction. Of course, the scope of these problems is highly variable. In a world with low-powered and hidden supers, the problems would not likely inspire a DSA. You would have existing agencies, like the FBI, try to adapt their organizations to address the problems. However, in a world with high-powered and public supers, you can bet there would be some form of DSA established. The authority of such an agency could range from insignificant to fairly potent, but even the most potent would have real limits. The head of the agency, while appointed by the President, would have to be approved by the Senate and would likely have a term limit. Congress would provide oversight as would special interest groups and media invested in the issues covered by the agency.
Limits are important. This is probably one area where West Pacific Supers differs from most superhero fiction: our DSA is a fairly weak agency. Thirty years after it was formed, the world has come to accept and adapt to supers. Once you have a Super Industry, well, then DSA has an adversary that will whittle down its authority.
A lot of superhero fiction writers assume that the reality of super villains would instantly mean an oppressive government regime to control them. Perhaps, but we take a more realistic approach given how the United States actually functions. In the United States, our society accepts a high degree of messiness as the price of our civil liberties. For instance, just counting suicides and accidents, more people are killed by guns every year than were lost on 9/11. Gun violence is a real and systemic issue in the US. However, gun ownership is a fundamental civil liberty that has been upheld time and again by the courts. The right to bear arms is not going anywhere. In order to protect other civil liberties, such as ensuring that the innocent aren’t convicted, guilty criminals occasionally go free. Lies and distortions drown out our political discussions because of free speech. Moreover, the United States has a very resilient society that absorbs even large-scale changes without fundamentally altering the basic freedoms that we pride as citizens and consumers. Over a decade ago, Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and 9/11 sparked two wars, but the biggest change in the Federal government was the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, which really just eliminated some pre-existing redundancies. Our government wasn’t fundamentally changed.
You can certainly argue for a more dystopian approach. The Cold War skewed U.S. politics, because it was a real, persistent, and consistent fear of annihilation. If you had a situation like that, then you could introduce a tyrannical DSA, but that’s not the type of story we want to tell with West Pacific Supers.
Here are a few more thoughts we had on DSA.
First, it’s a domestic organization because it’s very unlikely that the United States would allow an international organization to govern its supers. The more likely international approach would be compacts between national and regional organizations dealing with supers. The grey areas in jurisdiction and political conflicts, between let’s say the European Union’s DSA-equivalent and the United States’ DSA, is great for a more dynamic story than a single mega-agency.
Second, secrecy is a lot harder to pull off nowadays than it was a few decades ago. It’s not that the media is any smarter – generally it’s gotten dumber – but the number of cameras, whistleblowers, watchdog groups, hackers, and so forth is truly insane. Sure, you may have a secret prison where mutants are tortured and experimented on, but come on – the odds are that some guard is going to take a picture and sent it to all her friends. This is the world we live in and you have to take that into account. Certainly, you can have an insidious government or corporate body doing horrible things, but it needs to make sense.
Third is money. A big part of West Pacific Supers is the financial aspects of professional superheroes who are celebrities and need a big budget to perform their jobs. Money influences everything and if you go the route we did, where supers can make a living, well, that changes everything. Celebrities also influence voters and in a democracy like the United States that certainly can influence politicians in the policies they pursue.
It goes without saying that with superheroes you can’t help go a little…beyond reality. We certainly do with West Pacific Supers, but we really try to ground things. I think the biggest absurdities with the books are actually the most true parts. Like our tagline for Rising Tide stated: Imagine a world like our own but with superheroes. Would the superheroes change the world or would the world change the superheroes?
Our answer is – the world would change the superheroes.