Non-Fiction Reviews

Why Superman Doesn’t Take Over The World
What Superheroes Can Tell Us About Economics

(2019) Brian O’Roark, Oxford University Press, £14.99, hrdbk, xv +195pp, ISBN978-0-198-82947-8


Brian O’Roark effortlessly analyses the world of economics through the guise of superheroes. With a clear passion for both, O’Roark deftly explains fundamental concepts of economics in a light hearted and interesting context, while at the same time trying to solve some of the great questions of the comic universe.

The book begins, as any good comic would, with a backstory. O’Roark starts by boiling Economics down to its core: “The study of how people respond to incentives”, he then goes on to link this to the origin stories of superheroes, such as Batman, Doctor Strange and Captain America. He examines how each of them draw their motivation from different things. For example, Batman’s incentive for becoming a superhero is the tragic murder of his parents, whereas Superman seeks to uphold truth and justice.

What makes this book such an engaging read is that it not only seeks to explain economics but also tries to answer questions that have plagued comic book readers minds for decades.

Each chapter deals with a different question aimed at the comic book world. Some are more obviously linkable to economics, such as why do superheroes go to work? Others however may seem harder to dissect: why do superheroes fight each other for example? O’Roark manages to provide satisfying and interesting answers using his extensive knowledge of economics. He also keeps the tone as light as possible, you don’t at any point feel like you are reading from a textbook; he introduces economics in a very gentle and easy to understand way.

This book touches on many topics within economics and comic books. In one chapter, O’Roark looks at game theory and uses it to explain why it’s more beneficial for Iron Man and Captain America to fight in a civil war rather than try and talk it out. In another, he uses the concept of comparative advantage to explain why it is always better for Batman to have a sidekick even though he will never be as good as the man himself. Other concepts talked about include: the production possibility curve, the prisoner’s dilemma, insurance and the free rider problem. These are all used to try and answer big questions comic books face. For example, insurance companies can help us understand how the mess superheroes leave behind can be cleaned up. And the prisoner’s dilemma can help us understand why heroes often end up fighting each other.

One of the most interesting subjects O’Roark looks at is the effect a superhero can have on a society and an economy. In a bizarre example, he looks at an alternate superman who landed in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas. Fighting for the communist state has dire consequences and eventually Superman becomes a dictator in control of all the institutions of the state. This creates what’s known as the Peltzman effect, where risky behaviour is more likely to be taken when there are security measures in place. In this extreme example people have given up all responsibility of themselves to Superman, not wearing seatbelts or life jackets, knowing that Superman will save anyone and everyone. Superman’s actions help us understand the difference between command systems and capitalist systems, while also explaining Superman’s inherent drive to defend the law of the land, which in this case was absolute dependency on the government and absolute equality. It is with this ability O’Roark successfully teaches economics in an interesting and engaging way.

The book never loses its tone and it ends on the classic question every comic book fan has an answer to: Who is the greatest superhero of them all? The whole book from the endnotes to pop culture references is clearly a product of a love for comic books and economics. It is not just an informative read but an enjoyable one, something many economics books can only dream of achieving. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in economics or comic books, O’Roark explains concepts in such a way that no prior knowledge of economics is needed. This book is also perfect for economics professors, as it does a fantastic job of breaking down economics into a relatable and interesting context for students. O’Roark illustrates how pop culture can be used to explain a subject like economics in a way that is engaging for students and hobbyists alike.

Luke Geikie

Luke, known to be partial to a bit of skiffy, has just turned 19 years old and about to commence reading for a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.


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