ConHugeCo: We Bring Questionably Ethical Things To Life

Okay, holidays are pretty much over (unless you work in retail, in which case it's Valentine's Day Month), time to get down to business.

Specifically, the role of big businesses in a superhero setting.  More specifically, a rough taxonomy of "NPC" businesses in terms of how they interact with plot complications arising from within the company.

"And now for your greatest
challenge: Autobot Hound."
For those not familiar with the term "NPC," it stands for Non-Player Character and comes from tabletop gaming.  Here I suppose I'll use it to stand for Non-Protagonist Corporation instead, but the idea remains the same.  An NPC business is one that is not run by the protagonist of a comic or movie, or by the player in a superhero RPG.  NPC businesses are an important part of any superhero setting, because even if you're telling a story about Batman or Iron Man, they can't own everything, right?  Well, maybe in a What If/Elseworlds, but those tend to be dystopian ones.  Real world companies are generally not used in superhero settings for legal reasons unless it's part of a licensing deal (i.e. the Schick brand exists in at least one Transformers canon), so you need to have at least one fictional brand to stand in for each need, and someone equally fictional has to own that brand.  Big Belly Burgers are a subsidiary of LexCorp, for instance.

So, NPCorps exist, and while they may only be around as background color most of the time, it's usually not worth coming up with the name and logo and stuff unless you're going to find them the center of a Problem that the protagonist needs to Deal With (by which I mean punch or shoot).  Sometimes the company will be an antagonist in some fashion, sometimes it will be a victim or an ally, the role depends on the story.  But the nature of the company will eventually become clear to the readers, if not necessarily to the protagonists.

It is the nature of online taxonomies to be insultingly reductionist, and who am I to buck the trend?  NPC businesses can be roughly sorted into the traditional Good/Neutral/Evil bins (if you insist on the full 9 entries from D&D, figure that almost all corporations are Lawful in that they are full of lawyers).  Sometimes it's super-obvious...the company run by a fallen angel is probably evil, while the one that funds the superhero team is probably (hopefully) good.  But there's a pretty simple test to do the rough sorting:

What's the company's official response to the trouble found by the protagonists?

All companies, even the good ones, are likely to try to deal with some things on their own, rather than let it become public and risk bad press.  As a result, it won't always be immediately obvious which category the NPCorp falls into, but by the time of the resolution it's usually clear.

Any plan where you
lose to your hat is a
bad plan.
Evil: Never, ever admit to wrongdoing, and always have several layers of insulation (often formed by conveniently dead middle-management) just in case.  Deliberate malfeasance will be passed off as the work of a Rogue Employee, and if the patsy didn't die in the process of superheroic intervention, they probably won't live long enough to go on trial.  If they can paint themselves as the "real victims," the company will always do so, especially handy if they did something like awaken an ancient snake god while trying to exploit the power of Lemurian...okay, I'm talking about the Serpent Crown.  In the rare case where the problem really wasn't their fault (hey, do enough evil and eventually your employees will go rogue without prompting), they still need to cover up a lot of evil schemes that might be exposed by the accident or whistleblower-who-turned-into-a-monster-oops.

Evil NPCs are almost never seen by the public as being any worse than the typical ConHugeCo, spending a lot of money and effort on charities and public works and making their critics look like deranged kooks.  The reader knows they're evil, and the protagonists eventually figure it out too, but they are an unbeatable part of The System.  Even Protagonist Corporations can do little more than thwart evil NPC ambitions in the short run.

Examples of this kind of company include LexCorp (DC), Roxxon (Marvel), Crey Industries (City of Heroes), Orochi Group (Secret World), Genom (Bubblegum Crisis), and MARS Industries (GIJoe).

Neutral: Their response could best be described as "irritated" when approached by heroes.  They're almost definitely not intentionally behind whatever the problem is, but it could be a case of something they thought they could control...and couldn't.  Actual rogue employees are often to blame when there's actual evildoing afoot, or upper-but-not-top management letting their ambition run wild.  When the protagonists approach a Neutral NPC, they're almost always going to be stonewalled, threatened with legal action, and so forth.  In fact, they may seem more hostile than evil NPCs, as the evil ones may have already decided to use the protagonists as part of the coverup (i.e. maneuver them into shooting the wrong widget and blowing up all the evidence).

Don't be a Dick.
Neutral NPCs may also appear a little shadier than the evil ones, at least to the general public, because they're not protesting their innocence so loudly.  They don't have any grand plans to take over the world or grant their CEO immortality or immanentize the eschaton, they just want to make a lot of money and maybe take over their market sector.  If they're evil, it's a banal sort of evil, and nothing in their corporate mission involves stuff that most superheroes will get involved with.  (They do, however, make excellent rivals for protagonist corporations, or recurring enemies of more socially-conscious heroes...who can't "defeat" them because they're not really doing anything significantly illegal.)

Neutral NPCs don't have as many obvious examples, in part because things do tend to polarize in superheroic settings.  I'd argue that OmniConsumer Products in the original RoboCop movie is neutral, the main evil being done by Dick, who is now fired.  And conveniently dead.  (Yeah, they tend to skew more evil in later movies and the recent remake, but in the original movie they're just par for the course.)  Alchemax was an evil NPC in 2099, but their embryonic form run by Liz Allan in the present day seems more neutral.

Tesladyne is a Protagonist Corporation, but you get
the idea.  Sometimes evil computers happen.
Good: These companies are actually fairly likely to call up the heroes when something goes wrong, and will apologize for the delay if they pull the "we can handle this internally...oops, we can't" trick.  Good companies are often there specifically to be an ally to a hero or hero team that doesn't have any super-scientists or industrialists on the roster, and the "meet cute" between a hero and a company often involves an industrial accident or a disgruntled employee who has mutated a potato into a giant monster.

This is not to say that good NPCs can't be a royal pain in the necks of the heroes.  They may be chaotic good and have a cheerful optimism that replaces careful procedures and documentation.  They may be a haven for eccentric geniuses who sometimes go mad, or a target for revenge enacted by fired employees or old college rivals of current employees.  Their attempts to use science to help the protagonists might go horribly awry.  They might even get taken over by the evil plot device seized from the evil NPC a while back (the Serpent Crown rears its heads again and takes over Project: PEGASUS, which was a government thing rather than a corporation, but the same general principle).

STAR Labs in DC is generally a good NPC, although sometimes it becomes a protagonist corporation and sometimes a branch gets taken over by a villain.  Marvel's thick enough with protagonist corporations that it doesn't have a need for too many high-profile NPCorps, although the aforementioned Project: PEGASUS has often filled the same plot roles from within the public sector.  Blackrock Enterprises was a good NPC in the Marvel Transformers comic, its IDW version is...murkier.  Speaking of Blackrock, or at least Blackstone, Varrick Global Industries in Avatar: the Legend of Korra would qualify as a particularly irritating good NPC business.  Eventually.  Once Varrick's ethics caught up to him after being lost with his luggage a while back.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, absolutely not a corporate tool (unless he gets a really good offer), occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.

ConHugeCo: We Bring Questionably Ethical Things To Life ConHugeCo: We Bring Questionably Ethical Things To Life Reviewed by Dvandom on Thursday, January 04, 2018 Rating: 5
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