Superhero science

Welcome to Spandex Wizards, a blog where we’ll explore the relationships between science and culture – how do they affect each other, and how have they shaped the world around us? I’ll be taking a look at the unusual places this relationship has surfaced and shaped things in ways that you might not expect. In this first post, we’ll dive into the relationship between comic books and science.

The question of how science and comics affect each other was inspired by an unorthodox look at a commonplace piece of technology – the x-ray. The x-ray is widespread throughout society and so it seemed to me that this piece of science must have exerted some sort of effect on our culture. The first cultural artefact that popped into my head was Superman – Superman is one of the richest modern mythologies on the planet, with every child recognising that trademark red cape and underpants-over-supersuit look from an early age. X-ray vision is one of Superman’s quintessential powers, alongside his strength, invulnerability, flight and laser vision. But perhaps he would look quite different today if it were not for the discovery of the x-ray.

Superman has a cultural allure – aside from the allure of those huge biceps, that is.

Without the x-ray, Superman would be missing one of the powers that makes him Superman – the 70 years of character evolution that made him into the superhero we know today would be substantially different, and so Superman himself might be very different. Superman and the x-ray is a prime example of comic book culture borrowing from science and technology to populate its mythos, and is a great example because both the x-ray and Superman are so institutionalised: it’s hard to imagine not knowing about them. I can’t imagine not knowing about the x-ray and Superman – it feels like I’ve always known about them – but without the former, we might not have the latter. So that piece of technology has shaped a cultural icon. And it’s not the only example of comics borrowing from science.

The comic book universe is overflowing with all sorts of scientific technobabble explanations for how Superhero A can do Extraordinary Feat B. Take Cyclops from the X-Men, for example: a mutation in Cyclops’ DNA allows him to fire laser beams from his eyes. More recently in the X-Men comics it’s emerged that these lasers originate from inter-dimensional portals in his eyes. Whilst lasers are a well-known technology, and wormholes are theoretically possible, this does seem a little absurd. For me, this absurdity is compounded by retconning the X-Men’s origins and explaining them as the next stage in human evolution – as opposed to just your everyday run-of-the-mill genetic mutants. Charles Darwin’s probably spinning so fast in his grave you could hook him up to a dynamo and power a medium-sized 3rd world country. Comic books have borrowed heavily from science, and in doing so have painted a distorted picture of how science and technology work.

So it’s at least a little bit ridiculous. But is it all that bad? I can see a definite value in jamming pseudo-science into comic books – it lends a semblance of plausibility; and without these fabricated techno-scientific explanations, all superheroes would just be blokes running around in lycra casting spells and using magical powers. Still, even though narrative plausibility may be important for writing comic book superheroes, can this really justify such gross distortions of science? To the educated reader, this might be irrelevant – they know that all this pseudo-science is hand-waving in the end – but to the younger reader, this could damage their perception of how science works. In borrowing so much from science, could comics be damaging it in the process?

Interestingly, science has been borrowing from comic books in a way which could reverse such damage. There have been projects around the world to capitalise on the huge cultural allure and accessibility of comics in order to create a more captivating form of science education. There’s been an entire series of educational manga in Japan enlightening school children on various scientific concepts, from relativity to molecular biology. This sort of educational comic book isn’t just confined to Japan, either. Back in 2008, as a solution to a crisis in science education in the USA, a comic book called The Stuff of Life was commissioned to educate school children on DNA and recent developments in genetics, like stem cell research, for example.

Comics haven’t just been used for science textbooks. There have been comic book biographies of leading figures in science, like Einstein and Feynman. These are people who have done some tremendous work that’s really exciting – but you don’t want to have to teach a child quantum physics to convey that. Comics don’t have to just borrowing from science – they can be inspiring their audience towards science as well.

What I’m saying is that comic books and superheroes have a huge cultural allure – you only have to look at the success of The Avengers to get that. Comics may have borrowed from science to ridiculous (and maybe even damaging) extents, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a one-way street. It’s heartening to see authors and artists in the US and Japan capitalise on the readability and accessibility of comics to engage young readers in science. At least this way, maybe comics can give something back to the science it’s so outrageously borrowed from (yes, Marvel, we’re not going to forget about The Hulk any time soon). If comics can genuinely expand from fiction to education, then I’m more than happy for a bit of pseudo-science to populate my comic books.

Next time on Spandex Wizards: Science, Technology and Shopping – how have things as diverse as manufacturing technologies and social psychology affected your local shopping centre?

IMAGE: mikequozl and Ben Northern, Flickr.

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