Getting Taken Out of The Story (By Bad Science)

Believe it or not, I give a lot of scientific leeway when it comes to reading comics. I accept that story comes first. If the science fits, then its left alone, and if not, it gets tweaked to serve the tale. That’s fine by me. However, there are times, fortunately not that often, where the science is so egregiously wrong that I am taken out of the story. Now if you rolled your eyes I’ll need you to read the next paragraph, if you nodded sagely you can skip over it to the examples.

Is it nitpicky to critique bogus science in a comic? Yeah, kind of. But I’m hoping that you yourself are passionate enough about something that when any media, even comics, gets it wrong in a way a Google search could have prevented you get miffed. So if you scoffed at my personal nitpick, just remember your own area of expertise and play along. Boring preachy part = over.

Now to clarify exactly what kind of bad science earns my ire. I give everything pre-Internet something of a pass. The history of comics is filled with deadlines and young people trying to meet them selling to an audience of children, so I don’t fault them for just making stuff up on the fly and not heading to the library to double check things. Barry Allen getting covered in chemicals via lightning and surviving with super powers? A-OK by me.

So most of my bad science comes from relatively modern comics, and really, the comic that inspired this post is issue 3 of Aquaman written by Geoff Johns. The issue centers around Aquaman trying to track down some particularly nasty monsters of the deep. He employs the ‘expertise’ of a down and out marine biologist, who is able to find sulfur on the gills of one of the monsters, indicating it must have come from near a deep ocean vent. Vents like this are common along mid-ocean ridges, which are places where new ocean crust is formed from cooled magma. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge is just such a place. Now if you know what the word “ridge” means you’ll hopefully empathize with my frustration. The marine biologist turns dramatically to Aquaman to tell him that the monsters from the ridge must have come from… the trench! I about threw the book across the room. A ridge, quite plainly, is a raised feature, whereas a trench is not. We’re also talking about a feature that runs the length of the entire damn ocean. That would be like tracking a criminal to Europe, and thinking you knew his street address.

To me, that level of misstep bespeaks an extreme laziness. And again, you might be thinking that I’m being silly, but being taken out of the story is a visceral, not logical, reaction to something. Ron might get yanked straight off the page by a bad font that the rest of us wouldn’t notice. We all have our sacred cows, is what I’m saying. This particular gaff struck me so violently because I teach oceanography and explaining the difference between trenches and ridges is literally day one of lab. Day. 1. So as the ultimate catharsis I decided to utilize the offensive panel as a teachable moment and used it as a question on the subsequent quiz. After one day of instruction, everyone got it right.

Now lest you think I’m piling on DC, my other gaff of note comes from the Uncanny X-Force #5.1 as written by Rick Remender. I almost hate to bring this one up because I feel like Rick is a fan of science. Granted that opinion was formed almost entirely by him calling an artist, Jerome Opeña I think, the “king genius of science town” in an interview with Ron, so perhaps I have overestimated things ever so slightly. Either way, in the issue Magneto is walking through a dark alley of some kind and gets hit by a shot from a plasma rifle. Now did it bug me that a man could control electromagnetic fields? Nope. Did it bug me that plasma rifles don’t exactly exist? Nuh-uh. What caused me to scoff beyond all measure was the fact that the plasma blast connected and seem to hurt Magneto, when as anyone with a basic understand of physics would know that plasma is by its nature susceptible to magnetic fields and thus there’s no way Magneto would let himself get hit. You may argue he was caught off guard, but I would retort that in a potential battle the master of magnetism must have some basic EM shield around him all the time for bullets and such, so I’m right.

There is no way that every comic could be constructed in such a way that no one would ever get pulled out of the story. It is an unfortunate inevitability of any type of media. I twinge every time we talk about a field outside of paleoecology on my podcast because I know there is an expert somewhere listening and getting miffed over something we screwed up. It sucks, but we do our best. And that seems to be the principal difference here, there’s doing your best and occasionally messing up… and then there’s not. There are so many resources out there to help creative folks get access to good science, myself included, and even after a consultation a writer may decide to go another direction, which is fine.

But when lines about ocean bathymetry which have no real bearing on the plot get screwed up? Well it’s hard for a person who knows better to let that slide. It’s like paying money to have it implied that what you care about wasn’t worth the writer’s time. And that just sucks. Yet at the same time I can’t help but laugh at myself for even caring. It’s so miniscule, so pedantic; so I just hold out hope that all of you have had similar experiences with your own sacred cows and will understand how these moments can get under your skin for a long time to come. Regardless, writing this all down sure helped me feel better, and I hope sharing your own experiences in the comments has a similar effect.

 


Ryan Haupt won’t be happy until everyone sees things from his point of view. Ryan Haupt won’t ever be happy. Hear him fake happiness of the podcast Science… sort of.

Comments

  1. The one that always gets me is “On the record/Off the record” whenever a journalist is talking in a story. There are dozens of other things they get wrong, but it seems that no writer in hollywood understands the rules surrounding those phrases and what they actually mean. It’s pretty basic, which is why it always rings so false to me when someone says to the journo, “Just so you know, that was off the record,” and the journalist says “Yeah, of course.” If this happened in real life, he would have lied to his source and would have actually been able to use everything the guy just said. Off the record needs to be established before any information is shared.

    Not to mention every journalist in fiction seems like they’ve never actually taken a class, let alone finished undergrad. (and is almost always written as ethically dubious. Except Clark and Lois. And Jimmy, I guess.)

  2. Have to say I feel this complaint but from the perspective of the field of history. It’s less evident in comics but in TV and movies, the number of historical inaccuracies is staggering. Sometimes it makes sense for dramatic reasons, but when you know an event went a certain way and its portrayed differently it’s very tough to stay in the moment.

    Especially when the movie is about the history. An offhand comment is one thing but when the entirety of Braveheart or The Patriot is held up as a historical epic, it makes me wince.

  3. great article! you speak of the infernal curse of knowledge! I’ve found that i do this kinda stuff as well, because of what i do for a living, i pay a lot of attention to design and typography whether i want to or not. If i see a poor font or poor typesetting choice i’ll make instant snap judgements about the entire package which aren’t often fair. (which is how a portfolio is often judged btw).

    “well they used Arial, which is a default and uninspired choice…which means the creators don’t care about details, which means their story will be one dimensional, and the characters will be generic, and the production will be sloppy, because they have low creative standards…so why should i invest in this?”. An incredibly unfair judgement but all that happens inside of half a second inside my head, and i try to shake it off, but its that seed of doubt that creeps in over a small little detail that i just can’t get over sometimes.

    I do believe that the entire package is only as strong as the weakest link, so research and specificity is key to building trust with a reader.

  4. I was going to leave a long rant about how much this annoys me in EVERY medium. Not just w.r.t science but journalism (@Rohling), and especially how government and intelligence agencies functions. I love speculative fiction and I’m all about suspension of disbelief but it needs some infrastructure to rest on…wait, this the rant I was not going to leave. I’ll just link to this phd cartoon instead: http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?n=1156

  5. As a former marching band kid, nothing bothers me more than watching someone pretend to play an instrument in a movie or tv show. I know it’s not quite the same thing, but man, that drives me nuts. Seems to me anyone should be able to figure out it would look bad to change fingerings in the middle of a note. Best example is in 10 Things I Hate About You. There’s that part where Heath Ledger is singing accompanied by a marching band, and the cymbal crash the camera zooms in on is way off.

  6. I usually have this reaction whenever comics or superheroes get discussed in other mediums, or by people who have no clue about them.

  7. Aren’t two ridges a trench? Or is that the point?

    • I think you can have a trench between two ridges, sure… but in the case of the Mid Atlantic Ridge being described, that’s where the tectonic plates are colliding – forming a ridge. So no trench there. A trench would be where plates have shifted apart and caused a great gap between them.

      Scientists correct me if I’m wrong.

    • The plates are spreading apart, actually. You get trenches where they collide.

    • Well then that doesn’t make any sense to me. I thought when they collide the stuff that they push together gets shot up into mountain ranges. And when they spread apart… how does a ridge form? I so confused.

    • A little bit of knowledge is dangerous – from wikipedea —

      “Near the equator, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is divided into the North Atlantic Ridge and the South Atlantic Ridge by the Romanche Trench, a narrow submarine trench with a maximum depth of 7,758 m (25,453 ft), one of the deepest locations of the Atlantic Ocean. This trench, however, is not regarded as the boundary between the North and South American Plates, nor the Eurasian and African Plates.”

      Could it not be the Romanche Trench that the out of work marine biologist was talking about in that Aquaman panel?

    • The ridge forms from cooling magma out of the mantle. Ocean crust is mostly basalt and takes up more volume when hot (like a marshmallow in the microwave). So the ridge is formed from hot rock piling up as it exits the mantle then cooling and getting thinner at the plates spread.

      Collisions forming mountains only happens when both plates are continental rock (mostly granite) where neither plate is very dense and thus no subduction occurs (e.g. the himalayans).

      At a ocean to ocean or ocean to contnental convergence you get a deep trench and then volcanoes on the overriding plate (like the Aleutian islands or the Andes mountains).

      And lastly the Romanche Trench is formed by a transform fault, not necessarily the spreading ridge. And it’s still 300km long so not exactly a precise location.

      Making at least a little sense now?

    • Whoa… you said “convergence.”

      lol

      Thanks!

  8. The worst, by far the very, very worst, is Marvel’s trope of using World War 2 to explain…everything. Nazis are/were behind every conspiracy, every takeover of the world, every bad/stupid plot they can dream up. If ever there was a reason for a complete Marvel reboot, the continued reliance on events that happened 70 years ago is the biggest. Please, no more Nazis, Marvel. We can’t take it anymore…

  9. what really bugs me is language… I mean, if you use Kurt Wagner at least try to get the German right… those mistakes always make me wary if they use ANY language but English… it is just bad research… and a little detail just screws a great comic for me (but I do believe I am overdoing it right now 🙂 )

    • Mein got!

    • There is so much bad German in comics. I remember “the ray” issue 2 (anyone remembers that? I am old) which featured the sentence: “Du verduben” and I wonder to this day just what “verduben” is supposed to mean. But that was way before the internet became a daily habbit. Nowadays there’s really no excuse.

  10. I majored in English and worked as a technical writer for a number of years, so the things that drive me nuts are bad grammar, misspelled words, and incorrect punctuation. When I come across this in a comic, it really throws me. Doesn’t anyone proof read them? Hell, pay me and I’ll do it! There is no excuse for an internationally published periodical (which is essentially what comics are) to have these kinds of errors. I realize I am not perfect in these areas, but I really strive to be as correct as possible.

    Another thing is how computers and hacking are depicted. Such total crap. I know, suspension of disbelief, but it’s hard to do that when you know better. You can’t do >90% of the stuff they show in comics. movies, or TV shows because computers simply don’t work that way.

    Finally, there are some things depicted in action sequences that are simply bullshit. They ignore simple physics, real-world consequences (like damage to a vehicle or person), and how vehicles or devices actually function. I know this is done for effect, but it can really stretch credibility.

    • I get the grammar thing too. Just last week in Conan I read a line that was something like “…and the soldiers that patrol them.” Who! The soldiers WHO patrol them! I see that particular error all the time and it drives me nuts. How can professional writers and editors constantly make such a simply mistake.

  11. My sacred cow is computers.

    It bugs me how, in every procedural TV show, they always ask the computer person to run a search of all Males in the greater Metropolitan district who are on Xanax, have a red sweater, and had to repeat the second grade, and somehow, miraculously, all these various databases 1) exist, 2) are accessible and 3) and interrelated and 4) return results in seconds. AAARRRGHH!!!!

    Or the three keystrokes necessary to create a 3D computer simulation of a crime scene, down to ever detail. Sure, maybe they created it all before the lead investigator came into the lab for the demonstration, but then they always ask “Well, what happens if there was a crocidile sunbathing in the middle of the room.” Just once I want the computer person to say “Hey, thats a good question. Let me get back to you in six months after I have gathered all the necessary data on crocidiles and see if you freakin’ hunch has paid for all my overtime!!”

    • i’ve always LOVED when they take fuzzy black and white 7-11 surveillance cam footage….zoom in 1000000%, rotate, extrapolate, enhance and created a printable 8×10 close-up glamour shot of the main character.

    • @Wallythegreenmonster, Yes, and then they usually beam the hi res photo instantly to someone’s wireless device while they are on a jet moving at subsonic speeds across the Atlantic.

  12. I completely agree with everything in this article. The bad science is the main reason I thought Prometheus was garbage. I mean that film couldn’t go 15 minutes without making some glaring scientific error and over two hours they really add up to ruin the film.

  13. I can totally relate to this article. What really bothers me are errors in medical science cause that’s my field. There are exceptions though like in CHEW were you really know it’s fiction… (puts on glasses) or is it? YEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!

  14. Being of a history background you know what bugs me the most? Not the historical innaccuracies, because that’s pretty common for story purposes, so I’ve “gotten used to” it. No, it’s the misplacement of “A.D.” on a date. It goes before, not after! “B.C.” goes after, “A.D.” goes before. That’s History 101. Why is that so hard?

  15. “I about threw the book across the room.” lmao

  16. Wade Christian Wade Christian (@capbloggington) says:

    I felt this same way earlier today. I read Before Watchmen: Comedian (which is awful, by the way) and there’s a scene where Eddie is dual wielding guns, which is always a sign of a writer who doesn’t know guns. To make matters worse, one of them is a shotgun, AND it’s being used at long range.

    • LOL. That’s why he is called the Comedian. They are really just prop guns with no recoil or ranger whatsoever and all the people he is “killing” are really paid performance actors in his grand comedy skit.

      Oh crap, I should have labelled that “SPOILER”

  17. I tolerate a lot when it comes to my comics, but if there’s something I can’t stand is when medical personnel take off ther surgical gloves with their teeth!!!! It’s common sense, guys. Would you pull off bloody, contaminated, possibly infected material in your mouth?
    I also can’t stand randomly attached drip tubes or respirators, but that’s a more understandable mistake anyone without internet access and google images could make.

  18. We all have our pet peeves when it comes to realism. Being former Infantry I am really bugged by the innacurate unfiorms when they are showing soldiers. Its in every medium but just the random placement of patches types of uniforms annoy. Especially in the google age. Also the way characters fire their weapons, one handed, under the arm. Also being from TX, I remember the last issues in Preacher that took place in San Antonio. One of the largest cities in the country looked like a one light town in the middle of no where. On the whole though it seems like comic book creators take a lot more time to get things right than in other media

  19. What takes me out of a comic more than anything is innacurate portrayals of the NYC Subway System. Marvel and DC are both in NYC, yet neither of them can seem to show the subway correctly. Often it’s a character taking a train that doesn’t go somewhere, like taking the 2 to Queens, or the exterior of the subway station is completely off. I loved during Brand New Day that Mark Waid had Peter needing to get to Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights and went to the Clark St. station (correct), but then Marcos Martin drew the entrance with steps going down underground (incorrect). The Clark St station’s entrance is in a building. It gets me every time.

  20. Ironic that you misspelled ‘gaffe’ there but I sympathize 😉

    In my work, I see an awful lot of people appear expert on given topics. Most of the time, I know less than them about these topics, and find their arguments convincing. When it happens to be something I know more about than them, the least little flaw in the information or opinions they present stops me from buying into their argument completely. It’s likely an overreaction but one we’re all prone too, I think.

    Then again, monthly comics. Don’t like it? Wait for the next one.

  21. (my pet peeve in comics? Asian text. I can read Japanese, and it drives me up the wall when artists cut and paste random chunks of CHINESE text and put it in a Tokyo scene, or vice versa. Modern Japanese ‘katakana’ script – the one used for transliterated foreign languages – used in Kun-lun. In a recent Avengers ish, the text was actually mirrored and upside down. The most jarring is when an artist just does some chopsticky squiggles that are supposed to represent Chinese characters. Obviously in the grand scheme of things it’s not really worth taking the time/money to do this right but yeah)