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.