Top 5 Major Scientific Conceits of Superhero Comics

Comics exist in hyper-reality. Everyone can jump just a little bit higher, go just a little bit long without sleep, or survive just a few extra concussions. But there are things about the worlds of the superheroic that go slightly deeper and push reality close to or past the breaking point. Things that have never been proven by science to even exist, yet run rampart in the funnybooks so much so that they’ve become commonplace. While this list is far from definitive, it does represent what I consider to be the most egregious offenders.

5. Psychics

I’ve written before about the implausibility of psychics, but the fact of the matter is that in the real world psychics simply do not exist. This applies both to those that claim to know/predict the future and those that claim to be able to sense the minds of others. Neither claim has ever held up to even the most basic scientific scrutiny. (If at this point, you’re frothing with anger because you think I’m wrong there’s a million dollars waiting for you if you can prove it.) Yet in comics characters with psychic abilities are so common that every team is expected to have one on staff. But if these characters really existed they’d be even more common than we see in comics. Far from watching a young Professor X fail to pick up ladies in X-Men: First Class, psychics of either the mental or predictive sort would have such a competitive advantage over any sexual competitor that our entire species would be psychic within a few generations. Granted sometimes these psychics come in the form of aliens, like Martian Manhunter, which brings me nicely to my next point.

 

4. Aliens and Cryptids

Comics would not exist in their modern form without the inclusion of aliens and cryptids. From the inception of superhero comics with the boy who fell to earth to Alpha Flights inclusion of an honest-to-goodness Sasquatch, comics just love aliens and monsters of all sorts. And I do too, but as of yet neither is proven to actually exist. Both have certain levels of plausibility, there’s no reason we couldn’t find aliens out there, it’s a big universe. And science is constantly discovering new species of plant and animal right here at home on Earth. However, the odds of an elasmosaur in a murky lake in Scotland do strain credulity in this reality, if not in comics. And while the hopes of finding aliens are bolstered by the sheer size of the universe, the size of the universe itself makes the constant interaction with those aliens and Earth a bit problematic, hence the next item on the list.

 

3. Faster than light travel

c is the speed limit for the Universe. And while light in a vacuum moves at a brisk 300,000,000 meters per second, that’s still not enough time to cover much ground in the scope of the monthly publishing schedule. To be more precise, it would take at least 4 summer line-wide events just to reach our nearest stellar neighbor! So the distances are vast and to tell the stories that need telling transit has to be accomplished, hence faster than light alternatives. Now modern writers have been better about using things like wormholes to circumvent bad physics, but there are still plenty of Star Wars and Star Trek comics being published that give no thought towards punching Einstein in the theoretical face. And another thing the respective universes of Star Wars/Trek are rife with is robots at or above human intelligence. Well I hate to tell you this but…

 

2. Artificial Intelligence

As much as fiction likes to make us fear the oncoming robot apocalypse, reality tells us we’re probably going to be alright. This is one thing that really gets me in comics because some of the earliest characters like the original Human Torch, GI Robot, and others are all super-intelligent machines. Which was not possible then but even more egregiously is not possible now. It seems that Bendis is building towards a storyline involving the threat of Ultron with his nigh omni-intelligence, but there’s nothing even remotely at that level in even the most advanced robots labs in the world. The best AI can barely carry on a conversation with a human, let alone take over our entire planet. Robots just aren’t as versatile and capable as us flabby, smelly, humans. So while it makes for good, and often disconcerting, stories, yet I think we should breathe a sigh of relief that AI didn’t develop and radiate with the speed and carelessness portrayed in comics. And speaking of radiation…

 

1. Radiation = Superpowers

If the Silver Age meant one thing to me it was that every character got their powers from science, either by design or, more likely, accident. The Green Lantern ring became alien tech instead of meteoric magic, Hawkman went from former pharaoh to alien law enforcement, and a plethora of Marvel characters were introduced with powers granted by the wonders of radiation. I think it’s an obvious damnation of Dr. Wertham’s silly ideas about comics influencing youth simply because there are no horror stories of kids exposing themselves to high levels of radiation thinking they’d get a boosted to superhuman levels.  Especially once Stan Lee got control of Marvel, radiation granting superpowers was EVERYWHERE! Fantastic Four (cosmic radiation), Spider-Man (radioactive spider bite), Hulk (gamma bomb), Daredevil (nuclear waste), the X-Men (children of the atom), Captain America (vita rays) (not created by Stan, I know), etc. It was the silver age of comics in the golden age of atomic power and as much as these origins seem like cautionary tales for the horrors of radiation, everyone just gets superpowers instead of getting ill and dying! While nuclear energy has proven surprisingly safe relative to other power sources, when accidents do happen nobody comes out better than before. So leave the screen in your microwave door, don’t let that bug bite you on the off chance, and do wear that lead apron when getting X-Ray-ed. You’ll thank me when you’re DNA remains intact.

 

Now I don’t mean to crush any spirits. The point of this exercise was merely to show where the fantastic world of superhero comics diverges from our own in a few key arenas. I still love superhero comics and read them every week, I just want the science-minded like myself to know what they’re getting into when they enter into the world of the fantastic. It’s clear the creators have fun making comics with these concepts, the least we can do is enjoy the end product. Do you know something that comics propagate weekly but is bunk on Earth-Prime? Let us know in the comments!

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Ryan Haupt regrets to have welcomed you to the new iFanboy with such a stark reality check, but someone had to do it. Hear him talk about reality in all its glory every week on the podcast Science… sort of.

Comments

  1. Bryce31 Bryce31 says:

    I knew I shouldn’t have gone swimming in that lake of Radioactive Waste.

  2. Why can’t you just enjoy comics?! Things like these are why I love comics, for the imagination, but articles like this seem to have a more negative view just because people from decades ago created things that we still don’t have! Just have fun with these concepts!

    • Ryan Haupt Ryan Haupt (@haupt) says:

      You didn’t read the last paragraph, did you?

    • powerdad powerdad says:

      Yes, Ryan, why do you hate our freedoms! ;-)

      I did read the article, and great as usual!

    • powerdad powerdad says:

      Okay, a little more seriously…

      I’m going to guess 20 years from now Ryan will be writing articles on our silly Bio-Engineered superheroes, and how our fears for genetic manipulation lead to some of the craziest superhero stories and characters.

    • I know you do like the comics, but I just get the same feeling that I always get from your articles, while some are really interesting, the tone I hear when I read them isn’t how awesome these things are, it’s how preposterous they are. It just bugs me, but I’m just reading them in the wrong tone. Same with many of Jimski’s articles.

    • ericmci ericmci says:

      I appreciate your perspective,
      But after Many of these debunking articles- I too find it a bit of a kill joy.
      I think if we wanted to hear why all these wondrous things in comics aren’t possible
      Well we just wouldn’t read them.

      But when the folks at the Hadron collider are literally finding ways to time travel-(of sorts)
      And researchers in kyoto are literraly inventing a cloak of invisibility.
      Something scientists 50 years ago would have surely said was impossible.
      I think maybe there might be more to our knowledge of physics in the universe then is sorted right now in this point in history.
      On a recent podcast you commented on a story in which( I forget what book) a character says- “It’s not possible by YOUR definition of physics) And your reply was – the laws are the same for everyone.
      Yes they are- but maybe we don’t understand all of them completely yet.
      I think it’s pretty much hubris to believe that we completely understand to total workings of the universe.
      The underlying rules of the universe do not, as far as we can see, change.
      But
      Sometimes our understanding of them does
      So – who knows what seems implausible now may actually turn out to be somewhat true.

      I have said it before- for the sake of playing devil’s advocate and just for fun.
      Try something hypothetical- try and give us – even the flimsiest of ‘theories’ in which some of this incredible stuff might work.
      Get creative more than scientific.
      Who knows maybe you’ll be the one who invents a death ray.

    • Ryan Haupt Ryan Haupt (@haupt) says:

      @Ericmci – I hear what you’re saying but you’re getting a few of the fundamentals wrong. Scientists do not claim to “completely understand to total workings of the universe.” If we thought that there’d be nothing left to study. If you read my articles carefully you’ll notice I always include statements like “as of yet” or “so far” because science absolutely does change the rules regularly, but I can only write from a perspective of right now, not what might happen tomorrow.

      I enjoy the discussions where we pick apart the silly minutiae of comics and science. Writing a column proposing new fake theories to make the comics work isn’t as appealing for me to write because it would just be so much noise. I do write columns on how comic concepts and characters could work, and those are a lot of fun too. It’s good to hear that some people like certain types of columns better than others, but at the end of the day I have to want to write about something or else no one will want to read it whether it’s perceived as positive or not.

  3. CraigB says:

    I actually enjoy these discussions about how the “real world” and the comics world do or don’t realistically intersect. For another approach on the issue of how the comics universe would really play out, you should check out the Law and the Multiverse website. It takes what Ryan’s doing from a legal perspective.

  4. Sasquatch from Alpha Flight doesn’t really count as a cryptid. He’s not an actual sasquatch, he’s a guy who turns into one — at first, seemingly, because of Hulk-like radiation exposure, but later it’s revealed that it’s supernatural. (The mid-90s Sasquatch, on the other hand, was an actual sasquatch, which was a monumentally stupid plot twist in the Steve Seagle run.)

    Which brings me to a scientific conceit of comics that’s not on this list: Magic. DC, for instance, asserts that magic is a hereditary skill (Homo magi) and sets rules for how it interacts with non-magical superpowers (Kryptonians’ vulnerability to magic, for instance). In the context of the comics, magic is just really vague, really advanced science, so I’d argue that it counts.

  5. player1 player1 says:

    I’ve always loved the fact that comics were a visual medium where science fiction and fantasy could run amuck, since it’s generally cheaper to produce than TV or movies, and since it usually gives free rein to wild concepts and crazy conceits.

    I’ve always considered comics to be the place where science fiction comes out to play, since much prose scifi takes a decidedly more serious approach, and much film/TV scifi is just a different venue for the same old shootouts and standoffs that can be found in any genre. Good article.

  6. I would add “Eternal Youth” to the list. Everyone is young and good looking….forever.

  7. I wonder if, in the Marvel Universe, they even bother with warning signs on radioactive material, since nobody ever seems to be harmed by it. They probably just leave it lying around everywhere.

  8. JRScherer JRScherer says:

    It was the Celestials tampering with human DNA in Marvel pre-history that enables radiation to cause benevolent mutations instead of horrible burns and/or cancer and then only in certain special individuals, like say, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Peter Parker, etc., etc.

  9. T. says:

    Actually Stan Lee did create (or at least co-create) Vita-Rays. They were not part of the original Simon/Kirby origin and didn’t become part of the origin until Captain America #109 by Lee and Kirby.

  10. Xerophytes says:

    Do mentalists not really exist? I would qualify them to psychics.

    • Ryan Haupt Ryan Haupt (@haupt) says:

      Any honest mentalist would admit that they were performing a trick via prior knowledge or a cold reading. There’s nothing mystical about what there able to do, just takes a bit of skill, luck and personality.

  11. Urthona Urthona says:

    Your comment about artificial intelligence is ridiculous. AI can beat any human at chess. AI can beat any human in Jeopardy. If you can’t admit the possibility that we will build a machine as smart or smarter than the human brain, which is itself just a machine developed via biological evolution, well, I feel sorry for your lack of vision. Not only will AI be smarter than us, but it will raise interesting questions (see the Jeopardy computer) about what intelligence really is.

    But your articles are fun! As much as I loathed your AI inclusion, I applaud your psychic and FTL comments.

    • Ryan Haupt Ryan Haupt (@haupt) says:

      This comment was pretty harsh, but ended nicely so I’ll respond in kind. Deep Blue and Watson are computers that can beat human players at games with very specifically defined rules and boundaries. That’s a far cry from actual intelligence like Utlron, Vision, or any other comic book robot/android displays. Not to mention the fact that neither Deep Blue or Watson could do much in a physical fight with human. So yes, when allowed to rely on brute force calculation power, those two computers can outperform human players.

      However, I never said that it would be impossible for science to eventually create AI that could surpass biological intelligence. So to assume that I felt that way then tell me I lack vision is just silly. Nobody likes a straw man argument.

      Thanks for enjoying the rest of the piece!

    • Urthona Urthona says:

      As I tried to suggest, I think Watson raises interesting questions about what human intelligence actually is. It is a lot more than specific rules and boundaries (which I agree is more what Deep Blue is about). It is not “a far cry” from actual intelligence at all.

      As far as fighting and dynamic movement, I work at Boston Dynamics, where we build legged robots. They are not near what we see in nature, but there’s also no denying that the robotics field is closing the gap.

      I think when you talk about AI and robotics, you need to consider how incredibly quickly these fields are maturing, and look at the pace of cellphones, ipads, the internet, etc, developments that’s already occurred in our lifetime to see that what we’re talking about is very very close to being available today.

      Straw Man argument? You are the one who put AI (and now robotics) on a list with psychic ability, FTL travel, radiation=superpowers, and aliens.

  12. Paul Montgomery Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    But hard water can still make me fast, yes?

    • Ryan Haupt Ryan Haupt (@haupt) says:

      Nah, getting doused with every chemical known to man mixed with lightning is the way to go. Don’t trust the Golden Age, Paul, upgrade to Silver.

    • powerdad powerdad says:

      I’ve found drinking hard liquor seem to speed up everyone around me.

    • powerdad powerdad says:

      And hard water really makes your close fall apart….. F A S T !

      (Okay, I’m taking a break from all the work I have, and instead of making meaningful comments, I’m making stupid jokes. ENJOY! :-) )

  13. Tomahawk009 says:

    Shape shifting and size changing have always intrigued/baffled me. I mean, if you shrink, where does all that mass go? If you shift/morph and increase in size, where does all that extra mass come from? It’s fun inventing an explanation to explain it all, but it does feel ridiculous after a while. Or to paraphrase the MST3K theme song: “Just repeat to yourself it’s just a [comic], I should really just relax”. :-)

  14. I got bitten by a spider two weeks ago. I didn’t get super powers, though. I got a disgusting infection, my skin got all discolored and gross, and I had to take gigantic pills. Instead of fighting super-villains, I had to spend a day on the coach with my leg elevated and watched Mad Men all day. There’s an issue of Amazing Spider-Man I never read….

  15. VTfan says:

    This like the rest of Ryan’s work is really great. I must note that the blog to which he links on the risks of nuclear power doesn’t seem to do an adequate job of addressing the waste problem nor long term effects of broad exposure to low doses of radiation. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We really have no good idea of what to do with waste in the long term, and the subtle population effects of small increases in radiation will take a generation or two to uncover.

    • Ryan Haupt Ryan Haupt (@haupt) says:

      All valid, but fortunately modern nuclear reactors create a very small amount of waste so most of the waste that exists now is all the waste that will exist. And just by living on earth we’re exposed to DNA destroying radiation all the time. So smart policy and good science is essential, but I think the long term health effects of coal power are worse than nuclear (I know nuclear isn’t the only alternative but it is an alternative all the same). Personal opinion, sure, but I think it’s based on good data.

    • Peteparker Peteparker says:

      Like Ryan mentioned, we *do* have mounds of evidence regarding the effects of broad exposure to low doses of radiation over time. Cosmic radiation constantly bombards our planet, and penetrates virtually every dwelling. Even underground bunkers often suffer from higher background radiation levels due purely to the effects of radon in the earth.

      So the effects are exactly what you see around you, as well as what you see in history books. Centuries of people living their lives constantly exposed to low doses of radiation. Not to mention the generations which have passed since the first nuclear bomb testings to increase the global background levels in the 1940′s, which have resulted in no gross aberrancies.

  16. Zetomenon says:

    Yeah… I see what you’re trying to say… but how many science minded people read comics expecting it to be a physics thesis? People who are unwilling to suspend belief for a bit rarely pick them up.
    As far as I’m concerned when you pick up any literature you ar entering into a suspension… the only actual reality of a book is the paper and ink (and cost) so when people demand reality in storys or only read ‘realistic’ books/comics they are confusing reality for verisimilitude and hence in a delusion, as opposed to the willing, deliberate illusion that the rest of us dive into.
    All the key points that have been noted here are the fundementals of superhero/adventure comics because they are all based on the premis of what if and why not… the reader knows they aren’t reality, thats why they are reading them.

  17. JRScherer JRScherer says:

    The first place I recall the bit about Celestials enabling beneficial mutations to be triggered in human beings was in the OHOTMU but I don’t remember exactly what issue or what entry — likely, it was the actual entry for the Celestials. I think it was also in Marvel Saga, but I could be wrong. From what I understand, it was originally posited by the wonderfully inventive Mark Gruenwald and he made sure to have it factor in some of the stories he wrote as well – the germ of which I know did appear in Thor #300 when the Celestials came back to judge the earth. Marvel’s webpage mentions this Celestial DNA tampering factoid in the second paragraph of the Celestials entry.

    http://marvel.com/universe/Celestials

    “The first Celestial Host came to Earth approximately one million years ago to perform genetic tests and experimentation on Earth’s highest lifeform, the nascent human being. Testing the versatility of human genes, the First Host created two sub-species of humanity, the Eternals and the Deviants. Their sole legacy to the mainstream human race was the implantation of a dormant DNA complex which would one day permit benevolent mutations.”

    As far as size-changing and mass related questions go, the OHOTMU answer for this is that the extra mass comes from an extra-dimensional space and is similarly returned to it. This goes for Hank Pym, the Hulk, and other such size and shape-changing characters. There’s actually a lot of extra-dimensional stuff going on in Gruenwald’s OHOTMU entries. Cyclops’ optic blasts were at one time explained as coming from another dimension that his eyes happened to be portals to, for example.

    • Peteparker Peteparker says:

      I’m not discrediting your account, as I’m sure it’s all as you say, but just keep in mind that Marvel’s universe is a wiki like Comicvine or the Marvel and DC Databases. Without references, it’s all just what someone wrote based on what they remember, and much of it can be untrue. Beware! :)

  18. JRScherer JRScherer says:

    My personal favorite explanation for superpowers (“smart atoms”) can be found at http://enterthestory.com/superscience.html. This is also the official explanation for all superpowers in Robert Kirkman’s Invincible comics. Good stuff.

  19. Peteparker Peteparker says:

    Oh, so much to say about this one. Ryan is at his best here, and I’m psyched the effects of radiation made the top of the list! Like Ryan, I am a person who loves to find the flaws in my favorite things. Every time I go to movies, I have to wait until someone asks me what I thought before giving my findings, because I almost always ruin their perceptions of the fantasy. Wanna come see Cowboys and Aliens with me?

    Of the superpowers that are bunk here in reality, unassisted human flight is the one that always gets me. There are so many inherent problems with a humanoid somehow able to propel themselves through our atmosphere that I’m always thinking about it. You can’t have the ability to fly without being invulnerable, you would freeze even at low altitudes, and undergo oxygen deprivation as you gained speed. You’d have to wear a parka and an oxygen tank just to survive, and let’s face it, your parka isn’t making more than a handful of trips. Have you ever seen any cloth on the outside of an aircraft? A few flights and it’s in ribbons. Finally, the speeds associated with flight in comics would literally tear your body apart without some kind of protection. Why do you think space junk burns up in the atmosphere? It’s that same darn friction that’s first tearing off your clothes and then your skin. It’s no wonder (arguably) the first superhero to fly was also invulnerable, there’s no way to explain his survival without it!

    I could go on and on, but I’ll save you all. Just be glad I skipped talking about the various methods of human propulsion in flight. ;)

    In any case, Ryan, these articles are one of the main reasons I read the articles here, and why I’m listening to your podcast. If you ever come out with a pure science of comics podcast, please advertise!

  20. JRScherer JRScherer says:

    @Peteparker — I had to flip through my Essential copies of the OHOTMU after I posted and it looks like the Marvel universe webpage has the Celestials entry copied verbatim.

    Also, the ‘smart atoms’ rationale takes care of the unassisted flight issue, too. Worth checking out if you haven’t read it yet. http://enterthestory.com/superscience.html