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.
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!
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.