Transportation of The Superpowered Variety, Part 1: Self-Powered

I’ve been traveling for the past few weeks, literally using planes, trains, and automobiles. Plus a lot of walking, and even a little bit of biking. Josh likes to tease me for wearing hiking boots in the hearts of cities, but I’m the one who’s laughing when they’re all aching from miles of hard and hot pavement. Plus, since I live at an elevation far beyond the scope of most mortals, I’m often feeling pretty good thanks to all that extra oxygen whenever I hang out down closer to sea level. And all this time spent wandering around big cities, and the hours in between along forested highways, got me thinking about how superpeople get from point A to point B.

For some characters, that answer is easy. Basically anyone with super-speed just runs wherever they need to go. Somewhere between 100 and 200 mph a person could get across water, and that velocity is a warm up for most speedsters, so really anywhere terrestrial is well within reach. That being said, and just sticking with Flash since he’s arguably the most iconic, does the speed force provide traction across ice? Could Barry make it to the top of Everest without any extra oxygen?

Pretty sure this isn't how Buddy's powers work...

Pretty sure this isn’t how Buddy’s powers work…

But I digress, because there are more ways to get around then just on your own two feet. If anything, it’s almost a cliché that most heroes can fly. Flying seems to be the easiest way around the problem of who can get where by when. One of my biggest annoyances of the Superman animated movies is how freaking slow he is, but more on than in a minute. The flyers I like are the ones whose limitations are obvious. No one expect Warren Worthington III to get back and forth with any particular alacrity, because he has wings. Somehow, ascribing that physicality to his flight manages to slow him down to a believable level. As crazy as it may seem, I’m hard pressed to think of a terrestrial scenario where Angel could beat Quicksilver to the finish line, yet I have never once been able to run faster than a flying bird no matter how hard or often I try.

Which leaves me with folks like Buddy Baker. What is her supposed to do? Should he tap into some cheetah and sprint away at 70 mph for 3/10 of a mile, or kick into something with a bit more staying power? When he flies does he need to go condor because he’s a male human and needs something with bit more power, or can he go straight to hummingbird or even Peregrine falcon to really get the drop on the baddies? I think there might need to be some proximity necessary for his powers to function, but all he needs to do is live near a zoo, right? Anyways, these are the things I worry about, people.

I had to edit this image so the axes were labeled (WITH UNITS). You're welcome.

I had to edit this image so the axes were labeled (WITH UNITS). You’re welcome.

What about those who can’t fly? Many characters in comics, even if they don’t come with flight, come with an extra dose of strength, and maybe even agility. These folks I call “the leapers.” Superman used to be in this club, and even though he’s moved on we’re left with a plethora of examples in the form of the ultra-leapers such as Hulk or Spider-Man, but also in the form of normal humans who still seem able to jump abnormal distances like Nightwing, Daredevil, or Mario. Leaping seems so very basic. Flying is a major breach of reality, but jumping just a bit better isn’t all that crazy. I was reminded of this recently when I had to park in a parking garage in a big city so my lady and I could get some food. The garage charged frankly insane prices so I felt a real sense of urgency to get the car out in time to avoid the ever mounting costs. While walking towards the stairwell I looked wistfully out of the open wall of the second story on which we’d parked and said to my girlfriend, “I really wish we had Spider-Man’s powers so we could just leap right out on the street like it was no big deal.” She agreed, thus reaffirming my love.

And of course speaking of our favorite wall-crawler I would be remiss if, in a column about comic transportation, I failed to mention possibly the most iconic mode of movement of all: web-slinging. My physicist friend Ben did the math on this particular mode and concluded that in reality it wouldn’t be all that much better than walking. A crushing blow to be sure, but I think I can refute the claim on a few levels. First and foremost, trying to walk through New York isn’t always a stroll in the park, there’s a lot going on to be aware of. Even if there wasn’t a gross speed advantage the freedom from distraction and obstacle must surely count as a net win. Plus, Spider-Man has the extra advantage of being a leaper, giving him the rooftop to rooftop mode of transit, which can be used in tandem with the swinging. Further, the web-shooters aren’t only for transportation, they can be used offensively, defensively, and in many other ways to tie up thugs or make parachutes; so one could argue that transportation is an ancillary feature at best. The only real downside is that web-slinging really only works in an urban environment. Maybe in a pace like Sequoia National Forest Parker could get by, but those trees don’t really grow in rows with plenty of space in between for swinging. I know we occasionally see our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler leave the five boroughs, but often when he does I’m left wondering, “Now just what is that strand attached to such that he could swing like that?” A pet peeve, I admit, but it’s just who I am.

And as often is the case in these columns I’m running long, so here’s what I’m going to do. I realize I’ve left a lot of stones unturned, there are vehicles, as well as more esoteric means of transport, yet to consider in the world of comics. So if you will permit me, I shall return next week with PART 2 the, probably, epic conclusion to this most transitory of pieces!


Ryan Haupt isn’t sure if the probably referred to epic or conclusion. Hear him be unsure of a lot more things by listening to the podcast Science… sort of. 


  1. Great article, Ryan.

    I’ve always loved the Atom’s mode of conveyance: Flying through the phone lines at atomic size!

  2. Nice essay–look forward to the sequel. I’ve heard anthropologists argue the most energy efficient way to travel is human walking–two swinging pendulums conserve a lot of their energy. Don’t forget sliding on ramps ala Iceman and Sue Storm.

  3. VTFan beat me to the Iceman/Sue Storm ramp slide, one of my personal favorites. Plus, there is Nightcrawler and his teleportation. That one always seemed really cool to me.

    • I too assumed we’d see Nightcrawler mentioned, but really, what’s there to discuss. His power is one of the more fantastic modes of comic book transportation. It can pretty much be summed up with “BAMF!”

      The ramp slide always had me curious. I’m no scientist, but it doesn’t seem very efficient to me. Wouldn’t Iceman have to start off elevated and then have enough distance to keep his momentum up for the slide to be effective. It’s kinda like humpbacks on a rollercoaster. Ya need the space.

    • I assume the generation of the ramp itself pulls him along, sort of like Thor’s hammer. I think it would be slow, though, as you’d have to periodically slow down or even stop to make sure you plant a new column all the way down to the ground. You could never go very high.

    • That’s true. I forgot that he does usually plant support beams along the way. He’s also frequently drawn in a way that it looks like the ice is propelling him instead of simply forming in front of him. I’m thinking of the kinda pose where his legs are spread out and he’s blasting the ice underneath him.

  4. I really enjoyed the game Champions Online, as you could choose a method of transportation early in the game. Flight was probably most efficient, but they had ice slides, rocket boots, super-jumps, swinging, teleportation, and one of my favorites…tunnelling! It was pretty awesome to see a Bugs Bunny trail go into a pack of goons, and pop out of the ground and smash them.

    I also had a Terrax the Tamer clone who would rip a chunk of earth out of the ground and fly on the rock.

    Man, that game was a lot of fun.

    • I didn’t play Champions, but travel powers were super important in City of Heroes, too. Flight was the easiest and safest. Super jump was probably the most fun. Super speed was great as long as you were in fairly flat areas. Teleportation was good, but a lot of work and you had to hope you didn’t lag or run out of stamina.

      Sounds like Champions got a little more variety to theirs.

  5. In re the Spider-Man study, isn’t the author treating SM as an inactive agent, essentially as a dead-weight pendulum bob? I’m a “social scientist” and not a physicist, so maybe I’m in over my head here. But my experience with swimming-hole ropes and playground swings reminds me that there are things you do to increase velocity during the swing. At the crest of each swing you pull against the rope (or chains) for an initial burst of acceleration and you swing your legs forward on the upswing to propel yourself. Otherwise swing-sets wouldn’t really work; there would be no way to keep swinging without kicking off from the ground each time or have someone push you. Factor in SM’s superhuman strength and the effect should be amplified dramatically.

  6. I’m a big fan of any story where Spidey isn’t in New York and simply can’t webswing. I recall one story where he webbed himself to the the top of a long-distance lorry and slept on it to get somewhere instead…

  7. I’m an expert in everything and its all true! But seriously good article.

    Am I mistaken or is Hawkeye’s supreme accuracy actually his super power? I don’t know if they consider it that anymore or if its really mentioned but I could swear somewhere in the past they explained that it his his power and he’s not just really good at archery, but a bow was his weapon of choice. So if I’m right he could use anything really. They had him shooting arrows without looking in Avengers the movie. Like Domino’s power set except hers is coupled with divine luck.

    • In “The Ultimates 2” he was shown using his own fingernails to kill people. Then of course someone had the dumb idea to give him guns. I think he’s good with anything but just likes the bow and arrow. I think it looks cool, but I think it’s also one of the most illogical weapon choices for crime fighting. A 10 man goon squad vs an Archer? No contest.

  8. Can we talk about how a regular human (or someone close to it like Blade or oh Iron Fist or Daredevil) could handle jumping and landing on rooftops without breaking thief legs or knees? I might the jumps and landings they make are huge, but I can help wondering how their legs don’t give out from it. I ask because I have an interest in parkour and would like to learn how to do this kind of stuff (jumping around on rooftops) but I’ve already injured myself practing Karate and Jukado so safety is on my mind when learning new athletic activities.