Wounded Science! Healing in Comics

OuchHealing is a long and painful process, except in comics apparently. Even supposedly baseline normal human characters get well with an alarming quickness. This is a necessity of serialized story-telling because, unless it serves a specific purpose, it makes little sense to have an important character stuck in a hospital bed for an entire issue. Explicitly stating a “healing factor” or just ignoring the time the recovery period are just tools of the trade, but what about the science?! Someone must stand up for the science, and that’s why I’m here. I present the worst (and best) presentations of healing in comics; I hope it makes us all feel better.


First on my chopping block is a creator I couldn’t be fonder of: Rick Remender. In a recenLook, Ma. No hand!t Talksplode with Ron, Rick made some bold claims about some stuff called extracellular matrix and how it can aid the healing process. The inaccuracy of the claims is by no means Remender’s fault, the story of extracellular matrix has been horribly reported by the mainstream media, and that’s where I can set things straight.  The problem with this story was that the reports all stated that this “pixie dust” regrew this dude’s finger but few news outlets put up the pictures. (Click through for those pictures here, but they obviously aren’t pretty) This simply wasn’t the case, a chunk of the tip was missing but even the fingernail remained undamaged, even without the special sauce these wounds will heal on their own. The way the story was reported to and by the media made it seem like bones were regrowing like it was nothing, and that’d be cool, if it had happened. But it didn’t. Remender said in the interview that he went another direction (magic, see my previous article) to explain Frank Castle’s healing so I won’t go on too long a tirade, but even characters with healing factors can rarely regrow limbs. I can think of at least two future stories where Wolverine, arguably comic-dom’s most renowned healer, has lost limbs that have yet to regenerate. But there is one prominent character that can regenerate limbs, and such was the genesis of the character himself: Dr. Curt Connors aka The Lizard.
If you were unaware, Dr. Curtis Connors lost his arm in a war and then became determined to grow it back. Knowing that animals such a lizards can pull that off he studied them until in a premature test he turned himself into a hulking lizard monster. Angry green guys with shredded pants were all the rage back then, apparently. At least he had his arm back. But are you ready to have your mind Armed and dangerous.blown? Earlier this year, scientists figured out the exact secret the Dr. Connors was looking for all along. I’m not kidding. There’s a gene called p21 that is now thought to control this type of dramatic regenerative healing, we have it, animals like newts and flatworms don’t. If this gene were turned off it’s possible that a human could have ridiculous levels of healing ability including, but not limited to, a lack of obvious scar tissue. But why on earth would something that prevents us from healing evolve in the first place? Well without p21 our cells could divide out of control, which is also called cancer. The study also found that in mice without the p21 gene the occurrence of apoptosis, cellular suicide, was greatly increased, which may act as a mechanism to keep unchecked cell division in check. So we’re a ways off from anyone becoming a lizard monster, but steps are being taken in the ‘right’ direction. Now to get that grant funding on arachnid gene splicing in humans so we have something to fight our newly healed lizard menace.
Well what about the regular humans in the world of comics? In a recent book that I’ve yet to finish called Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero author E. Paul Zehr argues that no matter how hard you train to hone your body, there’s one thing you can’t hone: the brain. You’ll argue that Bruce Wayne did hone his brain in order to become the ultimate detective, which is true, but he can’t change its basic functioning. As well as his brain works he spends a large amount of time letting it get hit very hard. The human brain floats in a liquid inside the skull cavity which gives it some cushion against impacts against the very rigid skull, but hit your head hard enough and your brain bounces around a little bit. This really messes it up and the effect is cumulative. The more concussions the more damage over time. Basically Batman should be a vegetable, and that’s bad news for all the citizens of Gotham, so let’s ignore his almost certain brain damage and let him keep doing his thing detecting then taking a beating. You’d almost need brain damage to want his job in the first place.
He's hurt, and he's angry.I don’t want to seem like I’m just complaining so I now ask: Who heals the best? If I had to choose a character that seemed to get hurt hen actually take the time to heal up right it would be, ironically, Robert Kirkman’s Invincible. Kirkman manages to regularly provide Mark Grayson with big enough bad guys that he gets pummeled with astounding regularity. While he doesn’t form scar tissue he does take a minute to patch himself up, often even lying down or using bandages to do so. In my mind it’s one of those minor touches that makes Invincible such a refreshing book in the first place.
At some point in our life we’ve all experienced some form of injury. My foot is messed up right now from jumping out of a redwood. The agony of waiting to heal is a literal pain and I personally love that moment when you realize, “Hey, this doesn’t hurt anymore!” It’s awesome and I don’t begrudge our heroes for wanting to skip it and get back in the fray but until our science catches up with their extracellular matrices, p21 gene control and Viltrumite DNA lets all just agree to be careful and take it easy, ok? Thanks.

This PSA was brought to you by Ryan Haupt of the Science… sort of podcast and blog, where you can get your weekly or even dailiy inoculation against ignorance depending on what your doctor prescribes.



  1. Great stuff. I love science! Anyway one thing that i always  remembered regarding superhero healing was during maximum carnage Spider-man cracked his ribs and stayed that way though out the story arc, thats one reason he had to get so much help because he couldn’t fight at top form in his current state..

  2. I would argue that KickAss is the best healer I’ve ever seen in a comic book.  He should have died after the first attack. [Which is part of the reason I didn’t find the book particularly enjoyable.]
  3. You jumped out of redwood?

  4. @Heroville – Once you’ve reached the top you gotta get back down. And on the way down eventually you run out of branches. Then one must jump. Also I was barefoot. I live less than 100 miles from Ron and I doubt he’s even seen a redwood. 

  5. Great article. Thanks for standing up for the science. Good stuff

  6. I really enjoyed this article. There’s so much I want to say about the topic, but since I’m at work I’ll have to wait until later. Anyway, thanks for the article, Ryan. Maybe next time to you can discuss how X-23’s healing factor knows to regenerate her hair to it’s previous length after it gets burned off, but it doesn’t regenerate her leg and armpit hair. As a clone of Wolverine with a healing factor, she should be the hairiest woman on the planet, Wolfsbane excluded.

  7. I’m glad you mentioned the "extracellular matrix" is bunk.  This was debunked on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe a while back, and I was pretty bummed when I heard Remender mentioning this as fact.

    (Oh, I just noticed you included the Science-Based Medicine link above, the sister site for the Skeptics Guide. Cool! We’re tied into simliar sources.)

  8. I liked in an early Alpha Flight issue, Walter Langkowski breaks his arm, and he’s forced to risk changing into Sasquatch not knowing how the process might work with broken bones. (As you True Believers must remember, he had no choice, he had to take on the SUPER-SKRULL!!! — Okay, Stan Lee I’m not. 🙂 ) As I recall the change heals his arm when changing to Sasquatch, but the pain from the transforming broken bones temporarily drive him mad, and Sasquatch becomes this raging Hulk like beast.

    Anyway, as a kid I thought this was cool, since there were important consiquencies for Walter to be strong and healthy when becoming Sasquatch, since this was a factor in the transformation. (Or in other words, it wasn’t as simple as saying "Shazam!", and being the hero.)