Writing SCIENCE Right

On Sunday I set off a bit of a kerfuffle on twitter. I read Superman: Earth One by J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis (a book Mike Romo has also read!), which prompted some snarky comments about how shoddy the science is throughout the book. I’m hesitant to say much more than that on the subject, I've written about issues with JMS and Supes before but right now I don’t want the negativity to get too damn high. Paul Montgomery, in his typical charming style, prompted a more positive discussion asking me who IS doing justice to science in the funnybooks these days. It’s a good question, and I like to think I have good answers. So here goes.

Chris Roberson:
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve been seeing Roberson’s name pop up more and more. Recently he was just announced as the new writer of Superman. I will restrain myself from further comment on the reasons behind that announcement suffice it to say I was thrilled with the choice! Roberson entered our world as a sci-fi writer brought into Bill Willingham’s secret cabal of up-and-coming comic talent. They have a lair, I hear it’s very nice but also very well-guarded. Sci-fi writers have a leg up in my personal competition of sci-chops because superheroes, even though they began as sci-fi pulp stories, have diverged quite far from their roots. A talent at sci-fi isn’t necessarily a must-have for good superhero writing, nor should it, plenty of GREAT superheroes need no science whatsoever. However, in this article, it counts. You may not see the science in Roberson’s writing but a good teacher will tell you in math you show your work and in writing you hide it. I imagine with his upcoming forays into DC 1 Million and Superman we’ll start to see Roberson’s under the surface science bona fides shine through.

Matt Sturges:
You mean the guy writing House of Mystery, Jack of Fables and former writer of Shadowpact? Yes! I do mean that guy. Another find from old man Willingham (How does he do that? I imagine some sort of scrying pool.). I can personally attest to Sturges’ science brain, having examined it myself on many an occasion, one occasion was even recorded. Sturges has a fantasy novel out there you should buy called Midwinter, it’s the only fantasy novel I’ve ever read with a scientist in it. Dude could not be more frustrated but intrigued by magic and elves and all that. It’s a great way to insert a human perspective into the fantastic realm Sturges has created. Also Sturges created a future version of the team Shadowpact, its sci-magick at its finest. I’ve written before about how Sturges gets it right. The fact that I wanted to write more should be enough. Moving on…

Kurt Busiek:
The obvious reason to feature Busiek is the rerelease of the excellent Shockrockets (with art by a certain Stuart Immonen). The book is pure sci-fi in a way rarely done well, if at all, in comics. But Busiek has also penned the whimsical Astro City and the coming-of-age fantasy-war epic Arrowsmith. In regards to the latter, the reason Kurt Busiek can do a book steeped in magic but still make the personal sci-scribe hall of fame is self-consistency. This is true of the all the writers on this list. Kurt Busiek created a world, he created rules and then he played by those rules. Call it magic if you like, but when the same cause produces the same effect and it’s testable, repeatable and capable of study you’re into “a rose by any other name” territory. I’m fine calling it magic, it is fun and leads to great visuals, but those wizards know what’s up.

Matt Fraction:
As a “student” of Warren Ellis, it’s no shock to find Fraction here. I’ve highlighted pre-Big 2 work from the writers mentioned above and I shall do so here again: Five Fists of Science! I added that exclamation point but it deserves to be there, believe you me. If you’ve not yet been made aware, this book follows the adventures of Mark Twain and Nikolai Tesla in their quest to defeat the evil yeti-hunting Thomas Edison. It’s historical fiction… sort of. Now he’s been writing a successful revamp of Iron Man for years, and if there was ever a character that benefits from good science, it’s Mr. Stark. Furthermore, he’s done what I might have argued was nigh-impossible and brought the science to Thor. Some argue that it’s too high-concept, quantum-concept even, but I’m digging the attempt at meshing Asgardian lore with multi-dimensional brane theory. It takes all kinds.

Jonathan Hickman:
No list of good science writing in comics would be complete without former iFanboy contributor Jonathan Hickman. Some of his earliest work is genre and mind-bending sci-goodness. Dude is wicked smart and it comes through in his books. Furthermore, he gets some of the subtlety in science that comics often miss. My favorite example is in Pax Romana when he shows the time machine that will send the armies of Catholocism back in time. It’s a warehouse. No tesla coils, no energy beams, no nanobots. It’s a warehouse with some pylons. Come by my lab sometime, you’ll see how close to the mark his design is to actual science (there are always exceptions, but those labs are secrets, so we can’t show you :-P). His Marvel work has continued the trend. As Mark Waid before him showed, the Fantastic Four work really well in the role of science-adventures, it’s something they can do that most other superheroes can’t. Lastly, he made Leonardo Da Vinci a superhero, or revealed that he always was one and we just didn’t know until now. Believe whichever version you prefer.

So there’s my positive spin on the downer that were my tweets while reading Superman: Earth One. Thanks again to Paul for suggesting the topic. Who did I miss? Should I even care? Let us chat, dear iFanbase.


Ryan Haupt is not a one trick pony. Sure he loves science enough to have his own podcast and blog, but did you know he also enjoys rock climbing, Mike Romo and cooking? It’s true.


  1. Finally! Someone on this site gives some love to Sturges’ House of Mystery!

    On top of being one the most creative books writing-wise, it regularly boasts the most beautiful, interesting cover art of anything out there.

  2. Fraction’s current tech angle on Iron Man takes me out of the story.

    I get he’s trying to take a more real world high tech approach

    But come on- Tony Stark has created time machines and teleport pads- Now he has trouble making an electric car work?

    This isn’t just a case of ignore the continuity problem- it’s just

    not consistent with this marvel u-  I think it would be better suited for another earth- 6-xx

  3. A couple of years ago, I was all about comics about space.  I was reading Green Lantern sagas, Marvel’s cosmic stuff and even a Star Wars book.  Now none of those are hard science and I was only reading the Star Wars book for work research, but the point remains that I was really into sci-fi comics. Even if they were sci-fantasy.  I mention this because I finally had to drop the Green Lantern books because it was so consistently terrible at the science.  It’s a book about people with magic rings that make their thoughts become reality and any science sufficiently advanced, blah blah.  What seemed so terrible and wrong was the scale.  In the entire universe, there are 3600 sectors?  Really?  3600?  How did we come by that?  The sum total of all matter and energy in existence, the countless galaxies filled with hundreds of billions of stars all policed by less than 10,000 mortal beings with magic rings.  Are you sure you don’t just mean Galaxy? I suppose if the little blue guys were merely the Guardians of the Galaxy that’d be a different book.

    I’m okay with the science fantasy.  Star Wars at least confines its space swashbuckling and psychic wizard warriors to a single galaxy.  StarLord and Rocket Raccoon and the Guardians of the Galaxy, despite their more believable scope still felt like they were confusing Galaxy and Universe quite a bit.  Their base of operations was a Celestial’s head at the edge of the universe.  And they ended up saving everyone from the invasion of another, Eldritch Universe.  Still, they get their scale right for the most part.

    I might pick up Green Lantern again if they’d just call it Magic.  I’d give Magic quite a pass over science fiction.  As long as it’s internally consistent, then magic is whatever people want it to be.  But the Universe isn’t made up.  Even a made up one like the DC universe must be assumed to be roughly similiar in size and scope to our own universe.

  4. The time machine in PR is great. Basic industrial design and similar to the time machine in "Primer."  

  5. @ericmci  I don’t think he has trouble making the car, i think the problem lies with making a car thats capable of being mass produced. It’s one thing for tony and reed to build a teleporter, but if you told them they had to build one that a factory could crank out for the general public, it would be a lot harder. He’s trying to make an affordable car that runs on repulsor tech. if he only had to make one he could do it but his team is making a model of what will be the car of the future. this isn’t just a one time gadget