The Science of Superheroes

The Science of Superheroes

This readable popular science book has an interesting hook: superhero stories are used to introduce discussions of various scientific questions. Batman brings up gadgets and jetpacks; Spider-Man means spiders and cloning; Green Lantern, black holes and color theory.

There’s also a chapter in The Science of Superheroes on the EC science fiction comics — although it sounds as though it’s more accurate to describe them as science-less morality tales — and DC’s Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. The latter were primarily twist stories that turned on some scientific facts while ignoring others. Most of the discussion in this chapter is about time travel, including the Grandfather Paradox.

The last chapter praises the “one comic book writer [who] never cheated his audience” because “he used real science and real technology in his stories.” Surprisingly, they’re talking about Carl Barks writing Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. There are four stories briefly discussed, which aren’t really enough to give an overview or justification of the praise to someone not familiar with the stories. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier for the reader to find reprints of the Silver Age superheroes talked about in the rest of the book than it is to read the duck stories without some searching.

There are also two appendices: The first mentions material that wasn’t covered in the book and why it was left out. The second is a collection of brief interviews with creators, including Len Wein, Mark Wheatley, Brett Booth, and Max Allan Collins.

The Science of Superheroes

The book is written in clear, direct prose that lays out everything you need to know, whether it’s the laws of science or the history of a particular superhero. I found the origin sections enjoyable to read even thought I already knew most of them. For example, the Superman chapter begins with a history of the character from a social and cultural perspective before pointing out some of the scientific problems, like how Superman can lift a building without it falling apart. (I do have to quibble with their phrasing that no one ever asks these questions. I have come to learn that for every possible question that never occurs to me, there’s a fanboy out there somewhere who has thought about it — and usually come up with an answer that he wants to base a story around.)

The authors, Lois H. Gresh and Robert Weinberg, conclude that Marvel’s characters were more likely to be based on inaccurate science than DC’s, because DC’s writers were more familiar with popular science theories and science fiction. In contrast to that theory, though, the Atom comes in for the biggest roasting, perhaps because his comic tried so hard to be plausible by using scientific technobabble. The telephone travel trick (where the Atom rides electric current to travel across phone lines) really means that he’d turn himself into a black hole.

One of the shorter chapters is the one covering the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, since instead of becoming transformed by gamma or cosmic rays, if treated scientifically, the heroes should have died. To fill out the section, the authors give us a more plausible (given what we know now) origin for the Hulk, involving steroids and fluorescent gene modification. I would have liked to have seen similar treatments for other characters, since I appreciated the imagination and realism that went into their rewrite.

There were some flaws in the book. For the most part, only the “Silver Age” versions of the heroes are covered. The authors don’t seem to realize, for example, that the issue of Flash’s eating habits has come up with the newest version of the character. Also, I thought that the discussion of evolution in the X-Men chapter was perhaps a little too simplified. The topic had already been discussed a couple of times elsewhere in the book. While it’s necessary background for the discussion of mutation I was expecting, it wanders a little far afield for my tastes. I’d have liked to have learned more about gene therapy or genetic engineering, both of which are barely mentioned but relate well to the characters.

The authors say they want more attention paid to science in comics in the first appendix. I was thus surprised, when they mentioned the state of comics as a whole, including the diversity of what’s being published, that they didn’t mention the true science comics like those done by Jay Hosler or Jim Ottaviani. Books like Clan Apis or Dignifying Science are both entertaining and factual.

Overall, the book has just the right tone — straightforward, educational, but not too stuffy or serious. They aren’t making fun of superheroes or poking holes in the stories, but using them as springboards to teach readers more about the principles behind the concepts. At the same time, they aren’t bending over backwards to make the heroes “realistic” or believable; they understand that some things are done for the sake of interesting or exciting stories.

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