Category Archives: super-heroes

Books about or featuring super-heroes.

Review 223: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

LL 223 - Kavalier and ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

I have long been a reader of comic books, as you probably know by now if you’ve been following my reviews. Ever since I was a kid, comic books have been there, reliably giving me my costumed heroes and world-beating wonders, storylines that wrapped themselves up in a few issues or less. I could – and still can – recite the secret origins and backstories for hundreds of characters at the drop of a hat. [1] The comics universe was a place where I would gladly live, assuming the powers and physique came with it.

What I didn’t know anything about, during those formative years, was the actual creators of comics. It wasn’t until I started to really pay attention that I noticed who the writers and artists were, and names like John Byrne, George Perez, Dick Giordiano, John Ostrander and their colleagues came to have meaning for me. I was soon able to see a little better the work that went into making comics, and the art that doing so required.

Jack "King" Kirby (art by Jonathan Edwards)

Jack "King" Kirby (art by Jonathan Edwards)

What took me longer to learn, however, was the history of comic books, and how all of these wonderful worlds came to be. The history of comics, as it turned out, is a fascinating story full of brilliant characters, amazing achievements, jaw-dropping betrayals, and vast shifts in cultural and literary attitudes. Names like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster – these were not the names I grew up with, but they are the ones who made my childhood possible.

Michael Chabon has managed to give us a glimpse into that history through his book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a history of comic books from a slightly different point of view.

The titular characters, Joseph Kavalier and Sam Clay, are cousins from opposite ends of the world. Kavalier, a young Jew from Czechoslovakia, has escaped certain death at the hands of the Nazis and come to America to seek his fortune. Sam Clay is a young man of great ambition, but few means. Apart, they are lost and wandering, but together they become a force that changes culture as they know it.

Stan "The Man" Lee

Stan “The Man” Lee

Armed only with a few ideas, bravado, and a good helping of talent, Sam and Joseph break into the newborn world of superhero comic books, creating a character that catches the imagination of readers all over the country. Soon, the Escapist – a master of the art of escapology – is popular enough to rival Superman, and has the potential to make Sam and Joe very rich men.

What follows is a complex, interwoven dual biography as the team of Kavalier and Clay find fame, break up, find love, risk death, and eventually settle into something resembling happiness over the course of several decades. Along the way, the complicated and adventurous history of comic books is a constant in their lives, from the heady days of wartime superheroes to the dark era of Senate hearings and Frederic Wertham’s crusade against the comics.

As one might expect from Chabon, it’s a narrative that covers a lot of ground. It wanders and moves about, going off into places that the reader might not expect, from an Antarctic military base to a men’s retreat on a posh Long Island estate. In that sense, you would think it would be heard to pin down what this book is actually about. It’s about family and friendship, it’s about art and creativity and risking everything for the one big chance at success. It’s about facing your fears and accepting your choices. It’s about so many things, all at once.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (art by Shuster)

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (art by Shuster)

But what it’s most about is freedom. With the character of the Escapist as the book’s central metaphor, we watch a cast of characters search for freedom. It might be political freedom as Joe tries to get his family out of Europe, or creative freedom as Sam looks for a way to make the ideas in his head into real things. It’s freedom from the restraints of a publisher, and from the responsibilities that come with being a friend and a partner. Everyone in this book is searching for freedom at one time or another, and those searches are neither easy nor short.

There is a certain quality to Chabon’s writing that I wish I could emulate, and the problem is that I can’t say exactly what that quality is. Perhaps it is the way he selects details that so perfectly illustrate a character. Perhaps it’s turns of phrase that linger in the mind, or moments of natural emotion that might have you smiling or worried or – if there’s some dust in the room perhaps – wondering where you put your handkerchief. The characters are vivid and real and interesting, as is the world they live in. His use of detail, his manipulation of both time and space through the use of flashback scenes, make the book great entertainment.

250px-Michael_Chabon_Presents_the_Amazing_Adventures_of_the_Escapist_01It’s not perfect, certainly – there are places where the book slows down, and you want the focus to return to one of the other characters, to examine a new question, but those moments of clear beauty make it all worth it to me. What it all amounts to is a group of wonderful characters who are all looking to find a place where they can settle down and stop escaping from themselves.

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“Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”
– Kornblum, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
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[1] The Boyfriend has learned to be wary of asking me about comics. If I’m not careful and very, very succinct, he’ll just walk away while I’m still talking…

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Filed under adventure, alternate history, comic books, family, friendship, Michael Chabon, super-heroes

Review 187: The Physics of Superheroes

The Physics of Super-Heroes by James Kakalios

Comics have always had a rough relationship with science. Many comics had their roots in science fiction, so it cannot be said that science is entirely missing from comic books. It’s just that, occasionally, science gets in the way of a good character or a good story. When that happens, one of them has to go. Since comics are a medium for storytelling, it’s easy to guess which one loses out.

As long as you can suspend your disbelief, the egregious abuse of science in comics can be overlooked. Things that we know to be impossible are not only forgiven when reading comics (and many other forms of fiction, be they movies, TV or books) it is truly necessary. I mean, that’s the whole point of fiction – to show us a world that isn’t our own.

And a lot of those nitpickers were overjoyed at this sequence. (World’s Finest #4, 2012)

Still, for the nitpickers, there’s plenty to object to in comics. Gross violations of the square/cube law, impossible particles, anatomical impossibilities, causality problems – you name it. It’s very easy to look at the use of science in comics and point out what they’re doing wrong.

So why has James Kakalios gone to so much trouble to point out what comics get right?

Two reasons, really – he loves comic books and he loves teaching physics. And he found (much to his pleasure, I’d imagine) that he could do both at the same time, using comic book examples to boost the interest of his students, making it the kind of physics class I would have loved to have taken.

In this book, Kakalios gives us a basic physics course in a few brief sittings, starting with the Newtonian Classics and working his way up to quantum physics. By using the popular superheroes of the day, he gives us a way of thinking about physics that is not only interesting, but also makes sense.

We’re right there with you, Kyle. (JLA #19, 1998)

For example, he uses good old f=ma (with a few extra bits of math thrown in here and there) to determine exactly how fast Superman (back in his Golden Age, pre-flight incarnation) was going when he leapt over buildings in a single bound. He looks at The Flash and how he might use quantum tunneling to go through walls, as well as why running on water would not only be possible, but at the speeds the Flash reaches, absolutely necessary. And of course, the Atom gets a lot of page space when it comes time to look at the world of the incredibly small, and the quantum rules that govern it.

Could Spider-Man’s webbing really allow him to swing like that, and why was Gwen Stacy’s death one of the best uses of physics in a comic? How are Iceman and Storm’s powers related, and how do Magneto’s powers really work? Did Krypton have a core of neutron star material? Does Conservation of Energy apply to the Flash, and how does the technology work to make Iron Man’s suit possible?

Two things make this book much more entertaining than The Science of Superheroes. The first is that it focuses solely on science, instead of trying to split its attention between the science, the characters and the history of the comic book industry. This is a real science book, despite the presentations – there are formulas in here, and it does sag a bit in places (especially the quantum physics part, but he does warn us about that).

The Hulk’s pants are a HUGE miracle exception. And I want the number of his tailor.

But that’s okay, because Kakalios isn’t out to debunk these heroes, and that’s the other reason why this book is good. He grants them a “miracle exception” that allows them their powers, and then asks, “Okay, assuming Ant-Man can shrink down to six inches, would he still be able to do what he does?” And then he goes on to show how the hero can (or can’t) do what he’s supposed to be able to do.

One of the biggest problems in science education is keeping students interested. Your average high school (and college) physics class will go on about weights and levers and inclined planes, presenting the laws of the universe in a fairly abstract (and dull) fashion. Like many students, I found myself thinking, “When will I ever actually use any of this?” For most students, the answer is Never. Same goes for a lot of what’s taught in high school – it may broaden your mind, but it’s likely to be impractical knowledge.

But knowledge doesn’t have to be practical to be worthwhile. Knowing how the universe works, what its laws and restrictions are, may not help you in your day-to-day life, but it makes you into a better citizen of the universe. It imbues the physical world with some semblance of rationality, an assurance that while we may not always like what the world throws at us, there is at least a reason for why things happen the way they do. There is consistency, there is order, and in a mixed up, topsy-turvy world like ours, that’s nice to know.

Even my disbelief will only suspend so high, GRANT MORRISON. (Action Comics #12, 2012)

What’s more, this book helps do what I always try to do – bring legitimacy to superhero comics. Even in this day and age, it’s very easy to look at Superman and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and say, “That’s just kids’ stuff.” It’s not. Okay, yes, the stories tend towards the simple; they’re flashy and bright and often espouse rather basic moral schemes. But they can be examined in many lights beyond that of simple entertainment, and reveal a wealth of information and understanding about the world in which we live.

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“If a twisted, evil maniac like the Green Goblin can learn physics, then there’s hope for us all.”
– James Kakalios, The Physics of Superheroes
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James Kakalios on Wikipedia
The Physics of Superheroes on Wikipedia
The Physics of Superheroes on Amazon.com
James Kakalios’ homepage

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Review 186: Supergods

Supergods by Grant Morrison

There is this interesting mental phenomenon, which you have probably experienced, called paradoelia. Briefly put, it is when our brains find a pattern where there is no pattern, making us believe that we see something that just isn’t there. It’s why every now and then, someone sees Jesus in a water stain in their basement. Or there’s a cloud that looks almost exactly like a dragon. Or when you wake up at four in the morning, and you’re squinting against the light and the toilet looks like a face and it’s laughing at you STOP LAUGHING AT ME!

Um. Right.

Humans are meaning-seekers. Whether it’s a song or a painting or a piece of toast, we want to find meaning everywhere we can. We are experts at it, world-champions, even when there is no meaning to be found.

ATREYYYUUUU!!!

When we turn these marvelous pattern-seeking brains towards places where there is meaning, well, that’s where things get interesting. Grant Morrison is a master pattern-seeker, which is probably what has helped him become one of the most interesting and important writers of the modern age. His area of interest is not philosophy, however, or literature or world affairs. He does not dissect the works of great masters of classical art or intricate mathematicians. Grant Morrison’s passion is something that many people believe they should give up by the time they leave their teens.

He loves superheroes.

That’s probably the only real point of overlap between me and Morrison, which is a pity because he seems like someone with whom it would be awesome to hang out. In the nearly seventy years since the dawn of the superhero, very few people have done as much thinking about them as Morrison has, nor have they followed the complex interrelationship between the superheroes and the world that brought them to life. Supergods attempts to answer a question that seems simple, but turns out to be mind-bendingly complicated: what do superheroes mean?

Yeah, I can see it…

He starts where it all began, with Action Comics #1 in 1938 and the debut of Superman. He spends several pages discussing the iconic cover alone – from its composition to the promises it makes to the reader – and uses that as a guide to all that will come after. The cover “looked like a cave painting waiting to be discovered on a subway wall ten thousand years from now – a powerful, at once futuristic and primitive image of a hunter killing a rogue car.”

Superman, who began his career as a protector of the people against the corrupt and the powerful, would be joined by Batman, who prowled the night looked to avenge a crime that could never be avenged. Together, they embodied the hopes and fears of their readers. They spoke to our nobility and our need to see that justice was done. They spoke to that haunting voice that told us that some things can never be made right. They were us, writ larger than life and yet printed on pulp paper and sold for a dime.

Together, Batman and Superman formed a template that nearly every other superhero would either conform to or react against. Over the next seventy years, superheroes would undergo massive changes – become light and dark, be parodies of the real world and terrible reflections of it. They would be funny, they would be grim. They would explore uncountable hyper-realities that were normally confined to the acid dreams of mystics, and they would face the most mundane and everyday problems that bedevil the man on the street.

Over the course of the book, Morrison looks at the history of superhero comics, charting their changes and mutations and looking for the underlying meaning behind each new iteration of the art. He tracks it from its pulp and populist origins, through the wartime years when the People’s Heroes suddenly became agents of propaganda, the age of the Comics Code, which forced writers to go to more and more ridiculous lengths to come up with stories, and the era of the realistic, where the heroes tried to cope with the problems of the readers’ world.

Don’t get punched by a Kirby character if you can help it, no matter what day it is.

He looks at the iconic moments in superhero publishing, such as the explosion of creativity brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel Comics, the editorial guidance of visionaries like Julius Schwartz, who sought to make comics a tool of education, and the masterstrokes of creators such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller, whose singular contributions to the genre are still reverberating clearly today.

Interlaced through all of this is Morrison’s own history, both as a reader and a creator of superhero comics. Much like the superheroes that he loves, Morrison gives us his secret origin as a young reader of comics, moving into a creative adolescence that found him searching for his own identity as both a creator and as a person. Like many of his heroes, he changed costumes and modes, went for a grittier, punk look for a little while, and proceeded to reinvent himself as one might reinvent a half-forgotten character from a title that was cancelled years ago.

As the history of superheroes intersects with his, the narrative becomes less a creative examination of how comics have evolved and more a story about how he evolved with comics. Not only did he become the equivalent of a rock star comic book writer, he managed to reach across the boundary between comic books and real life, crossing from one to another as one of the world’s first fictionauts.

The less said about what Deadpool means for us, the better.

It’s hard to overstate how much thinking Morrison has done on this topic, or how far he is willing to go to defend the heroes that he has not only grown up with but who have made his fortune for him. He sees superheroes not as a pleasant diversion or a corrupting force or as an unnecessary fantasy, but rather as in imperishable idea. They are a meme, a reflection of ourselves – both who we think we are and who we wish to be. Over the decades, Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the X-Men and all of their costumed comrades have raised generations of readers and instilled in them some of the highest values to which we aspire. Despite being derided, dismissed, and very nearly outlawed, there has been something about the superheroes that has called out to us, and we cannot help but respond.

In an age where fiction and reality are nearly interchangeable, and where the imagination can produce something real in almost no time at all, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the superheroes as entertainment for nerds and children. Perhaps it’s time to see what the heroes have to teach all of us.

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“Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside. The space in our heads will stretch to accommodate them all. The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need.”
– Grant Morrison, Supergods

Grant Morrison on Wikipedia
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Filed under autobiography, comic books, culture, DC Comics, Grant Morrison, identity, Marvel Comics, media, memoir, nonfiction, super-heroes, supervillains, writing

Review 144: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

It ain’t easy being Super.

You might be a hero, like Fatale. She is the latest in cyborg technology – a woman who was nearly destroyed in a freak accident, rebuilt by a mysterious corporation and made into the perfect living weapon. She is fast, she’s strong, and for a while she was one of the U.S. government’s best operatives. But now she’s on her own, and life is tough as a cyborg. You have parts to deal with, the need to keep your power source going, and of course it’s hard to enjoy a night out when everyone keeps staring at the half-metal woman in the booth near the window. Fatale wants to be a hero, though, and the re-formation of the Champions is just what she needs. If she can prove herself to this team, she can find a new purpose to her life.

A different, though equally self-aware, Evil Doctor.

If not a hero, you could be a villain. Doctor Impossible has certainly lived up to his name. In his many years of villainy he has come up with just about every nefarious scheme an evil, quasi-invulnerable genius can cook up in his twisted, malevolent brain. He’s been to the past and the future, he’s swapped brains with the greatest heroes of his age, he’s escaped from inescapable prisons more than once. Of all the would-be conquerors on Earth, Impossible is the one who would be voted most likely to succeed. And yet he isn’t happy. His life isn’t what he thought it would be, and it doesn’t take a genius to see that Doctor Impossible has a few problems that even his great genius cannot solve.

When Impossible breaks out of prison – again – the Champions re-form to hunt him down. With old and new members joining together to keep the flame of heroism alive in their world, the Champions are determined to find Impossible and shut him down for good. The only problem is that the person who has always succeeded against Impossible, a hero who calls himself CoreFire, is missing. Without him, their chances are greatly diminished. Against an evil genius like Impossible, who can defeat the team armed with little more than his wits and a false tooth, you want to throw everything you can at him. What’s more, the internal tensions pulling at the Champions may defeat them before Doctor Impossible even gets the chance to try.

This book, like so many other modern renditions of super-heroes, has its roots in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. While he was not the first to make his superheroes less than super, he was certainly the best, and his work is well-remembered for that. After Moore was done, it was hard to think of superheroes as entirely pure, good and noble. We could see the tensions between them, the neuroses that drive them to do what they do, and we began to understand that our heroes were just like us, only moreso. Ever since then, writers have been trying to de-super the superheroes and make them into regular people who just happen to be able to shoot lasers out of their eyes, break the laws of thermodynamics, or bend steel in their bare hands.

Not pictured: Impotence

Grossman has taken full advantage of the work that has gone before him in this novel. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Doctor Impossible and Fatale, and proceeds to deconstruct both the heroes and the villains in visceral, raw detail. What is it like to be a cyborg, something halfway between human and superhuman? And how can you join a team like the Champions, a team of legends among legends, and feel up to the task? What happens when you realize that the heroes you looked up to are just as human as you are? Or at least, as you used to be. On the other side, what makes a villain what he is? What happened to Doctor Impossible that put him on the ever-unfulfilled path to world domination? Was he destined for it, or was it a series of choices, insignificant at the time, that led him to where he was? How did his genius get turned to evil, and what, if anything, keeps him going?

The problem with deconstructing superheroes is that once you’ve deconstructed them, there’s really nothing left. Being a superhero is a fundamentally irrational career choice. Watchmen hinted pretty heavily at this, since all the heroes in the story had been pretty well messed up by their days in tights. There are so many problems that crop up once the spandex and mask are put on that you may find it’s not worth the effort. Legal issues, financial problems, time constraints and unstable relationships aside, what does this choice say about your state of mind? What kind of person can take up the job of costumed hero and stay sane? When you come right down to it, even if you have superpowers there are so many other ways you can use them that are less risky and more beneficial to humanity than getting into fistfights that destroy city blocks.

Lex, we... we think you may have a problem.

The same goes for villainy. So often you see bad guys with technology that is honestly amazing in its scope – Captain Cold’s freeze ray, for example, would make him rich if he patented it and licensed derivative technologies. Much richer than if he ever succeeded at using it to rob jewelry stores. Doctor Doom builds machines that are so far beyond current science that he could rule his own country – oh wait, he does – instead of single-mindedly trying to destroy Reed Richards. Lex Luthor would be grinding his teeth in envy over the power that Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or even Rush Limbaugh have. And none of them have a would-be Kryptonian conqueror to spur them on, either.

That’s the secret heart of superhero stories – they rest on fundamentally irrational choices. Take away those urges to help or harm and you are left with simple absurdity. And that’s kind of where this book falls down.

There’s plenty of navel-gazing and deconstruction going on in this story, from all angles. Between Fatale and Doctor Impossible, they pretty much reason away any good reasons for getting into the game as a hero or villain, and yet – there they are. Impossible is the worse of the two, really. His narration shows him to be an insightful, intelligent, and fairly well-grounded man who probably could become one of the most powerful men on earth through conventional means. And yet, even knowing that it’s probably a waste of time, he continues with his grand scheme – in this case, gravitationally manipulating the distance between the moon and the Earth so as to hold the Earth hostage. He knows he’s going to lose. He knows there are better ways to be effectively evil that don’t involve a metahuman punch to the face. He knows when he’s acting in a stereotypically villainous way. And yet he persists, usually in the most cliched way possible. He spouts comic-book-villain monologues and even has an island fortress from which he operates.

"But right now Darkseid's stories are on."


Neither Fatale nor Impossible – nor any of the other good or bad guys we meet – seem especially happy doing what they’re doing. And what’s more, they know they’re not happy. Doctor Impossible even goes so far as to state it explicitly during his moment of triumph – “For a second, I find myself at the fulcrum point of creation. God I’m so unhappy.”

Well, if you’re such a genius, perhaps you would be able to make better choices than this.

Therein lies the paradox of this book. The more human you try to make these characters, the less believable their story becomes. You can’t be both human and superhuman at the same time – it takes a very skilled writer to pull that trick off, and I don’t think Grossman is there yet. He tells an entertaining story, full of pretty much every comic book trope you can think of, which entertained me to no end. The problem is that by the time you get to the finale the unstable foundation of the story starts to show. How much you’ll enjoy the story depends on how good you are at filtering out the deconstruction that’s going on, which means missing the point of the whole book – that the only way to really enjoy superheroes is to accept them at face value and avoid deconstructing them.

So yeah, good luck with that.

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“When you get your powers, you learn a lot about yourself. My professors called me mad. It was time for me to stop punishing myself, and start punishing everybody else.”
– Dr. Impossible, Soon I Will Be Invincible
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Austin Grossman on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible on Wikipedia
Soon I Will Be Invincible homepage
Soon I Will Be Invincible on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, Austin Grossman, comic books, futurism, good and evil, science fiction, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 138: JLA/Avengers

JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Pérez

Everybody loves a good team-up. No matter who your favorite hero is, whether in the realm of sports, music, science, writing, art – you get a secret thrill from the idea of what they could achieve if they worked together. Sometimes it’s brilliant, like when Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett teamed up to do Good Omens. Sometimes it’s inspiring, like the pop music wonder that was “We Are the World.” Sometimes it’s overwhelming, like the 1992 Olympic basketball Dream Team. Sometimes it’s Damn Yankees, and the less said about that, the better.

Regardless, we all love to play that game of “What if,” pairing together not only the greatest talents we know, but sometimes the greatest talents in history. What if Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton could have studied the universe together? What if we could get Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy together to work on the problems facing the nation? What if Kurt Kobain and Jimi Hendrix were able to cut an album together? The team-ups are endless, and most of the time they’re impossible.

Some team-ups, however, are best left unimagined.

Fortunately, that’s where fiction steps in. The Justice League was created by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky over at DC Comics back in 1960. The idea was to take the greatest heroes the company had in their library and team them up to fight battles that no one hero could face alone – Starro the Conquerer being the first among them, and thereafter many more. Aliens, mad scientists, evil kings, vengeful gods, all those who attempted to conquer, destroy, or devour the Earth were stopped by the League. Though the membership roster has changed many times over the years, as has the style of the books, the League has been a fixture in the DC Comics universe for more than forty years.

As Stan Lee tells the story, the publisher of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, bragged over a round of golf to the owner of Marvel, Martin Goodman, about how well his new Justice League title was selling. After the game, Goodman called Lee and told him to create a hero team to compete. Stan’s imagination provided him with the Fantastic Four, and a comic book arms race had begun. Lee produced hero after hero for Marvel, conveniently housing most of them in New York City. From there, it made sense to have them get together to fight even greater menaces. With the pencils of comic book legend Jack Kirby, Lee created The Avengers, the mightiest hero team of the Marvel universe. They too have undergone a lot of changes in the last four decades, but they remain the elite team of heroes to which every costumed adventurer aspires.

Damn, they're cool.

Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Martian Manhunter….

Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Hulk [1], the Wasp, Hawkeye….

These are names that every comic book fan should know, and deep down inside we all wonder: what would it be like if they could get together? What’s more, what kind of foe would require the combined might of two of the greatest hero teams in comic book history? It could only be something on a monumental scale, something that endangers the existences of both universes. Something like… Krona.

If you’re a long-time reader, you might remember that name. Krona was the reason for the Crisis on Infinite Earths – his obsession with seeing the beginning of the universe led to the fissioning of that universe into a nigh-infinite number of parallel ones. It was only after a titanic series of battles that the singular universe was put right, and Krona was transformed into pure energy and banished for his crimes. Or so we thought.

Obsessive to the core, Krona figured out how to escape his universe and started again on his quest to understand the beginning of all things, even if it meant destroying every single universe that defied him. Eventually he came to meet the Grandmaster, an immortal on the Marvel side whose limitless existence drove him to play cosmic games of chance with whatever other great powers he encountered. He knew someone who could possibly answer Krona’s questions – the planet-devourer Galactus – and challenged him to a contest: the greatest heroes of each universe would compete to gather items of power. If the DC team won, Krona would leave and search elsewhere. If Marvel’s team won, it would bring ultimate destruction to both cosmoses.

I dunno. I was hoping for something... well, cosmic.

And so the teams met, and like all good superhero team-ups, it started with a fight. Something about the two worlds put the visitors on edge, and both Superman and Captain America were willing to pound their opposite numbers into the dirt if need be. Fortunately, as in all good hero team-ups, their differences were put aside in favor of battling Krona and saving both of their universes from utter annihilation.

It’s a vast story, both in time and space, and manages to bring together pretty much everyone who has ever been part of the two teams, both in terms of the heroes that made them up and the villains they fought. Yet it feels fairly intimate – these aren’t two whole universes that are battling for survival, but two teams, who manage to mesh together surprisingly well. A lot of the credit for this, of course, has to go to the writer, Kurt Busiek, who had the unenviable task of penning a story that made the best – and fairest – use of both teams. After all, never underestimate the partisan fans, the ones who would be utterly incensed by Superman beating Thor, or the idea that Captain America could possibly be Batman’s equal in hand-to-hand combat. I’m sure there were people on both sides of the publishing divide who were keeping very careful account of which team came off “better” in this fight, but that’s not the way this book was meant to be read. Busiek’s mission was to create a threat that could only be contained by both teams together, which means that neither team by itself was enough to win, which means that you should shut up already about whether or not Superman should have been able to use Thor’s hammer, dammit.

Only - ONLY - George Perez could pull this off....

Even for all the care that went into writing this story, it never would have worked without an artist capable of handling that many characters and making sure they all looked their best. When you have a universe-spanning epic with a cast of far-too-many, there’s only one person you can call: George Pérez. Not only can he handle a chaotic battle scene, making every hero look… well… heroic, hes just as good at the casualness of a Christmas party, or the masks-off teamwork that is involved in trying to build a reality-piercing spaceship. Whether facing off against great cosmic powers or chatting next to the coffee urn, Pérez knows how to make these people look damn good. There’s just no one else like him. With outstanding colors by Tom Smith, I could just read this book for the artwork alone.

What I also found interesting was a look at how the two worlds are fundamentally different in not only their stories but their very makeup. The Flash can’t run in the Marvel Universe because the Speed Force doesn’t exist, while the Scarlet Witch’s powers are multiplied to dangerous levels in the DC Universe thanks to the strength of the Lords of Chaos. The differences in the geography and the sizes of the Earths, the type of energy they receive from their suns, the fundamental forces that hold their universes together are a huge obstacle to getting the teams to work together, and as far as I know it is the first attempt to “scientifically” delineate how they are different.

This is the part where you lose. Hard.

There is also a bit of sociological analysis, too. Each team first notices how differently heroes are treated in their opposite worlds. The heroes of the Marvel Universe are tolerated, but not entirely trusted. The non-powered citizenry tend to be more afraid of superheroes, especially the mutants, and so the ability of groups like the Avengers to effect positive change on their world is limited. To Superman, this looks like Marvel’s heroes aren’t bothering to make their world better, but only remaining satisfied to hold the status quo.

On the DC side, heroes are beloved. Superman is a planet-wide hero, Wonder Woman is an ambassador of peace, and the people of Central City have built an entire museum to honor the Flash. These people revere their heroes as both celebrities and saviors, something that Captain America views as a step towards fascism – costumed gods with their pet people ready to do what they say.

Neither viewpoint is entirely right, but they do reflect a fundamental difference in the way each company approaches its storytelling. To put that editorial decision in front of the characters was an interesting choice, and allowing them to come to their own judgments was fun – if a little unnerving – to read.

All in all, JLA/Avengers is a truly great team-up story, one that should make the fans on both sides happy for a while.

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“Neural chaff. Hypnotic lights. Pre-programmed skills. Try fighting the Wehrmacht, mister – it teaches you focus!”
Captain America to Prometheus, JLA/Avengers

[1] Hulk gets almost no screen time in the story, which is very disappointing. I’m sure there are reasons for this….

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Filed under apocalypse, Avengers, comic books, DC Comics, disaster, George Perez, JLA, Kurt Busiek, Marvel Comics, quest, super-heroes, supervillains, world-crossing

Review 89: The Science of Superheroes AND The Science of Supervillains


The Science of Superheroes and The Science of Supervillains by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg

By all rights, I should have loved these books. I mean look at them! They combine two of my favorite things, as you loyal readers should know: science and superheroes.

I’ve been a big fan of science since I was a kid. I used to flip through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when I was young, just barely understanding the enormous ideas he was presenting in it. My father had the Time/Life Science Series (which I still have somewhere in a box back in my mother’s house) and I spent days going through those, learning about the wheel, water, drugs, matter, time…. Science never seemed imposing or intimidating to me (at least until I started trying to get the math), but rather a celebration of the human intellect.

On the other side – super-heroes. I still remember buying a copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, the one with the Spectre and the Anti-Monitor facing off at the very dawn of creation, with dozens of heroes and villains trapped in a whirling maelstrom. To this day, that entire series has great meaning for me – not just because it’s an incredibly dense story or because it features some of my favorite characters of all time, but because it addresses greater questions of heroism, duty and sacrifice. And if those themes were left out of the more mundane run of monthly comics, well, that didn’t matter. These bright and powerful people had captured my imagination and still hold it to this day.

And as much as I’ve always wanted to be a superhero, there have been plenty of times when I’ve wanted to join the other side as well.

I mean, how many times have you wanted to don some goggles and a lab coat, stand on your parapet (you do have a parapet, right?), backlit by lightning as you scream, “The FOOLS! They called me mad? I WILL SHOW YOU MADNESS! HA! HAHAHAHA!! HAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!”

Or something like that.

Anyway, there’s something to be said for the life of a supervillain, and if you’re a really good one then you’ll make it into the pages of history. Names such as Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto and Sinestro – these are names that will live in the hearts of comic book fans forever. Indeed, it is said that the greatness of a hero depends on the greatness of his villain. Where would Superman be if he only had to foil a few muggings once in a while? Or Spider-Man if he were just tracking down garden-variety murderers? They might be heroes, but they certainly wouldn’t be superheroes.

So, with that in mind, let me tell you that I was somewhat disappointed with these books.

I think part of the problem is the mission of the text: reconcile what we see in comic books with what we know of science. The trouble is very simply that we can’t. Comic book super-heroes are, by their nature, not beholden to the laws of physics that we all know and obey, and the true mechanics of their powers are often unknown even to them. Has a Green Lantern ever actually asked what the power source is in the Great Battery on Oa? Does Superman know the biological process that goes on in his cells that turns sunlight into his amazing abilities? Can even the mighty mind of Reed Richards explain why his DNA and that of his colleagues was transformed, rather than ripped to shreds? Would Lex Luthor’s climate-altering machines of his youth really be able to change the climate of an entire region? What is it about the Anti-Monitor’s peculiar flavor of antimatter that allows it to overtake normal matter rather than destroy it? And how does the Vulture – an elderly man with wings strapped to his arms – not plummet to his death? Can comics examine these issues and still put out good stories?

Comics have tried to answer this question, actually. In the 1990s, as part of their Invasion! series, DC Comics introduced the concept of a Metagene, a particular mutation that was carried by a small percentage of the public. Under the right circumstances – such as being struck by electrified chemicals, being at ground zero of a nuclear explosion, or being immersed in a powerful chemical bath, the gene would activate and alter the person’s entire genetic structure to allow it to survive. That alteration would produce powers such as super-speed, nuclear manipulation, or extreme elasticity. But even the meta-gene idea was a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink from the writers, who were far more concerned with telling a good story or creating good characters than they were with sticking to good science.

Which brings us back to these books. Through the books, Gresh and Weinberg look at some of the most famous heroes and villains from DC and Marvel Comics and try to see how well their behaviors and their origin stories hold up under the weight of established scientific truth. The answer: not well at all.

The Atom, for example, has the problem of extreme density to deal with, as well as the fact that the white dwarf matter with which he activates his power should be impossible to lift. On the other end, Giant-Man shouldn’t be able to move his own weight, thanks to the good old cube-square law. The Flash has a whole host of problems, starting with an anti-friction aura that curiously doesn’t extend to the soles of his feet and finishing with a serious defiance of relativity. The Fantastic Four and Dr. Banner should have come out of their radioactive disasters with a severe case of death at the very least, and half of Peter Parker’s powers actually have nothing whatsoever to do with spiders.

The basic message here is that the heroes and villains we know and love are, for the most part, scientifically impossible. But we knew that. Everybody who reads comics knows, in their hearts, that science is not in the driver’s seat when it comes to super-heroes. As much fun as it would be to stand out in a thunderstorm yelling, “SHAZAM!” with a golf club in the air, I know that the only super-power I would gain would be the ability to occupy a hospital bed. If I was lucky.

Batman, on the other hand, is reasonably plausible, given the nigh-infinite resources of Bruce Wayne. The technology for most of his gadgets and gimmicks is extant and not too hard to either acquire or produce. Also, it wouldn’t be impossible to re-write the Hulk’s origin using an angry biochemist who has a particular talent for mixing up new and interesting steroid cocktails.

There are heroes – and villains – who show us a goal to reach, in a weird way. Doctor Doom, for example, uses a metal exoskeleton that confers upon him great strength and endurance. Would it be possible for us to build such a thing, only not looking several centuries out of date? As it turns out, yes we can. Or at least we will be able to soon. The science of body assistance has been making great progress recently, and it’s only a matter of time before we are able to augment our own bodies from the outside and do amazing things.

Or look at Poison Ivy, one of Batman’s recurring villains (and the only female in the villains book). She makes great use of plants that look like nothing Nature has ever produced. Could we, with biological engineering, do the same? It turns out we already are, just not as cool. Instead of giant venus flytraps that catch and eat human beings, we’re engineering better strains of vegetables that will go towards feeding more people for less money. But if we really wanted to, we could have murderous plants in our future.

All of these bad guys offer us a chance to explore science, both fundamental and cutting-edge. The Lizard, a poor, beleaguered enemy of Spider-Man’s who cannot control the beast within, may give us the clues to regenerating our own limbs. Magneto offers us an understanding of how powerful and pervasive electromagnetism really is. Dr. Octopus shows us the potential of prosthetics, and Mr. Mxyzptlk is a great way to start looking at not just the fifth dimension, but the very concepts of dimensions that are beyond the paltry ones that we inhabit.

These books make a reasonable attempt to inject the history and theory behind the science that our heroes defy, putting it into the realm of books that handle popular science. But as popular science books, they’re rather disjointed and uneven, going into great detail in some sections but skimming over others. There’s some serious axe-grinding, for example, in chapter 9 of the Heroes book: Good, Evil and Indifferent Mutants – the X-Men. Not only do they not address the scientific nature of the X-Men’s powers (which they could have done with a simple page or two of “None of these are possible”), but they spend five or six pages detailing the historical and ongoing conflict between Creationism and Evolution. While it’s an interesting topic, it’s not germane to the X-Men and really doesn’t belong in this book. Perhaps a discussion about successful adaptations in the human genome would have been better – what alterations have occurred in Homo sapiens that have made the species better? Or perhaps how our understanding of genetics is leading us to modify our own species faster than nature would have intended? There’s a little of this, but it doesn’t balance out the unnecessary evolution-creationism segment.

The biggest issue for Gresh and Weinberg is that the writers of comics put scientific accuracy lower on their priority list than good storytelling and good characters. Yes, The Flash should never even be challenged by villains – at his speed, there’s no one who should be able to even surprise him. But that makes for a damn boring comic book. And the same goes with Spider-Man. If Peter Parker really exhibited the traits of a spider, he would probably just build a web where he expected bad guys to be and spend the entire comic just waiting for them to stumble in. Then he would drop his trousers and spray them with webbing from a place the Comics Code won’t let the artist draw.

More than once, they strayed from the science to criticize the villains’ motives – why is Vandal Savage so hot to take over the world? Why not just invest his money, wait a few hundred years and live a life better than any human had before him? Or why would Lex Luthor do something so stupid as to drop a nuclear bomb from a helicopter? Helloooo? Ever hear of a little something we like to call “poison gas?”

While those may be excellent story points, the books are not called “The Plot Holes of Superheroes and Villains.” They’re about the science, and trying to gain the appreciation of comic book fans by pointing out why their favorite bad guys are idiots, well…. That’s probably not the best way to handle it.

Other books about superheroes and science start off by accepting the reality of the comic book. James Kaklios’ The Physics of Superheroes does exactly that – he grants the heroes a “miracle exception” and then moves on from there. His book is founded on the tacit understanding that comic book writers are more interested in the story than the science, but that if you look hard enough, you can find scientific lessons everywhere.

Science is important, but so is fiction. We willingly suspend our disbelief for super-heroes so that we can better enjoy their story. Science can tell us a lot, but it doesn’t have much to say about loyalty, heroism, sacrifice and responsibility. It’s hard for us to insert ourselves into science’s stories – imagine being a hydrogen atom or a rock strata or a particularly interesting strain of e. coli. While science and super-heroes don’t have to be incompatible, it’s no great loss if they are. There’s an interview at the end with a group of writers, all of whom very clearly state that story comes first. “The story always outweighs the science,” says Len Wein, one of the industry’s pre-eminent writers. Super-heroes aren’t scientifically accurate, but they were never meant to be.

While I don’t doubt that Gresh and Weinberg know their comics, I don’t get the feeling that they really love comic books for what they are – fantasies with just enough science stuck on to make them seem plausible. Rather than looking for ways that comic books can open readers’ eyes to science, they seem to be more interested in tearing down the comics themselves for trying – and failing – to use science in their stories. They’re more focused on the flaws than the potential, and I found that tiring after a while. By trying to combine popular science with super-heroes, and by maintaining a dismissive attitude towards comics, Gresh and Weinberg have created books that have their moments, but don’t really succeed being what they want to be.

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“By now, if you’ve been reading this book chapter by chapter, your brain should be screaming in pain.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Superheroes

“By now, anyone reading these books knows that we never ask a question without having an unpleasant answer ready.”
– Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Supervillains
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Lois Gresh on Wikipedia
Robert Weinberg on Wikipedia
The Science of Superheroes on Amazon.com
The Science of Supervillains on Amazon.com
Lois Gresh’s webpage
Robert Weinberg’s webpage

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Filed under Lois Gresh, Robert Weinberg, science, super-heroes, supervillains

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
– Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Identity Crisis on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer on Wikipedia
Rags Morales on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer’s homepage
Rags Morales’ blog (last entry2006)
Identity Crisis at Amazon.com

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Filed under Batman, Brad Meltzer, comic books, DC Comics, death, detective fiction, ethics, identity, morality, murder, Rags Morales, rape, super-heroes, Superman