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.
“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