Science in Comic Books: Awesome Or Pointless?

Superheroes and physics: do they mix well or get in the way of each other?

Posted by Xander Pakzad

The biggest buzzkill when reading a comic is hearing, “That would never happen.” I’m on another planet, flying above the clouds, walking through walls. Totally down for the cause. And suddenly, I just can’t believe it. Comic books pull reason and logic out of thin air all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. So my question is: do we care about science in comics, or should we take it all with a grain of salt?

Spider-Man’s and The Hulk’s origin stories are a crock of bullshit, we all know. Stan Lee himself admits to not knowing the plausibility of radioactive spiders or exposure to strong gamma rays. The trick is: neither does the reader. We want to believe. As long as it doesn’t conflict with what we see outside our window, no one’s going to double-check the work.

Although Lee does claim to scientifically explain some characters:

“So he has that hammer, I had him swing it around as fast as a propeller, then he lets go. Now it’s attached to his wrist. So when the hammer goes shooting off into space, it takes him with it. Incontrovertible scientific fact.”

Incontrovertible…. right.

On the web series “Fact or Fictional,” Victoria Belmont tested fake gadgets, superpowers, and entire plotlines against the laws of science. Here’s the episode on the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier featured in The Avengers.

I’m conflicted on this kind of breakdown. The science geek in me loves debating whether or not the Helicarrier follows the rules of physics and engineering, current and speculative. On the other hand, the comic book nerd in me just wants to enjoy what’s going on without second-guessing its real-world likelihood.

What if science is used to come up with the idea in the first place? Astrophysicist and dweeb hero Neil Degrasse Tyson was hired by DC Comics to not only help Superman find Krypton, but also explain how it could be found.

If a planet is so far away and dim that we couldn’t see it from Earth, as is the case with Krypton, how could Superman do it? We couldn’t possibly make a telescope big enough. Instead, Tyson combines superpowers with real world interferometry. In English: averaging the views of multiple telescopes and crunching that data using Superman’s mind.

Tyson then proves his nerd cred by saying why he gets academic for a medium that’s built on make-believe:

“Many artists who are inspired by science don’t reach as far into it as they could, I think out of fear that the science may restrict their creativity. … But I maintain, particularly in astrophysics, that if you did understand it, it adds to your creativity. It gives you more places and ways to be creative.”

(image credit: NPR)

So do we need to know how comic book characters would do their thing in real life? I really don’t care. We’re reading comic books to escape reality, not go to class.

Not that explanation is a bad thing, per se. Science isn’t necessary to make a superhero, but anything that fleshes out the world also makes me care about that world. A good story is detailed and thoughtfully planned out. If we get there through real world facts or the writer’s imagination doesn't matter to me as long as I'm hooked.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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