Scientific Progress Goes KRA-KOOM!!

“It’s the opposite of vague. We’re defining it in a very clear, tangible way. … We want to be able to describe it in one sentence.” — Francis Manapul, writer, The Flash, on the Speed Force

Manapul said this to a panel I attended at Emerald City Comicon 2012, reemphasizing statements he made to Newsarama a month earlier. I don’t know what he intends for The Flash, and I don’t plan on paying money to find out, but his comments get at something about contemporary cape comics that’s been troubling me for a while: their hyper-definitive approach to super-science.

Super-science, from the Silver Age onward, has been the primary MacGuffin generator in hero comics. Granted, Lex Luthor (b. 1940) was shooting giant death beams at Superman back in the Golden Age, but something special had to happen before the principles of such science — how does that giant death beam work, anyway? — became a question to be expanded in the narrative.

The Speed Force of The Flash was already as “defined” as it probably needed to be before the New 52 movement rebooted the DC Universe in 2011. It was grafted onto the character in 1987, in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. It’s a post-Star Wars conceit, an unscientific energy field that “surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together.” Like much Silver Age super-science (and like practically everything in Star Wars), it’s not science per se so much as story-supporting mysticism: “We don’t really know what this thing is, but it works, and it’s awesome.”

Start with “radiation.” In science, that term is a catch-all for any form of radiant energy. Light and radio waves are radiation. But the early Lee-Kirby-Ditko stories (1961 and after) understood it as gene-altering radioactive decay. The storytellers seemingly had just the barest understanding of nuclear energy, knowing only what most people in 1961 knew about it: 1) it can mutate organisms and 2) it can blow shit up. The former notion interested the Marvel creators more than the latter, at least insofar as character creation.

Spider-Man is bitten by a normal household spider that’s been bathed in “radioactivity.”

The Fantastic Four take an illicit spaceflight and are buffeted by “cosmic rays.”

Costumes that shift with their shapechanging wearers (like the FF’s) are manufactured out of “unstable molecules.”

Bruce Banner saves hapless Rick Jones from a tactical nuke of his own devising and gets pelted by “gamma rays.”

Super-geniuses both mad and sane construct world-shaking arsenals of “electronic” devices.

At DC, the Silver Age Flash is born in 1956 (midwifed by Robert Kanigher, John Broome and Carmine Infantino) after a bolt of lightning douses Barry Allen in a batch of combusted “chemicals.”

Over at Ditko’s other employer, Charlton Comics, Ditko and Joe Gill’s Captain Atom is born in 1960 when he reconstitutes himself from an orbital A-bomb blast and gains “nuclear powers.”

(In early drafts of Watchmen, it goes without saying, Alan Moore planned to use Captain Atom in the role that ultimately went to the brand-new character Doctor Manhattan. Dave Gibbons’ art for that series contains a number of homages to these Captain Atom panels.)

In Jack Kirby’s case, visual representations of super-science appealed to more than a lay familiarity: He sometimes drew his mega-machinery to look like macro-scale versions of the real thing. The artist shared his name with one of the fathers of the integrated circuit, and when the New Gods (1971) call upon a Mother Box, the living computer resembles little so much as a microchip seen in magnification.

Yet that’s as specific as things got. All these notions are just thin stems of structure, juice that makes the story go while also nodding to the a presumed level of scientific literacy in the audience (then mostly boys in their teens and younger). The comics Silver Age came about eleven years after Hiroshima and three years after the discovery of DNA. It ran concurrently with the Space Race and the resulting explosion in science education, and it had all that weight of H.G. Wells’ and Jules Verne’s SF — nuclear rockets, super-submersibles, time travel, genetic modding — to support it.

But as ignorant as America may have become about science since the moon landing, new scientific terms keep crowding popular media: nanotech, gene therapy, string theory, railguns, bush robots. They’re unavoidable, and the audience for comics has also aged beyond accepting “unstable molecules” as a story driver on its own merit. Things need to be explained in more concrete terms, a panderfest for the new sophistication. This can go well or badly, depending on which writer is manning the Cosmic Nullifier at the time. It’s right about the time of Watchmen, the “comics story for grownups,” where we begin to move from super-science to hyperscience — comics’ exploitation of the real, fabric-of-reality research taking place in quantum mechanics, probability theory, neuroscience, genetics, and other fields.

Warren Ellis is particularly good at it. (Polite Dissent agrees.) As a writer who’s evinced a deep interest in bleeding edge medical and technological theory, he makes it look easy when he imports such concepts into his comics. Planetary (1999-2009) was a master class in how to craft contemporary hyperscience, employing just enough techno-theoretical verisimilitude to make its cape stories sing to the music of the spheres.

Geoff Johns, on the other hand, creating an energy spectrum for the Green Lantern power rings that happens to include “emotions” like courage … oy.

Stories are a form of incantation. Anytime you explain the plot of a comic book out loud, however excellent the comic, it sounds stupid. Yet between their own covers, good comics are like good super-science: They just work. Explanation is the death of story, and it can murder storytelling devices that once were powerful talismans.

I’m confused, actually, on reconsidering Manapul’s statement. He describes his concept of the Speed Force as being very specific, but then says he’s “able to describe it in one sentence.” That sounds less like a hyperscience explication than an elevator pitch — a Big Idea that leaves a lot of room for fleshing out in one’s own script, or by later storytellers.

In comics, if your book sells and sometimes even if it doesn’t, there will always be later storytellers to come after you. The strength of such a pitch is that it seems precise but can actually engender profitable creative spitballing. Whether Manapul knows it or not, of such things is an ongoing comics series — a collaboration across generations — made.

Hum — The Scientists

Fine blogs I consulted for this entry: The above-mentioned Polite Dissent, Atomic Surgery, World Of Awesome, Kelson Vibber’s Flash: Those Who Ride The Lightning, and especially this post tucked away in the deeply intriguing Enter The Story.

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3 Responses to Scientific Progress Goes KRA-KOOM!!

  1. jkeholland says:

    Yeah, I’m a little confused as to the whole specific-to-single-sentence ratio, but I’m curious what he can come up with that’s better than Waid’s “extradimensional energy force from which all speedsters draw their power” explanation.

  2. A very interesting post, Soul Smithy. Would be interested to hear your take on both Terry Moore’s Echo and Jeff Smith’s RASL, two recent books grounded in deep science geek. (RASL’s not out in omnibus form yet, but I’ve got the collected Echo if you’d like to borrow it.)

    More comics-related posts, my friend. Like, say, Less Than Mint 🙂

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