Monday, September 21, 2009

Science and Superman

In the world of comic books, the greatest villain is Frederic Wertham. His 1953 book Seduction of the Innocent crystallized the public opinion against comics, giving a voice to the distaste that obtained in many minds throughout the United States. It led directly to the Comics Code Authority, a self-censorship board that comics publishers created in order to pre-empt governmental involvement. Wertham objected vehemently to Superman, whom Wertham labeled a fascist who encouraged children to distrust authority (especially their parents) and to engage in vigilante justice. Embedded among these critiques was a subtler one: that Superman taught children incorrect lessons about physics: “Superman not only defies the laws of gravity, which his great strength makes conceivable; in addition he gives children a completely wrong idea of other basic physical laws. Not even Superman, for example, should be able to lift up a building while not standing on the ground, or to stop an airplane in mid-air while flying himself” (34).

Well, this article, The Science of Superman, goes to some length to prove that the science of Superman simply doesn't make sense--which, I suppose, none of us needed evidence of in the first place. Still, it's an interesting thought exercise. It comes from a book called The Science of Superheroes, by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg. I wonder if they tackle the perennial question, Would Wonder Woman's lariat really make me tell the truth?

This sort of thing--wondering about the possibilities behind Superman and other science fiction stories--is, evidently, a popular pastime among writers. Maybe among readers, too. There was a National Geographic channel special on the subject, as well as a book called The Science of Superman by Mark Wolverton. Here's an article from the USA Today about it. Predictably, a lot of this stuff came out around the time of the last Superman film, in 2006. Brief comparison: Where Gresh and Weinberg try to point out why Superman's powers simply cannot work, Woverton tries to come up with ways in which they could.

I spent a bit of time studying film, and I wonder if any film scholars have looked at it from the angle of cultural/economic focus point. This is more than trendiness, I think, though there is a bit of that going on. When a film comes out, lots of other aspects of the culture industry get behind it. Books appear, news stories and magazine articles explore it. Its history is laid bare for us to follow. And with Superman, it seems that all of a sudden, the putative science behind it became important.

And then there's this:

The strip is called Bizarro. He does a lot of Superman humor.

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