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Author Topic: New article: Science in Superman  (Read 1954 times)
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Supermanica Council
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« on: February 27, 2005, 03:44:32 AM »

From the Comics Scholars list:

A glance at the current issue of "Public Understanding of Science":
Science and superhero comics

 Social theory and superhero comics have something in common,
says Simon Locke, a senior lecturer in sociology at Kingston
University, in England. They both wrestle with ambivalence about
the meaning of science in society.

"Superhero comics incorporate the same tensions that inform
academic discussions, and as such they should be seen as just as
much a part of the collective working-out of the questions and
problems raised by modern science," he writes.

In comics, scientists may be heroes or villains, he says, "but
many of the more striking characters in superhero comics are
morally mixed and equivocal." And science is not always obedient
to a scientist's wishes -- it can be used for good or evil, but
may result in one when the other was intended, he says.
The mix of magic and science in comics is also revealing, he
says. "In superhero universes, beings transformed by science
stand alongside beings transformed by magic collectively
occupying a single, coherent 'reality.'" And often the attitudes
of characters toward science and magic are similar.

"Like traditional attitudes to magic, as both a potential source
of help, but because of its powerful and uncontrollable nature
also a source of trouble," he writes, "the attitudes toward
science and technology are ambivalent."

That superhero comics, which have a particularly low status,
deal with "similar ambivalences about science to those found in
academic discourse," he says, provides "strong support for the
claim that we all draw from the same rhetorical well."

The article, "Fantastically Reasonable: Ambivalence in the
Representation of Science and Technology in Superhero
Comics," is available free online for a limited time at

From the article:
The science-magic constellation
In his structuralist study of super-heroes, Reynolds (1992) highlights the centrality of the
conjunction of science and magic to their constitution. In the case of Superman, however, he
tends to emphasize the “magic” more than the “science” in his focus on mythological and
religious parallels with the character. Thus, Superman’s origin—sole survivor of a dying
planet, blasted off into space in a rocket by his father in a final desperate act—has parallels
with the Judaeo-Christian story of Moses as well as sun-god myths. The parallel with Moses
is bolstered by the Jewish backgrounds of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Reportedly, Siegel made explicit reference to mythological influences in describing Superman’s
creation, including Hercules and Samson (Catron, 1996). In early stories mostly
written by Siegel, Superman is frequently referred to as a very strong man, even taking on
the role of a circus strongman in one story, where he is advertised as “a modern Hercules”
(Siegel and Shuster, 1938b: 6). This stress on strength is important as it points to the
“scientific” aspect of the character. For all the mythological parallels, Superman can also be
seen as a hero of an industrial age. Siegel and Shuster are often described as working class
in their backgrounds, hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, in the industrial heartland of the United
States. In his early adventures, Superman shows some of the qualities of a working class
hero battling corrupt businessmen, industrialists, lawyers and politicians, as well as
organized crime and (occasionally) mad scientists. Viewed in this light, Superman’s strength
and “toughness” represent an idealized image of masculinity that might resonate with
manual workers (Willis, 1977) and his vigilante-style justice is in keeping with a tradition
stretching back to the American frontier (Inge, 1990).
Of greater interest is a second way in which science is incorporated into the character as
legitimizing his super-strength. Siegel and Shuster were fans of science fiction that began to
flourish in America in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, even starting their own fanzines. An
early editorial development of the pulps was a stress on scientific plausibility and Siegel and
Shuster show a similar concern in the presentation of their character. On the opening page of
Action Comics 1, two types of scientific reference appear. First, a highly compressed version
of Superman’s origin is recounted that describes him as coming from a planet with a human
race “millions of years advanced” (Siegel and Shuster, 1938a: 1) of Earth. Superman’s
powers are due to his advanced “physical structure” (p. 1). Second, under the heading “a
scientific explanation of Clark Kent’s strength” (p. 1), an analogy is made with insects—
grasshoppers and ants—that display apparent “super-strength” in being able to leap
relatively great distances and lift relatively huge weights—just as Superman leaps tall
buildings and out-powers locomotives. It is easy to dismiss all this, as does Reynolds (1992:
10), as “hokum,” but a more sympathetic view would see it as an example of the use of
popular science of the time, specifically eugenics (Nelkin and Lindee, 1995). An important
feature of this was the linking of theories of evolution with notions of progress and
advancement, for which there was much professional scientific support. Hence, the idea that
human beings would evolve into more perfect physical specimens was both common and
plausible. What Siegel and Shuster add to this is a translation of evolutionary time into
interplanetary space, postulating an alien world where anticipated human development is
further advanced. They give this a “working class masculinist” spin, highlighting physical
strength rather than, say, mental power. Finally, in striking an analogy with homegrown
insects, they bring the imputed evolutionary development back down to earth attempting to
invest it some believability.

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