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Comic belief
August 15, 2010 - 9:18pm

I often have two or three books going simultaneously, one or two of them "serious" and one much less so.

The "less so" novel I just finished is "Soon I Will Be Invincible", by Austin Grossman. It's an original piece, but it draws heavily (and with obvious parodic intent) on material from Marvel and DC comic book universes. In fact, if you didn't grow up (and aren't growing up right now) with tales of Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Iron Man, and the X-Men, then reading the book would be a waste of your time. Grossman's considerable work and wit would be for naught.

One of the things that struck me as I finished the novel was that, while products of science (super soldiers, experimental outcomes gone wrong, etc.) appeared as both superheros and super-villains, all the actual scientists in Grossman's fantasy wore black hats. The major inventors and discoverers worked to further world domination and tyranny, whereas the forces for "truth, justice and the American way" came up with no more than the occasional clever tactic. Powers for good appeared entirely to be God-given (or the result of a fluke inter-dimensional vortex, which boils down to pretty much the same thing). Only powers for evil relied on science.

Now I realize that the Golden Age of superhero comics started as a result of World War II, and that the public reputation of science both grew and suffered as a result of the Manhattan Project. Still, it seemed odd to me that it might still be (at least comically) true that all scientists are mad scientists, or that all scientists work for evil. So, to see if I was on the right track, I asked someone younger and more into comics than I am. He confirmed that the preponderance of comic book scientists are super-villains, and offered up a likely explanation of why that was so.

First, he said, having a villain be a scientist makes a great deal of narrative sense. It allows the bad guy (or girl) to create a real threat, while still being mortal and thus ultimately overcomeable by the hero.

But second, he pointed out, having a hero be a scientist is problematic. Not that it can't happen, but . . . if a super-genius is working for the advancement of civilization, then the writers have to constantly progress the level of generally available technology to the point that the world being depicted becomes unrecognizable. There can be exceptions -- Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), whose great inventions always seem to be designed to thwart some impending doom (I mean, Doom), and Tony Stark (Iron Man), who's more an industrialist than an inventor, and most of whose products seem to go to US and allied militaries. But, as a rule, good guys are just inherently good (and inherently powerful); bad guys have to work to achieve their powers, and sometimes it's the attainment of those un-God-given powers which turns them bad.

I understand that these themes have been around for a long time, from Zarathustra and Aristotle to Augustine and Descartes. But it strikes me that the fact that they're widely accepted (albeit tacitly) is particularly problematic right now. If, for the last 50 or 60 years, even such a mundane form of media as comic books had been telling stories of scientists as heroes rather than villains, would the general public now be more prone to accepting the findings of climatologists? True, the national average level of scientific literacy might not be much affected, but might willingness to trust increase if we reflexively thought of scientists as wearing white hats rather than white lab coats?



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