Big Powers, Small Source – Comic Book Heroes

Part 1: ‘Atomic’ Heroes

While I don’t enjoy reading comics, I have a (very big) soft spot for how interactions with matter are imagined in comic book worlds – both story-wise and visually. Of course, there are a great number of other ‘super-powers’ such as omni-linguism, empathy or superhuman strength, but the manipulation of matter takes up the greatest part of superhero abilities – or matter giving the superhero his or her powers. The mutant Mr M, for instance, has ‘complete control over the form and structure of matter’. However, matter is not solely imagined as a substance to be manipulated. It affects the heroes in many different ways. First of all, the weird ways of radiation, subatomic particles, alien elements, non-linearity etc create the superhero. When it comes to superpower origin stories, it is quite amusing to read how many physicists or army people get blown to pieces during ‘nuclear accidents’ of some sort (e.g. Captain Atom, Firestorm, Solar). Is that how the authors imagine the safety standards in power stations, laboratories or the military? I hope they are not talking from personal experience… ;)

Secondly, a lot of heroes, like Mister M, while being potentially able to have ‘total control’ over matter, also let themselves be controlled by it, for instance, by succumbing to alcoholism or needing a substance that maintains their supernatural abilities. Other characters, like ‘toad boy’ are involuntary producers of a harmful or intoxicating substance and are not in control at all over what their bodies and/or their environment make them do.

Even more bizarre than an imagined population of matter-manipulating (and – manipulated) superheroes is the imagined depopulation of said superheroes in an event called ‘M-Day’, which eliminated millions of ‘mutants’. According to Marvel Comics, the move was necessary, because too many superheroes had ‘accumulated’ after more than 40 years of publishing. This has resulted in an argument over who is going to stay or go – or who gets ‘remutated’…

A more charming tendency of comic book imagination is the theme that things do not always work how the god-like heroes intend them to work: one hero (Solar) tries to create or re-create the universe after his liking, but the universe has seems to have its own ideas and Solar finds that not only is Earth now populated with a large number of superheroes, but is also threatened by super-powered ‘Spider Aliens’. So, you can’t have your cake and eat it even in a comic universe, but at least one comforting (?) morale remains: Murphy’s Law is valid for all beings.


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