Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nuclear Culture 3: America's Radioactive Superheroes

In the list of superhuman qualities, perhaps the most enduring are those derived from radiation.  The incredible power from our Sun has long spawned divine myths around our star.  Twentieth century science contributed a number of themes to this ancient archetype: evolution, radiation's effect on DNA, splitting the atom, nuclear power.  This is explained in a piece on nuclear accidents and the rise of the modern superhero on Boing Boing:
In the first part of the 20th century, the evolutionary scientists were expressing the idea that maybe cosmic radiation, which we've lived with on earth for our whole history, might have caused some changes to our DNA. Radiation can do that. At the same time, people were learning about evolution, which depends on random changes. I think that caught their imagination. That connection between radiation and evolution. I remember one of the earliest stories I read where they put this guy into a chamber and irradiated him, and he evolved before their eyes. Really he would have just died, but the idea remains.
Superman, Spider-Man, Captain Atom and Doctor Manhattan are all examples of Nietzsche's Übermensch; sometimes they have Messianic qualities; or they are scientists, caught in a nuclear accident; and sometimes they are Everyman figures who are suddenly raised above all others. Characters with similar origins include The Ray, Captain America, The Atom, X-Ray, the Nexus Fusionkasters and Apollo. All of them are anthropomorphized versions of qualities we attribute to the power of radiation, whether cosmic, solar, elemental or nuclear. Most of pulp fiction's characters respond to radiation by acquiring superpowers such as strength, energy manipulation and flight; but some endure a separation of body and soul by nuclear means. Some gain the ability to travel through time; and some achieve immortality. Below the jump are the most popular radiation-powered heroes in the order in which they historically appeared. In some cases, there are later versions of the same character.

Superman (Detective Comics/DC 1938; Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)

Origin of Superman. Superman (1978) © DC/Warner. Video Source: Youtube.

Kal-El lands on Earth. Superman (1978) © DC/Warner. Video Source: Youtube.

The Man of Steel. The Man of Tomorrow. The Last Son of Krypton. Superman is arguably the original modern superhero. This messianic god figure is empowered by radiation, yet it is also his sole weakness. Superman is a foundling alien infant, who crash lands on our planet in a lifeboat spaceship. His parents have sent him from their red-sunned system. Our yellow Sun grants him incredible powers, making him the most powerful creature on Earth. In a sense, Kal-El is the humanoid manifestation of what people thought radioactive elements could do when they were first discovered, and when researchers began working with them with atomic theory in mind.  Here was the possibility not merely of harnessing the power of the Sun itself, but of creating a little Sun that would do our bidding in a wholly benevolent fashion.

Superman suffering from Kryptonite radiation poisoning. Action Comics Annual #10 (Mar. 2007)

Superman is vulnerable to magic, and, ironically to radiation from Kryptonite, which are meteorite fragments from his own planet.  The story draws from a lot of atomic themes: the planet Krypton exploded in a nuclear chain reaction at its unstable core (for connections drawn between the fictional Kryptonite and the real element Krypton as well as the hypothetical element Eka-Plutonium, go here and here).  As a radiation-powered character, Superman is able to see through everything, except lead.  His mythos was later expanded to include Superboy, Supergirl, Krypto and Power Girl, among other characters.

Captain Atom (Charlton/DC, 1960; Created by Joe Gill and Steve Ditko)

The origin of Captain Atom. Justice League: Generation Lost #6 (Sept. 2010)

There are two different origins for Captain Atom, but in both versions, he was a man trapped in a rocket, and atomized in a nuclear explosion.  The origin depicted above is for the current Captain Atom, Nathaniel Adam (created in 1987 by Cary Bates and Pat Broderick).  The original Captain Atom looked a bit like Firestorm (see below).  This hero's metallic skin is tied to the 'quantum field,' which allows him to absorb, project and manipulate near-infinite amounts of energy.  This power also grants him flight and super-strength second only to Superman's.

An eerie example of Captain Atom's time travel abilities, where he is propelled forward into a post-apocalyptic future in which all the heroes (except one) have died. Justice League: Generation Lost #6 (Sept. 2010)

One of Captain Atom's more interesting nuclear-derived powers is time travel. If he absorbs too much energy, he is propelled uncontrollably through time. Wiki: "Depending on the type of energy absorbed, he either goes forward or backward in time, though he also possesses the ability to voluntarily move forward in the time-stream. Captain Atom states that through concentration, he can briefly travel ahead in time ('about a week or so'). The process is exhausting and the period he can interact in the future appears to be limited to a few minutes before he returns to the present. In the case of involuntary quantum jumping, he is typically shown as being stuck in the time-stream for as long as it takes his body to process any absorbed energy."

The Fantastic Four (Marvel, 1961; Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961; reprint)

The Fantastic Four are a nuclear family - with a twist. They are: "Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards), a scientific genius and the leader of the group, who can stretch his body into incredible lengths and shapes; the Invisible Woman (Susan "Sue" Storm), who became Reed's wife, who can render herself invisible and later project powerful force fields; the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), Sue's younger brother, who can generate flames, surround himself with them and fly; and the monstrous Thing (Ben Grimm), their grumpy but benevolent friend, a former college football star and Reed's college roommate as well as a good pilot, who possesses superhuman strength and endurance due to the nature of his stone-like flesh."

Working as astronauts on a scientific mission, the characters are bathed with cosmic rays which transforms them into superhumans. It is typical of a Marvel title that this pseudo-science is merely a catalyst and starting point for social commentary.  Superheroism becomes a platform for human realism and the focus is on the relationships between the characters; it is less an exploration of the archetypal meaning of the radioactive force that granted them their powers.  Their co-creator, Stan Lee, stated that this was indeed his motive: "For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading.... And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay." Unlike most Marvel and DC characters, they also avoided secret identities; their celebrity status made Lee's prescribed role for them as "heroes with hangups" all the more difficult.  
Fantastic Four #60/489 (Oct. 2002) 
As a result, there is an observable distinction between Marvel's and DC's radioactive heroes.  The latter tend to remain entangled in the scientific process that created them, thereby continually reflecting how we see radiation or nuclear power over several decades; and many of their heroic quandaries and qualities stem from that ongoing popular engagement with the huge scientific discoveries and changes of our time.  That engagement also shows how science has transformed our society. DC's characters become 'something more than human' in a way that is inescapable. In the Marvel Universe, the characters are not first and foremost human embodiments of scientifically-defined forces - it is their remaining, fallible humanity that defines their outlook. 

This is the (often debated) traditional contrast made between the two companies.  Marvel (the younger company) debates the principles around superhumans' inclusion. This is a gritty Everyman's accessible heroism that sees itself as down-to-earth and progressive. Marvel's rival company has lately played this down, but DC's classic characters are often derived from the élites, whether they are royal, wealthy, self-made, or have risen through their own ingenuity. Even when they are elemental, divine or magical, they are usually situated at the top of those orders. DC struggles with superhumans' exclusion as their heroes try to personify the archetypes, ideals - and technological leaps - that drive our society. Unlike Marvel's mythos, ascending a hierarchy (rather than rejecting one) in the DCU is often implied as being part of that journey.  This is why Reed Richards - a Marvel character - goes to such pains to explain the celebrity status he sought for himself and his friends.  He does it because he is still a flawed human, riddled with guilt over his original arrogance.

Fantastic Four trailer (2005) © Marvel/20th Century Fox. Video Source: Youtube.

See my earlier post on the Human Torch's recent comic book death, here.

Spider-Man (Marvel, 1962; Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko)

Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962)

A down-on-his-luck high school (later college) student with a scientific talent gets bitten by a radioactive spider while visiting an science fair, granting him spider powers.  Many of Peter Parker's trials come from the crunch between his humble and very human circumstances on the one hand and the science- and money-driven world he catapults through as a superhuman on the other. In the film version of the character's story, Peter is morally challenged, like Mr. Fantastic, by his celebrity as a superhero.

Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider. Spider-Man (2002) © Marvel/Columbia. Video Source: Youtube.

And manifests spider powers. Spider-Man (2002) © Marvel/Columbia. Video Source: Youtube.

In 1977, Marvel developed a Spider-Woman to match Parker's Spider-Man. A recent incarnation is below:

Spider-Man and Spider-Woman arguing about her nature as his female clone. Ultimate Comics Mystery #1 (Jul. 2010)

The Hulk (Marvel, 1962; Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)

The Incredible Hulk is a nuclear take-off on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Hulk is the wild alter ego of the withdrawn and reserved physicist Dr. Bruce Banner.  A perfect example of the subconscious rendered corporeal by a nuclear detonation, the Hulk appears as a result of Banner being exposed to the radiation of an exploding gamma bomb he designed.

The Incredible Hulk trailer (2008) © Marvel/Universal. Video Source: Youtube.

Banner's transformation is triggered by anger, and the more intense his rage, the further he retreats from his human rationality and the greater his power as a rampaging monstrosity.

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962; reprint)

The Incredible Hulk vol. 3 #92 (Apr. 2006)

Negative Man (DC, 1963; Created by Bob Haney, Arnold Drake, Bruno Premiani)

Doom Patrol vol. 1 #106 (Sept. 1966)

Larry Trainor, an experimental test pilot, flies a rocket into a cloud of radioactive space rays, where he remains suspended for several hours.  When his rocket crash lands on Earth, he discovers that his body is hopelessly radioactive, and his bones glow through his skin.  A negative entity can now fly out of his body for periods up to one minute (later longer) and perform incredible feats.  Only after he is visited by Dr. Niles Caulder, founder of the outcast superteam known as the Doom Patrol, is he able to regain some humanity by being swathed in protective bandages.  This radiation shield allows him to interact with others again, after a fashion.  After the death of the Patrol in a nuclear explosion, the negative being migrates to other bodies (hence taking on other personalities), then finally returns to a cloned, yet still damaged, version of Trainor's body. In 2010, Keith Giffen clarified this mess in Negative Man's continuity in one stream-of-consciousness issue: "All the previous incarnations are later revealed as Niles' attempt to keep control over the Negative Man entity, replacing the original Larry Trainor host with several doctored bodies, each brain-dead and infused with some of the original Larry's DNA to lure the Negative Man into. The current Larry Trainor, last in a long line of brain-dead hosts, has the memories and experiences of every former Negative Man, including the original Larry Trainor, Valentina Vostok and Rebis, but clings to Larry's personality ... [in order to keep] himself sane."

Larry reflects on his fractured, post-death, quasi-immortal reality. Doom Patrol vol. 5 #6 (Mar. 2010)

Firestorm, the Nuclear Man (DC, 1978; Created by Gerry Conway and Al Milgrom)

This is a hybrid character, embodying the essences of Ronnie Raymond, a high school (later college) student, and Nobel prize-winning physicist Dr. Martin Stein. Stein designed a nuclear plant and Raymond attended its opening as an anti-nuclear protester (see the origin outlined here).  The two characters were caught in a nuclear accident that allowed them to fuse into a living matrix known as Firestorm, the Nuclear Man.  They are able to separate and regenerate as the hero by the will of either man. As a result, Firestorm is a superhero noted for constantly talking to (or arguing with) himself as the two consciousnesses in him decide on the best course of action.  The younger character was later replaced by another, Jason Rusch, while maintaining the hero's basic concept.

Firestorm (art (2008) © Ed Hernandez)

Firestorm eventually became a fire elemental, but his main nuclear-derived powers enable him to transmute matter into other kinds of matter.  He is able to perceive the atomic structure of matter and rearrange that structure.  He can fly, absorb energy blasts harmlessly, alter the density of matter (including himself) and project bolts of nuclear energy.

Starfire (DC, 1980; Created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez)

The Tamaranean space princess, Koriand'r, had a natural ability to convert solar energy into flight.  She was experimented upon by an evil scientific alien race to assess her full capacity for solar energy absorption.  As a result, she and her sister - who was similarly tortured - became living solar batteries.

Tales of the New Teen Titans #4 (Sept. 1982) 

As Starfire matures, she is coming closer to becoming a living star.  This was hinted at in a desperate fight where the team leader, her one true love, Dick Grayson, ordered her to cut loose with all her power.

Outsiders vol. 3 #25 (Aug. 2005)

Doctor Manhattan (DC, 1986; Created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins) 

Origin of Doctor Manhattan. The Watchmen (2009) © DC/Warner. Video Source: Youtube.

If there's any character that embodies our consciousness of the 'before' and the incontrovertible 'after' of a nuclear disaster, it's Doctor Manhattan.  Conceived as a more dystopian version of an already dystopian character, Captain Atom (see above), he is the only superpowered figure in Moore's highly-regarded Watchmen comics series. As such, he lives beyond the realm of human understanding, but argues he is not omnipotent or omniscient.  He does not claim godhood, though some ascribe it to him.  Yet he develops a distant and detached trans-human intelligence. A section of the Watchmen film shows Doctor Manhattan explaining the relationship between time and radiation (here). 

Doctor Manhattan is created after scientist Jon Osterman is trapped in an 'intrinsic field subtractor' when he returns to an experimental chamber to collect a forgotten watch made by his father.  The watch is symbolic: Osterman becomes a totally atomic, semi-devine superhuman who can see all of time simultaneously and can time travel along with all his other frightening nuclear powers.

Doctor Manhattan's unsettling 'big picture' view.

Tickling the Dragon's Tail

Tickling the Dragon's Tail. Image Source: Wiki.

Caption for the above photograph: A re-creation of the 1946 incident. The half-sphere is seen but [the] core inside is not. Note the beryllium hemisphere held up with a screwdriver.

There is an account of the type of nuclear accident that inspired the creation of characters like Doctor Manhattan here.  It includes the blue glow that is associated with Doctor Manhattan. This incident involving the death of physicist and chemist Louis Alexander Slotin (1910-1946) at the Manhattan Project, is recounted as follows:
On May 21, 1946 physicist Louis Slotin and seven other scientists were in a Los Alamos laboratory conducting an experiment to verify the exact point at which a subcritical mass (core) of fissile material could be made critical by the positioning of neutron reflectors. It required the operator to place two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around the core to be tested and manually lower the top reflector over the core via a thumb hole on the top. As the reflectors were manually moved closer and further away from each other, scintillation counters measured the relative activity from the core. Allowing them to close completely would result in the instantaneous formation of a critical mass and a lethal power excursion, and the only thing preventing this was the blade of a standard flathead screwdriver manipulated by the scientist's other hand. The test was known as "tickling the dragon's tail" for its extreme risk, and was notoriously unforgiving of even the smallest mistake; many scientists refused to perform the test, but Slotin (who was given to bravado) became the local expert, performing the test almost a dozen separate times, often in his trademark bluejeans and cowboy boots in front of a roomful of observers. Enrico Fermi reportedly told Slotin and others they would be "dead within a year" if they continued performing it.

While lowering the top reflector, Slotin's screwdriver slipped a fraction of an inch, allowing the top reflector to fall into place around the core. Instantly there was a flash of blue light and a wave of heat across Slotin's skin; the core had become supercritical, releasing a massive burst of neutron radiation. He quickly knocked the two halves apart, stopping the chain reaction and likely saving the lives of the other men in the laboratory. Slotin's body positioning over the apparatus also shielded the others from much of the neutron radiation. He received a massively lethal dose in under a second and died 9 days later from acute radiation poisoning. The nearest physicist to Slotin, Alvin C. Graves, was watching over Slotin's shoulder and was thus partially shielded by him, receiving a high but non-lethal radiation dose. He was hospitalized for several weeks with severe radiation poisoning, developed chronic neurological and vision problems as a result of the exposure, and suffered a significant shortening of his lifespan, dying of a radiation-induced heart attack twenty years later. The others in the room were far enough away from the assembly to suffer no permanent injuries from the accident.
This so-called 'Demon Core' of plutonium had already previously killed another physicist, Harry Daghlian Jr (1921-1945).  Part of the radiation burn that Daghlian Jr. suffered in that earlier accident is shown below.  This photo was taken nine days after he was forced to handle material around the core to stop a chain reaction he had accidentally caused.

The reality beyond the fantasy: Manhattan Project plutonium radiation burn photo (29 August 1945). Daghlian Jr. died sixteen days after this photo was taken. Image Souce: Wiki.

All Marvel and DC Comics stories, characters and the distinctive likenesses thereof are respectively Trademarks & Copyright © Marvel and DC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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  1. Before I learned that "Watchmen" was originally a story using the Charlton characters (rewritten so that DC could both publish the story and continue using the original Charlton characters they had recently acquired), I had assumed that Dr. Manhattan, Owl Man, et al, were archetypes of the 1960's comic book characters. I read the story while it was being published right after DC's Crisis On Infinite Earths when there was a great deal of grousing from the old fart faction within fandom who were upset that characters were being altered or changed in a bid to weave a single coherent history any new reader could follow. I assumed that the central cast of "Watchmen" were crafted to contrast the parallel cast of 1940's characters seen in flashbacks ad the text supplements.
    What I'm getting at is that I thought Dr. Manhattan was based on Gold Key's Solar, Man Of The Atom. Although not as prolific as Captain Atom (Manhattan's true inspiration), those painted covers burned the character in my memory even though I rarely read the book. Aside from the Hulk, Solar would be the character most defined by radioactivity beyond their origin; Superman and Starfire I think of more specifically with radiation, if I wanted to make a semantic issue of it.
    Ideal captures, especially for Mr. Fantastic.

  2. Thanks very much for your comment pblfsda - by chance I just ran across this comic a day or so ago

    At one time I had a lot of Gold Key comics, then sadly traded them in for hot titles in the 80s. Now I regret doing that.

    I'm sorry I missed Solar in this lineup. For those who are interested, this is the Wiki entry on him:
    He definitely belongs on this list.

    I thought the line "You're hot!" was a nice tongue in cheek pun in the FF trailer. Strangely, I don't think many people realize that in Johnny Storm's case, he's radioactive on top of everything else.