Thursday, January 24, 2008

Flash Science

I'm sure I'm not the first to point this out, but the Silver-Age Flash had a peculiar rogue's gallery. With the exception of Gorilla Grodd, I think that every one of them was a genius inventor who had come up with a handheld device that defied the rules of physics. These ingenious weapons or other specimens of strange science (or possibly magic) were then used to rob banks. The Weather Wizard could control the weather with a little wand, but he couldn't come up with a better career idea than robbery (something that can be done with a pistol).

It's hard to believe, I know, but have a look at the cover of Flash #288, featuring Dr. Alchemy.

That's the Philosopher's Stone in Dr. Alchemy's right hand. It can transmute any element into any other. In his left hand, we see a briefcase full of money. Dr. Alchemy could change that stately tree into solid gold (or solid Californium), so I'm not sure why he bothers carrying that much cash. But I'm not Cary Bates, and it's not 1980, so I don't get to write this issue of Flash.

Despite the written emphasis on chemicals and elements, Dr. Alchemy is really a magical foe, not a scientific one. The Philosopher's Stone doesn't really transmute elements; it does whatever the comic's writer wants it to do. Here, for example, Dr. Alchemy invents a new element that makes people more susceptible to hypnosis.

I was eight years old when this comic was on the newsstand, and I think I could have told you that was ridiculous. I wouldn't have been able to say then that the problem has to do with the sorts of chemicals that usually are psychoactive, or the fact that a "new" element was almost certain to be radioactive... But I think I'd have known that we were looking at wishful writing and not real science or reasoning.

And this, in my opinion, is the real disappointment of Silver-Age Flash comics. Barry Allen was a scientist, and so were a lot of his supervillain foes. A writer with a decent sense of scientific reasoning and a decent knowledge of how physics and chemistry work would have been able to make the book genuinely educational for the kids who read it. I can imagine a comic that regularly featured ingenious high-speed solutions to intractable problems, based on real physical principles—or detective-work based on the scientific method. (The current All-New Atom written by Gail Simone gets pretty close to this sometimes, but of course that's a book for today's comic-reader, not for the eight-year-olds of 1980.) Anyway, I can pipe-dream about a scientist superhero who thinks like a real scientist, but Barry Allen is emphatically not that superhero.

Consider the sequence the front cover foreshadows: Dr. Alchemy catches Flash in the park and turns him into a human cloud:

I'm not sure, but it sounds like Dr. Alchemy has just used the Philosopher's Stone to turn water into water.

Or maybe he has changed all of the Flash's other component parts into water. How will our scientist resolve this dilemma? Well, fortunately, he still seems to be able to think, even though his brain is made of water vapor.

...And he seems to be able to control the movement or the agitation of his molecules. He can even create friction between individual water molecules. He heats part of his water vapor here, so that it's even warmer, then somehow propels his "warmer upper half" toward his "drifting, uncontrollable lower half"...

... and precipitates.

Since something about this strictly physical process returns Flash to his normal chemical makeup, he's free to run off and look for Dr. Alchemy.

Probably he isn't going to search all of the caves near Central City, because if you could use magic to alter and reconstitute matter, you would have your hideout in a penthouse or a lab or something, right? You probably wouldn't shackle your "astral twin" to a cave wall in front of a TV (plugged in to a magic outlet, probably) and a life-sized cardboard cutout of the Flash.

But let's not ask the comic to work logically now. And let's not bother to ask what an "astral twin" is. My head is already hurting.

The lesson learned from this comic: superhero comics about scientists are no place to look for scientific reasoning.


Mike said...

Good lord; that comic is what my brother-in-law would call ridonkulous.

At least it suggests its own spiffy soundtrack: "It's Raining Men" (written 1979, but first recorded after this issue debuted) and "Red Rain" (for the "crimson downpour" that is the Flash-rain ... precipitating a Flash-flood, perhaps? [sorry]).

With regard to the way science shades into magic, I recall (Arthur C.) Clarke's third law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Not that he means that science doesn't apply, of course--I'm not giving Cary Bates a free pass, here!

I'm also reminded of Stan Lee's Just Imagine series for DC, where he created alternate versions of DC's major heroes. What struck me about that project was how often he resorted to magic as the engine of superheroic transformation (at least, it seemed often in the issues I bothered to read--I didn't make it to the end). This was notably at odds with the tendency in Marvel's early '60s glory days, when so many characters were provided with scientific explanations, be they the result of accidents (the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk) or genetic mutations (the X-Men, Magneto). It has occasionally been claimed that Marvel's characters are more down-to-earth, DC's more mythic; part of that may be the difference between a scientific (or scientistic?) bias and a magical (or godlike?) bias in their respective "universes."

Incidentally, this mention of '60s Marvel vs. '00s DC by way of Stan Lee is in keeping with what is, for me, the most shocking thing about this Flash comic: its date. 1980?!? No wonder kids were making theirs Marvel!

Finally, I suppose it says something about this comic's hold on the reader's interest to note that my main impression from these panels was to think how nice the lettering looks. (That's no slight to letterers--my admiration was quite genuine--but it's really only the letterforms that are admirable, not the words the combine to spell!)

Isaac said...

The lettering is credited to John Costanza. For my money, it's a little overdramatic. I'm not sure whether the letterer or the writer got to decide what went into boldface, but I find some of the boldface a little smudgy, particularly in the (shaded) caption boxes. That's partly a problem of the printing technology and paper quality, but I'm sure by this point Costanza'd had years to adapt to the problem of ink on newsprint.

Mike said...

I thought it might have been Costanza. And I ought to be able to tell: I certainly read enough DC comics lettered by him back in the 80s. To this day his hand reads like classic, standard comic-book lettering to me, more so than the more technically perfect work of Tom Orzechowski (too mechanical for my tastes, like a human Leroy device) or the ubiquitous variety of Todd Klein (whose work I like, both hand-lettered and computer-assisted, but which doesn't fire the same neurons in my brain). I see something of Costanza's ideal alphabet in the standard lettering of both Dave Sim and Dan Clowes, oddly enough, though his line is more calligraphic (and I wouldn't argue for his direct influence on them, given their ages and what their likely influences were).

I'm reasonably certain that the writer is responsible for boldface decisions, then as now. That may not excuse Costanza from insufficiently compensating for newsprint blurring, but I can think of a couple of minicomics artists who have photocopied thousands of pages and still managed to sign off on blurry final copies of some of their (otherwise) best work. Sayin'?

You're right, though: it can be a real legibility problem, and Costanza (unlike those minicomics artists) was a paid professional. Some of the open spaces in letters like capital P fill up altogether; that's just the kind of lettering that "Clint Flicker" was created to exploit.