Comic books form a staple part of the youth of millions of Americans. Who hasn’t scooped up a graphic novel to see how the hero overcomes the bad guy and saves the day once again? But the pages of the comic book are not subject to normal constraints; science need not be consulted when the scenes are drawn. It may therefore surprise no one that some of the greatest of our heroes are locked forever in the vaults of animation and art. But is it possible for some to step beyond the pages and into the real world?
In the first of this two-part series, we looked at the science behind some of our heroes. But in doing so, we ignore the reason the heroes are here: the supernaturally-empowered baddies that ordinary mortals are not equipped to handle. They seem to pop up every novel as freshly heinous and as criminally-minded as the one before, ready to take on the hero once more. That they eternally fail is not in doubt; the comic book is predicated on the hero winning. For a moment, however, the villains get the spotlight as we examine the science behind them and ask ourselves if they could ever haunt the streets of our cities.
Magneto: Arch-enemy of the X-Men, Magneto is the X-gene-carrying mutant with immense magnetic powers. Strong, smart and charismatic, this enemy just wants what he sees as the rights of mutants. After all, they are genetically predisposed to success; evolution’s next step beyond humans. Why should the mutants be in charge? Magneto just wants the rabble subjugated and mutants to take their rightful place as leaders, with himself in the top spot. Is that so wrong?
Possible? Perhaps with a lot of technology, but not likely to be built-in. Humans naturally exude a weak magnetic field as a result of the iron content in the blood, but a field on the level of Magneto would require an exponentially greater amount of the element. Additionally, the force of the field that Magneto generates would interfere with electrical impulses, which would instantly kill the affected human by shutting down the brain and nervous system and sending the heart into fibrillation. While it is cool to see the gates of Dachau buckling as the teenage Magneto tries to rescue his mother (see the movie X-Men for a more intense rendition of this scene), it is not a built-in power that humans could have and survive.
Technologically? Yes. Humans can, and in fact do, use magnetic fields much stronger than the one Magneto projects. Supermagnets permit the ultrafast bullet trains, and controlled magnetic fields are used to produce many of the gigawatts of electrical power consumed daily. Lesser fields can allow us to image the internal workings of a human, can protect our identities by rendering a computer drive inert and can even be used to render a room invulnerable to electronic snooping.
One final note about Magneto: his “magnetic” field appears to be a bit more than just magnetic. By definition, only iron and iron compounds are generally affected by magnets. The adamantium that laces Wolverine’s skeleton is not ferric; in the second edition of Wolverine, we learn that it is a blend of at least six elements, only five of which are found naturally on the planet Earth. None of the five listed includes iron, however Magneto manages, on at least two X-Men comic occasions, to lift the blade-clawed mutant by means of the metal that infuses Wolverine’s bodyÃ¢Â?Â¦
The Green Goblin: One of the original villains in the Spider-Man comics, the Green Goblin is the twisted alter ego of billionaire scientist Norman Osborne. Desperate to prove that human potential can be increased beyond human levels by chemical means, Osborne is affected by an experimental concoction that greatly increases his speed, reactions, strength and stamina (the exact method of how the chemical came into contact with Osborne varies based on which version of the story you consult). Unfortunately, the concoction also affects his brain, causing severe psychosis and eventually disassociation. When clad in the heavy body armor and riding the experimental glider (both of which were designed by Osborne during his more lucid phases), Osborne became the fearsome Green Goblin.
Possible? Technology hasn’t exactly caught up with this villain yet. The prototype armor is one thing; certain types of armor are in the early stages of development and testing which closely mimic the properties of the fictional suit. The wide assortment of armament carried by Gobby is also technologically forthcoming. However, the glider seems to violate two or three of the basic laws of physics, including the lack of a fuel ejectant. The rocketry drawn so nicely on the page is in reality probably far too lightweight to propel the heavily armored and weaponed glider, much less carry the bulky Goblin.
All right, having disposed of the tech toys that the Goblin uses, what about the chemical enhancement? The answer, as has made the news quite a lot in connection with major-league sports figures, is affirmative. Granted, the single dose that the Goblin is generally depicted as having taken is unlikely to be true, but artificial steroid enhancement can indeed bulk up the body and likewise destroy the mind (the “roid rage” of the popular media). While the total disassociation seen in Osborne’s case is extreme, one can argue that the enhancement is likewise extreme. Osborne could very well step out of the comic booksÃ¢Â?Â¦
Bullseye: Who? Sorry, Luthor fans, but Lex didn’t make the cut, largely because he has no superpowers, and thus is ineligible for this column. As it is, this sharpshooting villain of Daredevil fame barely makes the cut. Bullseye, like his devil-costumed nemesis, is self-trained and very much human; albeit his skills approach, and can be argued to surpass, the boundaries of humanity. He has incredible agility and eyesight, along with a level of targeting and ranging skill that underscores his boast that he never misses his target. In the hands of Bullseye, anything can be a lethal weapon.
Possible? Like Batman and Daredevil, the answer is yes. A committed training regime can accomplish what would otherwise be thought of as impossible. Roger Bannister accomplished the “impossible” four-minute mile, Jim Thorpe is the only person who has ever held the title “World’s Greatest Athlete” after winning both the decathlon and the pentathlon in the same Olympic Games. Bullseye’s uncanny marksmanship, balance, speed and dexterity are in fact explainable by such a committed training regime. Backed by the occasional technological marvel (his shuriken-dispensing belt buckle is probably the coolest-looking gadget in the entire Daredevil series), he is a very human, and very real villain.
The Joker: Batman’s arch-nemesis is among the most easily recognized villains in the DC Comics universe. The white skin, heavy makeup job and perpetual smile are trademarks of the Clown Prince of Crime. His twisted mind, incredible reflexes and unearthly stamina are explained as the result of a toxic chemical bath, after a fight with the fledgling Batman in a disused chemical factory. Backing his superhuman skills is a dab hand at makeup, an inventive mind for criminal technology, a penchant for large amounts of money, and a desire to squish the Bat. What more could you want in a villain?
Possible? As written, probably not. Any factory manufacturing the level of bio-chemo-toxin that it would take to do the damage to the Joker would probably be under about forty-six layer of scrutiny; decommissioning the plant would require destruction of the entire stock, not the warehousing of the sludge in open vats. Anything short of that level of chemical monstrosity would be most likely to just kill the poor Joker outright. A note on Smilex, the lethal laughing gas of the Joker’s invention: no such chemical nightmare has ever been identified as existing. I am sure I am not the only one who strongly hopes this idea remains comic-book-bound.
Dr. Doom: Among the greatest of the archetypal evildoers, Dr. Doom was originally the mastermind of evil that troubled the Fantastic Four (he later appeared as a baddie in the Avengers, the Punisher, the Silver Surfer, the Hulk, Captain America, the X-Men, Nick Fury, Daredevil, Wolverine, Iron Man, and Spider-Man). Once a contemporary of Reed Richards, Victor von Doom suffers a horrific accident during the testing of a transdimensional portal that blends science and magic in a way that is probably best never experimented with. Rejecting the idea that the accident was his fault, Doom manages to craft a magical set of armor (which is now fused to his skin), begins experimenting with the darkest magicks he can find, and generally is among the naughtiest of people in the Marvel Universe. Interestingly enough, he is also the ruler of the small island nation of Latveria, which grants him diplomatic immunity for most of his crimes (a plot twist that is truly novel).
Possible? Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, no. The powers that Doom evokes are magical, and Clarke’s Third Law aside, such magicks have not been recorded in the scientific arena. Moreover, although we can emulate many of Doom’s tricks, teleportation and time travel are still out of reach. Additionally, the machines he has built include ones which imbue others with superpowers, and ones with massive AI suites (far more advanced than even the greatest of computers of today). Force field projection, energy blasts and psionic transference are also among the innate abilities of von Doom.
There have been suggestions made that we look at the greatest of the heroes (and of the villains). With the incredible number of comic-book heroes, however, such a column might be difficult to say the least. Any feedback on who you think is the greatest superhero (DC or Marvel, doesn’t matter), drop me a line. I’ll do my best to write up the results within the next two weeks.