The Design and Engineering of Superheroes

Behind every man in tights stands an engineer

3 min read

Superheroes and scientists go way back in the comic-book business. Surely that tech association has helped the medium spread so far beyond the printed page. Today comics are a billion-dollar business encompassing movie blockbusters like Watchmen and The Dark Knight and TV’s Heroes, complete with merchandising, publishing, and conventions like the one next month in San Diego presented by Comic-Con International, which boasts an engineer on its board of directors.

”There’s been a long history of engineers and scientists creating all those gadgets that superheroes use, or use to become superheroes themselves or high-tech villains,” notes famed comic illustrator Bill Sienkiewicz. ”And by the mid-1970s you started seeing descriptions of how the gadgets worked and their viability in real life.”

Consider Eliot Brown, an artist who has made use of IEEE Spectrum to research his renderings of superwidgets in two books from Marvel Comics, the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (1982) and The Iron Manual (1993). The manual gives detailed schematics of the workbench and wardrobe of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man.

Brown, who now runs the Kingston Vacuum Works, a model-making studio in Kingston, N.Y., says that the preeminent technological archetype was Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, a rebel scientist who mutated into a rubbery body after cosmic rays blasted him in spaceflight. But he credits Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, for starting the tech-focused trend in comics in the early 1960s.

”In the Spider-Man comic—not the movies—Peter Parker was an honor science student who, after a radioactive spider bite, designed the web shooter that he wore on his wrists. Steve Ditko drew what it looked like; that was huge,” Brown says. ”Comics always lived in the future. But before, if you needed a widget, you’d have superheroes hold up a shape that did the job. It was that image of Peter Parker actually making web fluid in his bedroom that really stuck to me as a kid.”

Iron Man’s Tony Stark was an MIT electrical engineer who created a superhero power suit to compensate for a damaged heart. Bruce Banner was a meek physicist whose exposure to a gamma bomb detonation turned him into the raging Hulk. The Punisher’s Frank Castle was a cutting-edge weaponry expert turned high-tech vigilante.

James Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physics professor, saw all this as a teaching opportunity, which he exploited in a 2005 book, The Physics of Superheroes. ”Reading comic books is perfect training for how to be a scientist or engineer,” he says. ”In comics, you have to learn the rules of the game—what the superhero’s powers are and how he can use them. Science has rules in the form of physics and chemistry. Not to mention that superheroes and scientists both have a dashing sense of fashion.”

As kids become more tech savvy, comic books and comic-driven movies portray more-believable futuristic technology. They do it by tapping scientists like Kakalios, who served as a science consultant for Watchmen. But the trend is coming full circle, as comics induce adolescent fans to establish themselves as engineers and scientists.

Last year, a young engineer e-mailed Brown to tell him that reading The Iron Manual at age 9 not only prompted him to pursue engineering but later sparked ideas for two graduate research projects involving remote-controlled robotics. ”I never got any messages like that!” says Brown. ”I sent him a background drawing I did for an Iron Man poster as thanks.”

So what comic strips are today's tech-savvy adolescents (and
adults) reading? For a sampling, go to "The Funnies, Geek Style."

About the Author

Susan Karlin, based in Los Angeles, writes frequently for Spectrum.  She also contributes to The New York Times, Forbes, and Discover.

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