Sunday, 10 November 2019

How Frank Miller Ruined The Dark Knight Returns

Art from The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley is the story of Batman coming out of retirement at the age of 55 to find a more violent world that is less tolerant of his obsessive crime-fighting mission. It is one of the most influential superhero comics ever written. Since its publication it has shaped the way the character of Batman has been depicted in print and on film. It has also contributed to a change in how the medium of comics and the genre of superheroes are generally percieved. Ask a comics fan where to start when getting into comics and there's a good chance that The Dark Knight Returns will be one of the recommendations you recieve.

Unfortunately DC Comics and Frank Miller have spent the decades since the publication of The Dark Knight Returns doing their very best to lessen the impact of this seminal and unique comic.

Art from Spawn/Batman by Todd Mcfarlane

Since 1986 Frank Miller has written two sequels to The Dark Knight Returns - The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2002) & The Dark Knight III: The Master Race (2015). Miller has also proclaimed that all of his DC Comics stories featuring Batman are set in the same fictional universe. This means that Batman: Year One (1987), Spawn/Batman (1994), All Star Batman and Robin (2005), The Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade (2015), and Superman: Year One (2019) all feature the same man we see coming out of retirement in The Dark Knight Returns.

In my opinion this robs The Dark Knight Returns of much of its power, and much of what I found compelling about it as a story.

In his introduction to the softcover collection of The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore wrote:

"Beyond the imagery, themes, and essential romance of Dark Knight, Miller has also managed to shape The Batman into a true legend by introducing that element without which all true legends are incomplete and yet which for some reason hardly seems to exist in the world depicted in the average comic book, and that element is time.

All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarek, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo. In comic books, however, given the commercial fact that a given character will still have to sell to a given audience in ten years' time, these elements are missing. The characters remain in the perpetual limbo of their mid-to-late twenties, and the presence of death in their world is at best a temporary and reversible phenomenon.

With Dark Knight, time has come to the Batman and the capstone that makes legends what they are has finally been fitted."

Regardless of the content or quality of the sequels, their very existence robs The Dark Knight Returns of its status as capstone to a legend. It becomes just another Batman story where, like his mainstream depiction, the character is immune to the passing of time and all the pathos that entails.

The death of Robin Hood, as played by Sean Connery in Robin and Marian (1976)

The prequels are just as damaging to the power of The Dark Knight Returns as the sequels. In my view The Dark Knight Returns works best as an ending for the same Batman we see in mainstream, ongoing DC comics. There's a poignancy to the idea that the ever-young Batman we see triumphing heroically every month ages & becomes an obsessive brute. Likewise there's a poignancy to the idea that Superman - the god who chose to live as a man so that he might be a hero for everybody - eventually becomes a secret weapon of the US government who has distanced himself from humanity.

Art from the Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knight Returns forces the reader to consider that maybe Batman & Superman have always been these things and that in a world like ours there is no way they could ever have been anything else. Maybe it's only nostalgia and naivety that made us, and the characters themselves ever believe otherwise. However, in his prequels and sequels Miller explicitly demonstrates that yes, his version of Batman has always been an obsessive brute, and yes, Superman has always been removed from humanity. If The Dark Knight Returns is set in the same universe as all of Miller's other stories then it just becomes another story in the saga of this particularly violent version of Batman. There is now only one way of reading this story and it's impact is diminished.

Art from Superman Year One by John Romita Jr

A particularly striking example of how the prequels and sequels have undermined the original story can be seen in Miller's depiction of Dick Grayson and his relationship with Batman. In The Dark Knight Returns, during his first battle with the Mutant Leader, Batman reminisces fondly about going into battle with Dick Grayson as Robin by his side. He remembers how Dick had named their car the Batmobile - a "kind of name a kid would come up with" and how Dick was always "his little monkey wrench." Upon seeing the Mutant Leader Batman reflects that he and Dick "never faced anything like this". We, the reader are compelled to join in with Batman's reminiscence of a simpler time as we recall the more straightforward, less violent adventures of Batman and Robin that were still being published in the regular Batman titles during the mid-80s.

Art from The Dark Knight Returns

Yet we (and Batman) are simultaneously confronted with the reality of bringing a child into combat as we see Carrie Kelley, the latest Robin, desperately risk her life in a literal war zone to drag a horribly wounded Batman out of the muck and away from the Mutant Leader. Awaiting us back in the Batcave is the late Jason Todd's memorial display - "a good soldier". A hint that previous Robins were perhaps far more than "monkey wrenches" and that the villains Batman faced in his youth may have been just as deadly as the Mutant Leader.

Art from All Star Batman and Robin by Jim Lee

However, in the prequel series All Star Batman and Robin we see that rather than being the laughing daredevil of our (and Batman's) memories, Robin was definitely and unambiguously an abused child drafted into a war. The Nazi dominatrix/henchperson Bruno from The Dark Knight Returns makes an appearance, confirming that Batman did indeed face the same kind of menace in his youth as he will do after his "return".

Art from All Star Batman and Robin by Jim Lee

In The Dark Knight Strikes Again we see the consequences of the abuse Dick suffered. We discover that Dick was fired for "cowardice" and has become a sadistic, shape changing murderer. Any subtlety, ambiguity and poignancy that the aforementioned Dark Knight Returns scenes may have had is removed.

Art from The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller

One might argue that the prequels and sequels can be easily ignored, and this is true. However I can't help but feel that people experiencing The Dark Knight Returns today, in the context of its many spin offs and expanded universe, aren't experiencing its full impact. When I first read the story in the early 90s it wasn't one of many alternate "Elseworld" depictions of the Dark Knight. It was the final exclamation point to a legend that made me look at the ongoing adventures of Batman with new eyes. That is still how I choose to experience it today.

Art from The Dark Knight Returns

Friday, 19 July 2019

I failed to win a competition but look at my Doctor Who art anyway!

I recently entered a BBC Doctor Who Fan Art competition. The winner and runners-up get their art sold on t-shirts at this year's San Diego Comic Con.

Well, San Diego Comic Con is happening right now and needless to say I haven't heard anything, so I thought I'd share my designs here. Feel free to lavish me with praise in the comments and on social media to soothe my wounded ego.

I was going for a Patrick Nagel, 1980s vibe with this one.

And with this one I wanted to show the softer side of the Sixth Doctor.

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to show the second picture to the Sixth Doctor himself, Colin Baker, last month at a convention in Birmingham. He was very kind and assured me that it "wasn't shite". He also signed it for me and it now has pride of place on my wall.

So I may not have won the competition but I did get a nice memento from a personal hero of mine, so I can't complain.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Was the Moon Landing Faked? (Spoiler: No)

The Apollo programme was developed with the objective of landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth. Apollo 11 was the first mission to achieve this on the 20th July 1969. In total 12 people have walked on the Moon, the last being the Apollo 17 astronauts on the 14th December 1972. Thanks to the Apollo missions we have a wealth of information from the Moon, including photos, video footage, and rock samples.

But what if it was all a load of rubbish?

Fifty years after the Apollo 11 mission, some people are still arguing that NASA’s Apollo programme was an elaborate façade and that the Moon Landings were fake. What follows is some of the more common arguments made by conspiracy theorists and some of the reasons why I think their arguments just don’t hold water.

One Giant Vegas Party for Mankind

One of the earliest Moon landing conspiracy theorists was Bill Kaysing, author of We Never Went to the Moon: America's Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle (1976). According to Kaysing, the engines of Saturn V (the rocket that got the Apollo missions to the Moon) were “totally unreliable” so smaller, weaker but more reliable rocket engines were stashed inside Saturn V’s engines. In 1969 the public were shown the astronauts entering the Apollo spacecraft but they actually snuck out with a high speed elevator. The rocket blasted off and Apollo was placed in a parking orbit. Meanwhile the astronauts were living it up in Las Vegas with a bunch of showgirls, pausing their debauchery only briefly so they could fake the moonwalk on a film set. They were then flown to Hawaii where they were dropped off in the Apollo Command Module in order to get picked up again for their heroic return.

On what authority does Kaysing make these claims? Well, from 1956-1963 he was a senior technical writer, a service analyst, a service engineer, and a publications analyst for Rocketdyne, the company that built the F-1 engines used on the Saturn V rocket. Sounds quite impressive. But bear in mind that he had no knowledge of rockets or technical writing when he got the job, only a BA in English. Still, he did say that even before 1969 he had, in his words "a hunch, an intuition, ... a true conviction" that no one was going to the Moon.

Kaysing’s hunch was enough to inspire a long line of moon landing conspiracy theorists.

For the love of God why?

Why would NASA want to fake the moon landings?  There are three main reasons generally provided by conspiracy theorists.

i)                    The Space Race –  The USA wanted to beat their Cold War Rivals, the Soviet Union to the Moon to prove their superiority.
ii)                   NASA funding – NASA wanted to avoid humiliation and justify the money they’d been given and not be known as the stupid gits that failed to deliver on JFK’s promise to put a man on the Moon before the end of the ‘60s.
iii)                 The Vietnam War – The USA wanted to distract America and the world from its involvement in the Vietnam War.

Let’s examine these motives one by one.

i)                    If it was a hoax Russia would have noticed and frankly wouldn’t have been able to shut up about it. Bart Sibrel has argued "the Soviets did not have the capability to track deep space craft until late in 1972, immediately after which, the last three Apollo missions were abruptly cancelled." Nothing about this statement is true. The Soviet Union had been sending unmanned spacecraft to the Moon since 1959 and had deep space tracking facilities since 1962. Also, the cancellation of the Apollo missions wasn’t abrupt. It had been announced in 1970, two years before the last mission. Bart Sibrel by the way, is the man who got punched by Buzz Aldrin while trying to get him to swear on the Bible that the Moon landings were real.
ii)                   If NASA had indeed wanted to avoid humiliation and scrutiny they did a pretty crappy job of it in 1967, when the crew of Apollo 1 were tragically killed in a flash fire on the command module launch pad, leading to NASA’s upper management team being questioned by the Senate and House of Representatives space oversight committees.
iii)                 As mentioned earlier, the Apollo missions didn’t suddenly end as soon as the Vietnam War ended. The cancellation of the missions was announced in 1970, and one of the main reasons for this was because NASA’s budget had been cut to pay for the Vietnam War!

Bloody huge!

The most compelling argument against the Moon landings being fake is what aerospace engineer Jay Windley describes as a question of scale. NASA doesn’t build spaceships all by itself, it hires private companies to do it for them. It stands to reason that all conspiracy theories asserting that no lunar landing took place must argue that faking the lunar landing was easier than actually accomplishing it, otherwise why bother faking it. But how easy would faking such a thing actually be when you take into account the number of independent contractors that would have been involved. Windley has identified three hypothetical scenarios that would had to have occurred: the Huge Conspiracy Scenario, the Absolute Minimum Scenario, and the Need-To-Know Scenario.

Huge Conspiracy
In this scenario NASA did not have the necessary technology to go to the Moon and so all the private companies who were contracted by NASA to contribute to this technology must have been paid to do nothing. Their big NASA contract would have been announced in order to keep their shareholders happy and then they would have sat on their arses for a few years. All the employees of these companies who would presumably be expecting to get cracking on this big new job they’d just been awarded, would be urged to keep quiet. That’s a lot of people keeping their mouth shut. At the height of the Apollo project almost half a million people were working on it. Yet in over thirty years, not one of these half million people has come forward with incontestable evidence to say they were part of the conspiracy. Were they all paid off? Even presuming half a million people could be bought off, why aren’t we seeing hundreds of thousands of suspiciously wealthy retired engineers all over America today, living in mansions and driving sports cars? It’s possible they could have been threatened with retribution from a NASA ninja-death squad, but there’s no evidence of this. And it’s amazing that there’s been no death bed confessions in the past fifty years.

Absolute Minimum
Perhaps then only a few unscrupulous types at the top were in on the conspiracy and most people working on the Apollo missions thought they were working on the real thing? In that case we’d have to believe that all the engineers employed by these private companies believed they were really contributing to an actual lunar mission. As far as they’re concerned they’ve been paid to solve the problems inherent in sending people to the Moon. If so, why would they sign off on materials and devices that they knew didn’t work. If this was the case then NASA would have been provided with a bunch of stuff for their fake Moon mission that was actually capable of sending people to the Moon. So, why would they still want to fake it?

Couldn’t the truth be somewhere in between? Perhaps only the people who really needed to know were in on it. That would logically still have involved the managers of the private companies contracted and, given their technical knowhow, many of the engineers. We’re still talking about a heck of a lot of people.

The problem with the idea of a Moon landing conspiracy, argues Windley, is that “you have to buy off enough of the work force in order to produce convincing hardware without producing working hardware. In short, there is no middle of this road. Either you produce real hardware, or you have a very large conspiracy with no leaks after thirty years…. The moral: if you want to perpetrate a hoax, don't have it catered.”

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Mary Bennett and David S. Percy have argued that many of the people who worked on the “hoax” did in fact blow the whistle, but they did so by subtly hiding errors in the Moon landing that were so egregious that they would eventually unravel the whole thing.

A similar theory involving whistle blowing with hidden clues involves filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and his 1980 film, The Shining. According to this theory Stanley Kubrick filmed the Apollo 11 landing on a film set after being chosen for this task due to the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, Bennett and Percy argue that Kubrick, along with Arthur C. Clarke, were involved in the conspiracy before 2001 was released in 1968, and that 2001 was made to manage the public's expectations of what they were to see in 1969 when the “hoax” was carried out.

Apparently, the guilt proved too much for Kubrick, and in 1980 he released a film that contained his veiled confession, The Shining.

These clues include:       
  • The fact that the little boy in the film wears an Apollo 11 jumper, and at one point rises (like a rocket??) up from the carpet with a pattern that apparently resembles NASA's hexagonal launching pads.
  • You can see tins of Tang in the pantry at one point and astronauts drink Tang on missions.
  • There’s a Native American tapestry on display that looks like it has rockets on it.
  • A 2015 film claimed to show interview footage with Kubrick from before he died where Kubrick admits he helped fake it. This is slightly undermined however by the fact that the man in the interview is just a bloke with a beard who looks and sounds nothing like Kubrick.

Moon Robot!

One might wonder why whistle blowers felt the need for such subtlety, given that they were up against evidence as compelling as actual photographs. And we’re not just talking about the photos taken by the Apollo astronauts. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is a NASA robotic spacecraft launched in 2009 and currently orbiting the Moon. It has provided us with photographs of the Apollo landing sites. For example, here’s the Apollo 11 landing site.

Don’t just take NASA’s word for it

Plenty of parties not involved with NASA have been able to verify NASA’s claims. Earlier I mentioned that the Soviet Union had monitored the Apollo missions. Other countries have also encountered evidence of the success of Apollo.

In 2008 the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) SELENE lunar probe provided us with a three-dimensional reconstructed photo that matched the terrain of an Apollo 15 photo taken from the surface. In 2009, India's lunar mission Chandrayaan-1 recorded evidence of disturbed soil around the Apollo 15 landing site and tracks of the lunar rovers.

Planetary scientists who are unaffiliated with NASA have studied the Moon rock brought back by Apollo and confirmed their age and origin. They have been used to identify lunar meteorites collected from Antartica. The rocks returned by Apollo have also been found to be very close in composition to samples returned by the independent Soviet Luna programme.

Apollo astronauts left a bunch of mirrors on the Moon called laser ranging retro-reflectors, or LRRRs. These mirrors have been used as targets for Earth based tracking lasers. Photons reflected back to Earth by the LRRRs have been detected. The NASA-independent Observatoire de la Côte d'Azur, McDonald, Apache Point, and Haleakalā observatories regularly use the Apollo LRRR.

So, were they fake?

When one considers what a monumental feat the Moon Landings really were its perhaps not surprising that people have their doubts. In an era of fake news perhaps cynicism is healthy? But sometimes people aren’t trying to catch you out. Sometimes things aren’t too good to be true. Sometimes real life is just cool. Occasions where real people get together and accomplish something genuinely amazing are rare. But that’s all the more reason to celebrate them. 

So yes, the human race is full of liars and cheats and people who abuse their power. But let’s give credit where it’s due.

We made it to the Moon.

Bibliography/Further Reading (Jay Windley, aerospace engineer)
David S. Percy & Mary Bennet DARK MOON : Apollo and the Whistle-Blowers (1999)

Tuesday, 4 June 2019


This weekend I went to Collectormania 26 at the NEC in Birmingham and got my picture taken with Brandon Routh AKA SUPERMAN!

That's yer actual Superman that is.

As you might imagine, he was really lovely. I attended his Q & A session on the Saturday and he was kind enough to answer my question. I asked him if there was any talk of creating a shared DC Comics Cinematic Universe while he was involved with Superman, and if he thinks shared cinematic universes are a good idea. He replied that he does think they're a good idea, if there are strong, well crafted relationships between the characters. He also said that there was talk of doing Batman v Superman after Superman Returns but that it wasn't a scenario he ever understood. He explained that as far as he was concerned, even if Batman got to a point where he felt that he needed to battle Superman, Superman still wouldn't let that battle happen. Routh went on to say that if he had been asked to play Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman he would have either used what influence he had to change how Superman was portrayed or turned the project down.

It was a real thrill for me to meet Routh, as I'm a huge Superman fan and a massive fan of Superman Returns. I went to see it twice when it came out in the cinema, and embarrassingly I even wrote an indignant letter to the Guardian when a columnist slagged the film off. Thankfully the letter wasn't published. I'm also a massive fan of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, but it was nevertheless fascinating to hear Routh's thoughts.

As well as meeting Superman I also got my picture taken with Sophie Aldred, Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, and Mark Strickson, who played classic Doctor Who companions Ace, Jamie, Zoe, and Turlough. I also attended their Q & A sessions, an Allo Allo cast Q & A, and I met my favourite Doctor, Colin Baker again. Colin was kind enough to sign a piece of art I made of his Doctor. He assured me it was "not shite". I won't share it here as I've entered it into a BBC competition to design a t-shirt  but I'll post it next month as soon I know that I haven't won. I'm not too bothered about losing, as having my work proclaimed "not shite" by the Sixth Doctor is all the prize I need.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

How Avengers Endgame sets up the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe


Avengers Endgame is an astounding cinematic achievement. It manages to be a coherent, satisfying film in its own right while also serving as the culmination of a number of stories that have been unfolding across 11 years and 22 films.

There's so much to love about Endgame, but my favourite aspect of it is the way it brings the story of Tony Stark AKA Iron Man to an end. In my opinion, this ending has come at exactly the right time, and it may even have set up the circumstances in which the next big character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe can emerge.

Tony Stark's cinematic story began in 2008 in Iron Man, the first film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Throughout most of the next 21 films (even some of the ones he's not in) we grew to understand the context in which Tony exists, and had the pleasure of seeing him grow and develop as a character. We saw a selfish, narcissistic playboy become a man determined to take responsibility for his actions. In a way Stark weaponised his own narcissism, as he allowed the belief that he was responsible for protecting everybody on Earth become his primary motivation. Tony's efforts to protect the world led to the creation of the menace known as Ultron, and to a personal battle with PTSD. But ultimately he was able to fulfil his mission and atone for his past mistakes by sacrificing his life to save the world. Tony was played throughout all of this by Robert Downey Jr, who gave the most considered, nuanced, entertaining, and true to the character portrayal of a superhero since Christopher Reeve's Superman.

As much as I loved watching Tony's story unfold, his end was a timely one. In 2008, Tony Stark was the right superhero at the right time - the world was ready for a capitalist superhero who had made things worse in the Middle East but felt bad about it, and was now ready to save us all with technology. But now in 2019 a new generation has started to worry about wealth inequality and we've realised that the tech bros won't save us because they're basically Nazis. A millionaire playboy became the American president and it turns out he's just a revolting old man. The white guy redemption story has been done to death in films and TV and we've all started to move on from it. Tony's story has come to an end not a moment too soon.

So where does that leave the Marvel Cinematic Universe? What's next?

There's an account on Twitter that appears to have some kind of insider access, and has had some success in predicting what will happen in Marvel films. This account has predicted that the Thunderbolts will feature heavily in the next phase.

In the comics, the Thunderbolts are usually depicted as a team of villains working as superheroes, either as part of an evil scheme, an attempt to find redemption, or because they're being forced to do so by the government. One character that has featured prominently in Thunderbolts comics is Spider-Man's arch-nemesis Norman Osborn AKA The Green Goblin. It's worth remembering that Osborn is a Spider-Man character and as such, Marvel may have not yet recovered the rights to him from Sony. But if they have, I feel that Tony Stark's death has created the right set of circumstances for Norman Osborn to emerge.

Mike Deodata

The trailer for the next Marvel film, Spider-Man Far From Home shows us a world that has placed Tony Stark on something of a pedestal. We see candles and graffiti left in gratitude to remember Tony's sacrifice. Spider-Man himself says "the world needs the next Iron Man."

What if this is a world that is scared after what it just went through in Endgame, and is desperate for the next Tony Stark to come along and protect them? What if this is a world that is so scared and desperate it will embrace the first charming, billionaire genius that comes along? What if that charming, billionaire, genius is Norman Osborn? Imagine Osborn, a petty, spiteful, greedy megalomaniac, playing on people's fear, cynically taking advantage of the situation the world's in, and setting himself up in a position of power. He could be a Tony Stark for the age of Trump.

Perhaps, just as the threat of Thanos and the events of Infinity War were set up in previous Marvel films, Far from Home and the films that follow it could set up Osborn and the Thunderbolts?

We could see Marvel taking on a critique of the very concept of superheroes. Putting all your faith in individuals is a dangerous business, because in all likelihood, they're not going to be Tony Stark, or Captain America. They're going to be someone who will hold on to any power you give them and eventually use it against you. This would be a pretty radical thread for a multi-billion dollar superhero movie franchise to pull at, but it's such a fascinating and relevant theme that I can't help but think that they're going to want to explore it.

Besides, the next big bad guy isn't the only thing that Tony Stark's death sets up. The events of Endgame have left us with a world that has experienced forces beyond their understanding meddling with everybody's life in a pretty huge way. Half of everybody on the planet died for five years before suddenly returning. It's not enough to merely defend the Earth from these forces, as the Avengers did. The world will need somebody to explore and understand these terrifying new frontiers.

Now if only Marvel had recently reacquired the film rights to a team of super-powered explorers of the strange and fantastic......

Alex Ross

If you'd like to see me take a small part in a discussion of Avengers Endgame involving lots of clever people, head over to The Comics Cube!

Saturday, 30 March 2019

The Best Superman in the Best Superman Costume

Here's a picture I did of my favourite actor to play the Man of Steel wearing my favourite Superman costume - the Grant Morrison/Rags Morales Action Comics costume.

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Science of Obscure Superheroes

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunkMatter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article.

Here are links to all four parts, and also the "reading list" I made for attendees of the talk. 

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part One: The Whizzer

Here are the illustrations I created for the talk:

The Science of Obscure Superheroes: Reading List

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunkMatter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I also created a list of  some of my favourite comics featuring these characters, alongside a list of some of my favourite, vaguely science related comics.

Here are some comics where you’ll find some of the characters from these articles:

Legion of Super-Heroes The Silver Age Vol. 1
By Various 

These 1950s tales feature Superboy’s first adventures with his teenage pals in the futuristic Legion of Superheroes. These stories are endearingly daft and charming, but most importantly this collection features the first appearance of Matter Eater Lad!

Superman and the Legion of Superheroes
By Geoff Johns and Gary Frank 

While Matter Eater Lad doesn’t appear in this comic, his pals in the Legion of Superheroes do. The lesser known heroes of the Legion of Substitute Heroes also make an appearance. Superman gets transported to the 31st Century and he must reunite his childhood friends in order to fight space Nazis!!!

Animal Man Vol. 1
Animal Man Vol. 2: Origin of the Species
Animal Man Vol. 3 Deus Ex Machina
By Grant Morrison and various artists 

During Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man in the 80s, Animal Man gave up superheroing and began to focus on animal rights activism instead. As he did so he became one of the first superheroes to realize the truth of his existence - that he is actually a comic character living in a two-dimensional world. Along the way he encounters some pretty obscure superheroes, including B’wana Beast, Merryman, and our pal the Red Bee!

Avengers Epic Collection: The Final Threat
By Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, and various artists

Marvel fun from the 1970s. The Whizzer pops up to help the Avengers fight his villainous son, Nuklo! This collection also features appearances from Doctor Doom, Ultron, and Infinity War baddie Thanos! It also features some fantastic art from comics legends George Perez, Jim Starlin, and John Byrne.

Flash (1987) #9-11
By Mike Baron, Jackson Guice, Mike Collins, and Larry Mahlstedt

The first story to feature Chunk! These comics have never been collected to my knowledge but you’re likely to find them for quite cheap on ebay or in the bargain bin of a comics shop and they’re well worth hunting around for.

Flash: Rogues
By Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, and Doug Hazlewood

Chunk gets shot in the first story in this collection, and Flash must prevent all of Keystone City from getting sucked into his old friend. Then Flash battles a bunch of villains from his extensive rogue’s gallery, including Captain Cold, Fallout, and Gorilla Grodd!

Here are some science related comics you might like:

Concrete, Vol. 1: Depths
By Paul Chadwick

Ron Lithgow gets his brain transplanted into a giant, alien, concrete body and tries to make a life for himself as an explorer and a writer. The interesting thing about Concrete is that aside from Concrete himself and the aliens who give him his body (who are never seen again after the first issue) there are no other sci-fi aspects to this comic. The ramifications of life in a giant concrete body are explored by applying real world physics, and conveyed through some stunning art from creator Paul Chadwick.

Action Comics Vol. 1: Superman and the Men of Steel
Action Comics Vol. 2: Bulletproof
Action Comics Vol. 3: At The End Of Days
By Grant Morrison and various artists

Grant Morrison combines the feel of the original 1930s Superman comics by Siegel and Shuster with his own mind bending cosmic concepts. Superman battles a menace from the fifth dimension and Morrison realizes this threat in a fascinating way. Just as a fork from our three dimensional world might “attack” a two dimensional piece of paper at several different points simultaneously, Superman is attacked at several different points in his life simultaneously by his fifth dimensional foe.

Ministry of Space
By Warren Ellis and Chris Weston

The murky, real life origins of the American space programme are used as an inspiration for this alternate history, where Britain got to all the Nazi rocket scientists after World War II instead of the Yanks.

Invincible Iron Man Vol. 2: World's Most Wanted Book 1
Invincible Iron Man Vol. 3: World's Most Wanted Book 2
By Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca

Iron Man has always been one of the most science-y superheroes and this is one of his very best stories. The Green Goblin has taken over SHIELD and Tony Stark is on the run. Tony uploads a computer virus into his own brain to erase all his secrets and keep them out of the Goblin’s hands. He must evade capture until the virus has done its work. But how can he stay one step ahead while he’s gradually losing his greatest weapon – his mind?

Tom Strong: Book 1
By Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse, Alan Gordon

Tom Strong inhabits a fantastic world that’s more Jules Verne than Stan Lee. He isn’t a superhero, he’s “science-hero”! Raised on a remote West Indian island by his scientist father in a high gravity chamber that made him super strong, Tom Strong was educated to genius level. He now uses his mental and physical perfection to fight such science themed foes as the Modular Man, Ingrid Weiss and her flying Nazi girls, and even an invasion from a universe where the Aztec civilization survived and became Earth’s dominant culture.

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part Four: The Red Bee

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The WhizzerChunk, Matter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article. This part is about The Red Bee. 

The Red Bee first appeared in Hit Comics #1 (1940). His name is Richard Raleigh, an assistant district attorney who decides to dress up in a puffy shirt and fight crime using bees! Red Bee uses lots of trained bees to fight Nazis and gangsters, but his favourite bee is called Michael. Michael lives in Red Bee’s hollow belt buckle and will only come out for special missions. The character starred in 24 issues of Hit Comics before fading into obscurity. He was brought back in the pages of All Star Squadron in the early ‘80s, only to be killed off straight away.

Rick Hoberg
Let’s talk about Michael. Surely bees hang about together in huge swarms and inhabit hives - they don’t sit on their own in some bloke’s belt buckle? Well, there are in fact certain types of bees that do prefer a solitary existence. For example, there is a type of bee found in the UK called Osmia bicornis, or more commonly, the red mason bee!

Steven Falk
Red mason bees are usually found in gardens and parks. They nest in existing holes or cavities, such as mortar joints, window frames, or dead wood, and prefer holes in sunny south facing locations. It’s not a massive stretch to believe that Richard Raleigh could have tempted such a bee into his belt buckle, provided he was thrusting his hips towards the sun.

Michael is probably a female, as male mason bees tend to hang around the nests where they first hatched from their cocoon, waiting to have sex, before dying soon after the deed is done. That’s very much what the kids call a “big mood” for me.

When the females have chosen a place to make their nest they harvest mud which they use to seal up their nest cells, allowing their young to safely develop, keeping them warm over winter.  Red Bee’s belt buckle would probably be full of mud.

Once Michael has been released from her mucky belt buckle, she may be more useful in distracting criminals than actually hurting them. Red mason bees don’t sting unless they’re threatened. The venom in a female red mason bee’s sting is similar to the venom of a honeybee sting, but the red mason bee sting contains fewer barbs than that of a honeybee. This could explain why the red mason bee’s sting does not penetrate human skin.

While Michael wouldn’t make much of a weapon, the Red Bee’s other bees could potentially be a tenacious foe for any criminal that crossed their path. Africanised “killer” bees from Central America have been known to chase a person into water and then patiently wait for them to resurface before stinging them. These bees can recognise the chemical scent of the breath of their target as air bubbles break the surface of the water.

The Telegraph
Honeybees in the UK are less aggressive but are still known to be pretty tenacious. In 2016 a grandmother from West Wales returned from her shopping to find a swarm of over 20,000 bees covering the back of her car. She called some local beekeepers, who were able to remove the bees and she returned home. Over 24 hours later, outside her home she found the bees had returned to the car! The beekeepers theorised that the queen bee may have become trapped somewhere in the car.

So bees could potentially be an effective weapon against anyone who provoked them, but how could the Red Bee control them? How could he make sure the bees attacked the gangsters and not him? Smoke can be used to make bees docile, but dopey bees might not be much use in the war against crime. Is there an alternative?

The answer is smells!

A queen bee secretes a combination of chemical scents in order to communicate with the worker bees. The queen’s scent can help control swarming, it can inhibit the development of ovaries in the worker bees, and it can tell the workers whether a queen has mated or not. The queen’s scent can also give workers the cue to gather around the queen and form her own little entourage, or retinue to look after her.

In 2007 researchers in the University of Otago found that a queen bee can manipulate worker bee’s behaviour by releasing a pheromone that blocks aversive learning in young bees. This means that the queen can stop her offspring from learning from bad experiences. This is necessary because being exposed to a chemical scent that stops you from growing ovaries can be pretty unpleasant for a worker bee. By preventing the young bees from developing aversive memories against her odour the queen is ensuring that they will continue to tend her. Basically, she smells bad but she makes the other bees forget how bad she smells.

If The Red Bee could harness these chemical scents, perhaps he could use them to convince a colony of bees that he was their queen! If they ever decided that they didn’t like the life of a crime fighter, he could make them forget that decision! A real life Red Bee would perhaps be, not a man in a domino mask and a puffy shirt, but a stinky, insect drag queen, armed with water pistols full of bee sweat!

But being a queen bee is not all it’s cracked up to be. When a queen bee gets too old to give off the right smells they are replaced by the workers in a procedure known as "supersedure". The workers rear a replacement queen and when the new one is ready the workers will kill the old one in a gruesome fashion. The workers cluster tightly around her, “balling” her until she becomes so hot she dies. 

If the Red Bee is a man who would be queen he must ensure he never runs out of scent, lest he is balled to death by his insect minions!

Click here to read part one!
Click here to read part two!
Click here to read part three!
Click here for the Reading List!


Many thanks to insect experts Jade Hailes and Antonia Forster.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

The Science of Obscure Superheroes Part Three: Matter Eater Lad

Recently I gave a talk for the Reading branch of the British Science Association on the subject of the science of superheroes. It's a subject that's been covered a great deal elsewhere and so I wanted to approach it from a different angle. I decided to focus on the science behind some lesser known superheroes. I chose to discuss The Whizzer, Chunk, Matter Eater Lad, and the Red Bee. I looked at their powers and origin stories and tried to find parallels in real world science. I've adapted my talk into a four part article. This part is about Matter Eater Lad. 

Matter Eater Lad first appeared in Adventure Comics #303 (1962). In the 30th Century, Tenzil Kem was sent from the planet Bismoll to represent his home world in the Legion of Superheroes. On Bismoll microbes had made all food inedible, and so the Bismollians evolved the ability to eat all matter. Matter Eater Lad can eat any amount of any substance at super-speed. Writers have struggled to find anything for Matter Eater Lad to do over the years – there’s only so many times you can have a character escape a cage by eating the bars. As a result he is often written out of the stories by being drafted into his home planet’s political system. It’s a literal case of  “I have to go now, my planet needs me!”

When I first started to consider how Tenzil’s powers might work in real life I thought I might find the answers with goats! Like a lot of people I was under the impression that goats could eat the shirt off your back if they wanted to. Could Matter Eater Lad be a kind of human goat?

In actual fact, no he couldn’t be. The idea that goats can eat anything is a myth. Goats are in fact incredibly picky eaters. The idea that they’ll eat anything comes from the fact they are browsers. They will root through their potential meals to find whatever they think will give them the most nutrition, even if it means digging around in rubbish. A goat may well rip the shirt off your back and have a chew on it but they would probably spit it out after a while once they’d decided there was no goodness to be had from it.

Matter Eater Lad may not be a goat-man, but there is another member of the animal kingdom who echoes his abilities.

Crocodilians, a group which includes alligators and crocodile, are far from picky eaters. Crocodiles eat fish, amphibians, crustaceans, molluscs, birds, reptiles, and mammals, and even smaller crocodiles. Certain types of crocodile have been known to eat, sharks, wild boar, big cats, elephants, and hippos. Young alligators and crocodiles have been observed eating up to 23% of their bodyweight in the lab in just one sitting. That’s like a 70 kilogram (or 11 stone) person eating a 17 kilogram (or 3 stone) turkey in one meal. There have even been seeds found in their poo, suggesting that they also eat fruit! They can and will eat anything and they don’t leave leftovers. If you're feeling particularly brave type "Crocodile eating" into Youtube for some examples.

Crocodiles have evolved sharp teeth for piercing and holding onto flesh, and powerful muscles to close the jaws and hold them shut. They have the strongest bite of any animal. But it’s their hearts and their stomachs that really make them such successful eaters.

Crocodiles have the most acidic stomach of any vertebrate. It can close off a part of its heart on the right side and use a part of its heart on the left side to flush blood loaded with carbon dioxide from its muscles directly to its stomach. This makes its blood supply extra acidic, which in turn makes it much easier for the stomach lining to secrete more stomach acid to quickly dissolve a lot of flesh and bone.

Crocodiles’ stomachs are also divided up into two sections. The first section is a muscular pocket where the crocodiles keep any rocks that they might eat. All the hard bits of their prey tend to remain in this area of the stomach for a few days at a time. Once the bones are thoroughly crushed, they transfer over to the next section of the stomach to finish up the digestion process. This process, combined with the acidity of the stomach, means that every single part of the crocodiles’ prey gets digested, including bones, horns, scales and hooves.

Matter Eater Lad could well be a sort of grotesque crocodile-man, if he actually existed. It’s worth remembering though, since crocodiles get so much from their prey, they don’t need to eat as often as other animals. Crocodiles usually eat about once a week, although they have been known, in extreme situations, to live off their own tissue for up to three years. If Matter Eater Lad was a human crocodile, you’d have to hope that he hadn’t eaten recently if you expected him to free you from a cage by eating the bars. Or on second thoughts maybe it would be better if he had eaten recently, just in case you started to look particularly tasty to him.