Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Flight part 3

I've talked about super heroes fly but so far I haven't really talked about comic book heroes. In a static medium like a comic book, characters normally just fly. There are some variations.

Back when Superman was under different editorial control than the rest of DC, characters in the Superman universe pretty much all flew. There was no explanation. If you could fly then you could fly and probably at any speed you wanted to. Supporting characters in Superman often got the power of flight and kept up with Superman. Similarly, most people who suddenly "became super" got flight along with strength and invulnerability regardless of the source of the powers.

The Legion of Superheroes was similar. The big three, Superboy, Mon-El, or Ultra Boy (plus Supergirl but they seldom counted her) had pretty much equivalent powers. Ultra Boy could only use one power at a time and could see through lead. Otherwise they all seemed to be on the same level. The rest of the Legion used flight rings (originally they used rocket packs then flight belts). They didn't seem to have any trouble keeping up. Ultra Boy often used his flight ring to stay in the air while using other powers.

The rest of DC was slightly different. Wonder Woman originally could ride air currents. Presumably this was slower and more limited than real flight since she also used a transparent airplane. Hawkman, in his various incarnations, used artificial wings. Green Lantern had his ring carry him where he needed to go.

One interesting one was Deadman who was a ghost. In his first several appearances he simply walked where ever he was going. Sometimes he was walking through thin air, hundreds of feet off of the ground. Later he started flying more like a conventional hero. Since the artist was the great Neal Addams, I'm assuming that this evolution was on purpose. When he first died, Deadman still acted like a normal man even though he was weightless and immaterial. He was flying all along but he was mimicking walking. As he grew to accept his altered state he stopped acting he was still alive.

Over at Marvel, things were different, at least most of the time. Marvel's science may have been shaky but they at least provided some explanation for a character flying. The Human Torch was supported by the updraft caused by his flames. The Sub-Mariner had winged ankles.

During the Silver Age, Stan got creative with some of his characters. The Hulk didn't fly, he jumped. Thor threw his heavy hammer then caught the unbreakable thong on the handle and was pulled after it. Presumably, once he got going, Thor used his control over weather to created an updraft to keep him going and winds to change his direction.

Iron Man had jets in his boots. Doctor Strange had a cloak of levitation. The Wasp had actual wasp wings grafted to her body (they didn't grow when she did so they vanished when she was normal-sized). Ant-Man rode flying ants.

Stan put limits on his characters. The Sub-Mariner's wings were slower than other characters and only good for short-term flight. Iron Man had to stop and recharge his batteries and could freeze up if he flew too high. On the other hand, the Angel who had real wings, was the most maneuverable. This makes perfect sense when you remember that everyone else except the Wasp was rocketing through the air somehow. Angel was the only one with aerodynamic surfaces. He also trained more than the other heroes thanks to Professor X.

Marvel's Captain Marvel is an interesting variation. He started out with a rocket belt which was part of his Kree uniform. Later he gained some "negabands" which gave him strength and flight and became cosmically aware. He was the first hero I can think of to really use his flight during a fight. In a battle with the Controller he was using his flight to duck under the Controller's swings and outmaneuver him. Writer/artist Jim Starlin was thank for this.

A later Starlin character, Adam Warlock, did things a bit differently. He was being attacked by a giant artificial shark in space. He tried slugging it without success. Next he tried standing on a tiny space rock, using it to anchor himself. This makes sense depending on how strong his powers of flight are. What with action and equal reaction, standing on something would allow you to hit with your entire body with the force of your blow going down your legs to the mass below you. If you hit something while flying then your powers of flight will have to substitute for this. Not that it helped Warlock against the shark.

When the Marvel Handbook came out in the 1980s the editors made it their purpose to give a rational explanation for every hero's powers. It turned out that many people can harness gravitons to propel themselves. This was the first time that someone pointed out some of the obvious limitations on flight. Once you pass 300 MPH you can no longer breath. Faster speeds will cause friction heating.

DC heroes never paid any attention to this. They move faster than the eye can see without causing more than a tiny breeze and they violate the laws of physics at the drop of a hat.

One other character should be mentioned while I'm talking about flight - Neo from The Matrix. His ability to fly is easily explained since he can alter reality. The interesting thing is the wash of unreality that follows him like a jet trail. This was visible in the final scene of The Matrix. In the sequel he found himself hundreds of miles from where he needed to be so he flew as fast as he could. This either created a powerful wind or wave of unreality. Either way, cars were being scooped up in his wake.

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