Thursday, April 07, 2011

Radiation and the Super Hero

Wired found a 1953 article on radiation and mutation and speculates that this is where all of the superheroes with radioactive origins came from. The article was written and illustrated by people long-associated with Superman comic books - Otto Binder, and Kurt Schaffenberger. Case closed, right? Well, not exactly.

DC was not the company that used radiation to explain everything. That was Marvel under Stan Lee and they didn't start appearing until the 1960s. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Daredevil as well as several villains received their powers from direct exposure to radiation (or close exposure in Spider-Man's case). In addition to these characters, Professor X explained in X-Men #1 that the amount of radioactive fallout in the air was causing an increase in mutants.

On the other hand, the Parasite is the only DC character I can remember who got his powers from radiation (he opened a container of nuclear waste) and he wasn't created until the mid-1960s by Jim Shooter who was only two years old when the Binder article appeared.

Stan Lee has admitted that he used radiation as a short-cut. He knew that it can cause genetic mutation but didn't know much beyond that.

I think that the 1952 article was only one aspect of the general culture of the 1950s. After all, radiation was also used to explain giant monsters such as the ants in Them! and Godzilla, both appearing years before the Fantastic Four. Also the article shows mutants who look like the common depiction of aliens with enlarged heads and long limbs. These mutations do not look a bit like superheroes. So this is just a cultural footnote rather than the basis for a stable of superheroes.

1 comment:

David Jones said...

Might mention a couple of other publishers...

MLJ saw their patriotic hero The Shield born of radiation. Chemicals were applied to this man, but it was bombardment with X-ray radiation that activated them.

Gold Key jumped into the fray with Doctor Solar - Man of the Atom.