Technocomics are illustrated narratives in which science and technology play a major role in the determination of character and action. Superhero comics are often good examples, insofar as many of their protagonists receive superpowers as an unexpected consequence of some scientific phenomenon. Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, for instance, during a school outing to a science museum where he is accidentally bitten by a radiated spider; the X-Men all experience genetic mutations as a result of environmental contamination and thus confront problems of social prejudice and responsibilities between generations. Technocomics as a genre are thus closely related to science fiction and may serve to both mirror and shape popular reflection on questions related to science, technology, and ethics.
The comic book superhero first emerged from pulp fiction in the 1930s in what is known as the Golden Age of DC Comics and its protagonists such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, who were only marginally associated with science and technology. The post-World War II period saw a decline in the popularity of these figures. But in the 1960s, Marvel Comics brought about a Silver Age by creating a new pantheon of superheros including Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men, all of whom reflected a deeper concern for the ethical issues associated with science and technology in the nuclear age. The following analytic introduction assumes some familiarity with this particular genre as it has developed in the United States, a genre that has also extended to movies, video games, and, in the early-twenty-first century, to some advanced simulations such as Technocracy (see Brucato, Long, and DeMayo 1999). For more general introductions to technocomics see the work of Mike Benton (1992), Richard Reynolds (1994), and Geof Klock (2002).
Radiation: Science as Savior and Scapegoat
Radiation has from the very beginning played a key role in technocomics, which perhaps reflects twentieth-century American societal fascination with, as well as aversion to, nuclear technology and its applications during times of both war and peace. Many superheroes of both the Golden and Silver ages of comics derived their special abilities from some type of radiation in one of three ways. The first, rarest, and perhaps most optimistic way is when the character comes to reside in a different environment and is exposed to a form of radiation that alters the physiology of his already existing anatomy. Superman, one of the earliest protagonists of the Golden Age of comics, is an example of this type of superhero. Originally the source of his special powers were unexplained; later, however, they were linked to the effects on his body of the light radiation from the Earth's yellow sun as opposed to that of the red sun of his home planet Krypton. Later comics involving Superman included a substance called Kryptonite (no relation to the element Krypton), whose green and other forms had various effects on him, including the nullification of his powers.
The second way in which radiation bestows superpowers in technocomics illustrates one of the most common fears of the nuclear age—mutation. This preoccupation with the unexpected, negative effects of radiation (which gave rise to a series of Godzilla movies in Japan), is manifested in such Silver Age technocomic protagonists as the X-Men, who are born with superpowers because ambient radiation from atomic bombs has changed their genetic codes.
Yet the third way in which superheroes derive their powers from radiation in these comics is the most prevalent—the alteration of an individual's genetic makeup through accidental or intentional exposure (such as nuclear accidents, atomic experiments, and others). Some of the most famous superheroes who have attained their powers in this way include Spider-Man, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dr. Manhattan, Daredevil, and Captain Atom. The most representative of this type of superhero, however, is the Incredible Hulk, whose alter ego, Dr. Bruce Banner, was a research scientist for the military-industrial complex who was attempting to develop a gamma bomb for the U.S. Army. During the first test of this bomb, Banner entered the testing area to save a civilian from the explosion, thus exposing himself to the gamma radiation that causes him, in a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like manner, to transform into the Hulk, a huge, immensely strong creature.
Human Response: Technology as Superpower
While superhuman characters such as Superman and Spider-Man experienced permanent changes that made their special powers innate, other characters have developed and employed technology in an attempt to achieve superhero status. Technological research and development organizations began to appear in superhero comics (such as Advanced Idea Mechanics [A.I.M.], a criminal organization in the Marvel universe, and Scientific Technological Advanced Research Laboratories (S.T.A.R.), a scientific organization in the DC universe), creating new technology to both the benefit and detriment of society. Devices such as ray guns, flying cars, and power armor appear in myriad forms in these comics, in which technological processes and pharmaceuticals such as cloning and supersoldier sera are also common. The list of technologically assisted superheroes and supervillains is long, and the majority of them utilize special suits and gear. The most famous of these characters include Iron Man, Green Arrow, the Punisher, Nick Fury and the Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), the Atom, Hank Pym, Blue Beetle, Owl Man, Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, Booster Gold, Captain America, the Engineer, and Batman (who nevertheless would be a force to reckon with even without his Bat Computer and infamous utility belt).
One of the most unique of these superheroes, Booster Gold, is of special interest because his origins illustrate ambivalent feelings toward the corporate technological complex. Booster, a twenty-fifth-century football player banished from professional sports for illegal betting, steals a force field belt, flight ring, and a time sphere which he and a robot named Skeets use to travel back in time. He then becomes the CEO of Booster Gold International, a monolithic holding company and tax shelter, as well as America's Most Popular Super Hero.
Still other superheroes use technology in the form of symbiotes (organisms, alien or otherwise, that grant abilities to their hosts), chemical alterations of their bodies, and even artificially intelligent constructs. Perhaps the most famous example of a chemically enhanced superhero is Captain America. According to the account of his origins, during World War II the United States developed an experimental supersoldier serum. It was first tested on Steve Rogers, a frail man unfit for combat, to whom it gave increased mental and physical capabilities. The doctor who created the formula was soon after killed by a Nazi spy, leaving Rogers as the first and only supersoldier—Captain America.
Still other superheroes and supervillains have obtained their powers through a combination of the effects of radiation and technological enhancement. A good example here is one of the X-Men, Wolverine, a born mutant who is later improved with technology. Wolverine's original mutations included animal senses and an amazing capacity for self-healing. This latter power enabled the Weapon X Program to implant the unbreakable metal adamantium into his bones without killing him, thus making him virtually indestructible.
The Ethics of Power
Ethical questions regarding science and technology make natural themes for technocomics, given the great number of technologically created superheroes and supervillains who serve as their protagonists. One of the most common of these questions is that regarding the limits of scientific experimentation. J. Robert Oppenheimer's concern about the atomic bomb finds its echo in technocomics: Does ability imply permission? Do humans have the right to use technology just because they have invented it? These questions are debated time and again in the pages of technocomics (for example, in the cases of the Weapon X Program, the origin of the Hulk, and Brainiac 5's creation of Computo). Such comics play an important ideological role, because they are often a young person's first introduction to these questions, and furthermore offer a safe, fictional representation that spurs critical thinking about the real dilemmas (such as human cloning) faced by contemporary society.
Many technocomic superheroes demonstrate the desire to use their powers ethically and strive to accept a responsibility to others that they believe accompanies their special gifts. For example, heroes such as the almost omnipotent Professor X and Spider-Man (whose message "With great power comes great responsibility" has become a mantra for generations of comics fans) seem to be always defending and disseminating their belief that those who possess special abilities must not exploit those who do not.
Homo Superior: Social Darwinism in Technocomics
Although Social Darwinism is a misapplication of a scientific theory, it generates many debates in technocomics, especially given their superhuman protagonists. Should the strongest, most talented, and most intelligent rule the world to the detriment of the weak? Perhaps the most important site of this debate in the technocomic world is found in the X-Men comics, in the conflict between Professor X and his archrival, Magneto. Magneto is a superpowerful mutant who survived life in a concentration camp during World War II, and has therefore experienced firsthand the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on one another. He is convinced that mutantkind (human beings who have mutated and developed superior abilities) is the next step in human evolution and that mutants should therefore take their place as the new rulers of the world. Professor X, however, takes the stance that mutants—however different they may be—are still humans and must learn to live alongside less-gifted humans.
Ethical questions surrounding technoscientific authoritarianism are often present in technocomics, given that absolute power is a goal that many technically enhanced supervillains strive for. A particularly relevant instance of this debate, albeit ultimately unresolved, appears in those Marvel comics dealing with Doctor Doom, the supreme ruler of a fictional country called Latveria. This country is described as being free from racism and social unrest; its inhabitants enjoy economic prosperity while remaining ecologically and physically safe and sound. But while the government of Latveria is considered to be an enforced monarchy by Doom and his subjects, all others consider it a dictatorship. The question of whether it is acceptable to give up democratic and personal freedoms to a technocrat in return for safety and security arises. At one point in the Marvel universe, Doctor Doom manages to take control of the entire world after which he eliminates disease and hunger and brings about world peace with an iron hand. Even the staunch defender of democracy, Captain America, has to admit that, while the method Doom uses is unacceptable, the changes he brings about are in the best interest of humanity. Nevertheless, at the end of the series, Doom is removed from power and the world reverts to its previous state, with relief food rotting on the docks in Africa, arguments breaking out in the United Nations, and the winds of war again stirring worldwide. Readers are left to decide for themselves which type of government is preferable.
Subsequently, in 2004, Captain America, the technologically enhanced supersoldier, was involved in a critique of the very military industrial complex that created him. He is sent to Guantanamo to oversee the treatment of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners being held there by the heavily armed, technologically superior U.S. soldiers, and is shocked at the human rights abuses he witnesses being committed by members of his own team.
Questionable Experimentation and Creation: Progress versus Safety
Questions surrounding the ethical ramifications of experimentation, especially experimentation on living beings, arise frequently in technocomics. Should experiments be done if they are not safe for the individuals involved? Is questionable scientific experimentation ethical if it causes human and/or animal suffering in pursuit of the alleviation of future suffering? Are technological processes that extend the quantity of life worth their possible toll in quality of life? The previously mentioned Weapon X Program in which Wolverine gains his adamantium skeleton, along with the ambivalent feelings many superheroes have toward their own powers, is only one of the ambiguous situations in technocomics that promote such ethical pondering.
Artificial intelligence (AI) plays a central role in many technocomics. The philosophical questions raised in this regard range from the ontological (Is a machine that can think a living creature?), to the epistemological (How does one recognize life?), to the ethical (Is it ethical to try to create a machine that can think? If a thinking machine has accidentally been created, should it be shut off? Should humans allow themselves to become so dependent on machines in general, and on artificial intelligence in particular?).
Not only does sentient AI life exist in the world of technocomics, but it is also often imbued with the theological categories of good and evil. One example can be found in the Avengers series of comics, in which the scientist/Avenger Hank Pym accidentally creates Ultron, an evil, artificially intelligent being who is able to remodel himself as well as to create other AI machines. The Vision, one of the machines modified by Ultron, using his newly acquired free will for more noble purposes, rebels against his programming, joins the Avengers, and even marries. Similarly, in the Brainiac series of stories, Brainiac 5 creates an AI machine named Computo, that ends up killing dozens of people before being turned off.
Technocomics have introduced many scientific and ethical questions into the minds of readers, and can be expected to continue to do so by incorporating into fiction new technologies and scientific theories as they emerge in the real world. Technocomics have been a source of entertainment for so long that their value as teaching tools are often overlooked. Nevertheless, in the early-twenty-first century, there is increasing awareness of the effectiveness of using technocomics to spark scientific and philosophical debate in the classroom. The Department of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky, for example, supports a web site linking science to technocomics that lists, in periodic table structure, the occurrences of elements in comic books, both in the form of facts and misconceptions. At times the superpowers portrayed in technocomics, as well as the scientific errors that they frequently entail, can be as useful as scientific facts for teaching purposes. James Kakalios, a professor at the University of Minnesota, incorporated such misconceptions in a course titled "Everything I Know of Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books," which compares and contrasts the science portrayed in technocomics with real-world physics, including thermodynamics and the material sciences. Kevin Kinney of DePauw University discusses many misconceptions of biology in comic books, such as those related to superpowers and the amount of nutrients that would be needed to fuel them.
Interestingly while science fiction in general has logically been appropriated by teachers of ethics as a springboard for debates about ethical issues in science and technology, the use of technocomics for these same purposes appears to have been overlooked. Nevertheless the success of film adaptations of such technocomics as The Hulk (2003), Spiderman (2002, 2004), and X-Men (2000, 2003) will almost certainly guarantee serious reconsideration as to how these works both reflect and mold popular opinions and conceptions about the nature—ethical or otherwise—of scientific investigation and technological innovation.
MATTHEW BINIEK JAMES A. LYNCH
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