Phone Booth Friday: Superhero Chemistry

Today’s Phone Booth Friday post is all about science, or more specifically elements and chemistry. Now, I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of blowback recently in the social media commentariat about how it’s not cool to say that you love science, when you’re not actually a scientist. If you’re just someone who enjoys reading about things like space exploration or physics in popular publications, then geeking out over some discovery you find fascinating is apparently bad form. So before I get into the meat of today’s post, I will simply say as an initial matter that while it’s true watching a NOVA episode on the Valley of the Kings does not make you an Egyptologist, it’s only fair to point out that being able to cite the stats of a particular college football player because you happen to watch him play on television every week doesn’t even make you so much as a benchwarmer for Notre Dame, either.

Alright? Then let’s move on, those of you who are still with me.

Earlier this week I was pleased to come across this truly, deeply nerdy post on the Periodic Table of Superhero Elements. In it, the authors comb through the DC, Marvel, and other comic universes to list those fictional substances which have caused an impact on the lives of many of the characters we know, both for good and for bad. In doing so, they may also be revealing why it is that the superhero genre seems to be able to infinitely expand as it does, thanks to our acceptance of the ever-changing aspects of science and technology.

Most of the superheroes we’re familiar with have their origins either on another planet, as a result of interaction with someone from another planet, or they have undergone some kind of mutation as a result of an experiment or accident. Even the ones who are just earthlings with extraordinary talents and resources, like Batman or Ironman, hone and improve their abilities through the study of science and technology. It’s interesting then, in reviewing this superhero periodic table, to note how often something as basic as a particular element – albeit a fictional one – can have a significant impact on the lives of these larger-than-life characters.

Kryptonite, for obvious reasons my least favorite element, is very well-known, even among those who aren’t really fans of the superhero genre. Although it does not exist in real life, when someone refers to something as “my kryptonite”, we all understand immediately that they are identifying a particular weakness that they have. Oddly enough, in real life “krypton” itself is one of the noble gases, rather than a long-gone planet, and is used in lighting and photography.

Sometimes these fictional elements don’t have a physical effect on our hero or heroine directly, but rather aid them in some way. Vibranium, for example, is the key component of Captain America’s iconic shield, while Amazonium is forged to make Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets. The properties of these substances are determined by the writers of the stories, of course, and some of these can a bit far-fetched indeed.

Nevertheless, we always suspend our disbelief regarding fictional elements such as these, and don’t seem to give much thought to the fact that many of the things we see in a superhero film, for example, are not actually possible on a scientific level – at least, not yet. I suspect that part of the reason why we’re willing to accept these things is because of science fact, even though in the superhero world we are looking at science fiction. In real life, we have come to accept that science leads to new discoveries of unknown substances and elements all the time, with possible new chemical properties and practical applications, as well as risks and dangers.

Consider the actual periodic table of elements and chemistry itself, which you probably had to memorize in high school. That grid layout of numbered and stacked boxes, as most of us would recognize it, first appeared nearly a century ago now, but it has grown considerably in size since that time as new elements have been discovered. The most recent of these, fierovium, livermorium, and ununseptium, have only been named and accepted by the scientific community within the last five years.

Who knows what the table may look like a century from now, as science advances?  What elements will there be, and how may we be able to use them in things like chemical applications?  Things like this make science perpetually exciting, frankly, even when you’re not a Nobel Prize nominee, but just someone who has a big imagination.  And it shows that the hero can just as easily have a great mind, as be able to toss the bad guys about like paper bags.

So for those of you who enjoy the world of superheroes, whether you are a full-blown collector and cosplayer, or whether you just enjoy catching the odd film or TV show when it’s on, go right ahead and enjoy learning about science. No, taking an interest in science does not make you a nuclear chemist. Yet by appreciating the study of science, and indeed encouraging the study of it among the young people of your acquaintance, you not only open a wider world of knowledge and lifetime learning for yourself, you also can help show others that studying science is not a chore, but actually rather heroic – in an elemental sort of way.


Why Being A Good Editor Matters

I heard on the radio this morning that Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, turns 93 today.  If you’ve ever seen “All The President’s Men”, you’ll remember Jason Robards’ turn as Mr. Bradlee, which won the actor an Oscar.  At one point in the film, Bradlee raises questions about his reporters’ source for an article, but then realizes that he must trust them to do their job properly.  “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters,” he admits, “which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody. Run that baby.”  One wonders what Mr. Bradlee thinks of that trust level today, or indeed, what Perry White would think of it.

News that a rare, pristine copy of the first comic book to feature Superman sold for $3.2 million this weekend has generated a substantial amount of media reporting over the last couple of days.  Unfortunately, the rush to report also generated numerous errors in grammar and punctuation, enough to make any high school English teacher go into paroxysms of rage.  At the same time, the hurried storytelling has revealed, once again, that too many news outlets are committing factual errors in the urge to upload.

It’s hard to know where to begin with this piece from MTV News, for example.  Opening with poor verb-subject agreement (“statistics” is plural in this instance, not singular) is not a good omen for what’s to come.  I realize that many of my readers and followers have a problem with my pointing out this sort of thing.  However, errors in grammar and punctuation do make a difference.  This is a fact made all the more apparent when reading a bullet point like this:

4. This debut issue features the first appearance of Superman, alias Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

When you do not put a comma after “Clark Kent”, the headline becomes rather different, as I think you’ll agree.

Then there are the obvious research and reasoning issues with this piece.  For example, the author’s statement about Christopher Reeve being the first to play Superman on the silver screen is simply wrong.  Not only was there a live-action Superman series shown in movie theatres back in the 1940’s, in addition to animated cartoons, but George Reeves played Superman in the first feature film about the character in 1951.

The piece concludes with Reason No. 5 for the price of this very expensive comic book.  The author explains that Superman was originally an orphan, and that neither the Kents nor Kansas were mentioned at first in his mythology.  I’ll choose not to split hairs over the Last Son of Krypton being an orphan, and instead focus on the real problem with this assertion.  It isn’t so much that it could have been phrased better, but the fact that it’s irrelevant to the story.  It’s a bit like saying that a Francis Bacon painting sold for tens of millions of dollars because his last name also happens to be Twitter’s favorite pork product.

Of course, I don’t mean to pick on this individual writer, per se.  The real issue in my mind is whether anyone at MTV News actually does any editing, given that they let this piece be published as-is.  Keep in mind, this is just one, short piece on a pop culture subject, so one has to ask oneself what else are editors at major media outlets allowing to slip past on more serious matters.

Trying to put out a well-written, well-researched story is more important than simply throwing information onto the digital wall as quickly as possible, and hoping that at least some of it sticks.  Without common writing standards, and the enforcement of those standards by editors, writing becomes a kind of free-for-all, in which no one may point out anyone else’s faults.  Yet if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, how am I ever going to get better?

If you write online, you have just as much responsibility to your readers when you hit “publish” as a newspaper or book publisher does.  If you expect your online readers to pay attention to what you’re about to tell them, then you have to be authoritative, and back it up with facts.  You also have to command the language, rather than either allowing language rules to intimidate you, or pretending that they don’t matter when they most certainly do.  Just because blogging is a new form of media, doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to escape the virtual red pen of a good editor.

Clark Kent could have snapped Perry White like a twig, if he wanted to.  Nevertheless, he respected his editor, and followed his orders when it came to writing a story.  Let’s all try to aspire to good writing and good editing in following that example, even if that means being corrected for mistakes, so that we can improve upon the writing powers we already have.

Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein  Panel from Action Comics #288 "The Man Who Exposed Superman" (1962)

Panel featuring Perry White and Clark Kent by Curt Swan/George Klein
Action Comics #288 “The Man Who Exposed Superman” (1962)




Selling Superman: How the Man of Steel’s Creators Lost Him

Today would be the 100th birthday of artist and Superman co-creator Joe Shuster (1914-1992).  Shuster and his friend writer Jerry Siegel (1914-1996) famously sold their rights to the Man of Steel to what later became DC Comics, for the princely sum of $130.  In exchange, they received a ten-year contract to write and illustrate the Superman series of comic books.  For Shuster and Siegel, this would turn out to be one of the biggest blunders in the history of business, akin to Decca records passing on signing The Beatles back in 1961.

Although the story of the sale of Superman is often repeated as a factoid, many are unaware of the legal wranglings that followed, as the pair tried to remedy their mistake.  And well they might rue the day that they had signed over their giant boy scout to the publisher, for Superman has been a huge money-maker for quite a long time.  During World War II for example, Superman comic books were selling at the rate of one million copies a week.  The development of other revenue streams from the character, including radio shows, short and feature-length films, and later the various television series, as well as all kinds of consumer products, continues to pour money into the coffers of DC Comics and their parent company Time-Warner to this day.

Back in 1947, Shuster and Siegel sued National Allied Publications to regain control over their giant offspring, since National Allied now owned not only Superman, but the entire character universe which had been created around him, as well as in the Superboy comics which premiered a few years after the Man of Steel’s debut.  The former group included such familiar figures as Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White.  The latter series filled out details of the now-familiar mythology, regarding his relationship with his adoptive parents, Ma and Pa Kent, his growing up in Smallville, and so forth.

This first lawsuit by Superman’s creators was not hugely successful, since the trial judge ruled that National Allied was the legitimate owner of Superman, because Shuster and Siegel had sold him in exchange for valuable consideration.  The parties to the suit eventually entered into a stipulation agreement in 1948, which was approved by the court, in which in exchange for relinquishing any further claims they might make regarding ownership of Superman, the pair agreed to a lump-sum payment of $94,000 – a little under $1 million in today’s dollars – in settlement of their disputes.  And that might have been that, except that Superman the money-making machine showed no signs of stopping, as the decades rolled by.

When Superman’s intellectual property protections were about to go the way of the planet Krypton, Shuster and Siegel decided to try again to assert their rights over the character.  This time, the trigger was the renewal of the copyright to the Man of Steel.  Works created prior to the Copyright Act of 1976 typically had an initial 28-year period of protection from the time of publication, which could later be renewed by the rightful owner.  Superman’s first published appearance in 1939, although Shuster and Siegel had been working on him since their college days in Ohio, meant that he was going to slip into the public domain in 1967, unless that copyright was renewed by his rightful owner.

Shuster and Siegel filed suit in federal district court in New York, alleging that they, and not National Periodical Publications, the successor of National Allied, held the right to seek copyright renewal for their creation, under various theories.  While the pair were ultimately unsuccessful, the court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of National Periodical is a great example of a judge (or his law clerk) having a little fun when writing an opinion. something which during my legal career to date I have only experienced on a few occasions.  In the opening sentence of his ruling, Judge Morris E. Lasker of New York’s Southern District notes one of the key differences between the Man of Steel and the people before him:

Although Clark Kent, generally known as Superman, is happily capable of solving all problems without going to court, his creators and exploiters, mere mortals like the rest of us, are not so fortunate.

Siegel v. National Periodical Publications, Inc., et al.,
364 F.Supp. at 1032 (S.D.N.Y., 1973)

Although part of Judge Lasker’s findings were reversed on appeal the following year, the dismissal itself was ultimately affirmed on other grounds.  In their ruling, like their brother on the bench below, the judges of the 2nd Circuit couldn’t resist injecting some superlatives about Superman into their written opinion.  They described the Last Son of Krypton as “a person of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest,” Siegel v. National Periodical Publications, Inc., et al., 508 F.2d at 909 (2nd. Cir., 1974).  Subsequently the legal wranglings over ownership of Superman have continued, with the heirs of Shuster and Siegel experiencing some more losses and even a minor victory or two.

Aside from these interesting legal citations however, the real lesson to be drawn here is quite simple.  If you really, really believe in your product, whatever that product may be, think very carefully before signing away your rights to it.  In the case of Joe Shuster, although he was able to have a steady job as a comic book artist for a decade, in exchange for relinquishing his big blue and red baby, he later sank into obscurity.  Imagine how different things might have been, had he been willing to haggle just a bit more to retain at least some right of ownership over his very profitable offspring.

Superman comic cover by Joe Shuster (1940)

Superman comic cover by Joe Shuster (1940)