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A friend and I were talking about superheros, and we noticed that many superheros with superhuman powers acquired those powers through some interaction with, for lack of a better term, "advanced scientific phenomena." By that I mean things like radioactivity or radiation (Superman, The Incredible Hulk), toxic chemicals (uh... The Toxic Avenger I guess? surely there is a better example), animal bites (Spiderman, although the spider was radioactive so perhaps that doesn't count), genetic engineering gone wrong, and so on.

What all these phenomena have in common is that they are known to modern science, but (I'm guessing) they are sufficiently unfamiliar to the general public that the average non-specialist would believe that they can induce some sort of superhuman ability. My friend and I are curious to know when and perhaps how this sort of explanation originated.

Does anyone know when the idea that these "advanced scientific phenomena" can create superpowers was first used in a story or comic? Was there some particular motivation for it?

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    Arthur C Clarke said his famous "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." a long time ago, I think pre-Star Trek even. But I'd have to look up the date to be sure. – Mark Rogers Dec 8 '11 at 22:16
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    It goes back to at least Frankenstein. – Oldcat May 27 '15 at 20:34
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This idea has been around since the beginning of myth and storytelling. We just perceive it in a slightly different light in modern society.

The things you refer to: animal bites, radiation, toxic chemicals, genetic engineering, etc. are all just variations of a theme--the transmutation of man. For a man to become more than man, some type of outside force has to change him. What that force can be is limited by what the audience is willing to believe.

In ancient times, this varied from things like the will of the gods to magical items, like magic-imbued armor/equipment, to magical potions or elixers or mystical spells/chants.

Some of these transmutative forces, like animal bites and fantastic equipment, are still used in modern superhero mythology. But since we now understand the natural world through science, the rules have to be changed a little. Previously magical forces are described using scientific/pseudo-scientific explanations so that they seem more plausible, e.g.

  • We know that spider bites don't cause you to develop superpowers, so maybe the spider was radioactive.
  • We know that magical potions don't exist, and humans can't be transformed supernaturally, so maybe the hero ingested or came into contact with a chemical that gave him superhuman abilities chemically/pharmiceutically.
  • We know that gods don't really exist, so the hero was granted his powers by a hyper-advanced god-like alien race instead.
  • ...or perhaps it wasn't godlike aliens, it was genetic engineering by scientists playing gods that turned him into a supersoldier.
  • We know that enchanted armor doesn't exist, so maybe the armor is actually made of nanotechnology/unobtanium/phlebotinum that's responsible for its amazing qualities.
  • We know that lightning strikes and full moons don't grant special powers, so maybe it was a solar flare interacting with phlebotinum that caused our hero to become super.
  • We know our hero isn't gonna find a scroll containing arcane knowledge or magical spells, so instead he discovers scientific knowledge or blueprints for advanced alien technology.

It's not so much that someone came up with this innovative idea of using advanced science to create superheroes, but rather that we live in a culture that understands the world through science rather than magic. We want a little more out of our myths than just "a wizard did it". We want some kind of naturalistic explanation for our fantastic stories because the supernatural just isn't as compelling or satisfying anymore.

And when you think about it, things like animal bites, solar radiation, space rocks, alien beings, mutations, etc. aren't really "advanced science" or science at all. They're just natual phenomena that, we in modern societies, naturally interpret through a scientific lens. The same things viewed through the eyes of an ancient sumerian would again just be "magic".

  • That's a wonderful answer. I especially like the varied examples. – Myrddin Emrys Dec 9 '11 at 2:12
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    Thanks. =P ...I was also going to mention that a similar thematic shift has occurred with supervillains and plot devices in general (killer aliens instead of demons, biogenic weapons instead of curses, green space rocks instead of silver, etc.), but my answer is already overly long. – Lèse majesté Dec 9 '11 at 2:47
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The science behind superheroes might shed some light on this topic. Just to wet your appetite and encourage reading that article here are some quotes:

We've all heard it before: a scientist, working in a secret laboratory buried deep in the heart of an extinct volcano, suffers an unfortunate mishap and is doused in radioactive chemicals/gamma rays/mutagenic DNA. Next thing you know, he is transformed into a crime-fighting guardian of justice.

Oddly, the physical appearance of these accident-prone super-brains is always the polar opposite of a stereotypical scientist - extraordinarily buffed and good looking even before their transformations - leading to malicious speculation about why these fit, handsome, intelligent people aren't out clubbing with all the other chick magnets.

(....)

The first superhero stories, led by Superman himself in Amazing Stories #1, published in 1938, were originally an offshoot of the pulp-fiction magazines and comic strips popular throughout the 1930s. These were stories of adventure, heroism, strange worlds and magical powers - whether it was Flash Gordon battling Ming the Merciless on the planet Mungo, or Conan the Barbarian wrestling dark demons in forgotten temples.

The 1930s was a time when the Great Depression gripped the globe, and this had a particularly poignant effect on the people of the United States. The country that had promised the great American dream was now a land of unemployment, poverty, suffering and a failing free-market economy. People needed heroes, and newspaper comic strips and pulp-fiction magazines provided them in spades.

  • I think the second page really cuts to the pith of the issue. It was a time when people (esp. Americans) were in crisis (the Great Depression, WW2, etc.), and science was a rapidly advancing field which saw great changes in modern society. The constant development of new discoveries/technologies/ideas created a wealth of material for comic book writers and was a ray of hope to the public. This was the time of nuclear power and the space race, so sci-fi really took off across all media. – Lèse majesté Dec 9 '11 at 18:55

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