Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Things That Make You Go Zoom
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL

URL: http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html

Continuing our discussion of just how the internal physics of superhero universes actually works, we move along to Items Of Power: power rings, anti-gravity belts, uru hammers, costumes made out of white dwarf material (!), X-Kryptonite, and a whole avalanche of other wildly unlikely stuff that, alas, I myself have still never managed to find any of at a thrift shop, flea market, or garage sale.

One of the underlying themes of all superhuman fiction/mythology, from Jason and the Argonauts to Aladdin to King Arthur to Green Lantern, is the magic totem. In virtually all these stories, some vastly powerful overbeing gifts a mortal with an object which grants them strange powers, or, at least, access to strange powers... said powers which are either carefully or casually explained by the overbeing at the time of the gift. I hypothesize that these totems are all at base the same thing - items for magnifying and manifesting, directly in objective reality, the subjective will of the user.

Green Lantern's power ring, in fact, is defined as exactly that. In this particular case, the Guardians trust their chosen champions enough to tell them "this damn thing can do ANYthing". (They may as well, since they cull the entire universe first searching for beings of complete honesty and total fearlessness, which sounds good initially, until you contemplate the concept of, say, Harlan Ellison with a power ring.)

In the case of seven league boots, magic carpets, cloaks of invisibility, or sheathes that prevent you from losing a drop of blood, the godlike entities aren't quite so trusting. They hand these things over to mortals, but when they do, they make darn good and sure to implant firmly in the mortal mind that these items are only good for just this one specific thing. Aladdin's Lamp, perhaps, started out life as merely a miraculous illumination device. However, by the time Aladdin got hold of it, all he knew was that it was a powerful magical artifact that he thought would let him do 'anything he desired'. The genii was his subconscious given palpable form by the lens of the artifact, and as you might expect with someone's subconscious id running around in gigantic, ugly form, things got quickly out of hand.

As I've pointed out in passing with Green Lantern, the magic totem is hardly unknown in superhero comics. Since comics started being published in a culture that for the most part mistrusts mysticism, these magic totems more often takes on technical trappings. Even the weirdly mystical Golden Age Hawkman, for example, flew using an 'antigravity' metal, although in point of fact, there is little practical difference between a magic carpet and wings made of Nth metal. (The wings look cooler, granted.) Nonetheless, it seems a viable theory that whatever these devices may be, at base they are simply totems that allow the will of the wielder to be made manifest in reality.

I'll mention at this point that this would certainly explain why so many superbeings have access to scientific inventions that only they can use, for some reason or another, or gain their powers as the result of some freak condition in their own metabolisms that allows them to survive an incident that kills everyone else involved.

One of the most astounding plot devices ever created in a fictional universe, and to my mind, one of most far reaching in its implications, is X-Kryptonite.

This radioactive element, supposedly created by Superman (I think, or maybe it was Supergirl) while they were trying to create a substance that would cancel the effects of Green Kryptonite, has the demonstrable effect of imparting superhuman powers to normal, non-super powered creatures. This was demonstrated through the creation, in its debut story, of Streaky, the Super-Cat.

This story also apparently established that the effects of X-Kryptonite wear off after a time, necessitating a repeated dosage. (Apparently, since Streaky the Super-Cat became a semi permanent addition to the Superman Family and a recurring member of the Legion of Superpets, a somewhat dimwitted Supergirl regularly dosed her feline with X-Kryptonite. Now, I love cats and have owned/been owned by many, and I cannot think of anything, just off the top of my head, more terrifying than the thought of any of them endowed with Kryptonian powers, including enhanced intelligence, while still retaining an undeniable feline self centeredness. Of course, it's okay for Supergirl, SHE'S invulnerable.)

Now, as John Byrne has established, DC has vigorously embraced, and I myself have resignedly recapitulated in previous chapters, many superpowers, specifically Kryptonian/Daxamite (and, I suppose, Asgardian) superpowers, are psionic in nature. Since X-Kryptonite imparts these sorts of powers to normal creatures, it seems fairly obvious that it is a psionics-amplifier.

However, other forms of Kryptonite (specifically, Red Kryptonite) have been demonstrated as being, in addition to psionics-amplifiers, also energy transformation activators... or so I assume, since Red Kryptonite has been known to turn Kryptonians into giant turtles, two headed dwarves, super powered bunnies in capes, and Mort Weisinger only knows what all else, and if those aren't energy transformations, then Thanos is pro-life. Which means that X-Kryptonite could also certainly be an energy transformation activator, too. Which means, in the end, that X-Kryptonite can basically instill ANY sort of superpowers conceivable, in a normal, non super, creature... with the only stipulation being that without further exposure to X-Kryptonite, the powers imparted eventually wear off.

Now, if this doesn't sound like the basis for virtually EVERY SINGLE KNOWN INSTANCE of non-superhumans gaining temporary super powers from some sort of mysterious potion or device, I'm Hoppy the Marvel Bunny.

Lois Lane and Lana Lang bathe in a mysterious pool and temporarily gain Superman-type powers? I'll bet it had X-Kryptonite in it. Jimmy Olsen drinks a formula that gives him elastic powers? X-Kryptonite, plus a suggestion by the guy who gave it to him that if Jimmy drank it, he would, indeed, gain elastic powers.

Chuck Taine swills down a superplastic fluid instead of a Coke and gains the ability to bounce around like a superball? X-Kryptonite, in combination with a hero worshipping mind that, while consciously expecting nothing more than a quick but painful death from poisoning, subconsciously chose to survive by transmuting Chuck's innate capacity for superhumanity into a power whose final form was strongly influenced by what Chuck knew about the stuff he'd drunk, i.e., it was a superplastic fluid. (Plus, it occurs to me that Chuck also wanted to join the Legion, for which he knew he needed a unique super power. Given that, I think his subconscious regarded the ability to inflate like a Macy's Day Parade balloon and bounce around like a superball to be a safe bet there.)

Scientist finds a meteor that, after he carts it back to his lab and fools around with it for a while, gives him the ability to change his mass pretty much at will? Well, it's not white dwarf material, because a chunk of white dwarf material that big would have destroyed our solar system on its way to Earth, and even if it didn't, it's unlikely that Ray Palmer could have picked the damn thing up and put it in the trunk of his car. (It's unlikely, actually, that Kal Friggin El could have picked the damned thing up and put it in the trunk of Ray's car, or anywhere else, for that matter.) Could it be X-Kryptonite?

Why this particular chunk of X-Kryptonite imparted to Ray Palmer the peculiar power of altering his own mass is one of those imponderable things. Maybe Ray, as a kid, was a big Doll Man fan. However, it should be noted in support of this theory that (a) Ray made this particular meteor (somehow) into fabric that he then made into his superhero uniform, and wore constantly (if intangibly, and don't even go there, please), so it's pretty clear that the powers he gained from it would never actually wear off, and (b) when other people got their hands on this particular chunk of transformed X-Kryptonite, it never worked as well for them as it did for Ray, and (c) long exposure to Ray's costume seems to have imparted some limited superhuman powers to various people he came in frequent contact with, like Chronos. (He came in frequent contact with Chronos primarily by bouncing his entire body off Chronos chin, repeatedly, until Chronos fell over and stopped being a nuisance, which may be one of the more painful methods known to get a superpower, come to think of it.)

It all sounds like X-Kryptonite to me. Now, (b), the fact that the Atom's costume, when used by others, worked pretty much the same way as it did for Ray, but not as well, is a bit puzzling. If this were really X-Kryptonite, you'd expect it to impart different super powers to each person exposed to it. However, first, anyone knowingly wearing the Atom's costume is going to expect to gain the Atom's powers, and that subconscious influence, as with Jimmy Olsen and the elastic formula, or Chuck Taine and the superplastic fluid, may have been a primary player. Second, Ray Palmer obviously imprinted heavily on this particular chunk of X-Kryptonite, in that he did, somehow, manage to make it into a costume in the first place. Given that HE used it to change size and weight, most likely, that's what it's pretty much going to do from now on.

And let's not let semantics get in the way of things, here, since in point of fact, I'm not really saying that X-Kryptonite is, itself, the prime mover behind all the temporary human-superhuman transformations in the DC Universe. What I AM saying is that, in fact, the engine behind ALL transhuman performances and phenomena is superior will... and that sometimes, superior will results in an accident that imparts 'permanent' superpowers, while other times, superior will results in the creation of some sort of artificial substance which then, itself, produces the desired transhuman effect.

This 'artificial substance' is nothing more nor less than an extraction of the primary, mutable fabric of the super-universe itself, distilled into one space/time locus by a godlike effort of sentient focused mental energy. The Oan power battery is made of this stuff, and so are power rings, and so is X-Kryptonite, and Starman's cosmic rod, and Dr. Fate's helmet, and across the dimensional barrier, so is the 'Pym particle', and the Cosmic Cube, and probably, even, the fundamental material of Tony Stark's armor, which I will note has never worked well for anyone, in the long term, but Tony Stark himself.

All Items Of Power are made out of this fundamental metamaterial. Some, like the Pym particle, primary admantium, and Nth metal, are impressed with one function, or a limited array of functions, at the moment of their creation. Others, like power rings, the Cosmic Cube, X-Kryptonite, Aladdin's Lamp, and most likely, Tony Stark's Iron Man armor, are more or less simply 'lenses' for focusing the will of the wielder through.

There are innumerable examples of this mechanism in action in superheroic fiction, but let's look at one in specific: the "Pym particle".

Dr. Hank Pym labors hard on creating 'shrinking gas', and since he is a person of indomitable will and intellectual power... as most of our scientific superbeings seem to be, whether heroic or villainous... he succeeds. He concentrates his indomitable will, spends hours or weeks in focused mental effort, and in the end, the more malleable fabric of the super-universe he lives in responds to his efforts by condensing within his test tubes a tiny coherent smidgen of metamaterial, attuned permanently, by Pym's focused intent, to the particular function of size change. It first manifests itself in a gaseous form. Through further laborious effort, Pym refines it into powder he can turn into pills, then into a serum. After years taking the stuff and working to refine it further, he is astonished to find that he has apparently, somehow gained a natural control over the "Pym particle", although, in fact, he had it all along, it's just that he can now do it without having to 'psyche' himself into it by various arcane laboratory rituals first.

So we have the "Pym particle", which current Marvel lore says is a part of the natural universe that Henry Pym 'discovered'. I say bosh. I say it's a metamaterial artifact, albeit, most likely, a very small one, that Pym invented and has a natural mental affinity for, which affinity allows him to call it into being whenever and wherever he desires to do so.

Moving on from the Pym particle, let's look at another 'thing that makes you go zoom'... Thor's uru hammer, Mjolnir.

Thor is a complicated case. As an Asgardian, arguably a 'god', he's about the closest thing the Marvel Universe has to a Kryptonian or a Daxamite. (The parallels are closer than one thinks. Asgardians in Asgard don't seem to evince much in the way of superhuman powers, other than immortality and greater access to 'magic'; it's only when they travel to other realms, such as Midgard/Earth, or Trollheim, that they all seem to take on the typical superstrength and immunity to gross physical damage that are also common 'uber' powers in the DC Universe, as well. Does Asgard have a red sun? Of course, it could just be that in a land where everyone is superhuman, superhumanity is 'normal', but I can't recollect ever seeing a native in Asgard pick up a wagon and throw it over a castle wall. Plus, they all ride horses, something that would be kinda pointless in a land where everyone should be strong enough to leap tall buildings at a single bound.)

However super he is naturally, Thor also has an Item of Power, his enchanted hammer Mjolnir, that confers on him powers and abilities far beyond those of immortal Asgardians. That the hammer is a focus for his will is inarguable, since he has to concentrate on it, sometimes tapping it on the ground, to summon or dismiss weather phenomena, and before Immortus and his Space Phantoms screwed around with it, the hammer had various other powers, like harnessing magnetic force, opening spatial portals, and even a limited capacity for time travel. In fact, for a while there in the early 60s, it started to look quite suspiciously like Thor's hammer could do just about any friggin thing Thor felt like having it do... which is the classic definition of an Item Of Power.

Beyond being just a repository for additional powers for a Norse god who already has a whole great big can of whupass, as Kent Orlando likes to put it, another of Mjolnir's primary purposes, which Odin is forever taking out and putting back in again, is to effect an energy transformation on anyone 'worthy' who holds the hammer, turning them, effectively, into an Asgardianized version of themselves, usually wearing some modified form of Thor's costume.

Apparently, Odin first programmed this into the hammer to let an amnesiac stricken, befuddled, and humanity-encumbered Thor, wandering the Earth in a daze as "Don Blake", get access on occasion to his Thor-powers. After this particular super-feature caused some annoying consequences down on Earth by transforming a couple of goobers into lame Thunder God dopplegangers, Odin took it back out again. Apparently, lately he's put it back so Thor can turn into some ambulance driver once in a while, (which is something I'd really WANT to do if I were six and half feet of godlike charisma and power capable of arm wrestling the Midgard Serpent into writhing submission, but no one asked me) but it all gives me a headache and thankfully, the current Thor series isn't being written by Kurt Busiek, Chris Priest, or Alan Moore, so I don't have to buy it.

Nonetheless, my main point here is, occasionally, Mjolnir acts as more than merely a power amplifier for Thor. At various times, it also acts as a straightforward Item Of Power, causing an energy transformation in Mere Mortals that allows them to become for certain periods, superhuman... although maintaining that high-entropy state is clearly dependent on the continual presence of Mjolnir, since the counterfeit Asgardian will turn back into Fred the Doofus if he loses contact with the hammer for longer than 60 seconds.

In other words, Mjolnir, like Pym particles and Nth metal, is a metamaterial object which, in this case, was programmed to perform certain specific functions when it was created, from relatively minor ones (return to its wielder's hand when thrown, wreck everything it hits, etc) to major ones (summon, control, and summarily dismiss various meteorological phenomena, channel various forms of energy, create portals through space and/or time, to name a few).

However, the interesting factor here is that even after thousands of years of existence, Mjolnir is still programmable, albeit, apparently, only by Odin. After cursing Thor to a mortal existence in hopes of teaching the arrogant godling humility, Odin incorporated into Mjolnir a capacity for shifting its own shape into a gnarled staff, and the shape of any 'worthy' wielder into a super-optimized, Asgardian version of itself. He also had to program in some guidelines so the hammer/stick would be able to decide who was 'worthy' and who wasn't, and why he bothered to do that we may never know, since he clearly intended Thor's mortal form to be the hammer's only user... but gods are whimsical.

Interestingly, Immortus also managed to 'deprogram' some of the hammer's functions, although it's worth noting that if, indeed, the hammer was only an amplifier for Thor's godlike will, then Immortus may not have done anything to the hammer itself, he may have simply given Thor a post hypnotic suggestion that the hammer could no longer let him travel through time... which the enormously gullible Scion of Asgard swallowed hook line and sinker, and so, never tried to use the hammer to do so again.

In which case, the damned hammer may be nothing more than a mallet shaped power ring, and the inscription about 'worthiness' is merely poetry alluding to the fact that only those with a level of egotism approaching that of an immortal self proclaimed deity would be able to use it. Which would explain why Captain America, Beta Ray Bill, and Thor himself can use it, but leaves me utterly baffled as to how Eric Masterson ever managed anything with it. And which tends to make me think that it would be a very good thing if neither Hank Pym nor Ultron ever got their little pitty paws on it.

Having gotten this far as a warm up, I now want to directly address probably the most blatant Item of Power in modern superheroic fantasy fiction: the Green Lantern Power Ring.

The Guardians of the Universe, little blue social meddlers that they are, embody sort of the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from, say, Star Trek's Prime Directive. Where Kirk and Picard are strictly enjoined from interfering in the natural development of an isolated sentient culture, the Guardians seem to feel that they and they alone have a handle on The Way Things Ought To Be, and, naturally, with great enlightenment comes great responsibility. Fortunately or otherwise, these tiny little megalomaniacs with white Bozo the Clown hair also have great power, in the form of this big green glowing battery/lantern thingie they keep around in the front yard to scare off Heralds of Galactus with.

For reasons never quite explicated - at least, not believably -- the Guardians recruit lots of OTHER folks to go out and do the dirty work of policing the galaxy, maintaining order, and fighting evil. ("Our bodies are not well suited to the rigors of conflict or channeling the power of the battery" is the line they use most consistently, but given that the nature of the entities they choose to be Green Lanterns range from talking chipmunks to, like, bugs, this seems... um... accuracy challenged. It might be more credible to note that the Guardians may well believe that fighting evil is a tedious and hazardous chore; far, far better to recruit some lowlife primitives to do it, who don't mind getting their pretty white gloves bloody.)

Given that their previously chosen reality cops, a group of grubby androids called the Manhunters, went nuts on them and decided to set up shop as a secret cabal of intergalactic Illumaniti, the Guardians decided that THIS time around, they'd be a little pickier who they handed a cosmic badge to. And a good thing, too, since this time around, they were passing out power rings, instead of blue bozo face masks and silly little ray-batons. So this time, they combed the universe for sentient individuals who were both completely honest and totally fearless, and handed over to these guys near omnipotence in the form of little green rings that could basically do anything the wearers wanted them to.

(The Guardians also programmed into these rings another primary function, namely, to keep their wearers from being harmed at all times... which seems only wise, if you're going to go out and recruit a bunch of mooks who are all totally without fear. Otherwise, you'd tend to run out of fearless idiots fairly quickly, in a universe as hazardous as DC's.)

So it was that apparently, a lot of sentient beings (and G'nort, too) who otherwise would not have gotten to do the SuperHuman Twist were invited to the ball anyway, and their inscribed invitation was a little piece of glowing green jewelry that, for 24 hour periods, could basically make the most crazed imaginary constructs of its wearer, real.

In one infamous case, Green Lantern actually used his power ring to whip up a giant green semi-sentient creature (I forget just exactly why) with thought balloons and everything, that promptly set out to eat most of Coast City, until GL remembered where he left it and rather callously dissolved it again.

Power rings, apparently, can do ANYTHING.

If the phrase 'where do I GET ONE OF THESE' is not now uppermost in your mind, you may take out your Official Fanboy Membership Card and pass it to the clerk at the door as you shamefacedly shuffle your way out of the clubhouse. I, myself, can live without Pym particles. I can get along fine without Nth metal wings. A working 'speed formula' would be just dandy, as would a set of powered armor that employs wildly futuristic and utterly impossible technology just because I want it to. However, I will happily and eagerly junk every last darned one of these in exchange for a working power ring and a battery to recharge it from, and if you don't feel the same, my friend and my brother, then, well, you are not my friend and my brother.

There are lots more high tech gizmos and magical doohickies and other such Items of Power I could talk about, but this article has already run too long, and anyway, the power ring trumps them all, so who really cares.

A question remains, however, and it's the fundamental question to this issue: WHY do superpowers and other transhuman phenomena, with or without Items of Power, exist in super universes, and not in ours? What is the fundamental difference between those realities, and the one we reluctantly reside in?

The answer to that... in Chapter 3.

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He is also perfectly aware that he is not a being of great and indomitable will, nor is he perfectly honest, nor totally without fear. For a long time this bothered him, because he thought it meant that he could never have a power ring. However, the recent career of Kyle Rayner has reassured him in regard to all these points, and at this time, he would like to know where he goes to fill out an application for one. Gimme gimme gimme.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

To paraphrase a blurb on the back of a graphic novel I read once:

this is why god invented blogs

I stumbled on this through a recreational google search and am hooked. KIU (keep it up)

11:20 PM  
Blogger Doc Nebula said...

'John Jones' here, although unfortunately, I've long ago forgotten the username and password I set this particular site up under.

Anyway, thanks for the kind words. Always nice when somebody else stumbles across one of these and enjoys it.

6:47 AM  

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