'Black Panther': Science, Heroes — And How Comics Changed The World

Feb 16, 2018
Originally published on February 16, 2018 3:15 pm

You don't need me to tell you how exciting or important Marvel Studio's Black Panther has become. It's one of the most anticipated films of the year — and broke records for pre-release ticket sales.

The story of a black superhero who is king of an African nation that is the most technologically sophisticated society on Earth has struck a deep cord in a country being reminded, once again, of the long, sad place of racism in its cultural fabric. Many excellent writers have unpacked the significance of Black Panther for Black Americans (examples are here and here).

But there is another place comics hold in our collective imagination: The link between science and the hero.

My own story runs deeply through the history of Marvel comics in culture. In the 1970s, when I was growing up, Marvel's stories were a profound source of comfort and inspiration to me. Much to my parents chagrin, I waited with anticipation each week for the release of titles ranging from Spiderman to Iron Man to the X-Men.

I was a nerdy, science-geek outcast growing up as the definitive outsider in my town. Back then, there weren't many deep fans of comics. Most of the kids I knew were not interested. The universe Marvel built was a long way from becoming the cultural juggernaut it is today.

But hidden in the often silly and campy narratives of those comics was an idea that grew like a seed in the imagination of kids like me: Science and heroism were indelibly linked.

Many of Marvel's greatest superheroes were scientific geniuses; this includes T'Challa who is both a brilliant scientist and a king. These ordinary people gained their fantastic abilities through their mastery of science and technology. Science is also why T'Challa's nation, Wakanda, is globally preeminent.

A respect for the transformative capacities of science has always been an essential feature of comics — and of Marvel in particular. As I noted many times about my experiences working as the science consultant for Dr. Strange, the Marvel cinematic universe is filled with positive images of the excitement of scientific research. Given their reach, I have been deeply grateful knowing these movies are delivering affirming representations of women and men doing science for good. There are kids out there right now being inspired by the fantastic possibilities of science in the same way I was when I was kid.

So, one message in Marvel comics has always been that science can be liberating.

But, of course, "with great power comes great responsibility." The Marvel universe is also full of villains who are equally adept at using science for, you know, evil. So these stories are not just about science, they are also about the choices individuals make with the power science and technology can grant. Much ink (and many electrons) has been spilled over the links between superhero stories and the storehouse of myth all human culture draws from. It was Joseph Campbell who first articulated the universal myth of the hero's journey when a man or women undergoes superhuman tests to bring back some boon to their community. At their best, superhero comics have found ways to personalize these struggles by imagining how science-granted superpowers do not change the dynamics of human longing or grief. Heroism then becomes recognizing there must be a repayment made to the human community.

So much of our imagined science-fiction futures have been written by white men. Black voices have rarely been given room in popular culture to explore their conceptions of what a future could, or should, look like. And while the original Black Panther was the vision of white men, the image and world brought to screen is one created by black screenwriter Ryan Coogler and team. One of the most compelling aspects of the Black Panther story is that Africans, though Wakanda, have fully won the future. It is from that position that T'Challa's begins to reconsider Wakanda's place in the world. This is the essence of the hero's choice.

Comics have always been a place where science is cast as the engine powering heroism. The relatively small place comics used to occupy in popular culture meant that connection was mostly a secret inspiration for folks that considered themselves outsiders.

I, for one, am more than happy to see that inspiration go truly global. Perhaps it can do some real good.

(For another take on this theme read physicist Clifford Johnson's excellent essay here.)


Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of the upcoming book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. His scientific studies are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Education. You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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