Superheroes teach lessons in real science at Toonseum exhibit
Batman has his suit of armor; Thor, his hammer; and Captain America, his shield.
Each is legend.
And while the stories behind the creation of these superheroes' super accessories push the boundaries of what may be possible in the real world, they are rooted in the fact that there are scientists and engineers working today who make sure that we have the materials we need for a safer, healthier and more advanced society.
That's the idea behind “Comic-tanium,” a new exhibit at the Toonseum, Downtown. It not only examines “The Super Materials of the Superheroes,” but also how superheroes, and comic books especially, relate to reality.
“There's no medium like superheroes that reaches across ages, cultures and genders,” says Suveen N. Mathaudhu, curator of the exhibit and assistant professor of mechanical engineering and material science engineering at University of California, Riverside.
“Everybody knows superheroes like Superman, Spider-Man and Batman,” he says.
Mathaudhu was in town last week for Materials Science & Technology 2014, a meeting of The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, a 12,000-member international organization of materials scientists, engineers and students.
The organization last had its annual meeting in Pittsburgh in 2012, and that is where, while visiting the Toonseum and its founding director, Joe Wos, the idea for this exhibit was born.
It has since debuted at the group's annual meeting in San Diego last year, followed by a presentation at the STEM festival in Washington, D.C., a three-day festival of science, technology, engineering and math events and exhibits geared toward kids (stem-fest.com).
Mathaudhu says the exhibit focuses on the stories behind beloved comic characters as an aid in presenting the tools and techniques of minerals, metals and materials science and engineering to kids and the general public.
Paneled vignettes, each around a prop related to the respective superheroes, are accompanied by text that gives real-world examples that relate to the information found in the comics, as well as background stories about real-world engineers and scientists working with similar material.
“Each of them highlights something that is important in comic books, important to society and important to material scientists,” Mathaudhu says about the vignettes.
“Everybody has an idea of what an engineer does, but very few people know what a materials scientist is or what a materials engineer does,” Mathaudhu says. “Major transformations have occurred in society along with changes in materials — Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, and now the Silicon Age. All of these have been driven by materials science. And along the way, comic books and comic superheroes have kind of piggybacked on the knowledge of materials, and it's been kind of surreptitiously hidden within the panels. Wolverine's claws, Spider-Man's web, Captain America's shield — all of these are examples that relate to materials science and the real world.”
Mathaudhu says that superheroes and their stories easily resonate with society, and they are an ideal tool to reinforce the idea that many superheroes are scientists, and moreover, that scientists are superheroes who do amazing things without having to be subject to a laboratory accident.
For example, standing next to a display containing a reproduction of Batman's body armor, Mathaudhu says, “Batman rarely solves his problems with brute force or power. He doesn't go into situations and start swinging away. He researches meticulously.”
Pointing out that Batman has an electron-microscope in his lab, Mathaudhu says, “In many of the comic books, Robin will say, ‘Let's go back to the lab and put it under the microscope.' Batman is a detective, and to be a good materials scientist, you have to be a good detective in your characterization and ability to understand materials. To do it well, you have to look deeper, under the surface. And Batman solves all of his problems this way, by going deeper, doing his research ahead of time and solving his problems.”
The exhibit goes on to pull examples of material use Mathaudhu found in the stories of Iron Man, Captain America and Wonder Woman, as well as a few less-widely known characters, like Sue Storm, aka Invisible Girl of the Fantastic Four.
Each vignette is enhanced through the use of art reproductions, vintage comic books, movie props and artifacts with related scientific images and stories from the real world.
For example, a metal version of Captain America's shield is accompanied with an explanation that a rubber one was necessary for filming the movie because, “If you were an actor, fighting with Captain America in a movie scene, you wouldn't want your hand to land on a metal shield. So, rubber was used,” Mathaudhu says.
Mathaudhu says he is already hard at work developing a second iteration of the exhibit that will include more examples, and, of course, more superheroes.
And being a longtime comic-book fan, he can think of no better world than that of superheroes to draw conclusions about our own.
“Comic books have always been a microcosm of what we are, and I am really happy that we can use them as an outreach tool to reach the broader community and convey these important concepts.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.