According to Stan Lee, at least in one interview, he came up with the idea for Spider-man after seeing a fly on his wall. He knew that animals served as the inspiration for many superheroes — Batman, anyone? — but felt that insects were underrepresented, and eventually settled on our little eight-legged wonders.
He wasn’t wrong, of course. Indeed, the first superhero ever, a character from Japan called Golden Bat, was based on an animal, and if we go WAY back — assuming the oral traditions of preliterate cultures are any guide — the very first superhumans anyone ever imagined had powers gleaned from animals. Tribal myths the world over, from Africa to the New World, are full of stories about animal-spirits granting a wandering hero their “essence” with which to perform stupendous feats.
It’s not hard to see why. Nature is full of almost unbelievable abilities. Beyond even the commonplace like flight — which is still amazing despite its near-ubiquity — animals can change color, change shape, regrow limbs, generate bolts of electricity, fire burning chemicals, see with sound, see in the dark, lift objects hundreds of times their own weight, and so on. They have wings and venom and camouflage and swords and missiles and armor plating. All of those things are physically possible, and we haven’t even touched the plant kingdom yet.
Writers have a kind of superpower. They’re illusionists. But keep in mind an illusion, in the traditional sense, isn’t a clear falsehood. An illusion, like a hallucination, appears real. An the best writers create fictional people, entire fictional worlds, that we relate to as if they were completely real. Just as a laser is coherent light, fiction is coherent fantasy.
I wanted to bring the characters of THE MINUS FACTION to life by making them considerably more “realistic” than something you would find in a traditional comic but without losing the awe and magic of the fantastic that keeps bringing us back to timeless stories about gods and monsters. In other words, the team’s superhuman abilities didn’t have to BE possible. They just had to appear that way. They had to be coherent fantasy — something more than that variations in a single “X” gene could give all the X-Men their crazy abilities.
But realism is burden. Take the Hulk, for example, the irresistible force yet stopped by the immovable: the Law of the Conservation of Matter. When your foot swells after an injury, or a snake bite, it’s because the tissue “dilates.” Your body shunts fluid into the wound from somewhere else, which opens things up and gives your immune cells space to move around and clean up the mess. But your total mass remains the same, and if Stan & co. were being realistic, then when Bruce Banner swells to become his counterpart, he would retain the same mass but in a larger volume, meaning punching him would be like punching Jell-O.
But that’s no fun.
Thankfully, Nature offers us more gems than anyone could ever hope to mine in a single writing career. Some of them are obvious and you need only reach down and pick them up. My villain Deadbolt, for example, extends the natural abilities of the electric eel.
Others are a little more obscure and required a great deal more thought. Take Xana’s strength. While a mutated gene cannot give you the ability to heal instantly — Wolverine and Deadpool have the same “missing mass” problem as The Hulk — or shoot laser beams out of your eyes, it could theoretically make you inordinately strong. Evolution is not “done” after all, meaning it hasn’t hit upon every conceivable protein configuration. And modern materials science tells us that polymers in different configurations can be highly contractile (protein) or extremely strong (Kevlar).
The problem is that any creature afflicted with a “super-strong muscle” mutation would also need concurrent mutations that strengthened its skeletal system and connective tissue, which would otherwise snap under the strain, leaving the animal immobile and in pain and unable to find food let alone pass its mutation to the next generation. What’s more, strong muscles don’t immediately bring large size. In fact, to the degree such muscles would be denser, requiring greater mass and more energy to make, it’s likely that such animals might actually grow to be on the low range of normal given a standard caloric intake as an adolescent.
I don’t dwell on it in Episode Two — at some point you start to tilt away from a balanced story — but this is why I coupled Xana’s ultra-rare mutation with gigantism, which really does put inordinate strain on a person’s body, as indicated in the story. People with gigantism, like Andre the Giant, almost universally die young, which, in addition to solving one of my superpower problems, also creates some compelling tension in the character’s backstory.
Of course, that still left Xana’s bones as a limiting factor, a problem Wink solves with her next gen exo-frame, which the big woman wears under her armor and that will actually get broken…
Some of the superpowers I came up with reach to the very fringe of our understanding, such as John’s ability to “hitch”. I foist this on a phenomenon called quantum entanglement based on two (arguably) reasonable justifications. First, as smarter people than me have noted, some kind of quantum processes are probably involved in consciousness, which remains for me the greatest “superpower” in Nature. Second, there is mounting evidence that living cells, and even specific organs in certain species, utilize “spooky” quantum effects (to use Einstein’s word), which are just as much part of the natural world as gravity and sunlight. For example, something called quantum coherence seems to be crucial for photosynthesis, which I would bet is going on right now somewhere very close to you.
In other words, quantum biology is a thing. It’s real. And living tissues legitimately manipulate quantum effects. It is conceivable, then, that they could also become living batteries, walking biological weapons, even teleporters, given that teleportation goes on all the time in the quantum realm.
That’s not to say it isn’t far-fetched. But then, much of what we take for granted now would have seemed hopelessly far-fetched to someone even a hundred years ago. The trick is to marry the science to the speculation such that coherent fantasy spontaneously emerges in the reader’s mind. That’s quite the trick. Thankfully we have a guide.
The lesson for writers is simple: Nature is vast. And cleverer than you.
If you can’t tell, my primary training is in biology, so I was tangentially aware of some of the ideas presented in the following TED talk, but if “quantum biology” is new to you, and if interdisciplinary science interests you at all, it’s worth 15 minutes of your time.