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Committed: My Favorite Radiation-Induced Superheroes

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Japan and ensuing tsunami, multiple problems maintaining the countries nuclear reactors are being wrestled with. Amongst all the recent worldwide natural disasters, this threat of nuclear radiation is a man-made one. While fears and concerns about the outcome are varied, as a source of fictional drama, comic books have always embraced the idea with a plethora of radiation-created superheroes.

In an effort to stop worrying about what the future holds, I took a look back at how comic books have treated radiation in the past. I thought about titling this “When Radiation is a Good Thing”, but that seemed a little tasteless. However, by highlighting the superheroes who got their power through exposure to radiation I hope to bring some levity to the moment, so here (in no particular order) are ten of them that I like best.

The Incredible Hulk
Bruce Banner was accidentally exposed to gamma radiation while saving Rick Jones (who manages to be a staple “normal” human amongst superheroes, despite basically being the cause of a whole slew of problems.) As Banner always says; you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry… or horny, according to some more recent comics and movies, but I’m dubious as to how that would work. While having excitement (of any kind) be the Hulk’s trigger would make sense from a logical perspective, from a human one I just can’t see how he could avoid being pissed off if he was never going to have an orgasm again.

Anyway, the Hulk is a clear cut case of radiation-induced superpowers, with the caveat of those powers having seriously damaged Bruce’s quality of life. While superheroes often have to deal with the burden of their role, this is one of the few times that comic books get close to having radiation cause an outright disease. Becoming the Hulk doesn’t kill Bruce, but it does make it hard for him to access his personality and intelligence.

Daredevil
In the same childhood accident that gave him his powers, flying radioactive rods (or spilled radioactive chemicals, depending what you read) blinded Matt Murdoch and gave him extra-sensitive senses. However, with Murdoch it is very much a case of the powers only being part of the story, the other part being his own will to fight since his power themselves are only sensory. While those enhanced senses help him to hone his body, all of his physical prowess stems from his own dedication, training and (most importantly) his bravery.

One of the only superheroes who got his powers as a child, it wasn’t until Murdoch was in college that he began to use them to fight crime, almost as if took that time to grow into himself. Although the accident caused him to lose his sight, the loss is almost entirely compensated for by the powers and in many regards he could have simply to lived his life relatively normally. The choice to become Daredevil with relatively limited powers and a slight disability is emblematic of his character as “the man without fear.”

The Fantastic Four
These four got their diverse powers from flying through a cloud of cosmic radiation in an inadequately shielded spaceship. First of all I love that the radiation is “cosmic”, it is so far out, there is something deeply dated about the Fantastic Four’s origins and I’m glad that that has never been altered. In the original story, they land and immediately begin to transform, as if the radiation was fine until they got back to earth. Maybe there was some kind of interaction between the cosmic radiation and the atmosphere. No one knows, it is a mystery, as is the reason for their dramatically disparate physical transformations…

Susan Richards, (Invisible Girl/Woman) has her overtly passive power of invisibility and force fields, which only in later years became a more actively aggressive power as her force fields became increasingly malleable (and it became societally more acceptable for women to be overtly aggressive.) Her brother Johnny Storm (Human Torch), the hot-headed young daredevil has a similarly appropriate ability to burn his body, fly and throw fire. The quintessential science-guy Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), with his emotional inflexibility and his mental acuity is oddly able to stretch his body like elastic. Then there is Ben Grimm (the Thing), a brute of a man transformed into a brute of a brick. Solid and impassable, this reliable character is embodied by his power.

The only reasons that have ever been hinted at for these diverse powers are emotional, which then implies that the radiation is somehow also psychic or at least emotionally sensitive, which implies something more complex than radiation sickness. It’s very much an idea that is emblematic of a lot of what was going on in that era, a kind of early 1960’s, pop-psychology bubble, with everyone unique and special.

Doctor Manhattan
Jon Osterman was transformed into the near god-like Doctor Manhattan following an accident in an intrinsic field experiment. The radiation he was exposed to separated him from his “intrinsic field” and disintegrates him, over the following months he gradually rebuilds himself as something much more than human. Obviously, his name carried implications of nuclear power, a cause of some discomfort for the character but one that isn’t entirely erroneous as he does emit radiation, but not the atomic radiation the name implies.

The origin clearly implies that Osterman’s own understanding of science and watchmaking contributes to his ability to come into being and so there is, like the Fantastic Four, this interesting callout to a very 1960’s sort of idea, where the phsyical condition is directly affected by the mental and emotional state of the individual. Whether this is a direct homage to the superheroes of that era or not is never clear, but it is appropriate to the time it is set in. Going back to the issue of radiation, there is also the question of whether Osterman emits radiation or not. At some point it is proven (and then questioned) that long term contact with him could cause cancer. The fact that the issue comes up so overtly and people around him die of cancer is what sets this book apart from others. In many ways it shows most starkly that this is not really a comic book, but a book about comic books. If it were a true comic book of the era, it would never include such overt use of cancer.

Spider-Man
One of the most well-known of the radiation-created superheroes is Spider-Man. Not simply the result of basic exposure to radiation, his powers are the result of being bitten by a spider which was exposed to radiation. Basically Peter Parker got second-hand radiation poisoning, which is a) pretty unlikely and b) wouldn’t actually work unless he ingested the spider (and despite all of the different retellings of his origin, there’s never been one which had him eat a radioactive spider.)

As we are seeing, radiation in comic books never works the way that it does in life. Not so far anyway. His powers function as if he “caught” the powers of a spider, as if the radiation functioned as a kind of Silly Putty, transferring the characteristics off the spider and on to Parker. Unlike a lot of other radiation-created superhero, aside from his dramatic powers Parker doesn’t have to deal with any problems associated with the radioactivity exposure.

Phoenix
While there have been many revisions of this once-great character, the original version had it that the first Marvel Girl – Jean Grey – was transformed into a much more powerful being when she was exposed to radiation while piloting the X-Men in their damaged shuttle back to earth. The fatal radiation levels and her own psychic abilities combine to bring forth this new, powerful version of Grey as the Phoenix. Eventually, driven mad with power, she was destroyed. Later this was retroactively changed to have been a separate entity, the Phoenix is a cosmic being, entirely separate from Jean Grey, thus allowing for her return.

Personally, I’m a big fan of selective continuity, meaning that I like to pick and choose which parts of the storyline really happened to my favorite characters (i.e. the version that lives in my head is the “real” one to me.) Therefore I choose to believe that Marvel Girl was transformed by her exposure to radiation and she became a more powerful version of herself, renamed Phoenix. No one possessed her, no one took her life over, no one forced her to do anything. She did what she did.

Negative Man
Larry Trainor got his powers when he was exposed to a radioactive field while piloting a test plane. Very much a double edged sword, his strange power is the ability to release a super-powered energy being from his body. His burden is permanent radioactivity which he combats by wearing special bandages to protect others.

He always seemed like the most intense member of the Doom Patrol, (which is saying something) especially during the very bizarre Rebis phase. With his powers barely under control and the additional onus of wearing radiation-proof bandages Trainor can never have contact with others. In addition, the Negative Man energy being which he releases is very much a separate entity from himself and it seems that there is often negotiation and discomfort in this almost cuckoo-like arrangement.

Click here to donate to disaster relief in Japan via the Red Cross.

46 Comments

kudos to Daredevil, but no Dr. Solar? hmmm…

Unlike a lot of other radiation-created superhero, aside from his dramatic powers Parker doesn’t have to deal with any problems associated with the radioactivity exposure.

That’s if we ignore Spider-Man: Reign, in which he gave Mary Jane cancer with his radioactive bodily fluids, but ignoring that miniseries is probably a sound policy (and it wasn’t in continuity anyway).

kudos to Daredevil, but no Dr. Solar? hmmm…

Well, she also spotlighted Dr. Manhattan with nary a mention of Captain Atom. Favorites are inherently subjective,

I would say Godzilla at times was a superhero.

Never realised how radioactive obsessed Marvel was until this…I’m surprised they have heroes that didn’t get their powers from radioactive means.

Mike – Godzilla is my hero, I’m always cheering for the big green guy to win!

@Dominic…Well Marvel’s Silver Age characters do all share the same origin date…and goodness knows radiation-infused things were in vogue at the time. Blame the Cold War, yes?

I did think it was a little much when Don Blake was bitten by a radioactive Norse god.

Actually, now that I think about it, the X-Men and mutants as a whole are the result of radiation, too — albeit, ambient radiation brought on by atomic testing.

No Firestorm? He’s the coolest nuclear hero ever (no pun intended) and was created in the 80’s, a time when most people knew radiation doesn’t work that way.

I should point out that since then it’s been explained (in both Marvel and DC) that only certain people with the right genes (implanted long ago by aliens) get powers from radiation. (And lightning bolts, and anything else that doesn’t give you powers in real life.) We’ve even had radiation-sick characters, like Lex Luthor and his Kryptonite ring.

I can’t help but feel that this is not a good time to be talking about this. Should we have a list of super characters with earthquake and tsunami powers, too?

Good point Taylor Porter, this does feel a bit too soon, yes granted this isnt like the assholes going on about Pearl Harbor etc and you have a link to the Red Cross to donate but still let the dust settle before we start making stuff like this up, also would publish the same article if this had happen in the USA?

I dunno, it’s not like this is especially flippant. I do think there’s a difference between this and Godzilla jokes or a spotlight on the Young All-Stars character Tsunami, though it’s all a matter of degrees.

And, much as Dr. Manhattan and Captain Atom are tied, how can one mention Daredevil without mentioning the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

After all, if one goes by the original B&W comics, it is the radioactive substance that had just bounced off an alternate universe Matt Murdock that mutated them as well.

I also think that the timing of the post is inappropriate.

Imagine if somebody posted,

“Top 10 coolest terrorists in movies”

right after 9/11.

Nice article at the right time.

Really bad taste

Wasn’t Captain America radiated with “Vita-beams”, which gave him powers?

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we should just stop talking about comics at all in the wake of this tragedy and just police what other people say for any hint of decadent pop culture references. Because that, at least, is ALWAYS a good idea.

Its funny how you dont speak for at least 3 people who have already posted on here

Actually, if indeed they’re all different people, those may be the only people I speak for.

What goes around comes around. When Ms. Harris somes sorrow or disaster, I hope she announces it so we all can search for the levity in the situation. Cold unthinking nasty twit.

Oops, I left out the word “experiences” in my previous post. But I hope you got the idea.

It was already seeming like there was some kind of personal vendetta in the sudden swarm of nasty comments, but thanks for making it explicit, Jason. Dunno what it is about this site that attracts these dogpiles on the female posters. Maybe it’s just fandom’s sterling sense of what is and isn’t appropriate to say.

Its nothing to do with it being a female poster, I wouldnt care if it was a male poster in my opinion its in bad taste. I wasnt nasty or personal

You are entilted to your opinion and I am entitled to mine.

Only thing on here I objected to is you trying to decide what other people were thinking- thats up to them and let them decide for themself and if its different to my opinion what other people think then so be it.

No, you objected to “really bad taste.” Then you objected to the part of my post that was clearly a joke (parodying all these posters suddenly coming in and appointing themselves arbitors of what is and isn’t in really bad taste), which of course is your prerogative. People can complain about any damn thing they want. Clearly.

The best: Adam West, in the episode of Family Guy where Peter’s family all get super powers. Adam West rolls around in radioactive waste and the next scene shows him at a doctors. He asks what kind of superpower did he get and the doctor replies that he didn’t get any powers, only cancer.

I got the saracasm is your original post (as I from the UK). But seriously, I will not be responding to any further posts from you. Now if you feel you need to respond to get the last word it go for it but I promise you I wont be reading the response.

Hello,

I don’t usually like to get into the comments section, but yes, I have had sorrow and disaster in my own life and I want to assure everyone that I am exactly like this in all crisis’. Finding a lighter perspective on the death and loss that I’ve personally experienced is the way that I’ve been able to cope with such huge subjects. That’s how I am. I assure you that I take the disaster in Japan seriously, which is why I’ve donated and pass on the link to you, in the hope that we can channel strong emotional response into donations.

These comics exist, I didn’t make them up, I’m just pointing out that this is how comic books have dealt with radiation. I have not made fun of any of the superheroes described above, they are all characters I care about and am interested in. I am simply ruminating on the strange way that comic books treat radiation and (as I always do in my articles) I’m looking at the way that comic books relate to life. This disaster is still in progress, we could all die tomorrow, this article won’t change that. I’m deeply sorry if I offended anyone with my writing, but others have mailed to say that I dealt with this tastefully so clearly people are going to feel differently about this.

Comparing this disaster to 9/11 is insanity. That was an act perpetrated by people against people, there was someone to be angry at and blame. This is an act of nature and there is no one to blame, no one to say “don’t do that again” to. We have no control over something like this and that makes it even more important to find ways to talk about and share our feelings, in whatever way we deem appropriate. If you would rather I did not do this, you don’t have to read what I write.

Please be kind to each other.

All the best – Sonia

Really?

I don’t know, because I didn’t experience it, but I would think that everyone in Japan, and anyone who personally knows anyone afflicted by the tragedies, has a LOT more to be concerned about then an innocuous post on a comics blog. Let’s stop the hand-wringing and the by-proxy moral outrage and quit pretending that anyone dealing with the repurcussions of the events in Japan give a rat’s ass about this list. Does getting offended by this post come before or after finding food, shelter, water and loved ones?

Damn.

AND – by God, if you can’t find the levity in tragedy, you’ll go nuts.

I mean, how many other people here uttered the word’s “ribbed for her pleasure” at their own father’s calling hours?

I’ll tell the story if anyone wants me to.

Good thing you’re not the voice of the AFLAC duck, Sonia.

But she didn’t make a joke or anything so I don’t get why anyone would be mad.

Hey, an hour after my Dad died, we were laughing at the bizarre situation that occurred with him and the rest of us as he crossed over. But it was my personal experience and I would have have been extremely ticked if someone else who wasn’t there would seek to find levity in it. And true, this is extremely minor in the grand scope of things, but acting with common decency is someting that should be done all the time. I doubt that Ms. Harris would ever consider talking about the situation in Japan to a group of strangers and bring up how radiation has been used as a plot device in comic books.

Goodness, Gracious!! Robot 6 just posted a seas related hero post. More insensitivity!! More gnashing of teeth! Woe to them who revel in such a travesty!!!

I do question the taste of such a post at this time, but more strongly question whether “this is an act of nature and there is noone to blame.” There’s a lot of blame to place here, before a lot of people, starting with General Electric and Japan’s post-war government that America installed.
But I do agree that this should not be compared to 911. That involved two buildings, which may or may not (to be polite) have been brought down by their own government. This is a country, which has just been changed forever.

Finding a levity in a grave situation personally and publically are two different things.

Why is the 9/11 comparison insane? Sure, it is different in that it had somebody to blame, but does that make that much difference to the people who loved their loved ones?

Well, maybe Katrina will be more apt analogy then.

How do you think people would have reacted if you posted,

“best hurricane movies list”

to “find levity in the natural disaster”

I don’t think making light of the Japan situation was your intention. But intentions and how people receive it are two different things. And as a person who is from outside of US, I found the post slightly offensive.

There is nothing wrong with the content of the post itself. But to be honest, I think it would have been better if you left the Japan part out.

It’s been already noted in a post, but I’ll expand on it for a bit.

1960s Marvel had a buttload of radiation-created heroes, and I love how Stan Lee was so in tune with the zeitgeist of the times. It’s a big part of what makes those comics special. Something to note when nostalgic fans say modern comic superhero writers are betraying the genre when they use real world influences. Radiation, communists, student protests were all a big part of 1960s Marvel Comics.

It’s pretty interesting how the cutting edge technology of an era will be made to appear almost magical in pop culture. Radiation in the 1960s, genetics in the 1990s and 2000s, electricity in the 19th century.

To clarify, I’m not mad. I don’t think that I’m overreacting.

But when people are, right this very moment, in danger of getting lethal doses of radiation, the last thing that I want to think of is how many of my favourite childhood super-heroes were also bombarded by radiation. Levity has its place, but this is not the time to be reminded of the connection between dire circumstances and the most trivial of things (i.e. super-heroes).

Okay, thanks for all the serial comments but I think Jason and Buttler have used up their soapboxes for this week and should just chill out and read without posting for a few days. The timing of the post was in questionable taste but no one has to read it, and bitching about it doesn’t solve anything, no one will be convinced either way by this sniping.

On the actual topic of the post, I’ve always found it interesting that whatever science is new and intriguing at the time is used as an explanation for paranormal behavior or powers.

In the 1800s, electricity and human anatomy were new frontiers and that was used to explain Frankenstein and Dracula.

Next we get radio transmitting the psychological mesmerism of The Shadow, and Doc Samson using social theory and psychology to reform criminals.

Later we get radiation as a source for everything from Godzilla to Spider-Man, followed closely by DNA research and the X-explosion of characters and moral issues. Grant Morrison has toyed with forefront science like morphogenetic fields, chaos theory and deep time. Who knows what’s next! Enjoy the ride.

Odin bless and protect our neighbors in Japan! So say we all.

I never quite understand how people will say, “if you don’t like what you’re reading, just don’t read it,” and in the same breath get all hinky about critical comments people have responded with.
If you don’t like the comments thread, then just don’t… well, you know…

Holy smokes is there some crazy overreaction going on here. Completely inoffensive article.

My major problem is the line in the intro: “However, by highlighting the superheroes who got their power through exposure to radiation I hope to bring some levity to the moment, so here (in no particular order) are ten of them that I like best.”

I think people who are far removed from the situation are already making light of it.

The article is inoffensive on its own – the tone, the writing, etc. are all fine and inoffensive. I just think it’s weird (and maybe unnecessary) to purposely frame it in the context of – “just hoping to make you crack a smile in light of this potentially devastating incident”.

I am not offended by it, I don’t think it’s hurtful or malicious, but I have to agree with Bruce Kim.

Maybe if I wasn’t a little more removed from Japan and the situation, it wouldn’t strike me this way, but it does.

Cosmic radiation is not only a cool 60s comic phrase – it’s also a real thing!
Pretty sure it doesn’t give people super powers, though. But I think in the FF context there’s something fun that Lee and Kirby hit on about the idea that this radiation affected them in a very physical way. There’s a dark tale to be told where all four lose control of their power/affliction – Reed turning into a stringy elastic mush, Sue disappearing entirely (maybe even dissipating?), Johnny burning up and Ben fusing into solid rock, unable to move.

wow, people sure do get offended easily.

Of course, I think a Top 10 Terrorists list would have been funny and completely appropriate as well.

I agree that the timing of this article might not be the best- perhaps it should have been posted after the disaster has been resolved- but on the other hand I don’t find it offensive at all, because I’m *certain* that many, many comics fans are probably talking PRECISELY about this topic right now. It’s a natural segue: “Can you believe in the 60’s they actually had superheroes gaining their powers from radiation?” “Seriously? Which ones?”

Just casual conversation, which is what posting online should be about. It isn’t as if this were a segment of the local News show.

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[…] plan on becoming the next radioactive super hero! Not my site below, seriously. lol. Committed: My Favorite Radiation-Induced Superheroes | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources I did watch some documentaries on Chernobyl and boy it really makes you trust the gov. I've heard […]

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