If you’ve ever had any inclination to be an artist, or if you’re old and decrepit enough to have had art class in grammar school, you probably received at least a rudimentary education in topics such as perspective, gravity and physics. Drawing remains (for the time being) a two-dimensional experience and so the pencil pushers in the comic book medium must figure out how to represent our three-dimensional world in a medium that lacks visual depth.
Our friends in the closely-related field of animation figured this out long before most of us were born. You ignore physics and keep the story running so fast the viewer is undaunted by technicalities. Bob Clampett’s Porky In Wackyland – the best cartoon ever – employs this concept in nearly every frame. It’s the very purpose of the cartoon. Chuck Jones’ Road Runner series, for the same studio, uses perspective manipulation as a running gag throughout the run: Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff but does not fall until he realizes he’s run off that cliff. Then he falls into a chasm so deep it would make the Grand Canyon cross its legs. He survives the fall even though the intensity of the drop is so great he’s pounded into the ground – still alive – and usually gets hit on the head by a chunk of that cliff.
In this, Wile E. has defied all three of the laws of motion. I think Isaac Newton would have laughed his ass off, but then again, he very well might have been deeply offended.
We’ve seen all kinds of wacky science in comics. Sometimes, defying physics comes off just fine. After all, if The Hulk really existed and he really could get from point A to point B by scrunching down and leaping into the air, that “equal but opposite reaction” thing would cause quite a stir. So which laws of physics do you obey, and which can you ignore?
That depends on your premise. If you stipulate that Kal-El came from another planet and somehow Earth’s red sun is what gives him the ability to fly through the air and cook a hot dog three miles away with his eyes, accept it as canon. The most impressive lesson I ever heard the great Denny O’Neil give comics talent was “It might be phony science, but it’s our phony science.” Establish it, own it, stick to it.
That’s great news for the writer. It’s a little harder for the artist.
Let’s take two of the greats: Will Eisner and Joe Simon. They could fudge physics in order to make the impossible look swell.
On Will’s Spirit cover, one of my favorites, The Spirit is running in front of an elevated train. Let’s forget about how that’s a single track, although in big cities people need to travel in both directions. There’s no bed under the tracks, no ballast. That makes for great visuals, as you can see people’s reactions – including The Spirit’s pal, Commissioner Dolan. But the train couldn’t run on unsupported tracks. In fact, I’m unsure just what those ground supports are supporting – the tracks and ties alone could not handle the weight of a four-car train, even if it were empty. But it looks fabulous, doesn’t it?
Joe Simon’s Harvey Hits cover is another favorite of mine. It was the first time I ever saw The Phantom, the first costumed comics hero, and new heroes were very few and far between back then. So it didn’t bother me that The Phantom had come to the end of his rope – literally – while swinging through the jungle to save the lady on the horse from the lion while the lady in her leopard skin dress is trying to catch the guy with her lasso of infinite length. She need not have worried: The Phantom was just about to die from that astonishingly long fall. We get a sense of perspective from the size of the other four figures (two women, one lion, one horse).
At that time, I was the target audience for comic books, and I didn’t care. It looked exciting, and the purple guy looked determined enough to deal with the situation. It probably wasn’t until a decade later when I knew better.
But The Phantom cover, too, looks fabulous, doesn’t it? It connects with the reader. In either case, you don’t need to be a global warming denier to appreciate how the science would work against you here.
That’s the advantage comics still has as a storytelling medium over movies and “television.” We can fake it, we can fudge things, we can make the situation look so exciting the reader won’t have time or inclination to figure out all that physics stuff.
As Robert Crumb famously said, it’s all just lines on paper. Just remember the wisdom of Denny O’Neil: it might be phony science, but it’s our phony science.