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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super-scholar

Scholarly superheroes and campus life often feature in comics, but do they capture the real-life dramas of academia?

David Parkins illustration (24 July 2014)

Source: David Parkins

The thing about scientist characters is that they can supply the ‘logical’ solution to a plot, either through their fast thinking or via their inventions

Who is the most famous alumnus of Pembroke College in Oxford? Wikipedia suggests the great 18th-century writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who never completed his degree; James Smithson (of Washington DC’s Smithsonian Institution); and William Fulbright (of the Fulbright Scholarships). There is no mention of Charles Francis Xavier, aka Professor X, the paraplegic leader of the X-Men in countless comic books and now a major film franchise.

When universes get rebooted, as is the way in comic books, his backstory changes, but he seems to have graduated early from Harvard, spent two years at Pembroke, got a fistful of PhDs and secured a position as adjunct professor at Columbia University. It is not until he opens a school for gifted young mutants, however, that the fun can really start.

In any event, one episode in the Uncanny X-Men series, originally released in 1984-85, includes a short section set in Oxford. Professor X attends a tutorial by a celebrated geneticist and falls in love with a woman called Moira Kinross, partly because “we were the only ones who had a clue about the ultimate implications of genetic mutation, and we discussed them passionately”. The episode even includes a fairly accurate image of the quadrangle at Pembroke.

Anyone interested in the academic or scientist as superhero can find plenty of other examples within the mainstream world of Marvel Comics. Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four, for example, already has degrees from MIT, Harvard, Columbia and the fictional Empire State University when he embarks on a fateful space flight and a blast of radiation turns him into the infinitely elastic Mister Fantastic.

Alan Moore and David Gibbons are often seen as having reinvented the superhero genre, adding whole new dimensions of human and political depth when they produced Watchmen in 1986. Here, the single character with true superpowers is Jon Ostermann/Dr Manhattan, who has just graduated with a PhD from Princeton when he begins working at the Gila Flats facility for particle physics. It is only when he gets trapped and atomised in the test chamber of the intrinsic field subtractor, and then reconstructs himself by sheer force of will, that he becomes blue-skinned and endowed with powers of telekinesis, teleportation and clairvoyance.

To some academics such tales will seem to have little significance, but not to Stephen Mumford, professor of metaphysics at the University of Nottingham. Mumford suspects that his “choice of career was in part because I grew up reading comics. I was a big fan of Spider-Man, which in its early days was all about university life. He was a student at Empire State University and it seemed like half his professors were super-villains in the making. Dr Curt Connors became The Lizard and Dr Miles Warren became The Jackal. A lot of the fights were on campus…

“I suspect Stan Lee [co-creator of X-Men, The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, among others] liked to set the stories at universities because it was where a lot of science occurred and science could soon lead to superpowers! But there was also an ethos that learning was good and you should work hard at your studies. I think this was Lee’s personal ethic, though it often had a twist that you needn’t expect rewards for your academic endeavours. It was all reminiscent of the myth of Gyges’ Ring in Plato’s Republic. These people did great things – they sometimes saved the world – but got no praise or acknowledgement. Like Plato’s, Lee’s message was that the good was its own reward.”

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