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In which Hank discusses Superhero creation myths, and how the stories we tell about superheroes reflect contemporary fears and fascinations--from Wolverine to Captain America to Spiderman to Batman to Dr. Who.


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A Bunny
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Good morning John, I am currently in Haiti. No, I'm in my office, but by the time you see this, I will be in Haiti. So I'm pre-recording this video because I'm not gonna have internet connection while I'm in Haiti. And people have been asking me to make a video about the science of zombies, so I thought that I would get that out of the way right now. There is no science of zombies! There has never been, nor will there ever be - an undead creature. Life is an extraordinarily complicated balance of inputs and outputs and temperatures and reactants and wastes and fuels, and if any of that stuff breaks down, none of it works. Homeostasis - look it up, and then stop worrying about zombies. But this does lead me to an interesting thought: How, in fiction, are supernatural beings created? And what does that say about the people who write those stories and the people who are interested in those stories? So zombies, for example, are generally created by disease. Just like rabies, you get bit, you get the disease, you get sick, you go crazy and then you die, and then you un-die and then you, yourself, become a vector for the disease. There are other examples for disease-based conversion from natural to supernatural, uh, werewolves being another one like zombies, but also vampires. Now vampires get their power from a disease, but it seems very different from zombies, and it is in fact, quite different from zombies because zombies are a disease based in violence; whereas vampires are a disease based in romance-sexy-time. Which kinda makes sense why women are more interested in the vampires stuff, and the men are more interested in the zombie stuff, because it's like action movies versus chick-flicks. Except that supernatural monsters version of that argument. But all of this is pretty unsurprising because sex, and disease and violence, probably some of the most important forces in the lives of early humans, but newer myths, created by fiction writers and a lot of comic writers provide the same kind of insight. Superheroes nowadays don't so much get their power from disease and sex and violence, superheroes, which began to be created in the 1930s or so, get their power from things that we believe, or believed, hold great power. Spiderman is a great example, because once upon a time, he got his powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider, and that was back when radioactivity and atomic power held all this promise of potential, like, cheap energy for everyone and also the potential for the destruction of the entire world. But then when Spiderman got revamped for the next generation, they cut out the radioactivity - cause that wasn't sexy any more - and instead they put in a genetically modified spider. And thus, we can say about ourselves as consumers of content, that the aura of mystery and power and fear that once surrounded radioactivity and atomic energy now has moved over into genetically modified stuff. All these things that within our culture hold a great deal of power and mystique, like money and technical expertise and the government as a hero and the government as a villain, atomic power, outer-space, the internet, particle physics, our genes, our brains - our obsession with all these things have grown and waned over the years, as has their use in the creation of superheroes. And of course, John, in your zombie apocalypse novella, you did this very thing - you took a source of power and fear and mystery for humanity, the genetic engineering of crops, and you mixed it with the existing zombie myth to get zombies who died and then liked to plant lots of corn. You fell directly into the archetype, like everybody else. Of course, everyone falls in the archetype - that's what archetypes are for. So I'm always keeping my eye out for new and unique ways that superheroes are being created, because I think it's a really clear indicator of what we're becoming obsessed with and what we're becoming afraid of. For example, there's a new movie coming out in which an out of work writer takes this pill, and he becomes a super-genius, and of course, this reflects our fear and fascination about what is going on with brain chemistry and pharmaceuticals. Superheroes and other super natural beings are, of course, fictional, and they seem like they're just there for fun, but they do provide us, I think, with a great opportunity to analyze ourselves and what we're becoming obsessed with and what we're becoming afraid of. Interestingly, those two things - often the same thing. So it's nice to see that this entire shelf of science fiction here, in fact, allows me to learn more about us as humans. John, I'll see you on Monday.