Mister Terrific: Scientist Turned Superhero

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A new superhero hit comic book stores this September – or at least, a new version of a superhero (with some science added to his backbone.) Meet Michael Holt, a billionaire, brilliant scientist and, oh yes, superhero Mister Terrific. 

Mister Terrific is a new addition to DC’s New 52, and while the character is not new (Mister Terrific first appeared as Terry Sloane in 1942, then again in 1997 as Michael Holt), his use of science and scientific jargon is a notable change. The first pages of Mister Terrific #1 introduce the reader to positive and negative ions, a quantum experiment, and differential equations. But this very smart superhero series is not a science textbook – the scientific facts are part of the plot, and the exposition is just enough to give the reader some confidence in the science, without overloading the brain on fact.

So, where does Mister Terrific get its science? We were lucky enough to chat with the writers of the series, Eric Wallace, and he gave us some scoop on the series’ science, how Mister Terrific differs from other superheroes, and what science you might see in upcoming issues.

Mister Terrific is packed with science – not only science as a plotline but scientific terminology. How do you decide what science to use? Are you inspired by science first, or do you think of a plotline and then try to work in science?

Actually, I use both methodologies during the story process. For example, with Mister Terrific #1, I came up with the story first. Then afterward I went back and started to research the science needed to back up the story events. 

But in issue #2, the first part of the story came from doing random science research on sonic black holes, a primarily theoretical concept that I have been fascinated with for a few years now. The more actual research I found on the subject, the more convinced I was that this was something that could work in a Mister Terrific story. The entire opening of Mister Terrific #2 was then subsequently built around my findings on sonic black holes and Bose-Einstein condensates. 

Now mind you, I’m not a scientist. So some of the research I often encounter can be well above my head. When that happens, I’ll usually call up one of my friends who is an actual scientist to get clarification. 

Having physicists as colleagues and qualified science advisors is something that became invaluable to me when I was working as a writer on the SyFy show, Eureka. So I’ll make sure to use the same approach—when necessary—on this comic book. Again, the idea is to present science that is as accurate as possible, but without sacrificing the quality of the story. 

Is the science accurate, or at least, plausible? Sometimes, accurate or plausible science does not fit in the story. Have you experienced a moment of “story trumps science?”

Again, I always try to keep the science in Mister Terrific as accurate as possible. But yes, sometimes story trumps science when it comes to entertaining plots. A perfect example of this occurs in Mister Terrific #3. 

The villain Brainstorm is using cognitive enhancing neurotransmitters to increase intelligence in unsuspecting humans, which he later feeds on. Okay, a villain who “eats” intelligence? It’s far out, but maybe it could happen. And there are actual theories out there about chemicals in the brain that may or may not enhance cognitive functions. So far, the science is a bit futuristic… yet still plausible.

But comic books, like movies and TV, are a visual medium. And a villain who calmly drains brainpower from victims could look boring or silly. So, for the purpose of a) providing more jeopardy to the storyline and b) increasing the visual impact of Brainstorm’s intelligence-eating process, I decided to have his victims’ brains literally melt and their skulls cook when being drained.

Think of an early stage visual out of a movie like Scanners and you get the idea. Now would enhancing your brain to extremes cause your cerebral cortex to catch on fire and explode? Of course not. That’s just ridiculous. But hey, it looks really cool in a comic book. So hence, I cheated a bit and let entertainment trump science. And the effect, while a bit gruesome, really drives home just how dangerous a villain Brainstorm really is.  

Different science facts are explained throughout the comics, but it’s not too much exposition, just enough to learn some new facts or get interested in the science – was that part of the intention?

Yes. A big part of Mister Terrific is all about making science cool again. That’s why I try not to bog down the reader with weighty, overly complicated tech talk. However, I’m also trying to introduce the audience—especially young readers—to science, but in what is hopefully a fun and entertaining way. 

If just one kid can read an issue of Mister Terrific and then become curious enough about photorefractic quantum wells (issue #4) or molecular chemistry (issue #6) to pursue those interests further—if it could just spark that indefinable thing that might blossom into a lifelong love of science—then I’ll feel like this book has really accomplished something. 

How does this version of Mister Terrific differ (if at all) from the original 1997 character?

This interpretation of the character was created for DC Comics’ New 52 relaunch, and is therefore quite different from his 1997 counterpart. First of all, Mister Terrific was more of a traditional superhero back then. Yes, he was still super-intelligent, but often used his fists to solve problems. Also, he was no longer a millionaire (like the original Mister Terrific was in the 1940s). This has been restored and updated as part of his character for the 21st century, so now Mister Terrific’s secret identity is that of billionaire Michael Holt. 

But the biggest change for the new Mister Terrific series is its whole-hearted positivity and complete embracing of a scientific ethic. Mister Terrific is a man ruled by his own scientific curiosity. It’s something that comes in handy when fighting technologically-advanced super criminals and policing “science gone mad” around the planet. 

But it puts him at a disadvantage when dealing with affairs of the heart, as he sometimes treats his interpersonal relationships with friends and lovers as “experiments,” often keeping those closest to him at a distance.  Needless to say, this doesn’t go over well with his significant others. 

Comics have often used science – are there any noticeable differences in how Mister Terrific uses or views science versus other superheroes?

There are a few other comic books out there—The Flash, Captain Atom, and The Fury of Firestorm all come to mind—that do a great job of introducing real science concepts into their storylines. But the big difference in Mister Terrific is that the main character, Michael Holt, actually is a scientist and unabashedly so. Science defines who he is. Science is what he uses to quantify and define the world around him. And actual scientific jargon is what he often uses to describe it, which is why laymen can often find Mister Terrific’s method of discourse a bit baffling!

Ultimately, I think that the fact that Mister Terrific has actual (!) degrees in astrophysics and mechanical engineering help separate him from other superheroes who might just be businessmen or average joes. 

Mister Terrific’s familiarity and comfort in the scientific realm also makes for a more natural integration of science concepts into his stories. This, hopefully, makes the science in Mister Terrific seem plausible, but without sacrificing the fun.  I mean, after all, here’s a guy who is a scientific genius. Yet, he surfs through the skies on metallic spheres. I’m no rocket scientist, but that does seem a bit impractical. But hey, it looks really cool and, as Mister Terrific himself would probably say, it’s a whole lot of fun. 



The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.