My Life as a “Science Fetishist”

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The dictionary defines a fetish as; An abnormally obsessive preoccupation or attachment; a fixation.

I know that there are sexual connotations to the definition, but that, in relation to the laws of physics, is another article entirely!

I’m a science fetishist.

Look—it’s not like I want to perform an illicit act involving a super collider and an ion thruster–!

Hmmm…but that DOES sound interesting!

It’s safe to say that, throughout my thirty year career in comics, I’ve always been obsessed with cutting-edge technology and concepts.

And, it’s a disorder that is constantly evolving.

Let’s face it; what was cutting-edge ten years ago is totally obsolete today.

Don’t believe me–? Go out and try to find a typewriter.

Technology is constantly evolving and so has my preoccupation concerning science and the characters whose premise is intertwined with it.

I believe it would be accurate to say that there are themes that are universal to almost every character I’ve worked on, either solo or with my writing partner David Michelinie.

Whether it’s the world of Tony Stark and Iron Man or the universe that MacKinsey Flint inhabits in FREEMIND, these are the types of characters that David and I enjoy creating and loading up with as much credible science as possible.

I’ve always been fixated with certain aspects of science and I love applying what I’ve learned to my stories.

It’s safe to say that, over the decades, David and I have strived to create flawed protagonists who discover their humanity within the context of fantastic exploits and plausible science.

However, though science plays a very real role in the majority of our stories, it’s always about the man and what makes him special, not the electronic gadgets that inhabit his environment.

Fetish #1—Streamlining and evolving technology

As many Iron Man fans know, my penchant for specific task Iron Man armors came from an old Bob Kane Batman story I read as a kid where the Caped Crusader had specialty costumes that he used to fight in the snow (white costume), fight in the trees (green costume), and goofy stuff like that.

However, as silly as the story was, it had a profound influence on me later in life and got me thinking about specialized equipment for specific tasks. Obviously, that spilled over to the Iron Man series once I got on board.

There’s a huge difference between a stock car and Indy car. Each is designed for specific tasks and THAT was our thinking when approaching the Iron Man armor. It’s unrealistic to presume that one device can adapt to all situations and environments.

However, the one thing that Marvel still does that drives me nuts is that they keep making the Iron Man armor more bulky more loaded with clunky crap.

As far as creating any new armor goes, I would always make it sleeker, more metallic-looking and with less duncels (non-functional design elements) on it.

My fans bugged me a few years ago to create something that represented what I was talking about. In response, I did the Iron Man Nano-Armor illustration accompanying this article.

My philosophy has been that the Iron Man technology should continue to evolve and streamline as the saga unfolds.

You will see this happen in the next installment of film incarnation of the character when “IRON MAN II” premieres in May of 2010.

But I’ll reveal more on that later.

To me, making fictional technology credible has always been the key to making the entire premise work in the world of the fantastic.

I’ve always had an aptitude for science as a kid–which is something of a contradiction for someone with an artistic leaning. I’ve continued to read scientific journals and such to this day. That’s probably why David Michelinie usually left the scientific stuff to me when we worked on stories together on Marvel’s Iron Man or on our own character, Freemind.

Fetish #2—Spintronics

The guiding scientific principle in the world of our Future Comic series, FREEMIND, was Spintronics. With the application of this cutting-edge concept, our lead character creates a micro-wormhole (in this case, a communications conduit) through which disabled scientist McKinsey Flint projects his mind into the body of an android.

An article in the late nineties about Spintronics in Scientific American got me thinking about the possibilities of applying that technology to a contemporary character’s abilities.

The concept of Spintronics operates by the principle that all computers store information on the basis of an infinite combination of zeroes and ones. Spintronics, simply stated, is the science of sub-atomic computers. An atom that spins to the left represents “zero” and the one that spins right–”one”. This concept will lead us to the world where we can create molecular machines, capable of incredible power, yet as compact as a tube of Chapstick.

Thanks to Spintronic science, our lead character’s mind is broadcast through a sub-atomic wormhole formed in his brain–and comes out on the other side of the wormhole in the android’s body, which is composed of billions of micro-machines working in concert with each other. As long as the wormhole remains stable, the connection remains and Mac’s mind can operate the synthetic avatar– Edison Wilde.

But keeping the series from being sci-fi flash without a heart was no real problem, because the story was always about McKinsey Flint, a fully-realized human being.

As I stated before, the technology is there only to enhance the human element; it’s a trait, not a character.

I believe that the next twenty years is going to open up new avenues of scientific exploration that has only been dreamt of in the past. It’s up to us, as creators and dreamers to inspire the next generation.

Think of how much impact STAR TREK had culturally on our current crop of scientists.

It’s probably safe to say that STAR TREK created an entire generation of science fetishists.

Speaking of the stars, that subject leads me to one of my current obsessions—the Space Elevator.

Fetish #3—The Space Elevator

When David Michelinie and I were originally concocting the plot to Iron Man: The End back in 1999, I had just finished reading Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Songs of Distant Earth’.

To paraphrase a recent article written by Kevin Bonsor (from Howstuffworks.com), the basic concept of a space elevator is akin to a tetherball where a rope is attached at one end to a pole and at the other to a ball. The rope, in this model, is a carbon nano-tubes composite, the pole is the Earth and the ball acts as the counterweight.

Once the ball is placed in perpetual spin around the pole, it moves fast enough to keep the “rope” taut. This is the simplified concept of the space elevator. The counterweight spins around the Earth, keeping the cable straight and allowing the robotic lifters to ride up and down the ribbon.

A space elevator would eliminate space shuttles and create a permanent connection from the Earth to the stars and create a new era of development. Perhaps the biggest factor propelling the idea of a space elevator is that it would significantly lower the cost of putting cargo into space. Although slower than the chemically propelled space shuttle, the lifters reduce launch costs from $10,000 to $20,000 per pound, to approximately $400 per pound.

The scientific theory around the Space Elevator in that Arthur C. Clarke story served as an inspiration for us to choose it as Tony Stark’s “Ultimate Project” for his last adventure, which was published by Marvel last November.

But my fetish with the Space Elevator hasn’t ended there.

David Michelinie and I have been developing a TV series out here in Hollywood entitled “JETT’S WAY” that revolves around the first commercial space agency. In the premise, the lead character is trying to get permits to construct the space elevator and encounters political and corporate opposition from every imaginable source.

Fetish #4—Cybernetics
My fetish for fact-based science has even extended itself into the world of the absurd with my upcoming cartoon series with Aqua Teen’s Matt Maiellaro—“BOX-MONKEY-GIANT-ROBOT-ARM”.

A few years ago, I was watching a documentary on the Science Channel entitled “Cybersapiens”. In that film, the real-life versions of these characters had their brains interfaced with sophisticated computers in order to further the studies of cybernetics, in the hope of enabling paralyzed people to walk or communicate once again.

Based on the actual subject in the documentary, Box Monkey is a chimpanzee who has been clinically paralyzed by the researchers. Placed in a Plexiglas box that regulates his body functions, the chimp has had electrodes surgically-implanted into his brain that allow him to control a large, robotic arm connected to the box. In the real life experiments in the Science Channel documentary, he is given a plate of food and is forced to feed himself exclusively through the use of the robotic appendage.

That documentary got me thinking long and hard about that miserable monkey in a box and eventually, the combination of real science and my twisted brain concocted a premise for a cartoon series.

This will probably be the first animated show to be based on real events and science.

Box Monkey’s constant companion is Plughead, a fat Caucasian in his early 30s, whose only means of interacting with the real world through a cable implanted in his head which allows him to manipulate a computer screen. He was also a subject in the documentary.

Both Box Monkey and Plughead hate their miserable lives as scientific guinea pigs and, out of an instinct driven by intense animal loyalty, the chimp tries to fulfill Plughead’s dream of escape from their hellish existence.

I know it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but you’ll have to trust me.

Fetish #5—The Owner’s Manual
In the 2008 film, “IRON MAN”, advanced technology shared the stage with Robert Downey Jr. and crew. Although they slightly altered Tony Stark’s premise in the movie from what David Michelinie and I originally came up with, it still had the same dynamic that we gave Stark in the comic book series and the marriage of character-to-technology remained consistent with our overall philosophy.

As a result, the success of this film has been a huge boost for Ol’ Shellhead and his legacy in the mass market. It’s has now moved the character into the consciousness of the general public and not just the die-hard comic fans.

And thanks to the Iron Man movie, my 83-year-old mother finally understands what I’ve been doing with my life over the last thirty years.

As far as the Iron Man movie’s storyline, my overall impression of Iron Man is that it was one of the better comics-to-film adaptations to date. Robert Downey Jr. totally nailed the role of Tony Stark. And John Favreau stayed true to the spirit of the technologically-based hero.

But this gets me to the science of the film and one of my technical problems the story: My biggest complaint was having Obadiah Stane himself climb into the Iron Monger suit without an owner’s manual or sufficient training. Throughout the entire film, Stane acts as a “puppet master”, manipulating people and events without personally getting his hands dirty.

Then, somewhat conveniently, he builds the Iron Monger armor and jumps into it himself, without the benefit of the tedious learning curve we watched Tony go through for the preceding 50 minutes of the movie.
I felt that they conveniently threw out some of the scientific credibility for the sake of the action.

I’ve always hated the scientific conveniences of comics, where a kid gets bitten by a radioactive rhinoceros and becomes—RHINO-RANGER!

Almost immediately, Rhino-Ranger somehow knows he has the proportional strength of a Rhino, runs into the street and rams his head into an oncoming truck—just to demonstrate his new-found abilities. How the hell does he know that his brains won’t spatter all over the freakin’ grill?

He doesn’t. That’s my point.

There is no owner’s manual that comes with a scientific breakthrough!

There has to be a learning curve with any new scientific principle to make it convincing.

Although the Stane thing bugged me a bit, that is a very small complaint and hardly takes away from what was otherwise a great comic-to-film adaptation.

All of which brings me back to fetish #1 concerning streamlining technology and the upcoming movie—IRON MAN II.

I was fortunate enough to spend time on the set during the filming of the next film installment and I have to say that they got it right this time.

Even though the cast, screenwriter, producers and crew were forthcoming to me about the story they’ve created, I’ve promised that I would reveal nothing that could be considered a spoiler.

(Bob with Iron Man 2 screenwriter Justin Theroux.)

Needless to say, it’s my opinion that they’re going to top the first movie in scope and characterization.

And most importantly, you will see the evolution of the Iron Man technology from the first film—to this new chapter. I was blown away by what they’ve accomplished and I’m positive you will be, as well.

If you’re a stickler for details, there is a great book that I’d recommend to all comic fans/science fetishists. It’s entitled “INSULTINGLY STUPID MOVIE PHYSICS” by Tom Rogers and is a brutal and hilarious examination of Hollywood’s greatest mistakes, goofs and flat out destructions of the basic laws that govern our universe.

So, I’ve confessed to being a science fetishist and have listed some examples of my disorder.

But I’m just scratching the surface.

David Michelinie and I are currently working on a variety of projects here in Hollywood that encompasses such scientific concepts as teleportation, robotics, space exploration and even life-extension.

As I stated in the opening, technology is constantly evolving and so has my preoccupation concerning science.
That’s why I moved to Tinseltown.

As much as I love the comic book medium, I’m attempting to evolve.

Bob Layton
11/24/09

[Editor's Note: Junk mail filters prevented us from publishing this when Bob originally sent it through to his people]

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