The League of Incidental Characters in Comic Books

Dang, Jim Kakalios outranks us all. After I mentioned my oblique appearance in a comic book, he responded with a promise to verify his appearances, and he has come through.

He’s the Secretary of State in the DC universe:


Even more impressive, he’s a god-like physicist who can manipulate universal constants in the Marvel universe:


Now if Phil Plait can verify his claims, we can all get some brightly colored leotards and funny pseudonyms, and we’ll be ready to fight for truth, justice, and invertebrates.

Oh, and I already designed my costume long ago.


  1. says

    Dr. Kakalios also got quoted in an issue of “All-New Atom,” the same one which featured the infamous Astronomer and Penn Jillette.

  2. Randall says

    Incidentally, a professor of mine here at Caltech, Joe Kirschvink, was not only mentioned in a manga, but was actually drawn explaining his theories of Snowball Earth to other characters; that’s got to count pretty highly.

  3. says

    The author of the Atom comics contacted me a year ago to ask permission to use my quotation (so it’s not really me in the comic book, just my words). Unfortunately, she moved and boxed up her stuff, and I never got my copy. :( I’ll have to send her another note and nudge her. I’ve gone to various comic book stores, but the issue is long since gone.

  4. ben says

    I’m giving it away now, and should have patented it, but “The League of Ordinary Gentlemen” would have included Dornford Yates, Captain Hastings, Jonathan Parker, Bertie Wooster …

  5. Torbjörn Larsson says

    fight for truth, justice, and invertebrates.

    Great, now I have the image of PZ grappling with squids and Doc Ock smearing my brain. Excuse me while I go and wash the insides of my skull…

  6. Torbjörn Larsson says

    fight for truth, justice, and invertebrates.

    Great, now I have the image of PZ grappling with squids and Doc Ock smearing my brain. Excuse me while I go and wash the insides of my skull…

  7. Torbjörn Larsson says

    Waitaminute… for invertebrates? Of course.

    But I still have the image of grappling with squids and Doc Ock, but now they have red beakstick and long eyelashes on their hero worshiping eyes (not Doc Ock, perhaps). More soap and water, please…

  8. Torbjörn Larsson says

    Waitaminute… for invertebrates? Of course.

    But I still have the image of grappling with squids and Doc Ock, but now they have red beakstick and long eyelashes on their hero worshiping eyes (not Doc Ock, perhaps). More soap and water, please…

  9. rrusick says

    Phil Plait @2: which issue? May be gone where you have looked, but it’s a big country…

  10. says

    It’s OK, Phil, we’ll trust you and let you in to the club…with provisional status, of course. We need someone to fetch the coffee for me and Jim and Ophelia.

  11. says

    PZ: I think you should have first dibs on the code name: Squid-Man!

    According to my kids, I should be Captain Obvious.

    Phil has a host of astronomy themed names to chose from.

    And I’m excited that Ophilia is there – it’s not a true Silver Age team without one female member!

    Now – Good or Evil?

    To quote Bill Murray in Ghostbusters: I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it!

  12. llewelly says

    Jim Kakalios:

    Now – Good or Evil?

    Let’s start at the top, with your leader, Ophelia. The very name of her blog is an admission of the existence of her secret Air Force of Cyborg Insects.
    Next on the list is Phil Plait, the ‘Bad Astronomer’, who has defaced Mars and shot down million of innocent flying saucers.
    Third on the list is yourself. You were depicted as a Secretary of State … a position held by such notables as Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. Need I say more?
    Finally we come to PZ himself, who shamelessly posted pictures of his robot-cephalopod breeding program, is a biology professor, and lives in a freezing hell.
    It should be obvious which side you are on.

  13. says

    Personally, I’m going to have to be one of those conflicted members, easily tempted by the Dark Side, and I’m going to need a more sinister name. I’m definitely in Marvel territory here, not SIlver Age DC.

    We’re also going to have to deal with the fact that we don’t seem to have any powers of any kind, except for Captain Obvious’s ability to change Planck’s Constant…which seems kind of like the power to annihilate the entire universe, and that I hope you don’t exercise too often. I’m picturing a panel with you in a cape, a stereotypical villain in a mask, shirt with horizontal black stripes, and a bag with “$” on it, saying, “Stop, miscreant! Or I shall set Planck’s constant to 6.6 × 10^^-33 m2 kg / s, and then you’ll be sorry!”

  14. says

    Don’t forget that Ophelia’s title is a reference to using an instrument of torture on delicate little butterflies, llewelly, and that my only comic book reference is a mention of my sick, weird depravities.

  15. says

    Well, the consensus is that we are indeed a team of super-villains. Now, what to call ourselves.

    Unfortunately, the Republican Party is already taken. (insert Rimshot here).

    PZ: “Stop, miscreant! Or I shall set Planck’s constant to 6.6 × 10^^-33 m2 kg / s, and then you’ll be sorry!”

    I’m already sorry! Actually, changing Planck’s constant in that Marvel Civil War handbook thing refered to something I mentione din my book, as it related to characters who can shrink or grow in stature. Namely, that the only way to physically acheive such a feat is to change the size of atoms, which are determined for the most part, by fundamental constants. Thus, to shrink, one must be able to vary, for example, Planck’s constant, at will (poor Will).

    God, I’m such a nerd – even in this discussion I have to sneak in a physics lesson. Where’s that coffee?

  16. says

    Jim Kakalios:

    That’s how Asimov did the shrinking job in both Fantastic Voyage books (it wasn’t in the screenplay for the movie which he novelized; he just made it up). Hopefully, you were enough of a nerd to mention this in your book!

  17. says

    I did indeed give Isaac Asimov mad props in my book – though I’m enough of a nerd to point out that he only used the “changing Planck’s constant” trick in Fantastic Voyage II.

    In the first novelization (one of the first times that a novel was commisioned after the movie was written – and kudos that you knew that, Blake)), he basically punted and after pointing out how removing atoms or compressing them were not viable, said that miniaturization was accomplished the same way a reducing photocopier makes a smaller scale copy.

    To quote Albert Einstein: WTF?

    As I said, in the first FV, he did a great job laying out how impossible it is to shrink something, and then basically invoked what I call a “one-time miracle exception” to get the story moving along. Which is what he did in FV II, only now the miracle exception involves Planck’s constant. It is Science Fiction after all, so he’s certainly allowed a miracle exception.

    Asimov was one of the best for then keeping everything else that happened in the story as physically accurate as possible. A star in the “hard science fiction” tradition, that tried to keep the science as accurate as possible, within the obvious constraints of telling an engaging story. The same tradition that many comic book creators came from, as I mentioned in my book (who says this isn’t the Marvel Age of shameless plugs?).



  18. Xocolotl says

    I have most of the All-New Atom on my computer, Phil. If you know which issue you were quoted in, I’d be happy to post the image.

  19. Jim Kakalios says

    It was part of the Linear Man story. Either issue # 7 (I think its this one) or # 8. I have a copy somewhere in my home office, but I could dig it out last night.

  20. says

    I’d forgotten that bit in FV II, which I still have.

    Of course, wouldn’t making hbar smaller make smaller atoms more unstable? (Or do I have that backwards?)

  21. llewelly says

    Blake: Somewhere I have a copy of Asimov’s essay on some of the technical impossibilities of shrinking people, particularly those he dealt with or ignored in his novelization of Fantastic Voyage … ok, it’s The Incredible Shrinking People , in the collection The Solar System and Back (originally published in F&SF) . It starts off with:

    I read the script and said, “I will have to change the ending, if I do the novel.”
    They were alarmed at once. “Why?”
    “Well,” I said, “at the end, the ship and the villain are ingested by a white corpuscle and the other four get out. Right? But the ship and the villain stay inside. I’ll have to get them out, too.”
    That puzzled them. “Why?”
    “Because the ship and the villain will expand if they stay inside the patient, an that will kill him.”
    They thought about that awhile and then they said, “But the white corpuscle ate them.”
    I said, “That doesn’t matter; the atoms are still there and as long as they’re still there, even if they are separated and evenly scattered -“
    Then I stopped, because I realized that they were staring at me blankly. I said, “Look, I’m going to change the ending. If you don’t want me to change the ending, fine; I won’t do the book. But if you want me to do the book, I will change the ending, and I don’t want my ending changed back by Hollywood. Okay?”
    So they said “Okay,” and in the book I managed to work out a way of getting the white corpuscle, with the ingested ship and villain, out of the patient. Nor did Hollywood change it back. Indeed, Hollywood didn’t change one word of my novel, I am glad to say.
    In the motion picture, however, the ship was still left inside the patient.

    and goes on:

    People who saw the movie and didn’t read the book therefore wrote me shocked letters about the ending, and I had to answer them patiently.

    On the shrinking process itself he wrote:

    But then what happens to the excess mass? The only thing that can possibly happen to disappearing mass (as far as we know) is to have it change into energy, and the shrinking man would thus become a super-powerful nuclear bomb.
    What I did in the novel version of Fantastic Voyage was to […] throw in a little vague analogy to the shrinkage of a photograph by the manipulation of three-dimensional optics. The reader could assume that a four-dimensional effect was involved with the excess mass disappearance. The mass went into hyperspace during the shrinking operation, I suppose, and came out of it again in the re-expansion.
    This is fantasy, of course, but it shows, at least, that the problem exists. (In the movie, the matter of mass was entirely ignored.)

    From there he goes on to detail how he ignored several problems (such as the wavelengths shrinkage of radio waves and headlights, causing them to become visible light and gamma rays), and trivialized several others (relative size of unshrunken atoms to shrunken people, thickness of membranes, Brownian motion) . It also has a neat capsule history of the discovery of Brownian motion, its explanation, and the early experiments done to test Einstein’s explanation.

  22. Jim Kakalios says


    Thanks for the tip re: Asimov’s essay in what sounds like a great collection. If its still in print, I’m going to get it, and if not, hunt used bookstores for it. Sounds wonderful.

    As Asimov well knew, one frequently needs a nearly endless reservoir of “miracle exceptions” to make any of this work.

    On the other hand, Benes did know an important secret, and if he didn’t come out of the coma, we wouldn’t have been able to beat the Reds! (Why the U.S. government was so fixated on the Cincinatti baseball team, I’ve never figured out).

    And here everyone thought Reagan did it single handed! It was actually the CMDF!

  23. horrobin says

    Hijacking the thread further: In the novelization Asimov wrote, did he keep the villain an atheist? The movie has a little exchange I’ve always liked. Good-guy doctor waxes poetically about the ineffable wonders of the mind as they cruise through the brain. Donald Pleasance snorts, “Let me know when we pass the soul.”

    Guess who turns out to be the traitor?

  24. Jim Kakalios says

    Yup – that didn’t change. In fact, when Dr. Michaels tries to convince Grant that Duval (I think that was the surgeon’s name – I’m surpirsed that I recall as much as I do) is actually the secret assassin, he warns Grant not to be taken in with all of Duval’s holy roller talk of the soul.

    In the movie, during the miniaturization scene, no sountrack, just a blistering sense of claustrophobia. When Donald Pleasnance has the panic attack and tries to get out of the submerged sub – it…


  25. horrobin says

    When you’re twelve, there is nothing that’s as simultaneously disturbing and profoundly cool as watching a trapped, screaming guy slowly ingested by a white corpuscle.

  26. Jim Kakalios says

    Oh yeah. I was thinking of when they were first being miniaturized, and suddenly Dr. Michaels tries to abandon ship.

    But yeah, the pleading tone, the slowly rising intensoty as he says: Grant, get me out of her. Grant! Get me out of here!

    as the white corpuscle oozes into the ship – yeah.

    When I was Dir. of Graduate Studies a few years back I ran a monthly movie night – pizza and pop followed by watching a DVD in one of th electure rooms, on a big screen. When I discovered that nearly all the students had never even heard of Fatastic Voyage, I scheduled it right away.

    They hated it. Too slow, they didn’t care that the effects were not CGI, as computers barely existed then. Funny how it just didn’t seem to age as well as I would have thought.

    Kids today, with their hip and their rap.