Monday, September 19, 2005

I got the power

Before we return to our regularly scheduled Rungs of Villainy, Johnsifications, Character Donations, and Vibe Slash Koryak fictionfests, I'd like to stop to discuss a classic comic book phenomenon:

Power Internalization.

So common (and annoying) is this phenomenon that I bet before I ever start to explain, you know exactly what I mean. A character who has a power from an outside source, say, a machine, at some point "internalizes" the power and doesn't need the outside power source any more.

We've all read, "On my first outings, I had to rely on my 'soap-bubble belt' for my amazing bubble powers. But now I've discovered that, probably as a result of constant exposure to its bubble emanations or the otherwise fatally toxic chemicals it uses, I have internalized my amazing bubble powers!" Or words to that effect.

Translation? "My reliance on an external gimmick for my power rendered me too vulnerable, so my new writer decided to make things easier on himself by giving me the power directly without further explanation."

The classic example is Black Lightning. Had a belt that gave him electricky powers. The belt gets blown up or he forgets to take it out of his pants and his mother accidently sends it throught the laundy; no more zappy belt (replaced by a Sears bill for a new washing machine). But THEN, through the authorial magic of power internalization, he discovered he could generate electricity without the belt. How lovely!

Almost without exception, power internalizations are introduced quickly, like pulling off a band-aid. One world balloon, later, and we the readers can forget the original power device (indeed, we are encouraged to). No writer wants to dwell on "power internalization", for the obvious reason that it strains our credulity; better to move along quickly!

As a result of this need to press on, characters who experience power internalizations always take it both well and casually. It's always, "Now I can't wait to take on my archnemesis, Captain Plaster!". It's never, "What the !@#%!!??!?! I've become a freak, good lord I'm going to die, I need a doctor, now, now, NOW!!!!"

You probably think I'm being silly. You're probably thinking, "Well, who wouldn't be suddenly overjoyed at finding themselves blessed with a superpower?" Uh-huh. That just shows how deeply comic book conventions have imbedded themselves in your thinking. If you were suddenly able to receive television signals directly into your brain or to brown bread just by your presence, would you think, "Gosh, constant exposure to tv/toaster emanations has allowed me to internalize their powers! I can't wait to show the wife!"? I doubt it.

Power internalization is a favorite trick of second generation characters. The Icicle 1 had a cold gun (whoever has the patent on those in the DCU is making a fortune). His son, the Icicle 2, has internalized the cold-making power (due to exposure in utero to the "emanations" from the cold gun; no, really). The original Spellbinder used machinery to disorient foes; the new Spellbinder has the power internally (through a nice "clean" plot device: Neron). The first Quantum Kid (the pompous jerk) used a belt to generate his quantum fields; the second Quantum Kid, his sister, internalized the power (through a series of dangerous experiments, if I recall correctly).

Some characters seem happily immune to the phenomenon. Fortunately, it doesn't seem to work in Keystone or Central City at all, where gadgets and gimmicks are still the thing. Except for Replicant. Remember him? No, neither do I.

Power internalization also happens sometimes when a character moves from one medium to another. In comic books, Mr. Freeze uses a freeze ray; on "The Batman" he generates cold himself. Most famously, when Spiderman went to the big screen, the writers said to themselves, well, if he got all those other powers from the spider why wouldn't he get the webbing, too? Thus the 'webshooters' became internalized.

What other power internalizations have you noticed? Enjoyed? Condemned?


naladahc said...

Well. Alan Scott internalized the power of the Starheart/Green Lantern so now he's apparently made up of the Lantern's fire. This is Johnsification too by the way.

And of course, his children Jade and Obsidian "internalized" the power from birth so in a way they fit into your basic 2nd generation legacy hero theory.

Scipio said...

Bingo! I was going to mention Alan, but forgot.

Nice point about Jade and Obsidian, that really hadn't occurred to me.

Anonymous said...

The Spiderman movies would have been so much better if he'd 'internalized' the webshooters, but he had them in his rear end like a real spider.

Scipio said...


That's just what movie lacked.

Almost ruined it for me, in fact.

Brian said...

Well, swing it the opposite way. Uninternalized power lends itself to repeated use as a plot device. "Dagnabbit! My White-Out Cannon jammed again! Guess the Anti-Grammarians are going to go free this time...just like the last ten times."

As Batman said in an episode of JLU, after taking out a villain by knocking his Device of Doom (tm) out of his hand: "Shouldn't you get a wrist strap for that thing?"

And, really, how many times can we hear about Spider-man running out of webbing at a crucial moment. It's like those old Superman stories when everyone and their brother had a kryptonite doohickey lying around somewhere. "We could write real plot, but let's resort to the same thing we do every night, Pinky." Spider-man seemingly plummets to his doom, creating a tension with about the same tensile strength as your average overcooked strand of spaghetti. Perhaps the writers are just trying to take away the easy-out option that an external power reveals.

Another reason might be believability. "What," you might ask, "does believability have to do with a world in which people hop off buildings and stubbornly refuse to fall?" Well, as I'm sure we all know, comic books HAVE to be believable. Internally believable, operating on their own logic in a way that doesn't horribly break down the walls of the story.

In terms of the spider-man movie, I'd say it takes roughly the same degree of suspension of disbelief to believe in Peter Parker, boy genius, developing web shooters in his basement, transforming common household chemicals and appliances into technology unlike any we've ever seen, as it does to believe that he can just plain shoot webbing out of his wrists. In terms of streamlining a script? Well, count the number of words in each of the two upcoming setups. It's easier to set up "he just got web-powers too" than "well, see, Peter's a boy genius, and especially a chemistry and engineering genius, and he just happens to know how to make this incredibly strong, flexible, and biodegradable adhesive that can be launched out of a highly-portable shooter at phenomenal velocities." One's a sentence of script. One's a couple pages. I'm not saying that the former is right, or even better, but the rationale isn't entirely flawed.

Obviously, internalization is not justified in all circumstances. The Man/Device dichotomy can produce some interesting frictions -- the equivalent of James Bond trying to reach that extra inch to liberate a handgun from a guard's holster, the audience holding its collective breath, for fear of waking the sleeping guard. But it's not entirely a bad thing, either. Personally, if I never again see Spider-man's life saved by a fall into a conveniently placed dump truck, I'll die a happy man.


Anonymous said...

When, exactly, did Airwave gain his own powers? It used to be the suit. In fact, it was also the suit for his father [in the 40's the ability to recieve phone calls without a phone rocked], but instead of a "hand me down", little Hal [who mysteriously is being called Larry now - go figure] got a better suit. Which didn't work originally and transported itself to his drawer, leaving big Larry to get shot...but I digress.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Another case of power internalization: the Rex Tyler Hourman. Though I suspect that was a straight-ahead editorial mandate.

"He gets his super-powers by popping pills!"

Yeah, that'll keep the parents' groups off your back.

Anonymous said...

Actually, the strangest thing about Spider-Man's origin story is that he sewed his own costume. This was even worse in the movies, where the costume is fancy spandex. How do you sew fancy spandex?

Chris Arndt said...

Obsidian didn't really so much internalize his power so much as he was born a mutant freak.

Hawkman internalized his power immediately after Zero Hour.

In a way Hourman has internalized his superpower as it's now activated by his costume and not.... a pill. That's basically like have a ray gun strapped into your arm and not carrying a pistol.

Anyway... Parallax was an internalized Green Lantern and no matter how you slice it or who was writing him, Hal Jordan was supposed to internalize the GL powers by issue 50 and his role of Green Lantern turned over to a brand new character.

Guy Gardner internalized GL powers to such a degree that the only shapes and transformations he made were extensions of his own body.

Steel, to some extent, internalized his powers when Louise Simonson wrote him.

Iron Man was partially internalized when Len Kaminski, John Byrne, and a few others went more than slightly overboard in giving Tony Stark a cybernetic nervous system (all David Michiline did was introduce a deux ex machina chip in his spine so he didn't have to write the continuing subplot of the Moping Iron Cripple).

There's a lot, I suppose. It happens a lot with magic. At one point Zatanna was "internalized" by not having to say magic words. to speak backwards, to do magic. While I'm sure the intent was to end bondage scenes with a gagged heroine, all it did was make the power-boosted sorceress.... less unique.

Does Vixen still need her tantu totem anymore?

How many issues has Psycho-Pirate fought the heroes without donning the Medusa Mask in that issue?

Clayface has not had to visit the power-granting goo pool in a couple decades.

Scipio said...

Is that true? Did Airwave II internalize a power that used to be external for his father? I didn't know that.

And Brian; I'm not saying that HAVING an internalized power is a bad thing. But shifting from externalized power to internalize power is awkward and strained.

Anonymous said...

Both Christopher King and Vicki Grant's Hero Dial's internalized in them.

I kind of want Dibny to stop needing gingold.

Anonymous said...

"Warrior" = "ugh."

The original Atom had no powers until (something something something), and then he was super-strong.

Anonymous said...

Although you're essentially right about Kid Quantums I and II, I believe the brother and sister had some inherent time-control powers that the belt "augmented" for James (KQ I) and the genetic modifications "augmented" for Jazmin (KQ II).

Pre-Crisis, Brainiac 5 conducted a bit of an unethical experiment on Luornu Durgo after one of the erstwhile Duo Damsel's bodies was killed by the Time Trapper. He gave her a force-field belt to protect her remaining body. This belt apparently internalized the power in Luornu, who later showed that she could project force fields without the belt. (And no, she didn't ask for him to give her this power.)

If he was confident that it would work, wouldn't he have just given himself this same treatment?

Anonymous said...

Over at Marvel Comics, Blizzard was the first chiller to internalize his power. He used to get his cold-generation powers from his suit; but as he was donning a spare suit he had cobbled together from parts in the prison workshop, Electro chose that moment to blast out of the cell next door, and the resultant electrical explosion fused the suit to Blizzard's body and made him a human refrigerator. How did Bliz react to this? Was he mad at Electro for turning him into a freak? No! They teamed up and fought Spider-Man and Daredevil!

Jeff R. said...

Does Morpheus' destruction of the Gem count as an internalization?

I think Ambush Bug internalized, eventually.

Anonymous said...

I think the Green Lantern internalization was partially due to a wider editorial mandate of the time. IIRC, they were really pushing the "Kyle is the one and only Green Lantern, and will be forever, shut up and go away and stop pestering us, you Hal Jordan fans!" angle, so (somehow avoiding the also-current vogue of killing off all the Golden Age characters) they had his power "internalize" and started calling him "Sentinel." Only, and this always amused me, *nobody* actually called him that, including many DC characters!

Another "realism" angle that might be addressed by internalization is the logical question, "So, why are you robbing banks instead of patenting and selling that cold gun?" Or "Why are you always strapped for cash? Wouldn't the NYPD love to give all its cops web shooters?" (To Stan Lee's credit, he at least *addressed* the latter question forthrightly, though underestimating the value a temporary adhesive might have.)

Anonymous said...

Another "realism" angle that might be addressed by internalization is the logical question, "So, why are you robbing banks instead of patenting and selling that cold gun?"

I always thought the original Icicle was a recreational criminal. A brilliant scientist like he could have legitimately made more money than he could ever steal. He did it for kicks.

Tom Foss said...

The Weather Wizard's son in the Flash displayed electrical discharge from his eyes, suggesting that he internalized the powers his father gets from his wand.

Spider-Man has undergone an unfortunate transformation in that the comics version also now has organic web-shooters. As far as spider-tracers go, he tuned their frequency to the frequency of his spider-sense (something that Dr. Doom figured out way back in ASM #5 or so) instead of using the tracker.

Alan Scott was the first to come to mind, naturally.

Didn't the Thing have to wear a suit to mimic his powers for awhile? That's an externalization!

Similarly, Superboy lost his powers for awhile and used a force-field generator and Legion flight ring to mimic his old abilities. Superboy also once had a pair of stylish goggles that gave him heat vision and x-ray vision, but has since developed those powers on his own (less awkward than most, since he *was* supposed to develop more powers as he aged).

Wonder Woman flew first with an invisible jet, then with winged sandals, both of which eventually internalized when they gave her the ability to fly. Similarly, when she died, she internalized her lasso to become the Goddess of Truth.

Wonder Girl started out with no powers, but Diana gave her those sandals and something that gave her enhanced strength (bracelets?), which she ended up internalizing sometime during Young Justice or later in Wonder Woman's book.

When he figured out how to create a costume with speed-force energy, Wally West internalized the ability once given him by his costume-ring.

Jeff R. said...

Oh, here's an internalization to condemn: Amethyst, as part of her amazingly ill-conceived crisis-mediated reinvention as a half-human, half-lord-of-order.

[General rule: any mention of the Lords of Order and/or Lords of Chaos is a sure sign of impending mediocrity and badness. Any origin retcon in which either set of them is mentioned is a sure sign of utter, utter horror. Can we donate both lots to Marvel, even if there's no way to get headcounts?]

On the good side, we have Kevin Matchstick internalizing the Exaclibur/Bat in "Mage:The Hero Denfined".

Anonymous said...

IIRC, Ms. Marvel's powers originally came from her costume (what there was of it), but got internalized fairly early on.

In DEFENDERS, Hellcat *thought* that her costume was enhancing her strength, agility, etc., but at some point she realized she was just as good without it... I think they chalked it up to her being part demon or some crazy shit.

Sleestak said...

The Carol Danvers Ms Marvel originally required her Kree uniform to let her fly and also had a force field. Over several issues her body 'adapted'to the Psychemagnetron changes to her DNA and the circuitry in her suit burnt out. From then on she flew on her own. A funny scene later was when MODOK had the suit stolen to test it and had one of his crew wear it. He zapped the subject, his force blast puree-ing the unlucky scientist.

Anonymous said...

Here's a truly inane cross-continuity internalization: Doctor Doom, of course, builds his armor to hide his hideously scarred face and to give himself vast power (laser blasts from the hands, etc.). Ultimate Doom is zapped by the cosmic rays that zap the Fantastic Four, and gets transformed into an inhuman freak with armored metallic skin and natural laser-blasting powers.

Marionette said...

Way back in 1971 Supergirl was externalising when she got intermittent power loss. Originally she got an exoskeleton for strength and used her Legion ring for flight. Later they replaced the exoskeleton with what looked like a powder compact of strength. At this time her costume was still invulnerable so it led to odd situations where she had to stick her cape over her head to avoid Certain Doom (TM).

As for internalizing to avoid plot cliche like Spidey running out of web fluid, doesn't he do just that in the second movie?

Anonymous said...

The Supermobile was one of the best example of externalization ever.

Anonymous said...

Brainiac 5 also internalized his force field belt when he encountered a SPACE ANOMALY! Previous version of the series, not the current one.

Anonymous said...

Hector Hammond was an early internalizer. He needed the meteor at first, if I recall, and lost ability without it.

I think half the magic of Green Lantern is the externalization of his power. Those early, corny stories where he loses the the ring, or his brother accidentally gets it, or it runs out of power-- classic. I see Johns is playing up at least one aspect of the externalization-- the ring is talking to him again.

Just discovered this blog by the way, and it's great.

Scipio said...

That reminds me: Ira Quimby (I.Q.) eventually internalized the super-intelligence he acquired from some meteorite.

Anonymous said...

Re: The Thing -

At some point (during one of the worst periods in FF history, around 1988), the Thing became human again. He took to wearing a mechanical suit for enhanced strength, and was transformed back in issue 250.

Please see FF 236 or so to 254 for all the details; these issues are worth seeking out because they were done by Walt Simonson, who made FF the most fun it's been since Stan & Jack.

Scipio: sorry to go on about a M***** character, but even DC fans might enjoy those goofy Simonson stories.

Anonymous said...

I'm almost positive I read an issue of Justice League Something-or-the-Other years ago in which Dibny said he didn't need the gingold. I'm pretty sure he internalized his powers long ago, contrary to a recent issue of JLA.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that, up until recently, the deal was that Ralph Dibny's frequent use of gingold had more-or-less saturated his tissues, and the stretching power was basically now innate to him. I suppose it's at least possible to cut more recent writers some slack, and assume that, if he went long enough without a gingold "booster", Ralph's tissues would desaturate eventually, and he'd need the gingold again.
Going back to AirWave--the Golden Age AirWave had a helmet that enabled him to not only pick up various energy wavelengths, so that he could recieve & transmit messages, but also channeled that energy to power specialized skates that he used to ride on power lines. I'm pretty sure he also could produce an electrified punch from time to time. His son started out with a modified helmet that enabled him to actually transform himself into electromagnetic energy and broadcast himself at near light speed (among other things). Somewhere along the line, it was revealed that, in fact, the helmet didn't really work, and AirWave II/Hal had the innate power to convert himself to energy, and only thought the power came from the helmet. I also suspect that the reason that AW2 has now gone from being "Hal" to being "Larry" is that someone finally realized that the confusion caused by having two Hal Jordans running around far outways the cuteness of having two Hal Jordans as super-heroes.
And as for Spider-Man, add me to the list of people who find it easier to believe that a boy genius could whip up those web shooters out of common household supplies than it is to believe that he could create that costume, which among other things, has no opennings in it, except when it does--does the mask molecularly fuse to the shirt? The things that really bugs me most about the organic webbing is that, since it's now generated by Peter's body, if he overuses it, could he starve himself to death in combat? And since it is a product of his own body, couldn't someone use the webbing to get his DNA?