Super DuPont: Material Science in Superhero Comics
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
Despite the fact that Avengers Endgame was a decade in the making, the most important film you could’ve watched in 2019 was a different movie starring Mark Ruffalo…about Teflon.
Dark Waters is based in some very sobering facts. Despite testing for decades on the effects of the chemical PFOA, and finding very clear links to cancer and birth defects, DuPont continued to mass manufacture, strongly advertise, improperly dispose of, hide, and deny their findings. PFOAs are most utilized as a surface coating, that as it turns out, are being used to coat everything, and actually don’t just stay on the surface.
So yes, Mark Ruffalo method acting as a slouchy overweight lawyer ready to try and break down the chemistry behind your nonstick frying pans and stain resistant khakis does not have the visual appeal of America’s Ass or Adam McKay style inserts of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath talking economics. But you know what? The 2008 housing crisis, while it ruined thousands of lives, is not INSIDE THE BLOODSTREAM OF 98% OF PEOPLE LIVING IN THE UNITED STATES.
Invented in 1947, DuPont had evidence of the dangers of PFOAs as early as 1968. Because of the widespread coverup, as narrativized in Dark Waters, it was not officially classified as a harmful chemical by the EPA until 1999, at which point the original inventor 3M phased out it’s usage in their products. In response to the shortage, in 2002 DuPont BUILT THEIR OWN PLANT in North Carolina to manufacture PFOAs. A few weeks ago, my mother and I went to pick out fabric to recover her couch, and specifically asked to see fabrics that did not use PFOAs. The upholsterer, who owns a full two story house with fabric sample books in floor to ceiling shelves in almost every room, came back with only six books of samples.
It’s on your pans.
It’s on your pants.
It’s on your carpet.
It’s on your couch.
It’s in your mother fucking microwave popcorn bag.
Are you enjoying this lesson in textile chemistry from the 1940s that’s coming back to kill us? Let’s continue…
Guess what’s in your drinking water. Yes, other than PFOAs. Teeny micro plastics.
Do you like fish? Those fish ate micro plastic. And now you’ve eaten plastic fish.
Every time you wash a synthetic garment, which comprises the large majority of clothing you own, these plastic fibers break away and end up in our water supply. Each synthetic has it’s own degradation rate, and polyester fleece tops this list with a potential of one million loose micro plastic fibers per wash.
The inventors of Nylon, the first synthetic fiber, DuPont has owned the legal rights for all PET fibers, including polyester, since 1946.
DuPont seems to have mastered the duality of scientific innovation to either energize or destroy lives. It’s either Jeff Gordon’s fun rainbow NASCAR, or it’s Foxcatcher— coincidentally another method acting evil DuPont movie also starring Mark Ruffalo with an inexplicable use of prosthetics. Beginning as gunpowder manufacturers in the 19th century, DuPont founded the first industrial laboratories in the United States, became the controllers of General Motors car company, and continued to build their fortunes with significant military supply contracts. DuPont frankly thrived to become as big as it did because of government interest in supporting nationalistic ideals of American manufacturing, technological, and military superiority. So, Capitalism.
The 1951 Time Magazine cover featuring DuPont led with a tagline describing their products: “Cellophane, Nylon, a wrinkle proof suit— and the H-bomb.” The Cold War constantly reflected an anxiety to define the line between utopia or dystopia before crossing a moral divide, knowing that technological progress would have unforeseen consequences. It’s a theme pervasive throughout Cold War pop culture: Star Trek forecasted a future of delicate democratic relationship building should space travel become successful, James Bond led a genre of spy film and television protecting against Communist threats with inventive gadgets, and fashion designers like Emilio Pucci and Pierre Cardin included new accessories like hard plastic helmets along with their Space Age fashion bodysuits.
Fear and Fashion in the Cold War by Jane Pavitt thinks to ask— what do these designers think we need protection from? Pavitt describes “More than any other designer in the period, Pierre Cardin’s clothes propose the space age look as literally a uniform for youth as shown in his Cosmos collections of 1967.” Considering Barbara Brownie and Danny Graydon’s comparisons of the superhero costume to that of a uniform, Pavitt goes further, saying “Cardin used geometric and futuristic motifs— such as circles and triangles, lightning bolts & targets— either as cutouts or applied onto vinyl. These motifs suggest an insignia of some kind of troop or team.” Utilitarian bodysuits that rely heavily on primary colors, semiotic motifs, synthetic elastic materials, and designate belonging to a group? That sounds a hell of a lot like a superhero costume.
Superhero comics themselves fall into this pop culture reflection of Cold War anxieties over technological advancements, most notably among the Fantastic Four, a comic in which its heroes receive their powers from a Space exploration accident. After their powers, one of their earliest discoveries is that the spacesuits they wore during their expedition (which look an awful lot more like these Space Age fashion bodysuits) underwent the same transformative process, making it the only fabric able to withstand the physical stressors of their new powers. In 1962, Marvel comics coined this new fantastic textile “unstable molecule fabric.”
As a fashion theorist, I think about “unstable molecule fabric” A LOT. I think about how the Fantastic Four share this technology with countless other heroes, like Charles Xavier, who makes the X-Men team uniforms out of it. And Janet Van Dyne, The Wasp, who uses the fabric to design not just her constantly changing wardrobe of superhero costumes, but also her everyday civilian clothes, and the clothes she designs for her superhero friends as a fashion designer.
Specifically, I think about why in an era benchmarked by synthetic material inventions, Marvel comics didn’t just use polyester, or vinyl, or nylon, or Dacron, or Crimpelene, etc. etc. etc. or any of the dozens of new materials available to them, but instead decided to invent a new one? Especially considering that most of the time, superhero costumes are assumed to be made of an actual existent material.
“What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”
During the Cold War, it was common for the molecularly same synthetic textile to be given different brand names by different companies in the United States, England, or the Eastern Block, depending on patents, licensing agreements, or nationalistic agendas. “Unstable molecule fabric” however, is not just another name for spandex.
Again for emphasis: neither narratively nor chemically are superheroes wearing spandex.
I break this down further in both my MA Thesis “Secret Identities: Marvel Superheroes, Fashion Trends, and Subcultural Streetwear, 1975-1995” and in my section of “Designing Van Dyne: The Wasp, Fashion, and an Excess of Femininity” but for the sake of blog brevity, here’s a summary:
In 1959, after ten years of experimentation, Joseph Shivers, as part of (SURPRISE!) DuPont’s Textile Fibers Department, invented Lycra, or as it became more ubiquitously known, spandex. According to Sports Illustrated, by 1989, 95% of the spandex utilized in the swimwear industry, equating to over $600 million dollars in sales, was produced by DuPont. Millions of dollars of DuPont’s Textile Fiber Department’s research went into qualitative survey research, in which female consumers expressed their desire for synthetic materials that were easy to care for, durable, soil-resistant, shape-retentive, and most of all— resilient. In short, they wanted the same sort of fabrics that would have benefitted a real-life superhero.
Returning to my original inquiry, why did Marvel comics writers think to invent a new type of “unstable molecule fabric” in 1962 after the invention of Lycra in 1959, or continue to utilize the concept even as spandex became well incorporated into fashion advertising vernacular and well on its way to becoming an integral fabric of the American wardrobe?
Richard Reynolds defines one of the seven core traits that classify a superhero as the presence of “magical science.” In this usage, ’magical’ is defined as inexplicable within the real world, science that is transcendent or futurist of current real world knowledge or technological capabilities. For example, spandex was designed to be heatable or frozen, but not flame retardant, as would have been necessary for the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch. Or, the stretching capabilities of spandex reached their maximum potential at five times their original size, which for someone like The Wasp, who is 5’2,” would mean she would only be able to shrink to a little larger than a foot before swimming in her garments.
It’s unclear why spandex became the assumed superhero fabric of choice, beyond some offhanded Cyclops dialogue (though it is rather in-canon for Cyclops to be unaware of his overwhelmingly asinine behavior) when fabrics like neoprene were actually utilized for real world spacesuits for their elastic and temperature resistant properties. But if “unstable molecule fabric” isn’t spandex, or neoprene, what is it? Considering all fabrics as physical matter are molecular, the modification that denotes it to be unique from spandex or other existent synthetic fabrics is that it is “unstable.”
Technically, when we talk about “stability” in real chemistry, what we mean is not the individual molecules themselves, but the bonds of the chemical substance that they’ve been combined to create. In material science, a chemical substance is “stable” if it’s normal use and exposure to natural elements like air or moisture do not cause chemical reactions, like decomposition, corrosion, combustion, etc. In order to keep the polymer chain of petroleum (yes, like oil) based materials that comprise spandex a stable material, garments are never made of more than 25% of the material. “Unstable molecules” explore the possibility of a fabric that is more spandex than spandex. DuPont’s influence on the overall cultural emphasis on constant scientific innovation may have led Marvel’s writers to consider a futuristic, more evolved version of spandex that would solve these limitations in stretch or temperature resistance. “Unstable” in this application can be taken to mean “possibilities,” adaptable to the narrative convenience of the writer to explain the logistics of the superhuman universe.
But “Unstable” also reveals that same undercurrent of anxiety of all Cold War technological innovations. Superheroes themselves, like the Hulk, represent the unpredictable consequences of uncharted scientific exploration. With the power to change, “unstable” fabrics also hold the potential to break down, to betray the wearer. Through diegetic references, Marvel continuously acknowledges shifts in real world fashion, material, and social trends, like the shift in the 1970s to view polyester as a cheap reminder of the disposable disregard and mass overproduction of the immediate Cold War decades, leading to the 1973 oil crisis. (I’ll redraw your attention back to fact that most of these synthetic textiles are petroleum based.) Yet perhaps due to its continuously adaptable nature, unstable molecules remain transcendent of the real world consequences of scientific experimentation. Because the long term consequences of DuPont’s chemical experimentations have only recently become headlines as serious environmental and health concerns, the instability of the superhero textile remains a proliferous asset to the Marvel wardrobe. For now?
This case study into unstable molecule fabric has led me to identify a potential gap in comics scholarship, one which I hope to continue to remedy as part of a longer term project: specifically identifying the shadowy cultural influence of DuPont in comics. By identifying supersuits and superpowers based on specific chemical innovations, I hope to highlight DuPont’s influence as so pervasive that it shaped popular culture. Using chemistry to examine the places where the narrative aligns or diverges from real world material science has the opportunity to highlight historical cultural attitudes and understandings of these new materials, and they way they’ve shaped our modern world, drawing special attention to the places where the anxieties over their unforeseen consequences emerge.