Defining "Unstable": The Many Meanings of Marvel's Magic Molecule Fabric
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
Unstable Molecules, Part 2: in which I attempt to understand UMs as a physical material rather than a concept through comparison to other synthetic fabrics, real or imaginary within Marvel comics, and perhaps more importantly, how characters interact with them.
Or, the catchier version: Fuck you, Hank Pym.
To recap Part 1, Super DuPont identified “Unstable Molecule fabric” as the futuristic projection for a fabric that is more stretchy, more temperature resistant, more Spandex than Spandex, but is definitely not Spandex. I discussed the ways that Marvel inventing a new “Unstable” textile can be taken to represent the Cold War dichotomy between anxieties and possibilities, either the potential dangers or adaptable applications in the context of scientific material innovation. This time I want to focus on other double meanings of “Unstable” that would create associations with the mental psyche, looking at both the concept of identity as an inherently fluid construct, and at full psychotic breaks.
This idea to explore the multiple readings of Unstable Molecules as simultaneously a physical material and a metaphorical concept stems from the same methodology presented by Ramzi Fawaz in The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics in his chapter on the Fantastic Four, which explores the effects of a physically changed body on the psyche. (S.O. to Tony D'Agostino for the poke to re-read the Comics Bible during my month of introspective crises, which is turning out to be a pervasive theme.) As the accidental in-canon inventors of Unstable Molecules, when exposed to cosmic rays during outer space exploration, the four found their biologies transformed to mimic recent advancements in material science, and their spacesuits uniquely able to adapt to these enhanced abilities. Fawaz makes distinct connections between the malleable plasticity of Mr. Fantastic and the transparency of Cellophane and Tupperware to the Invisible Woman. Fawaz considered “the malleability of these inventions alongside an unprecedented material durability figuratively captured the wider cultural contradictions between the boundless possibilities of post war economic and social progress, and desires to contain such possibilities within rigidly gendered heterosexual spaces.” During the Cold War, the domestic applications of Space Age innovations placed private lives and domestic spaces as public battlefronts. Fawaz identifies the manufactured chemical bonds that created Unstable Molecules as a metaphor for the chosen familial bonds between the Fantastic Four, and that by emphasizing the unwieldy nature of new material objects that are marketed as products to create societal conformity within this non-normative family unit, the heroes’ interactions with these synthetic materials allow them to transcend traditional gender roles.
Summary: “Unstable” becomes synonymous with the fluidity of “queer.”
In his analysis, Fawaz treats the symbolic materiality of the Fantastic Four’s new biological physicality and the chemical transformation of spacesuits into Unstable Molecule fabric as the same, but neither Fawaz nor Marvel comics actually answer if because their biology underwent physical material changes if this means that the Fantastic Four themselves are now made of Unstable Molecules, or just their space suits? No other instances of cosmic radiation within the comics answer this question either, though I’m inclined to say that because the fabric reacts to the powers of the wearer, that in our pseudo-chemistry formulas that
human being + cosmic rays
is not equal to
spacesuit fabric + cosmic rays.
However, this does offer clues as to what Unstable Molecule fabric might actually be! (I promise Ramzi, we’ll get back to you, but this tangent is a good one.)
If Unstable Molecule fabric is the result of the spacesuit textile’s exposure to cosmic rays, considering that at the introduction of the Fantastic Four in 1961 the space suit in use by NASA was the Mercury Suit, which was made of a neoprene coated nylon inner layer, and an aluminized nylon outer layer.
Both neoprene and nylon were actually invented prior to the Cold War material sciences era, in the 1930s by....
OH HI, DUPONT. I KNEW YOU’D BE BACK.
Considering the elasticity and strength of nylon, and that neoprene is a synthetic rubber, it solidifies my Part 1 observations that Spandex, an elastic material originally intended to be a synthetic rubber, would be easily incorrectly mistaken for Unstable Molecule fabric, which we can now definitively identify to be:
Nylon+Neoprene+A sprinkle of aluminum coating+Cosmic Radiation.
Turns out Unstable Molecule fabric is a better name than “radioactive tin foil wetsuit.”
Except, with all this free time on our hands, of course I didn’t stop there! Give me another four weeks of not going outside and I’ll have a chemical formula. (That is absolutely a joke.) For now, let’s settle for all the ways our Nylon Neoprene Aluminum sandwich can become Unstable. You know, beyond the obvious of BEING EXPOSED TO SPACE RADIATION.
Is this section necessary? No. Is it a chance to point out the nefariousness of Dupont? Fuck yes absolutely, continue…
Neoprene itself is exceptionally non reactive, but is made up of a long chemical chain of chloroprene, which itself is highly flammable, carcinogenic, mutagenic, and toxic to skin, lungs, and reproductive organs. This keeps risk largely isolated to production facilities and adjacent air and water supplies. Due to the existent structure of the rubber industry and niche machinery that required production to occur through outside facilities, Dupont only supplied the unprocessed neoprene. The processing of rubber and synthetics is the point in the manufacturing process most likely to go wrong, causing the material to degrade or break down entirely, and in order to protect their reputation from being associated with dangerous unstable final products, Dupont was adamant in placing responsibility on the middlemen who actually make neoprene and in distancing their name from the material, referring to neoprene as a raw material without a trademarked name (for example, the way that Dupont Spandex is referred to as Lycra.)
Nylon is a plastic based synthetic, and as it turns out, it’s a semi-decent idea to wrap it in carcinogenic fake rubber made in a subcontracted factory with questionable manufacturing practices, because atomic oxygen, the most prevalent atomic material found in low earth orbit, is highly reactive to plastics, specifically polymers like polyester and nylon. Even when not in space, consumers walking through polluted air with enough concentrations of acidity could find their nylon stockings to literally disintegrate.
For the record, if you’re tracking my dedication to a blog that literally only fifty people have read, I have purchased multiple books on the history of American rubber manufacturing, and read space lab results on archived NASA websites. Just to talk about stretchy onesies.
Connecting our literal materiality to our metaphoric materiality, Mr. Fantastic is slightly more complicated than a plastic man wearing a plastic suit. The original spacesuit was made of distinct separate layers that even at their molecular base did not derive from common materials. Unstable Molecule fabric returned to earth as one singular material. This actually echoes a contemporary shift in the 1950s and 60s for material sciences to specifically pursue research and manufacturing of not just new chemical synthetics that could surpass nylon, but synthetic blends that wove separate material fibers into seemingly new textiles.
In Part 1, I discussed that although we refer to a fabric as spandex, technically what we mean is a spandex blend, since fabrics are never made of more than 25% of the material. The random Unstable disintegration of nylon stockings was solved by blending nylon with polyester or spandex. The literal weaving of Unstable materials with stable ones should not be viewed as an assimilative practice, but instead the interaction between the two that allowed Unstable materials to transcend their limitations of instability.
Which, finally, brings me back to the actual point here. Ramzi Fawaz’s argument is rooted in his interactions with Jose Esteban Munoz’s concept of disidentification, which describes the ways minority groups “attempt to transform the limits of one’s subject position by performing it in unexpected or unpredictable ways.” This re-articulation of dominant ideology through spectacular and critical performances of cultural norms seems to echo the ways that synthetics like nylon or spandex when woven alongside a “natural” cotton are perceived as stronger, stretchier, and the dominant material despite actual percentage compositions. The use of the normal helps to accentuate the wonder-fabric, but the unnatural and unstable material becomes a misnomer for the blend, similar to the way that the Thing is more associated with his physical form than his human psyche. Unstable Molecules are queer in their fluidity, but also in the ways they are forced to “blend” for their own survival.
Important: there is a difference between a new chemically engineered material and an interwoven blend, specifically the idea of working with an existent material, vs creating a new one. One is the mad scientist, and the other the artist bricoleur of found objects. One seeks to to fundamentally alter, no matter the cost, and the other hopes to benevolently improve the hand dealt. As identified by Fawaz, interaction with the existent synthetic material has the ability to transcend gender roles. But the character who consciously “plays God” by manipulating chemical matter into new materials, is marked by extreme identity crises (emphasis on plural) in which they (well, usually he) struggles to understand his own place in the world, and suffers a deep psychotic break that loses all concern for humanity.
Oh, unnatural chemical invention fuckery leads them to not give a shit about it’s consequences on the planet or humanity? I SEE YOU GIANT NARRATIVE METAPHOR FOR EVIL DUPONT.
This stark narrative distinction is best illustrated by perhaps the next most famous team to interact with Unstable Molecules, Ant Man and the Wasp.
Ant Man and the Wasp were introduced in 1963 as Hank Pym, a scientist, and Janet Van Dyne, a socialite heiress. Hank spent a lot of time trying to understand his discovery of subatomic “Pym particles,” a material he originally destroyed because he deemed it too dangerous to exist, and Jan spent a lot of time redesigning their costumes, made of Unstable Molecules. Over the course of the next twenty years, Hank changes from Ant Man to Giant Man and Goliath, accidentally creates the sociopathic homicidal sentient robot Ultron by harnessing the metal alloy adamantium, inhales chemicals during one of his experiments and develops schizophrenia, becoming Yellowjacket, is further brainwashed by Ultron, and finally suffers a mental breakdown, narratively signified by him punching Jan in the face. Van Dyne, on the other hand, becomes a successful fashion designer.
I promise we’re getting to the point about synthetics transcending gender roles.
Each of Hank Pym’s identity crises are the direct result of his attempts to “play God,” perhaps none more literally than through his creation of Ultron in 1968…
The first mentions of adamantium in Marvel comics appear in reference to Ultron’s skin as an incredibly chemically stable, almost indestructible, man made metal alloy. The stability of the adamantium alloy is rooted in its origins as the combination of naturally occurring metals, rather than the instability of Unstable Molecules due to its own origins as made of multiple synthetics. However, instead of focusing on the stability of the material itself, because of the inertness, or non-reactive and unaffected nature of the material, it is literally a material without the ability to “blend” with humanity. As such, the combination of the man made metal that cannot integrate with man creates instability, like the constant physical suffering and psychological trauma of Wolverine’s adamantium coated skeleton.
Repetition for emphasis: trying to introduce man made materials, even stable ones made of natural materials, equals an unstable result, because by the late 60s American culture had drastically shifted to distrust the aggressive chemical engineering pushed throughout the previous decade.
Ultron himself was designed as the combination of an adamantium exterior, but with Hank Pym’s brain patterns, which at this point in the narrative, gave no indication of deep psychological trauma, but instead an overly dedicated scientist whose only crimes were being dumb enough not to destroy his “probably dangerous” Pym Particles, and ignoring his hot rich assistant Van Dyne who clearly has no issues with emotional unavailability or unrequited love to spend most of his time in the lab. Ultron becomes a warning for Pym’s over experimentation, as the combination of attempting to create an unnatural being using an unnatural material becomes the catalyst for Pym’s decline.
One of Ultron’s first acts was to create Vision, a “synthezoid,” which literally just means “synthetic human.”
MARVEL. Your lack of subtlety means this blog basically just writes itself.
Since a “synthetic human” is not the name we give to the Fantastic Four after their exposure to cosmic radiation, synthetic becomes clearly aligned with an existence of man made materials and interference in the creation process. (Unstable Molecule fabric is therefore a synthetic because it began as layers of multiple synthetics.) Vision is a tangible metaphor for matter subjected to physical and chemical engineering: able to harness solar and light energy and to change his density at will, but the ultimate intangibility of his status as an unstable body and psyche leads to multiple identity crises in which he either longs for humanity or rejects it entirely. Vision’s ability to manipulate his own molecules is used as a narrative device that foreshadows his own mental stability an inhuman nature. Vision remains aware at all times of his unnatural existence, not unlike the way that the scientific community underwent its own crisis unsure what to do about the creation of dozens of materials like Teflon and the Atomic bomb that could never be destroyed, but had no place in the natural world.
Vision is described as every bit a human, but his organs are made of synthetic materials. I’d like to place emphasis on Vision being assigned a male gender, despite his asexual material construction. Pym’s own masculine hubris created Ultron and Vision, and each creations’ own need to further create unnatural materials, that creates their crises of identity. Instead of transcending gender roles, through playing God the gendered subject becomes lost.
By the mid 1980s, Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne are divorced. Hank lives bankrupt in a motel, specifically citing his masculine pride as the reason he refuses to accept money in the divorce settlement from his money-is-no-object ex wife. Janet Van Dyne nominates herself as chairwoman of the Avengers, dates Tony Stark and the Black Knight, evolves her superpowers through old-fashioned physical training without the help of her ex-husband, and expands her incredibly successful fashion design career. Janet Van Dyne succeeds precisely because she leaves scientific engineering the fuck alone.
Which is not at all to be confused with “because Van Dyne is an airhead who cares more about clothes and doesn’t understand science” because Marvel REALLY likes to pull that card.
Beyond re-designing costumes for herself and her husband, Janet Van Dyne’s first runway presentation of original fashion designs occurred in 1978. And based on a very cursory version of “how accurately did Marvel depict the fashion industry?” Actually, decently well! The text says that Van Dyne’s show is being held in the “crystal ballroom of a world famous hotel.” In 1976, the era’s most prominent French designer Yves Saint Laurent moved his shows into the Imperial Salon of the Hotel Inter-Continental. And the two images share a lot of commonalities.
Further, Van Dyne is wearing a very Grecian inspired dress, which looks a lot like the garments designed by Halston in ’77, who at the time was one of the best known designers in America, holding design contracts with airlines and the US Olympic team for uniforms. Clothing worn by supermodel Pat Cleveland was referenced twice— in the Grecian Halston dress, and in the first design presented on the runway, which resembled a highly publicized photo of an Oscar de la Renta gown at the monumental Battle of Versailles fashion show in 1973.
Why do we care so much about how accurately this fashion show was portrayed? So we can dissect a very tiny detail at a molecular level. Where the other pieces presented at Van Dyne’s debut are described in terms like “a sultry summer jumpsuit,” this one makes reference to Quiana, which is not the name of the gown or its design silhouette, but instead the trademarked name of a silk alternative synthetic nylon based material invented by DuPont in 1968. Due to the expense behind both researching and producing the fabric, almost three times the cost of nylon, it was originally marketed for use in high end fashions. Yep, not cause it's better, but because Poppa DuPont has to recoup those costs somehow.
Calling out a material by name, however, is a fashion nuance. As previously discussed, the invention of synthetic materials and their utilization in clothing increased drastically during the Cold War as countries attempted to highlight their chemical and technological prowess, but usually actually highlighting synthetic materials on the runway was reserved for political novelty or DuPont’s economic motivations, but was not at all the norm. These products were more directly introduced to consumers through print advertisements, so it is significantly more likely that the creators ran across one of these photos in a magazine for reference when writing about and drawing this collection in order to have chosen to reference Quiana. (If you’re noticing some design similarities, The Jerry Silverman dress in the magazine advertisement is actually originally based on a Halston design.)
Where this may have been the case of a Marvel writer and artist flipping through magazine advertisements and broad popular culture nuance to project some version of “Hey girls, I kinda understand fashion,” the result actually aligns Van Dyne as being a competent fashion designer who understands the capabilities of her synthetic materials, considering that her Grecian Halston dress is revealed later to be constructed of Unstable Molecules. The key, is that she is working with fabrics that already exist, rather than trying to create new ones.
In 1989, Van Dyne elects to design and wear a suit that resembles classic Donna Karan/Anne Klein workwear to represent her company at a
technology conference. Considering that the comics only ever mention her fashion design business, it would seem that Van Dyne understands her use of synthetic fabrics as a
technical application rather than purely an aesthetic that influences fabric draping, and that perhaps her years of witnessing her husband’s mental instability as a direct result of unnatural chemical engineering caused her to only work within the confines of her materials, rather than attempt to invent new fabrics.
The first female chairwoman, mentions of her design career actually increase during her tenure. Van Dyne aligns with Fawaz’s analysis of Sue Storm as women who transcend gender roles by through significant performances of femininity. Due to her literal interactions with Unstable Molecules and fashion, Van Dyne provides an even more literal demonstration of this phenomenon. Showing Van Dyne in the middle of the design process, presenting on runways and at technology conferences highlighted the labor, time, and skill actually required to make custom clothing, and affirmed a feminist narrative of a woman with two successful careers. Van Dyne was an innovator willing to push the applications of material sciences harder than her scientist husband, who became more invested in the discovery than in its uses.
In the case of Ant Man and The Wasp, the better scientist is not the one who discovers more, but the one who observes and acts more responsibly.