Back to school: be thankful it’s not in a comic book

Fall is in the air, the summer is over and for many that means it’s back to school or university. The new school year brings with it new stresses, but also the chance to see old friends, make new ones, expand one’s knowledge and, of course, get turned into a monster by a supervillain.

Wait, no, my bad. That’s only if you go to a comic-book university. While they may have their problems in our world, in comics universities are such hotbeds of supercriminality that it’s amazing they’re not more closely regulated.

Probably the most obvious collegiate superhero is Spider-Man. When Spidey debuted in 1962, he was revolutionary not only in that he was a teen superhero — a role usually reserved for sidekicks and team members — and that he aged more or less in real time. That’s slowed down since then — which is why Spidey isn’t in his late 60s — but it did mean that after a few years Peter Parker graduated from high school and went off to university. That brought with it new characters, a depressingly high percentage of whom turned out to be supervillains.

Spidey’s alma mater, Empire State University (a fictionalized hybrid of Columbia and NYU) has had at least two major supervillains on its staff: Curt Connors became the tragic monster called The Lizard, while Professor Miles Warren was The Jackal (there is kind of a recurring theme to Spider-Man villains). Lesser villains who’ve been on ESU’s faculty include Lightmaster, Lunatik (who managed to get a job as a theatre professor despite being a fragmentary version of a power-mad dictator from another dimension), Humbug (who only turned to crime after his funding was cut and later reformed) and the Vulture (but the third Vulture, not the original).

And that’s not all: current or former students of ESU, in addition to Peter himself, include (deep breath) Captain America, Captain Britain, Chamber, Dusk (one of the Slingers, and if you don’t remember them I don’t blame you), Foolkiller, Green Goblin, Human Torch, Namorita, Nova, Ricochet (another Slinger who went to be a little better known thanks to his appearance in Runaways), Valkyrie, Weasel and White Tiger. Oh, and Flash Thompson, who didn’t become a super hero until later, but still.

Peter Parker’s new roommate. Yes, it’s Captain Britain. Yes, he’s wearing a Union Jack pin. No, he’s never heard of subtlety.

I guess what I’m saying is that there are a lot of superhero fights on the ESU campus. It might be worth thinking about a college upstate.

Meanwhile, over in the DC Universe, there’s a certain amount of academic mayhem, although it’s not as focused in one place. DC has its share of professor heroes — Ray Palmer and Ryan Choi were both physicists and both fought crime as the Atom, while Martin Stein, also a physicist, was part of several versions of the Firestorm character. Neither had quite as rich a university-based rogue’s gallery as Marvel’s ESU characters.

Interestingly, though, both the Atom and Firestorm tended to have more directly science-related adventures. For most academic characters, science is just a way to develop an origin story, but in Ray Palmer’s case it became a defining trait. In the buildup to his crowning moment of badassery, taking out Darkseid during Grant Morrison’s run on JLA, he says it himself:


“I’m Ray Palmer. I’m the Atom. I’m a scientist.”

There isn’t the same level of academic overlap within the DC Universe, but that’s probably just symptomatic of the generally spread-out DC setting. Ivy University (probably a fictionalised version of Cornell, but standing in for all prestigious universities) is probably still not a great place to go to school for people who don’t like being stepped on by Giganta or turned into a cactus.

So if you’re headed back to college this autumn, as a student or for work, just remember that no matter what the coming academic year holds, at least you’re not going to get turned into a horrifying human-animal hybrid and shot into another dimension.

I mean, probably.

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