Costumed Visions: Depictions, Impacts and Ethics of Enhanced Bodies

First Meeting of the ‘Costumed Visions Network
16 September 2015

Superheroes and supervillains are human approximations possessed of abilities or capacities beyond those considered species-typical.  These beings may acquire their powers in a variety of ways: divinity (e.g. the Mighty Thor); mysticism (e.g., the Sorcerer Supreme, Dr. Stephen Strange); fictional forces such as the Power Cosmic (e.g., the Silver Surfer); and more. Of particular interest, however, are those empowered by genetic and/or techno-scientific means. The processes by which they gain their increased capabilities frequently approximate those by which scientists are currently seeking to intervene in our physiology, or the way futurists are anticipating that our physiologies will be modified, and they can be distilled into the following archetypes: 

  • Those who experienced an evolutionary jump or germ line genetic mutation at birth (e.g., mutants, or homo superior, such as Wolverine, Storm, and Colossus). 
  • Those subject to an induced genetic transformation as a result of ethical or unethical science (e.g., mutated humans such as Captain America, She-Hulk, and Spider-Man).
  • Those who rely on implanted or overlaid technology that is somehow integrated with their organic beings (e.g., Deathlok, Misty Knight, and Cable). 
  • Those who rely entirely on high technologies, typically worn externally (e.g., Iron Man, Guardian, and Vindicator). 
  • Those who are designed and rely on machine intelligence to achieve autonomous awareness (e.g., Danger, the Vision, and the Human Torch).

These archetypes encompass a number of approaches to, and realisations of, the enhanced human or post-human, and they are a useful device by which we can understand and critique different states of being and doing, some of which may be just over the horizon.  Their visions of enhancement and social interaction offer popular and increasingly compelling imaginaries that can be analysed from a number of angles, offering new insights around existing practices, including those around innovation trajectories, social deployment of technologies, ethical and legal control of science and human interaction, and different forms of embodiment.  In short, they offer a novel way to think about contemporary constructions of normative bodies, health, embodiment, and equality; one that is of interest to a wide range of publics not normally engaged with the academy.

The Costumed Visions of the Enhanced Body project, kindly funded by the Wellcome Trust, is a collaboration between the Institute for Science Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester, and the JK Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and Law at the University of Edinburgh.  It will explore graphic fiction portrayals of the enhanced body, engaging with questions such as:

  • What do the depicted enhancements say about current ideas of treatment and enhancement?
  • How are different embodiments treated, and what does that say about value or values?
  • How is science and technology portrayed, and are comics useful for science communication?

On 16 September 2015, at the Manchester Meeting Place, the project team (David Lawrence, Shawn Harmon, Gill Haddow) will join with other interested contributors (including Professor Scott Bukatman, Mr Dan Abnett, Professor Andy Miah, Dr Simon Locke, Mr Alan Cowsill, Mr Mik Scarlet, Dr David Kirby, and Dr Thomas Giddens and Dr Yasemin Erden, both of the Graphic Justice Research Alliance), to undertake an interdisciplinary discussion around these questions.  It will serve as a nexus of culture, media and literature studies, and will provide a unique lens through which to focus on persistent academic debates about embodiment and the ethics and regulation of enhancement.  Key outcomes of the project will be (1) the formation of the Costumed Visions Network, which will in future work collaboratively with the Graphic Justice Research Alliance, (2) publication of an edited collection based around the content of the meeting, and (3) the preparation of a proposal for further research at this novel intersection of fields.

Information on the meeting is available on the Mason Institute website

Attendance at the meeting is free but ticketed, and registration is through Eventbrite (at 

If you wish to join the Costumed Visions Network, please contact David Lawrence ( or Shawn Harmon (


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