Meet 'E-Man,' the superhero inspired by Albert Einstein
Find out the remarkable story behind the cult comic book that has kept readers coming back for more than 40 years.
E-Man first entered my brain like a white-hot bolt of an energy blast from his fingertips.
It was the mid-1970s and I, maybe 6 or 7 years old, was rooting through a shelf of poorly printed, carelessly stacked comic books at my local Woolworth’s department store while my mother shopped nearby. These weren’t your usual Superman or Spider-Man comics. No, they were a weird collection of comics that I had never seen or heard of before. Science fiction comics. Westerns. Bizarre, second-string super-heroes like Judomaster and Captain Atom.
And there, amidst the stack, one cover in particular caught my eye: a man in an orange costume with the letters E=MC2 emblazoned across his chest, fighting an alien that looked like a giant brain. This was "E-Man" issue number one. “Collector’s Item,” the cover screamed.
Of course, I had to have it.
That first issue, written by Nicola Cuti and drawn by Joe Staton, starts off with a literal bang. An exploding star gives birth to an amorphous blob of somehow sentient energy. This unnamed being drifts around the universe for millions of years until making its way to Earth, where it meets its first human being, a burlesque dancer named Nova, who has a poster of Albert Einstein on her wall. Taking human form, our hero asks what the equation E=MC2 on the poster means. “That’s Einstein’s formula for changing energy into matter and vice-versa,” Nova replies. “Energy equals mass times the speed of light.”
“I guess that’s me – E-Man,” the energy being responds, naming himself.
Now, by the time I found this issue, "E-Man" the comic book had been around for a couple of years. "E-Man," like all of the comics on that shelf full of discounted back-stock, was published by a little-remembered outfit called Charlton, which I later learned was a shady organization that spent decades cheaply jumping on any fad they could find and then jumping off just as quickly. Among comics fans of the day they were notorious for their awful printing and half-dash stories.
Despite the fact that Charlton paid its writers and artists next to nothing, many of the stories they published were actually pretty good. "E-Man," it turns out, was one of them. Looking back at those early issues, it’s easy to see why they have stood the test of time. In no small part, it’s because "E-Man" creators Cuti and Staton drew their inspiration from another timeless figure, Albert Einstein, and not just in the way they put the E=MC2 logo on his chest.
"E-Man" was hardly the only comic book to use Einstein as a character or inspiration, but it was one of the first, predating appearances with characters such as Superman by half a decade. While most other comics employed Einstein's classic appearance, "E-Man" went deeper, using the E=MC2 formula as a visual motif. This innovative use of Einstein's iconography still stands out in terms of the scientist's impact on pop culture.
“Einstein's face is the most recognizable face worldwide,” says Hanoch Gutfreund, the director of the Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University in Israel, a school the physicist helped establish.
Of course, "E-Man's" interpretation of the formula is not exactly what the equation means, but it’s not that far off. Einstein was really telling us that the act of absorbing energy increases an object’s mass, and that the energy contained within mass can be released. The equation also says that matter can be created from light.
As written by Cuti (an Einstein fan, he has admitted in interviews), E-Man displays powers tied fairly well to all three aspects of that equation. An energy being, he can transform his body into any physical shape – throughout the series he takes the appearance of everything from a rocket ship to a shark to a piece of toast – and he can also convert that mass back into energy blasts from his hands, much like Superman’s heat vision. His energy form is also, like Einstein suggested in his special theory of relativity, pretty much impossible to destroy – although villains come close in a couple of issues.
Despite its smarts, the "E-Man" comic by all accounts sold horribly. Still, it gained cult status among those few who did read it. Charlton cancelled the original comic after 10 issues, but "E-Man" refused to die. In 1983 the character returned from a new publisher, First Comics, for another 25-issue run, plus reprints of the original series. After that, another publisher, Comico, published four more issues. Then a half-dozen more publishers followed, either with entire issues or by running "E-Man" cameos in their other series. Most recently, First Comics resurrected itself, merged with another publisher called Devil’s Due, and put out a collected edition of the original Charlton issues, recolored with modern techniques for a modern audience.
The reprint book leaves out a two-year run of stories not written by Cuti – a time when the publisher ill-advisedly turned the book into a parody humor title – but the Charlton issues and those written after Cuti’s return show a sense of smarts. As Cuti wrote in the letters page in one issue in 1990, “'E-Man' storylines ... are peppered with references to science and literature since I know that comic readers are usually book readers as well.”
Indeed, Einstein’s finger- and brain-prints can be found throughout the series’ run. There are scientists (both good and evil), discussions of whether or not E-Man’s transformations should trigger an explosion (hint: they probably should), a few atomic blasts and references to advanced science aplenty.
All of it adds up to a lot of fun. As Cuti continued in that letter, he wanted his audience to try to track down the science that he mentioned, but he also tried “to give the reader a rip-roaring story as well.”
That he did. The stories may not have been as deep as Einstein’s theories, but they have kept readers coming back for more than 40 years. There’s nothing relative or theoretical about that.
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Related Topics: Albert Einstein