Toon Ponderings

This is where I will present the haunting, toon related questions that pester me night and day. You know, the kind of stuff you ask your family and get replies such as “It’s just a cartoon!” or “Who cares?”
And if you’re going to answer these questions that way, leave. Now! I don’t want to hear it.

OK. Now that the narrow-minded know-it-alls have left, we can continue.

August, 2009

In "Dark Heart" (that's the Justice League Unlimited episode, not half of the MSNBC documentary series), the Atom shrinks down to micro-chibi size, as is his wont, so that he can ride in Superman's ear on the way to ground zero of the ridiculously unrelenting alien invasion. Granting Supes his Sol-given powers and Dr. Palmer's mad dwarf star-harnessing skills, this is all acceptably routine. Now, if someone can just answer me this:

How in the name of Nth metal did regular-sized Superman and teeny-sized Atom carry on a conversation with one another?

Let's take a quick physics refresher (I promise I'll keep it short and simple). Sound waves are produced by vibrating particles in the air, and pitch (how high or low a sound is) is controlled by the frequency of the waves produced – how fast or slow the particles vibrate. In the case of human voices, this frequency is determined by several factors, including the width of the opening between the vocal folds (also known as vocal chords; they create the sound) and the shape of body and nasal cavities (which creates resonance). All of these factors come down to one essential quantity: size. The smaller the anatomy, the higher the pitch. And the Atom's anatomy was very small.

The hearing range of a normal human is between about 16 Hz and 16.4 kHz, maximum, and the higher end typically becomes less audible with age. And that's just what can be heard, that's not getting into what can actually be interpreted as coherent speech; that cuts it back to about 500 Hz to 3 kHz. The Atom, when small enough to fit inside Supes' ear, would have proportionately tiny vocal folds, which would vibrate proportionately faster, which would produce proportionately higher pitches. Well outside the range of normal human hearing.

Ah, but it wasn't a normal human doing the listening, was it? It was Superman, and super hearing is one of his long-established super powers. So, as completely absurd as it may sound, I can almost accept that teeny Atom could speak to Superman. The problem that now arises is, how did Atom even recognize that Supes (and later, when Supes picks him up, Batman) was speaking, much less understand what they were saying? Just as his vocal chord transmitter was proportionately smaller, so was his ear receiver. The human ear can hear well below the frequency at which speech is no longer intelligible, but the Atom was absolutely dwarfed by Superman's tragus, and Superman and Batman, voiced as they are by George Newburn and Kevin Conroy, respectively, both have deep, rich baritones. Atom just could not hear them with his tiny little ears. Not to mention the fact that sitting in a man's ear when you are the size of a chigger and he is talking is likely to be an extremely loud and dangerous feat, considering the way the jaw moves and vibrates when vocalizing.

Seeing as he makes a living of shrinking down to subatomic sizes, and seeing as he is a professor of nanotechnology, I'm going to guess Dr. Palmer likely developed some manner of hearing aid to work out these issues, but he doesn't appear to be using any sort of headset or anything. Batman clearly has one, but he doesn't communicate directly with Atom during this time, and Atom in fact asks if it was Bats that was speaking, so there is no direct confirmation that he actually heard what was said. Perhaps he didn't hear him at all and merely inferred from Superman's behaviour that someone was communicating with him. And further perhaps Superman's voice has super-harmonics that _can_ be heard if you're microscopic, and the entire exchange hinges on the fact that Atom was conversing with a Kryptonian.

I am well aware of the nature of comic books, and I am absolutely positive that this issue has been addressed in Atom comics in the past, probably with a different bit of flabotanum for every author who has ever written for him. I would be more than happy to hear from anyone who has a canon explanation (or, indeed, anyone who has any theories to propose), so long as everyone bears in mind that I am a DC neophyte.

If you have an answer, a question, or another side to add to make me even more confused, send it to me.

Missed a question? See past ponderings here.

Now that we're all perplexed, you can go.