"If I wanted to listen to people have random conversations, I'd turn invisible and go to a cocktail party."
-Rachel, on why she only really prefers very well-produced and well-structured podcasts, if at all.
The age-old debate, as exemplified by Act I of the This American Life episode “Superpowers,” asks people to decide whether they would want to be able to fly or turn invisible. Jon's opinion was that while flight would possibly be the most thrilling power and would be useful in at least a few types of situations, invisibility would probably be the more manageable and usable power in practice. If all you can do is fly, then as soon as that's discovered, you're likely to be shot down and studied by the government. If you can turn invisible, then you can - by the very nature of the power - conceal that fact from others and reap the benefits without discovery.
Characters acquire the ability to turn invisible through a variety of means from story to story. Similar to the various mechanisms of time travel, sometimes it's a personal ability (whether genetic or engineered in some way), and other times it's a device or object ranging from a piece of clothing to an electronic device that you wear and activate. For example, Harry Potter is bequeathed a cloak from his late father that renders anything it covers invisible, but this requires that the cloak fully cover whatever it is concealing. On the other hand (literally), The One Ring of Power in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings renders its wearer invisible when placed on their finger. In other words, the ring turns the wearer invisible by changing their state, and the cloak simply conceals what it covers. In the Star Trek universe, some ships are equipped with 'cloaking' capability, and this is presumably a technology that emits a field of some sort that envelops the ship in a light-bending way that prevents detection by scanners. Sometimes there are chemicals that turn someone invisible when ingested or applied. For example, in HG Wells' The Invisible Man, the main character recounts how he developed a chemical that renders anything that it is applied to invisible. In Hollow Man, Sebastian Caine becomes invisible by injecting a serum. But then, there are characters who simply have the ability to turn invisible as an innate power. Some examples are Susan Storm ("The Invisible Woman") of Fantastic Four, Claude from Heroes, and Invisible Boy from Mystery Men (although he is subject to the ironic limit that he can only do so when nobody is watching him).
The advantages of invisibility are fairly straightforward: you can sneak into places more easily, observe people who believe they are alone, and avoid capture if being pursued. As we noted before, the nature of the power also makes it relatively easy to conceal. You aren't flying around in plain sight, picking something heavy up and throwing in front of people, or blasting lasers out of your eyes to the horror of onlookers. The only time it would really be detected would be if you actually turned visible or invisible right in front of an observer. What we find more interesting is that there are a number of potentially serious disadvantages to being invisible, especially if you can't turn back at will.
For example, the 1940 film The Invisible Woman features (spoiler) an invisible baby at the end, prompting Rachel to wonder: "How hard would it be to change an invisible baby's diaper? How do you feed an invisible baby without sticking a spoon in its eye? You'd have to be really careful not to put the baby down somewhere and not be able to find it again! I guess at least if you were bathing it, you could tell where it is by the water displacement."
Other potentially problematic scenarios occur in a movie called Memoirs of an Invisible Man starring Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah, in which Chase’s character, Nick Halloway, is rendered invisible by an explosion of experimental energy. Unable to become visible again, he quickly learns that being permanently invisible is not all fun and games. For example, when he eats some food for the first time after becoming invisible, he looks in a mirror, sees the food churning in his own stomach, and promptly becomes disgusted and vomits it back out. He also encounters a few instances in which he wants to be visible, and this requires him to wear masks or apply makeup to try to conceal his invisibility and interact in normal ways.
Movies like Memoirs of an Invisible Man also cause us to ponder a number of questions regarding the logistics of everyday life and even survival, if you could neither even see your own body nor make yourself visible to others at any time. In the final scene of the movie, Halloway comes skiing down a slope in the alps, and is greeted at the entrance to their getaway cabin by a now-pregnant Alice (Daryl Hannah), and when he removes some of his covering to give her a kiss, we realize that he has never become visible again. This raises several pressing questions in our minds. Of most immediate concern, what the hell would he do if he were in an accident while skiing? Even a relatively minor injury like a broken bone or a wound that needed stitches would become difficult if not impossible to treat, even if he were willing to disclose his invisible state to a doctor in the first place. In the long term, how would an invisible parent be able to interact with their baby, especially in its earliest non-verbal stages? You would be unable to mirror or model body language and facial expressions for your infant child, and at best, you would appear as a disembodied voice that could reach out and touch them without warning. Creepy! It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of object permanence, and you’d be nearly invincible at hide and seek!
Of course, the disadvantages described above only really apply to characters who are unable to turn visible when the need arises, which leads to what we believe may be the crucial point about a superpower like this: Being able to TURN invisible is AWESOME. Being STUCK invisible would be HORRIFIC, particularly if you couldn't see yourself. If you can see yourself, then okay…at least you can just be careful and administer self-aid, but you're still extra vulnerable if you require any care from others. If you can't see yourself, then (1) you're REALLY at risk for even minor injuries, and (2) unlikely to be able to see at all because presumably your invisible eyes interact differently with light, if they interact at all, in which case you are completely fucked and will die in days.
“Wow, that’s a particularly dark take on the invisible baby scenario.”
On a final note, we'd like to point out something that is less of a drawback and more of an interesting factor to note when considering just how much of a relative advantage invisibility may be: the benefits of being able to turn invisible are essentially negated if you are faced with a blind superhero like Daredevil, or really any blind person. It doesn't necessarily put you at a disadvantage, but any edge you had from being invisible has now been eliminated. An interesting example of this is seen in earlier issues of The Fantastic Four, when Alicia Masters, a blind woman, is able to use her keen other senses to tell that The Invisible Woman (Sue Storm) is around. Being invisible didn't make Sue any more detectable, but it certainly didn’t give her the advantage that she normally has, either. Indeed, our original conversation about invisibility that spawned this post touched on the topic of invisible characters with blind allies or foes, so be on the lookout for an upcoming article with the working title “Blind Heroics”.
In the meantime, let us know what you think! Would rather be able to fly or turn invisible? Let us know here, and then follow us on Twitter to find out the results when they come in!