Superman's heat vision

When was it introduced, and has it ever been explained? I can understand if the power took a more literal form, i.e., his vision is so powerful that he can see heat, but how is he able to shoot beams from his eyes? Why, of all places his eyes? I could also see if he was able to make his heart beat so fast that his body tempature became dangerously hot to humans and he could burn and melt things with his skin, but eyes have no properties that would make the ability to shoot beams from them remotely plausible.

I could think of another, uh, opening.

Seriously though, with the heat beams coming out of his eyes, it’s easier to aim.

I don’t know that it’s ever been explained. One would guess, some sort of laser beam. Perhaps his eyes are able to take the incoming light and reflect it back, highly focused?

I don’t know when it was introduced, but certainly fairly early on – it’s clearly in place in the late 1950s stories.

From the John Byrne Forum

Superman’s Vision Powers

Oh. Those actually make sense (by comic book standards, at least). Nevermind, then.

Of the several weird powers Superman has gone through, that’s probably one of the neatest. I don’t believe that the original writers thought about making it scientifically plausible, it was just too damn cool for kids in the 50’s to not immediately have turned heads. Sometimes there are attempts to add a touch of logic to Supermans powers, like his immense strength, and bullet proof skin. (Krypton larger, more gravity, increased muscle mass) Possible, but still unlikely.

Start from a different perspective, I think. It isn’t all that long ago that the idea of seeing by something that came from your eyes (rather than entering them) was a rather common notion. Perhaps because of cats? Nocturnal animals often have a highly reflective surface behind the retina, multiplying the effectiveness of whatever light they do get; so, if you see an animal in the dark, its eyes are quite possibly reflecting a surprising amount of light.
Think of the cartoons of the poor soul lost in the woods, with glowing eyes all around. For that matter, think of the cliche “glowing eyes.”

So, beginning from the physics of the matter would be a mistake. I’d be inclined to begin from the literary/folklore cliche that eyes shine. In Superman’s case, they shine in more frequencies.

I was given to understand that Superman’s powers have been retconned again and none of his powers are psychic in origin.

An explanation would depend entirely on which retcon you like.

The Auld Masters – Siegel and Schuster – explained it away by describing that Superman could increase the intensity of his X-Ray vision (which he’d had pretty much from day one) until it actually began to generate heat… which, given a little time, could even melt steel!

Over time, it simply became “heat vision.”

Heh. I miss those innocent days. In today’s comics he could probably blow up the sun at a second-long glance.

This doesn’t really make sense. Superman doesn’t project x-rays from his eyes, his eyes are sensitive to naturally occurring x-rays. He can see x-rays (and other wavelengths of light and energy) the way normal people see visible light.

I always thought that the visible beams coming from his eyes were for the reader’s convenience, to show the path (like Invisible girl’s force fields), but that they weren’t intended to be visible to the other characters in the comic. Superman could see them because he can see infra-red light.

Byrne, thank goodness, is no longer responsible for the Man of Steel.

Now, the story of Superman’s heat vision is pretty simple. Back in the day, he had literal X-Ray vision, and he had it the old-fashioned, pre-scientific concept of vision way. He had the ability to shoot X-rays from his eyes to look at things. This resulted in a couple stories where him looking at things through other things actually lit papers on fire, or made invisible ink appear.

No, I’m not kidding.

Eventually, the heat vision seperated from the x-ray vision. Maybe by '50 or so.

Master Wang-Ka is mostly right–in the…um…‘50s? Superman used his “X-Ray Vision” to burn things–he’d just ratchet up the intensity enough to ignite things. There’s a story that’s reprinted fairly frequently that has red kryptonite lock Supes’ X-Ray vision in the “on” mode and he starts torching anything he looks at. The quibble is that I think Seigel and Shuster were gone by the time this happened–I believe it was during the Weisinger era–certainly the red K story I referenced was drawn by Wayne Boring.

In the novel (HIGHLY recommended) Superman, Last Son of Krypton (by Elliot S! Maggin), Superboy discusses with Pa Kent that his eyes seem to have an active and a passive mode. He doesn’t go into much more detail than that, but his eyes can clearly project x-rays as well as infra-red rays.


I just looked it up in Fleisher’s Great Superman Book and
A) Originally, Superman had vaguely defined vision (there’s a story from June, 1940 where Superman uses his “telescopic x-ray vision”–there didn’t seem to be a disctinction betwen the two until the late '40s.) Most of the vision powers (microscopic, telescopic, x-ray, “see in the dark-vision”, “see things moving at super speed-vision”, “see invisible things vision” etc) were developed in the early '40s. Note that the lead weakness in his x-ray vision didn’t show up until the late '40s.

B) As far as I can tell, the time Supes burned something with his eyes was Superman #59 (July '49) when he melted a glacier with “The tremendous heat of his x-ray vision”. This makes it possible that it was Seigel/Shuster…it was certainly pre-Weisenger. Note also that there were at least a few stories where he couldn’t melt lead with his x-ray vision ('cause lead is immune to x-rays. Duh! :stuck_out_tongue: )

C) He gained “Spotlight vision” for at least one issue–“By concentrating, I can lengthen the waves of my x-ray vision enough that they become light waves and illuminate the ocean floor” (Action #167).

D) About this time, “telescopic x-ray vision” started splitting into two seperate powers (ie: if he was seeing at a distance in an open field, he’d only refer to “telescopic vision”, not “telescopic x-ray vision”)

E) In Action #158, there’s a text page that says that Superman can control the inensity of his x-ray vision so that he can burn things (I suppose it could be like an x-ray laser! :wink: )

F) He used x-ray vision to burn/melt things throughout the '50s, and it wasn’t until April '61 (Superman #145) that the term “heat vision” was first used–and it was used pretty much exclusively after that. As an aside, isn’t that about the time that they started pulling fluroscopes out of shoe-stores as people started learning about the dangers of x-rays?

G) To give an idea of the power levels of his “heat vision”, he casually melts a hole all the way through the Earth in Action #298. His telescopic vision allows him to read the lips of everyone on Lexor–which is in another galaxy! He can also scan the entire earth to determine that a single individual (Luthor, IIRC) isn’t there.

Does that help?


As long as we’re listing off goofball vision powers, my personal favorite annoying one was his “super-hypnosis” which AFAIK emanated from his eyes. This was in at least one story used to explain why no one ever recognized Clark as “Superman in glasses.” Seems he unconsciously left his hypno-eyes going 24/7, using it to project an image of himself as Clark as noticeably smaller and frailer than Superman. So mighty were his hypno-eyes that they worked not only through television, but through photographs of Clark.

Mercifully, to the best of my knowledge, hypno-eyes were retconned out post-Crisis which in my opinion justifies the Crisis all by itself.

Ah, so it’s a 1930’s-style X-ray!

[QUOTE=Number Six]
This doesn’t really make sense. Superman doesn’t project x-rays from his eyes, his eyes are sensitive to naturally occurring x-rays. He can see x-rays (and other wavelengths of light and energy) the way normal people see visible light. …QUOTE]

Your explanation would make sense; and, if Superman were being designed today, I hope something like that would be the approach the writers would take.

However, as a later poster noted, we’re dealing with “1930’s style X-rays” here. There are bits of scientific-sounding handwave in the early Superman material, but also stretches which are rooted more in misunderstanding. The eye beams would be one example, I think.

Be seeing you …

My explanation is, I think, the one used for Post-Crisis Superman. I understand that the Golden Age and Silver Age stories were filled with pseudo-scientific nonsense, and I like the goofy nature of many of the stories. But if you’re going to offer a scientific explanation for something, it at least shouldn’t make such a basic mistake. It was known in the 30’s that we see by light coming into the eye; this has been known for centuries. To offer an explanation that ignores this still seems silly to me.

It sounds to me like whoever first proposed this solution was confusing x-rays with sonar, which does project a signal and decode it at it’s source.

I can think of a much more logical explanation for “X-Ray vision” than emitting X-rays from his eyes or seeing X-rays. I mean, projecting honest-to-goodness X-rays wouldn’t let him see through things. Medical X-rays certainly don’t turn the patient transparent - but that’s how Supe’s vision is always portrayed.

What would make much more sense - and what would fit more logically with how the power is portrayed - would be “super-microscopic vision”. Microscopic vision so powerful that he can literally see between the atoms of a material. He just enlarges the space between atoms and makes the focal point of his vision a spot somewhere on the other side of the wall. Materials such as lead or gold would still be impervious, because of their high density.

But speaking of heat vision…

When I was still collectiong comics, some years ago, there was a neat storyline that involved his “heat vision” and some red (?) kryptonite. The story featured a guest appearance by one of my favorites: Starman, whose own title was unfortunately short-lived. In the story, Lex Luthor had acquired a large chunk of red (?) kryptonite which he kept in his office on the top floor of a skyscraper. Somehow, this kryptonite was stripping Superman of his powers, at long range. Naturally, Supes couldn’t get to the kryptonite to get rid of it.

Enter Starman. Starman was nearly as impervious to damage as Superman; he was nearly as strong; he could fly; he could radiate intense heat from any part of his body; and… he could alter his facial features at will. He had become friends with Superman because he needed some training. It seems that, in spite of his powers, he was constantly getting his butt kicked by a certain supervillian. He was powerful, but he didn’t know how to fight. Superman trained him, and they became good friends.

So Superman has an idea: dress up Starman in a spare Superman costume, and have Starman alter his appearance to look like Superman. Starman then flew up to Lex Luthor’s office window, directed his heat-power through his eyes and melted through the Superman-proof glass and, with a dumbfounded Luthor watching, smashed the case containing the chunk of kryptonite, picked up the rock and flew away with it. That left Luthor convinced that he had been sold a chunk of fake kryptonite.

But not postage stamps. One story from the early '60s had Supes freaking out about a postage stamp with his picture on it being issued by Burma. It seems he was scared that the postmark of “Rangoon” would have the two O’s over his eyes, giving him glasses, and revealing his secret identity. :eek: Well, the plots back then were stupid, but fun.