I’m a comic book editor and I teach workshops on comics writing (I used to teach one with RobotsPajamas contributor Chris Piers!). One of the things I end up talking about a lot is how time is handled in comic books. We tend to think about a single panel as a single moment in time, and the gutters between the panels as the passage of time between those moments. However, there is an inherent passage of time within most panels, usually represented by dialog or speed lines or the simple task of reading a panel from left to right (or right to left for manga). Whenever I teach these concepts in my workshops, I try to teach my students how important it is to make sure that the inherent “panel time” is not too out-of-sync with the “gutter time” because, if it is, it throws off the pace. Long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont was the worst at this. Just opening a random issue from Chris Claremont’s works (Uncanny X-Men #95) and turning to a random fight sequence (Page 11, Panel 5), we have Colossus punching Cat-Man in the face while saying, “I ‘grabbed it’ – I, Colossus – and while Colossus lives, the Wolverine will not be harmed!” That’s a lot of words for a single punch.
My students typically respond with, “Whatever,” or some version of that.
So today I sat down to do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to try to get a quantitative estimate on the offsetting panel times we typically see in comic books. I’ll call them “punch time” vs. “talk time.” I decided to look at Spider-Man’s very first punch from Amazing Fantasy #15, Page 11, Panel 3. In that panel, Spider-Man is punching the robber who killed Uncle Ben while saying, “And then my fists will do the rest!”
Part 1: How Fast Does Spider-Man Punch?
So, according to Marvel, Spider-Man is 167 lbs and capable of overhead pressing 20 tons (40,000 lbs). In order to make this a conservative estimate of panel/punch time-skewering, I’ll compare his strength and speed to peak humans instead of average humans. I found this guy Josh Bryant; he’s 185 lbs and capable of overhead pressing 445 lbs. According to some CrossFit® boards I visited, a “strong” overhead press is basically bodyweight, and Bryant is lifting 2.4x his bodyweight. That’s pretty impressive, considering I probably can’t overhead press 50% of my bodyweight. Spider-Man, however, can overhead press 90x more weight than Josh Bryant and 240x his bodyweight. We can assume that Spider-Man is either 90x stronger than Bryant or 100x stronger than Bryant (the ratio of their bodyweight-to-overhead press ratios). We’ll go with 90x stronger, to keep this estimate as conservative as possible.
Punch physics largely comes down to several variables, but the most important thing to consider is the impact energy. The impact energy is given by 0.5*(m*v^2), where m is the mass of the person throwing the punch (assuming they’re putting their whole body into it, which Spider-Man obviously is) and v is the velocity of the punch. I used some data from Nathan James Langholz’ paper, “Pulling Punches: A Non-parametric Approach to Punch Force Estimation and the Development of Novel Boxing Metrics,” to graphically show the physics of punches. As we see in Figure 1, as body-weight increases, the punch velocity decreases. However, Figure 2 shows that as body weight increases, the punch force increases (force is required to create the momentum that delivers the impact energy; a more forceful punch will result in more impact energy). This is because the mass of the person is increasing significantly (53 kg vs. 90 kg from lightest to heaviest) whereas the differences in punching speeds aren’t as significant (7.5 m/s vs 8.1 m/s from lightest to heaviest). So – bottom line – that red dot on the two graphs represents Spider-Man’s weight. His body mass sure isn’t the deciding factor in him punching through brick walls, so it has to be his punch velocity.
So for punching speed I went to boxing. Keith Liddell recorded a punch at 44mph (~20 m/s) and a punching distance of 10 feet 10 inches (3.3 m). This is, apparently, a record. I’ll assume that’s the metric of comparison for Spider-Man’s strongest punch speed. Assuming overhead press weight is correlated to punch force (probably not the most accurate correlation but I tend to only lift tacos so…), we’ll assume that Spider-Man is capable of producing an impact energy 90x greater than the world’s fastest boxer. Since impact energy, again, is given by 0.5*(m*v^2), Spider-Man’s punch speed would have to be the square root of 90x faster than Liddell. Therefore, Spider-Man’s punch speed would be around 9.5*44 mph, or 417 mph (186 m/s), essentially just over Mach 1. So, if we assume an average velocity of 93 m/s (186 m/s divided by 2) and a displacement of 3.3m, Spider-Man would throw his punch in about 0.018 s (3.3m divided by 186 m/s). I have to imagine his arm would turn into jelly from the impact but let’s assume he has “spider bones,” or whatever.
Part 2: How Fast Does Spider-Man Talk?
Now, the average syllables-per-second for an English speaker is 6.19. While Spider-Man is punching the robber, he says 7 syllables. Whereas that’s 1.13s for the average speaker, Spider-Man tends to talk fast, so we’ll just say an even 1s. So for Spider-Man’s first punch, we have 0.018s for “punch time” and 1s for “talk time” or, to put it another way, a ratio of approximately 1:56. Since the robber was knocked out cold, there’s no way he even heard what Spider-Man had to say.
But it’s not fair to say that Spider-Man punched the robber at Mach 1. The robber’s head would have been vaporized, and the sonic boom would have probably brought that old building down. Spider-Man didn’t pull his punch – he was mad as hell and had no idea how strong he was at that point. So he probably got stronger over time at which point he probably had to pull his punches when fighting most of his rogues gallery. I seriously doubt the old, decrepit Vulture can take a Mach 1 punch to the face. One person Spider-Man wouldn’t pull a punch against, however, is Venom – and there’s plenty of data to pull from there. Looking at some random Spidey vs. Venom panels, I see Spider-Man saying 28, 14, 45, and 2 (an obvious outlier) syllables mid-punch against venom for 4.5, 2.25, 7.3, and 0.3 seconds, respectively. Giving how fast Venom is (slightly faster and stronger than Spider-Man), you’d think he’d eat Spider-Man’s brains before the wall crawler can finish a word. Luckily for Spider-Man, Venom tends to talk more than Spider-Man when they fight.
Part 3: What Did We Learn?
So, in conclusion, Spider-Man is a terrible fighter who spends way too much time talking…but so are his enemies.
After writing this, I put some more thought into Spider-Man’s punch speed because Mach 5 seems very fast, honestly. Thankfully, David McDonagh from the Center for Interdisciplinary Science at the University of Leicester laid the foundation for some additional exploration when he calculated the necessary impact velocity required for Miley Cyrus to “[come] in like a wrecking ball.” Essentially, for Miley to achieve this, her impact velocity would have to be around 316 mph (141.5 m/s). This is almost ten-times slower than my estimate of Spider-Man’s punch speed. However, thankfully we have visual confirmation that Spider-Man can pick up a wrecking ball and throw it at a full-momentum Juggernaut and visual confirmation that a full momentum Juggernaut can bring down an entire skyscraper just by running into it. Look, I’m not going to do the math but, yeah, Spider-Man can punch at Mach 1. I totally believe that.
Jason Rodriguez is a comic book editor and an applied mathematician. His books include Colonial Comics, Once Upon a Time Machine, District Comics and many more. In mathematics, he specializes in health and human effects modeling.