the periodic table of marvel characters: thoughts on a long-term project

the periodic table of marvel characters: thoughts on a long-term project post image

Mr. T finished his Periodic Tale of Marvel Characters. I think it’s rather glorious.

You can view the project close-up in this scrollable view on my Flickr page. It was a challenge to get all of those characters into one shot.

You may remember me writing about the project back in November, after T first started it, when I offered a few rules for homeschooling and life, the Marvel edition. There are more details on the origin of the project in that post. In a nutshell, T decided to see if he could find a Marvel comic character to go with each element abbreviation as it appears on the Periodic Table of Elements.


I wasn’t sure he would be able to find 115 characters that fit all the abbreviations, but it turns out that there are more than 9,000 Marvel characters, which makes for a big ol’ (dead) pool of superheroes and villains to choose from. An extensive index is on  and another version is on this Wikipedia page. Not only did T find enough for his table, but he managed to find characters that fit the abbreviations without stretching the requirements. A few of my favorites:


C (carbon) = Chemistro (of course!)

Th (thorium) = Thor!

Co (cobalt) = Cobalt Man!

Ra (radium) = Radioactive Man!

He (Helium) = Hawkeye (T’s favorite character; cool that he made it to the top of the table)

Fe (iron)  = Iron Man (a witty one for a witty character)

Pb (lead)= The Leader (not really how you pronounce it, but brilliant and sneaky nonetheless)

Yb (ytterbium) = Byrrah (a pretty ingenious call for a nearly impossible abbreviation)


 thoughts on a long-term project:

Don’t rush it. Mr. T worked on this for months, off and on. He’d set it aside for weeks at a time. It seemed important that I let him work on it when he was interested, rather than pushing too much and making the project mine. (Not that it was easy. Read on.)

Setting short-term goals can help. Sometimes when it seemed that T was drowning in his research, and he’d never finish the project, we’d come up with a challenge for him: try to find five characters in fifteen minutes, say. I had to be careful, though, about intervening too much.

Having an audience for the finished project helps. T planned to share this at our annual homeschool history fair, which I’ve written about here and here. Knowing that he would be able to share it with others gave him the steam he needed to power through, particularly in the days before the fair. (This was only a portion of his display–another part focused on Marvel’s history through trivia questions–but the Periodic Table got the most attention. It’s so grand in scope, so visually compelling! People couldn’t help but linger over it.)


Wearing his Hawkeye glasses at the fair.

The physical product may not be the ultimate goal of the project.  Mr. T got seriously sucked into his research on this project. He insisted on reading entire biographies of the characters he chose. Then, sometimes, after reading a biography he’d decide it wasn’t quite the character he was looking for, and he’d start all over. Half an hour might pass, and he’d only have one new character for his list. Buddy! I’d say, exasperated, stop reading and get a few more characters on your list! Then I would remember that this was his project. And while the Periodic Table was part of it, I’d say that the real project for Mr. T was the opportunity to cannonball into the great pool of Marvel characters and to swim around. Which leads to my next point.


Kids may learn more than you’d imagine on first glance. As I mentioned in the original post about this project, I initially thought that T’s project might be a bit shallow. After all, he was just searching for comic characters based on the letters in their names, and gluing their images to a chart. There wasn’t much analysis. Wouldn’t you know, it was all that “unproductive” research that made the project a real learning experience. I already wrote about how much T learned about actual history as he explored these characters. That was just the beginning. He began to notice how certain characters were related to world mythologies. He recognized things shifting over time: how the roles of women have changed, how tastes in comics have changed, how comic characters have become more flawed and human. The whole project was a crash course in how to build interesting characters, comic or otherwise. T learned what makes a villain compelling, and what makes a hero boring. He learned a lot about art and design, studying how the look of the characters and the art changed over time.

He pretty much became a Marvel expert–quiz the kid!–and becoming an expert in one area teaches you how to become an expert in others. That may have been the most vital takeaway from the project. And to think that it came from digging into comics.

What are your kids’ wacky areas of expertise?

(My Become a Writer Mentor to your Child series will continue. Promise.)

31 comments… add one
  • Heather May 23, 2013 @ 10:13

    Love, love, love this! My 10 yr old is quite impressed. Kudos to your young man.

    • patricia May 24, 2013 @ 8:57

      If my kid is impressing fellow kids, he’s on the right track. 🙂

  • Dana from CA May 23, 2013 @ 12:37

    Wow! What an awesome project! Just love everything about it…so creative!!

  • Amanda May 23, 2013 @ 13:45

    I love this post! Your last post about the Marvel periodic table sent me down the project based homeschool rabbit hole and I am so grateful for that!

    My oldest is an expert on alternatively fueled cars and my youngest specializes in Star Wars, the US Presidents, and Indiana Jones.

    Both my boys are quite impressed by this amazing periodic table.

    • patricia May 24, 2013 @ 9:01

      Nothing better than sending people down interesting rabbit holes, Amanda! Projects are the best.

      I love hearing about kids’ quirky areas of expertise. I wonder about the connections your youngest might be making between his three different specialities. I’m sure there are some!

  • Natalie May 23, 2013 @ 14:19

    I’ll have to share this with my son who is totally into the real periodic table of the elements. It’s always fun seeing some alternate versions of the periodic table. This one is nice since it still corresponds to the actual elements – well done!

  • Cathy May 23, 2013 @ 18:54

    I love this project! It’s so inspiring to see you talk about all the different ways in which your son learned through this. Great creativity!

    • patricia May 24, 2013 @ 9:02

      And to think that some parents dis comics, huh? Thanks, Cathy!

  • nothingbythebook May 23, 2013 @ 19:21

    Love, love, love, love!

  • tereza May 24, 2013 @ 2:17

    This is so cool! I will show this to my DD10 and I know she will share with a friend who is crazy about the periodic table.

    My DD10 is an expert in animals and any book series she is currently reading. But something like what happened to your son happened to her when we participated in our first Science Fair a few months ago. She presented her science project on cells and how they are God’s creations. She has been studying Creationism for years and it’s pretty much an expert, as much as a 10 y.o. can be on the subject. 🙂 Anyway, that led her to ask me to purchase a really expensive Science curriculum so she can study the subject in depth. With some gift money, the books are on their way to our home. I invited her to teach the subject to the rest of our family (DS7, DD5 and DD3). I found some lapbooks based on the books and she is excited to test her teaching skills on her siblings. I am excited to see her do more and more independent work. I am always amazed to see my kids blossom. 🙂

    • patricia May 24, 2013 @ 9:06

      Your daughter is going to teach her area of expertise to the rest of the family? That’s brilliant. The best way to learn something deeply is to teach it to someone else. Hard to deny a kid expensive materials when they are begging to study something in depth! Hope your family has a blast with it, Tereza!

  • Kristin May 25, 2013 @ 8:30

    Lucky me. I was at the history fair and saw it!

    At first glance many things may seem easy or shallow. I apreciate that you took the time to analyze the variety of learning that T was engaged in: mythology, the role of women and character development, etc. (aside: I think it would be interesting for you to expand on how becoming an expert in one thing teaches you how to master another thing. And if you write that, I’d love to feature it on my Wordpress blog about Intrinsic: self-directed learning.)

    Anyway, *T*is a marvel and his project was a unique way to explore history, science, and art.

    • patricia May 28, 2013 @ 8:58

      Hi Kristin,

      That would be an interesting post–I agree! I will keep that in mind. I wish I had enough time to write all of the stuff that is in my head! I do believe that some educators and parents get too hung up on *content* and *covering stuff* and don’t recognize that kids really need tools and skills. An ability to research what they want to know, to analyze it, to apply their own spin to it, to convey their thoughts on it clearly in words, writing and art. They can pick up those skills and tools with almost any content, so long as it’s content that captivates them.

      That’s a favorite topic of mine, so I’ll think about writing more, once I get through this writing series. Thanks for your enthusiasm!

  • KC May 26, 2013 @ 5:28

    This is so cool. He must have gotten so much out of it, more then even he knows. Think about all the reading he did. I be his brain picked up a lot about constructing comic book dialog and layouts. Working in modern day history and mythology. Love love.

    My three year old is totally obsessed with ballet. She can name all the positions. She has yet to take ballet class. She just watches classical ballets, and “reads” technical ballet books. It’s pretty cool to see.

    • patricia May 28, 2013 @ 9:13

      KC, isn’t it amazing that a three-year-old can pick all of that up? It’s such great evidence that when a kid is interested in something, the learning is deep, meaningful and enjoyable.

      One of my favorite things to do is to look at what my kids are interested in, and to see what it connects to, and what other interests it leads them to. That kind of learning is so powerful; it’s shocking that schools, for the most part, ignore it altogether.

  • Erin @ Wild Whispers Jun 3, 2013 @ 8:14

    I love this. Thank you.

  • Roiana B Jun 7, 2013 @ 4:05

    What an incredibly cool project for a kid to be encouraged to do. He would probably bring an entire ComicCon to a screeching halt while all the geeks picked up their jaws. I say his next project should be “How to start a small business venture” by finding out what it would take to contact Marvel and see about making his table into a printed poster for sale. Hats off to you for providing your child such a solid, well rounded, education.

    • patricia Jun 10, 2013 @ 17:23

      Thanks for the kind words, Roiana! Yes, those comic geeks (and I use the term fondly) always go nuts when I share my kid’s comic-related projects and thoughts on Twitter. I hadn’t thought about encouraging him to share his project with Marvel. Interesting idea… Jack Kirby might like it too.

      • Roiana B Jun 11, 2013 @ 4:51

        If the poster thing works, please let me know – I would like one for me and several for gifts 😉

    • Karen Jun 22, 2013 @ 12:08

      Yes — a poster would be a huge hit! Sign me up for one.

      What an absolutely fabulous project, and how lucky your son is that you gave him time and space to pursue it on his own terms, in his own time.

  • Melissa Jan 22, 2014 @ 9:10

    Fantastic! A friend sent me a link to this post after reading mine –

    SO nice to see “vindication” of comic book fascination as a wonderful teaching/learning tool. That periodic table is fabulous. I’d get a poster, too!

    • patricia Jan 23, 2014 @ 17:47

      Oh! Thanks for sharing your son’s project, Melissa. His origami superheroes are fantastic! Isn’t it stunning how much they can learn from comic books? I really underestimated what T would get from it. He brings up connections to history, culture, art, etc constantly. He watched part of The Godfather with us when his brother was home from college, and he started noticing connections in the storytelling to a particular Batman story arc. Fascinating stuff! Did you happen to see the earlier post in which T’s comic fascination wound up inspiring the data artist from the New York Times?! You never know where a love for something like comics will take them.

  • Jane A. Feb 13, 2014 @ 11:31

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much I appreciated this last May. When I showed it to my artistic, Marvel-crazed husband, and my periodic table-savvy son, they both went cuckoo over it, the wheels turning… What transpired next was the birth of our own version of Mr. T’s incredible periodic table of characters. Our twist was to DRAW each character on 3×5 cards; easy for the husband and boy, not so easy for this mom. It all started in June of last year and we just completed it last weekend. We worked mostly on weekends, drawing together at the dining table (read: project table) many Friday nights and Sunday mornings. We read from the encyclopedias of Marvel and DC characters, discussing the origins of the heroes and villains we were drawing, and dreamed of our own super hero strengths and powers. We invented alter ego super heroes; some of them even made their way onto our table. We talked about the individual elements and their “super powers”, and how they might relate to each character. We honed our drawing skills, all of us improving dramatically over the seven months (included me, yay!). We had guest artists; family members and friends drawing with us, some confident artists, others not so much, but in the end beautiful renderings were made. It was a wonderful experience for all of us, and we NEVER would have thought of it had it not been for Mr. T’s fabulous original idea and your post on Wonderfarm. Thank you so very much for the inspiration. Truly.

    • patricia Feb 14, 2014 @ 8:18

      Wow, Jane, WOW! What an amazing project! That you did it together, and had guest artists, and had so many conversations, and worked at it for so long is awe-inspiring. Of course I would love to see it! Any chance you might send along a photo? Now I’m inspired. Thank you so much for sharing this with me. And I will surely share it with Mr. T!

  • Beth Apr 29, 2014 @ 18:42

    I think this project came out amazing! So proud he did such a great job! I wish my 9th grade kiddos would put this much energy in their projects! Congratulations!

    • patricia Apr 29, 2014 @ 18:49

      Well, this is what happens when the project is right up a kid’s alley! Researching comic characters was a real joy for Mr. T. (And he still needed lots of nudging…)

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