The Vocabulary of Shapechanging

Dimorphic Billy Batson uses a single magic word to turn into Captain Marvel. Henry Pym is a megaplast. The pantomorphic Durlan Chameleon Boy kept an amorphic Protean from Antares as a pet. Superhero comics have a lot of shapechangers, with a range of capabilities and mechanisms as wide as imagination can spread. In this post, I attempt to establish a descriptive vocabulary for shapechanging.

Most characters in superhero comics, such as Superman and Spider-Man, are homomorphic. They possess one shape that cannot change. Occasionally, you'll run across an alien species, such as the Adaptoids from JLA #118-119, who metamorphose from one fixed form to the next, as in the life cycle of the butterfly. Such creatures are serial homomorphs.

Beyond the mundane, however, there is a wide spectrum of possibilities, and as we enter this realm, I will pause to explain a few standards of vocabulary, including the dichotomy between -morphic and -plastic. These suffixes overlap considerably, but the underlying difference is sometimes meaningful. If the character can change from one shape to another, and the shapes are relatively concrete, and the intermediate stages are missing or trivial, the change is morphic in nature. If the shapes are not concrete or the intermediate stages are important, valid, or continuous with the end shapes, i.e. the focus is on the molding of the end shape as much as the end shape itself, the change is plastic in nature.

A morphic change can be converted into the verb morph or the noun morph, where the noun refers both to the actor and to the act. A plastic change can be converted into the nouns plast, referring to the actor, and plasm, referring to the act.

If a character has two fixed shapes, she is dimorphic. When Billy Batson shouts "Shazam!", he transforms into Captain Marvel. Many lycanthropes in comics, such as Werewolf by Night are dimorphic as well, but in movies such as An American Werewolf in London, the lycanthrophic transformation is emphasized at least as much as the end forms, so such changes are properly termed diplastic.

You can also use trimorphic or tetramorphic for characters with three or four fixed forms. Vampires who can turn into bats and wolves are trimorphic, as are werewolves like Rahne Sinclair who have both hybrid and wolf forms in addition to their human forms.

A character such as Colossal Boy or Giant-Man who can grow to a range of sizes larger than their base form is megaplastic. If the character can grow only to a fixed size, like Apache Chief and Giganta, they are megamorphic.

Shrinkers are either microplastic or micromorphic. Marvel characters like Ant-Man or the Wasp seem to prefer the micromorphic state, while DC characters like Shrinking Violet are microplastic. (Janet Van Dyne is, in fact, a dimorphic micromorph, at least through most of her career.) Ray Palmer, the Atom II, is the quintessential microplastic character. Characters who can both shrink and grow fall most naturally into the next category.

Elasti-Girl can shrink, grow, and stretch. She's periplastic.
If a character has a fixed base form which can be molded to a greater or lesser extent but which is always cognizable, the character is periplastic. Stretching characters like Elongated Man and Mr. Fantastic fall into this category, while Doom Patrol's Elasti-Girl and the latest Ms. Marvel are probably quintessential periplasts. Periplasts can often form other shapes by molding their base form, but these are usually simple (such as trapping a foe by flattening yourself into a sheet over them) and always refer back to the base form, at least visually. In JLA #150, the Elongated Man turned himself into a treadmill belt for the Flash to use as a substitute Cosmic Treadmill, but he wasn't a belt; he was a flattened, stretched, and looped Elongated Man, still with a prominent face ("Don't step on the face!") and visible limbs.

Blobs, amoebae, and energy creatures are commonly periplastic. Yaphit of The Orville illustrates that this class of being is commonly limited in its periplasm to a lesser degree of molding. Note that a vampire who can turn into a wolf, a bat, or mist is a tetramorph, one of whose forms is itself periplastic.

Cosplay execution, world champion
If a character can both grow or shrink but can make no other alteration of her base form, such as Leviathan, their ability can be called size periplasm in lieu of a clumsier term like *mega/microplasm.

If a character has one or more base forms, but can assume a wide variety of forms of a generally similar nature, she is polymorphic or polyplastic. Mystique, who can assume any human or near-human form but no others, is polymorphic. The Martian Manhunter, who has a wider variety of forms than Mystique and can stretch, but is still usually limited to humanoid form, is polyplastic.

If a character has one or more base forms, but is completely unlimited in its choice of forms, she is pantomorphic or pantoplastic. The Impossible Man of Poppup can assume any form he desires with a quick "POP"; he is pantomorphic. Plastic Man can assume any form and any variation on any form; he is pantoplastic. Plastic Man's forms always refer back to his base form, at least in color scheme, which suggests periplasm, but as a practical consideration, the obvious Plastic Man-identifying color scheme never alerts anyone. Since the periplastic visual reference has no effective force and Plastic Man's range of forms is otherwise independent of the base form, he is properly pantoplastic.

Beast Boy is polymorphic. He has no intermediate stages, so he's not polyplastic, and he's limited to a set of related shapes, so he's not pantomorphic.

Chameleon Boy, like the rest of his Durlan race, is well into the mushy middle between pantomorphic and pantoplastic. In generally, he tends towards the pantomorphic, since he mostly assumes a fixed form; he is, however, capable of stretching and combining forms and otherwise working variations on forms, which is pantoplastic in nature -- Reep's talents in this area exceed those of most of his race.

If a character is otherwise pantoplastic but has no base form, they are amorphic. The Proteans of Antares, such as Chameleon Boy's pet Proty, are amorphic.

Characters who can change their substance are hylomorphic. Some hylomorphs like the Absorbing Man do not change their shape (or rarely change their shape -- IIRC, Creel once absorbed the size of a skyscraper; comics, everybody). Some hylomorphs like Sandman or Hydro-Man take the form of a plastic substance and are hylomorphic polyplasts. Metamorpho is the outstanding character in this class; he is fully hylomorphic and pantoplastic.

Finally, characters who can create duplicates are multicarnate. Madrox is the archetypical multicarnate, creating an unlimited number of exact duplicates. Characters like Multiplex or the Living Doll produce increasing smaller duplicates; they are progressively micromorphic multicarnates. Triplicate Girl is tricarnate.

This post was originally published in 2004 on The Howling Curmudgeons. It has been revised and updated. My thanks to Danny Sichel for "hylomorph", and to Marc Singer and others for "multicarnate".
The Vocabulary of Shapechanging The Vocabulary of Shapechanging Reviewed by Greg Morrow on Monday, December 04, 2017 Rating: 5
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