Book uses illustrations, smart voice to help us understand the biology of comic-book heroes
Do you think Leonardo da Vinci would have liked Batman?
Probably. I mean, who doesn’t like a guy who dresses up like an anthropomorphic bat and stalks bad guys at night? And, if the reports of da Vinci’s traits — impressive stature, handsome, quite strong, wonderfully intelligent and creative — are true, there’s a chance the 15th-century polymath would have found a bit of himself in Batman.
The question is presented as a response to the recently released book “Anatomy of a Metahuman,” an illustrated sciencelike tome that ponders and explores how the abilities of some familiar superheroes — such as Superman, Aquaman or Swamp Thing — work according to the laws of “real world” science and biology. It’s like a much cooler or more interesting version of your high school anatomy textbook, or like something da Vinci would have crafted had he been obsessed with comic-book superheroes. Even the cover of the book, put out by DC, borrows the style of da Vinci’s famed Vitruvian Man, with Superman inside its circular confines.
The style continues inside as the pages are full of da Vinciesque hand-illustrated “sketches” of superhero physiology — from outlining the bone structure of the feline, fur-covered woman known as Cheetah to imagining how Aquaman’s body pulls oxygen from the water he swims through. There are cross-sections of Superman’s brain. Scribbled math equations trying to explain the physics of flight. And handwritten theories and postulations on every page, written in an informed and conversational style that reads like the inner monologue of a man possessed by the pursuit of understanding.
That man, of course, is Batman. In a fun twist, this entire book is supposed to be the Caped Crusader’s private journal, a study of how to comprehend the abilities of his enemies, and superpowered friends, should he have to engage them in battle. It’s a clever conceit, one that’s been alluded to in various DC Comics properties through the years.
“This book is meant to be a last resort,” Bruce Wayne, Batman’s civilian name, writes in the book’s introduction. “But in the world we inhabit, it’s foolish not to prepare for the worst.”
Kudos to S.D. Perry and Matthew Manning for not only nailing Wayne’s voice and personality but for also providing conjectures so detailed, nuanced and rational that it’s difficult to read about, say, the way a villain’s beam-shooting eyeballs might contain mini thermonuclear reactors and not get lost in the possibility that this is more than theoretical science.
“Bane’s overall muscle mass increased 30 percent in a matter of minutes. It’s a wonder that he survived the first injection, a testament to how powerfully athletic he already was,” Batman writes about the chemically enhanced villain. “Weaker men had been torn apart … dead from shock at the sudden brutal reformation of tissue.”
It’s the stuff of obsessive dreams for comic-book fans, who no doubt have debated these exact hypotheses with their friends for years. But fan conversations are never this detailed, rarely this imaginative. And they almost never are accompanied by drawings so meticulous and visionary that they feel like necessary inductees into the superhero canon.
If there’s a fault, it’s in the strict adherence to “realism.” Many of the journal entries are polluted by supposition. For instance, in writing about the devastating, bone-covered alien Doomsday, Batman says, “Even with the access we had to Kryptonian records at the Fortress of Solitude, much of our data about Doomsday comes from legends.”
OK. That makes sense. Batman doesn’t know everything about everyone. But this book had an opportunity to dispel these “legends,” to enlighten its readers beyond the mysteries of these beloved characters, rather than perpetuate theories that beget more theories.
And, allow me to get geeky for a minute, if the purpose of this journal is to provide Batman and his compatriots knowledge about how to defeat some metahumans, how does conjecture help the cause? How do “more research needed” passages help him find a weak spot? Yes, we hold this fictional dark knight to impossibly high standards (Ben Affleck is nodding his head in agreement right now), but in that fictional realm he seems to always have an answer for everything. So where are his answers now? And, more important, why didn’t this book serve the purpose of clarifying so many murky theories?
Probably because it didn’t need to. Geeks are going to nitpick it to death because that’s what they do. But the accolades are going to outweigh the criticisms here. And the fact that I’m writing about it in such a serious manner underscores how effective the book is — it’s elevating me beyond the page and into the fanciful daydreams these comic-book characters have been taking us to for decades.
So, no, this book doesn’t have all the answers. But it does feel like an evolutionary step in writing about superheroes and villains. And in a medium that often changes at a glacial rate, that’s a feat worth praising.
The pages of “Anatomy of a Metahuman” are full of da Vinci-esque hand-illustrated “sketches” of superhero physiology.