Dis­sect­ing su­per­heroes

Book uses il­lus­tra­tions, smart voice to help us un­der­stand the bi­ol­ogy of comic-book he­roes

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - By Robert Mo­rast STAFF WRITER robert.mo­rast@chron.com

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.

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