Stylized like a secret journal of Batman’s scientific research on his foes (and friends), Insight Editions’ DC Comics: Anatomy of a Metahuman is painstakingly drawn and lettered by the inimitable Ming Doyle.
A comics veteran, Doyle brings a careful hand to Metahuman‘s scientific and anatomical illustrations. Every chapter (including entries on Superman, The Martian Manhunter, The Cheetah, Cyborg, and more) is given a subtle and interesting cutaway reminiscent of Leonardi da Vinci’s Vitruvian man, that sets the stage for more detailed investigations.
What follows is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses for each subject, with musings from Bruce Wayne about his past encounters and relationships with the well-known heroes and villains. Authors S. D. Perry and Matthew K. Manning wield their prose well, as the reader quickly gets the feeling that Batman is exactly the sort of paranoid, obsessive “doomsday prepper” who keeps a well-stocked bug-out-bag in the Batmobile.
As you read on, it becomes clear that Batman probably has a warehouse of bug-out-bags, with each shelf color-coded and labeled for the specific doomsday scenario! But if you lived in a world filled to the brim with emotionally unstable people wielding god-like powers, wouldn’t you do the same?
Where Metahuman really shines is in these detailed treatments of each individual character. Aside from demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of the DC universe, Perry and Manning also link these disparate characters together in a well-orchestrated cohesive universe, something that remains to be done well in DC’s cinematic treatments. This will surely give hardcore, longtime DC fans something to sink their teeth into, but there’s also another underrated audience for this volume — kids!
The link to science education escaped me when I started this review, but it became one of my primary focuses as I turned the pages. Younger comic book nerds and budding scientists are perhaps the audience that will benefit most from Anatomy of a Metahuman. The illustrations and explanations of common scientific principles are the book’s greatest strength in reaching young readers, and it serves as a perfect entree to a lifelong passion for these scientific topics.
As Einstein once said to the notable french physicist Louis de Broglie, “all physical theories … ought to lend themselves to so simple a description ‘that even a child could understand them.'” Perry and Manning have admirably mastered this art of linking scientific facts to comic book superpowers. They touch on a particular topic often, one that this reviewer treasures: the concept of science as a double-edged sword that can hurt the purveyor or provide near-miraculous benefits to society, all depending on how it’s used.
Metahuman does falls short in its treatment of the science, though. It covers the topics of physical waves and force/mass/gravity with a great degree of sensitivity (including equations and asides on interesting applications), which will truly delight any student in the 6th-11th grade range, but then it stumbles on its discussions of anatomy/physiology/microbiology.
Sure, a sentence or two on chloroplasts and photosynthesis are mandatory and are included, but then Perry and Manning default to the ease of wonder, amazement, and lack of knowledge in questions of sight and sound. Early in the first chapter, it’s hypothesized that Superman must have some fascinating, unknown capacity to adjust his hearing to pick out certain sounds among a cacophony of voices.
What the authors neglect to tell you is that our regular human brains do this very same thing! Selective attention is one of the most interesting and well-described parts of auditory neuroscience, but Manning and Perry attribute it to superhuman function. Indeed, this is an ability babies develop early on in life, and that adults view as second nature.
The same is true for eyesight and the relationship between light waves and the retina. Even the most basic understanding of these scientific concepts is omitted. Several opportunities like this are left unexplored in Anatomy of a Metahuman, to the point where any science enthusiast above a high school level may feel the book leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Other imperfections in Anatomy of a Metahuman are unsurprisingly directly related to its most pronounced strengths. Perry and Manning put a great deal of effort into building their world accurately, perhaps so much effort that any previously unrevealed information is left on the cutting room floor.
It stands to reason that DC may not have wanted any new revelations about their treasured heroes/villains to come first in a coffee table book, but it is undeniable that this is a glaring lapse to Metahuman‘s other core audience of adult nerds. With no truly new information, this book serves as little more than eye candy to the anxious collector.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with judging this book by its cover. This coffee table book (more of a tome, if we’re being honest, at 160 oversized pages) speaks for itself, with a cover boasting ornate and embossed faux-leather inlays, making a perfect presentation for Metahuman‘s inside guts.
So if you’re looking for a book to help encourage young, comic-avid science nerds to explore their passions and make connections (maybe a Christmas gift?), Anatomy of a Metahuman is an excellent choice. If you’re an adult comic nerd yourself looking for a coffee table book that will serve well as eye candy and a conversational starting-point, Metahuman can definitely occupy that role, too. If looking for a treatment of your favorite characters in depth with new and exciting reveals about the universes you love, you may want to look elsewhere.
Jim Duehr is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical science.