Before sharing my opinion on The Science of Superheroes, a nonfiction scientific analysis of comic book fiction by Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, I have to disclose something.
I am the most scientifically ignorant person in my house. My wife is enthralled by all things science (and about every show on TLC or Discover channel). I was the son of an electrical engineer and the charge skipped a generation. Do you want proof?
It was mid-1984, sophomore year at the St. Pius X Roman Catholic High School (like a learning institution named after a saint could be any other religion…) and teachers are advising us of the courses to take the next year. As I sat in the biology class, counting the seconds until the infinite seeming class would end, the teacher Ms. Tanner walked up to me. There was pity in her eyes (I saw that look in a lot of my science teachers’ eyes over the years, so it was nothing new). She looked at me and with a sense of regret, relief and condolence she said to me: “Tim, we in the science department talked it over…and we decided that you should…take a year off from science.” Never was a teen so happy as me. Her news that she thought may crush me, in fact buoyed me. My performance was so bad (and my comprehension was so pathetic) that they were giving me a year to maybe mature a tad. Or I don’t know what. But that’s how I found myself taking chemistry my senior year at Pius.
Don’t think I did any better, mind you. It was only through the kindness of a retiring chemistry teacher, who knew I would never try to work in a science field and she gave me a passing grade in the class. (I was an “A for effort” student, who got himself wound up with worry to the point I could not think.) And for those of you who actually read this column on a regular basis and know my full-time job, I do not consider my job as an editor/writer for a nuclear consulting firm to be in the science field. I’ve never even set foot in a nuclear plant. So no need to panic and contact the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as this boy merely edits the scientific geniuses, I don’t pretend to be one. (And yet, the partial irony does not escape me).
So what the heck am I getting within a 100 foot radius of this book to evaluate it, you may ask? Here’s the good part—the book speaks to me. Not in a “voices in my head” way, but in a “we’re not here to educate you, we’re here to entertain you” way. The accessible tone of the book is to the credit of authors Gresh and Weinberg.
And to better understand how they come to set such a effective tone for the book, it’s best to look into some background on the authors. Lois H. Gresh has written eight novels as well as dozens of mystery, fantasy and science fiction stories. Her fiction has been nominated for the Nebula, Bram Stoker, and Theodore Sturgeon awards. Her titles include (in addition to this new book of course): The Termination Node, The Computers of Star Trek, Dragonball Z: An Unauthorized Guide, The Chuck Farris Series, and Technolife 2020. Robert Weinberg “has written 15 novels, 10 non-fiction books, and edited over a 100 anthologies. For the past several years, Bob has been writing comic books. He’s also a collector of rare pulp magazines and original science fiction art.” That merely scratches the surface of what he’s done, in fact, and you can find out more at http://www.robertweinberg.net/.
The authors, having worked both in the realms of fiction and nonfiction (and the nebulous matters in between), were well suited to analyze the strange science that is prevalent in comic books. While extremely well-researched—almost every other page in the book carries at least one footnote—the book does not get bogged down in minutiae that would only serve to bore mainstream readers like myself. Just when you fear that the book has gotten too technical, the writers have the presence of mind to balance out the analysis with a funny line or anecdote, or some other observation of the industry.
For me, one element of analysis that won me over in terms of the book in general was not scientific, it was something that showed the authors to be true (and wise) comics fans. It occurs in the chapter Of Atoms, Ants, and Giants:
“Reading comic books requires some suspension of disbelief. When we pick up a comic book, we need to be willing to give the author some leeway in his writing. Except in extreme cases, we have to be willing to accept some compromises. In comics, odd coincidences are allowed to help the plot move. Characters can change their minds suddenly, because, though most of us hate to admit it, we do the same thing. Situations are resolved in most books by the end of the story because readers like tidy conclusions.
Many classic science fictions stories are based on the premise What If? What if hostile aliens visited Earth? What if time travel were possible? One unlikely premise is made or an unproven conjecture is assumed for the sake of a good story. A good writer can take a single premise and construct an entire novel, or even a series of novels, based on one logical extrapolation of events or ideas. And then there are comic books.
Superhero comics expand the What If? concept into a premise for a hero or heroine. Batman, for example, is based on the premise of what if a young boy saw his parents gunned down by a crook and decided to dedicate his life to preventing crimes…The concept supplies our character. The details make the character believable…Unfortunately, such characters are few and far between in comics. For instance, details destroy the Atom.” [referring to the Silver Age DC Comics character]
I’ve read reviews by folks who don’t enjoy this book, mostly it appears because of some lines of analysis and routes to certain conclusions like the one I just provided. And that’s what makes this book so good. This is the kind of book that can sit behind the counter in a comic book store (in addition to of course, being sold) and be used as a reference or the kind of thing that can start debates among fellow customers. Aspects of this book are destined to be reposted on message boards and debated for threads that will go on indefinitely. I saw a glimpse of that when the book was briefly mentioned at the Silver Age Reviews List starting with this post.
While I don’t always agree with the authors’ analysis, I appreciate the “suspension of disbelief” premise, and I think my science ignorance helps me to suspend my disbelief even to a greater degree.
Another great aspect to the book is the nuggets of pop culture and science fiction contextual information that is loaded into each chapter. It makes for great bathroom reading material (and I apologize for folks who don’t seek such reading material and are offended at the thought of it, but I’ll write it anyway). What I mean is, this book is the kind that you can pick up anytime, anywhere and read a chapter that interests you. You can skip ahead to chapter four, then move on to 10. It doesn’t matter, the book is just a fun collection of facts and theories.
The appendices to the book are even fun, as the first one (Who Missed the Cut?) explains the why and how certain characters did or did not get picked. The second appendix is a psuedo panel/Q&A about science and comics with Len Wein, Mark Wheatley, Brett Booth, Buddy Scalera, Mort Castle and Max Allan Collins. It’s an interesting discussion and while gender politics don’t enter into a discussion of science and comics, it would have been nice to have some female representation in the Q&A (In addition to the book’s female co-author).
Fortunately you don’t have to go on merely my endorsement to decide if this book is for you. Amazon has kindly made a 47-page book excerpt (out of 224 pages) available on their site.
Another Holiday Suggestion
Throughout the month of December, I’ll be trying to review potential gifts related to comics. If you know of a great holiday offer, please let me know by e-mail.
Thanks to Exhibit A Press’ (and industry all around great person) Jackie Estrada for the following tip.
Holiday gift suggestion: SUPERNATURAL LAW trade paperbacks!
You have two to choose from: THE VAMPIRE BRAT, AND OTHER TALES OF SUPERNATURAL LAW and SONOVAWITCH! AND OTHER TALES OF SUPERNATURAL LAW.
Both deluxe 176-page books (on high-quality paper with spot-gloss covers) feature the wacky wit of cartoonist Batton Lash. Whether poking fun at pop culture or satirizing the legal system, Batton’s stories have plenty of plot twists and interesting characters to grab even the most jaded reader (SUPERNATURAL LAW has even been called “the comic for people who don’t read comics”).
SPECIAL HOLIDAY DISCOUNT: If you use the order form on the Exhibit A Press website, you can get either book for $12 (regular list price is $14.95). These books great gifts for lawyers, law students, and folks who like to read humor, horror, and mysteries.