- Published on Amazon.com
Last year, I reviewed Gresh and Weinberg's previous book, The Science of Superheroes and I wasn't all that impressed with it. Which, as I noted in the review, is weird. As I'm pretty sure you're aware by now, I am a big fan of science and I loves me my superheroes. Putting those two things together should, by all rights, be just the book for me.
Unfortunately, I was less than thrilled with it. I found it kind of clunky, dry, and generally dismissive of comic books due to their misuse of science. I couldn't fault them for the topics they chose - they were interesting enough. Things like the problems with characters who grow and shrink, or why the original origin for Superman made no sense - these were the things that are valid targets if you're looking for bad science, but Gresh and Weinberg were really only looking for bad science.
I got this book, and I had hoped that they'd learned from their previous one. Unfortunately, they haven't learned all their lessons. To their credit, they did stop focusing on comic book history, which was a big part of why the first book dragged the way it did, but their overall attitude towards comic books and science is pretty much the same. Only this time, they're looking at the supervillains.
As much as I've always wanted to be a superhero, there have been plenty of times when I've wanted to join the other side as well.
I mean, how many times have you wanted to don some goggles and a lab coat, stand on your parapet (you do have a parapet, right?), backlit by lightning as you scream, "The FOOLS! They called me mad? I WILL SHOW YOU MADNESS! HA! HAHAHAHA!! HAAAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!!"
Or something like that.
Anyway, there's something to be said for the life of a supervillain, and if you're a really good one then you'll make it into the pages of history. Names such as Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom, Magneto and Sinestro - these are names that will live in the hearts of comic book fans forever. Indeed, it is said that the greatness of a hero depends on the greatness of his villain. Where would Superman be if he only had to foil a few muggings once in a while? Or Spider-Man if he were just tracking down garden-variety murderers? They might be heroes, but they certainly wouldn't be SUPERheroes.
So what can we learn from these megalomaniacs? Well, we can learn a lot, so long as we are willing to ignore a whole lot of bad science. Lex Luthor, for example, was a fan in his early days of things like weather machines that would completely change the climate of an area. Is that possible? Well no, of course not. There's no way to completely alter weather using a wooden tower and a parabolic dish. Or what about the Anti-Monitor's attempt to destroy the Infinite Earths? While it looked good in the pages of the comics, the nature of infinity is such that no matter how many Earths he destroyed, there would still be an infinite number of Earths left. And that's not even getting into the matter/anti-matter self-destruction problem. And how about The Vulture? What's so wrong with an elderly man strapping some wings to his arms and committing dastardly crimes? As it turns out, what's wrong is everything we know about flight.
On the other hand, there are villains who kind of show us a goal to reach, in a weird way. Doctor Doom, for example, uses a metal exoskeleton that confers upon him great strength and endurance. Would it be possible for us to build such a thing, only not looking several centuries out of date? As it turns out, yes we can. Or at least we will be able to soon. The science of body assistance has been making great progress recently, and it's only a matter of time before we are able to augment our own bodies from the outside and do amazing things.
Or look at Poison Ivy, one of Batman's recurring villains (and the only female in the book). She makes great use of plants that look like nothing Nature has ever produced. Could we, with biological engineering, do the same? It turns out we already are, just not as cool. Instead of giant venus flytraps that catch and eat human beings, we're engineering better strains of vegetables that will go towards feeding more people for less money. But if we really wanted to, we could have murderous plants in our future.
All of these bad guys offer us a chance to explore science, both fundamental and cutting-edge. The Lizard, a poor, beleaguered enemy of Spider-Man's who cannot control the beast within, may give us the clues to regenerating our own limbs. Magneto offers us an understanding of how powerful and pervasive electromagnetism really is. Dr. Octopus shows us the potential of prosthetics, and Mr. Mxyzptlk is a great way to start looking at not just the fifth dimension, but the very concepts of dimensions that are beyond the paltry ones that we inhabit.
So why didn't this book shine for me? Well again, it comes down to the authors' approach to the topic at hand.
Other books about superheroes and science start off by accepting the reality of the comic book. James Kaklios' The Physics of Superheroes does exactly that - he grants the heroes a "miracle exception" and then moves on from there. His book is founded on the tacit understanding that comic book writers are more interested in the story than the science, but that if you look hard enough, you can find scientific lessons everywhere.
Gresh and Weinberg seem to take a much more dismissive view of comics, bordering on the sarcastic in several places. More than once, they strayed from the science to criticize the villains' motives - why is Vandal Savage so hot to take over the world? Why not just invest his money, wait a few hundred years and live a life better than any human had before him? Or why would Lex Luthor do something so stupid as to drop a nuclear bomb from a helicopter? Helloooo? Ever hear of a little something we like to call "poison gas?"
While those may be excellent story points, this book is not called "The Plot Holes of Supervillains." It's about the science, and trying to gain the appreciation of comic book fans by pointing out why their favorite bad guys are idiots, well.... That's probably not the best way to handle it.
While I don't doubt that Gresh and Weinberg know their comics, I don't get the feeling that they really love comic books for what they are - fantasies with just enough science stuck on to make them seem plausible. Rather than looking for ways that comic books can open readers' eyes to science, they seem to be more interested in tearing down the comics themselves for trying - and failing - to use science in their stories. They're more focused on the flaws than the potential, and I found that tiring after a while.
So while I can't say that I disliked this book - the chapter on the fifth dimension was really interesting, and they certainly raised a lot of good questions about the viability of comic book-inspired science - I can say that I'm somewhat disappointed. It seems to me that it's a book for people who feel slightly ashamed that they like comics, and want someone to tell them that they were right to feel that way.
Well, I'm not ashamed, but I will be more considerate of my villains from now on. They may be evil, underhanded, greedy, selfish and yes - just a little crazy. But that doesn't mean they don't have anything to teach us.
"By now, anyone reading these books knows that we never ask a question without having an unpleasant answer ready."
- Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg, The Science of Supervillains
13 of 20 people found the following review helpful
A. David Lewis
- Published on Amazon.com
In theory, The Science of Supervillains, the sequel to Lois Gresh & Robert Weinberg's 2002 The Science of Superheroes, is the perfect formula: Nefarious comic book baddies explicated by real-world physical laws - Mad scientists with real science. In theory, on paper, it's a lock. Of course, in theory, on paper (chapter one, to be exact), time travel is also entirely possible; it is just a matter of actually creating something that can do the job. That's where things get tricky, both for time travel and The Science of Supervillians: creating a concrete object to live up to the theory.
To be fair, fans of Superheroes will not be disappointed by Supervillains. A number of notable, nasty nemeses are named and needled, from Magneto to Lex Luthor to the Anti-Monitor to Dr. Doom (whom they have the bad habit of continually calling "Dr. von Doom," as if he will insist they stand on ceremony). But, those readers who require more of the books they read - those for whom the style of thing such as, say, alliteration is empty without substance to back it - will find the book a little erratic. At one moment, it treats the characters and the pseudo-science behind them quite carefully and insightfully; at another moment, though, the writers will brush off compelling aspects of a given villain and simply go for what in baseball is called "the easy out." It is as if, in the case of something like their fourth chapter, the collaborators said to each other, "Let's do a bit on aerodynamics and flight. Is there an easy villain we can use as a segue?" And so, the Vulture gets his own chapter.
There is an inconsistent love for the comic book medium and superhero/villain genre fueling this enterprise. Mild disdain for the medium - its silliness, its presumably juvenile nature, its utter impracticality - surfaces from time to time, only to be compellingly overturned by meticulous, heartfelt discourses on such things as the origin of Cable and Apocalypse.
Supervillains spends three pages weaving through the ins-and-outs of the arch-nemeses' convoluted, time-hopping history - thanks in no small part to the writer of their Foreword, Mr. Chris Claremont - which is almost half of the entire chapter on the science of Dr. Doom. One suspects that there might be an X-fan at the helm of this ship, instead of an objective, unbiased scientist - the sort which they admonish the supposedly selfish Dr. Curt Connors of being in his misadventures of becoming the Lizard.
Overall, though, the trope of using supervillains to explore scientific notions feels artificial; they read as more of a vehicle by which to get the book on bookshelves in the hands of a wider audience than as a genuine attempt to analyze the superhero universe. (It should be noted that Science of Superheroes had a similar overtone to it.) Admittedly, that expectation may be too high; Gresh and Weinberg do a better job wrestling with their source material than, say, The Zen of Beverly Hills 90210, The Ethics of James Bond, or The Faith of Rambo. (Those books, incidentally, do not actually exist. But The Science of Star Trek does, written slightly more lovingly by Gresh & Weinberg, as well.)
What leaves the reader with the impression that supervillains (and, in the previous volume, superheroes) are nothing more than a vehicle? First, there is the relative sloppiness of summarizing their featured characters. Saying that Dr. Doom was attempting to reach his mother in the afterlife "for reasons never stated" impacts the devout Fantastic Four reader as something of a gross error. Likewise, noting that Braniac attempted to convert Metropolis into a massive computer only in the Xbox Superman: Man of Steel video game overlooks a whole body of individual comics. And even just observing that Dr. Connors "can still talk fine" as the Lizard sounds like a comment coming from one who never read a Spider-Man comic book, where the reptile lisps his way from panel-to-panel. Of course, these are likely only the sort of gaffs that a superhero comic enthusiast might find problematic - but, at the same time, given the intense magnifying glass under which they're holding these characters for their scientific believability, one would think a similar standard of precision should be maintained for the character histories (and motivations and articulation) they study.
In addition, there is the minutiae which Gresh and Weinberg choose to highlight that is off-putting. That is, they do an excellent job of discussing various theories of time travel, but not for such chronal villains as Kang, Parralax, or even Dr. Doom and his time platform; instead, they elect to focus on that non-seminal event of Luthor going back in time to try and kill President Lincoln in Superboy #85. Likewise, instead of a dialogue about cosmic power sources, vacuum-tight encasing, or planetary subsistence, they focus much of their Galactus chapter on a six-page recount of the Silver Surfer's history, then three pages discussing solar breezes. No time is given to Luthor's replacement body as "Luthor Jr." in the early1990s, Braniac is given a surface treatment instead of a more straightforward robot intelligence like Ultron from The Avengers, and what could have been fascinating studies of Venom's weakness to sonics or Apocalypse's shapechanging abilities are absent. "Nuff said," indeed.
To their credit, though, Gresh and Weinberg do have electric moments, no pun intended. In addition to their look at time travel, the chapter dedicated to Sinestro, the Green Lantern foe empowered by an antimatter universe's yellow ring, breaks down quantum physics in a remarkably readable matter. From cataloguing subatomic particles, the elements of antimatter, and the possibility of both "dark matter" and "shadow particles," to alternate explanations on the events following just moments after the Big Bang, this chapter is every science fiction reader's dream and is the exemplar for the entire book. Further, they perform an encore by addressing a true genre milestone, DC Comics' 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series, in terms of what wiping out an infinite number of alternative universes would truly mean and the near-infinite unlikelihood of it. This time, though, it does not seems as though they are out to burst anyone's bubble (or universe); rather, the narration takes on a tone of wanting the continuity-impacting series to ring true, even if scientifically it cannot. That sentiment is also apparent in the final chapter dealing with the other-dimensional imps Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite - which they are willing to admit could exist, given what little humans know about higher dimensions. (After all, they note, supersymmetry and string theory, the hot topics of the quantum physics community, posit a total of ten dimensions. So who are they to say beings from a fifth dimension are impossible?)
In short, The Science of Supervillains is flawed but worthwhile. The opening Foreword by Chris Claremont alone, where he admits to a science error early in his scriptwriting career that drew the wrath of detail-minded fans, serves as an excellent cautionary tale. Further, the bibliography and closing interview with comic book professionals (including The PULSE's own Jen Contino) on their perception of science in superhero stories are likewise enlightening. The wealth of resources available and the easy admittance by writers that science can be skimped on in their tales is proof enough that books like The Science of Supervillains is needed.
Now, if only it read more like a dastardly master-plan rather than a two-bit scheme ...