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 ...