Chris's Reviews > The Science of Supervillains

The Science of Supervillains by Lois H. Gresh
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's review
Jan 28, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: science, super-heroes
Read in January, 2010

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.

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