The Science of Supervillains

After a preface that gives the reader the basics of the Silver Age of superhero comics comes an introduction by Chris Claremont where he talks briefly about Magneto and the problems of writing plausible villains. Then the chapters, one each for Lex Luthor, Dr. Doom, Brainiac, The Vulture, Poison Ivy, Doctor Octopus, The Lizard, Venom, Gorilla Grodd, Magneto, Vandal Savage, The Silver Surfer, Sinestro, Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite, and strangely, the Crisis on Infinite Earths.

As with the previous volume, the versions considered date from the Silver Age (except, obviously, for the newer character Venom). The Luthor analyzed, for example, is the super-scientist who loses his hair in an experiment gone wrong, not the modern-day business mogul. That’s a sensible choice — of course you’d want to start the book off with the greatest mad scientist known to comics! And as indicated in the preface, there’s not much space in modern comics for pseudo-scientific explanations.

The Science of Supervillains cover
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Luthor’s chapter runs over the basis behind some of his wacky inventions, including a dish that creates summer in the middle of winter, a teleportation device, a time-travel machine, and disturbingly, a nuclear bomb. Given some of the basics that the book starts from and the educational way they’re explained, I’m guessing that part of the intended audience is children and teens. If that’s the case, then I think it would have been helpful to include a brief discussion of how old the stories examined were (more than 40 years in some cases) and how our attitudes toward things like nuclear power have changed over the decades. The authors also helpfully suggest even scarier things for Lex to use if he really wants to kill everyone, like anthrax and other biological and chemical weapons. I found that idea pretty terrifying, especially given the matter-of-fact way the potential devastation is described.

Dr. Doom’s chapter briefly discusses bulletproof vests and powered exo-skeletons and contains an unintentionally funny line in explaining Doom’s checkered scholastic career. He was kicked out of college “because devices that communicated with the dead were illegal on campus.” (“Quick, hide the Ouija board, Marge!”) Brainiac is used to cover artificial intelligence in a chapter I found a bit choppy. I’d have liked to have seen more connection between the Brainiac stories cited and the science lesson. As it was, almost any science-fictionish robot or humanoid computer could have stood in.

Poison Ivy’s chapter is a veritable smorgsboard of fun facts about plant poisons, pheromones, itching plants, carnivorous plants, genetic tinkering, and how lipstick is made. Doc Ock is about prosthetic limbs, and the Lizard is about regenerating body parts. The Venom chapter deals with smart clothes; Grodd, with animal intelligence; Vandal Savage, the science of aging; and Crisis, with alternate world theories and the nature of infinity.

Some topics are more naturally connected than others, but overall, a fun sampler, with comic story summaries alternating with overviews of scientific topics. None of it goes into the depth a specialist or dedicated fan would wish for, but that’s not the intent. This is a survey volume, not a detailed textbook. The publisher’s website has additional information.

2 Responses to “The Science of Supervillains”

  1. Joshua Macy Says:

    Bah! The greatest mad scientist known to comics is Thaddeus Bodog Sivana! Sivana, I tell you!

  2. Johanna Says:

    He’s always seemed too cuddly and laughable to me to take seriously. I haven’t read too many of the classic Captain Marvel stories, though; that’s just based on his appearance.




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