How superheroes get their powers is usually obvious. Sometimes, it's a case of either being born with some sort of paranormal DNA pulsing through your veins or being mutated into something half-human and half… something else. However, how many times have you wondered about how these heroes' anatomy allows them to rocket into the air at supersonic speed or breathe underwater without breaking the rules of the human(oid) body?
"It's a Grey's Anatomy for superheroes," editor Chris Prince told SYFY WIRE in an exclusive interview.
"It has its genesis in things like Mallrats," Prince says. "There's a bunch of scenes in that movie where Jason Lee's character is basically obsessed with the superhero anatomy, and it was one of the things that influenced the book."
Another, more visible inspiration is Guillermo del Toro and his drawings. Insight Editions has published several books on del Toro's work, including Cabinet of Curiosities, which immortalizes the director's journals and illustrations that take you through the wonderfully twisting maze of his career.
"I just had this thing in mind, like, wouldn't it be cool to do pages of superhero cross-sections looking at how does Superman fly, what the physiological particulars are behind that; how does Aquaman breathe underwater, how does Martian Manhunter shapeshift? These questions were very central to the project," Prince says.
It was these drawings that led Prince, along with authors S.D. Perry and Matthew Manning, to conceptualize a book that would lend a vintage and sometimes mildly disturbing feel to an analysis of superhero anatomy. To add to the mystique of it all, the book is supposedly illustrated and written from Bruce Wayne's point of view. So how did Bruce Wayne end up tasked with an exhaustive anatomical study in book form. Did he refuse to store it on his Bat-computer for fear of someone hacking the Batcave?
"It just had to be Batman," Prince says. "He's the only person in that universe who would go to those extreme lengths and do it in such an extreme way."
Anatomy of a Metahuman was still in its embryonic phase when Insight finished The Dark Knight Manual, an exhaustive exploration into Christopher Nolan's Batman. Having Batman's alter ego narrate Anatomy of a Metahuman turned out to be the perfect chaser; rather than exploring more of Batman's life, Wayne was now the one dissecting every other DC superhero.
"The idea was to make it like a journal where he was listing all these different superheroes and their weaknesses, and how he would take them down," Prince says. "We also thought about doing how another scientist or organization within the DC Universe would look into it."
Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings also played a part. Artist Ming Doyle's cover featuring Superman as da Vinci's Vitruvian man is just one example.
"Leonardo da Vinci was the big touchstone that they wanted me to keep going back to," Doyle says. "Da Vinci was not only a great artist but also a man of science and an inventor, similar to Bruce himself, so I think it's kind of a natural fit that he would have a little bit of a fine arts flair. Maybe some people didn't expect it. It's an amazing concept that we don't see much in comics so far."
Doyle's stunning cross-sections show Wayne's attempts to figure out what lies beneath the human mutants and humanoid aliens who fight crime or cause destruction throughout the DC Universe. Some renderings are pure fiction, while others incorporate science into that fiction. While she admits she may not come from a scientific background, she often used her extensive imagination to dream up how the innards of a metahuman like Bizarro could shock even the most experienced doctors.
"I got to let my mind wander; it was pretty much like any idea where nothing was out of bounds, really," Doyle says. "Any idea went because they're metahumans and aliens, so their anatomy doesn't have to conform to actual human anatomy. So it can be [a] little weird and fantastical. It's Bruce Wayne thinking to himself, so anything is possible."
Characters like Bizarro really allowed her imagination to wander to all sorts of earthly and unearthly realms. Bizarro is a failed experiment, so he represents everything that could possibly be out of sync with the human — or Kryptonian — body.
Bizarro's innards resemble a slightly organized trash heap because the character's physiology is basically a trash heap in itself. What could pass for a ribcage is a few haphazard bones; organs unrecognizable by human standards are everywhere, including in unexpected places like his thigh. This might be enough to prompt you to let your genetic experiments mature longer than Lex Luthor did.
"Darkseid and Bizarro were super easy and fun because you get to completely imagine what they would be on the inside," Doyle says. "They're filled with all sorts of curvy shapes [that] were really very inspired by the Silver Age of comics."
Surprisingly, the most difficult character for Doyle to render from the inside out was Cyborg, perhaps because he appears so human; Bruce Wayne goes beyond what appears like straightforward human anatomy and investigates. Cyborg's unlimited access to computer systems and potential to hack the Batcomputer is also what convinced Wayne to commit his studies to paper instead of a hard drive.
But even Bruce Wayne's visual dissection and pages of notes can't give a definite explanation for some powers. He can tirelessly guess at the source of Superman's heat vision and X-ray vision, but there are some things about all these metahumans that no research can unearth. How does Superman's heat vision really work? You can document Swamp Thing's chlorokinesis to no end, but how exactly Swamp Thing brings it into action remains unknown. It could be that he forms extra cells from his own being, but it could also be a completely paranormal force — the biology can be studied, but the origins can't be detected under a microscope.
"I kind of just went where my pen took me in all those cases, particularly on a character like Swamp Thing, since he is predominantly made out of plants, so I just feel like drawing this and that kind of determines how much lung tissue he has," Doyle says.
Bruce Wayne's educated guesses sometimes raise more questions than answers. How does Martian Manhunter undergo the process of shapeshifting into a human doppelganger? Is Cheetah really more human or feline? Is the Darkseid we see on Earth really just a physical shell of flesh in the third dimension? Do Aquaman's lungs operate like those of a fish or is there another more obscure apparatus that lets him breathe underwater?
"Sometimes there would be very specific prompts, like drawing the left hemisphere of the brain, and other times it would be a lot more open, like 'draw whatever you think Aquaman's lungs look like,'" Doyle says. "Nobody knows the real anatomy, but I just tried to speculate myself and I think that's exactly what Bruce is doing in that book — he's just speculating."
Will we ever really know how Martian Manhunter's cells rearrange or whether Darkseid really has any internal organs? Maybe something will come to the surface in a future issue of a DC Universe comic, but at least for now, we can let our own theories spawn from his.
Anatomy of a Metahuman is available on September 18.