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Human Body Theater
by Maris Wicks
First Second, $14.99, 240pp
Published: October 2015

I've said in reviews before that the First Second catalogue is an impressively varied one. It seems that every one of their titles I review is utterly unlike the previous one and, indeed, everything else that came before it. 'Human Body Theater,' however, takes the biscuit as the most different of them all.

At heart (pun well and truly intended), it's an anatomy textbook, merely one drawn in simple but effective graphic form. The front cover calls it 'a nonfiction revue' and, to highlight just how irreverent it is, adds that it's: 'The All-Singing, All-Dancing Anatomy Extravaganza!' It isn't kidding because this surreal class in the human body is hosted by a skeleton, who introduces it from a stage in eleven acts with an intermission.

It's no skimpy volume, running 223 pages plus a glossary and a very brief bibliography. What's more, it crams a LOT of information into those pages. I'm used to devouring graphic novels in a single night but this one took me a while because of the sheer depth to which it goes. The good news is that its very weight is deceptive. While I certainly felt like I was learning things (and I did, by the way), it never felt like doing so was a chore.

Many years ago when I studied biology in school, we had large and unimaginative textbooks to read, something that extended to most other subjects too. Sometimes I wondered if there was a rule that ensured that the books aiming to impart knowledge had to be written and laid-out in the most boring style possible. Sure, there was a nice happy Roman family drawn throughout the series of books that taught me Latin, but that was about it. Certainly, I was never taught from anything like this.

And I wonder how much more kids, especially in today's ADHD world, would learn if their textbooks were more like 'Human Body Theater.' I'll certainly pass my review copy of this book down to my precocious eleven-year-old granddaughter to see what she thinks of it. I'm sure she knows some but not all of the subject matter, so it would be a good test to see if she finds herself enthralled or the whole thing a gimmick.

Being a textbook, of course, means that most of the usual things that I'd write about in a review aren't applicable. Surprisingly, there is a story, though, because the writer and artist, Maris Wicks, is bright enough to frame it that way. We're introduced to the skeleton, not only because she becomes our host but because a skeleton is the logical starting point from which to move out in layers.

After the introduction, which is all about cells, the building blocks of our body, act one explores the skeletal system. Then it's on to the muscular system, the respiratory system and so on. If chapters with titles like 'The Cardiovascular System' might seem unfriendly, I should highlight that they're jazzed up with graphics to make them very friendly indeed. That one in particular has our skeletal host drive across the stage, sounding the horn and crying, 'All aboard the blood bus!'

By the way, I know you're wondering, so I'll just point out right now that the excretory system is taken care of in act six and the opening image is of the skeleton hanging off a lamppost in the rain (yeah, OK, it's raining on stage) like she's Fred Astaire. There's nothing here that parents ought to find objectionable, the skeleton agreeably modest, though I do realise that surely some idiot parent somewhere will find something objectionable. Such is the American way and there is a chapter, because there has to be, on the reproductive system, so have at it.

Personally, I found the whole thing refreshing and infectious, right down to all the anthropomorphic little critters like the female egg cell who explains the menstrual cycle. My favourite must be the finger who gets pricked for blood a few times and is not too happy about doing so. It's hard to overlook the viruses though. First Second should sell plushie toys of them along with the book. That's what anatomy class should be all about!

In the absence of characters and plot and location and subtext and literary comparison and social commentary and all that jazz, I can at least talk about the production quality of the book. I've not had a problem yet with the First Second team's design efforts (except that odd decision to issue 'The Divine' in so small a volume) and 'Human Body Theater' is no exception. The book feels solid because of the quality of the paper. The cover, back cover and spine are as engaging as the book itself (and I rarely get to praise a spine), and even the legal bibliographic page is friendly (which I can't ever remember saying before.) Joyana McDiarmid is credited with the design and I'm very happy to call her out for praise.

The book proper belongs to Maris Wicks though, who both wrote and illustrated it. When not creating comics, she works as a program educator (whatever that might be) at the New England Aquarium in Boston, MA. I hope they have this book on sale and kids enjoy it enough to come back and grab her autograph.

I also hope someone I know has been there and can speak to how good she is at getting her lessons across. I get the impression from this book that she has a twinkle in her eye and a pertinent fact ready to fly from every fingertip, even if there's just no way she's as much fun as a talking skeleton in an 'All-Singing, All-Dancing Anatomy Extravaganza!' Oh, and she's a bone-afied expert. Yes, she even resorts to puns. Can a textbook get any better than that? ~~ Hal C F Astell

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