As I’ve often said, there are two kinds of science-themed graphic novels. The kind that’s usually more fun reading are historical or biographical in nature, like a couple of my favourites Feynman or Logicomix. Generally in this species of graphic novel, the actual science content kind of takes a back seat to the historical or biographical narrative. In some ways, I think those are easier to do than books that try to very directly convey scientific information via the comics medium. These often end up as little more than regular textbooks with funny pictures, kind of boring and dry but maybe even a bit lamer for trying so hard. It’s very challenging to take what’s best about dynamic graphic storytelling and use that to teach core scientific knowledge. A good example is Evolution: The story of life on Earth by Jay Hosler, Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, another of my all-time favourites. There are many others that try the same thing, with mixed results.

A little while back the publisher No Starch Press approached me to review three physiology graphic novels which are basically translations and reprints of a series aimed at schoolchildren which is insanely popular in Korea: Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol. 1: The Digestive System, Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol. 2: The Circulatory System and Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol. 3: The Nervous System.

Can lightening strike twice? Are these books any good?

I’m here to tell you they are outstanding.

The conceit is rather amusing, kind of a take on the film Fantastic Voyage from back in the 1960s. The wacky Dr. Brain and his intrepid sidekick Geo shrink down in a nanometer scale probe and go on a three volume adventure through the body of the unsuspecting young girl Phoebe. The first volume is the digestive system and at the end the voyage accidentally transitions into the circulatory system and finally accidentally into the nervous system for the third volume.

With an emphasis on the wacky and accidental, Dr. Brain and Geo’s adventures are fast-paced, light-hearted and fun. The manga-style art is a perfect complement to the story, making it very appropriate for young kids. The anatomical and physiological detail is presented fairly simply as the duo travel through Phoebe’s body, framed more in terms of the challenges of successfully surviving their voyage than as info-dump. It’s all about the discovery and adventure! At end of each chapter in each book, there is a two-page recap of all the most relevant facts and ideas, kind of a catch-up for those paying more attention to the story than the details. To me, that’s one of the best features as it does concentrate the “medicine” in a few spots in each book so that they can be used for actual study in a course. Otherwise, if the information is too spread around among all the story “sugar” it would make is difficult for students to figure out what they really need to know at the end of each book.

Overall, as I said above, these books are outstanding. Like all truly great kids stories, there is enough story and long-forgotten physiological detail to make these books fun and useful for both adults and children. Age-wise, I would suggest these books most directly for children from grades 5 to 8, but I think they would be useful to any high school kid that needs a biology brush up. As such, I would recommend these books for any school library, from primary through high school. These would also be perfect for any public library collection. As for academic libraries, these probably too basic a level to be appropriate for actual college or university science students but there are fun enough for a casual reading collection. They may also be useful for non-science students taking introductory science human biology courses. And given the holiday season, these would make great stocking stuffers for just about any youngster, whether or not they think they are interested in science.

Co, Gomdori and Hyun-Dong Han. Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol. 1: The Digestive System. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2013. 184pp. ISBN-13: 978-1593274719

Co, Gomdori and Hyun-Dong Han. Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol. 2: The Circulatory System. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2013. 184pp. ISBN-13: 978-1593274726

Co, Gomdori and Hyun-Dong Han. Survive! Inside the Human Body, Vol. 3: The Nervous System. San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2013. 184pp. ISBN-13: 978-1593274733

(Copies of all three books provided by the publisher.)

  
Other science graphic novels I have reviewed:

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