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Review: ‘Human Body Theater’

Human Body TheaterHuman Body Theater
Writer/artist: Maris Wicks
First Second; $20

In addition to being a cartoonist, Maris Wicks is a program educator at the New England Aquarium, and some of her best-known and most-read comics have managed to marry her talent for cartooning with her interest in education. Think, for example, of her 2013 collaboration with Jim Ottaviani, Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, or her ongoing one-page feature in SpongeBob Comics, “Flotsam and Jetsam,” which offers educational facts about sea life.

Her latest, from Primates publisher First Second, is a similar work of comics as edutainment: Human Body Theater, a 225-page, kid-focused “nonfiction revue” on the subject of the title. Like Primates, it’s a thorough book of some length, but like “Flotsam and Jetsam,” it’s all Wicks, who handles both the writing and the art, and focused not on the telling of a story but on the delivery of information in a straightforward but engaging manner.

It makes for a great argument for the power of comics in education. The format is that of a one-skeleton show, performed upon a stage for an unseen but occasionally heard audience (that would be us, the readers). Our host, the human skeleton, walks us through 11 “acts,” each chapter focusing on a different aspect of the human body: The Muscular System, The Respiratory System, The Cardiovascular System and so on.

Throughout, our host calls other body parts onto the stage, and we’ll go inside the human body and find various activities dramatized for us. Wicks’ artwork here features a rather amazing dichotomy, as she draws incredibly realistic, high-quality diagrams and she draws super-cute organs, cells, molecular compounds and so forth, usually by abstracting the level of detail and slapping two tiny dots and a little smile on them. Sometimes she combines the two approaches, so that we’ll be presented with a view of, say, the musculature of the arm bending back and forth, and the smiling faces on the bicep and triceps will explain their functions.

As a grown-up, I’ve aged somewhat out of the target audience for this book; at least, I remember learning all of this stuff in grade school and junior high science and health classes, even if I forgot most of the details (this offers a great refresher course, then, and may make a good resource for grown-ups whose kids are learning this stuff for the first time). It was striking the degree to which the book functioned as a textbook of sorts, though, albeit an extremely engaging one, using cartoons, funny faces and cheesy Sesame Street/Muppet Show-style jokes.

The digestive system should provide some tastefully scatalogical comic relief as well, as kids will get to watch a peanut butter and banana sandwich as it describes its journey through the human body, from mouth to toilet.

Perhaps best thought of as a young reader’s first health text book, with the diagram and illustration-to-text ratio flipped and the number of cute drawings and jokes multiplied by a thousand or so, Human Body of Theater is the ultimate comics example of sugar helping the medicine go down. And if you want to know just where sugar and medicine go down, and exactly what becomes of them once they do, then you’ll want to check out Act Five.

(You can see a preview here.)

J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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