Part of Macmillan Press’ First Second publishing line, Science Comics: The Digestive System offers an in-depth and educational look at how the human body processes energy. Writer Jason Viola and illustrator Andy Ristaino have created a graphic novel that’s informative, but not without a few hiccups.
Digestive System opens with an introduction by gastroenterologist Sushrut Jangi, MD, who describes his own experience and curiosity surrounding the human digestive system. Though brief, this introduction helps set up the adventurous tone of the book, creating intrigue in a subject matter that might otherwise seem mundane.
From there, the issue opens in silence as a a hungry mouth devours a bite of food. Ristaino’s exaggerated illustration style works nicely for the tone, offering a lighter mood that makes the science easier to digest (so to speak). A more realistic art style may have left the book feeling dry. The layouts are fairly standard, with borderless panels accompanied by the text of Viola’s script.
Viola tells the narrative of the digestive system starting at the mouth, and gives the readers a guide in the form of E, a bacterium that operates in the same vein as Mr. DNA in Jurassic Park, explaining the details and reacting to the ever-shifting environment.
Aimed at ages 9-13, Science Comics: The Digestive System isn’t afraid to throw larger terms like triglycerides and phospholipids at the reader. While these terms are defined well enough, there isn’t a pronunciation guide to accompany them. It’s a frustrating omission, especially considering there’s a glossary in the back of the volume, and plenty of people suffer embarrassment from mispronouncing a word. Something as simple as “Try-gliss-er-rides” would have gone a long way.
Digestive System isn’t just educational, it’s also humorous. The most effective gags are the visual ones, and thankfully the story largely avoids toilet humor until the narrative closes. There are a couple jokes that I wonder if kids will get, though. When the story takes us to the pylorus, Viola notes that the Greeks called this part of the stomach the Gatekeeper. And so the pyloric sphincter asks, “Are you the Keymaster?” As a millennial, this was one of the funniest jokes in the book for me, but I wonder if today’s middle-schoolers have seen Ghostbusters, or have seen it enough for the joke to land the way it did for me.
Science Comics: The Digestive System succeeds in its mission to make learning fun. The way Viola and Ristaino lay out the journey is in-depth, eagerly introducing new concepts with each page. The cartoon art style helps ease the reader into a topic that some might find repulsive, while maintaining a fidelity to the subject matter. While there are some places where the volume could have been improved, this is still a great way to introduce readers to human anatomy and how we break food down into energy.
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