The Art and Anatomy of DC Comics’ Metahumans with Ming Doyle

Ardo Omer spoke to artist Ming Doyle before the release of her latest project, DC Comics: Anatomy of a Metahuman. Written by S.D. Perry and Matthew Manning with colors by Scott Holliday, the book offers an insight into Batman's detailed dossier on the physiology and abilities of metahumans, both friends and foes.

Ardo Omer: When I first heard about DC Comics: Anatomy of a Metahuman, I was very excited. The first thing that stood out to me was the art and the idea of Batman being that nerdy person who’d go, “Yeah. I need to study the anatomy of metahumans.” You’ve been drawing books for Marvel, DC and Valiant, and I wondered if you were curious about the anatomy of superheroes before this particular project or thought, “Huh. I wonder how their bodies work?”

Ming Doyle: First of all, I have to give complete credit to S.D. Perry and Matthew Manning who wrote and pitched it completely to Insight Editions. I was brought on after the fact and I agree, it’s a really interesting concept. It’s so fun to think—perhaps fun is the wrong word—but it makes a certain amount of sense to think that Bruce Wayne would be the kind of nerd who would just go so overboard on the idea of wanting to know all about his friends and their innards. That he would go to the lengths of keeping a hard copy of a Leonardo Da Vinci-esque art journal and even develop his skill of drawing to this point where he could illustrate it so intensely which I believe is the conceit of the entire endeavor. 

Personally, I was never necessarily interested in the anatomy of metahumans or superheroes per se because it hadn’t occurred to me. And again, that’s why the concept of the book is so striking to people. But in terms of just general anatomy, I went to art school and I think most artists struggle with anatomy at some point in their careers which is why when I took this job on, I was like, “challenge finally accepted.” I will do nothing but try and draw anatomy, and whether or not it’s bounded in reality, it has to look good or make sense. [Laughter] It was daunting but that’s what made me want to sign on to the book in the first place. I had absolutely never seen a project like this represented in the comics sphere before, you know?

Yeah. I’ve read some of the [book’s] pages that are out there in the wider world where you can see that both Matthew Manning and S.D. Perry really thought about things like, “Oh, I wonder what Superman’s X-ray vision would be like,” and it’s mostly just about Bruce theorizing which I find also interesting and really works well with the note-taking style.

Yeah, it’s very much like Leonardo Da Vinci’s personal sketches and notes from his own life where he would do dissections and theorize as to how the human body would work. Not that Batman has done any dissections on his friends, yet… [Laughter] I think that’s why I liked it so much because it had that practical, real-world, fine art slash scientific point of view.

So you’ve brought up Leonardo da Vinci and what I noticed as I looked through some of the pages, specifically with Superman, was the initial page of him in the Vitruvian Man pose by Leonardo da Vinci, which consists of the four arms and four legs in different positions…

Yeah, the idealized man.

I was looking at that and I thought, “Yeah, of course. Duh!” That this particular imagery would be associated with a character like Superman who Batman describes as “God-like power in the guise of a human man” made sense. And I wondered if Leonardo da Vinci was your source of inspiration in approaching this book?

When the project was pitched to me by the editors at Insight, they came at me with some keywords and Leonardo da Vinci was certainly one of them, which worked for me because I was a big art historical geek growing up. I would actually look at coffee table books of his art a lot as a little kid, more than I looked at comics, so I was excited to bring some of that into it. 

Another thing that they asked me to draw upon […] there’s this kind of Pop Art that’s out there that’s like cross-sections of Kaiju—the giant monsters from Japan like Godzilla and Mothra and stuff—where there’ll be an anatomical cross-section of that. So they kind of pitched it to me as, “This is a chance to do a Renaissance Man take on science fiction anatomy.” That’s kind of what they were asking me to go for, and in terms of the Vitruvian Man layout, I’d like to say, “Oh yes, that was my flash of insight,” but again, it was all in the script to lay it out that way. But I think it is perfect that Bruce Wayne would cast Clark [Kent] in the Vitruvian Man pose because it is the idealized form, and even though Batman kind of struggles with Superman’s place in the world, as an alien […] He still, I think, is admired by him and very intrigued by his anatomical and mental processes.

So you talked about your relationship to the book in terms of your role and I’m sure a lot of people would wonder, in terms of the visual elements of it, where Ming ends and the designers begin with regards to the look of the book? Whether it’s lettering, the layout and stuff like that.

Initially, I was actually only hired to do the Martian Manhunter segment. I think they may have been looking at some other artists to do the other chapters of the book but after I did the Martian Manhunter chapter, the editors came back and said, “Actually, we really like the vision you’ve brought to this and the spin and we’d like you to do the whole book.” I don’t really know what the other art styles they may have explored previous to going with me looked like but in terms of the way I interpreted the script, some of the pages have very precise descriptions like, “Oh, this is a drawing of the left frontal lobe and it should be in three-quarters view,” whereas other pages would be like, “If you could draw something that is evocative of Swamp Thing’s relationship to Poison Ivy somehow and then we’ll put in this writing.” 

So it was kind of a mixture of, “We really need you to draw a view that looks like this,” or “Draw your interpretation of however a cyborg’s arm [would] work,” and then more kind of, not wishy-washy, but I suppose open-concept, like allowing me to just do whatever I wanted spreads. I think each page had a mixture of that. The scripts, in terms of the written words, very precise, there wasn’t much of a change from Batman’s meanderings in his writings as they’re written and presented. I think they may have written some additional content to add more from Bruce Wayne’s point of view when they saw the finished art and they’re like, “Oh, she added this kind of thing, maybe Batman needs to have a notation here to say what that is.” It was a pretty open-concept job, but with enough structure in it that I didn’t feel like they just dropped me in the wilderness and said, “Okay, figure out what all of Batman’s thoughts are on everybody’s bodies.” [Laughter.]

I honestly can’t imagine this book with different art styles since the idea is that Bruce is the one making these artistic renderings. Your art style also just really lends well to it—just the way you tackled it in terms of…it’s not too rough but there is an element of…in the case of The Cheetah art, she’s mostly colored but then you have parts of her arm and her legs that are still the color of background paper so it’s like he goes, “I’m invested in coloring this. [Laughter] Oh no, another thought and then goes—”

Oh yeah, I think that's very true to my own work. I have kept my own sketchbooks periodically throughout my life and they still very much look like the finished project that we see here. I’ll sketch something and move onto something else, kind of just informal even though it’s [the book] presented as a little formal, in the sense that it’s in chapters or each thing is about a certain subject. I like the idea of being able to bring that kind of sense of informality in exploration to somebody as regimented as Bruce Wayne. 

You know, I think you think a lot of him as having the Bat-Computer and having all these terabytes of hard drive backed up and organized. All [of] these subfolders and everything so…I think it’s seeing something that’s a little more, you know, personal, a little quieter and intimate, but still from that point of view…it’s gonna be something that is really fresh for the readers so—

Yeah…I think even with the increase of using laptops and other digital devices and doing your work as a writer, I’m constantly on my laptop writing things out but when I really want to think things through, I’ll resort to the basics right and for some people, thinking [things] through is a combination of art and words. When I’m on a phone call, I'll doodle—

Oh, same same. Same here yeah.

Yeah, you're just, like, doodling hearts. The same heart over and over again—

It lets your mind make all sorts of different connections that you wouldn’t be able to do if you just opened up a word processing document and be like, “Right, okay. How am I going to explore this?” [Laughs]

Right, exactly. The book tackles twelve characters both foes and friends of Batman. Is there a particular character you found interesting to draw?

Oh yeah absolutely, hands down the Swamp Thing.


Yeah, because it’s just like, he was the most fantastical so I felt I had the most free range to go wild on him and the descriptions for his anatomy were the loosest as well in the script. So [with] somebody like Cyborg, the section would be like, “Okay, you need to draw his body and his anatomy is precisely as a human beings’ anatomy. Just try to augment it with whatever kind of future tech but it needs to be true and faithful to what a human being looks like.” With Swamp Thing…it’s just [that] nobody’s ever looked inside of him. He’s essentially a moving pile of leaves and the script was just, “Draw whatever you think his lungs look like if he has lungs,” so I’d just draw moss, mushrooms and things, and it was just very…it was very fun. I felt like that was the one I got to explore and do whatever I wanted the most.

After this process, is there a character in the DC Universe you’d like to give the DC Anatomy of a Metahuman treatment to?

I mean the easy one to say would be Wonder Woman because we had a section on Superman and we don’t have one on Wonder Woman. Again, I wonder if an Amazon would have a different anatomy from a human being. That’s an interesting thing to think about because sometimes they’ll get populations of actual real humans who have kind of evolved specifically to suit whatever environment they live in so I wonder how [the] Amazons would be reflected in that, living off on Themyscira for all those millennia. 

If I were gonna go more wacky…I think maybe it would be fun, I don’t know how interesting it would be, but it'd be fun to do just a weird Mister Mxyzptlk. [Laughter] Whose name I always stumble on so I’m sure I’d stumble on how his intestines looked as well but that’d be interesting.

Do you feel—after taking on this big project—that you have a new appreciation of the human body or have gotten to know the human body through these metahumans?

[Laughs] Yeah, in some ways for sure because being a comic book artist, you spend all day, everyday thinking about the human body. I mean…just walking down the street you have a different experience of just being a pedestrian or being a person in the world than somebody who doesn’t have to spend all their time drawing humans all day because you know one part of you is just taking in your surroundings and the other part of you is kind of out at the corner [thinking], “Okay interesting so…when somebody is doing that pose they might be like this. Oh, I see. That kind of body is interesting. I’ve never seen somebody that tall before”. So you’re always in the back of your mind taking these kinds of Bruce Wayne style notes on what people look like. But after doing this project, after tackling this specific project, I’ll say that it’s definitely made me a lot more conscious, even more than before, of what people look like and how they hold themselves and it’s actually weird now that I’ve moved onto some other projects, [Laughs] not to just jump into drawing the main characters in the cross-sections.  

I just wanted to note [that] I did all of the line art, the pencils or inks if you will, for the interior art and I did all the texture work. The actual art I turned in is fully toned and shaded, three dimensional work but they did hire a colorist to do the coloring. I noticed that you were talking about the Cheetah segment and I just wanted to give him credit. His name is Scott Holliday.

[I reached out to Insight Editions and they passed along my question to Scott about his colors.] Your work adds that sketch/rough notes feel to the book's overall look, and it really enhances Ming's style. How did you approach coloring the illustrations?

Scott Holliday: The controlling concept was to make the pages have a vintage sketchbook kind of look and feel. We did that primarily through the use of visual texture and a faded, low-intensity color palette. I wanted the color work to convey the unfinished and spontaneous look of pastel, colored pencil, and watercolor, so as to enhance Ming’s beautifully textured line work. For the actual colors, I worked from muted versions of the hues that you would find in the comic books of the 30’s and 40’s.