Space Dogs and Thunder Lizards

Mico Tatalovic 25 October 2007

Writing forms literature; drawing forms art. Put the two together, you get comics. Comics have long been deprived of the limelight of arts and literature but are becoming more and more appreciated for their contribution to literature and for their artistic value. Perhaps most prominently, French-based Iranian comic novel writer Marjane Satrapi expressed her experiences of growing up in Iran in a successful comic book Persepolis that was adapted into a popular film this year.More and more scientists are becoming aware of the appeal comics have and are starting to use them to communicate scientific ideas. Scientific research, lives and academic mishaps of great scientists all provide inspiration for comic books writers. In this fusion, science inspires art and literature, science becomes literature, and art allows science to reach more people then it ever would otherwise. Science communication and education are making use of more and more art forms: while science lectures are being put online for 24/7 access using blogs and podcast media, science is also being made more digestible to school students by introducing science to them via comics. Art, on the other hand, is taking more and more inspiration from the sciences-from theatre, stand-up comedy and film through to poetry, painting and comics. So what exactly is available out there when it comes to science comics?

Jay Hosler is one of the most popular science cartoonists in the USA. He started off drawing a weekly comic strip for his undergraduate newspaper and now he’s drawing graphic novels as an alternative to biology textbooks. He is a biologist, but his love of comics led him eventually to experiment with this media for telling scientific stories. His most popular graphic novels are Clan Apis and the The Sandwalk Adventures. Clan Apis is the life story of a bee, Nyuki (Swahili for a honey bee). In an interview for WPSU radio, Hosler said: “As she (Nyuki) goes through these different transitions and jobs in the hive…we have an opportunity to sort of explain what’s going on, give a little of the biology but hopefully tell a story that everyone can relate to”. The Sandwalk Adventures is a story of a small follicle mite, the kind each of us has in our hair follicles, that lives on Darwin and thinks Darwin is her creator. Darwin, however, doesn’t care much for creationism and so explains to the little mite how she is a product of evolution by natural selection and not divine creation as such. This comic is important in education as a clever jab at intelligent design.

Optical allusions is another Hosler comic which focuses on biology and evolution of eyes and vision. This might be the first ever biology textbook in the form of a comic. The need for such alternative approaches to science education is highlighted by the decreasing proficiency of American students in science; in fact, this comic book project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Hosler’s shorter comics include The Conundrum of the Killer Coronavirus, in which a SARS virus is being cross-examined by the police in relation to his involvement in killings. Yet the virus argues his vector is still unknown despite other circumstantial evidence against him and gets out on bail from a civet; this is where the detective realizes the civet is the vector of this virus and shouts after the virus: “I’ll get you yet, SARS!” and the virus replies: “You just might, detective, if you’re not careful!” Hosler’s comics are comic art at its best, and even if you read them just for fun you will learn loads of science, because the characters and the storylines are inevitably intertwined with the scientific issues. The fact that the National Science Foundation is funding what is essentially an art project, the creation of a graphic novel, underscores the emerging role of science in the arts, and vice versa.

Jim Ottaviani is another American science comic book writer who collaborates with professional artists to create comics about various scientific and social issues. His comics include Fallout, about the science and politics of nuclear bombs; Dignifying Science, about women and science; and Suspended in language, a story about Niels Bohr and quantum mechanics. Ottaviani uses a variety of styles to create his comics and many more can be found on his website, whose tagline is “Comics about scientists? What a dangerous experiment!” Like Hosler, he admits in an interview for the NPR radio that he identified himself with Spiderman’s Peter Parker, a nerdy scientist set out to save the world, and that the comic art had a tremendous influence on him as a child. And to answer why he writes science comics Ottaviani says: “besides enjoying comics, and wanting to work in the medium simply because of that enjoyment, I saw a need for them.” Inspired by the tools of the comic art form, he employs them to convey scientific ideas to scientists and non-scientists alike.

Larry Gonick is a mathematician and cartoonist who has been writing comics about many aspects of science since 1972. His work includes a Cartoon Guide to Sex and Cartoon Guide to Chemistry. The above three scientists produce comics in the sense of sequential art, where a story is told in sequences of pictures and words. South African painter Rose Rigden, on the other hand, turned her vividly colourful paintings of the interactions of humans and African wildlife into humorous and sometimes sarcastic cartoons with a punch line. These have been so successful that you can buy individual cartoons as postcards or the book series Wildside in almost any tourist shop in South Africa.

Apart from individual scientists, some institutions also produce comics to promote understanding of their work. Cindi in Space is a cool, sleek, superhero-style comic produced by the University of Texas, Dallas, about NASA’s mission to research the ionosphere with an aim to be able to predict ‘space weather’. Japan’s Solar-Terrestrial Environment Laboratory at the University of Nagoya produced several science comics which are visually appealing and deal with a range of topics from What is Aurora?! to What are Cosmic Rays?! These comics are done in the special Japanese style of comic called manga. Indeed, scientific themes have been incorporated into a wide variety of artistic styles within the comic medium.

In the UK, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funded the project of turning real life research and scientists (from PhD students to professors) from the Rothamstead Research Institute in Hertfordshire into comic stories and characters. Science Stories is a short series of comics such as Slugging it out, Down in the dirt, How to confuse a moth, Sulphur power and Killer caterpillar that outline some of the research that’s been going on at Rothamstead Research. These comics, available online, are written by a science research student from Southampton University, Emma Naper, and drawn by a professional illustrator, Phil Elliot; once again we see collaboration between arts and sciences to produce this new genre of science comic.

Mico Tatalovic