Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Survival stories

Monday, December 3rd, 2012


Graphic journalism continues to make headway into the field of “serious” comics, and this time it’s available on the format/medium of our times, the iPad. Symbolia is a bi-monthly digital magazine featuring long-form journalism in the form of sequential art, for the (relatively) low price of $11.99 for six issues, or $2.99 for individual issues. The iPad app features audio, animation, and interactive graphics. Don’t have an iPad? Well, for desktop users (and Android, a platform they seem to have forgotten exists) they also sell Symbolia in a PDF edition, same price.

What do you get for your dollars? You can check out the free preview on their site, which features stories by Susie Cagle, Sarah Glidden, Chris A. Smith and Damien Scogin, Kat Fajardo and Audrey Quinn, and Andy Warner and Lauren Sommer. We’ve previously covered Glidden here in the blog, and her piece comes from her trip with the Common Language Project, which will be expanded upon in her upcoming book Stumbling Toward Damascus. “The Rollerbladers of Sulaymaniyah” is up to her usual standards and is pretty interesting, but perhaps my favorite piece in the preview was “Sea Change”, about the environmental troubles facing the Salton Sea in California.

Out and About: C2E2

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Just a heads up that Ian and I will be in Chicago for C2E2 this weekend. You’ll find us wandering around the convention center Friday–Sunday, and perhaps Ian will stop by Podcast Alley for a bit, so just ask around if you need us.

Nonfiction comic panels of interest:

Departing the Text: Teaching Inference with Graphic Novels
Friday, March 18
12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

This presentation will demonstrate why graphic novels should be included in middle and high school curriculum to build and support teaching inference, metaphor, and abstract thinking. It will also provide suggested lesson plans and classroom discussion forums using selected/recommended graphic novels.

CSC: Representing Science and Medicine in Comics
Saturday, March 19
3:30 pm – 4:30 pm

MK Czerwiec (Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine) provides a detailed summary of the growing field of “Graphic Medicine,” the inclusion of graphic narratives as text and method in medical school humanities programs. David E. Beard (University of Minnesota Duluth) explores the undertheorization of the use of the graphic literary form for the evocation and inculcation of values—specifically, values about science.

CSC: The Difficulty of Definition: Autobiographical Comics, Black Sci-Fi, Comics in the Classroom
Saturday, March 19
5:30 pm – 7:00 pm

Ji-Hyae Park (Roosevelt University) examines how Julie Doucet’s 365 and Lynda Barry’s What It Is challenge the critique of autobiographical comics as navel gazing and elitist by reframing the creation of art as an everyday experience. Jiba Molei Anderson (Illinois Institute of Art–Schaumburg) explains what “Black Sci-Fi” is. Christina Blanch (Ball State University) looks at anthropology students’ attitudes regarding comics and their use in the classroom with Y: The Last Man as the sample.

Drawing Fire: Editorial Cartooning in a Partisan Age
Sunday, March 20
12:45 pm – 1:45 pm

There was a time when the loudest and strongest voice heard above the din on any political issue was the editorial cartoon, jumping off the page in dramatic black and white. In today’s climate of vitriolic banter and self-righteous talking heads, where does the editorial cartoon fit in? A panel of internationally known editorial cartoonists discuss their genre of cartooning in today’s changing media and political landscape. They will discuss how new media is reshaping how they reach an audience. They will share some of their recent more controversial cartoons, talk about reader reaction and impact, and share some cartoons that were killed by the editor because they were too controversial to print. Listen closely. Despite the decline of newspapers, editorial cartoonists can still be heard above the din.

Experiments Gone Awry

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Textbooks often contain these short sections at the end of chapters where they “quiz” the student on what they’ve learned from that particular chapter; or maybe they’ll ask questions that are intended to inspire further speculation, to get the reader to apply the concepts they’ve learned into a more practical context.

Selenia is a science comic that chooses the latter tack. It follows the adventures of a girl from another planet who tires of the simplistic lessons from her own school and ends up trying to explore more “advanced” exercises, which are really more akin to magic and remind me of Harry Potter. She steals a book that guides her to our own world, and eventually into the distant past. Simple scientific and historical facts are subtly integrated into each chapter of the story…perhaps a little too subtle. Most of the intellectual heavy-lifting is meant to be done by the students, as they answer the questions posed by Selenia throughout the adventure.

By requiring that the students have a textbook on hand, Selenia displays a lack of confidence in the comics medium to teach.

Blowing in the Wind

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

Kids can be really passionate about the environment. Kids love cartoons. So what better than to combine the two? It certainly worked with Captain Planet and the Planeteers; now Dan Wright and Dave Ponce are attempting to continue that educational awareness with their comic Rustle the Leaf. They’ve even included monthly lesson plans for teachers to use in their classrooms, and created flyers and posters that people can download.

Well, it seemed like a good idea on the surface. The environment is a major concern, and the characters are cute enough to make complex issues palatable…but does everything have to be so cynical? The comic isn’t about offering tips and tricks for living a more environmentally healthy life so much as it is about condemning the one we currently have. Humans are the enemy, and the characters are not shy about this fact—in fact, the character of Rooty is constantly making jokes about how it awesome it would be if and when all the humans finally die off. It’s seriously weighty and politically-heavy stuff, not appropriate for an audience of kids, especially when they’re the ones the comic purports to be trying to protect.

The comic is careful not to point fingers at the children, but it’s not shy about its targets—vegan food is also heavily slagged on by the characters, in addition to all the tirades about factory farming and genetically-enhanced corn. So, what exactly are we supposed to eat? Environmentalism is great, but you can’t just tell people what they’re doing wrong, you need to tell what they can do right.

Making Genetics a Little Less Alien

Friday, September 24th, 2010

The explanation of how DNA works can be as complicated as the organisms it helps put together. And yet, because this knowledge is essential to understanding the entire field of biology, we expect students to learn all about this alphabet soup, from ATGC to XX and XY.

In The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, writer Mark Schultz and artists Zander and Kevin Cannon attempt to construct a comprehensive primer that not only explains each component and how each process works, but to make sure they come together into a  complete picture, better to ensure a true understanding of the subjects rather than a disconnected series of facts. They do this by wrapping it up in a science fiction framework, taking us to the the distant planet of Glargal. There,  the sea-cucumber-like invertebrate Squinch have fallen upon hard times; an unspecified genetic disorder is starting to affect the asexual populace, and their best scientists have been tasked with finding out why. Bloort 183, a scientist with the Royal Science Academy, believes the answer lies in the genetic diversity of Earth’s biology—but first, he must explain how it all works to His Supreme Highness Floorish 727.

The reader basically stands at the side of Floorish 727 as Bloort lays it all out, starting with the most complicated concepts first—how the molecules all come together—and eventually working his way up to the cellular level, trait inheritance, and finally practical applications of this increased genetic knowledge. It might not seem like a good idea to start with the hardest stuff first, but as Bloort explains, knowing how it works on the molecular level is essential to understanding everything that comes after. I can concur, coming from an educational background where the concept of inherited traits was introduced first, without any explanation of the underlying mechanics, and then years later did I only learn the rest, which only served to confuse me. Reading this book stitched everything together into a cohesive narrative, and I do feel I have a better grasp now.

Not that I would recommend replacing a traditional textbook with this graphic guide; the science fiction premise may cause some to take it less seriously, and the artists’ tendency to anthropomorphize the molecules in order to facilitate understanding sometimes obscures the actual chemical process—no good for those who are looking to study genetics beyond this primer. But for those who just need a solid conceptual understanding, this is a good way to go. Each step is delightfully illustrated, and when the content starts to get too heavy the writer is fully aware of the problem, having Floorish stop to summarize each section in case he (and we) missed anything.

At 142 pages (plus a glossary) The Stuff of Life may not seem long, but it’s one of the densest graphic books I’ve ever read. It treats its subject and its readers intelligently, and appropriately enough for a comic, with plenty of humor. Highly recommended.

* Note: Try to get a copy of the second edition if it exists; the first edition reprinted page 44 twice, accidentally replacing page 36.

The Stuff of Life: a graphic guide to genetics and DNA
written by Mark Schultz
illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon
edited by Howard Zimmerman
published by Hill and Wang (New York, 2009)
ISBN 978-0-8090-8938-3

A Baker’s Half Dozen

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

People love baked goods—cookies, cakes, bread, buns—so what’s not to love about baking comics?

Cookies are a popular item, either to bring to the dessert table at Thanksgiving or to give as gifts for Christmas. Jin Wicked recommends the latter in her biographical web comic, A Dollar Late and a Day Short. In a series of strips from a few years ago, she outlines easy recipes for sugar cookies, peanut butter cookies, and lemon cookies (with frosting). Though she doesn’t fully illustrate the process for each, she still gives the exact measurements needed (essential in baking) and she doesn’t ask for any complicated or obscure techniques in her directions. She even gives instructions for plating…with a punchline.

For the more adventurous among you, Madeleine Ball has a brief primer on how to make sourdough starter—it really is that easy.  This is her only cooking comic, though she does do the occasional science-themed humor comic along with a regular series of science gag cartoons.

Though it’s not about how to bake bread, Ryan Alexander-Tanner of Williamette Week did a profile of Dave’s Killer Bread a few years back, presenting it in comic style instead of a standard text with photograph; it’s certainly fitting for someone as unorthodox as Dave Dahl. Dave was happy enough with it that he asked Ryan to create his logo.

Biology as Technology

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Synthetic biology might have only been science fiction at one point, but as science fiction fans became scientists, and our understanding of DNA grew to the point where it was possible to tinker and experiment, synthetic biology became quite real. Quite real, but not always understood.

To give their readers a little primer on synthetic biology—specifically what it is and its basic steps and components—Nature magazine published a short comic written by Drew Endy, Isadora Deese, and the MIT Synthetic Biology Working Group; the art is by Chuck Wadey. The comic follows the adventures of an unnamed scientist and her ambitious boy assistant as they navigate the perils and pitfalls of synthetic biology, divided into sections based on the individual problems/components of the process: Programming DNA, Engineered Genetic Devices, and Common Signal Carriers. The comic is a bit higher level than many science comics in that it assumes some prior knowledge of how DNA works. Interestingly enough, to explain common signal carriers, it also resorts to an electrical current analogy. This is not a problem for regular readers of Nature, but could possibly leave casual readers out in the cold.

The plugin used to display the comic on Nature.com is interesting in itself; while you cannot zoom in on individual panels, there is a “rollover” feature that displays the text from the speech bubbles when you slide the mouse pointer over them.

The comic accompanies a feature article called “Foundations for engineering biology,”  but unless you have a subscription or pay for the article, it’s otherwise unavailable online. Fortunately you can still freely access “Life, Reinvented” from an earlier issue of Wired, cited as one of the sources for this comic.

For more information on the comic itself, we recommend checking out the wiki page, where you find out how Larry Gonick of The Cartoon Guide to Genetics inspired the comic, as well as finding mentions of other nonfiction comics like Howtoons.

True Tales of Wolves and Bees

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Unlike commercial broadcasters, the affiliates of PBS have a more community-oriented purpose in mind, using the power of television to educate and enlighten their viewers. Recognizing the power of images to educate, some have even chosen to supplement their content with another visual medium: comics.

The makers of the science program Nature have created a special comic book to enhance and expand upon some of the concepts introduced in a few of their episodes, namely “Silence of the Bees,” “Valley of the Wolves,” and “The Beauty of Ugly.” Some of the segments in the book are more factoid-based, while others, like the wolves story and the second bees story, convey narratives with an underlying message.

The comic isn’t some generic product of an anonymous list of contributors, either. Mark Evanier, R. Kikuo Johnson, and Rick Veitch all perform writing and/or art duties, with even Todd Klein stepping in for lettering on two of the stories. This project wasn’t an afterthought; it’s serious business.

Though available on the website as a freely downloadable PDF, the quality is poor; if an educator wants to use this book to supplement their own lessons, they should order copies direct from WNET—the books are free of charge.

To the Moon and Back

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Some people, despite all evidence to the contrary, will still believe what they believe. That includes conspiracies, usually involving the government in way, like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination. Another favorite of conspiracy theorists is the moon landing—forty-one years later, some people maintain that the entire thing was a hoax, filmed on some sound stage in Hollywood.

But as Darryl Cunningham, author of Psychiatric Tales, asserts, these claims are easily refuted. And then he clearly lays it out in comic format, using photography and his unique art style to create a comic that is simple to follow.

One of the things I appreciated was how he indicates who is talking—him or the conspiracy theorists—via the background color of the caption, using a lighter azure for the theorist questions and a darker slate blue for his answers.

The moon landing isn’t Cunningham’s first or only target; you can also read his investigations of homeopathy and Dr. Andrew Wakefield (source of most of the vaccine-autism controversy). All of these are intended as chapters of an ongoing book about science, so there will definitely be more, and most likely will appear in an eventual collection.

The Curious Art of Science

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

If Mary Roach created comics, they would be exactly the kind of comics we cover on this blog. But she is not a comic creator, merely a writer of prose works, though her topics are far from “mere”—like in her newest book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, she details the extraordinary details of the ordinary bits of life in outer space, from eating and sleeping to hygiene and waste management.

On the comics front, Ariyana Suvarnasuddhi has picked up the baton, illustrating key scenes from two of Mary Roach’s books. The first, about an epidemic of penis dismemberments in Thailand in the 70′s, is inspired by a chapter from Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

The second comic is inspired by Roach’s book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which in addition to being the only one of her books that I’ve actually read, is a humorous look as to all the others places (besides the grave) our bodies can end up when we die, from organ donation to crash test dummies. Instead of detailing one of those, though, Suvarnasuddhi has chosen to focus on the actual process of human decomposition.

These comics were brought to public attention by Mary Roach herself, who had some very kind words for Ms. Suvarnasuddhi:

Ariyana zeroed in on food images and references in the chapter, using a visit to a sushi bar to illustrate phenomena like “skin slip” and end-stage soupiness (not a technical term). Her work just floors me.

(via Boing Boing)