Robot 6

Robot Love | I ♥ learning from comics

Agents of Atlas

Agents of Atlas

Editor’s Note: With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, we’ve declared this the week of Robot Love and resurrected I ♥ Comics. In one of our favorite features, various comics creators, bloggers, retailers and fans discuss the things they love about the medium.

Today we welcome our guest Jeff Parker, creator of The Interman, co-creator of Mysterius: The Unfathomable and writer of a lot of Marvel’s comics — Agents of Atlas, Age of the Sentry, X-Men First Class: Finals and Exiles.

by Jeff Parker

These comics we read can make us smart. Or at least, able to kill Seat 28D during the InFlight Trivia Challenge.

Comics have an inordinately facile ability to get information into the reader’s head. A few years ago I was in Washington, D.C. running around looking at monuments and the like, and I took the once-a-week tour of the Federal Reserve building. It’s surprisingly cool, do it when you’re there on a Thursday sometime. At the end of the tour they gave out a COMIC BOOK that attempted to explain how the Fed works. It was badly drawn, weakly colored, and yet- it actually got across to me some understanding of the mysterious process by which the Fed sets interest rates and influences economic growth or tries to thwart inflation. I was impressed that they took the steps to make a comics giveaway, and it made me happy to retrace the steps they must have gone through. As the guide of the day had explained, one of the big hurdles the people in the Federal Reserve have is trying to explain to the public how they do what they do. The job description requires some understanding of economic theory and process to even get to the nuts and bolts. They obviously spent a lot of time trying to figure out what delivery system could get the curious up to speed, and they arrived at a flimsy newsprint comic with no coated stock cover. And I still have it. They also showed a film about the Fed, but the comic still did a better job distilling the information.

There’s really no reason comics can’t be a major force in education, they can engage a student and slip knowledge into their skulls through any number of paths and convey the most complex lessons (Naturally I also like the idea of inculcating youth with the habit of reading comics). But back to the love, what I’m talking about is not really the overt teaching that comics can be used for. I’m talking about the way knowledge of the writers and artists ends up in their comics and subsequently in my own noggin. I remember as a kid an old ’50s reprint where Superboy generated a massive amount of static electricity by fashioning a gargantuan glass rod and rubbing a similarly huge silk cloth against it. Many of those stories read as if the writers kept a stack of Popular Science close at hand, and it’s noteworthy that I can’t remember the plot but still remember how Superboy made the electricity he needed. Any young Superman reader would also have a vague understanding of the process that turns carbon into diamond- any time Clark Kent was running low on cash he’d scope around for some charcoal briquets at a cookout and squeeze/heat vision himself up some stones to impress the ladies. The science would usually be fast and loose, but a key connection was still made, and I would have some bit of insight into the physical world.

Don’t worry, I’m working my way up in sophistication, I’m not actually advocating shoehorning experiments into comics. The breadth of what can be put across is much greater. Later in college, I started getting the Terry and the Pirates reprints (which now exist in superior form from IDW). Besides Milton Caniff’s skill at roping the newspaper readers in day after day, he also was a king of research. He had to be- unlike Alex Raymond who couldn’t be challenged on his knowledge of the planet Mongo, Caniff was setting his adventures in current China, and as the U.S. entered World War 2, the strip followed suit. Caniff wasn’t about to fake military dress, nomenclature, protocol and a thousand other details that his readership now hung onto- and if he did miss something, letters would flood in by the crate to correct him. As a result, you can read Terry and come away with a strong sense of wartime life as it connected to the Pacific Theater, though you may think everyone talked a lot more hep than they did.

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Terry and the Pirates

Terry and the Pirates

Similarly, you could read Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant and come away with a strong sense of the period of the stories. He’d bother to have Val on the right kind of horses, and drawn in armor as close as he could find appropriate to the period. In these strips, familiarity with the subject is used organically to build the world the characters inhabit. Speaking of the world, you could take in big chunks of it by reading Carl Bark’s Duck adventures or following Tintin and Snowy all over it. It’s easy to imagine the studios of Barks and Herge lined with not only National Geographic, but the yearly indexes of the magazine. I realize I keep citing works of near antiquity, but smartypants comics writing is far from extinct.

Xenozoic Tales

Xenozoic Tales

Mark Schultz is a modern cartoonist who clearly loves his research. Xenozoic Tales, while taking wild liberties to create a dinosaur-filled world full of righteous hotrods driven by women in hot clothes, would also shore up a lot of the fantasy with real down-to-earth science. In one issue, the heroes disrupt a waterspout by firing a gun up into it. Here, you know you like to break up a vortex. And in one of the last Xenozoics, we see an arachnid creature based on a Daddy Longlegs (or Harvestman) that breaks off a leg to get away from danger like its real-life counterpart. I’ve talked to Mark about how he uses his research, and he’s careful to not force it on people. In many of his stories, even in his Superman work of the ’90s, there is an implicit ecological theme; but always well-handled and not used to batter the audience into his position on the subject. Not surprisingly he’s ended up with the writing duties on the current Prince Valiant strip.

All of this makes Schultz well-armed to write overtly when it’s called for, as it is in the recently published book The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (who despite their claims of non-relation, are brothers and always will be). And if you’re looking into overt delivery systems, Jim Ottaviani’s books from GT Labs are waiting for you, ready to walk you right into the greater world of the sciences. You’d also not want to miss anything Jay Hosler chooses to cartoon.

Comics that impart knowledge are indicative of the creative process pulling in the greater world and converting it into fiction, and I have a lot of time for that particular energy transfer. Conversely, I have no time for stories that don’t. Lots of stories use only facts typical of their genre, they smack of action movies that can only reference things done in other action movies and at best scale up the stunt. This reeks of a closed system where writers seem to only have the world of comic books as a primary source, the snake eating its tail. Whoop — I digressed into Hate during Love month, sorry.

I’ll bet valentine candy that you also have a fair amount of knowledge you were first exposed to by a comic book. What was it?



Coincidentally enough, thanks to comics I know that a snake eating it’s tail is an Ouroboros. Thankyou Walter Simonson and Fantastic Four 350 (I think).

I’m fairly sure that a “Secrets of the Haunted House” story called ‘Yorick’s Skull’ was not only my first exposure to comic books, but my first exposure to the concept of Hamlet. I couldn’t have been any older than 6, and the idea that there was a play that required a guy to tromp around stage talking to a skull was at least as weird as anything in the horror plot.

Much more recently, I recall a ‘Gotham Central’ comic where one of the cops says that decaf coffee still has a lot of caffeine in it, it just has *less* than regular coffee. This had never occurred to me before and I’ve repeated it as fact on many occasions, but I don’t actually know if it’s true.

I’m constantly remembering triva (scientific and historical) that I learned from comics. What I always find fascinating is that even with the craziest of comics, there’s some weird sixth sense that most readers have that lets us distinguish the genuine facts from comics craziness. The old superboys are a perfect example, where even though 99% of what’s happening is science nonsense, we all remember some accurate science facts and manage to not quote the nonsense.

This occurred very heavily when I was reading Norse mythology, and I found that the old Thor comics still really helped me remember the myths, despite having totally innacurate depictions of Thor and the other gods, and just making up tons of stuff.

For my ninth grade English class, we had to give oral reports on topics related to mythology. Everyone in my class chose a different Greek myth story, since that’s what we’d been reading in class, but I did my entire report on Asgard, Thor, Odin … the whole she-bang, from the creation of the world to Ragnarok. I think we were told to limit them to five minutes, but I wnet over ten easily. My visual was the Nine Worlds drawing from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.

When I was in the sixth grade, I freaked out my science teacher by knowing that ferro was the Latin word for iron. Thanks, Legion of Super-Heroes!

Huh, I learned about the Ouroboros from Byrne’s Star Brand.

I’ll cite an obvious one: Action Philosophers! which took a no-sciences/know-nothing guy like me and brought me up to speed on Plato, Rand, Kant and Campbell. It was a lot more entertaining and even-handed than my college humanities class.

Comics heavily influenced the way I talked as a kid and still do. When I’m not overly eccentric (I start to slur and blabber), I have a strong vocabulary and a lot of the “big,” obscure words I picked up over the years came from comic books.

J. Michael Straczynski’s Spider-Man was one of my first real forays into collecting comic books and it really got a hold on my manner of speech. At the same time, I was influenced by characters as a kid who used humor to deal withe problems. It isn’t always healthy, but sometimes there are instances where you need a laugh to get by.

People still laugh at me, but I didn’t know water conducted electricity until I saw an episode of Pokemon as a kid. Nowadays, when other people feel embarrassed for learning things in “silly” places, I just tell them that it doesn’t matter where you learned it from, the fact is you learned it.

I learned about Emperor Norton from one of Neil Gaiman’s comics. I ended up writing an essay for a class about him after that. My teacher had no idea who he was. It was pretty fun.

I know I’ve picked up a lot of other things, but I can’t really remember them off the top of my head. It’s more like, I’ll be doing something and some random trivia will pop in my head. When people ask, I think back in my head and realize it’s from a comic book.

I’ve learned a few things here and there from comics (and tv and films and, well, regular books) which is helped by a tendency to check if something I’ve heard is true next time I’m on the internet.

One more recent example was Y: The Last Man encouraging me to read The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West and various Kurt Vonnegut books.

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Creator of

I’m older than Mundungus, but I also “blame” comics for my occasional use of large words. (I remember some years ago some kid thought I was “smart” because of them. :) I also learned that glass was formed by heating silicone thanks to an episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, when He-Man used that bit of science to create a glass cage for a giant scorpion creature.

Thanks to huge amounts of reading, including LOTS of comics since I was 6 years old, I had very high scores on the SAT Verbal exams, and also did so well on the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test that I won a 4-year college scholarship.

Stan Sakai also does a lot of research for his Usagi Yojimbo comics, enough so and well enough so that colleges use his books as supplementary texts in their Japanese history courses. I’m half Japanese and am fairly well versed in Japanese history, but I’ve learned so many fascinating little nuggets of culture and history by reading the Usagi Yojimbo comics.

I also happen to love just about anything JIm Ottaviani writes, and get as many of the nonfiction comics as I can into the libraries where I work.

Surprised you didn’t mention Larry Gonnick’s Cartoon History of the Universe comics and books, as well as his Cartoon Guide to [Subject] books including Genetics, Statistics, Sex, etc.

I still recall an old essay in a con program book by George R.R. Martin about how to have a kid grow up to be an sf/fantasy writer. One bit included how to tell if a 6-8 year old kid read comics; those are the only ones who know what the word “invulnerable” means.

And for those of us of a certain (Silver) age, Julie Schwartz edited books were the gold standard for picking up random bits of science; Flash Facts, how Adam Strange would defeat the latest menace to Rann, etc.


February 15, 2009 at 5:00 pm

This is almost as good as Chip Zdarsky’s reason why he loves comics.

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