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Comic Books, Film
Darryl Cunningham’s How to Fake a Moon Landing, which debuted last month at MoCCA Arts Fest, looks at a number of popular fallacies, from homeopathy to global warming denial, and lays out not just the science behind each one but the history as well, including the personalities who drove them.
Personal tales crossed over into science in Cunningham’s first book Psychiatric Tales, which not only described different mental disorders but related stories about each one, told from Cunningham’s vantage point as a care assistant on a psychiatric ward and his own experience with depression. How to Fake a Moon Landing is less personal but still has a point of view, which is that there’s good science and bad science, and it’s important to be able to tell the difference. (You can see excerpts from the book, and his other work as well, on his blog.) I spoke with Cunningham about both books during a quiet moment at MoCCA.
ROBOT 6: Do you have a background in science?
Darryl Cunningham: I worked as a care assistant in an acute psychiatric ward, and after a few years, I thought I would do training to be a mental health nurse. I did a three-year course, which is very, very academic — more academic than it needs to be. Through that I learned how to write essays and research things, and to be skeptical about research, to look at how things have been properly peer reviewed, [whether] the evidence has been replicated, that kind of thing. I got a sense of how science works. After eight years of doing this, I was completely burned out. I couldn’t continue — I had a major crisis, really, started suffering from anxiety and depression, and I had to leave that work, but out of that whole experience, Psychiatric Tales came out.
I got into the habit of researching and have been able to boil down a lot of information into a comic strip format. And I listen to science podcasts when I’m drawing — some are famous ones, like The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe — and listening to these, I realized there was a whole series of hot-button issues that came up time and time again that people didn’t really understand, things like the idea that the moon landing was a conspiracy, the MMR vaccination controversy, and evolution, not so much in Europe but very much here. I had the whole book structured for me and ready to go. All I had to do was research, write, and draw it. [Laughs] It took the better part of a year.
And what is your background in art?
I went to art college in the ’80s, in my 20s. I did a three-year part time course at Leeds College of Art in Yorkshire. It was very interesting and illuminating, but I didn’t really capitalize on it. I didn’t do anything artistic for many years. I did personal stuff, but I couldn’t make any money doing that.
How did you move from making art for yourself to being published?
In the ’80s, there was a bit of a boom in small press publishing in the U.K., and I was part of that, selling photocopied zines and that kind of thing. I had already started doing strips, and then, after suffering depression and anxiety, I started working again and doing strips and bringing this material into what would be Psychiatric Tales. I started putting it online and it got an absolutely huge response, mostly from people who didn’t know anything about comics. I still have a lot of people writing to me saying Psychiatric Tales is the first graphic novel they ever picked up. So I started to get tens of thousands of visitors to my blog, and that drew publishers. I never went to the publishers; they came to me, Blank Slate and Bloomsbury. That snowballed from there. So basically I just put my stuff online and that just attracted people.
I get a lot of e-mails from people who are not comics readers. I often get told by people that mine is the first graphic novel they picked up; they say “I didn’t think I would like this but I’m really, really enjoying it.
How do you choose the imagery that you use with each story?
Sometimes it can be a real struggle, but I try not to be too literal with the image. I kind of shuffle things around. Sometimes I will be talking in a text about a certain thing, but rather than put it in that panel, I’ll put it in the panel before it, so it creates a nice juxtaposition. I just try to do things that contrast [with] or illuminate a text in a certain way. Some of the techniques I have used have become in my own eyes quite clichéd. The thing I’m working on now, I have dropped the whole visual narrator device. It’s narrated but I don’t have someone saying anything.
What are you working on now?
A book on politics and the financial crisis, austerity politics.
I have two rules for the new book: No narrator, no photographs. I’m really forcing myself to draw more stuff, giving myself a bit more elbow room. I was working a lot on that nine-panel grid, but with the new book I’m using a lot more splash pages. One of the things I’m very good at is cityscapes, so I capitalize on that, I’m doing more. I have kind of drawn the line a bit on some of the techniques I have used with the previous books. It’s always true that with stuff you have previously done — I can’t look at some of the pages in Moon Landing any more. I think what I’m doing now is really great, but when I move on to the next thing, no doubt I’ll hate it.
In the book, you don’t just talk about the bad science, you talk about the people who popularized it, such as David Palmer, the father of chiropractics, who may have died because his son hit him with his car — and then the son took over the business. Why did you do that?
That’s especially true of Palmer. That is such an interestingly quirky story. People tend to think of chiropractics as some ancient thing that goes back centuries, to the Chinese, but it was invented by a Canadian in the 19th century. Homeopathy was invented around the same time. These are things that predate germ theory, that should have died with germ theory, but were somehow prolonged. They are trying to explain what is observed about the disease, but they don’t really work, safe to say. I was trying to look for the quirky elements that bring each story to life. Also, with some of those subjects, like fracking and climate change, there are very overt political dimensions as well, so you have to look at that, too.
Your last chapter is very different from the others. It’s about the nature of science itself, and how to spot good vs. bad science. Why did you add that?
I wrote the chapter at the end on the process of science itself to show the reason why we believe these things is that the science is testable and reproducible. If you get the same results time after time, then there’s a pretty good chance there is truth to it. If you fail time after time, there’s a pretty good chance it doesn’t work. You can’t rule things out totally, no scientist should, but that’s why science really works: It’s testable and reproducible, so you can rely on it more. Science is not just a way of thinking, it’s testable in the physical world.
How does the book encourage critical thinking?
By demonstrating how these ideas are arrived at. The back of the book explains how the theory of continental drift came about, how it was disbelieved over time, but it’s the only way you can explain a lot of disparate evidence from all sorts of areas of science. I want people to come away from the book and to question things and to look for other evidence than what has been presented as well. And also look at people’s agendas — where is this information coming from? There is a lot of anti climate change propaganda, and you have to look: Is it coming from the oil industry? Is it coming from someone with an agenda?
What about your Uncle Bob comics?
Blank Slate is bringing them out; I don’t know when. I’m hoping I can have a meeting with Blank Slate soon. At the moment they are trying to put together the second edition of Psychiatric Tales, which is the expanded edition.
How will it be different from the first edition?
I expanded it slightly. I added a chapter on dementia, the types of dementia—people think of Alzheimer’s, but you can get more than one type of damage simultaneously.
Do you read comics for fun?
Very rarely. I always have to do so much research for whatever I’m working on. My new book is on the financial crisis and austerity politics, so I have a stack of books—I’m six foot tall and it’s probably taller than I am. If it’s things that friends do, I’ll occasionally pick something up. One of the books I really enjoyed last year was David Lasky’s Carter Family graphic novel. I liked Glyn Dillon’s The Nao of Brown. The book I’m really looking forward to now is coming from Cape by Katie Green, Lighter Than My Shadow, about her experience with anorexia.
I live in a small town in the north, I don’t even see many comics in England, so I forget what’s happening here.