Comic book science with de Heer and Cunningham
Usually when we use the term “comic book science” around, it’s to refer to the close-enough-for-fantasy hand-waving that goes into kinda-sorta explaining things like yellow sun radiation allowing a man to fly, or alternate dimensions created by a mad doctor’s time-travel machine in our favorite superhero comics.
There is, of course, the other kind of comic book science, too — real science that appears in comic books about science. Comics like these two very different, new-ish releases that tackle some of the most difficult subjects ever put in panels: Margreet de Heer’s Science: A Discovery in Comics and Darryl Cunnningham’s How To Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing The Myths of Science Denial.
Of the two, De Heer’s is perhaps the more ambitious, attempting as it does to tell the entire history of science, from the murky dawn of mankind up until where quantum theory stood at the point of publication. All in just 180 pages!
And she manages to get it all in!
How? Well, mainly through abbreviation. While various major scientists (Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Darwin, etc) get little, multi-page stories, many more simply get an image, a label naming them and a dialogue bubble saying, “I was the founder of Optometry!” or whatever.
De Heer also adheres to a pretty simple if idiosyncratic format, one so idiosyncratic that at one point when De Heer’s comics avatar tells the reader, “Okay, let’s pick up the thread at the Renaissance …,” the avatar of her husband, who appears in dialogue with her throughout the book, interrupts with, “Is there a line in the book? I thought you were randomly jumping from subject to subject.” She then goes on to illustrate her format as a bright red thread representing the history of science, from antiquity to the present, with little tags tied to it, each devoted to a branch of science that developed at that time, or went through significant changes.” (This is on Page 86, and her husband sarcastically responds, “Well, it’s a good thing you’re explaining it now!” )
It’s a pretty great strategy, actually, as it allows for the reduction of an impossibly big subject into something that could be read in a single sitting, maybe two, and allows De Heer to focus attention on various side subjects — the oft-forgotten contributions of female scientists in the centuries before the 1900s, the sometimes-prickly relationship between religion and science — without ever getting bogged down.
And the medium of comics is, of course, a pretty ideal format for explaining often-abstract subject matter, as the visual component quite easily works in diagrams, charts, maps and as many cartoon characters as needed to tell jokes or offer different points of view. A good comic book about science can be a little like a high school science text book with no paragraphs of words, just figure after figure, strung together like beads to read like paragraphs.
De Heer’s art is funny-page simple, and relatively little of the book is actually broken into traditional comics panels, but rather most of her pages feature big illustrations with multiple characters, or the same character appearing multiple times, appearing in various places upon the illustration. Many pages resemble densely packed game boards, with scientists and their discoveries snaking around a two-page spread like a small intestine of brightly colored facts. Think of an encyclopedia article crossed with the board from Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders.
Obviously, anyone terribly interested in any of the hundreds of subjects and people covered in the book are going to want to look elsewhere for a thorough discussion, but it’s hard to imagine a better place to start for more subjects than this.
Cunningham’s book, meanwhile, doesn’t wrestle with science as an abstraction to be explored, defined and laid out before the reader as something to marvel at. Rather he grasps and wields it like a fearsome weapon. His target? What the sub-title terms “science denial,” something he devotes the final chapter of his book defining, but what can generally be termed as a rejection of science often arrived at through non-scientific methods that nevertheless feel or seem true to those that hold them.
Does that sound too abstract? Maybe examples will help. That last chapter is preceded by seven other chapters, each of which takes up a particular topic of some degree of controversy and then demolishes the wrong or un-scientific side with an avalanche of facts, logic and reasoning. These include what Cunningham would consider pseudo-sciences (homeopathy, chiropractic), myths or conspiracy theories (NASA faked the moon-landing, vaccines cause autism and other problems), and issues much of the scientific community considers settled, but which political interests still argue over anyway (evolution, fracking and climate change).
As was the case with the De Heers, a cartoon version of Cunningham hosts his own book, his flat, square, highly-abstracted avatar appearing behind opaque glasses to walk readers through issues, and his cases against the cases against science. His is, in form, a more traditional comic book, with grid layouts of panels, and narration boxes along the top of most of them, the sentences jumping from box to box across the gutters in a way that can be disconcerting, but also propels a reader through the pages.
The images are a mixture of photographs, manipulated photographs and original art. Regardless of what one might think of the subject matter — whether one agrees with Cunningham’s often very final-sounding conclusions or not, whether one is particularly interested in the subject being discussed at all — it’s a fascinating-looking book, and one that uses the comics format in a way that looks quite different from so many other non-fiction, long-form comics.
There’s an introduction by Andrew C. Revkin, a science writer for The New York Times, in which he, after praising Cunningham’s work, notes that “In some parts of this book, to my eye, Cunningham’s deep passion for defrocking falsehoods has carried him too far.” Revkin notes specifically the chapter on chiropractors and, to a lesser extent, fracking. But Revkin doesn’t see that as a weakness in Cunningham’s work, as its greatest value is in “fostering the capacity for critical thinking,” and if readers use critical thinking to guide them in their own research, whether they come to differing, even opposing, conclusions than Cunningham did.
And that is probably why of the articles in the book, that final one is the most powerful and most persuasive, reading a bit like a manifesto. It’s pro-science and anti-anti-science, of which there is plenty brought up for bludgeoning in the book.
I can’t say that I took Revkin’s advice or Cunningham’s challenge to research any of these topics at great length myself to come to my own conclusions, based on known scientific facts, but I didn’t feel any great urgency to do so either — of the topics covered, I already believed the same things Cunningham concludes on all of them, save perhaps chiropractic, of which I knew next to nothing before reading this book. I didn’t ever devote too much time to thinking about science as “the most successful tool ever devised for explaining our universe,” as Cunningham states, before reading this, though.For me as a comics critic, when I think “critical thinking,” I tend to think “Was this comic book good or not?”
How to Fake a Moon Landing certainly was. And if you don’t believe me, here’s an experiment of your own to conduct to either prove or disprove my theory: Get yourself a copy of How to Fake a Moon Landing, and read it for yourself.