nonfiction graphic novels
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.
Legal | The final chapter of The Oatmeal vs. Charles Carreon has been completed (we hope), and it’s not a shining moment for Carreon: A judge has ordered him to pay $46,000 in attorney’s fees to the creator of a Satirical Charles Carreon website, whom he threatened with legal action. Carreon eventually dropped his suit, but the whole dispute escalated anyway, and the judge cited his “malicious conduct” in awarding the fees. [Ars Technica]
Digital comics | Amazon has quietly launched Kindle Comic Creator, which allows creators to upload various types of files and make them into e-books to be sold in the Kindle store; the software has its own system for creating panel-by-panel view, and the finished product can be read on a wide variety of Kindles and Kindle apps. [Good E-Reader]
The National Coalition Against Censorship has written to Lee Ann Lowder, deputy counsel for the Board of Education of Chicago, questioning the school district’s authority to remove Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis from seventh-grade classrooms. The letter is signed by NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Charles Brownstein, as well as representatives from PEN American Center, the National Council of Teachers of English, and other organizations. I don’t usually find myself on the opposite side of an issue from these folks, but my own opinion is that this case has been overblown.
Here’s the backstory: On March 14, employees showed up at Chicago’s Lane Tech to physically remove Persepolis from classrooms and the library and ensure no one had checked out any copies. This seemed sinister, to say the least, and word spread literally overnight. As parents planned a protest on March 15, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett backtracked and said the book was to be removed from seventh-grade classrooms but not from school libraries. Byrd-Bennett said the district would develop guidelines for teaching the book to juniors and seniors, and possibly in grades eight through 10 as well, but it’s not clear whether the books also were removed from those classrooms.
I think the issue here is really not the removal of Persepolis but rather the way the Chicago Public Schools handled it.
What hath Larry Gonick wrought?
OK, the author of such acclaimed books as the Cartoon History of the Universe and the Cartoon Guide to Genetics isn’t the only person responsible for the glut of nonfiction graphic novels that litter bookstore shelves every year — folks like Scott McCloud and Joe Sacco share some responsibility as well. Still, when considering the plethora of comics about the Constitution, or philosophy or science or history that have come out in the past decade, it’s hard not to see how Gonick’s success has resulted in more and more .
Gonick’s influence is certainly all over Economix, a detailed look at how the economy — specifically, the U.S. economy — operates. Writer Michael Goodwin unabashedly pays homage to Gonick in the acknowledgments and indeed, the book mimics Gonick’s rhythms and format to a tee: Namely, present a fact in the text and then underline or undercut it with a visual joke.
The book is more history lesson than economy textbook, spanning from the medieval era to modern day while pausing every so often to delve into a particular author’s theories, such as those of Adam Smith or John Maynard Keynes.
The main thrust of the book is on American economics, though, and Goodwin doesn’t have any problems letting readers know where he stands. A confirmed Keynesian, he views most conservative, laissez-faire policies as detrimental to the economy and out of touch with reality, to put it mildly. To his credit, he is methodical in his reasoning and fact-checking, and his viewpoint certainly aligns with my own, but I find it hard in this abrasive, partisan age to imagine any reader with the slightest conservative leanings to be willing to regard Goodwin’s thesis with anything less than disdain.
Passings | Dave Thorne, sometimes called the father of Hawaiian cartooning, has died at the age of 82. His most recent strip was Thorney’s Zoo, which ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Mark Evanier has a personal appreciation of Thorne and his love of Hawaii. [Honolulu Star-Advertiser]
Creators | Carl Barks once wrote, “Ninety-nine readers out of 100 think Walt Disney writes and draws all those movies and comic books between stints with his hammer and saw building Disneyland,” but for much of his career he was happy to remain anonymous and avoid the hassles that come with fame. Jim Korkis writes the fascinating story of how two fans got through the Disney wall of anonymity — and Barks’ own reticence — to figure out who Barks was and bring him into contact with his admirers. [USA Today]
Awards | Frank Doyle, who wrote thousands of Archie Comics scripts, and Steve Skeates, who wrote for both Marvel and DC Comics, will be honored with this year’s Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing. Both were chosen by a unanimous vote of a committee headed by Mark Evanier. The awards will be presented July 13 during the Eisner Awards ceremony at Comic-Con International in San Diego. [Comic-Con International]
Legal | The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman’s war with Funnyjunk has heated up the Internets over the past few days, but Andrew Orlowski questions why Inman didn’t simply send FunnyJunk a takedown notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act when he realized his comics were being posted without permission. “Without the DMCA, Inman found himself in a knife fight armed with just a stick of celery,” Orlwoski said, and he blames his failure to use it on “nerd web culture.” “Inman didn’t use the ammunition available to him at all — he simply decided to play the victim. Whether he did so through naivety, ignorance or cynicism, it is impossible to say.” [The Register]
Sean Michael Robinson and Carl Thompson have an interesting idea: Revolution via Kickstarter.
Their proposal is for a comic called Parecomic that seems to have a dual purpose: On the one hand, it’s the story of real-life activist Michael Albert, which stretches from the demonstrations of the 1960s to the present. And while telling us of his adventures, it also discusses the structural problems of our economic system and how we could be doing things better. Here’s the pitch:
PARECOMIC shows us Michael’s story, and at the same time the ideas and issues that influence both our society and the better alternative that we can build via the anarchist influenced system of participatory economics.
It’s “participatory economics” that gives the comic its name. In addition to the graphic bio, Albert will contribute a text section discussing participatory economics to go at the end of the book, and Noam Chomsky will write the introduction.
Does that sound entertaining or just earnest? Admittedly, economics is a bit of a tough sell, but as Jon Gruber and Nathan Schreiber just demonstrated with their graphic novel about health care reform, the graphic medium can be an effective way to convey quantitative information. What intrigues me is how Albert’s story illustrates the economic principles involved. If it “puts a face on it,” as we say in the newspaper biz, it could be fascinating. If it’s panel after panel of Albert explaining economics, then… no. But the whole point of Kickstarter is to give these things a chance, after all. And if the book ends up sparking a revolution, or inspiring a new movement like the Occupy folks, then that could be the best pledge reward of all—even better than a five-page comic of your own life.
Creators | Market Day creator James Sturm explains he’ll be boycotting The Avengers movie because he believes Jack Kirby, co-creator of many of Marvel’s longest-lasting characters, “got a raw deal”: “What makes this situation especially hard to stomach is that Marvel’s media empire was built on the backs of characters whose defining trait as superheroes is the willingness to fight for what is right. It takes a lot of corporate moxie to put Thor and Captain America on the big screen and have them battle for honor and justice when behind the scenes the parent company acts like a cold-blooded supervillain. As Stan Lee famously wrote, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’” Tom Spurgeon notes the position seems to mark a shift for Sturm, who wrote the Eisner-winning 2003 miniseries Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules for Marvel. [Slate, The Comics Reporter]
Retailing | Former retailer Atom! Freeman, now sales manager for the revived Valiant Entertainment, has set out to contact every comics retailer in the direct market to promote the publisher’s upcoming superhero line. What has he learned? Retailers are divided on the importance of variant covers, and they don’t place a high value on returnability, but they care a lot about timeliness: “I try to ask every retailer I speak with what his or her biggest concern is in dealing with a new publisher. The number one answer I get is timeliness. Retailers want to know that they will have a consistent product shipped on a consistent schedule.” [ICv2]
Retailing | Todd Allen’s survey of readers of The Beat, admittedly a specialized audience, reveals that more than two-thirds use pre-ordering as their primary method of buying comics, although many will pick up a few off the rack as well. [The Beat]
Here comes a graphic novel that sounds like a peanut butter and onion sandwich—an odd combination of elements that just might turn out OK in the end. Or not.
Forbes is planning to publish a 60-page graphic novel titled The Zen of Steve Jobs. I can’t improve on their description of the book, so here it is:
The Zen of Steve Jobs looks at Steve during the mid-1980s, when he left Apple to start NeXT. It was a rough chapter in his life. Cynical tech and business journalists began to murmur out loud if he had been a one-hit-wonder, and NeXT’s computers, though beautiful, sold in abysmal numbers.
Steve befriended Kobun Chino Otogawa, a Zen Buddhist priest who emigrated to the U.S. from Japan. Both were innovators and passionate about art and design. The story flashes back and forward in time to connect this period in Jobs’ life to key moments in Apple history.
The book is some sort of joint effort between Forbes and JESS3, which describes itself as “a creative agency that specializes in data visualization.” It’s being written by Caleb Melby, a journalism and “integrated marketing communications” student at Northwestern University. It’s very odd to see the story of a man’s spiritual quest being put together by a bunch of professional marketers, but if they’re good at what they do, maybe it will turn out all right.
(I cut the last panel from that image to eliminate the F-word, but if you click the link, you can see it in all its glory.)