Or, what happens when an actual educator writes an edutainment comic.
The Plaid Avenger is an edutainment comic written by an actual educator; Professor John Boyer, who’s a member of Virginia Tech’s Department of Geography. It’s drawn by Klaus Shmidheiser, a graphic artist with webcomic experience making his print comic debut.
Boyer sent me a letter (on actual University stationary!), telling me that the comic is one way to get his students’ attention while trying to teach them about “how the world works.” He does this via the titular character’s (an academic by day, superhero/spy by night) adventures.
This first issue covers a lot of ground in that regard. The issue is set in Alaska. The Avenger is running Iditarod, with his underdressed-for-the-conditions hottie assistant, and stumbles upon a meeting between four world leaders about Arctic Sovereignty in the process.
That setting, while not exactly what you’d associate with hot button, front page news, gives Boyer a lot of material to work with. He covers topics ranging from how global warming is reducing the amount of ice in the Arctic sea, to the international wrangling for the area and the oil contained within (which involves the U.S. and Canada), and doesn’t forget to mention how that’s going to effect the natives (spoiler: it doesn’t look good for them).
Boyer balances the dispensation of facts with a light, humorous tone. He sets it on page one, when our hero exclaims “Oh shit, I’m lost!” Shit, by the way, seems to be Boyer’s curse word of choice, as it appears a fair amount in the course of the comic. Sort of shatters my illusion that all academics are stuffy and completely erudite at all times. Well, that and my six years of mostly laid back professors. But that did pretty much shatter what was left of the delusion.
The character’s love of alcohol and general devil may care attitude also makes sure that the non-info dump portions of the comic move well. The educational parts of the comic are handled via lectures from the title character. I know there are a lot of comics fans who tend to hate that sort of thing, but the guy is an academic, and it’s not exactly William Gull talking about phallic architecture in From Hell (I mean, that was my favorite part of the book, but I know some people (MarkAndrew) didn’t care for it.)
Shmidheiser uses large panels for the informative segments, ranging from a splash page of the world leaders to two large panels with Kirby-esque photo backgrounds to illustrate the effects of global warming. There are even some graphs! It’s not quite the Nightly News, but it’s interesting to see that sort of approach anywhere in comics.
When the story calls for it (which is pretty much every time Boyer isn’t dropping knwoledge) Shmidheiser maintains the story’s light tone with nice, solid cartooning. It’s not farcial, but there is some comedic exaggeration in the characterizations. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is wearing a hockey jersey. Dick Cheney, is a rifle toting, grimacing hard ass (okay, that’s not too much of an exaggeration). Vladimir Putin’s head is dwarfed by his giant army hat. Putin and Cheney come across as super villains. Okay, that last part really isn’t much of an exaggeration. Overall, he tells the story well, as it’s easy to follow. The fact that he isn’t particularly baroque with his layouts is perfect for the comic’s intended goal of appealing to students as something that educates and entertains.
On the other hand, while I can admire certain things about the book’s intent and exectution, I can’t say it actually worked for me as a piece of entertainment.
Compared to something like Action Philosophers, it falls flat, as Boyer doesn’t integrate the educational and humor elements nearly as well. Of course, that’s not a fair standard to hold Boyer to; he’s upfront about being new to the medium, while Fred Van Lente is a regularly published professional comics writer. But that’s my basis for comparison when it comes to edutainment comics (since Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of… series leaves me cold, despite its considerable merits), so PA can’t helped but be held to (and fall short of) that standard.
Beyond that, while I can appreciate the light hearted tone and was sort of amused by a couple of the jokes, I can’t say I actually laughed at any of the them. One of the gags, where a plaid speado wearing Avenger has a James Bond-esque flirting scene with his hottie assistant, made me groan. I’m pretty sure it was meant to be corny, mind you, but it still bemused me.
That said, Boyer and Shmidheiser do deserve credit for trying to do a comic that educates without being totally didactic. Even if the humor fell flat for me, the actual construction of the comic is very well done, especially for a guy who’s new to writing them. There’s every chance the humor might work for you.
If you like the idea of an edutainment comic that covers current events, want to specifically bone up on Arctic politics, or are the sort of person who’s just obsessed with Sarah Palin (she makes a cameo in the book’s backmatter), you might want to give this comic a shot.
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