Cannon Bros. Craft DNA in "The Stuff of Life"

Following in the wake of the comic book version of the "9/11 Report" have been a variety of nonfiction comics projects, with few as seemingly odd as "The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA." The book is exactly what it says, a scientific but plainspoken explanation to Deoxyribonucleic acid, only it's narrated for readers' by Bloort 183, an alien who's studying Earthling genetics on behalf of his slow-witted leader.

Brothers Kevin and Zander Cannon, best known for their work on Alan Moore's "Top 10" and other comics, together illustrated the book, which is written by Mark Schultz and published by Hill and Wang. They were tasked with taking what could have been the hands-down most boring comic ever and crafting an engaging foray into hard science.

CBR News spoke to the Cannons about "The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA," and the many challenges of making DNA entertaining.

CBR: How did you two get connected to this project?

Zander Cannon: I'm not 100 percent certain. The writer, Mark Schultz, might have recommended us; we worked with him on "Bone Sharps" (he drew the cover that we designed around) and I've known him for many years. In any case, Howard Zimmerman (the packager/editor of the book) got the tip and contacted us, and we were in.

Be honest: when you first heard about the pitch, you had to be wondering how to make DNA entertaining.

ZC: This may sound strange, but I think that the medium of comics can make almost anything interesting. Something about the way that you can play with the page makes nonfiction (particularly nonfiction that can break the fourth wall a little) extremely compelling. The field of genetics also has a great number of things that can be visually compelling, if you draw it well. And with Mark writing, I had no doubt that it was going to flow wonderfully.

Kevin Cannon: Complicated scientific concepts like DNA are best understood through visual metaphors, and that necessity gave Mark and Zander and me the freedom to have a lot of fun with the project.

Do either of you have any science background, or previous experience that helped with that aspect of the project?

ZC: Not really from an educational standpoint, but Kevin and I have done a number of comics about science (physics and paleontology) that helped us establish a tone and have a sense for how best to go about the visual storytelling in a narrated educational book.

KC: I dropped out of an A.P. biology course in high school because I was having trouble grasping the basics of DNA and genetics, so I guess my experience is having once been the ideal audience for this book.

How did the concept evolve to tell the story from the perspective of an alien?

ZC: That was a bit of a push from our and Mark's end. The publisher was resistant to the idea of a physical narrator, and figured it should be more like Larry Gonick's books -- a disembodied voice telling you what you need to know. But Mark thought it was more true to the spirit of comics to have a character actually speak, and that it would be more compelling for that character to have a reason to tell us all this.

From a visual standpoint, what was the most challenging part of DNA to explain?

KC: Take something like a DNA macromolecule -- it can be drawn several different ways depending on the context. If you're trying to explain it on an atomic level, it might look like numerous bubbles bunched up together, but if you want to focus on how nucleotide bases pair up, then it might be easier to simplify the structure into building block-like shapes. So that was the challenge: figuring out when and how to draw these complicated structures in a way that illuminates what Mark is trying to teach.

ZC: Drawing someone with Down's syndrome was not terribly easy. Also, portraits of real people. That's hard to do.

What was the most fun to draw?

ZC: I liked drawing the alien sea cucumbers, and Neanderthals. Man, Neanderthals were fun.

KC: I loved drawing eukaryote cells, and all the bizarre organic structures floating around within their walls.

There seems to be a growing market for informational comics. In general, what draws you to that type of material and why are comics such a good method of conveying information?

ZC: As I mentioned before, I think that comics are a perfect medium for explaining difficult concepts, because you can basically build a map of an idea on the page, and that page stays there as long as the reader wants it to. With the way that the reader's eyes move around the comics page, people first instinctively get the simplest part of the concept, then can focus in greater detail on particular parts as they choose.

What else are the Cannon brothers working that you can tell us about?

ZC: "Top 10" season two is wrapping up, and we're just now finishing the artwork on a nonfiction graphic novel about the space race for Aladdin books with Jim Ottaviani. Also, we have a number of writing projects that are swirling around in the ether.

KC: I have an arctic adventure story called "Far Arden" coming out in May from Top Shelf.

"The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA" is on sale now from Hill and Wang.

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