Biology is a challenging subject for many students, but Jay Hosler hopes to make the sciences a bit more enjoyable through the use of original graphic novels. Disguised as a mild-mannered university professor, the cartoonist's past projects include the Xeric-funded "Clan Apis" and the Eisner-nominated "Sandwalk Adventures." Hosler's latest self-published work, "Optical Allusions," was produced with a grant from the National Science Foundation, and deconstructs the mystery of the human eye with humor and wit. CBR News caught up with Hosler to discuss "Optical Allusions" and his own experience with comics in the classroom.
"Optical Allusions" stars an anthropomorphic disembodied brain named Wrinkles, who travels through the collective history and imagination of mankind in search of a magical eyeball. Along the way, Wrinkles spends a few hundred thousand years with Charles Darwin learning about natural selection, ventures into the future to discover the blindspot in even the most perfect human, and encounters many more strange and unusual characters who instruct him on the structure and function of various types of eyes. In between each of Wrinkles's adventures, a brief text chapter further illuminates the science behind the story.
"The comic story can be read and enjoyed (I hope) without reading the interleaving text pieces. But when you do read the text, you get a sense of what I am trying to do as a teacher," Hosler told CBR News. "The philosophy behind the book is that the comic stories introduce biological principles that are later explored and expanded upon in the text pieces. The comic story acts as an accessible intermediary between the reader and new ideas. So, when they tackle the more traditional text they already have some background with the material. Taken as a whole, it is my hope that they not only complement each other but amplify the readers understanding of what I think are exciting and beautiful ideas."
In developing a comic that must at once be entertaining and contain a considerable amount of scientific instruction, one might wonder whether Hosler would need to decide on what information needs presenting first and then free-associate a story around it, or rather have in mind some scenes he would like to write and then decide which educational aspect best goes along with each. The answer, of course, is a bit of both. "This was a different book to write than 'Clan Apis' or 'Sandwalk Adventures.' I needed to start with a discussion of the basics of natural selection so that dictated the topic of the first story," he said. "After that, there were ideas I felt I needed to address but I tried to allow Wrinkles to make the decisions as to what came next for me. Part of that was trying to capture the feel of the serialized comic stories I read growing up, so I tried to end each chapter with a cliffhanger that promised peril for Wrinkles. The weirder the danger, the better. Plus it was blast drawing giant robotic eyes and stalk-eye fly pirates. Oh, and talking trees, too.
"When I decided upon the basic story and characters, I turned my attention to the science. The integrity of the science is first and foremost and I have to construct the story around that. I run each story by several of my colleagues in the sciences with the express intent of having them pull apart my descriptions. The real challenge (and fun) for me is finding away to tell a story that someone can enjoy and for which the science isn’t a didactic distraction but an integral element of the story."
Hosler, an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania's Juniata College whose previous comic, "Sandwalk Adventures," received an Eisner nomination in 2002, said he has always enjoyed cartooning but did not immediately realize he could combine his two passions. "Over three years as an undergraduate, I did cartoons for our twice-weekly newspaper and then in graduate school I had a daily strip for five years," Hosler said.. "Unfortunately for anyone who read those strips, they tended to be run of the mill college cartoons about not having dates/money/fun. Biology remained a parallel interest. At the end of my time in graduate school I had started doing a strip called 'Cow-Boy' for 'Comics Buyer's Guide.' I was simultaneously becoming bored with doing strip gags (in large part because I stunk at it). I wanted to give comics a try in hopes that the longer form might be a bit more interesting. I wound up doing two comics as a graduate student. One was called 'Wired Comics,' which featured a story by me as well as a story written by Bill Rosemann, who is an editor at Marvel now. The second comic featured 'Cow-Boy' in seven short stories.
"The inspiration to do science comics came when I moved to Columbus, Ohio, to work with Brian Smith at the Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Laboratory. My graduate training was as an electrophysiologist studying electrical activity in insect muscle. However, I was going to be doing a lot of behavior work in Columbus and decided to read up on bee biology. My primary source was a book called the 'Biology of the Honey Bee' by Stan Winston and as I read it, I found myself thinking 'someone should write a comic about this.' It didn’t occur to me until later that that someone could be me. When it did, I decided to apply for a Xeric Award to fund the printing of the first book. I was very fortunate to get the cash and published the first issue of 'Clan Apis' in 1998. When that series wrapped, I was doubly fortunate to strike up a partnership with Daryn Guarino, the owner of the comics shop I frequented. Daryn made it possible to for me to collect 'Clan Apis' into a trade and start my follow-up project, a book about Darwin called the 'Sandwalk Adventures.'"
The success of "Clan Apis" and "Sandwalk Adventures" gave Hosler further ideas about how his comics might be used, which in turn also led him to another obvious source of funding. "Though they weren’t developed specifically to teach, my first two books have been used extensively by teachers. This inspired me to write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation aimed a developing a comic book text book that would take advantage of the strong contextual and visual power of comics to explain biological concepts," Hosler said, adding that he was also in need of a textbook for a sensory biology class. "That grant was funded and 'Optical Allusions,' a book about the evolution and biology of eyes, was the result. We are currently gearing up to test it in various academic settings to see if it is an effective teaching tool."
Hosler recently presented his comics, including "Optical Allusions," at the 2008 Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement (CCLI) conference in Washington, DC, where the community of science educators showed a keen interest in his projects. "Teachers are always looking for a new arrow in their quiver when it comes to teaching science. Given that the vast majority of students find science a distasteful subject and science proficiency is very low in the US, most teachers are looking for anything to excite kids," he explained. "The truth is the natural world is incredibly interesting and we as scientists need to do a better job of conveying the wonder of that world. I have talked to many teachers who say comics immediately engage students and they are far more motivated to read a comic than a traditional text. I believe, too, that it is more than just the fact that there are comic illustrations and science information together in the same place. It is that the science is imbedded in an enjoyable story that provides memorable context."
The professor/cartoonist has also witnessed the firsthand the effectiveness of his comics in a classroom setting. "Just this month I had the opportunity to visit Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, and talk to David Fitzsimmon’s Literature for Adolescents. He uses 'Clan Apis' as his representative graphic novel for the class," Hosler said. "He has a terrific group of kids this semester and many of them are studying to be teachers. They asked great questions and were very excited about the book. Interestingly enough, several of them also confessed to not being interested in and/or knowing much about comics beforehand but after our talk several said they plan to use comics in their classrooms. That is incredibly exciting. Comics are a fantastic art form for the expression of ideas and I really wish there were more kids reading them. There are so many great books for all ages out there, wouldn’t it be great if kids started discovering them in school?"
"Optical Allusions" is available now from bookstores and from activesynapse.com.