Jens Harder Charts the Universe from Its "Alpha ...directions"

Comic books have, despite Mr. Fredric Wertham's assertions of delinquency, always been a valued tool for teaching. For years, creators such as Jim Ottaviani and Jay Hosler have been using the medium to expand people's understanding of science. Now, German cartoonist Jens Harder adds to the ever-growing array of science-based comic book knowledge, crafting a trilogy of books that stretches all the way back to the Big Bang.

The first book, "Alpha ...directions," starts with the Big Bang and tracks forward through the formation of the Milky Way, our own solar system and the planet Earth. From there, Harder brings readers across millennia of planetary changes -- volcanic activity, poisonous atmosphere and the creation of the planet's crust, to the encroachment of life and its evolution, from microscopic bacteria up to, but just short of, modern man. Witness ice ages, extinction events, and yes, for a relatively small window of Earth's very long existence, dinosaurs.

First published in French and German, "Alpha ...directions" gets its first English edition this fall from British publisher Knockabout Comics.

CBR News spoke with Harder, working around a language barrier though the use of email, about the epic scope of his trilogy, modern media attacks on science, the importance of pushing scientific knowledge, and the deep well of cultural imagery that draws on and reflects the historical evolution of Earth itself. The second book of his trilogy, "Beta ...civilisations," is available in France and Germany, and Harder hopes to see it in English soon as well.

CBR News: I'm amazed by the scope of this project. By your own estimate, there is one drawing in "Alpha ...directions" for every 7,000,000 years of existence. Did you ever feel that a 360-page comic isn't sufficient for retelling the history of everything (up until the human race started, anyway)?

Jens Harder: Before starting with the project in 2004, I calculated something about 250 pages for the whole tale. After finishing "Alpha," I had 368 pages with round about 2000 drawings -- as far as I know, the longest comic version of this longest history. In the beginning of "Beta," my publisher and I decided to divide the second volume into two parts, each 368 pages. So I will have drawn more than 1000 pages with surely more than 6000 images for the whole time from the Big Bang until today -- before starting "Gamma." But you're right -- it's always too little, close to nothing. It never ever will be enough to show only a snippet of the whole.

Many of the illustrations are symbolic in one way or another, but there are many representational images as well. Once we get into some semblance of history that we might recognize -- flora and fauna, ice ages, etc. -- I think most people will connect easily with the concrete imagery, but how much research went into the illustrations of the universe pre-Earth or the very protean Cryptozoic Age?

I feel unable to decide what may be more difficult -- collect a few thousand images and then try to find a good choice, or have only a handful pictures and just take them and compose a good comic sequence or double-page with it. Even for the first days of our Earth and the beginning of life, I found images -- less cultural references, more religious stuff (goddesses of fertility or of the underworld) plus early fossils like stromatoliths. But you're right: It wasn't easy to find some good material. At the end, I'm quite satisfied by the result (and couldn't find much more since the times of producing the Cryptozoic pages; in contrast to other periods like the younger ages, where I still collect everything I stumble across).

The prose in "Alpha ...directions" is very straight, almost a textbook approach. "This happened, which allowed this to occur." What made that the right approach for this book?

Since I trust the scientific basis of the statements I wrote, I wanted to express it as precisely as possible (except in a few moments like the beginning of life, which is still an unsolved riddle, so I needed to be more vague and point out different theories). I wanted to keep the text as clear as possible, maybe also a bit dry sometimes, because the combined images are so versatile, sometimes also disturbing or chaotic. My comments should give the neutral red line through the whole time journey. These one or two sentences per page plus the summaries of the single chapters shall provide all the important information needed. I discussed it several times with my colleagues -- if it's necessary or not to have text. But ultimately, I'm very happy with the combination and I think it gives the reader a lot more to get some explanations, rather than only passing through the book and enjoying the drawings.

Despite the straight text, this is certainly not a dry read. You've borrowed from art and pop culture -- from Katsushika Hokusai's "The Great Wave of Kanagawa" to Winsor McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur," from Lewis Trondheim to Jim Woodring -- to not only support the text, but illustrate how pre-history has cast a tremendous influence over our art. How did you decide on this approach? Did you run into any obstacles over usage?

From the very beginning I didn't wanted to invent something. Concerning the text, no twists or connections to make the storytelling "round." Concerning the images, no self-developed pictures of something that really existed. I always had the wish to show not only the development of the world, but also the development of our view on the world. I wanted to find out tracks or echoes of all beings and of all events, if not on Earth (as fossils or landmarks), then in our cultural awareness, in our fairy tales, religious stories, nightmares, paintings, sculptures, book illustrations, wherever.

For instance, the Jim Woodring quotation is a good example. When the part with the Cambrian radiation of the marine fauna started, I wanted to show how the number of species exploded and which richness of different genera developed at that time. So I needed to adapt some plates of Ernst Haeckel with all these amazing drawings of jellyfishes and crabs, etc. Suddenly, I recognized that the strange rotating so-called souls in Woodrings "Frank" look exactly like some drawings of very early jellyfishes on Haeckel's plate. Now for me, it was a must to put these images close to each other to build a bridge between such different sources.

In the case of Hokusai's "Wave" (and Da Vinci's vortex studies) I searched for strong images of water to show how powerful it streamed onto the surface of Earth to create the first ocean after the temperature has fallen under the important mark of 100° Celsius. For sure, I also used a lot of photographs or movie stills of waves and oceans, but the best impressions come from a reduced and focused piece of illustration art like the ones I chooses.

Obstacles I avoided, by asking for permission to quote or adapt the images (at least in case of comic panels or illustrations, because it's very close to my media). All the answers, which I received over the last years, were fortunately positive and gave me a great support plus a good feeling to go on. In case of other sources (paintings, photographs, movies, etc.) I wrote a long credit list in the appendix of the book, so you can see what originals I've used on the certain pages.

It must've been hard to narrow down all the dinosaur options!

It's astonishing that a lot of people recognize "Alpha" as a dinosaur book, despite there being only thirty or forty pages with dinosaurs inside. Maybe it's the front cover that creates such expectations. The director of a German Natural History Museum congratulated me, that I resisted filling the whole book just with dinosaurs.

In the end, I gave this era a bit more space than a "realistic" part in the book would be, but I needed to find a good compromise -- most people are attracted, like me, to these amazing creatures, and there is a lot interesting stuff to show and to talk about in the Mesozoic, but I don't wanted to draw a "dinosaur book."

If your question means more the difficult choice of images instead economizing the number of pages, I need to say: Yes, it was a hard job! So many fossils and skeletons in the museums of the world, so many parks with realistic figures, so many great books with illustrations and paintings (the Czech Zdeněk Burian ahead, but also from the English Paleoartist John Sibbick), so many movies, so many other references, toys, kitsch...

"Alpha ...directions" is the first leg of a trilogy. What can readers look for in the remaining two volumes?

"Beta ...civilizations -- volume I," which was published in January 2014 in France and Germany, tells the story of the development of us human beings and the "rise" of mankind. It's the last four million years from the first steps of Australopithecus until the beginning of our calculation of times -- so the last images will show a nativity set in Bethlehem a bit more than two thousand years ago. The second part of the second book, "Beta ...civilizations -- volume II" will deal with the last two thousand years from the year 1 until today (whenever "today" will be). I hope to start next year with the drawings (collecting material happens for sure all the time), so it could be finished in 2020. At the end I will gathering several futures in a perspective. "Gamma ...visions" will be a keystone for my four-book trilogy.

Science education is a tricky thing these days, as anti-science superstition seems so strong. I suppose that's always been the case, though. Did the current scientific climate affect how you approached "Alpha ...directions" at all?

If you mean the Creationism and Intelligent design debate, I would agree that it encouraged me from time to time in going on with a lot energy. I mean, I would have done the project anyway. But after receiving all these scary news from the Bible belt in the [United] States (and even from European Evangelical church members), I saw more acutely how necessary such a trilogy like mine is nowadays.

"Alpha ...directions" was first published back in 2009 in French. Is it gratifying to see it slowly crossing language barriers and bringing its lessons to new readers across the world?

2009 was the first print-run in France at Actes Sud / l´ An2. One year later, it came out in Germany at Carlsen Comics. After a Chinese version this spring, I will hold in autumn the English translation in my hands (plus, a Spanish publication is being negotiated right now), so soon I will have "Alpha" printed in some of the most important languages.

Yes, I'm very happy about these developments, but I should emphasize that I'm an atheist, but no missionary. I only want to achieve what every author wants to achieve -- that some people are enjoying my stuff, that it's good for something, and it doesn't need to bum around in a drawer. To be honest, I was hopeful to sell the foreign rights a bit faster, since "Alpha" was nominated sometimes and finally could win prizes in Angoulême/France and Erlangen/Germany. But on the other hand, the book is quite expensive in the production, and even the scientific content seems to be a risk for some publishers (as far as I can judge from our several ineffective tries to reach the U.S. market). For me ,an English version is absolutely great, because almost everyone is able to read it then (even in the States, where we can find good distribution).

What are you working on now?

Beside some short stories and illustrations I'm writing or drawing on three books at the same time. At first, a mute story about catastrophes, climate change and ecological destruction, a kind of fight between nature and technology, named "versus." Strong and powerful drawings in full color -- very elaborate. Second, a semi-autobiographical story about breakdance and pyromaniacs in the middle of the '80s in my little boring hometown in the "far east" of East Germany -- this one I don't want to draw by myself, so I'm searching now for a collaboration after having finished the storyboard recently. The third project is the comic adaptation of the oldest written story of the mankind, much older than the Bible, the fantastic and high-influential "Gilgamesh" epic. It will take me at least another year and will contain at the end circa 120 colored pages (with text fragments from the existing various translations of the original cuneiform scripts).

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