Robot Love | I ♥ learning from comics

Editor’s Note: With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, we’ve declared this the week of Robot Love and resurrected I ♥ Comics. In one of our favorite features, various comics creators, bloggers, retailers and fans discuss the things they love about the medium.

Today we welcome our guest Jeff Parker, creator of The Interman, co-creator of Mysterius: The Unfathomable and writer of a lot of Marvel's comics -- Agents of Atlas, Age of the Sentry, X-Men First Class: Finals and Exiles.

by Jeff Parker

These comics we read can make us smart. Or at least, able to kill Seat 28D during the InFlight Trivia Challenge.

Comics have an inordinately facile ability to get information into the reader's head. A few years ago I was in Washington, D.C. running around looking at monuments and the like, and I took the once-a-week tour of the Federal Reserve building. It's surprisingly cool, do it when you're there on a Thursday sometime. At the end of the tour they gave out a COMIC BOOK that attempted to explain how the Fed works. It was badly drawn, weakly colored, and yet- it actually got across to me some understanding of the mysterious process by which the Fed sets interest rates and influences economic growth or tries to thwart inflation. I was impressed that they took the steps to make a comics giveaway, and it made me happy to retrace the steps they must have gone through. As the guide of the day had explained, one of the big hurdles the people in the Federal Reserve have is trying to explain to the public how they do what they do. The job description requires some understanding of economic theory and process to even get to the nuts and bolts. They obviously spent a lot of time trying to figure out what delivery system could get the curious up to speed, and they arrived at a flimsy newsprint comic with no coated stock cover. And I still have it. They also showed a film about the Fed, but the comic still did a better job distilling the information.

There's really no reason comics can't be a major force in education, they can engage a student and slip knowledge into their skulls through any number of paths and convey the most complex lessons (Naturally I also like the idea of inculcating youth with the habit of reading comics). But back to the love, what I'm talking about is not really the overt teaching that comics can be used for. I'm talking about the way knowledge of the writers and artists ends up in their comics and subsequently in my own noggin. I remember as a kid an old '50s reprint where Superboy generated a massive amount of static electricity by fashioning a gargantuan glass rod and rubbing a similarly huge silk cloth against it. Many of those stories read as if the writers kept a stack of Popular Science close at hand, and it's noteworthy that I can't remember the plot but still remember how Superboy made the electricity he needed. Any young Superman reader would also have a vague understanding of the process that turns carbon into diamond- any time Clark Kent was running low on cash he'd scope around for some charcoal briquets at a cookout and squeeze/heat vision himself up some stones to impress the ladies. The science would usually be fast and loose, but a key connection was still made, and I would have some bit of insight into the physical world.

Don't worry, I'm working my way up in sophistication, I'm not actually advocating shoehorning experiments into comics. The breadth of what can be put across is much greater. Later in college, I started getting the Terry and the Pirates reprints (which now exist in superior form from IDW). Besides Milton Caniff's skill at roping the newspaper readers in day after day, he also was a king of research. He had to be- unlike Alex Raymond who couldn't be challenged on his knowledge of the planet Mongo, Caniff was setting his adventures in current China, and as the U.S. entered World War 2, the strip followed suit. Caniff wasn't about to fake military dress, nomenclature, protocol and a thousand other details that his readership now hung onto- and if he did miss something, letters would flood in by the crate to correct him. As a result, you can read Terry and come away with a strong sense of wartime life as it connected to the Pacific Theater, though you may think everyone talked a lot more hep than they did.

Similarly, you could read Hal Foster's Prince Valiant and come away with a strong sense of the period of the stories. He'd bother to have Val on the right kind of horses, and drawn in armor as close as he could find appropriate to the period. In these strips, familiarity with the subject is used organically to build the world the characters inhabit. Speaking of the world, you could take in big chunks of it by reading Carl Bark's Duck adventures or following Tintin and Snowy all over it. It's easy to imagine the studios of Barks and Herge lined with not only National Geographic, but the yearly indexes of the magazine. I realize I keep citing works of near antiquity, but smartypants comics writing is far from extinct.

Mark Schultz is a modern cartoonist who clearly loves his research. Xenozoic Tales, while taking wild liberties to create a dinosaur-filled world full of righteous hotrods driven by women in hot clothes, would also shore up a lot of the fantasy with real down-to-earth science. In one issue, the heroes disrupt a waterspout by firing a gun up into it. Here, you know you like to break up a vortex. And in one of the last Xenozoics, we see an arachnid creature based on a Daddy Longlegs (or Harvestman) that breaks off a leg to get away from danger like its real-life counterpart. I've talked to Mark about how he uses his research, and he's careful to not force it on people. In many of his stories, even in his Superman work of the '90s, there is an implicit ecological theme; but always well-handled and not used to batter the audience into his position on the subject. Not surprisingly he's ended up with the writing duties on the current Prince Valiant strip.

All of this makes Schultz well-armed to write overtly when it's called for, as it is in the recently published book The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon (who despite their claims of non-relation, are brothers and always will be). And if you're looking into overt delivery systems, Jim Ottaviani's books from GT Labs are waiting for you, ready to walk you right into the greater world of the sciences. You'd also not want to miss anything Jay Hosler chooses to cartoon.

Comics that impart knowledge are indicative of the creative process pulling in the greater world and converting it into fiction, and I have a lot of time for that particular energy transfer. Conversely, I have no time for stories that don't. Lots of stories use only facts typical of their genre, they smack of action movies that can only reference things done in other action movies and at best scale up the stunt. This reeks of a closed system where writers seem to only have the world of comic books as a primary source, the snake eating its tail. Whoop -- I digressed into Hate during Love month, sorry.

I'll bet valentine candy that you also have a fair amount of knowledge you were first exposed to by a comic book. What was it?

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