'The Origin of Species,' comic style with Jay Hosler

[The Sandwalk Adventures]Charles Darwin. World famous scientist and comic book star? Well, yeah! For most the idea of a comic book starring Charles Darwin as its central character may seem odd, for Jay Hosler it seemed the most appropriate choice.

Jay Hosler is a neurobiologist by day at Juniata University in Pennsylvania and a comics pro by night. The author of the Ignatz and Eisner-nominated "Clan Apis," the story of a honey bee's attempt to understand the society it's growing in, has followed up his first project with a new 5-issue, bi-monthly series called "The Sandwalk Adventures" that debuted December, 2001.

"'The Sandwalk Adventures' is the story of a conversation between Charles Darwin and a follicle mite named Mara living in his left eyebrow," Hosler told CBR News. "The how and why a follicle mite can speak English much less be heard by her host will all remain unexplained. The focus of the story is the conversation between the two protagonists.

"Mara and Charles both have to deal with some disturbing revelations. Darwin discovers that the mites living in his eyebrow think he's their creator god Flycatcher. The mites have an entire mythology constructed around him and the events in his life. Mara faces the reality that Darwin is not a god and that places her entire belief system is in peril. Essentially, they're placed on opposite sides of the same situation; wrestling with Darwin's godhood or humanity. Darwin takes the initiative in correcting Mara's misconception but to do so he obviously must convince her that he did not create or shape life. This naturally leads Mara to question what DOES shape life and, voila, the stage is set for Darwin to explain his theory of natural selection. My approach to all of this is light-hearted and I'm trying to explore a lot of the intellectual absurdities that arise from the predicament that Mara and Darwin find themselves in.

"Mara is pretty persistent about getting answers to her questions and the only place Darwin can talk to her without looking like a complete nut is on the foot path he calls the sandwalk. The sandwalk and Darwin's house were on opposite sides of the 15+ acre grounds of his home so it was nice and private. In fact, the sandwalk was very important to the real Darwin for this very reason. He valued the peace and quiet and would walk the sandwalk nearly everyday. During these strolls he would think about whatever he was working on at the time. It seems probable that he struggled through constructing his theory of natural selection as well as considering its socio-political consequences. What better setting to revisit all of those problems in the twilight of his life with an inquisitive follicle mite?"

Now that you know what the comic is about you're probably asking yourself "where did this idea come from?" As a scientist the selection of the story came quite naturally to Hosler.

"There were really two different lines of thought that led me to this story," said Hosler. "The first was an interest in doing a book that explains the basics of Darwin's theory of natural selection. There are a great many people on both sides of the evolution/creationism debate that don't really understand how evolution works and there is a suite of misinterpretations that serve as the foundation for these differing opinions. Consequently, discussions and arguments built on these interpretations are ultimately doomed. Sometimes these misinterpretations are intentionally and willfully held and sometimes earnest people just have it wrong. In both cases, part of the defense and/or remedy is a clear explanation.

"'The Sandwalk Adventures' is my attempt to give readers of all ages and intellectual dispositions a simple distillate of Darwin's theory of natural selection. It's obviously not a comprehensive survey of evolution, but it should give people a feel for a theory that has, for the most part, withstood almost 150 years of intense scrutiny. I hope it may help, in some very small way, to make discussions on the issue a little more fruitful.

"The second thing I was interested in writing about was Darwin himself and the relationship his theory had to the prevailing Victorian attitudes about man's place in nature. The truth is that this story began as a straight-forward biography of Darwin. However, there are already plenty of excellent books about Darwin's life written by outstanding historians (my favorite being by Desmond and Moore). A comic book biography would contribute very little to comics and books in general so I decided to take a different tack. That was the hard part. Searching for that different perspective took some time and the permutations I came up with ranged from the banal to the bizarre. In the end I came up with the follicle mite story. It offered me an opportunity to touch upon the cultural impact of Darwin's theory in a way that, on the surface at least, seems detached from humans. In reality, of course, it is meant to be very much about us.

"The third element of 'The Sandwalk Adventures' that just popped up when I began writing was writing a story about storytelling. So much about what we believe and how we interpret the world around us depends on the types of stories we tell. We humans are pretty good at imposing a narrative upon nature replete with heroes and villains. Evolution is often portrayed as the story of a plucky little mammal that defies the odds and all the big nasty things around it, gives rise the a lineage that evolves big brains and eventually comes to dominate nature. It's all very Horatio Alger, really. Of course, there are no good guys and bad guys in evolution, just a sequence of events that had the results we see today. Ultimately, however, telling stories can be a powerful way of conveying and remembering information. 'The Sandwalk Adventures' is about the balancing act between strict accuracy and poetic license that I struggle with as I write."

In "The Sandwalk Adventures" readers will not only be treated to a light-hearted story that documents the conversation between Darwin and Mara, but Hosler will also share a great deal of information about Darwin's theories and the work of his contemporaries. In the body of the story readers Hosler will present elements of Darwin's theories based on what he knew at the time, while in the annotations at the back of each issue readers will see an expansion on Darwin's theories with more from what we've learned since Darwin first set-forth his theories in his ground-breaking work "The Origin of Species."

Comics come in many different forms and genres. We've got super-hero comics, kids comics, adult-themed comics, etc. While a label like "educational comics" might be the most obvious one to apply to books like "Clan Apis" or "The Sandwalk Adventures," Hosler wouldn't label it that way.

"'Educational comics' connotes something dry. And my comics are very, well, wet, I guess," said Hosler. "I have always operated from the perspective that all literature, fiction or non-fiction, should teach us something. In fiction, that usually means something about ourselves, society or and our place in the world. I have learned quite a lot about history, society and being human from John Steinbeck and Jane Austen but we don't call those educational stories because we are at least familiar with the concepts that they discuss. We're just learning to look at things in a new way. Nevertheless, that is educational. I think people want to define my comics as educational for two primary reasons 1) they address topics in science and natural history and 2) they contain factual information whose veracity can trust because of my annotations. As I see it, my stories are about the world we live in. I just happen to be focusing on parts that most people aren't familiar with. Ultimately, the story matters most to me. If I have to choose between squeezing in more neato science facts or paring things down so that the story flows better and has more impact, I will choose the later every time.

"Now, as a scientist, I can understand the desire to categorize. It is one of the things we strive to do with nature. But, I hope that there is something more to my comics than their educational content. I think my comics are simultaneously kids comics, adult comics, adventure comics, educational comics and entertaining comics. I write them to appeal to all ages. Unfortunately, when I tell people that, a part of me braces for the reply 'so, they're kids comics.' No.

"I try to write comics like the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Every Saturday morning, my two year-old son Max and I watch old Bugs Bunny cartoons. He laughs and I laugh, but a lot of the times we aren't laughing the same thing. There is slapstick and silliness for him and there is social commentary, history and, well, slapstick and silliness for me. I've grown-up with these cartoons and books like 'Peanuts' and 'Tin-Tin.' Of course, there were elements of those cartoons and comics that I didn't understand as a kid. But there was always enough stuff that I did understand that I could re-read Charlie Brown and re-watch Bugs and get new things from them as I got older. These works are timeless on some level, capable of speaking to generation after generation. That is the high target to which I aspire. I have no idea if I'm even close to hitting it, but I keep shooting.

"Does that make them adult or mature comics? Well, not in the sense that adult and mature seem to be defined in comics today but there are grown-up ideas I like to address and I think they may appeal to mature thinkers.

"I think I would prefer my work to remain undefined and just hope that readers can find something that appeals to them. That may not be all that practical, but I don't have to be a scientist all of the time.

"The Sandwalk Adventures," like "Clan Apis," can appeal to a large and diverse group of readers. "The Sandwalk Adventures" contains elements that can be appreciated by anyone from young children to adults.

"So many of the reviews for 'Clan Apis' started, "Well I never thought a book about bees could be interesting...". The thing is, I think bees are very interesting. I think Darwin and evolution and follicle mites are interesting. What I learned from 'Clan Apis' was that word of mouth got people reading out of their main genre. The trade paperback has been a steady seller through Diamond, Cold Cut and Ingram (the primary distributor of books to bookstores) and the people I hear from are artists, scientists and everyone in between. I hope that my enthusiasm for the material, my resistance to take too much artistic license with the biology and the history and my desire to teach the reader something will appeal to anyone who likes to read.

"If I had to pick specific groups, I hope it appeals to kids (because there really aren't enough comics for them that aren't merchandise tie-ins) and teachers (because I would love to see 'The Sandwalk Adventures' used in classrooms)."

Hosler is very pleased with the response to the first issue of "The Sanwalk Adventures."

"I'm delighted. We printed 2000 and we're sold out. The initial order from Diamond more than doubled orders for any single issue of 'Clan Apis.' Reviews have been very good and reader response has been very gratifying. I never know how my comics will be received and each solicitation is a little nerve wracking. So, based on the response so far, I'm very happy."

Finally, what does Hosler believe Darwin would think of starring in a comic in which he's portrayed as a man hearing voices in his head?

"I think he would probably hate it."

"The Sandwalk Adventures #1" is now available in stores.

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