Comics Across the Curriculum: Science and Comics

Comics and graphic novels are powerful tools for communication. The combination of images, words and storytelling create endless possibilities for engaging, informative works. This month, BookShelf takes a look at a number of graphic novels with scientific themes and examines each one's unique approach and appeal to readers.

ZigFor early readers, TOON Books' Zig & Wikki: Something Ate My Homework (ISBN: 978-1-93517-902-3, $12.95) introduces the delights of the natural world as discovered by two young aliens. Zig zooms around in a spaceship with his reckless friend Wikki when he is reminded that his homework is late: he was supposed to bring in a pet for the class zoo. The friends take a wrong turn and land on Earth, where they encounter insects, frogs and raccoons. Wikki presents a variety of weird, gross and cool facts about each critter while the two friends try in vain to catch one of them to bring back as a pet. Intended for readers in grades 2-3, Zig & Wikki features clear, appealing artwork and easy-to-follow layouts. It's fun to look at Earth as an alien planet, and sci-fi devices such as shrink rays and UFOs work well beside the true examples of animal and insect behavior; Earthlings are lucky that they don't have to travel through space to encounter bizarre, outrageous forms of life! For more information, see www.toon-books.com.

For those who think science is boring, Bloomsbury's Secret Science Alliance and the Copy Cat Crook (ISBN: 978-1-59990-396-5, $10.99) reminds us that it can be messy, explosive and exciting. For Julian, Greta and Ben, science is also the key to friendship,SSAadventure and an escape from the tyranny of "adult oppressors." With an underground laboratory and their own homemade helicopter, the three young scientists have formed the ultimate secret club. Colorful pages bursting with secret codes and wacky gadgets are as sharply designed and inventive as the members of the alliance themselves, a diverse group of characters with well defined, unique backgrounds. Julian is an "ultra nerd", Ben is a terrible student and Greta is a rebellious troublemaker, but all are equally confident when it comes to creating their own inventions and using them to save the day from a nefarious rival scientist. Well-suited for middle-grade readers, this book will appeal to aspiring mad scientists and adventure lovers of all ages. A preview is available at author Eleanor Davis' website.

Readers who want to create their own crazy inventions will find plenty of ideas in Howtoons, a comic strip created to introduce kids to science, engineering and problem solving skills. Splashy, colorful comic strip adventures aim to inspire curiosity and creative thought while teaching readers how to build underwater submarines from soda bottles and count in binary on their fingers. These projects and others can be found at howtoons.com.

Hill & Wang's Evolution: the Story of Life on Earth (ISBN: 978-0-80909-476-9, $18.95) is a denser, more deliberately instructive text than those mentioned previously, but it is no less fun. Those who have read The Stuff of Life: a Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (ISBN: 978-0-80908-947-5, $14.95), also published by Hill & Wang, will recognize theEvolutionalien Bloort and his task to understand life on Earth in order to save his own species from extinction. Those who have not read the earlier book may be confused, as its contents are frequently alluded to but the book itself is never explicitly mentioned anywhere. As with Zig & Wikki, the plot involves understanding Earth as seen from an alien perspective. Beginning with primordial Earth and the first cellular structures, Bloort explains the ongoing development of life through evolution into today. The visual comics treatment is useful for showing such things as where how humans relate to larger groupings of life forms and variation in the same basic bone structure between different vertebrates. Almost everything from the first Ribozome to sunflowers to every kind of critter is personified, bringing the lessons to life with slapstick and humor. Interspersed throughout the book are single page descriptions of particularly interesting life forms. These often interrupt the story in strange places, but make for compelling reading. The artists, Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, also did the artwork for The Stuff of Life, while the text for Evolution is written by Biology professor Jay Hosler, whose previous science-themed comics include Clan Apis (978-0-96772-550-5), The Sandwalk Adventures (978-0-96772-551-2), and Optical Allusions (9780967725529). Hosler's website has information for all of these books, as well as science-related comics in progress.

Jim Ottaviani's name is well known in connection to science-themed comics, as he hasFeynmanwritten an impressive number of graphic novel biographies exploring the lives of notable scientists. His upcoming graphic novel Feynman (978-1-59643-259-8, $29.99), due for release in August from First Second, is a compelling look at the life and work of physicist Richard Feynman. With pleasantly scratchy artwork from Leland Myrick capturing the charismatic personality of both the Nobel prize-winning scientist and quantum physics itself, this is an enjoyable, ambitious book that adapts material from Feynman's popular autobiographical essays, speeches, and a series of introductory lectures on quantum electrodynamics. Complicated equations and theories crop up throughout the book, but Feynman continually reminds his students not to be intimidated by that which is difficult to understand at first, and to play and have fun with the material. Meanwhile, the book also teaches about Feynman's quirky personality, love of adventure, and the alternately heartwarming and heartbreaking story of his first marriage. Readers may not finish this book with a better understanding of quantum electrodynamics, but will be inspired by Feynman's lively curiosity and humor. This will be a welcome book for fans of Feynman's writing, and will encourage others to seek it out for the first time (and lucky for them, a detailed bibliography is included at the end). More of Ottaviani's work can be found at his website.

This list is only a sample of what's out there; we encourage you to share your own favorites on our Facebook and Twitter pages. And if you are an educator who uses comics to teach scientific concepts, we'd love to hear about it! Future articles will also look at math-themed graphic novels, science and scientists in superhero comics, and graphic novels created specifically for instruction.