Maris Wicks and First Second Invite Readers To The Human Body Theater
By Mark Banaszak

Human Body TheaterCartoonist and science educator Maris Wicks puts the spotlight – literally – on the various parts of the body in Human Body Theater (HC: $19.99, 978-1-62672-277-4/SC: $14.99, 978-1-59643-929-0) from First Second.

This new graphic novel explores the entirety of the human body from the atomic level up, as the book's MC – a talking skeleton – introduces and examines each of the body's systems (muscles, organs, intestines, etc.), adding each layer to her "costume" (i.e., body) as she goes. Along the way she shows how each part works on its own and together in an entertaining and highly informative revue, which is aimed for readers aged 10-14.

Wicks's previous graphic novel was Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas (First Second, 978-1-59643-865-1), a collaboration with writer Jim Ottiavani that examined the lives and science of three leading primatologists, and she recently revealed her next graphic novel, Science Comics: Coral Reefs, which is scheduled for May 2016 release.

Diamond BookShelf interviewed Maris Wicks via email about Human Body Theater, making comics that fun and educations, and her love of science and comics. (Click on the page images for larger views.)

Human Body Theater is currently available and is suggested for readers 10+ who enjoy science and biology, or who could use an entertaining way of learning about the body. 

Diamond BookShelf: Human Body Theater presents a very novel way of introducing the various elements of the human body. How did you come up with this approach?

Short answer: Well, I love comics and I love human anatomy and physiology, so I thought "why not combine them"? Slightly longer answer: Human Body Theater started out back in 2009 as a teeny tiny, self-published minicomic titled "Human Body Theater Presents: The Digestion of a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich". I had been toying with the idea of making it into a series 1.) because as I mentioned before, I love both comics and human body science and 2.) there wasn't anything really like it out there. As I was wrapping up Primates, I pitched Human Body Theater as a big ol' graphic novel, and well, it's a book now!

How much research did you have to do for this book?

In 2003, I became certified to be an EMT in Massachusetts; I was also wrapping up college (I went to school for illustration). I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with myself after college, and I thought that maybe being an EMT might be a good idea. The class was awesome, the certification exam was nerve-racking, and my time spent observing on an ambulance with paramedics was very insightful...I had loved my training, but I did not want to do this for a job! Over the next few years, human anatomy and physiology popped up in my education work (I taught at the Providence Children's Museum where there was a whole exhibit about the human body, and co-wrote an after-school curriculum on the five senses).

Once I began work on Human Body Theater, these past experiences definitely informed the content, but I supplemented with reading every book I could find on the human body (mostly aimed at kids, but also some geared towards adults, like Mary Roach's Stiff and Gulp). Books, along with some great sites on the internet (http://kidshealth.org/kid/ and https://kids.usa.gov/health-and-safety/health/index.shtml), helped me decide what to include and emphasize in Human Body Theater.

When did your interest in science (and/or biological science) begin? What kind of education or training have you had?

I had an interest in biology and ecology from a very young age; I spent A LOT of time outside in the woods. Human body science had always interested me as well - I remember being equally mesmerized and terrified at the fact that ALL of my baby teeth would fall out and NEW ONES would come in...I mean, we've all got a body, so we're kind of mobile, growing science experiments.

I believe that I covered most of my educational background in the previous answer. Aside from the EMT training and museum education gig, I've got my Wilderness First Aid training, took Human Anatomy and Physiology in college, and then just regular Bio back in High School. Other than my own background, I also had a doctor and nurse friend (both specializing in pediatric care) look over the book and give me feedback throughout the writing and illustrating process.

Covering the entire body from the atomic level up involves a lot of information. Was it challenging to cover all of that while keeping the book fun and entertaining?

I think the only challenge for me was having to decide what to put in and what to leave out! I easily could have made this book longer, chocking it full of EVERYTHING that I find fascinating, entertaining and important about the human body, but then it would've been like 500 pages long. My favorite part of creating narrative non-fiction comics is that the content is already out there. It's up to me to frame it in a way that is engaging, to make some pretty dense concepts relatively...digestible for readers (PUN = INTENDED).

You previously did the art for Primates with Jim Ottiavani, and you have a graphic novel about coral reefs coming out next year. What is it about making science-based/educational comics that you enjoy, and keeps you coming back?

About a year before I started to work on Primates, I had decided that my personal goal would be to make science comics. I had a life-long love of anything and everything science, and a love of comics that had developed over my later years. Primates solidified my feelings about making science comics, and well, lit a pretty big flame for me creatively (thanks Jim and First Second!). I actually don't think I could stop myself from making science comics at this point; there are just too many topics I want to cover! It's a good thing (although if I could figure out a way to clone myself, I could definitely increase productivity). I feel very strongly about using my skills that I've built as an educator, writer and illustrator to make science accessible and fun for kids (and adults) through comics. I mean, I'm doing my DREAM JOB!! That's what I enjoy about science/educational comics.

Maris Wicks lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. She has harnessed the power of her various biological systems to draw comics for Adhouse Books, Tugboat Press, and Spongebob Comics, and written stories for Image and DC Comics. Wicks is the illustrator of the New York Times bestselling Primates, with Jim Ottaviani. When she's not making comics, Wicks works as a program educator at the New England Aquarium. She's especially proud of her pulmonary system.