The ineffable joy of transforming boring scientific explanations into exciting comics

Cartooning entomologist Jay Hosler's forthcoming young adult graphic novel Last of the Sandwalkers masterfully combines storytelling with science; in this essay, he explains how beautifully comics play into the public understanding of science -- and why that understanding is a matter of urgency for all of us.

Allow me to spill the beans right at the beginning of this essay.

The answer is comics.

Now, let's consider the question.

Not too long ago a good friend of mine quite publicly declared that he was not interested in the boring scientific explanation for a rainbow. We were in a large group and I was somewhat saddened by this statement, not because I hadn't heard similar sentiments before, but because I heard them so often. It was all the more distressing because I'd spent the last decade writing and drawing a graphic novel about the biology and natural history of beetles called Last of the Sandwalkers. In the wake of this comment, as I prepare for another semester of teaching biology courses and the release of my book in the spring, I find myself in a reflective mood.

Why do I make comics about the natural world? Personally, I love boring scientific explanations, or at least the precise, detailed and often quantitative descriptions I think people mean by boring scientific explanations. The natural world inspires me. Reading about a newly discovered species like the bone-eating snot-flower worm fills me with an expansive sense of the wonder that I want to share. There are the equivalent of aliens living right under our feet and getting to know them enriches our lives. Rest assured, I am self-aware enough to know that going gah-gah over a new textbook is atypical for the population, but if I want to share my enthusiasm with my students and a broader audience I need to ask, "How?"

This isn't a trivial question. A survey of American attitudes suggests that only one in five Americans appreciate the value of scientific inquiry and that students in the United States still perform at or below the level of students in many other developed countries in science and mathematics. In my opinion, Carl Sagan provides the best description of this disastrous situation.

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.

A democracy with an electorate that doesn't understand science cannot possibly hope to navigate issues like stem cell research or climate change. So, how do we connect potentially curious readers of all ages to the wonders of the universe locked in those "boring" explanations? The answer is obvious (since, y'know, I've already told you):

Comics.

Now, before anyone's head explodes at that gross oversimplification, bear with me. Clearly, the solution to a big challenge like this is multi-variant, but I think comics provide an enormously powerful and entertaining approach to the problem.

At our core, humans are picture-loving, story-telling monkeys and comics plug into a fundamental way in which we explain things to each other. From cave paintings to schematics hastily jotted on a napkin, we use words and images to complete and amplify ideas and explanations. As a cartoonist, I try to harness that power to write graphic novels about science and natural history.

Graphic novels that deal with science can take on two forms. John DuPuis over at Confessions of a Science Librarian summarized the possibilities:

The first is basically transforming a boring, stilted, text-heavy textbook into a boring, stilted, illustration- and text-heavy graphic novel. The second involves taking advantage of the strengths of the graphic novel format to re-imagine how scientific knowledge can be presented to an interested audience.

I have tried to do that second thing. Science embedded in graphic novels infuses those stories with wonder and mystery. Comic characters that explore the natural world take readers with them. In Last of the Sandwalkers, our intrepid band of beetle scientists discover flying beasts that hunt with sound, escape the clutches of a silken net and endure the embarrassment of sticky, velvet worm mucus. They see a bird for the first time and marvel at this strange creature with a skeleton on the inside of its body.

The acclaimed cartoonist Harvey Pekar once said, "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." My first science graphic novel was the biography of a honey bee. Sixteen years later, I still hear from readers about how it changed the way they look at these insects. What was once a terrifying menace to be squished on sight was now a fellow creature with a family and a vital role to play in our world. The words and images of comics can help us feel an emotional connection with a subject and give us a reason to revisit it over and over.

Textbooks can explain science, but comics can make readers care about it.

-Jay Hosler


Nestled in the grass under the big palm tree by the edge of the desert there is an entire civilization--a civilization of beetles. In this bug's paradise, beetles write books, run restaurants, and even do scientific research. But not too much scientific research is allowed by the powerful and elders, who guard a terrible secret about the world outside the shadow of the palm tree.

Lucy is not one to quietly cooperate, however. This tiny field scientist defies the law of her safe but authoritarian home and leads a team of researchers out into the desert. Their mission is to discover something about the greater world...but what lies in wait for them is going to change everything Lucy thought she knew.

Beetles are not the only living creatures in the world.

Deftly combining suspenseful adventure storytelling with the principles and tools of scientific inquiry, entomologist and cartoonist Jay Hosler has created in The Last of the Sandwalkers a tale that satisfies and fascinates even the most bug-averse among us.

Published 4:00 am Thu, Sep 4, 2014

About the Author

Jay Hosler is a biology professor at Juniata College, and a cartoonist. He enjoys telling stories about science and the natural world, and his first graphic novel (Clan Apis) won a Xeric Award and was selected for YALSA’s "2002 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults." His latest book, Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth, was a 2011 Junior Library Guild selection, a nominee for YALSA's 2012 "Great Graphic Novels for Teens," and has been included in the Texas Library Association's "Maverick Graphic Novel Reading List." He lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and his two little nerdlings.

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