Maki Naro’s first major online exposure was through a webcomic named “Sci-ence” (don’t you dare pronounce the pause), which eventually led to his blog/comic “Boxplot” on the site for Popular Science magazine.
At June’s Special Edition: NYC at Manhattan’s Javits Center, Adventures in Poor Taste spoke with Naro in-depth about his artistic background, how he came to design the T-shirt for 2014’s Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) and what the future holds for his reality-show inspired project, “Sufficiently Remarkable.”
AiPT: Where did your interest in science come from?
Maki: It started at a very early age. I don’t know how early. My father always had science books around. He had a huge collection of National Geographic magazine, the entire Time Life cover series that was released back in the ’70s or ’80s or whatever. So it was always just there. And he was always also kind of fostering that love of science, and also mythology, too. I credit him for where I am. He would read me Norse myths and selections from The Odyssey for bedtime stories.
AiPT: And that got you into science?
Maki: It got me into a lot of things. It kind of taught me an appreciation for myths and storytelling, and then the science part. I always say that if he wanted me to be a good Christian boy, he did it wrong. What I gleaned was an appreciation for mythology and stories, and also being able to tell the difference between that and reality and science.
AiPT: What did he do?
Maki: He was – well, I guess still is; he’s still around – he’s a computer programmer. He had a software company for a long time, his own company.
AiPT: What did you go to school for?
Maki: I went to school for art. Not comic art or anything. My high school really didn’t have a great art program, so really all I had done before then was drawing and painting. And when I got there, there was glass-blowing, there was ceramics, there was metal art; so I just tried everything.
I ended up falling in love with metal sculpture. I did bronze cast sculpture for a long time. I also did ceramics for three years. I even went to Japan and did a residency in Japan for a summer. And then when I got out of school, it was like, “Hey, now it’s time to find a studio. Oh, a studio’s expensive. Where am I gonna find a place to pour bronze sculptures for me?” I kind of fell back on comics right after graduating.
AiPT: How did the original “Sci-ence” strip come about?
Maki: Moving to New York, not being able to make a lot of art, having to work full time, ya know that story that every artist has. “I gotta wait tables and try to work up the will to draw afterwards.” There would be periods when I’d be working this job, and it would get really busy for part of the year, and I would just stop making art, and I’d get really depressed.
AiPT: Was that a wait staff job?
Maki: No, it was actually, I was working for a lighting company. Actually here, at the Javits Center, there would be a lighting convention. Not a lighting convention, but the International Something Furniture Something … So we would do this furniture fair, in the Javits Center, and it would be like 80-hour weeks, for months, preparing for this thing, and during this time I would just go home and sleep. It was really depressing.
So around 2010 I was like, “Okay, I need to get myself out of this funk. A webcomic would be an awesome way to draw on a schedule. Make myself work, make myself be productive. What am I gonna draw about? Well, I like science.” I had started listening to [NPR member station WNYC’s] “Radiolab,” and “This American Life” and other science stuff. Skeptics Guide to the Universe. So I decided I’ll draw comics about science, since that’s what I like anyway.
AiPT: And that got you noticed by Popular Science?
Maki: Yeah. A friend of mine was actually an editor at Wired and approached me years before and was kind of like, “Hey, I kind of want your comics for something.” And then time went on, he started working at Popular Science, and then he came to me again, basically with the same offer. So I’m there now, on their blog network, having a lot of fun. And kind of coincidentally, I’m there with Rebecca Watson [of Skeptics Guide to the Universe]. We’re both on that blog network.
AiPT: You actually did the design for the NECSS T-shirt this year.
Maki: Yes! And I’m sorry Michael [Feldman, president of the New York City Skeptics] and everyone else. I thought they were different weekends; I completely booked [gaming convention] PAX East and NECCS [at the same time]. I could have sworn they were two different weekends!
AiPT: Are you involved with the New York City Skeptics?
Maki: Not in an official basis. I’ve been going to NECSS for a while, although I’ve missed the past two years. I just met Mike, and I’m kind of known around New York City as “one of the New York City skeptic guys who draws.” So he approached me a while back about doing the T-shirt, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. There was a while it was like, “How do I encapsulate and take this sciencey thing and make it fun for everybody? I think I nailed it.
AiPT: Not everyone who’s into science also cares about skepticism. How did you get involved with that? What drew you to it?
Maki: Definitely Skeptics Guide. I was working that lighting job, and there were lots of hours of just, “put in headphones and work.” I started listening to podcasts. I started with “This American Life;” I call it the gateway podcast. Everybody starts with that one. That one, “Radiolab,” and then I was just following iTunes recommendations. “You might also like ‘Skeptics Guide to the Universe,'” and I was like, “What is that? Skeptics? Are they the ones who think aliens are coming?” I actually thought it was the opposite of what skeptics actually are.
AiPT: I hear that a lot.
Maki: And I started listening to it and I was like, “Oh, this is really fun.” First of all, I was like, “Oh, there are people like me out there.” That was definitely my entrance into [skepticism]. And then I started listening to all the other stuff, and getting involved and going to conventions and meeting people.
AiPT: Are there any other science or skepticism webcomics that you like?
Maki: There’s a ton. When I was first starting, I thought, “Ooh, I’m gonna get into a niche market here.” Of course there’s xkcd and Zach Weiner’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, [which is] an amazing comic. PhD Comics, Bird and Moon is really great; there’s a lot out there.
AiPT: Do you want to tell me a little bit about Sufficiently Remarkable?
Maki: Also through comics stuff, I got involved and was selected to be on Penny Arcade’s reality series they were producing, called “Strip Search.” That was amazing. It was just a very positive show. I met 11 other amazing artists and we had a blast. They put us up in a reality show style house for two weeks and it was just great. One of the challenges was that we had to pitch a comic and the end result was, when the show was all said and done, I was like, “I still wanna do that comic. I’m actually gonna do that comic that I pitched.”
It was just before I joined “Popular Science,” and I had known that with my audience on the “Sci-ence” comic, I was preaching to the choir. I was reaching some new people, but everybody there was already interested in science. I wanted to reach people who weren’t interested, didn’t know they were interested or even if they hated science. So I wanted to make a comic that wasn’t about science but would hopefully get people excited about it anyway.
That was kind of the idea of “Sufficiently Remarkable,” and it’s about two young women – it’s slightly autobiographical of my post-collegiate life, living in New York, trying to find myself. It’s about these two roommates, living in Brooklyn, and just the stuff that happens. It’s got some weird stuff thrown in and it’s slightly sci-fi, though that’s kind of a secret. I’ve actually never told anybody that. If you look, there’s little hints. I like to think it’s a comic that really rewards people who pay attention. Every sentence in there, I think very carefully about how it’s worded, to kind of lead audiences in different directions.