Believe it or not, in the time before xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, there were people who thought you couldn’t make comics about science. That the subject matter was too dry to find an audience.
Now, besides those legendary works, there are many others, like Maki Naro and Beatrice the Biologist, rising to fill that niche. But what about science’s jerky little brother, skepticism? Who speaks for the cynics?
Air Force pilot Kyle Sanders has taken up the challenge, aiming to show that skeptics aren’t actually cynical fun-crushers. They just don’t like to see people taken advantage of. You wouldn’t let your friend buy a used car without a CARFAX report, right? Then you probably shouldn’t stand by and watch someone waste their hard-earned money on homeopathic treatments proven not to help their condition, either.
And that’s where Sanders’ strength is, showing that anyone can (and probably should) be a skeptic. But his webcomic Carbon Dating, which he started in 2013, isn’t all clinical reports and statistical analyses. As the name implies, the strip also follows main character Rob’s foray into the most variable-congested experiment of all, love.
Sanders was at the country’s largest skeptic convention, The Amaz!ng Meeting, in July, and AiPT! was there to ask him why he thought a comic like this could succeed and where it might go in the future, now that he’s published his first hardcover volume of the strip, Sounds Sciencey.
AiPT!: What’s your background like? Before the comic?
Sanders: My degree’s in space science engineering. I’m actually in the Air Force —
Sanders: Yeah, so I’m actually an instructor pilot. [My] background is in engineering and science. I started doing public speaking, kind of, as a pilot, to schools and things like that. Got into the skeptical stuff hosting local events, and that kind of led to the comic. I drew comics in college. So that’s pretty much my whole background.
AiPT!: So you were doing the comics alongside the engineering—that’s kind of odd.
Sanders: I started drawing comics in college, as just a—I’ve always drawn, but my first comic was in college.
AiPT!: Did you ever consider making art a career?
Sanders: It started out as a strip in college, just making fun of life at that college, and that kind of grew. When I got good feedback about it, that kind of gave me the confidence to [say], “Well, let’s pursue this a little bit more.” It’s always been a hobby—it’s not until recently that that I’m like … let’s give it a serious—you know, pursue it seriously, see what happens, and maybe it’ll be enough that I can transition into doing that, part time.
AiPT!: What got you interested in skepticism to begin with?
Sanders: I’ve always been interested in skepticism. We lived in a lot of places that—where that is not common, certain parts of the country that I would choose not to live [in]. But growing up around that, you kind of feel obligated to defend your opinions. So that kind of leads you into—leading into science as a means of defending good, common sense, which you shouldn’t have to defend.
AiPT!: Is that where the comic strip came from? Did you say, “Okay, I want to make a comic; why not this?”
Sanders: I wanted to make a comic, and I wanted to talk about something that I’m passionate about, and it was at a skeptical convention very similar to TAM!—
AiPT!: Which one?
Sanders: It was Skepticon in Springfield [in Missouri]. So I was sitting there in the audience, listening to Joe Nickell, and I was like, “This is what I want to write about.” I started drawing my characters there in the back of the crowd, and that’s what led to this, a couple years later. I spent some time working on it, and really kind of building up enough material and ideas, and began drawing ahead of time so I had enough to really launch it.
An early edition of Carbon Dating
AiPT!: Did you worry [about] who would really be an audience? That all that work was going to go for nothing?
Sanders: The idea behind a lot of comics from the old days was that you need to appeal to a broad market, but that’s kind of a vestigial thing from syndication. You don’t have to appeal to a broad audience, and a lot of webcomics—the more niche you are, the more successful you will be within that niche. You can build up this dedicated readership in a small demographic, but they’re really passionate readers. And then some of that spills over to a bigger audience, so, for me, I knew I wanted to write for the scientific skepticism crowd and make this a way to bring other people, who just kind of read comics, into more “sciencey” topics.
AiPT!: Do you see any evidence of that? How “nichey” is Carbon Dating, really? What kind topics do you [address], typically?
Sanders: It started out pretty “nichey” because it was in Skeptic magazine and Skeptical Inquirer—[that] helped bring people into it. So I know it’s going out to that audience, and I advertise on other science webcomics, so I know—I can look at my stats and I can see that when somebody comes from, say, a sort of romantic comic strip, like Questionable Content. They’re reading for the relationship humor. They’ll read my comic, and they’ll go and read 20 on average, which is way more than the usual person, [who will] read three or four.
But then I see somebody coming from xkcd or [Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal], and they’ll read, like, 40 comics. Just, like, binge-reading the whole archive in one sitting. You can see that, yeah, some people enjoy the romance and the science stuff is like, “eh.” But then some people come for the science, and they’re like, “Yeah, the relationship humor I don’t care about.” And then there’s a group of dedicated people who just like the whole thing. I think as long as you have a little something for everybody—so I try to blend it about 50/50, relationship humor and science.
AiPT!: Do your characters progress over time?
Sanders: They do actually progress. It is not—it’s pretty much a gag a day, as far as punchlines go. Continuity between strips is very loose, however there is an arc. So the characters start out—the protagonist is just kind of a bachelor, fledgling science writer. His platonic friend moves in and they kind of get awkwardly romantic. But that does progress. At the beginning of [Sounds Sciencey] they’re now an item, and it’s kind of awkward. They don’t know what to call themselves.
But then throughout the course of the book, at the end, they get knocked up, and that’s kind of where a lot of the tension comes from. Now they’re trying to figure out this relationship which, again, I wanted to reflect real life. Once you hit your 20-somethings, everybody starts having babies, not all the time on purpose. I will say my baby was planned, but I have a lot of friends who, you know, not so much, and that’s just real life.
AiPT!: Where do you see all this going? Do you have a goal, a hope for the future?
Sanders: You have to really plan for the long, long term when you do a comic. It does take—I originally set out to try to debunk this myth that it takes two years to build an audience. I was like, “Well, if you advertise, and you do these things, marketing-wise, you could cut that in half.” I did see a lot of success early on, getting into magazines and things, but it does just take time. Really takes a couple years to build up a big audience and following. Actually this month we’re about to hit our 3 millionth page view, which—that’s an accomplishment. But it did take a couple years. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep it up for another three years, but I planned it that way. And I think, as long as I don’t run out of material, I think we’ll keep going.
AiPT!: Can you tease anything coming up?
Sanders: There’s a lot I’m working on. There’s a lot of local, live events that I’m doing. So I’ve kind of expanded into science outreach in general. So I’m working with a group trying to build a science center in Colorado Springs, doing live programming that we’re going to be podcasting, and all that kind of stuff. A lot of those experiences tie into the comic. As far as the characters go, I don’t know if I can leak a lot, character-wise. Everybody’s got something that’s coming up. [For] each character I have a list of what their irrational interests are, and those pop up from time to time. We’re going to dive into some of those other characters a little bit deeper, and I’m hoping to introduce more characters as we move forward.
You can keep up with Carbon Dating three times at week at the official website, or meet Sanders in person at this year’s DragonCon or any number of conventions in Colorado over the fall.