Science is hard. Like, all around. Doing science is hard enough, what with the grant proposals, elimination of all possible biases, brutal peer review process, yadda yadda. But then communicating what you found to people who haven’t studied the ossification process of fish ear bones for 12 years like you have? Or to someone who hasn’t even been alive that long? How are you supposed to do that?
If you’re Saul Griffith and Nick Dragotta, you make comics. Griffith is a bona fide egghead, a material scientist out of MIT and repeat TED Talker with his own laboratory that develops prostheses and clean energy products. You might know Nick Dragotta as the artist of indie comic sensation East of West, or maybe from his work on Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers—okay, pretty much everything you’ve ever heard of.
As it so happens, the two titans of their respective fields go back a long ways, so far back that over 10 years ago they began playing around with comic strips that teach kids to, well, play around and make functional tools out of what they can find in the house. “Howtoons” became a regular feature in Make magazine, and a 360 page collection of the best projects was published by Image Comics last year, a massive offering which includes the popular marshmallow gun and, of course, the safety glasses you’ll need before you start firing it off.
“Anytime I saw a book with instructionals like this, I was all over it,” says former Aquaman writer Jeff Parker of his own childhood. “I was always trying to make things; I was often failing.”
Along with artist Sandy Jarrel, Parker contributed a 24-page story to the first volume of Howtoons, on how to build pieces of playground equipment, including a seesaw, monkey bars and even a zip line. Not content to just recount the instructions provided to him by Ingrid Dragotta, Nick’s toy designer wife, Parker tapped those old kid instincts and built the zip line himself. You know, for accuracy.
“And of course that thing’s still working outside today,” Parker says.
Parker’s story is just that—a story, not merely an Ikea instruction manual. That’s the real genius of Howtoons, in using pictures and taking advantage of our natural desire for narrative to communicate important ideas.
“I think it’s a near perfect marriage of forms,” Parker says.
“I definitely think our brains work narratively,” agrees Fred Van Lente, longtime writer of Marvel’s Incredible Hercules and co-creator of the non-fiction Action Philosophers! comic book series. Taking a slightly different approach to previous stories, Van Lente was tapped by Dragotta to write a full length, five-issue mini-series in the Howtoons universe. [Re]Ignition, published late last year, still focuses on the same brother/sister duo fans are familiar with, but actually follows them on a single adventure through the future and into faraway lands, rather than just in their own backyard.
[Re]Ignition revisits fan favorite creations like the marshmallow shooter and zip line (and yes, the safety glasses!), but it also includes real science, not just homemade engineering projects. The book opens with a description of how global warming works, and what may happen if something isn’t done to stop it. The climax comes when a group of snooty scientists are forced to interact with a tribe of scientifically illiterate savages to save the world, a parable of the importance of science communication if there ever was one.
Beyond pictures and words, Griffith and Dragotta brought a true, hands-on Howtoons experience to a National Science Teacher Association meeting in Chicago this March, hitting up some local middle schools, too, while they were there. Parker considers himself lucky that he sat in on a similar panel at Seattle’s Emerald City Comic Con later that month, one that featured Dragotta, Van Lente and [Re]Ignition‘s artist, Tow Fowler, showing off some projects to the children in the audience.
“It was the most engaging panel you’ve ever seen,” Parker says. “This blows away any TED Talk.”
Van Lente feels fortunate, too, to have been part of something that seems to be spurring a trend.
“It’s a very exciting time to be a comics creator, and a comics creator in the non-fiction field,” Van Lente says, “because there’s such a hunger for it.”