Scientists and (particularly) skeptics tend to get a bad rap in entertainment media. They’re almost always antagonists who get in the hero’s way as they try to get things done.
In the real world, it’s the careful passion of scientists that’s built our modern lives and taught us pretty much everything we know about the universe. How in the world do you go about showing that in a comic book?
That’s the challenge Miles Greb took up when he started his series, After the Gold Rush. With the fully-funded Kickstarter campaign for issue #3 set to end on August 4, AiPT! presents an exclusive “director’s commentary” from Greb on After the Gold Rush #1, to figure out how he made it work, when the last scientist, Scout, returns from Titan to her ancestral home of Earth.
AiPT!: This page will ring some bells for old time science and skepticism enthusiasts. Tell us a little bit about Carl Sagan’s impact on you and how that relates to what you want to do with After the Gold Rush.
Greb: I grew up very religious, but after what adds up to a long story involving the Loch Ness monster, I grew out of it. One of the first people that was “there for me” as I transitioned to a more rational worldview was Carl Sagan. The enthusiasm and eloquence he brought to science communication is so well known, I won’t belabor the point, but as you can tell, it had a lasting effect on me.
I re-read his gentle guide into the world of skepticism – The Demon Haunted World – about three years back. Shortly after, I attended the big comic convention up here in Seattle, Emerald City Comicon. I looked around and thought, “There are no comics like Demon Haunted World. There are no books that talk about skepticism as an illuminating force instead of destructive one.” There were none that dealt with the reality of our place in the universe without pulling from the well of cynicism. Of course there were many that cared about, and used, technology and science, but to my estimations, there were none that cared enough to get their information peer-reviewed.
So I am trying to change that.
AiPT!: In these two panels (the second being probably my favorite in the whole issue), I see Scout displaying maybe the two most important qualities of a scientist — curiosity and rigor. Is that what you were going for? What’s Scout’s mindset like when she first arrives on Earth?
Greb: We see here Scout has returned to her ancestral home of Earth. Of course she evolved to fit into it, but that doesn’t change that this is a very alien experience for her. She lives under an orange sky, not a blue one. So I wanted to show her awe at looking at this new world – but also that she’s a good scientist. She isn’t going to just yank her helmet off. If you have seen the movie Prometheus, there is a scene where the “scientists” are convinced in about two seconds the atmosphere is safe. I designed this scene to be the opposition to that total bullshit.
AiPT!: And here we see a personality trait that many don’t immediately associate with scientists — awe and appreciation for beauty. Is that something you’d like more people to understand?
Greb: Do many not associate “awe” with scientists? That’s a shame. Of course if you are working hard on one project for five years, tedium can set in. But what starts a project that lasts half a decade? There was some profound question that inspired all that labor. Sometimes it’s just, “I wonder how this got this way?” or, “Why do humans do this?” or even, “How can we actually know that what we are doing is working?” Those simple questions can be awe-inducing because the answers can defy our intuitions.
Storytelling is a kind of meta-physics. There are rules the writer and the reader know. Yes, sometimes they are bent and modified, but almost always keeping with our intuitions. The universe has no such contract with us. It can settle on any state for a near infinite amount of causes. Some we might understand, and some we can hardly describe even with math. Yet no one says they don’t associate storytelling with awe. Maybe scientists need better PR?
AiPT!: After the Gold Rush #1 is not very text-heavy, giving the words that are there extra meaning. These are references that might not jump out at all readers — were you hoping they’d feel some of that scientific curiosity and look them up?
Greb: Exactly. This was a way to hammer hard on the idea that ATGR is our future. It is set in this universe. Also, Scout grew up in a culture whose heroes are not sports stars or comic-writers, but scientists! So I figured it would make sense if some figures of speech and explanations were based on that. But yes, if you see a historical science reference in the book you don’t know about, be sure to check out their Wikipedia page. I will often have a profile of the scientist we mention in the back of the book, but we only do one an issue.
Also, to your point about it not being too text heavy — I wanted the start of the story to have a bit more surreal feeling. I figured the quiet would add to that. [Artist] Isaac [La Russa] can tell my story without me butting in with words; he is very good.
AiPT!: What’s going on here?
Greb: I love that page. I think it’s my favorite. So Scout is a biologist who has spent the lion’s share of her life trying to make little seedlings grow on Titan. She bioengineers them over and over to get the margins right, testing and waiting to try to get them to grow even a few inches before they are snuffed out. And now this scientist comes upon a giant oak tree, that started to grew even before she was placed in cyrosleep. A giant example of the power of life – that would be some experience, no? Her comment is in reference to the cradle of life that Earth is, in contrast to the uncaring and cold world of her birthplace.
Don’t go yet; check out the commentary for issue #2!