Chemical Heritage Foundation

The people of the Chemical Heritage Foundation are stewards of the objects, ideas and stories that chronicle humanity's drive to understand the material world through experimentation. If you connect to our passion for sharing this legacy, we hope you'll add your perspective to the content here and pass it along to your online communities.

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    Let It Linger: On the Emotional Effect of Comics

    By David Haldeman

    I was standing in the middle of Fantagraphics Books, the sole retail outlet of the legendary indie comic book publisher. Housed in an old brick building in a slowly gentrifying industrial district in South Seattle, the space is part gallery, part bookstore, and part record store, and I was there for catharsis.

    Fantagraphics is responsible for the rise of Daniel Clowes, the comic artist whose Eightball series (in which the Ghost World comics were serialized) may well be responsible for propelling independent comics to a mass audience and artistic legitimacy. It was March 2008, and I was there to sift through the works of Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, and other independent comic artists because I was in a terrible mood.

    I’ve discovered that the graphic novels of these artists express loneliness like no other work that I’ve experienced, providing a badly needed sense of being understood even when feeling isolated. But while their characters are often outcasts (from family, from relationships, and from the culture at large—and more often than not, all three), the characterizations alone don’t provide an explanation for why the feeling is so effective. There is something in the art form itself that, when combined with the right kind of talent, allows loneliness to be channeled with unusual force. In fact loneliness is a theme that has been explored with fervor in indie graphic novels, particularly in the past two decades. The medium seems oddly conducive to it.

    Why is this? Maybe it has to do with comics being the only visual storytelling medium that isn’t captive to time. Movies and television demand a certain rhythm, grabbing you by the neck and leading you from scene to scene. Want to linger on a shot? Sorry, on to the next one. Want to hear that dialogue again? Go tell it to the projectionist. The result is an inherent busyness, a need to fill the eyes and ears and keep on a schedule.

    In contrast, comics give the feeling of immersion and immediacy of narrative visual art, yet give readers the freedom to linger. That freedom is exhilarating: you can re-examine dialog, savor visuals, and just generally move at your own pace. Perhaps this allows greater creativity when portraying the silences and awkwardness in the lives of the lonely figures in Tomine, Clowes, and Ware’s books. In Chris Ware’s portrayal of a lonely middle-aged man, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, pages and pages are devoid of dialog, and actions like wiping food off a break-room table are stretched out across multiple panels. The medium allows a more detailed look at a lonely life where we feel the weight of everyday actions and the icy silence inherent throughout most of it. There’s no soundtrack necessary to fill the awkwardness and tell you how to feel, no editing rhythm to maintain.

    Of course, the freedom to linger has benefits beyond the graphic novels portraying outcasts in the 1990s and 2000s. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity, a graphic novel about the making of the atomic bomb uses this freedom to explain not only in a narrative format the story itself, but also more detailed science behind the bomb via multiple two-page spreads. Science of this depth might fly by a film or TV show viewer. Using comics to educate is nothing new, but acceptance of the medium’s legitimacy is still not what it should be (perhaps 2012’s unlikely bestselling graphic novel, Health Care Reform: What It Is, Why It’s Necessary, How It Works will help change minds). Through comics, a subject matter can be explored at one’s own speed and encourage greater comprehension.

    Six years ago, in the middle of Fantagraphics, I was looking for relief from the melancholy monologue that filled my mind. I picked up a copy of Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings. I read a few pages and looked up for a moment. I noticed the store was mostly empty. I noticed a song from The Boomtown Rats playing on a scratchy record. I noticed the layout of the store. I noticed the dilapidated brewery across the street. And I noticed it was gray outside. It felt good to linger.

    Telling (True) Tales

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    By Michal Meyer

    Editor, Chemical Heritage Magazine

    I haven’t read comics since I was 10. I tried a few graphic novels—Maus was the most memorable, but even it did not make much impression. I came to the conclusion that I must be so word obsessed that images added nothing to a story, even a non-fiction story such as Maus.

    History tells a different story. There was a time when comics had a different kind of superhero, the doctor or scientist who overcame enormous odds to make the breakthrough discovery or find a cure. In “Stories of the Great Chemists,” Bert Hansen and Boaz N. Adler tell how science-themed comics influenced a generation of children in the 1950s and 1960s. The trials and tribulations of scientific heroes—such as Lavoisier, Pasteur, Curie—and their road to eventual success inspired some of the children to pursue science as adults.

    For science to appear in comics it must be part of the public culture. “Graphic Knowledge” charts how newspapers, magazines, and comics brought science into popular culture. This story begins with four New Jersey boys bitten by a possibly rabid dog in 1885. The media turned what was a local story into a national one by following the boys on their trip to Paris, their receiving the new Pasteur vaccine, and their triumphant return to the Unites States. 

    Before knowledge must come the desire for knowledge. What drove me to study science at university was not theories or facts but true stories about scientists on a quest for knowledge. The quest is an old storytelling form, one still going strong. Most of the Indiana Jones movies follow the format in which the hero (less often a heroine) goes on a journey of discovery (this can take place in a lab), faces opposition (other scientists, badly-behaved equipment, dead ends), and finally triumphs (a cure is found, new fields of knowledge open up).

    The quest for knowledge can make compelling reading. Richard Holmes talks about the adventures of some early balloonists in his new book, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. Science as entertainment or entertainment as part of science also has a history.

    But when it comes to heroes we now live in a more skeptical age. We don’t quite trust heroes. Enter a new age of graphic novels and graphic nonfiction. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s recent Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb changed my mind about the marriage of word and image. Each builds on the strengths of the other—drawings heighten the emotional power of the text while visual metaphors enlighten scientific explanations. 

    Trinity is not a simple of story of heroes overcoming obstacles on their way to ultimate success. There are too many dead bodies for that. It is historical nonfiction driven by powerful visual and literary storytelling instincts.

    How to make science engaging to kids and even adults is a perennial question. Telling stories has always been one answer. I don’t know if Trinity will inspire anyone to go on to study science, but it might well inspire them to look more deeply into the history of science. It’s a start.

    Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Bert Hansen will be telling true stories at CHF on January 22, and you are invited to watch via webcast. “Drawing History: Telling the Stories of Science through Comics and Graphic Novels” will air at 6:30 p.m. EST. Watch it live at chemheritage.org/histchem.

    Getting art students interested in science: Q&A with animation professor John Serptentelli:

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    In 2012 CHF began a collaboration with John Serpentelli’s Commercial Animation class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts to create videos that illustrate concepts in chemistry. This year the class created two videos based on objects from CHF’s collection. Half of the students made a humorous animation of the 17th-century painting Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist. The other half brought to life the 1887 book Real Fairy Folks: Explorations in the World of Atoms, a children’s story where the imaginary lives of fairies describe chemical processes. As production wrapped on the 2013 crop of videos we spoke with John Serptentelli about the experience for him and his students.

    Q: As an artist teaching at an art university, did you have any initial concerns about getting your students interested in chemistry?

    A: Yes. They’re used to more of a fantasy world, so their reactions were, “How are we going to do this?” Because in animation the only real science we normally deal with are optical illusions.

    Q: So how did you draw them in?

    A: I think they trusted me—as an animator—that we could make the videos work and make them interesting.

    Q: How did you come up with topics for the animations? How did you approach them to make them engaging?

    A: My initial concern was how we could make science entertaining. Last year I suggested we approach the videos with a first person, “how science affects me” sort of narrative. I thought this could be an entry point to anyone watching. We got last year’s video ideas from personal stories. The first one told the story of a friend who suffered a bad hair day from soft water she encountered while traveling. So we used that anecdote as a way to talk about the chemistry of water. The same was true for a story that CHF’s Bob Kenworthy [science consultant for the project] told the class about getting sunburned in the days before effective sunblock.

    Q: How did you approach the project differently this year?

    A: This year Jeff Guin [manager of new media at CHF and executive producer of the project] was determined to animate one of CHF’s paintings, so we settled on Interior of a Laboratory with an Alchemist. After that I walked around CHF’s museum to see what struck me. First I saw the display about magenta and I thought the idea of a color not existing at one point was fascinating. Then of course the Great Stink was a contender. Guys never get over fart jokes. But then Michal suggested Real Fairy Folks andI was really drawn to it. I’ve always liked old books and illustrations from artists’ points of view. The books themselves used art to make science more approachable—which is what we were trying to do with these animated videos. It was such a natural link that even the Great Stink had to go away.

    Q: Were there any surprises this year?

    A: The big surprise was that we thought the alchemy painting would take much longer than the fairy book, because it was a new style of animation for the students, but the reverse happened.

    Q: Why do you think that was?

    A: The alchemy video took a painting and animated it, so the students didn’t make any original drawings. Also, a lot of them were already familiar with Photoshop and After Effects, the programs we used. The fairy video became more complex because the students had to use a drawing style that was similar to the time period from the book. So there were stylistic constraints.

    Q: It seems like the style of animation in the fairy video is a bit similar to the styles of fantasy animation your students like.

    A: Yes, and I think they got into it, you know—one-armed fairies, fairies getting crushed.

    Q: Any other takeaways?

    A: It was good to see them rise to the occasion. It wasn’t just an assignment but a project bigger than themselves.

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