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.