Illustrated Man, #3 – The Stuff of Life

In this occasional series, Illustrated Man, I will explore the intersection of anthropology and comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation, and other manner of popular drawn art.

A cultural anthropologist, I am frequently called upon to teach biological anthropology. This has always been in the context of introductory level courses: human evolution or general anthropology with an evolution component. After stumbling out of the gate, I have become comfortable wearing the evolution and ecology hat. In particular I find pleasure in arranging the topic of human origins as a narrative. You could say that my approach definitely betrays my bias as one more skilled in the humanistic side of anthropology. Yet I am very cognizant of the fact that many students are drawn to courses like Introduction to Anthropology because it qualifies as a science in their distribution requirements, but does not require math or a lab.

I’m not getting saddled with a blow off class. I’m going to hit ’em hard with evolutionary theory and basic genetics. Evolution I can do because I’ve read Darwin, Dawkins, Gould, and Mayr. But structure and function of DNA isn’t exactly my forte. So I need something challenging for my kids, but not out of my league. That’s why I require The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA as supplement to the more usual textbook fare. At just under 150 pages, all illustrated, Stuff can, in an evening or two, easily be digested by anyone who passed high school biology.

There’s also a lot here that will appeal to comic book fans. Author Mark Schultz, writer and illustrator for the venerable Prince Valient strip, brings wit and a snappy pace to otherwise dry material. He did an outstanding interview on NPR Science Friday (which is how I discovered the book) where he talks about the medium of comics and how he approached nonfiction material. Illustrators Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon are award winners, having taken home two Eisners for their art in Alan Moore’s completely awesome super-hero-crime-procedural Top Ten. Their ink brush lines bring a fun, cartoony look making the book a delight to look at without distracting from the lessons at hand. The book’s greatest strength comes from the aide the Cannon’s art provides to visualizing things like cell division and protein synthesis. Right-brained learners rejoice!

Our story concerns an alien race known as the Squintch. These sentient sea cucumber-like creatures are beset by genetic malady that threatens their very existence. You see, the Squintch are asexual reproducers and so reap none of the benefits of recombining their DNA through sex to produce genetic variation. An alien scientist, Bloort 183, is sent to Earth to seek out a cure for the Squintch disease by observing the evolutionary benefits of sexual reproduction. The novel follows Bloort’s presentation to his alien king from the structure of the DNA molecule, to the production of gametes through meiosis, Mendelian principles of inheritance, the practical applications of genetics, and how genetics has contributed to our understanding of human evolution. It sounds pretty silly, but as a framing device the story never really gets in the way of the information.

As anyone who has tried to teach evolution at a state school in the American south can testify, many students begin the semester skeptical of evolution because they perceive it as being in opposition to their religious practices. From the passive resistance of refusing to turn in assignments, to argumentative confrontation, to self-imposed cleavages between public and private life I’ve seen the gamut of student response to the material. Genetics does not carry the same stigma as Darwinian evolution. Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk whose elegant pea plant experiments are in every textbook, makes a fine foil to the demonized Charles Darwin. The Stuff of Life helps me make a more compelling case for evolution by natural selection because genetics is a back door into many of the same conclusions but without all the cultural baggage.

While the first three chapters are all biology, chapters four and five are explicitly useful in an anthropology class as the topic shifts from the role of DNA among all life on Earth, to why genetics is of great consequences for humanity. The Human Genome Project, recombinant DNA technology, gene therapy, GMO crops, and cloning are all touched on in the chapter on applied research. The final chapter on what genetics tells us about the human past makes a fine segue back to the material covered in the regular textbook. Here the book discusses the measurement of mutations on the Y chromosome and in mitochondiral DNA to show that modern humans originated in Africa where genetic diversity is the greatest. As a 2009 publication it covers the relationship between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis, but in a way that is not contridicted by the 2010 sequencing of the Neaderthal genome.

Last semester students in my Introduction to Anthropology class provided me with some written feedback about their impressions of the book, in what way it was (or was not) useful to them, and the connection they saw between it and the rest of the course material. These I edited for brevity to share here on SM.

Students who felt week in science immediately latched onto the book:

Biology, it’s a class that most (if not, all) students take in either high school or college. However, regardless of mandatory exposure, many individuals still leave the classroom barely remembering the information being fed to them. I, myself, was not an exception to this statistic. All I could recall about biology was cutting frogs open and thinking that was cool or swabbing water fountains and finding out that they are disgusting, even much more than a toilet seat in the girls’ bathroom. The graphic novel, “The Stuff of Life” by Mark Schultz, is a book that should be a necessity in a college or high school science classroom along with the standard textbook.

Many identified the illustrations as the strongest character of the work:

The incorporation of illustrations into this book made it that much easier to follow. These images are not typical comic pictures but detailed images that describe exactly the point Shultz is trying to get across. Each picture is focusing more on a specific piece going from a broad perspective and zooming in on a specific one. Visuals like these make it easier for the reader to approach the problems with ease. In my opinion, this book put genetics and DNA into a whole different perspective for me. My major is biology and we are also learning about these exact same principles that were in this book. I have read this book multiple times to help me with my homework. This book is much easier to understand than a text book, while still retaining the same information.

Some students found that the book offered a good chance for review:

The fact that “The Stuff of Life” was a comic book definitely eased the actual read. Genetics can be a dry topic, especially for those not scientifically gifted. The comic book theme did not take away from the solemnity of the book; although the comic relief was also helpful for the few times when I felt like dozing off. The novel, however, is not written on a “young reader” level; I began the book with a fairly deep knowledge of genetics, and had to reread several parts in order to truly grasp what it was saying. I feel that this book would be beneficial for upper level biology courses or even introductory genetic classes; I actually even recommended the book to my molecular biology teacher to use in her future classes.

Students liked the narrative structure:

I also liked that at the beginning of every “section” there was an overview of what would be covered. As well as after each “section” it went back and had a review of the key points with the alien king. This was like a conclusion paragraph at the end of every chapter in a text book. Having the alien king explain it again gave an almost “dumbed-down” version very easy to understand. Having a glossary in the back is also a great asset to the book, because that serves as a great study aid.

Some students gave the book mixed reviews:

Schultz’s introduction to “The Stuff of life” is not very strong. The book jumps around too much for me. In the book, Schultz immediately discusses numerous concepts, facts, and terms at a rapid pace. He does not always allow his reader to grasp the important information being conveyed. However, the book’s illustrations are very precise. They give the reader a visual image of the important concepts. Though if there were fewer illustrations crammed onto a page, then the book would feel less cluttered and perhaps less jumpy. I recommend “The Stuff of Life” to anyone who enjoys science and especially genetics. The illustrations make a very difficult subject more approachable. One will definitely appreciate the book if he or she is in a genetics class.

Other students were even less satisfied:

I feel that the subject matters that are discussed should not be paired up with comic illustrations. For me this made it more confusing for multiple reasons. One, the amount of information crammed into a 150 page book was a bit overwhelming. The second issue I had was that some space was taken up by ineffective comic strips. Most of the comic strips didn’t seem to help me understand the information any better then if I would have read a regular school book, internet article, or magazine. Finally I found that the amount of science jargon was a bit much considering this is a comic book. Yes there is a glossary in the back of the book with some of the words defined, but it is a lot easier to follow along when something is defined as you are reading.

But a few skeptics came around in the end:

When I realized this book was a comic book, it threw me off a little. I honestly wasn’t looking forward to reading it. I am not interested in comics, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. The text is full of information pertaining to all aspects of genetics, but it is full of hidden jokes and puns. Reading this story made me want to learn more about DNA. The fact that it is being narrated by an alien makes it even better. I am glad “The Stuff of Life” was included in the required reading for Anthropology.

The Stuff of Life definitely helps me as a teacher by providing a much needed aide in an area outside my expertise. Last month saw the debut of the sequel, Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth, which I’d be interested in taking a look at if I could get hooked up with a free copy somehow.

Tune in for our next installment, “Illustrated Wimmin,” as I tackle Alison Bechdel’s cult classic, Dykes to Watch Out For.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

4 thoughts on “Illustrated Man, #3 – The Stuff of Life

  1. Nice. Very nice. Here in Japan, the use of comics to explain complex ideas has long been common. I recall, in particular, マンガ日本経済入門 (manga nihon keizai nyumon (1988)), which, as the title proclaims, is a comic-style introduction to Japan’s economy.

  2. I should try to find this. 🙂 I’m a huge fan of these columns. Not having read it (yet!) I haven’t anything particularly intelligent to contribute.

    Tell me, are you considering doing one on Guy Delisle’s Travelogues, such as Pyongyang and Burma Chronicles?

  3. @John – I haven’t read much from that genre, but yes its my understanding that learning through comics is much more mainstream in Japan than it is in the U.S. I’ve only just learned to read right to left! On a side note Project X – Nissan Cup Noodle is a fascinating commodity history. I’ve recommended it to students in my Food and Culture class.

    @Andrew – I’d really like to do some Guy Delisle and Joe Sacco (how can you say no to a comic with a forward by Edward Said?), but it really depends on what I can get through my public library which, honestly, has a stunning range of adult graphic novel titles. I already spent all my Christmas money on Dykes to Watch Out For and Logicomix, which will appear in this collumn next. Well I picked up some Brian K Vaughn and Jamie Hernandez, but I probably can’t spin that for an anthropological audience. I’m almost finished with Will Eisner’s Life in the Big City which collects many of his best known works about NYC – that might get written up. I’d also like to do Aya by Marguerite Abouet which I checked out like 9 weeks ago and haven’t read yet.

    If other have suggestions I’d love to hear them!

  4. Logicomix is fantastic not only in its own right, but in the way it serves as a litmus test/catalyst for debates about its fidelity to Russell’s legacy and the legacy of “mathematical positivism” (much like the debate between the characters in the book, really!). It’s fun to ask philosophers and mathematicians what they thought of the book and watch the intellectual sparks fly.

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