February 2010

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When I was in graduate school I did a strip called Cow-Boy for the weekly newspaper The Comic Buyers Guide. At that time, in addition to Cow-Boy I was also doing a daily strip for the student newspaper. Six strips a week, much the dismay of my graduate committee. Almost 15 years later, I find it difficult to look at the strips I did for the student newspaper with their blazing insights about dating, classes and expensive bookstores. But, Cow-Boy I can stomach, in large part because I can see myself stretching beyond the completely banal to the somewhat less banal. In addition I can see the slow, inexorable drift towards making comics with science in them.

CB_strip_001_blog

There were a total of 200 Cow-Boy strips and I have decided to start posting them from the beginning with my own commentary on what I was thinking. In our first installment we have Episode #1 which is really Cow-Boy #0. In retrospect, this makes very little sense except to the extent it reflects the convoluted storytelling often found in comics. The none too subtle message here is a lampooning of the cynical marketing of mainstream comics in the 1990s when people would buy comics not for the stories inside but because they came sealed in a bag with a card. You weren’t supposed to open the bag, of course, because doing so would decrease the value of said book. Such was the case with the 3 gazillion polybagged copies of the death of Superman comic. Of course, most people failed to grasp that the collector’s value of a comic comes from its quality and rarity, not because it is pre-wrapped in a comic condom.

Several years later (1997, I think) I released a 72-page Cow-Boy comic that collected seven stories I had done as mini-comics for local comic conventions. The first story, called Escape from Womb World, built off the joke for this first strip. By that time, I had much more invested in the character than I did after the first strip, so the gag in the episode #1 (or episode #0, whatever), which I tossed off without much thought, no longer seemed to fit. By then Cow-Boy had become an avatar for an aspect of my personality and my mommy would not smoke. So, in Escape from Womb World the reader learns that Cow-Boy’s mom isn’t smoking, but is, in fact, a victim of sidestream smoke.
WombWorldCough

On the back cover of Richard Dawkins latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, science writer Matt Ridley describes Dawkin’s latest offering as “a magnificent book of wonderstanding.”

Wonderstanding. What a marvelous word. In the past decade I have tried and failed numerous times to describe what I am trying to do when I make science comics. In an economical 14 letters, wonderstanding perfectly describes the wonder of understanding how the world works.

This is the inaugural essay on the idea of wonderingstanding and how it relates to science comics in general and, occasionally, mine in particular. There are a growing number of excellent comics telling stories about science and scientists and I hope to examine how different creators communicate the wonder of the natural world. In the right hands, the resulting comics can be almost magical.

Let’s start by addressing the idea that knowing how something works removes a little bit of magic from the world. I recently heard a friend buttress this assertion by using the following Mark Twain quote about rainbows:

“We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that the savage has, because we know how it is made. We have lost as much as we gained by prying into that matter.”
- A Tramp Abroad

Twain presents our understanding as a zero sum event. We have gained an understanding of the physics of rainbows but we have lost that “reverent feeling.” The question is, what is the source of the reverent feeling the “savage” feels? The clear implication is that the reverence of the unsophisticated individual is for the unknown and mysterious. So, that blissful, reverent feeling comes from ignorance.

Reverence for the life’s mysteries leaves us mired in superstition. Scientists aren’t reverent of the unknown. They are inspired by it. Curiosity and wonder propel their explorations of the natural world and when they begin to tease apart the subtleties and secrets therein, their inspiration grows. Unlike the staid magical awe of Twain’s savage, science provides an exponential growth in wonder as old mysteries give way to a myriad more. Now, to be fair, the following quote suggests that Twain was of two minds about rainbows:

One can enjoy a rainbow without necessarily forgetting the forces that made it.
- “Queen Victoria’s Jubilee”

So, what are those forces and are they worthy of our awe? Once while driving to a conference in D.C, I was awe-struck by the most spectacular rainbow I had ever seen in my life. It stretched across the entire sky and it’s a good thing that traffic was light that day, because I gawked and craned my neck to see the great big belts of colors hanging in the air. At the time, I didn’t give much thought to how it was formed. But, if I do turn my attention to how rainbows are made, does it diminish my experience? What happens if I imagine light racing from the sun at unimaginable speed and colliding with innumerable droplets of water hanging in the sky? Does the volume on my reverence get turned down a few notches when I picture those small droplets of hovering H2O bending the mighty light and teasing apart all of it’s colorful wavelengths?

In the end, the only real magic in the world is our imagination and the more information your imagination has, the richer your experience will be. Do I feel a pang of loss at knowing how a rainbow is formed?

Nah. For me, it just makes the best rainbow ever even better.