'Stuff Of Life' A Comic Take On Genetics BANG! POW! PHOSPHORYLATION! The Stuff of Life is a new genetic biology primer with a twist — it takes the form of a graphic novel. Author Mark Schultz explains how he turned everything from cytokinesis to parthenogenesis into comics.
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'Stuff Of Life' A Comic Take On Genetics

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'Stuff Of Life' A Comic Take On Genetics

'Stuff Of Life' A Comic Take On Genetics

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This is Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. Lots to talk about this hour. A little bit later, we'll take a look at the weather forecast for a distant planet with swings of 700 degrees. We'll talk about greener cars and we'll find out about the world's biggest library of mud. But first, finding a fun way to explain something complicated like genetics. You know, it's always been a challenge to explain genetics to non-science folks. You got your DNA, your RNA, all those enzymes, all kinds of stuff going on. What's the best way to do that? How about a comic book? My next guest and two illustrators took on the task producing a new book called "The Stuff of Life," a graphic guide to genetics and DNA. Joining me now to talk about the project is the book's text author, Mark Schultz, and if that name is familiar to you, that's because he is also the current writer of the long running "Prince Valiant" series. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARK SCHULTZ (Author, "The Stuff of Life"): Hi, Ira. Thanks for having me on.

FLATOW: We should also say that the book is illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. They'd be the Cannon Brothers.

Mr. SCHULTZ: No, actually...

FLATOW: Father and son.

Mr. SCHULTZ: Ironically enough, they're not related.

FLATOW: (Laughing) Is that right? That is ironic, is it not?

Mr. SCHULTZ: In this case, especially.

FLATOW: Tell us about - it's a terrific book, it's a giant comic book with great illustrations. What made you decide to do something like this?

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, I've had a long-time interest in the sciences. I've - primarily I'm a fiction writer in the comic book realm. I was given the opportunity by the editor of the book, Howard Zimmerman and the publisher, Thomas Ludein(ph). We're looking for someone who had that particular interest in the sciences as well as the experience as a writer as well as an illustrator of writing for comics, someone who could put together descriptions and images for the illustrators that would work best...

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Mr. SCHULTZ: As opposed to a writer who didn't have the experience of working with visuals.

FLATOW: So, is your book aimed at youngsters? Because I think it's great for adults too.

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, we tried not to put any restrictions on who we might reach with the book. We wanted it to be absolutely understandable to a high schooler, but we like to think of it as a - it's a book that will reach out to anyone who might have been intimidated by the complexities and the density of the subject matter.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Mark Schultz, the author of "The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA." And it's a comic book with rich drawings, blank and white pen and ink drawings in it. Well, tell me about the timing. Was it just the right timing in your life to write a book like this or would - did it have anything to do with the changes we're going through now?

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, it has to do with changes absolutely, both in the publishing industry, which is opening up and becoming more positively oriented to communicating information, both fiction and nonfiction using the comics medium, as well as I think changes in our society, challenges we're facing as far as scientific development and trying to reach out to get more people to understand science, in general, and in particular specific subjects like genetics which are going to have an increasingly - playing an increasingly large role in all our lives.

FLATOW: The series on the books, the well-illustrated books on things work, were they influential on the drawings at all or the text or the narration?

Mr. SCHULTZ: No, I don't think specifically. I mean, we're - both I Kevin and Zander are aware of those books, but there were other text - other - we should say other visual points of previous stories that I would get had a much larger impact on us.

FLATOW: What offered - were the biggest hurdles, the biggest problems you had in tackling some of the material?

Mr. SCHULTZ: A lot of the material, when you're talking about genetics on a molecular level especially, a molecular and a cellular level, the mechanics of how actually genetics work as an agent for the development and change of organisms, you're dealing with some pretty relatively abstract concepts. And we had to find ways in making those concepts visually stimulating, visually interesting, something that the reader could look at and grasp what we were trying to convey.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. So, it was very collaborative with the illustrators there.

Mr. SCHULTZ: Oh, absolutely. And it is a very collaborative medium. It was real fun working with Zander and Kevin, and we would bounce ideas off each other before committing them to paper. And that way, you know, you get a kind of consensus of what's going to work. People learn things differently. People respond to images differently and if you can get a number of people who will agree on what's working and what isn't, I think, you know, the end product, the result has improved because of that.

FLATOW: Have any schools assigned your book as required reading?

Mr. SCHULTZ: Not that I'm aware of yet.

FLATOW: They will. (Laughing)

Mr. SCHULTZ: We can only hope.

FLATOW: You can only hope.

FLATOW: It's a great - it's really - I mean, I love reading these kinds of books because I got to re-read the stuff over and over again. And the fact that you can see the concept as well as listen, you know, what those little textual items and that people speaking to each other, I think visually, it helps a lot.

Mr. SCHULTZ: A lot of people learn visually. And my hunch is that how you respond to this medium, comics as a learning tool, has a lot to do with whether or not you learn visually. I think and also a lot of people do learn that way, and my hunch is that will be the people that do learn that way will respond the strongest, the most positively to this type of a format.

FLATOW: Can you tackle other sciences, physics, astronomy? What do you think about that?

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, that's what we were hoping. Hill and Wang, the publisher is looking to do another volume following this one on evolution. And if all goes well, I'm hoping for a series of these books.

FLATOW: How long does it take to turn these books out?

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, this took us I - oh, I think a bit over a year.

FLATOW: That's not long at all.

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, it seemed - I guess not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHULTZ: I was…

FLATOW: Not to you, unless felt much longer, right?

Mr. SCHULTZ: Right. It was a steep learning curve for all of us, having to bone up on genetics and DNA. None of us come from a hard science background. We don't have that academic training. We were all very, very dedicated to being rigorous about this, getting it right. So...


Mr. SCHULTZ: We did a lot of learning on our own, a lot of cross checking and a lot of referring to people that do have that kind of background. But that was a long process. There was a lot of a…

FLATOW: Mm hmm.

Mr. SCHULTZ: There was a lot of learning in the - behind all the - a much longer process of learning, I think, to the actual execution of the book.

FLATOW: Mm hmm. Let's see if we can get a quick call in from Barbara in Rochester, New York. Hi, Barbara.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi, there. I'm enjoying the show as always. I just wanted to say to the gentleman that his points about, you know, rigorous and learning and the uphill climb doing this, it matches entirely the originator of "Prince Valiant" which was Hal Foster. And my dad worked with Hal Foster doing the original "Prince Valiant," et cetera, as an illustrator. And one of the things about Foster that was so fascinating was that he had a million filing cabinets with lots and lots of reference information. And he was so interested as you are in being accurate about, you know, how this snow shoes were made out of, you know, reindeer gut and whatever, you know, I mean.

FLATOW: Right.

BARBARA: It was just - as a kid growing up and watching all of this, my dad worked for a lot of artists and he did the de-inking both Bigfoot and serious...

FLATOW: Barbara, let me get a reaction because we're running out of time. Thanks for calling.


Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, Hal Foster certainly was one of the - oh my gosh, he's - it's hard to imagine more than a handful of people in the comics medium there is more importance than he did. He kind of defined the adventure strip starting back, who in "Tarzan" even before "Prince Valiant" in 1929, we all stand in his large foot falls. But yeah, yeah, he was not only a great storyteller, he knew how to ground his stories in enough reality that the reader could accept what was happening when he would get to the more fantastic elements. And that's an important feature for storytelling of any type I think and does translate, I think, and what we try to do in "The Stuff of Life" in putting a narrative framework around the story to kind of draw the reader in and using that fictional framework to actually teach hard science to the reader.

FLATOW: Did you have once team of scientists who you want to run the things by?

Mr. SCHULTZ: We had a vetter, that was on the - that was retained by the editor to go through it. Other than that, I referred to a number of personal acquaintances and friends who are in the sciences to assist me.

FLATOW: Well, it's really an excellent book and I imagine it's - I would recommend it to anybody who wants a great book, not just for illustration purposes but it's easy to read and understand genetics and DNA in there.

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, that means a lot to us because it's an experiment. It's - we're trying to do something that doesn't have a great deal of history, at least in the mainstream press, doesn't have a very great deal of history. And we're all feeling our way and trying to figure out what works best, what's going to reach the largest number of readers.

FLATOW: Have you got any reactions so far?

Mr. SCHULTZ: The reaction so far has been through individuals who've been sent advance copies, and knock on wood, it's all been positive. I'm still waiting to get responses from, you know, the common Joe out there on the street who doesn't have necessarily a background or a specific interest in genetics and finding out if there's enough in this book to pull them in, to intrigue them.

FLATOW: Do you have a Web site for the book?

Mr. SCHULTZ: Yes. Actually, I encourage people to go check out Thestuffoflifebook.com and there's a really cool little animated video promotion there for the book.

FLATOW: Well, may be we could find some money to have you do illustrations for our Web site for Science Friday.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHULTZ: Well, right now I'm just in my writer's capacity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHULTZ: I'd be happy to refer you there to the illustrators there. They're good.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us, Mark, and good luck with your book.

Mr. SCHULTZ: Oh, thanks, Ira. I appreciate it.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Mark Schultz, the author of "The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA," and it really is a really fun and - we'll put fun and educational together - comic book, so I think you'll enjoy it. We're going to take a break and come back once more about cars. Why wait until 2011 to get more car efficiency? We've got folks right now who'll tell you how to do it. Stay with us, we'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday on NPR News.

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