Jay Hosler has two careers that seem very distinct, but he’s managed to combine the two in fascinating and novel ways that speak to his considerable skill as both an educator and a cartoonist. In one career he is an Assistant Professor of Biology at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. He holds a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame. He was an NIH Postdoctoral Fellow at The Ohio State University Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Laboratory and has been published in the “Journal of Comparative Psychology,” “Behavioral Neuroscience” and other journals.
In his other life he’s also an Eisner and Ignatz Award-nominated, Xeric Award-winning cartoonist best known for “Clan Apis,” the incredibly entertaining and scientifically accurate story of a honeybee. He also created the graphic novels “The Sandwalk Adventures” and “Optical Allusions,” the latter funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation.
His newest book is “Evolution,” recently released by Hill & Wang, which is the first book that Hosler has written and not drawn. Technically a sequel to “Stuff of Life,” a book written by Mark Schultz and drawn by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon in 2008, “Evolution” picks up where the other book left off, continuing the story of how life on Earth evolved. CBR News caught up with Hosler at his office in Pennsylvania to talk about his latest venture.
CBR News: How did you get involved in this project?
Jay Hosler: I was on sabbatical and working on the book “Optical Allusions,” which is my third, and that’s the one that was funded by a National Science Foundation Grant that was designed to be a comicbook textbook. He was talking about “Stuff of Life” and they asked me to read a copy for a quote on the back. I actually was given the opportunity to give them some feedback on some things that I’d spotted, things about insects that not many other people would catch but are important to me. When it became clear that they were going to do a sequel and talking about this “Evolution” book, when Mark [Schultz] couldn’t do it, Kevin or Zander suggested me. Given that I’d done two -- “Sandwalk Adventures” and “Optical Allusions” -- books on evolution. When Zander initially mentioned it to me, my first reaction was, "Nah." I didn’t think there’d be enough story. For me, the story component is big. But I was contacted a little later, this is 2008, by Howard [Zimmerman]. I couldn’t dismiss it because it was the Cannons. I have two pieces of comic book artwork hanging on my wall. One is a page from “The Replacement Gods” by Zander. My wife Lisa looked at me and said, "If someone else writes a graphic novel about evolution with the Cannons, and it’s not you, I won’t be able to live with you." She was absolutely right. It was an opportunity I could absolutely not pass up. The opportunity to write a book that would get lots of press with two of my favorite artists on a topic that I love.
The book is structured in the form of lecture. Did this make it easier for you as a teacher?
I decided when I started outlining the book that I was going to outline the way I taught the topic. You don’t get everything that I would normally teach in an evolution course, because there were certain restrictions, but I laid the story out like I tell the story in class. For me, when I’m structuring my lectures or talking about this, that element of story is important. I think that this is something that most faculty do naturally. We create a narrative in order to engage our students. In this particular case, evolution is a story. It lends itself to that as long as numerous different plot lines are running and you want to be careful not to create “heroes” that imply that the vertebrate human is the ultimate “winner” of some sort of contest, but you can still tell stories about making transitions from one environment to the next. You can lightly layer a narrative onto this story and I think that that becomes, for me, essential in engaging students.
It feels odd to speak of it as sequel, even though it technically is. As far as what Mark Schultz and the Cannons did in “Stuff of Life,” what carried over in terms of approach and structure in this book?
The big things were the premise. You have Bloort and the king. That’s the framing sequence. Obviously “Stuff of Life” was this terrific book on genetics, which is really the other half of evolution. When we teach the evolution course here, I team teach it with a colleague named Randy Bennett. He does the population genetics component of it. In terms of this story, the genetics component has already been addressed to a certain degree and I obviously attempted to give the readers in “Evolution” enough genetics that they didn’t have to necessarily read the first book if they don’t want to, though I strongly encourage you to. It’s a terrific book.
Otherwise you worked with the same basic layout and approach?
The first book was sort of a power point presentation to the king and I think that worked really well in large part because you’re dealing with abstract components and elements. You’re working at the molecular level. When you talk about evolution, one of the things that I think makes it really engaging are the weird life forms that exist now and existed in the past. Finding a way to put the characters in that milieu without doing time travel. I have trouble writing a time travel story given how silly time travel is, especially since this is a science book. That’s where I came up with the idea of essentially a glorified holodeck. Bloort is giving the king and the prince the grand tour of this holographic museum so that they could be plopped right in the middle of the Cretaceous surrounded by dinosaurs. They could be under the ocean and looking at an ice fish. I think that there’s something intrinsically engaging about being with the animal. It’s the appeal of a zoo as opposed to looking at an elephant in a book. And so while I can’t put the reader in the Antarctic to see these transparent fish, I can put the characters there to act as a proxy. It’s not the same but it’s an attempt to draw people into it. The whole holographic museum was my attempt at doing that.
This is the first book that you’ve written but not drawn. How was the writing process different for you?
The way I write typically is to write a script with descriptions and dialogue and not a lot of visual explanations, so the first thing I had to start doing was really thinking about visually what I wanted to see. In some places I was very specific and in other places I was not. My goal in not being specific, sometimes, was because Kevin and Zander have these really astonishing imaginations. There was a certain amount of calculation, although you could argue it’s a certain amount of laziness on my part, that I didn’t dictate everything so that they could be unleashed a little bit. Plus they had done “Stuff of Life” and they have a great deal of experience in these explanatory educational comics so I wanted to give them the opportunity to really infuse the book with their selves and their own style.
The other thing that was scary about it though, is that for me, I’ll write a script. Two months ago I thought I was done with the script for this Photosynthesis story. Every single page I rewrite a little bit. I reorganize a little bit. I redraw a little bit. There’s this constant cycling between the writing and the drawing that helps me hone what I want to do with the story and what I want to do with the explanation. Then I’m constantly adding things or taking things out. The way I write and the way I draw made this proposition of saying, you’re going to write everything out first and once it’s approved, that’s going to the artists. We can tweak it a little bit as we go, which obviously we did, but it was much more written in stone than I’m ever used to working. Now, when you’re working with Picasso and Rembrandt, it’s going to work out alright. [Laughs] I can be a dime novelist and work with two great artists like them and things that I might not have considered they’re going to spot. The truth is, this is I think the great strength of Kevin and Zander: They are very well read, very smart, very literate in terms of the science that we’re dealing with here. They spotted mistakes, omissions, and they had just terrific suggestions. So ultimately there was this cycling feedback between the writing and the art, it was just done between three people instead of internally with one.
I remember talking with Mark Schultz after “Stuff of Life” was released and one of the things he said at the time was, “It’s too much to take on when you’re not an expert in that field already.” You are something of an expert in this field. Can you imagine doing this project without your background?
It would have been daunting. I think that Mark’s book is an extraordinary testament to his capacity to learn a subject, distill the subject, and present it in, I think, this remarkable way. I thought about this a lot. If I didn’t teach this course, I think the presentation would have been far more superficial. I’m also fortunate to be in a very different milieu. I’m a neurobiologist and a physiologist by training. Then of course there are a whole host of historians, physicists, geologists from whom I can scurry across campus and ask questions. That’s the great thing about where I’m at. When I have a question about a concept in evolution, the first thing I do is attempt to work through all the books on my shelf and what information I can glean from articles about what makes sense. Then, especially if it’s outside my comfort zone, I can go to my colleagues and do just that. Here are two theories. How do I look at this? What weight do I ascribe to each one? I can run by these folks - what I see as the strengths and weaknesses - and get a sense of whether or not those trained in the field view it the same way. To go through that refining process before I send it off to Howard Zimmerman, who was the editor, gave me a lot more confidence as I’m sending it out the door. Howard was an educator in New York. Very well read. Very literate, just like the Cannons, in terms of basic science. Ultimately I was going to put these ideas in my terms and then Howard can come back to me and say, "You know what, you said this, is it really what you meant?" We spent a lot of time refining explanations and not necessarily fact-checking.
As someone who learned this in school, and forgot a lot of it, I was able to read the book and follow it all even though many of the terms and details were lost or seemed vaguely familiar. Even when I didn’t understand everything, I knew enough that it wasn’t a problem with regards to reading the book.
To me that’s very exciting work. If I can get a student’s paper and if I can get to the point where we’re not worried about specific details, facts and formatting, and now we’re talking about how do we explain the idea so that it’s clear to the reader, but it’s also not deadly dull boring. To me, those are exciting discussions. That was part of the fun in working with Howard. Working through ideas and ways we can approach it. If I take Path A and explain it this way, what are the consequences? This is the other thing about writing a book about evolution. There’s more than just laying out the science. There is this eight hundred pound gorilla in the room which is the creationist debate and the idea that if I say it this way, that could imply X and if I imply X, do I give fuel to people who are evolution-denialists. You want it to be accurate, but of course whenever you’re distilling something down into a format like this where you’re removing a fair bit of content, you’re trying to be as incisive as possible. Whenever you’re scaling back, you open up the potential for misinterpretation. This is always lingering in the back of your head.
Then of course you have moments where you go into great, very specific details, the structure of our feet for example. What’s the challenge in finding those moments?
You can’t go into a lot of details about everything, you’re right. You have to find those moments in which you say, okay, here’s this phenomenon and here is some detail about that. The thinking behind that - and it’s the same that goes into the teaching of any class - is that I’m going to present this detail to you and you should understand that the specifics, the anatomical changes in the foot and what eventually that triggered in terms of the anatomy of all hominids, that’s obviously specific to that line. However, we can generalize. You should always remember that you should think you can generalize these phenomena. The phenomena that led to these changes were the result of the interaction between the genome and the environment. So when I see these changes here, I have this nice specific example. Well, I have millions of species. They must be experiencing similar pressures, changes, types of things going on. In terms of picking which ones to focus on, I think it comes down, frankly, to the ones that I think are cool. [Laughs]
I think that we scientists have to be able to say, "The reason I focus on this, the reason I study this, is because it’s really cool." Being really cool is a great thing when you’re trying to explain something to people who are a lot of times less enthusiastic about science, or convinced that they can’t understand it. There’s a big push now for scientists to start sharing that enthusiasm. We’re very good at explaining and sharing our results, but there’s this long culture of trying to be objective, removing ourselves from the work, that makes it look like we’re a bunch of robots. In fact, when you argue science with scientists, this is when you get them at their most passionate, at their most human. You don’t sit in a lab, as I did as a postdoc, and stare at honeybees sticking their tongues out at you for hours if you’re not crazy, wild excited about what you’re doing. The examples I picked are those that make butterflies flutter in my stomach and that make this expansive sense of wonder in my chest well up. If I’m feeling that about this particular example, it’s the one I’m going to use. My challenge is to write it in such a way that it can excite others in a similar fashion.
I can’t help but feel that the problem with creationism is that for scientists, it’s about process. Where is the evidence and process wrong? Creationism is an attack on the end result, not the process or evidence, and refuses to acknowledge the evidence or process, so everyone ends up talking past each other.
I think that’s absolutely spot on. When you look at creationist arguments there’s this strange dual aspect. On the one hand, essentially the vilification of science, or evolution. We’re all baby-eating atheists who want to tear apart society and usher in a new era of I don’t know what. We’re all hoping Cthulhu will rise or something and that science can’t explain everything. But there are also approaches like intelligent design where the attempt is to look as much like science as possible because they understand that’s what people really trust. If I’m going to get on a plane, I want to know that an engineer, mechanics and those that know how aerodynamics work, have worked on and designed this plane. That’s going to give me confidence. It is not going to give me confidence to know that some sort of laying on of hands has been done on this aircraft. That’s not going to give me confidence. It wouldn’t give anybody confidence.
So as your dealing with this conversation you’ve got a two-headed beast that you’re dealing with. There are, for scientists, a number of different approaches. One is to just ignore it completely and there’s the spectrum of engagement between ignore completely and engage fully. With this book, my goal was to say, "That’s not an explanation." The seven day creationist idea is not something that fits into the scientific framework. What we’re going to do is look at the evidence for this particular theory. It’s the way I teach my class. I know that I’ve had, in my class, students who were creationists who moved through the course unmoved. I guess that’s the other thing in the back of my head. I’m not going to change creationists’ minds. I want to clearly lay out the facts for those who are interested and open to the idea. For those who are already accepting the idea, give them a piece of work that gives them new examples and maybe just gives them an opportunity to revisit exciting ideas explained in a different way.
The book has been embraced by many outlets and received good reviews. “Scientific American” ran an excerpt. Is it a relief to see it out there and be recognized?
I’m the classic neurotic cartoonist. I’ll labor for months, years. I have a book on beetles that I’ve been working on for years and you become convinced that this project you’re working on is absolutely stunning. Until it’s out of your hands and then you’re like, "Oh dear god, what have I done? [Laughs] Everyone’s going to hate it." Then you look through it and go, "If I’d used 'a' instead of 'the' here it would have made a huge difference." [Laughs] The truth is, for the last two months I have had this increasingly growing knot in my stomach because you’re worried about two things in doing something like this. You’re worried that people are going to pick it up and say, “Well, it could have been fascinating, but it’s boring as hell. [Laughs] I’m not a scientist and I’ll tell you right now, I never will be because I read this book and it made my eyes bleed.” You’ve got that fear.
Then you’ve got the fear that I have, is that my colleagues are going to pick it up and go "Wow, he really watered this down and missed the mark." So for me, the integrity of the science and the quality of the story are two vitally important components that are intertwined. I’m not just worried about one of them. I’m worried about both. So certain people will say, "I really enjoyed it, it was a lot of fun," but they’re not experts, so you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. A scientist to say, "Sure, it’s fun because it’s all crap." [Laughs] Or a scientist says, "This is authoritative, it’s brilliant, every detail is exactly right, but boy is it boring." So you have these two constituencies, at least in my head, that you want to please, that I feel are essential to please in order for this type of book to work. Because if it’s not authoritative, if it’s not reliable, then why bother? And if it’s not fun, if people are not going to want to read it, again, why bother? So as the release date approaches I’m getting knots in my stomach because of not one but two constituencies. I keep saying “I,” but the truth is, it’s very much a “we.” Me, Howard Zimmerman, Kevin and Zander Cannon. This book to me is the true nature of comics, a great collaborative effort. So when I say “I,” I really mean “we.” As these reviews have come out, I’m glad that it looks like we have successfully merged those concerns between story and content.
There’s a great two page spread of dinosaurs. Was that you? Was it the Cannons?
I get to claim me on that one. I grew up as a dinosaur lover and I wanted to be a paleontologist for the longest time until I found out that you had to be outside in the hot sun and that didn’t really appeal to me at all. [Laughs] So I’m a huge dinosaur fan. I still have all my dinosaur books. My two sons show virtually no interest whatsoever, which is heartbreaking, but that’s all right because I had this opportunity as we were writing about the Cretaceous. When I got to that point, I can’t remember if I wrote something specifically, I know I said I want a two page spread. I said, "The Cannons should just go crazy. Dinosaur goodness". That is the direction I gave them for the two page spread and I think they delivered.
What else are you working on right now? You mentioned a photosynthesis story that you’ve been posting to your blog one page a time, then “Optical Allusions.”
“Optical Allusions” came out in 2008 and that features Wrinkles the Wonderbrain on a series of eye-related adventures. It was designed for a sensory biology class that I teach. This is a non-majors class so this is a class that students take to get their natural science requirement. The approach is at the 100 level. It’s meant to deal with kids who are not science majors and so I use this textbook when I talk about vision. The way the book is structured is the premise is Wrinkles the Wonderbrain is the lab technician for the three Graiae sisters, the ones who pass the eye around in the Perseus legend. His job is to shuttle the eye through the lab and he trips and drops the eye into a vat of distilled human imagination that they’re of course mixing with a big wooden stick, as witches do. So he has to dive in and go after it and has a series of eye-related adventures about eight pages long each and each story introduces a concept like eye anatomy or light absorption. Each story ends with a cliffhanger, and in between each chapter is a little text that I wrote that takes the ideas from the story and goes into greater depth.
A colleague of mine at Bucknell and I have a paper in which we’ve used [“Optical Allusions”] in several different classrooms and we have assessed how this affected the attitudes that non-majors had about biology. The big result that we’ve seen is that everybody learned, which is good, so if you measure what they know about vision and evolution before and after, you see that they picked up information from the book. That’s good because you want to demonstrate that the comic didn’t make them dumber. I say that tongue in cheek, but in American society, comics have this stigma. Do I need to tell you that? Probably not.
So it is important if you’re trying to convince other educators that when you put this comic book in front of kids, they don’t turn into slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers. What was really exciting was when we compared students in the biology classes, biology majors, to these kids in the sensory biology class. The kids in sensory biology started out with a very low opinion of biology. They came in, essentially, [with the idea that] "we don’t want to be here." After using the book, they had this significantly improved opinion of biology and that improved opinion correlates with a change in their opinion about comics. After using the book, their opinions of biology and comics have gone up.
To me, that’s more important than the content. I should be able to put a packet of facts in front of kids and they’ll know a little bit more after reading the packet than before. The whole point is, can I make you interested in this? Can I excite you? Can I engage you? Can I make you feel like this isn’t so horrible? Because if I can do that, maybe I can make you read a little bit more about it. I can maybe make you think, I can read the article from Scientific American. Part of this is convincing people who don’t feel like they have a natural proclivity for science. Science is accessible. It is logical. It is intrinsically exciting. Our results are currently in review. We’ve submitted the revised paper and it’s going through the second round with the editors at a journal and I’m hoping will be out sometime early this year.
Is a 100-level non-science major course the level you wrote “Evolution” on, and do you try to write a lot of your work on that same level?
Absolutely. The truth is my approach to writing all my books is to write a Looney Tunes cartoon. When my dad and I would watch Looney Tunes cartoons when I was growing up, and when I’m watching them with my kids, if you take things like “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!” - the scenes where Daffy is getting his duckbill blown and spinning around his head - when I was a little kid, that was the funniest thing in the world. But for my dad, it was the wordplay. That’s the stuff that my dad loved and so you’ve got multiple generations watching the same cartoon enjoying it often for different reasons. When I approach a comic, what I always feel like I have to do is find a way to give something to the kids, give something to the adults and make it fun for everyone at the same time. As anyone who has read my books knows, I’m not above pimple and fart humor, because frankly, we all have pimples and we all pass gas. I don’t think you should ever hit an age where you’re just too damn proper to talk about it. And it should be funny at all times. [Laughs]
The other thing that always guided me was a conversation I had with Gib Bickel. Gib was one of the owners at the Laughing Ogre with Daryn Guarino. Daryn’s my publishing partner at Active Synapse. When I was preparing to do “Clan Apis,” my big magnum opus about honeybees, I was concerned about, if I put in this science and use this term, am I going to gain the parents at the expense of the kids. Gib said, "Look, kids aren’t going to get everything. You just have to give them enough so that they can get to the next page." You don’t have to write every single thing so that kids will understand every single thing any more than an adult would understand everything reading a textbook on the first pass. But if there’s some silliness. If there’s someone getting bonged on the head by a piece of wax thrown by another bee. If there’s a big silly grin on the face of a larvae. If there’s something there that can propel the kids to the next panel, then they’re going to skip over the stuff that they don’t get the first time and maybe they’ll read it a second time and it’ll make sense.
I think this is the great strength from a storytelling standpoint in general or from a teaching standpoint in sequential art. You can see all the panels on a page. If you’re at panel two and it just doesn’t make sense, but holy crap, on panel three there’s something funny happening, you just skip down to panel three. If you’re reading a textbook and paragraph two is completely incomprehensible but paragraph three is the funniest thing written in the 21st Century, there’s no way for you to know that. You hit that paragraph and it’s incomprehensible and you stop. Whereas with the visual component of comics, you can skip ahead and say, "Gosh, why did the character do that silly thing that’s happening down at the bottom of the page?" Gib’s comment is really stuck in the back of my head as I go through and it helps prevent me from dialing back too much on the science.
The other thing is, now that I have two kids, we don’t give kids enough credit. They’re pretty smart. What they don’t know, they absorb really quickly. All of that gets mixed into composing anything that I write. And that, by the way, is the first time I’ve articulated that idea. I’ve always thought of it, but never verbalized it and it makes a lot of sense to me.