01/05/2011 06:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Evolution an Alien Subject? Not to Bloort 183

I think that's what I'm trying to do," he says. "I think Darwin's life is a great story. So why not tell it as a great story?

NPR Interview with Jay Hosler, Feb. 14, 2005

Amidst the media storms about teaching evolution in the classroom, I wonder whether anyone considered using comics? It is such a simple, elegant idea. Comics can draw students into the subject, using humor and whimsy, in a way that is simply not possible using a textbook. Plus there's nothing like humor to throw water on a fierce debate between a self-righteous religious zealot and a town's school board.

So today I share with you something very special: a personal interview with the author of Evolution - The Story of Life on Earth {to be released today!}, Jay Hosler.

This comic book is beautifully illustrated by Kevin and Zander Cannon.

First, here's a brief review by the National Center for Science Education:

In the book, the intrepid scientist Bloort 183 is explaining the evolution of life on a strange alien planet -- the earth -- to King Floorsh 727 and his heir Prince Floorsh 418, and in the excerpt, they explore the topic of extinction. "Extinction," Bloort 183 explains, "is when a species completely dies out, and I'm afraid it is very much a fact of life. And death. Literally. ... Mass extinctions involve the deaths of enormous numbers of species all over the planet." The treatment is humorous rather than somber, however: facing the end-Permian extinction, one trilobite protests, "Stop the world, I'm getting off," while its companion wonders, "Can we do that?" Hosler is the entomologist-cum-cartoonist who wrote and illustrated The Sandwalk Adventures (Active Synapse, 2003); Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon illustrated Mark Schultz's The Stuff of Life (Hill and Wang, 2009), in which Bloort 183 explained genetics. Publishers Weekly's reviewer writes, "readers should find at the end of their journey through Bloort's Holographic Museum that they've learned a tremendous amount about earth's evolution, and have had more than their fair share of amusement in doing so."

What inspired you to use comic books as a tool for science teaching and learning?

My inspiration was a glacial process drawn out over several years. The truth is, my interests in making comics and biology ran in parallel for years, never intersecting. It was when I was preparing for my postdoctoral research position at Ohio State University's Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Laboratory (sadly, no longer in existence) that I was reading Mark Winston's The Biology of the Honey Bee. I can remember as I was reading that I kept thinking "this is a great story, someone should make a comic about bees." It wasn't until a few years later that the appropriate synapses fired and it occurred to me that that that person should be me.

When I wrote and drew Clan Apis, my desire was not to be expressly educational. My goal was to tell a good story about an aspect of natural history I found fascinating. The same was true of my second book The Sandwalk Adventures. It was only after hearing from people who said they learned so much about bees, Darwin and evolution from those books that it occurred to me to do a book designed for pedagogical purposes. Plus, I realized that in class and office hours, I used images to explain concepts all the time. A book combining story and images seemed like a natural. The first comic I designed specifically to be used in classes was Optical Allusions, a comic book text book for my Sensory Biology course at Juniata College. The book was funded by a National Science Foundation grant and our tests of the effectiveness of Optical Allusions suggest that comics are great for engaging students that tend to have greater apprehension about science. When the opportunity to work with Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon on an educational comic about evolution came along, it was the natural next step for my writing and a collaborative opportunity with two great cartoonists that I could not pass up.

Why did you choose to focus on evolution?

It is the single most compelling process in biology for me. The world is full of bizarre organisms with unique adaptations and the evidence for evolution comes from so many different fields that that the number of interesting stories and perspectives are virtually limitless. The scars of evolution are written in our DNA, anatomy and development. The earth holds the evidence of lost worlds that existed eons before ours. What the world has been, the path that life has taken, is an incredibly exciting mystery and the process that scientists use to unravel it is equally fascinating.

Why do think it is important to educate the public about evolution?

Evolution isn't some abstract thing that happened millions of years ago to the dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts. It is happening right now. One of our only predators, bacteria, is continually developing antibiotic resistance and the impending extinctions of many forms of plant and animal life threatens global ecosystems. The consequences of not understanding evolution will have profound effects on the state our planet in general, and humans in particular.

What age level are the comics directed towards?

Everything I write is written with old Looney Tunes in mind: something for everyone. I suppose the target is high school and college students, but I think that curious elementary and middle schoolers would do just fine with most of the material. My elementary school sons have read it. It is infused with sufficient humor and silliness to get them though the more technical patches.

What educational level do you think this book could be adapted to? Pre-college? Freshmen level in College? {What prior knowledge would a reader need to understand the material?}

I don't assume any prior knowledge because I want to draw in even the most science-phobic readers. I plan to use this when I teach my Evolution course. It would be ideally suited for a non-majors course in evolution or an Advanced Placement (high school) biology course.

What distinguishes your book from other books about evolution? Does your narrative convey similar principles as other evolution books?

This is a comic book and as such all of the textual explanations are embedded in appropriate visual explanations that make abstract concepts immediately concrete. Images are extraordinarily powerful for providing context for information and they also provide visual mnemonics that help readers retain what they've read. Biology textbooks are replete with images and visual explanations. Comics just take that combination to its logical conclusion by fully integrating text and images.

In addition, this book is a story with cliffhangers and engaging character interactions that I hope will draw readers through each chapter and propel them into the next. People love cartoons and comics. We are compelled to read them, sometime multiple times. From an educational standpoint, getting someone to actually do the reading (and to do it more than once) is the big victory.

Educational use of video games has the potential to connect with a broad audience in a unique way. Have you considered adapting your science comics to a video game? Have you considered using your material for a virtual simulation of evolution?

That would be very cool. My hope as a writer is to expose people to worlds they might have never imagined and inspire them to explore these ideas on their own. If that leads them to participating in (or even creating) a virtual simulation of evolution that would be incredible.

What's next? Are you planning another "science comics" book?

I am currently writing and drawing a short photosynthesis story to use in my general biology class (I post completed pages on my blog). I am also working on a story about beetles called Age of Elytra. This is project that I have been working on in the background for the last 6 years. It is now taking front and center and I hope to complete it in the next year or so.

Jay Hosler (Author), Kevin Cannon (Illustrator), Zander Cannon (Illustrator), Hill and Wang, New York, NY (2011). 160 pp. Paper: $18.95. ISBN-13: 978-0809094769