I was pleased to receive a preview copy from the editor, Howard Zimmerman. The first thing that impressed me about this book was the depth of Mark’s writing in covering the topic of genetics and DNA, followed by the superb illustrations by Zandar and Kevin. The two unrelated Cannon’s combined make up Big Time Attic. Their previous work includes Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards (G.T. Labs 2005).
Mark Schultz is known for his dynamic drawings of adventure and fantastic art, his award winning Xenozoic Tales, for writing Superman: Man of Steel, Aliens, and Star Wars comics, and a host of other comic related works. But, a non-fiction book on genetics? It seems out of the ordinary. Needless to say, after reading The Stuff of Life, I had a lot of questions for Mark.
Flesk Publications: Can you tell me a little bit about The Stuff of Life?
Mark Schultz: The Stuff of Life is a science primer—a high school level introduction to the science of genetics—told in a comics format. To get across the sometimes incredibly complex information needed to understand the subject, it employs a fictional problem-solving framework, with a narrator who comes from another planet, tasked with learning how genetics works on Earth. The book was written by me and illustrated by master cartoonists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. We look at the mechanics of genetics—from the molecular workings of DNA up through the rules of heredity, and then at how mankind is applying his growing knowledge of the subjects in a practical—and sometimes impractical—manner. I know it sounds dry, and it is admittedly dense material, but it is fascinating and incredibly relevant subject that will have a growing and unavoidable impact on all our lives.
FP: What prompted you to write a graphic novel on genetics?
MS: I was approached by Howard Zimmerman, the man who envisioned the project and oversaw its creation for the publisher, Hill and Wang. I’m not known for writing non-fiction, but Howard liked my slant on introducing science into my fiction work, and believed I could pull off an academically acceptable text. Beyond that, I think it’s very important to try to find practical ways of introducing people to science. Much of the world—much of our own country—is ignorant of science-oriented issues and policies that affect them very personally. Sequential art is becoming an increasingly accepted—and therefore effective—method of reaching out.
FP: Do the topics of genetics fall within your interest? When the opportunity came to take on this project, were you eager, based on your possible interest?
MS: I’m interested in all aspects of biological science. For me it started with a love of dinosaurs and prehistoric life in general, which developed into an interest in evolution. Genetics—and the DNA molecule that links together all life on Earth—is the biological process that allows for evolution to transpire. You can’t understand one without the other.
But, taking on the project, I was nervous that my lack of a solid academic background in the sciences would be real roadblock to my being able to clearly and succinctly communicate the complexities of the subject.
FP: How much work was involved in learning about the subject to accurately write about it?
MS: An awful lot of research time went into Stuff. Since I don’t have the academic training—I don’t have an extensive foundation—I was compiling multiple sources to confirm technical points. If I wasn’t sure about something, I’d ideally want three sources in agreement before I felt secure. So, a lot of prep time went into the book. Thank goodness that Howard, Zander and Kevin all took it upon themselves to become knowledgeable about genetics as well. And then the text was vetted by a geneticist, to catch errors that slipped through.
FP: Did you find this to be a creative type of writing, or more academic? How different was the experience than the comics and novels you have done previously?
MS: The information obviously had to be rigorously academic to be acceptable, but making that information work in an engaging manner in a comics format was serious exercise in creativity. Some of the most creative work I do—fiction or non-fiction—involves editing down ideas to fit page counts and project parameters—there was a lot of creative problem solving going on between all of us involved with the book.
Trying to make something as inherently abstract as the molecular workings of DNA and RNA visually appealing as well as understandable was a huge problem that needed some very creative solutions.
FP: What do you hope people will get out of this book?
MS: A basic understanding of how genetics and heredity work, how these sciences concern all of us personally, and how technological development based on these sciences are altering our lives.
And, maybe most importantly, a desire to delve deeper into the subject.
FP: What type of reader do you recommend this book to?
MS: Any readers with an interest in gaining more control of their—or their children’s—lives, and in gaining a greater understanding of the world around them. If we are going to make intelligent decisions concerning who we elect to positions of power and, so, what policies are cast regarding the sciences, we need to be educated. Stuff isn’t a book that covers every aspect of genetics in depth, but it is a good place to start.
FP: Can a genetics layman find this book to be a good introduction to the subject?
MS: Well, if it isn’t, we’ve failed! I’m betting that it is.
FP: Thanks for your time, Mark!