Teaching With Science Comics

The latest generation of science-oriented graphic novels entertain as much as they educate.

Headline artwork by Maris Wicks

There was a time when “science comic” meant a straightforward collection of pictures with a lot of captions and a few word balloons. The main character would recite a series of facts and definitions, and any attempt at plot or character development would be interrupted by a lecture. The comics featured more diagrams than action scenes, with clunky and expository dialogue. Rather than comics making science enjoyable, science made comics boring.

Not anymore. The new generation of science graphic novels is designed as much to entertain as to educate. “The students love to read the books on their own,” says Kat Kan, librarian at St. John’s Catholic School in Panama City, FL, and a graphic novel specialist for the library supply and services company Brodart. On the other hand, she says, some teachers are reluctant to use them in class.

“We certainly hope science comics will find their way into classrooms and be useful,” says Dave Roman, editor of First Second’s Science Comics line, “but not as replacements for traditional texts or lessons so much as the most fun supplement possible.” Roman, the creator of the “Astronaut Academy” fictional graphic novels (First Second, 2011), remembers his own childhood experience of watching a cartoon called Donald in Mathmagic Land, starring Donald Duck. “[It] not only visually explained difficult concepts for my brain to keep up with, but also incorporated a lot of humor that helped keep me from stressing out,” he says.

“I think you have to be very careful when doing things for kids that you don’t kill it for them,” says Francoise Mouly, publisher and editorial director of Toon Books. “They are overwhelmingly motivated by the sheer pleasure principle. That’s how they learn everything. You don’t say to your baby, ‘You must stand up and walk.’ [Babies are] curious, they want to move around, and they somehow figure out how to walk. It’s the same thing with communicating: [Kids] are always exploring, so you have to present the material in a way that encourages that.”

Let me tell you a story…

Many of the new breed of science graphic novels wrap the science into a story, and Natalie Layne, supervisor of children’s services at the Public Library of Brookline, MA, says the most popular science comics in her collection are story-driven titles such as Maris Wicks’s Human Body Theater (First Second, 2015); Primates (Square Fish, 2013) by Jim Ottaviani and Wicks; and Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes’s “Secret Coders” (First Second). Paige Braddock’s “Stinky Cecil” books (Andrews McMeel, 2015, 2016), whimsical stories about life among pond creatures, circulate particularly well in her library, she says.

“Human beings are a storytelling species,” says Yang. “Our brains crave stories. They are the easiest way for us to receive and remember information.”

Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes's "Secret Coders: Paths and Portals"

Set in a private school, “Secret Coders” uses a series of mysteries and a bit of magic to explain coding. “I first learned to code when I was in the fifth grade,” Yang says. “I immediately fell in love because it seemed a lot like magic. Think about how magic usually works in books and movies: You say a few esoteric words and then something amazing happens. Coding is basically the same, right? You type in a few esoteric words and something amazing happens. Mike and I hope to convey that same sense of magic through ‘Secret Coders.’”

In order to do that, Yang was careful to balance the narrative and the educational aspects of the story. “I tried hard to make sure they supported each other,” he says. “For example, when my main characters learn about ‘if’ statements, a foundational coding concept, they’re also learning about why the main bad guy is so evil.”

Sometimes the science is less central to the story. In the “Stinky Cecil” titles, the pond creatures go on improbable adventures, and the facts are included offhandedly along the way. Reggie the fly, for instance, is occasionally foiled by his five-day life span: He has a tendency to die just as the action is getting started. (Not a tragedy—Reggie is always reincarnated a day or so later.)

How we did it

One type of narrative that fits the graphic novel format especially well is the story of how a particular scientific or engineering milestone was achieved. An early example, now sadly out of print, is Tadashi Katoh’s manga Project X: Cup Noodle (Digital Manga, 2006), which brought drama and excitement to the quest to put shelf-stable noodles and shrimp into a cup that could also serve as a bowl.

In T-Minus: The Race to the Moon (Aladdin, 2009), writer Ottaviani and artists Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon tell the story of the space race from both the American and the Russian points of view, focusing on a few characters to keep continuity in the story. While the story is very compressed, the creators make it easier to track the progress of the technology by depicting different rockets and missions in the margins, with information such as time of flight and accomplishments that would have been tedious to include in the story. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (Hill & Wang, 2012) focuses on the Manhattan Project, another story with strong characters and an element of competition.

Biographies of scientists include their work as a necessary part of the story; in Ottaviani and Leland Purvis’s biography of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded (left; Abrams, 2016), for example, the authors show Turing developing his ideas and expanding on them, presenting complicated concepts one step at a time.

Just give it to me straight

Even a fairly straightforward presentation of the facts can come alive in the hands of an imaginative creator. “As a species, we are both visual and narrative learners,” says Wicks, who has a skeleton do a reverse striptease, donning muscles, organs, and skin, in Human Body Theater. “A relatively dry paragraph can come to life with the aid of comics, while comics can also achieve a silence (through absence of words) that is impossible to obtain in prose.”

“There are plenty of fine books of facts,” says Kevin McCloskey, author of the books We Dig Worms (2015), The Real Poop on Pigeons! (2016), and Something’s Fishy (2017, all Toon Books). “I enjoy seeing the funny side of things.” McCloskey’s works skip from topic to topic, presenting factual information about the subject interleaved with plenty of humor. He tunes in to what kids find appealing by listening to them—as he did during a trip to the Sea Life Aquarium in Orlando, FL. “Children clearly loved the place,” he says. “Toddlers screamed ‘Nemo!’ the moment they spotted a clown fish. In each room, I asked the attendants which fish kids liked best. That’s how I discovered the sea stars that look like chocolate chip cookies.”

The science behind the science

In this era of “fake news,” books that explore the rules and methods of science—and where they can go wrong—are particularly important. Darryl Cunningham’s How To Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial (Abrams, 2013) depicts the rise of homeopathy and vaccine denialism, and debates over evolution and climate change, concluding with a chapter on the scientific method itself. “We live in a time when critical thinking skills are more important than ever,” he says. “How is anyone going to be able to navigate the jungle of fake news and disinformation out there if they lack the skills to think critically? This is true even if the information you’re looking at conforms to your own biases. Just because you want to believe something doesn’t make it true. You should still research it anyway.”

In several of the stories, Cunningham points to strong personalities who helped promote or shape pseudoscientific movements. “It does always seem like there are one or two people leading these anti-science movements, and they push the agenda forward,” he says. “Would these movements be so effective without their leaders? Probably not, but they wouldn’t disappear altogether either. The Internet is rife with anti-science disinformation. People live in their own information bubbles, which are hard to penetrate with opposing views.”

Strong personalities also crop up in MK Reed and Joe Flood’s Science Comics: Dinosaurs (First Second, 2016), where the subject is not just dinosaurs but those who studied them throughout the years. Reed and Flood also stop the narrative at several points to list the facts that were known—and thought to be true—about dinosaurs at different times, which not only summarizes the research but also reminds readers that scientists are constantly revising their theories.

Interesting…but is it true?

These science books are fun—yet it’s still vitally important that they be accurate. “For each book, we have up to two consultants who work in the field that the book is covering,” says Roman. “With our upcoming polar bears book, for example, we have biologist Ian Stirling reading each draft of the script.”

In addition to her work at Toon Books, Mouly is the art editor of The New Yorker, which is known in publishing circles for its rigorous fact checking. Mouly has a fact checker look at McCloskey’s provided sources and additional sources to verify that the information is correct.

“Accuracy and clarity go hand in hand,” Mouly says. “Also, if we do a book on the subway or fish or the nitrogen cycle, we are kind of doing an essay on that topic. We want to cover the major outline of what’s interesting as well as quirky facts, so we need to do a body of research that goes with it.”

Sequential storytelling: the secret ingredient

Successful science graphic novels are far more than just the sum of their words and their pictures, Roman emphasizes. “Sequential art is really its own language, and there’s a magic about it that, for my money, is hard to match,” he says. “I always enjoyed textbooks or science magazines—like Zoobooks!—that had tons of illustrations or photos. But when you add in story elements and characters, that just takes things to another level and makes even abstract material all the more relatable.”

"Science Comic Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield" by Falynn Koch

In the upcoming Science Comic Plagues: The Microscopic Battlefield (First Second, Aug. 2017) by Falynn Koch, he notes, “pathogens yellow fever and Yersinia pestis (bubonic plague) have real personalities that you can empathize with and are at times—gasp!—kind of cute. So if you are like me, after reading a comic about the human immune system, you never view getting sick the same way again.”

Recommended Reading

BRADDOCK, Paige. Stinky Cecil in Operation Pond Rescue (Andrews McMeel, 2015), Stinky Cecil in Terrarium Terror! (Andrews McMeel, 2016) Gr 3-5—Cecil the toad likes to hang out with his friends, who include a pampered hamster, a very special salamander, and a fly that dies every five days but then comes back to life. In Operation Pond Rescue, Cecil and his friends (and an enemy) team up to stop a construction project from destroying their pond. In Terrarium Terror, Cecil’s friends must rescue him after he is picked up and placed in a science class’s terrarium. Braddock’s art is smooth and cartoony, and the animals are goofy and funny. The publisher offers teachers’ guides to highlight the science aspects of each book.

BROWN, Box. Tetris: The Games People Play. (First Second, 2016) Gr 9 Up—Brown depicts the creation of Tetris as a personal project by a computer scientist in Soviet Russia, how it spread through informal channels, and the tangle of business dealings that followed. Along the way, he discusses the history of games—and why they are important to human development.

CUNNINGHAM, Darryl. How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial (Abrams, 2013) Gr 9 Up—In short, self-contained chapters, Cunningham explores examples of bad science, from the theory that the moon landings were faked to homeopathy and vaccine denial. He discusses the science behind each one and the important personalities who promoted them—including the financial incentives of some proponents. The final chapter is an exploration of the basic principles of science.

FETTER-VORM, Jonathan. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb (Hill and Wang, 2012) Gr 10 Up—Fetter-Vorm focuses on the Manhattan Project in this history of the atomic bomb. While he stops the story from time to time to explain the underlying science, there is plenty of narrative and character development in this slim volume, which covers not only the massive effort to create the bomb but also the political and strategic reasoning behind developing and using it—and some of the consequences that followed.

HOSLER, Jay. Clan Apis. (Self published, 2013) Gr 5 Up—A bee named Nyuki grows from larva to pupa, takes on different jobs within the hive, overcomes her fear of the outside world, and finally dies and becomes one with her favorite flower, all the while keeping up a stream of snappy dialogue. Hosler imbues the insects in the story with strong personalities. While his bees look like real bees, he has a gift for conveying action and emotion on the page.

MCCLOSKEY, Kevin. We Dig Worms! (Toon Books, 2015), The Real Poop on Pigeons! (Toon Books, 2016), Something’s Fishy (Toon Books, 2017).| Gr K-1—Each of these short books presents a sprinkling of cool facts about the title animal, interspersed with whimsical asides—a bluebird invites a worm to lunch, a man sitting in a park complains about pigeon poop. The publisher has recently branded this series “Giggle and Learn,” and more titles are on the way. Toon Books provides teachers’ guides to go with all its titles.

OTTAVIANI, Jim. The Imitation Game. Illus. by Leland Purvis. (Abrams, 2016) Gr. 9 Up—Alan Turing was one of the seminal thinkers of the computer era, and in this biography, Ottaviani explains some of his most important ideas and places them in the context of their times.

OTTAVIANI, Jim. T-Minus: The Race to the Moon. Illus. by Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon. (Aladdin, 2009). Gr 3-7—Ottaviani keeps the clock ticking in this very compressed, information-packed story of the space race. The action shifts between Russia and the U.S. as engineers, contractors, and astronauts work together to launch the first satellite and put the first human on the moon, with pressure from politicians on both sides.

REED, MK, and Joe Flood. Science Comics: Dinosaurs (First Second, 2016) Gr 4-7—While there’s plenty of dinosaur science in this book, what makes it so interesting is the story of where that science came from. Much of this book is taken up with the people who found dinosaur fossils and those who studied them. The authors stop periodically to review what was “known” about dinosaurs at different times, and they even have a bonus page about the Brontosaurus, as the scientific consensus on that creature shifted while the book was in progress.

ROS, Hana, and Matteo Farinella. Neurocomic (Nobrow, 2013) Gr 10 Up—The lead character in this surrealistic graphic novel somehow gets trapped inside a brain and encounters the different structures—and the scientists who studied them—on his journey home. Since the reader is quickly plunged into the science, this is a better choice for students who already know a some biology. Each subject is touched upon briefly, but clever illustrations make the concepts clear. There is a brief segment with nudity. Both the authors are neuroscientists themselves.

TATSUTA, Kazuto. Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant (Kodansha Comics, 2017) Gr 8 Up—Tatsuta (a pseudonym) worked inside Japan’s Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Plant, helping clean up areas contaminated by radiation after the earthquake and meltdown of 2011. He depicts the details of everyday life for the workers, including the complicated procedures they go through every day to protect themselves. This manga reads from left to right, and the art is straightforward and not particularly stylized, so it’s an accessible read for those who aren’t fans of the medium.

WICKS, Maris. Human Body Theater. (First Second, 2015) Gr 5 Up—A dancing skeleton takes readers on a detailed tour of the human body, including bones, skin, and the digestive, nervous, and reproductive systems. There’s a lot of information here, but Wicks makes it easy to digest, with bright colors, corny jokes, super-cute anthropomorphized molecules and body parts, and interesting asides on topics like where farts come from.

YANG, Gene Luen. Secret Coders series (First Second): Secret Coders (vol. 1, 2015), Paths & Portals (vol. 2, 2016), Secrets & Sequences (vol. 3, 2017), Robots & Repeats (vol. 4, 2017) Gr 3-7—Hopper is having a hard time at her new school—the other kids are mean, the janitor is super cranky, and weird birds are flocking all over campus. She is particularly unnerved to discover that the birds have four eyes. Then a new friend, Eni, helps her figure out the pattern involved. Next, they find the janitor’s secret robot and figure out how to program it. This series presents the basics of coding in an entertaining format.

Teaching Resources

ALEIXO, Paul, “How the humble comic book could become the next classroom superhero,” The Conversation, March 2, 2017.

COOPER, Sandi, Suzanne Nesmith, and Gretchen Schwarz, “Exploring Graphic Novels for Elementary Science and Mathematics,” School Library Research, vol. 14, 2011.

HOSLER, Jay, and K.B. Boomer, “Are Comic Books an Effective Way to Engage Nonmajors in Learning and Appreciating Science?” CBE Life Sciences Education, 2011 Fall; 10(3): 309–31

HUGHES, Melanie, “STEM Graphic Novels and Comic Books: Series,” Indiana University Southeast Library A comprehensive list of STEM graphic novels, many designed specifically for school and library use. This page also contains links to other lists broken out by subject matter.

MEIER, John J, “Science graphic novels for academic libraries,” College & Research Libraries News, December 2012, vol. 73, no. 11, 662-665

WICKNER, Amy, “Graphic Novels Enter the Science-Literacy Conversation,” Education Week’s Bookmarks blog, October 31, 2012

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Tim Smyth

This is a wonderful article that speaks to the power of comics in the classroom. I give professional development at comic cons, university, K-12 inservices, and educational conferences on this topic. Thank you for helping spread the word of the comics medium and its importance in education. I put my lesson plans and resources on historycomics.net if anyone would be interested in connecting.

Posted : Jul 05, 2017 08:48



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