Friday, April 16, 2010

Superhero Scientists with Tentacles? Bring 'em on.

Great article and slide show up on the New York Times website from this past Monday about the considerable body of work comic art genius Jack Kirby left behind on the drawing board when he died in 1994. Dave Itzkoff's article, "Jack Kirby's Heroes in Waiting," details how the talented and prolific Kirby moved from New York to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, working first for Hanna-Barbera and then for Ruby-Spears, creating character designs for their Conan-lite Saturday morning serial, Thundarr the Barbarian.

Clicking through the slideshow, my attention was immediately caught by the slide for a presentation board for a show called the Gargoids, "scientists who gain superpowers after becoming infected with an alien virus."

It would be great if the producers now looking to bring some of these concepts to the big and small screens took the opportunity to learn something about the amazing superpowers of viruses themselves. Stop someone on the street and ask them what a virus is and you'll find that, despite decades of media noise about HIV and West Nile and H1N1, we don't really know. A project in the Omaha, Nebraska, public schools is empowering kids with the knowledge and journalism skills to create videos for use in classrooms to educate their peers about viruses--not just what they are and how they make us sick, but how viruses in all their amazing diversity are a vital part of life on Earth. It's an inspiring example of students learning to use storytelling to first make sense of science and then share their new expertise with others.

The World of Viruses project is spreading that message through other media as well--including Kirby's chosen medium. Bringing together comic book vets Martin Powell, Brent Schoonover, and Thomas Floyd, the World of Viruses project is creating graphic novels that bring viruses to life through traditional superhero graphics and story lines.

The science content is vetted by virologists through the Nebraska Virology Center and story lines and art alike go through several drafts to pass scientific muster.  The comics that result are bound together with nonfiction essays by award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer. The first three issues tell the stories of the human papiloma virus, influenza, and an ocean virus called EhV.

Printed and bound copies of the comics are being distributed to teachers and students through schools and libraries, but if you want your own copy you can download it for free through iTunes, as an iPhone app or in full-sized glory on the iPad.

Full disclosure: Elefolio provides some editing support for the World of Viruses project. (My paying clients are always listed on the front page of this blog.) I'm a huge fan of the graphic format, and especially interested in the possibility of the graphic novel form in furthering the public understanding of science, so it's been a special treat to be involved with the project in even a small way.

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