BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Mixing facts with sequential art, Mark Schultz and Zander and Kevin Cannon are trying to teach all readers The Stuff of Life: a Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. This work is a great history lesson that doesn't necessarily feel like schoolwork, because we're learning about our biological make-up by seeing just about everything through the eyes aliens. So even if Science wasn't your best subject in high school, there's nothing to worry about here. Kevin Cannon said, "DNA and genetics is a vitally important topic but people tend to steer clear of it because it can seem so complicated and dry. We spice up the subject by meshing it with an interesting narrative."

THE PULSE: What is The Stuff of Life: a Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA? The title seems like it could cover a lot of ground and a massive amount of topics.

KEVIN CANNON: The Stuff of Life does cover a lot of ground -- it's a primer for anyone who's curious about what they're made of. The book covers the basics, like what a cell is made of, how DNA works, how heredity works, and then also looks at how genetics affects us on a macro level -- bio-engineered foods, cloning, gene manipulation, etc.

THE PULSE: It doesn't sound like the typical comic book project. How did you get involved in the creation of this work?


CANNON: Zander Cannon and I are really getting into the niche market of nonfiction comics. It all started back in 2005 when we illustrated Jim Ottaviani's "Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards," which was itself a nonfiction story about the bitter feud between America's first two paleontologists. Mark Schultz illustrated the cover for that book, and that connection helped us land "Stuff of Life."

THE PULSE: But this isn't like a straight history lesson, right? We're seeing DNA through alien eyes, aren't we?

CANNON: DNA and genetics is a vitally important topic but people tend to steer clear of it because it can seem so complicated and dry. We spice up the subject by meshing it with an interesting narrative. We imagine that there's a planet out in space where an alien population is suffering from a genetic disorder. An alien scientist name Bloort travels to Earth and finds out as much about DNA and genetics as possible, in the hope of finding a solution. (He does find a solution, but I won't give it away!) So The Stuff of Life is Bloort's presentation to the alien king, full of colorful metaphors and helpful summaries along the way. It's a fun story that happens to have all the information you'd need to pass a college-level genetics course.

THE PULSE: How did you and Zander come up with the look for not just Bloort but the others represented in this book?


CANNON: Bloort and the rest of the Squinch race live underwater, so their bodies have hints of sea creatures you'd find on earth. Mark Schultz designed Bloort to look a little like a sea cucumber, which ends up being a gag in the book (the king, seeing images from earth, assumes that the sea cucumber must be the dominant species, because it looks like him).


THE PULSE: That's funny. How did you and Zander divide the art? You're both listed as illustrators did you split pages or did one of you pencil and the other ink?

CANNON: Zander and I play different roles for every project we work on. For Stuff of Life, he did layouts and a lot of the characters (humans, aliens), while I handled the lettering and most of the science stuff (DNA strands, anthropomorphic viruses). Fortunately we have a similar enough style that the average reader won't be able to tell the difference. And double fortunately Zander and I tend to like to draw what the other doesn't: he likes (and is great at) faces and bodies, while I prefer more technical things.


THE PULSE: That must work out well having a system like that! What were the biggest challenges for you creating your parts of The Stuff of Life?


CANNON: The research was exhausting! Mark did a fantastic job on the script, but we had to consult tons of biology books to figure out how to draw some of the more microscopic elements. We discovered, for instance, that there are numerous ways of drawing the DNA macromolecule, depending on how complex you want to make it. If I want to draw a turtle, I just look for a photo of a turtle. But when drawing something like a molecule, the context informs what it looks like -- if we're discussing its atomic structure, than maybe we show all of the different atomic pairings, either as sticks and disks, or bunched-up blobs. But if we just want the molecule to be interacting with its environment, then maybe we simplify the drawing and cartoon it up a little -- make it one solid shape and throw a smiley face on it.


THE PULSE: What was the most surprising for you to learn about DNA while you were working on this?

CANNON: I was surprised to learn just how beautifully simple it all is. Our genetic code may be long and complicated, but it's all a sequence of just four structures -- the A, C, G, and T everyone has heard about. I love discovering that things that I had always assumed were impenetrable are actually easy to digest. I actually quit A.P. Biology as a senior in high school,because I was overwhelmed by this very subject. If I had started the class by reading something visual and clear like The Stuff of Life, I'm sure I wouldn't have felt so lost.


THE PULSE: I could see this being a great aid to science teachers. How open do you think educators will be to something like this?

CANNON: Obviously I'm biased, but I think both high school and college level educators would do well to start every class off with a reading of The Stuff of Life. It's not a replacement for a textbook, but it gives the student (especially visual learners, like myself) a foundation on which to understand the really complicated stuff that they'll learn later in the course. I can't predict how open science teachers will be to introducing a graphic novel into their classrooms, as the medium certainly carries a stigma. But I think our culture is slowly accepting the idea that comics can be a vehicle for higher learning as well as for cheap entertainment. Zander has spent time in Japan and says they use comics to teach almost everything. I'd like to see the American pedagogy move in that direction as well


THE PULSE: How was working on this different than some of your other comic projects?

CANNON: This is the first time we'd worked for a big publishing house (Hill & Wang, an imprint of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). Throughout the production process we reported to a lot of people -- editor, publisher, editorial assistant, designer, science advisor, marketing guy, etc. -- and that took some getting used to. By contrast, Bone Sharps was written, edited, and published all by Jim Ottaviani. But having a lot of fingers in the pie ended up being a really good thing, as everyone at Hill & Wang is passionate about making this book a success. But that's all on the production side. As far as art is concerned, the process is always the same: we get a great script and go to town.


THE PULSE: What Other Projects are you working on?

CANNON: Right now Zander and I are wrapping up "T-Minus: The Race to the Moon" for Aladdin (an imprint of Simon and Schuster). This a graphic novel about the US/Soviet space race -- another topic that I had only superficial knowledge of before diving into the research. I also have a fiction graphic novel, Far Arden, coming out in May through Top Shelf. It's my first solo book and I'm very excited about it.

I'd also like to add that Zander and I helped produce a two-minute animated short to help promote The Stuff of Life. All the animation was done by the talented folks at Puny, who animate for Yo Gabba Gabba. You can see it on http://www.thestuffoflifebook.com




The Stuff of Life is due in stores at the end of this month.